I interviewed Roger Corman at the Sixth Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester on 23rd September 1995. Extracts of this have appeared in various issues of SFX, but the full interview has never been published.
Let's start with these films you're curently making for cable TV under the banner 'Roger Corman Presents'. What are these?
"It's a series of thirteen science fiction and horror movies that I'm making for the Showtime cable network in the United States. They asked me to do a series of feature films, some of which would be remakes of my old pictures. I think there are four of the thirteen that are remakes and the other nine are all-new pictures. The first eleven have already shown on Showtime, and the final two will be in the next two weeks. They will then be reshown sometime around the end of October. They'll just take a week or two off and go again, one picture every week."
Which ones have you remade?
"I remade Not of This Earth, The Wasp Woman, A Bucket of Blood and Piranha. They were actually chosen by Showtime who did a lot of market research. I had said I didn't want to remake the Edgar Allan Poe pictures, because I didn't want to do those without Vincent, and also the period style of the pictures means that they're as new now as they were when they were made. Because the 19th century is the 19th century. Whereas the other pictures were all made in the 1950s, except Piranha, which was directed by Joe Dante in the 1970s. Those, being contemporary films could easily be remade, brought up to date, re-written for the '90s."
Have you tried to make these on the same sort of scale and budget - commensurally updated - that you did originally?
"Three out of the four, I think - Not of This Earth, The Wasp Woman and Bucket of Blood - are all bigger pictures, because I shot Not of This Earth in ten days, The Wasp Woman in seven, and Bucket of Blood in five. So we upped those, and we had a four week schedule on all of them. So on those three our budgets and our schedules are a little higher. Piranha is actually a little bit less if you allow for inflation. The first Piranha cost about a million dollars, and this Piranha cost between a million and a million and a half dollars, but a million dollars meant a lot more in the 1970s."
What has the critical and public response to these been like?
"It has been incredibly good. They have been in feature reviews in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune. Really major newspapers and magazines across the country have reviewed at least the first few, and we haven't had one bad review. And the ratings are the highest of anything that Showtime has, so they're already talking to me about doing 13 more next year."
The nine that aren't remakes, where are you getting the stories for those from?
"Those are all originals. One of them, we purchased a screenplay because we couldn't develop enough. We had three of the thirteen shot before this year, and I shot the other ten in five and a half months. We couldn't develop all the scripts so a picture called Terminal Virus was the script that we bought and it will be the last one to go on, and all the rest were scripts that we developed ourselves."
I was speaking to Bill Paxton a couple of weeks ago; he started off set-dressing on your movies.
"That's right. In fact he and I were both acting in Apollo 13."
There seem to be a lot of people - actors, directors, etc. - who have spun off from the machine that is Roger Corman, Do you keep an eye on them and think, 'There go my children'?
"Yes, to a large extent. I'm friends with just about every one of them, and I've been asked to ask to act in a number of their pictures. Pictures by Francis Coppola, Joe Dante, a number of pictures with Jonathan Demme, and now Ron Howard. I also did something in a picture with Paul Bartel and I think a couple of others."
What's the difference between your old company, New Worlds, and Concorde-New Horizons?
"There's no essential difference. New Worlds is the company I started in 1970, and I had no particular reason to sell, other than that in 1982 a group of Hollywood lawyers who had decided that they wanted to have a film company approached me, and offered to buy the company. I said to them, 'I have no reason to sell this company, but on the other hand any company is for sale.' And they offered me more money than I thought the company was worth, so I sold it and started first Concorde and then New Horizons, and put the two companies together."
You've also started a range of comics. How did that come about?
"Yes. I at one time owned the rights to Spider-Man and I was going to make it for Orion, and Orion - because of internal bureaucracy - let the rights expire. And I lost the rights to Spider-Man."
"This was ten years ago. Then Berndt Eisinger, the German producer, had the rights to The Fantastic Four, and he was going to make it on about a $40 million budget, and he couldn't raise his money and his option was going to run out in three months. If he didn't start the picture in three months he would lose his option. So he came to me and said, 'I didn't get my $40 million. How much can you cut this budget to, and let's make it together at your studio.' So we figured out a budget and we cut it from $40 million to $1.4 million and made it.
"And we were going to distribute it, but he had a clause in his contract - which was fair - that he could buy me out at a rather substantial profit for me anytime up to ninety days after the picture was completed. During that time he raised his $40 million. He bought the picture out from me and he's making it for Fox. I was reasonably happy because I made a profit but I didn't get a chance to distribute the film because I wanted to see how that type of comic book fared. At that time we were making pictures at around $500,000-$1 million, so for $1.4 million I had what I felt was a bigger film, and I wanted to try it and see how it performed. I never got the chance to try the experiment.
