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Remembering filmmaker Roger Corman, king of B-movies


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. Roger Corman, the influential film director and producer, died last week. He was 98 years old. Today, we'll listen back to an interview with him, and with several people whose careers he fostered and encouraged. We'll also feature an appreciation from critic-at-large John Powers. Roger Corman's legacy includes some delightfully enjoyable low-budget movies, but he's best known for launching the careers of a long list of soon-to-be-famous writers, directors and actors.

Richard Matheson and Robert Towne wrote screenplays for early Corman films. Directors who began under his wing included Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme and Francis Ford Coppola, and his movies, low-budget quickies embracing such genres as horror, monster movies, gangster films, Westerns, sci fi, and biker and prison films, showcased a wide range of actors, from old pros like Vincent Price and Peter Lorre to a bunch of then-unknowns like Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson.

In 1960, Corman directed "The Little Shop Of Horrors," which featured a young Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient.


JACK NICHOLSON: (As Wilbur Force) You know, most people don't like to go to the dentist, but I rather enjoy it myself - don't you? (Laughter) I mean, there's such - there's a real feeling of growth, of progress, when that old drill goes in. I mean, I'd almost rather go to the dentist than anywhere - wouldn't you?

JONATHAN HAZE: (As Seymour Krelborn) Yeah.

NICHOLSON: (As Wilbur Force) Now, no novocaine. It dulls the senses. (Laughter)

HAZE: (As Seymour Krelborn) This is going to hurt you more than it is me.

NICHOLSON: (As Wilbur Force) Oh, goody, goody, here it comes. (Panting)


NICHOLSON: (As Wilbur Force, screaming).

BIANCULLI: Corman made a series of well-received horror films loosely adapted from the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, including "The Tomb Of Ligeia," starring Vincent Price.


RONALD ADAM: (As Minister at Graveside) She will not rest with Christian dead.

VINCENT PRICE: (As Verden Fell) She will not rest because she is not dead - to me.

BIANCULLI: Corman also directed a series of youth-in-revolt movies, such as "The Wild Angels." Starring in that one as the biker leader of the Hell's Angels was a pre-"Easy Rider" actor named Peter Fonda.


PETER FONDA: (As Heavenly Blues) But we want to be free. We want to be free to do what we want to do. We want to be free to ride, and we want to be free to ride on machines without being hassled by the man.


FONDA: And we want to get loaded.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Second the motion.

BIANCULLI: Several generations of writers, producers, actors and directors worked with or were inspired by Roger Corman's freewheeling, free-spirit approach to film-making. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are among the directors who are major fans, and have made modern movies in the classic Corman style. Terry Gross spoke to Roger Corman in 1990.


TERRY GROSS: What kind of movies did you really like when you were young?

ROGER CORMAN: Well, when I was very young, there were certain directors - oh, at that time, it was the era of the producer, so I should say producers and directors, but I liked the works of John Ford and Howard Hawks and probably Alfred Hitchcock the most. Later on, I began to like some of the European directors, particularly Bergman and Fellini.

GROSS: So how do we reconcile, you know, someone who's an engineering student who likes, you know, pretty serious movies and, you know, ending up turning out movies for drive-ins and, you know, movies like - movies about gangsters and monsters from the bottom of the sea. There's something about the movies that you've done and your personality, from what I've seen of you so far, that doesn't quite match.

CORMAN: Well, it may be that my personality is somewhat schizophrenic. On the other hand, what I've tried to do is to work on two levels - to do a picture that on the surface is an entertainment - can be advertised as an entertainment, whether it's a gangster film, a science fiction film, whatever, that the audience will come to see and enjoy on that level, and, on a deeper or beneath-the-surface or subtextual level, to have some theme or statement or point of view in there that is important to me and that may or may not be important to the audience, so they can pick up on that if they want and appreciate that they got something more than the film they came to see, and if they don't want it or aren't interested, they still get the film they came to see.

GROSS: A lot of incredible actors and directors got started working with you. I'd like to hear the stories behind how you came across some of them. Why don't we start with Jack Nicholson, who - well, I think a lot of people remember his role in "Little Shop Of Horrors" as the masochistic dental patient.

CORMAN: Right.

GROSS: How did he come across your attention?

CORMAN: Well, I met Jack in an acting class given by Jeff Corey, and I'd been directing maybe four, five, six pictures when I felt I really had to learn more about acting and actors, so I enrolled in the acting class and met Jack there. From the beginning, I was impressed with his ability. He was and is a very dedicated actor who delved deeply into a character, does a great deal of research and then is able to bring a great quality of personal humor and insight to the character, and is willing to take chances to go into areas where other actors might pull back - they might prefer to play it safe.

GROSS: Robert De Niro got started with you, too, didn't he?

