Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

Corman's WorldSynopsis: Some men dream of conquering the world. Roger Corman created his own.

Corman’s World: Exploits Of A Hollywood Rebel is a tantalizing and star-studded tribute to Roger Corman, Hollywood’s most prolific writer-director-producer, and seminal influencing force in modern moviemaking over the last 60 years. Featuring interviews with Hollywood icons and cinematic luminaries, some who launched their careers within Corman’s unforgettable world of filmmaking, including Paul W.S. Anderson, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert De Niro, Pam Grier, Ron Howard, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, along with many others, this documentary chronicles how Corman created his cult film empire, one low-budget success at a time, capitalizing on undiscovered talent, and pushing the boundaries of independent filmmaking.

Director Alex Stapleton weaves archival footage following Roger’s illustrious career: From his early days of genre-defining classics including The Fast and the Furious, the original Little Shop of Horrors and The Wild Angels (which in 1966 was his 100th film) – to present day video of him and his wife Julie on location, still at work as they continue to produce and distribute films outside the studio system: fast, cheap and out-of-this-world!

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Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel 7.5

eyelights: the interview subjects. the many film clips.
eyesores: the brevity of the piece.

“The difference between the image you present to the world and what is going on inside, in your unconscious mind is significant. I’ve been told my image is of an ordinary sort of straight guy. Clearly my unconscious is some sort of boiling inferno there.” – Roger Corman

Question: What do Peter Bogdanovich, Sandra Bullock, James Cameron, David Carradine, Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Robert De Niro. Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Pam Grier, Dennis Hopper, Ron Howard, Gale Anne Hurd, Jack Nicholson, John Sayles, and Martin Scorsese have in common?

Answer: they all got started with, or received a significant career boost from, Roger Corman.

Rpger Corman is one of the most influential figures in Hollywood. An independent filmmaker, he has directed and/or produced well over 400 motion pictures in his career. Thus far. Even though he’s in his late eighties, he remains extremely active, making more movies per year than men half his age.

Personally, I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of Corman’s pictures; notoriously cheap, they don’t always come together nicely. I respect the man, as well as many of his achievements, but I can’t say I’m truly a fan of his films – even if they sometimes offer interesting ideas or feature the work of future legends.

Still, given how significant his work is, I couldn’t help but be interested in ‘Corman’s World’, a  documentary on his life and career. I wanted to know more about him.

Roger Corman is an everyman-type, much like Jack Lemmon was. Soft-spoken, polite, he comes off more like a British professor than a b-movie maker – or, at least, what one might imagine a b-movie maker to be like. He genuinely impresses everyone he meets with his demeanour and intelligence.

Corman never intended to become a filmmaker: he had studied to be an engineer. Looking for work, he became a script reader at Fox. He picked out ‘The Gun Fighter’. It was a big hit, but he didn’t get credit for the ideas he gave in his annotations – the script writer did in his stead. So he decided to go solo.

He made his first film with the financial assistance of his friends and family, and soon struck a deal with American International Pictures to produce three films, so long as the production costs were paid back to him upon completion – that way, he could go on to the next movie without waiting for the coffers to refill.

His films were and remain very low budget. Corman has a reputation for keeping an extremely tight purse, cutting corners, going so far as trying at one point to make movies in two days. This extends even to his personal life, where he wouldn’t make long distance calls to his spouse and turns off the A/C.

He made a career out of guerilla filmmaking, doing location shooting without permits (and as quickly as possible to not get caught), going into dangerous areas despite the warnings, …etc. Nothing would stop him from getting his film made in the most inexpensive way as possible. He also doesn’t pay well.

To make the most out of every penny that he put into a production, he is known to frequently have used stock footage, sets and locations for multiple films at once – after hours, and on weekends. This sometimes resulted in fodder such as “The Terror”, that even the participants admit is totally incoherent.

Corman admits that not all of his films are any good, and he points out that he never went to film school; he had to learn on the screen. But he did take an acting class to understand the craft better. There, he met Jack Nicholson, and they worked together for a decade. Along with Dick Miller, Nicholson was a Corman regular.

By the ’60s Corman felt more confident. It was then that he tackled the Edgar Allen Poe films, which were so wildly popular that he ended making eight films in that series. American International Pictures would even continue to make some after he moved on. They’re mostly what he (and Vincent Price) is known for by the general public.

Corman returned to making anti-establishment movies afterwards. He made ‘The Intruder’ to express his values more, being a big supporter of integration; he wanted to make a film that reflected this. He and his brother mortgaged their homes, and, although it is considered their best film, it was their only failure.

Part of the problem was the social mores of the time, part of it was expectation: the Cormans didn’t tell anyone what the motion picture was about, so people naturally assumed (with his reputation and its title) that it was a horror movie. Its inflammatory content garnered them a large number of threats.

Corman apparently blamed his star for the film’s failure. William Shatner got one of his first leads playing a racist trouble maker, and Corman felt that his performance was not exactly up to snuff. Whatever the reason was, it’s only in recent years, decades later, that the film made it into the black for the first time.

Because of this experience, Corman decided that he would hereforth make films that were accessible  to the public and keep his messages on a subtextual level. This approach brought him much success, with 1966’s ‘The Wild Angels’ becoming the biggest independent film ever made – at the time.

By that point, although he had felt like an outsider for years, and tended to keep to himself, he now felt part of a movement. He decided to make ‘The Trip’, a  movie about LSD. To know their subject, he and Nicholson (who wrote the script) decided to take LSD. The results are such that even Martin Scorcese is complimentary of its visual sense.

The ’70s were a time of change for Corman. He would meet Julie Corman, his spouse, who would become a producer in her own right, making films concurrently with him, and he founded his distribution company New World Pictures so that he would be able to control his filmmaking more.

He also used the company to get some of his favourite films and directors into venues that they would otherwise not have access to. Himself a fan of foreign cinema (ironically, not of exploitation films), he struck deals to distribute foreign films, such as Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Cries and Whispers’.

Industry respect would elude him, however. In 1974, he saw most of the key awards at the Academy Awards go to people that he had mentored or given first breaks to. It wouldn’t be until 35 years later, 2009, that the Academy would award him with an Honorary Award for all of his contributions.

By the mid-’70s, the industry changed completely: after the success of ‘Jaws’ and then ‘Star Wars’, nothing would ever be the same. What Corman had been doing for years for 100K was now being made by the studios for countless millions, threatening his vitality. Soon after, he stopped directing.

But he never stopped producing, and giving other people a chance.

In a 1980s interview, he was asked what he thought of 35 million dollar-budgeted films (then an astronomical sum). He said that this money could be better used in society, like helping to rebuild slums, …etc. He couldn’t be more right. Somehow, in the name of entertainment, we’ve lost sight of what really matters.

It’s hardly surprising that, despite the quality of his films, Corman garners so much respect by those around him: he’s a gentleman with heart. It was impressive to see the list of participants in this documentary, showing him the love (Nicholson actually chokes up while expressing his profound appreciation). It was touching to see.

There’s only one Roger Corman. No one else will ever come close to being the filmmaker that he is or achieve what he’s done. And, although the film is slightly short on details (90 minutes to cover six decades in the industry!), it sure was nice to get glimpse into his world for a short while. To know him is to love him.

His movies, on the other hand… now that’s an acquired taste.

Date of viewing: April 6, 2014

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