Roger Corman has earned a reputation over the past five decades for giving countless entertainment figures their first big break before and behind the camera. Among the graduates of the “Corman School” are Oscar winners Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Towne and Jonathan Demme. Ron Howard joined their number in 1977 after appearing in a car crash action-comedy for Corman’s New World Pictures the previous year called “Eat My Dust!”
The picture was a hit, and as Corman recalls, he rang up Howard on the Monday after its debut to let him know about the box office take. But as it turned out, “he’d called our distribution office and already knew it was a big success,” Corman says.
Howard then came to Corman’s office to discuss an inevitable sequel, but with a slight twist: “He said, ‘Whenever a picture is a big success and there’s talk of a sequel, the star always wants more money. I don’t want any more money. I’ll take exactly the same deal on the second picture as I had on the first, but I’ll do an additional job for nothing — I’ll direct the picture.’ I said, ‘Ron, I always thought you looked like a director.’”
Corman’s assessment wasn’t mere flattery. His decision was based on his assessment of Howard’s abilities, both established and nascent.
“He was a fine actor, and I knew he’d be able to work with and direct actors,” says Corman. “He’d gone to USC’s film school, and I’d seen his student film, which I thought was very well directed. He’s also a very intelligent man, which is, of course, of some importance. So I knew that from a directing standpoint, there would be no problem whatsoever, and because of his student film, I felt confident from a technical standpoint.”
Corman gave Howard advice on directing in what was known as the “one-morning course” — a briefing on shot composition, organizations and other essentials Corman provided to novice directors working on a low-budget film.
“I talked to him about preparation,” Corman says. “These pictures were all shot in 15 days, so you should come in completely prepared, but knowing that you’ll never shoot the film as you planned it.”
As it turns out, Corman’s instincts about Howard were correct.
“On the first day, we were shooting at a house in Brentwood,” he says. “He came in and said, ‘The camera is on a dolly with a 30 (mm) lens. The actress (Marion Ross, Howard’s co-star on ‘Happy Days’) comes in, and we’ll dolly and pan with her across the room. She’ll sit down and pick up the telephone, and we’ll cut when she picks up the phone. I’m going to get a cup of coffee — let me know when you’re ready.’ He knew exactly what he was doing, and it showed the crew that they were working with someone who knew what he was doing. I’ve talked to him a few times since then, and he said that he still uses those rules about preparation, even though the budgets on his films are much higher.”