CORMAN: Yes. He played one of Shelly Winters' sons in the Ma Barker gang, when Shelly played Ma Barker in the picture called "Bloody Mama." And I was very pleased with it. I thought it was one of the best-cast films I ever made.

GROSS: You are, I think, the undisputed king of the cheap, fast movie. Let's talk about some of the ways you developed to make movies that were fast and cheap. I think one of the things you've done a lot is shoot two movies back-to-back.

CORMAN: Yes. I first started doing that when we would go on location. The cost of taking a movie crew, even a small movie crew such as I would normally work with - the cost of taking that crew on location is fairly high, so if I would go to a location and do two pictures in the location, I could amortize the cost over two pictures. The same thing when shooting in Hollywood. If you're going to build fairly elaborate sets, I would try to find, whenever I could, a second picture that could take advantage of those sets. I would then rearrange the flats a little bit, repaint them so that they would look a little bit different for the second picture, but essentially, I could use the elements twice.

GROSS: Name two movies that were shot back-to-back like this.

CORMAN: All right. I did actually three pictures once in Puerto Rico, when I took a company there. We did "Battle Of Blood Island," a World War II picture, and then I directed "The Last Woman On Earth," which was written by Bob Towne and actually starred Bob under the name Edward Wain as an actor, because he hadn't finished the script, and I didn't have the money to take him to Puerto Rico to finish the script and take an actor also, and I said, Bob, you're playing the second lead in the film.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CORMAN: And then, when we were there and things were going well, I called Chuck Griffith and gave him the idea for a comedy horror science fiction film to be called "Creature From The Haunted Sea," and we threw in the third picture, as well.

GROSS: Some actors who've worked with you say that you would shoot everything in one take, unless the camera fell over or there was an avalanche. Do you have any scenes that, looking back in the movies, you're really sorry you didn't do another take?

CORMAN: Well, that's not really true. I very seldom would walk away at the end of just one take. I'd say I probably average three or four takes at most times. Sometimes, I would do one take, very often because it would be what's known as a one-take shot, some sort of special effects are tearing down or a destruction scene - you only get one chance at it. I remember one time I did something in one take that I had not planned that way. It was in "Little Shop Of Horrors," where Jack Nicholson, playing the masochistic patient in the dentist office, has, I think, the drill, and he's dueling with a dentist who's got a scalpel. It's a slightly insane scene, and in the midst of the duel, they knocked over the dentist's chair, and I said, cut, and I asked Dick Reuben (ph), the prop man, how long would it take to put it all back up? ********

CORMAN: to put it all back up? He says, it could, make or take, about an hour to do that. They really broke it apart. And I said, the scene ends with the falling down of the dentist chair. We're shooting this picture on a two-day schedule. We don't have time to spend an hour waiting for this to go back up.

GROSS: You've worked in many different genres over the years. And one of the genres that you describe yourself as having created is the black humor horror film and included in that category would be "Little Shop Of Horrors" and "Bucket Of Blood." Why did you decide to combine horror and comedy? And did you wonder if the horror audience would be interested in seeing a movie that mocked itself in some ways?

CORMAN: I got the idea of combining horror with humor at a sneak preview of one of my films when a sequence, which was designed as a horror sequence, worked very well. And the audience screamed, really screamed very loudly. And immediately thereafter they laughed, and then they got back into the film. And I thought, what they've done is they've reacted the way I wanted - they've screamed at the right moment. And then they realized that they'd been led into it, and they laughed in an almost appreciative way at what I'd done and what their reaction to it was. And I thought, there's really a connection there between horror and humor.

And then I read a book called "Beyond Laughter" by a psychiatrist - I think his name was Dr. Grotjahn - in Beverly Hills, in which he talked about the relationship between horror and humor. And I went to see him, as a matter of fact, paid him $100 for one hour to talk with him.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CORMAN: And he told me some of his theories. And I decided to do a film that would be a comedy horror film. And that was "Bucket Of Blood," which I shot in five days - starring Dick Miller, written by Chuck Griffith. And the film was rather successful and very funny. It did just what I wanted it to do. It got the screams at the right points, and it got a lot of laughter in between. I was very pleased with it, so I tried another one, which was "Little Shop Of Horrors," which was more slanted towards the humor and less towards the horror. The horror was there, but it was really almost comic horror.

And that picture had a rather strange history. It was very wild, rather original and I shot it in only two days and a night. And I expected that I should either have a great success with something like this or a complete failure, it was so audacious a thing to do. To my somewhat disappointment, I had a moderate success. But what happened over a period of time, the picture became well-known and it kept playing. Every year, I would get additional rental and royalty checks. It would play at midnight screenings on college campuses, things like that. So over a period of years, it did become a rather big success.

