Hi Film Folk,
Last week, the Film Doctor team caught up with Roger “King of the B movies” Corman at the BFI‘s latest talk. Haven’t heard of him?
Well, if you’re twiddling your thumbs and praying to the stars for a ‘big break’ in your film career, then you could do no worse than taking a few pages out of this man’s book.
Roger Corman has made over 200 films and worked with the likes of Jack Nicholson, William Shatner, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese (the list is endless) and, in many cases, giving them their start. A prolific producer/director (House Of Usher, Little Shop Of Horrors to Death Race and Piranhaconda), only 12 films of his hundreds didn’t make a profit.
So, what makes Mr. Corman so successful? And what can we learn from him?
How to work with people:
Film making involves collaborating, so working well with others is paramount. Although Corman spoke about working with the same crew on several films, he reminds us this is not about finding a comfort zone, or a group of yes men, but about “working with people you have trust in”, who will be reliable, calm and professional, as well as good at their jobs. Building a team is an important part of the process of filmmaking, whether with new or old colleagues. Also, the people you collaborate with now, could be the Francis Ford Coppolas or Sandra Bullocks of tomorrow, so if you look-out for emerging talent, you could be getting yourself a bargain. In fact, Coppola and Bullock were two of the young talents mentored by Corman. Be aware of who you are surrounding yourself with and bring out the best in them.
Working with actors:
This can be more complicated. Some actors will have more experience than others. Actors have different backgrounds, personalities and schooling, which can lead to problems for the uninitiated. When working once with Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff, Corman ran into this very problem. Lorre was from the Stanislavsky school, and was improvising around the script to get into his character and performance. Karloff, with a background in the English stage, was used to sticking to a script, and felt confused about his cues when his counterpart improvised, and he soon became very annoyed. Corman had to stop, bring the actors feelings back into tune and re-rehearse the scenes. He also found that younger actors sometimes “had trouble keeping up” with more seasoned professionals, needing more takes, and a little extra encouragement. Learn from his mistake, so you don’t waste valuable filming time on set.
Roger Corman also had some interesting thoughts on casting, calling his choice of Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price “Crusty legends”, people who had faded a little, but with a solid background in the horror genre, which he could trade on to the public to lend credibility to his films. However, he knew when to use casting against type to serve the themes of his films, to portray the Hell’s Angels gang as the good guys, or cast William Shatner in The Intruder (who was slowly revealed to be the bad guy). Either way, he has a deep respect and a careful eye for the talents of the actors, and what boundaries they can push. He says: “Each generation brings new talent, new styles… there is no dearth of good actors”.
What’s it all about?
Roger Corman’s career had spanned several decades, and yet one of the reasons his films are still successful is that he knows what he can make work. He knows his genres, and the subjects and stories that work for him, and he knows how to rinse and repeat. In the 60’s he made a series of films based on stories from Edgar Allen Poe, which Kim Newman calls “one of the few series that got better as they went along”. However, he was also aware of the market, and knew to stop when the trend for Poe got old. He has recently been producing movies like Sharktopus and Dinoshark, but feels that that trend is getting old now.
Corman isn’t afraid to buck trends and he is aware of what’s going on in the real world and how people are really feeling, not what they are being marketed. His film A Bucket of Blood was one of the earliest examples of a comedy-horror, which the studio wasn’t sure was going to sit well with audiences, so he shot it on a small budget in 5 days. Now, many horror films are really comedy-horror. His themes are diverse, but always about something that is meaningful to him. Exploring themes as diverse as religion in The Man With X-Ray Vision to the psychedelic and drugs in The Trip, the uptight morals of society in The Wild Angels, and when all else failed he recommends falling back on swapping “the male protagonist for a female. It adds that extra dimension: Sex.” He says: “branch out, and make films with themes that you feel passionate about, but also to be creative and have fun with it”.
Embrace Technology (but not TOO much):
Corman started making films in 1954, so he has seen many innovations in film making and technology, which he is not afraid to embrace if they further the story. During the first wave of 3D films in the 60’s he “felt that it was a short lived phenomenon” because it was used in a “gimmicky way” rather than as a means to better tell a story, which he feels was masterfully done with the recently released Gravity and Avatar. He felt this too when the studio insisted that his film House of Usher be shot in the, then popular, widescreen format ‘Cinemascope’ which he objected to, saying “it’s for westerns and Lawrence Of Arabia” not for a claustrophobic horror film set indoors. When asked whether he preferred shooting on film he pointed out that it “saves money, light, portable, smaller crew” but wonders if the the simplicity is really an illusion, because of the formatting and reformatting of the film stock and files in the editing process. Corman is a man who embraces change as a further means to create, and he takes what works for him, with a great deal of understanding of the fads of technology and what entertainment the audience really wants.
Big budgets are often a curse. That’s hard to believe when you’re trying to raise funds for your film, but Corman started out working with tiny budgets and short schedules, so we can trust him on this one. Speaking about the big budgets in Hollywood he said they’re great when you “can see the money on screen”, citing James Cameron’s Titanic as a prime example (pointing out that not only was it the most expensive film of its time but the highest grossing). However, they’re not so great when they stop you thinking creatively. Corman “never felt hampered by low budget. I take that as as challenge, a challenge to overcome,” asking himself “ What’s the best I can do with what I’ve got?” He doesn’t think that a big budget helps films that have no plot, and finds it awful when a director “uses VFX to throw money at the problem, you have to use intelligence and creativity”. When it comes to your budget, he counsels,“use it intelligently and use every dollar”. His cult creation Little Shop of Horrors used exactly this principle, and was shot on a set left over from another film, in two days which were free when The Raven finished shooting ahead of schedule, with what directors he had to hand, which he feels mean that the film “did not necessarily make sense” but “anyone who’s making a film thinks it’s the biggest film of all time. It’s only later that you maybe realise that you didn’t.” The film went on to become an underground hit.
Develop good habits:
Even though Corman is a renowned and established businessman, he still keeps a pen and paper by the bed, for those film ideas that come in the middle of the night. He has always had, and recommends, the habit of watching films from a broad spectrum, because he was not influenced by any one director, but learned from watching any films he could, even the less critically acclaimed because “you really learn something from a bad film”. However, Corman felt that he learnt the most about storytelling from life, from “absorbing the world around him” and being a part of it.
So, with that all said, what makes a great film making career? “Talent, chance and luck” says Roger Corman.Join us on FACEBOOK or TWITTER and sign up to our emails on the right hand side for articles straight to your inbox. Any questions/thoughts/experiences of your own??? Leave a comment below! Have a great week!