LOCARNO, Switzerland — Known as “King of the B’s,” U.S. director and producer Roger Corman churned out some 400 low-budget pictures starting in the 1950s, including early films by Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, James Cameron, and Martin Scorsese. He is at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland as guest of honor and mentor of its Filmmakers Academy.
Corman, 90, spoke to Variety about never actually having made a B-movie in his life; why his low-budget pictures made money; and the similarity between his 1962 drama “The Intruder,” which flopped, and Donald Trump.
You started making movies in the mid-’50s after working at Fox and not getting a credit you deserved. The first 20 titles or so did really well. Then in 1962 you made “The Intruder,” in which William Shatner plays a rabble-rouser in a white suit who arrives in a small Southern town and tries to block integration in schools. Why was it a flop?
It was partly due to the subject matter, and partly my treatment of it. The reviews were wonderful; one of the New York newspapers called “The Intruder” a major credit to the entire American film industry. It doesn’t get much better than that! But it lost money for two reasons: I had forgotten that movies were entertainment — it was almost as though I was giving a lecture. It should have had a few lighter moments. The other reason was I think people did not want to see a picture about that subject. That’s really what happened.
There seems to an intruder around today. Is the analogy with Donald Trump, which people are making here at the festival, a bit of a stretch?
Well, to a certain extent there is a parallel between Donald Trump and Adam Cramer, the character who comes to the South to stir up racial tensions for personal and political gain. There have always been major demagogues, and Trump is a major demagogue now. But demagogues have not been unknown in American history, or in the history on the world.
The other film showing here is “The Masque of the Red Death,” one of 12 films you made all based on some 50 pages of short stories that Poe wrote. What was Poe’s magic for the screen?
First of all, they are stories of the fantastic — the fantastic, generally with some element of horror within them. But I think more importantly what sets them apart from other stories of horror and the fantastic is that Poe was working with the unconscious mind a little bit before Freud began to diagnose it seriously. And that makes the stories very complex and much more interesting than a straight horror story.
Before starting your film company, after leaving Fox, you studied literature at Oxford. Did those studies come in handy later in your movie career?
Yes, I deliberately studied English because my university degree was in engineering, and I felt I didn’t know enough about literature [to make movies].
It could seem a bit odd that you went to Oxford to learn how to make “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” “Private Duty Nurses,” or “A Bucket of Blood.”
There are various levels and interpretations in literature: There’s highbrow, lowbrow, classic, pop, whatever. What I learned, really, was the appreciation of the story, of the characterizations. Things like that apply to all types of literature, from Marvel Comics to Shakespeare, and also to all types of movies.
What is a B-movie?
Well, for one thing, I never made a B-movie. The B-movie is a product of the Depression, of the 1930’s. The majors owned their own theaters and owned distribution, and production, of course. They controlled what could be shown. As attendance started to slide during the Depression, they came up with the idea of showing two movies for the price of one. At the beginning of each year, they would have an A-list and a B-list. The A-list was the top half of the double bill, with their big stars. The B-list would be cheaper films with new young contract players, or older actors who were fading a little bit. Therefore, historically, a B-picture is the second half of a double bill.
But, coming out of the Second World War, the concept of the double bill was dropped. The country was prosperous; there was no need to send two pictures out for the price of one. You could send one picture out for the price of one. So the production of B-movies ended in the early 1950s. And that’s why I never made one.
So what would you call the movies you made? Also, aside from what they were called, did you feel they were stigmatized?
They were just lower-budget pictures, sometimes called exploitation films. There was no particular stigma. It was more that they were ignored. For instance, newspaper critics who generally had their reviews come out on Friday morning, when pictures opened — they didn’t bother to review the lower-budget movies. On the other hand, the market [for them] was extremely good. The drive-ins were booming, there were more theaters, and the major studios had just divested themselves of their theaters because of anti-trust laws, so it was a golden time for the independents.
How do you feel about the perception of vintage low-budget movies today? Many are cult items, with armies of fans. There is a whole so-called B-movie culture these days. Did you have any idea that this could happen?
No, I didn’t think in those terms at all. I just thought: ‘I’m making films with low budgets aimed at a young audience, and I’m simply making the best I can under these circumstances.’ I did not anticipate any particular longevity for the film.
As a distributor you brought movies by great European auteurs, including Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, and Francois Truffaut, to U.S. screens. How did that happen?
In 1970, I broke away from American International and started my own production and distribution company, New World Pictures. It became amazingly successful immediately. For quite a while, every film we made was profitable, and we grew to be one of the strongest independent companies. We were making primarily low-budget action-adventure, teenage, horror, science fiction, and exploitation films.
I’d always loved the work of Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut and so forth. And I felt that they really weren’t being distributed well in the U.S. They were sometimes going out through the major studios, who are great distributors for major studio films, but didn’t quite know exactly how to handle an auteur film. Other than that, they were distributed by little distribution companies who were really more aficionados than anything else, and they didn’t have the distribution strength to book the films correctly, to put them in the right theaters, get the right terms, support them and so forth. I thought we were in a position that we were small enough that we could give them the individual attention which they required, but also big enough and strong enough to bargain for the right terms and book them correctly.
The first film was Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers.” I took that for the U.S., and we got the biggest gross that Bergman had ever had. As a result, representatives of other, similar films started coming to us. Eventually we became the leading [international arthouse] distributor. There was a six- or seven-year period when our foreign films won more Academy Awards for best foreign film than all the other companies combined.
You gave a start to Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese and James Cameron, among others. But Scorsese was the only one of these directors who didn’t have to work his way up to making a feature with you. Why?
I had made a picture called “Bloody Mama” about “Ma” Barker and the Barker gang. She was a farm woman in the Depression in the South who had been dispossessed of her farm, and together with her sons started robbing banks. The picture was a big success. American International asked me to produce a similar film, but I did not want to direct it. So I decided to do “Boxcar Bertha,” which was a similar story, but I needed a director. I looked around, and I’d seen an underground film that Marty had made in New York [“Who’s That Knocking at My Door”] that I thought was very good. I met him, I talked with him, and I just felt, here’s potentially an excellent director. That’s why Scorsese is the only one that I just took from the outside and gave him a feature to make.
What’s some advice you’ve been giving the students here at the Locarno Filmmaking Academy?
I have been talking to them, together with my wife, to a large extent about the importance of pre-production planning. It’s particularly important if you are making a low-budget film. You’ve got very little money; you’ve got a short schedule; you can’t stop during the shooting to figure out some problem that you could have figured out beforehand. I emphasized that concept from the script stage onwards, to solve all those problems as much as you can before shooting so that you can work very efficiently and just follow your plan, not having to stop to figure something out and waste the time of an entire crew. It’s what I’ve been doing my entire career.