BIANCULLI: Roger Corman speaking with Terry Gross in 1990. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's 1990 interview with film producer and director Roger Corman. He died last week at age 98.


GROSS: Peter Fonda starred in "Wild Angels" as, like, the head of the biker gang. He later starred with Dennis Hopper in "Easy Rider." But in "Wild Angels," there's something very innocent and vulnerable-looking about him in spite of the way that he's cast. Did you realize that at the time?

CORMAN: I knew that, and it was a little bit of a problem because I wanted Peter in the film. He was a good actor. He had the right persona. But he's a very tall, thin person. And he wasn't really as tough - or as tough-looking as the Angels. For that reason, I had him wear a couple of layers of clothing throughout the film in order to build up a little bulk.

There was a lot of talk about the Hells Angels at that time. And I remember in - it was either Time or Newsweek magazine. There was an article on them, and at the top of the page was a picture of a Hells Angels funeral. It took place in some woods. And they were carrying the coffin, but the members were riding their bikes. And the visual power of that photograph really impressed me. I was having lunch with Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff, who ran American International, and we were talking about various ideas for a film that we might do together.

And it kind of came up between all of us that we all thought the Hells Angels would be a good subject, so we agreed that we would do a film about the Hells Angels. I wanted the Hells Angels not to be the nemesis, the heavies. I wanted them to be the leads in the picture. So I developed with Chuck Griffith my own script, which eventually became "The Wild Angels." And for a little while there, I and Chuck were hanging out with the Angels, going to their parties and so forth. And the picture became a loose compendium of stories they told us about things that they had done.

GROSS: So tell me what you were like when you were hanging out at Hells Angels' parties.

CORMAN: I was not quite one of the Angels.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CORMAN: I made a point of bringing the beer and possibly helping to bring some marijuana and one thing and another. And Chuck and I were reasonably well-accepted, but we were never quite with them. I remember at one time, I had spent a lot of the evening sitting drinking beer and talking with the old lady - that is, the girlfriend of the president of the chapter of the Hells Angels. And Chuck came over to me and he said, you're spending too much time talking to that girl. The leader of the Angels has been watching you. He doesn't like it in any way whatsoever. And I realized for a little while I had forgotten what kind of party I was at and where I was. So I said goodbye to her and went over and talked to some guys about some bikes.

GROSS: Now, you cast some actual Hells Angels as extras in the movie, right?

CORMAN: Yes. We had members of the Venice and San Bernardino chapters of the Hells Angels.

GROSS: Did they give you any trouble?

CORMAN: No, they didn't really give me trouble. I was very careful as to how I was going to handle them.

GROSS: Did you pay them well?

CORMAN: Yes. As a matter of fact, I don't remember the exact amounts of money, but it was interesting. We worked out the payment. They got a certain amount of money per day for each Angel.

CORMAN: ***And then they got a little bit less than their personal fee to bring their bikes. And then they got a little bit less than the bikes for bringing their women. So this was their scale of values.

GROSS: Now, just as you hung out with the Hell's Angels before making "Wild Angels," you dropped acid once, I believe, before making "The Trip."


GROSS: So how did that pay off in the making of the movie?

CORMAN: I think it was a necessary and a good experience. To have made a picture about an LSD trip without having taken one, I think, would have been almost disastrous. I would not really have understood what it was I was making the picture about. It did have an unintended effect, however, in that my trip was totally good. I had nothing but good images. And in trying to be fair, I then, in preparing the film, talked to people who had had bad trips. And I got some information and insight from them and tried to put elements of both good trips and bad trips in the picture because I was trying to be, as it were, impartial. I didn't want to make everything good.

GROSS: So many of the actors, directors and screenwriters who got their start with you moved on and made big-budget movies after that, which is something that you really never did. I'm sure you could have, but you chose to stay doing what you were doing. I mean, you formed your own company, so you were doing it for yourself, but you were still turning out quickies, for the most part. Why did you want to keep doing that when you had the power and the money to make more expensive movies and to take a longer time doing it?

CORMAN: I had worked several times with the major studios, and as a matter of fact, I was offered a contract with a major studio to continue working for them when I stopped directing in 1970. The problem always seemed to be that a great deal of the decision-making was taken out of my hands. The studio would say, you're going to use this actor, or, we want this approach. And I just felt more comfortable on my own. I felt that If I was going to make a mistake, I wanted it to be my mistake. I wanted to be able to make whatever type of film I wanted to make the way I wanted to make it. This, of course, as you say, did have the disadvantage of that, for most of my career, it has meant that in order to obtain independence, I had to do less expensive films.

GROSS: You know, in the same period that you were making movies like "Bloodfist" and "Slumber Party Massacre," you were also distributing foreign films - films by Ingmar Bergman, "Cries And Whispers." You distributed "The Tin Drum." Why did you get into distributing art films? And this was in the late '70s or early '80s that you started doing this, I think. No, it had to be earlier than that.

CORMAN: It was the mid-'70s.

GROSS: Yeah.

CORMAN: I got into distributing art films simply because I wanted to do it. New World was growing very rapidly, and I was very pleased with the growth of the company. But I felt that we were becoming known too much as an American independent exploitation-minded company. I wanted to change that image a little bit. And at the same time, I had always admired - as a matter of fact, I'd always loved the works of Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Kurasawa and so forth. I felt that their films were not really being distributed well in the United States.

And I heard that Bergman's newest film at that time, "Cries And Whispers," did not have an American distributor. And I remember telling Paul Kohner, his agent, I'll take the picture sight unseen. And he said yes, and we made the deal. And I got a letter from Ingmar Bergman thanking me and then suggesting that I see the film and saying that he would give me an out and I could tear up the contract if I didn't like the film. Well, I saw the film and thought it was a wonderful film, and it was - we distributed it. And it did very well.

GROSS: How closely do you stay in touch with all the actors and directors and screenwriters who you gave their start?

CORMAN: I stay in reasonable touch with them. We're not all close or intimate friends anymore, but we see each other from time to time. For instance, Jack Nicholson, who not only starred in but directed "Two Jakes," which is opening shortly, called me and offered me a part as an actor. He wanted me to play an establishment lawyer who he defeats in court with crooked evidence. And I said, Jack, why do you want to beat me in court with crooked evidence? But I couldn't play the part because I was directing "Frankenstein Unbound" at the time. But then after I finished "Frankenstein," Jonathan Demme called me and asked me to play the head of the FBI in his picture, "Silence Of The Lambs." And I had time to play that, so I am indeed the head of the FBI.

GROSS: You feel suited to the role?

CORMAN: Well, I keep being offered that type of role. You know, I'm not really an actor. But for Francis Coppola, I played a senator, and then I was offered the part of a lawyer. I played a district attorney for Paul Bartel.

GROSS: So why is the king of exploitation being given all these roles as establishment figures?

CORMAN: I don't know. Maybe in their eyes, I am an establishment figure, and maybe it's the fact that I'm growing older. However, Joe Dante had me play a bum, and I was delighted to play that.

GROSS: Which movie?

CORMAN: The original "Howling."

GROSS: OK. Roger Corman, thank you very, very much.

CORMAN: Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Roger Corman spoke with Terry Gross in 1990. He died last week at age 98. After a break, we'll hear from several people who have stories to tell about the legendary low-budget filmmaker - everyone from Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern to James Cameron and Martin Scorsese. And we'll end with an appreciation by John Powers. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The crowd is going crazy. The police can't hold them back.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) Cry, baby, baby. Cry. Cry. Cry. You pushed him too fast against the hard, cold wall - no one to hear, no one to call.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of ***

BIANCULLI: ******** FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University. We're remembering the king of the low-budget B movies, Roger Corman. He died last week at the age of 98. Let's hear from the star of his biker film "The Wild Angels," Peter Fonda. That film helped inspire Fonda to make "Easy Rider," which brought to the screen a new kind of American hero - the hippie drifter. Terry spoke with Peter Fonda in 1998.


GROSS: I think it's time to hear a scene from "Wild Angels"...

FONDA: Uh-oh.

GROSS: ...Your first biker film.


GROSS: Now, in this scene, you're at the funeral of a biker - a biker played by Bruce Dern - and his coffin is covered by a Nazi flag. There's a minister delivering a eulogy, which you think is really phony, so you interrupt the eulogy to say this.


FONDA: (As Heavenly Blues) Yeah. We don't want nobody telling us what to do. We don't want nobody pushing us around.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, cheering).

FRANK MAXWELL: (As Preacher) I apologize, but tell me - just what is it that you want to do?

FONDA: (As Heavenly Blues) Well, we want to be free. We want to be free to do what we want to do. We want to be free to ride, and we want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the man.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, cheering).

FONDA: (As Heavenly Blues) And we want to get loaded.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, cheering).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Second the motion.

FONDA: (As Heavenly Blues) And we want to have a good time.


FONDA: (As Heavenly Blues) And that's what we're going to do.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Away, baby, let's go.

FONDA: (As Heavenly Blues) We're going to have a good time. We're going have a party.


GROSS: And as you can hear, they are totally tearing apart the church.


FONDA: I warned you about that one already.

GROSS: Peter Fonda - your thoughts listening back to this scene?

FONDA: Far out.


FONDA: That's the first thing...

GROSS: Groovy would be the other alternative.

FONDA: No, no, not groovy, just far out. And, you know, what the heck? You would have to pick that scene, now, wouldn't you?

GROSS: (Laughter) How did those lines sound to you at the time? You want to be free to not be hassled by the man.

FONDA: I thought I had a better way of saying it, but I was reminded that I was playing the leader of a motorcycle gang and didn't necessarily have that larger vocabulary.

GROSS: Well, this was a - you know, you're, like, you know, the leader of a Hell's Angels gang, a kind of real switch from previous roles that you had in movies like "Tammy And The Doctor" and "Lilith." What did you think of yourself as being the biker?

FONDA: Well, I mean, I liked the job I did in "Lilith." I thought I fit the bill well, and in my later years now, I'm enjoying hearing that from people, but I didn't want to be cast as the sensitive roles all the time, and that's what my agents had in mind for me. They thought - they wanted me to become the next Dean Jones for Disney. I had other thoughts afoot here. I was a bit too radical for that, and so I started to strike out in a different way.

GROSS: Now, why do you think Corman cast you in the biker role?

FONDA: I think he saw me as this very rebellious person who didn't give a rat's a** and went out there and just did what was most, I guess, obnoxious or at least what shook the cage...

GROSS: (Laughter)

FONDA: ...Whatever would shake the cage the most into any kind of really set-in legislative morality. I really believe that there's - that abstract morality has no place in our political or our everyday lives and, I mean, arbitrary morality and abstract authority certainly doesn't, so he saw me as somebody who was always watching for something to step on that looked like abstract authority or arbitrary morality.

GROSS: So listen - when you were cast in "Wild Angels," were you already riding a motorcycle?

FONDA: Yeah. I'd been riding around a lot with various other glitterati - McQueen and Brando and myself.

GROSS: Now, there is a poster of you from this movie that you say sold, what, 16 million copies in America or something like that?

FONDA: Easily, yeah.

GROSS: How seriously did you take yourself at the time as a biker icon?

FONDA: I didn't even put those two things together. I was brought into Corman's office - he was over at 20th Century Fox, had a deal making films over there - and he said he wanted to make - and my hair was rather long and I was considered a weird hippie, and he said he wanted to make a motorcycle movie, a movie about the Hell's Angels that wasn't making a statement, which I found to be rather far out because I think anytime you make a movie about the Hell's Angels, you're covering statement all over the place. So I thought, well, let's see if he can do it. I said, I'm in, and eventually, I was called, and actually, the first time I was called, I was called to play Bruce Dern's part.

GROSS: The Loser.

FONDA: The Loser, yeah. I said, well, I can do this one easily.


FONDA: Anyway, it turned out that the fellow who was cast to play the part that I ended up playing didn't know how to ride a motorcycle, so I got the gig.

BIANCULLI: Peter Fonda, recorded in 1998. Now, let's hear from his co-star in "The Wild Angels," Bruce Dern. He spoke with Terry in 2013. Terry began with another scene from the film.


GROSS: This is a scene - you're a biker, you have a Swastika drawn onto your helmet, you're all about hate, and (laughter) you're an angry man.

BRUCE DERN: And Laura's mom is my old lady in it.

GROSS: That's right - your soon-to-be-ex-wife is your leading lady. So this scene happens after you've been fired from your construction work job - been fired by the foreman - and so, like, you've gone home to see, you know, with - you live with your girlfriend, played by Diane Ladd, and Peter Fonda's with you. Your name - your nickname is Loser, and his name is Heavenly Blues. So here's that scene, and everybody - listen for the far-out dialogue.


DIANE LADD: (As Gaysh) Hey. What you doing home so early?

DERN: (As "Loser") I don't like nobody getting uptight with me, man - and that includes you.

LADD: (As Gaysh) Blegh (ph). Huh?


LADD: (As Gaysh) Blues, what's the matter with him?

FONDA: (As Heavenly Blues) Nothing, man. You know, his foreman got uptight. The mother doesn't like him getting messages at work.

LADD: (As Gaysh) So what did he do - fire him?

DERN: (As Loser) Yeah, the fool fired me. Hassled my mind, man. You don't ever get a straight deal around here. Are you kidding?

GROSS: So Bruce Dern, I'm thinking about how, like, for a long - like, for a year, you weren't even allowed to have any dialogue in The Actors Studio so that your body could become an emotional instrument, and here you are with what I have to say is just, like, really lame, period dialogue. What was it like for you to do those lines?

DERN: You have to look at the whole thing that we didn't quite realize at the time, and look at the fact that we were all allowed to be in the University of Corman. Nobody really understood that until later, when you look at the graduates of it, if you will. That was No. 1, but we didn't know it then. What Roger did for us was he let us be billed above the title of the movie. He gave us large roles that were the starring roles in the movies. He didn't pay us very well. We got scale and a box lunch, but you did the movies in 10 days. And they were going to be in theaters and drive-ins, obviously, but they were going to be in theaters. He knew the dialogue was lame. I mean, Chuck Griffiths, who was the writer, he wrote of the time that was of the era. It's lame-sounding now, but then in the exploitation world, it was perfectly acceptable stuff. That's the way that they talked.

GROSS: What did you learn in terms of acting working fast and cheap for Corman?

DERN: I learned to be quick. I learned that you didn't have any time for Take 2, that you had to be inventive. You had to be creative. You had to look and listen. So there was a spontaneity of reality in those movies. And that could override the dialogue at some times and not particularly like the scene you just said.

BIANCULLI: Bruce Dern recorded in 2013. Coming up, we hear from some directors who worked with Roger Corman and with actor Dick Miller, who worked on dozens of Corman's early low-budget films. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Roger Corman, who died last week at the age of 98. He helped launch the careers of many actors and also many directors, including James Cameron, who went on to make "Titanic" and "Avatar." He talked with Terry in 2010.


GROSS: So can you share your favorite cheap special effect that you were involved with from a Corman film?

JAMES CAMERON: (Laughter) Well, they were all cheap. You know, I mean, we used to love - we actually were fairly sophisticated, even for that time. We were doing motion control and fairly complicated optical special effects and so on for Roger. But of course, the ones we liked the best were the biggest cheats, where we'd glue a model to a piece of glass and stick it in the foreground and pretend it was, you know, far away and really big and have all the actors turn away from the camera and point at it...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CAMERON: ...Even though it was sitting right in front of the camera. And it actually created a compelling illusion, you know, foreground miniature. There's a lot of fun. And it's the ones where you really think, you know, you're pulling something over on the audience that were the most fun.

BIANCULLI: Director Martin Scorsese also studied alongside Roger Corman. In 1993, at a retrospective of Scorsese's films at Lincoln Center in New York City, Scorsese was interviewed onstage. He described how he had to make "The Last Temptation Of Christ" on a shoestring budget.


MARTIN SCORSESE: I'll never forget the surrounding of the temple. I had five guys from Rome, five stuntmen. And they had Roman customs on, Roman soldier customs, right? And I had to - there was trouble in the temple or whatever and they look up. They hear a sound, they look up and Roman soldiers come up, and then Roman soldiers come up, more Roman soldiers and more over here. Well, I had five guys.


SCORSESE: Yeah. The trick was, of course - the trick was to learn, again, go back. The whole picture was storyboarded because we had no time for anything. We had no time to breathe, to get there. By the time we got to the location, too - this was out in the desert and places, you know? And so I realized it was the old - you know, I drew the shots and I figured, OK, I know what I have to do. But when I was doing it, I was just - oh, it was so painful. But I said, all right, this is it. Five of them come up here - flash pan, cut - same five guys, same five guys, same five guys.


SCORSESE: That's it. And then they had to fight the Levite guards. And they became the Levite guards - reverses. I'm not kidding.


SCORSESE: And I said, I can't believe what we're doing. I said, this is - I mean, if I hadn't looked at - if I hadn't studied Roger Corman pictures, we'd never be able to do this.


SCORSESE: But, I mean, they were the same, the Levite guards. I couldn't believe it. I said, for the reverse, now we - and they were all yelling in Italian, and it was hysterical. If you look at the temple scene, every shot, every shot...


SCORSESE: It's the same guys. Every now and then, we'd change a helmet.

BIANCULLI: The late director Jonathan Demme was another Roger Corman veteran. In 2008, Demme spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about his film "Rachel Getting Married.".


DAVE DAVIES: Well, Jonathan Demme, you have such a diverse career. I mean, you've done so many different kinds of films. You got started with Roger Corman, who of course is known for making lots and lots of successful, like - what would you say? - low-budget action, horror, all kinds of stuff. And I think he does a cameo in "Rachel Getting Married," doesn't he? Is he in the wedding?

JONATHAN DEMME: He does indeed. In fact, there's a moment in the movie that I love a lot, which I don't expect anyone else to love. But there's a shot of the couple saying their vows. And just off to the side is this incredibly handsome guy in a fabulous suit with a gigantic grin on his face, and he's aiming this little, tiny handheld camera at the couple. And that's Roger Corman, who I gave the camera to seconds before. He didn't know he was going to be expected to do that and he really rose to the occasion.

And then we cut to Roger's shot, a beautifully composed, fabulous shot of the bride. So that's - you know, the thing about Roger is he's famously tight-fisted. He's famous for two things - three things, brilliant filmmaker in his own right, second of all this mogul, third of all, so tight-fisted. And the thing about Roger is that if you offer Roger SAG minimum for a couple of days' work in a movie, he shows up, does a great job on the part and goes away thinking that he's really somehow stuck it to the man.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: In 1990, Terry Gross spoke with actor Dick Miller, who appeared in dozens of Corman's early low-budget movies, including "Bucket Of Blood," "Little Shop Of Horrors," "Sorority Girl," "The Terror," "The Trip" and "War Of The Satellites." Several of the directors who grew up watching Corman's movies or got their start working for him later paid homage to Miller by casting him in their films. Martin Scorsese, for example, gave Miller the part of the club owner in "New York, New York." Early in his career, Miller went to LA hoping to write screenplays. He met Corman, but the director needed actors *****

BIANCULLI: *** But the director needed actors, not screenwriters, so he began acting. Terry spoke with Dick Miller in 1990.


GROSS: You played the lead in the 1959 Roger Corman movie "Bucket Of Blood." And this has become a real cult classic. It was the leading role. You were a waiter in a beatnik coffee house, and you become an artist by covering first your dead cat in clay and then by killing people and covering the corpses in clay and passing it off as sculpture. And once this artist becomes really acclaimed, you also become quite the hipster. Was it fun to spoof the hipster in the movie?

DICK MILLER: Well, it was made at the height of the coffee shop era. Everybody was going in for it.

GROSS: You mean the coffeehouse. Yeah.

MILLER: Yeah. And that was - the basic idea behind the picture was the hipster coffeehouse groupies at that time and the people who hung around and the no-talents and the talents of that era. And I think later on, Roger Corman made a picture called "The Trip" about the first, you know, big, psychedelic outings that were going on, which was a little more serious. But it was also meant to cover that genre of what was happening at the moment. I love making "Bucket Of Blood." I think it still stands as my favorite picture.

GROSS: The movie was shot in, I think, five days. Can you give us an idea of how you made a movie that quickly?

MILLER: Well, five days was not as tight as it seemed. They were making TV half-hour shows in 2 1/2 days, and people who had that down, had that type of - that was a finger snap.

GROSS: Right.

MILLER: People who had that...


MILLER: ...Down at that moment could make movies that fast. We were - when I started with Roger, we were making Westerns, and we would make them in six days. And that was - seemed like a fair amount of time. And later on, we got an extra day, a seventh day or an eighth day. And I thought, this is great. What a luxury. So by the time we got around to making "Bucket Of Blood," five days was kind of a press, but most of the picture was shot in two sets. So it wasn't that much of a push.

It's a matter of learning the technique. I think later on, when he made the famous "Little Shop Of Horrors," which was supposed to have been made in two days and - actually two days and a couple of spare nights, that also wasn't too much of a push. The people who were involved in it seemed to think, well, two days - OK, we'll try it. And if it doesn't work, we'll add another day.

GROSS: You know, Roger Corman says that "Bucket Of Blood" and "Little Shop Of Horrors" were part of a new genre that he felt he was creating, the black comedy horror film. And I was wondering if you felt that all the actors had a good sense of humor, the kind of sense of humor that would get all what was happening in the movie, you know, and enjoy the jokes.

MILLER: I think at the time he was making those films, Roger didn't have the greatest sense of humor. I have to be honest about that. He wasn't quite sure that "Bucket Of Blood" was going to be a comedy. He thought it was kind of a very serious thriller at the time.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MILLER: That's the truth. And all the people involved with him at the time had great senses of humor. I mean, they would - it was not uncommon for us on location shots to play what you would call dirty tricks on Roger because he didn't quite catch on to what we were doing at the time. But I'm not saying that he was ignorant of the fact that it was going to be a comedy. I think about halfway through, he got the idea that this is funny. You know, these people are funny. And when he finished it, he said, we've got to make another one. This is how "Little Shop Of Horrors" came about. He said, this is funny. We got - we must make another picture just like it.

GROSS: Give me an example of the kind of dirty trick that the actors would play on Corman.

MILLER: It wasn't really a group thing. It was - I think it was more Jonathan Haze and myself. We had an expression. Show me what you mean. He would say - we were out in Hawaii shooting a picture. He said, run out there to the end of the coral and look around, and then come running back. And we'd say, show us what you mean, Roger. And he'd run out there and come back, and his feet would be bloody through his sneakers. I mean, it was just - the coral would cut him up something awful. Or he would say, leap over this ditch, grab those bushes, and pull yourself into the cane field. Well, we were told, never touch the cane, the sugar cane. It's got these little burrs on it. And somebody would say, show us what you mean, Roger.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MILLER: He jumped. He grabbed the bushes, and we'd take out an hour while somebody washed his hands out.

GROSS: Well, did he expect you to do it after he proved that this was a really dangerous and impossible thing to do?

MILLER: Yes. And we'd do it. I mean, once it was shown to us, we said, OK, fine, you know? But we usually took more precautions than he had taken.

GROSS: Did he always write a role for you?

MILLER: He didn't write a role for me. I will always be grateful for Roger - to Roger for the fact that he didn't write roles for me. He let me do almost any part that came up. I think the opening picture was kind of the sign of which we were going. I played a cowboy and an Indian. Well, you're not going to typecast me that way, you know? You're not going to say, this guy does - he does cowboys only or Indians only. I suddenly found myself playing rocket scientists, demented busboys, leading men, villains, everything. And he never said, you can't do that part. You know, he'd said, can you do this? Can you do that? I said, I can do anything. And I found myself in 35 pictures playing practically 35 different roles. I don't think many actors get that kind of opportunity.

BIANCULLI: Actor Dick Miller recorded in 1990. Coming up, we have an appreciation of Roger Corman by our critic-at-large John Powers. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large John Powers says he's seen scores of Corman's movies, and he's been thinking about what made him and his work so appealing.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: There was a time when the whole world seemed to envy American culture not because we were turning out high-art masterpieces - heck, Europe did those - but because we weren't. People everywhere loved our culture for being so carefree, fast and fun and light on its feet. Few figures embodied these qualities so splendidly as Roger Corman. The king of the modern B-movie, he's credited with producing more than 300 films and directing nearly 50. ***

POWERS: ** small-budget genre pictures with deliciously lurid titles like "The She Gods Of Shark Reef," A Bucket Of Blood," The Little Shop Of Horrors" and, of course, The Fast And The Furious," a 1954 hot rod movie, whose name he sold to the franchise half a century later. Possessed of a bloodhound's nose for talent, Corman launched countless important careers, including those of Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, James Cameron, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Pam Greer and Sandra Bullock. The era of "Easy Riders" and "Raging Bulls" would have been tamer without him.

Now, Hollywood has always been a place where smart people try to smarten up silly entertainment, and Corman was no exception. Having earned an engineering degree at Stanford and studied English literature at Oxford, this well-schooled soul tried to make his way in the studios but soon grew frustrated. So he set off on a trail-blazing path in the mid-1950s, producing and directing low-cost independent films. His name emblazoned across the drive-in movie screens that suited his brainy cheapo aesthetic. His maverick spirit and happy sense of rebellion were reflected in pictures that never tired of thumbing their nose at complacency, authority and middle-class notions of good taste.

The typical Corman project began with a clever, hooky idea. A cosmetics exec turns into a female wasp. Or giant crabs menace scientists on an island that's shrinking - and then goosed it with a trashy sense of fun that prized ingenuity over pricy effects. His keen pop instincts helped him capture and ride the social currents that rocked America from the '50s into the '70s. Even as the big studios felt lumbering and clueless, Corman's quickly made indies pulsed with the anxieties and energies of the time - nuclear dread, fear of run-amok violence, the division between races, the triumph of youth.

Although his work was occasionally overt, like his anti-racist 1962 movie "The Intruder" with William Shatner, he preferred to smuggle in social commentary. What helped him mesh so smoothly with the '60s zeitgeist was his underlying fascination with social dissolution, even apocalypse. His work is filled with corrupt authority figures, from decadent aristocrats to thuggish cops, and renegades, wild angels who reject the powers that be by becoming gangsters or anarchic bikers or sometimes just nice guys trying to save busty women from the clutches of Vincent Price in one of Corman's nine Edgar Allan Poe adaptations.

I met Corman a few times along the way and found him a delight - rye, self-deprecating, charming, with a hint of bottom-line shrewdness in his crinkling eyes. He was notorious for bad pay, laughable budgets and impossibly short shooting schedules. Do a good job on this picture, Corman would say, and your reward will be that you'll never have to work for me again. In fact, directors were thrilled to escape him in moving to the big time, though many were still fond enough to give him roles in their later movies, like "The Godfather Part II" and "The Silence Of The Lambs."

Critics like me were fond of him, too. It's not that Corman was a great filmmaker. No one ever accused him of craftsmanship. But we loved the way that he loved to make movies. His productions weren't about spending money or seeking prestige like the Hollywood juggernaut. They were celebrations of on-the-fly creativity. One of the glories of American culture has always been its DIY spirit, be it the high school kids who put on musicals in the barn, the dropouts who sat in their garages, dreaming up the digital world, or the jazz geniuses blowing their horns in tiny Southern clubs in brothels and inventing the music of the 20th century. Roger Corman was one of this exalted company, filled with good humor and whirring with homespun energy. His career embodied America at its most free-wheeling and enjoyable.

BIANCULLI: Our critic-at-large John Powers remembered film producer and director Roger Corman, who died on May 9 at age 98. On Monday's show, singer-songwriter Michael McDonald tells us about his decadeslong career as a member of Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers and his own career as a solo artist. His new memoir is "What A Fool Believes," which he co-wrote with comedian Paul Reiser. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Charlie Kaier. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.