"So I decided if I can't quite get all of these established comic characters, I'll start my own comic book company - which we called Cosmic Comics - and I'll create my own characters. And some of the characters who are successful in the comic books can cross over and be in the films, and some of the characters from the films can cross over and be in the comic books, and that old word 'synergy' will exist. And indeed it has. We've found that two of our comic books were very successful. Death Race 2020, which is from my old picture Death Race 2000. And we did a picture simultaneously; we did Bram Stoker's Burial of the Rats and released the picture at the same time, and we did a picture called Caged Heat and a comic book character, Caged Heat, and did them at the same time. And now we're going to start creating original characters for comic books and then do the picture afterwards. Meanwhile, of our thirteen pictures for Showtime, one of the most successful was a picture called Black Scorpion, which was about a girl in a very small black costume, who drives a super-car of the future and fights crime. That was very successful as a picture, so we're going to do the comic book of Black Scorpion."
I was talking with Brian Aldiss recently, too. Why did you decide to film Frankenstein Unbound?
"I had been offered the opportunity to do a picture called Roger Corman's Frankenstein by Universal. I hadn't directed since 1970 and I didn't really plan to go back to directing because I was running my own company as a producer and distributor. But they had done some research - which was fine - without telling me, and came up with the conclusion that a picture called Roger Corman's Frankenstein would be successful."
They just had the title at that point?
"They just made up that title. Then they asked me if I wanted to make it, and I said, 'No, as a matter of fact I really don't want to make it. There have been 50 or 60 Frankenstein pictures, and this will be the fifty-first. Nobody will care.' Then they asked me a year later, and I said, 'No, I really don't want to do it.' And then in the third year they asked me again and they offered me a lot of money to make it, and I said, 'Well, if I can think of some new way to do Frankenstein I will do it. I just don't want to repeat what everybody else has done.' Then I remembered - I should have remembered this earlier - that a number of years earlier Brian Aldiss had done Frankenstein Unbound which was a part-science fiction story, with time-travel from the future back to the 19th century, and part-Frankenstein, and it was a good novel. So I said if we could get that novel I would do it. And in fairness to Brian, instead of Roger Corman's Frankenstein, we called it Roger Corman's Frankenstein Unbound, which may have been a mistake because it was a somewhat unwieldy title. But I thought I should be fair; I couldn't very well take Brian Aldiss' book and say it's Roger Corman's Frankenstein because I'm in there somehow."
Why did you turn down Brian's idea to follow it with Dracula Unbound?
"Frankenstein Unbound was not as successful as we hoped. It got wonderful reviews in the United States; I heard the English reviews were not that good."
I enjoyed it.
"It was a little bit different in the foreign version. Warner Brothers had it overseas, and 20th Century Fox had it domestically. I had a sneak preview which played well, but I felt a few things weren't right, so I changed it for the United States version for Fox, but Warner Brothers said they were going out so fast, I didn't have time to make the changes. I said, 'I can make the changes in two days. Look, I've already made the changes for Fox. I just take them over and cut them in, and remix something, and this could be done very very quickly.' But I never had the chance. The foreign version is really 95% the same as the domestic, though the domestic was a little bit better. Anyway, it was moderately successful, won a couple of film festivals, got very good reviews in the United States, but was only moderately successful. And so I thought I would not go with Dracula Unbound. I read the book, which I thought was very good, but it was also going to be a very expensive picture so I decided not to make it."
Why do you think you're stilling going in the '90s? How have you lasted so long when so many other people have decided to call it a day?
"I think the people who called it a day were making pictures to make money, and they either made enough money so that they didn't have to make any more, or they came to the point where nobody was backing them any more and they couldn't make any more pictures. I, like just about everybody, made pictures to make money - and still do - but I also love the process of making motion pictures. So I'm in it because I enjoy it."
Looking at some of your early movies, they're terrific, but there are times when you think, 'This really doesn't make very much sense.' How did you approach these movies which ... you know, 2001 they ain't.
"Well, you have to remember that these pictures were shot on schedules of from five to ten days on budgets of from $30,000-$70,000. And I believe in 2001 Kubrick had a bigger budget and a longer schedule so he clearly was able to do bigger and better work."
When you were making those films, would you have liked to have more money and more time, or would that have destroyed the immediacy and excitement of it?
"The answer is that I would have liked to have had more money and more time. I believe I could have made a better picture. Yet at the same time there was some immediacy and some excitement in doing them 'on the run'. For instance I shot Little Shop of Horrors in two days and a night for about $30,000, and the picture has lasted all these years. It's still playing. Warner Brothers remade it for $25 million on a long schedule and of course a big budget. The picture came and went and is forgotten, The Warner Brothers $25 million picture which was made maybe seven or eight years ago is history and is never refered to. My two-day picture which was made maybe 35 years ago is still playing. And I think one of the reasons is the Warner Brothers picture was obviously a bigger, better-looking picture, but it didn't have the youthful verve and excitement of the original, and frankly, it wasn't as funny."
Were you surprised that someone took one of your movies and made an off-Broadway musical out of it?
"Weirdly enough, I had an offer from a producer to make, not a musical, just a play of it in Paris a couple of years earlier, because it's known around the world. I signed a contract with him and me paid me a little money, and then he didn't get the finance to make it. And then the people from off-Broadway approached me. I get a royalty from every time that play is performed anywhere, and the picture. Now it's interesting; the play still plays, and the original one still plays. The one that came and went was the $25 million picture."
Do you come over to the UK very often?
"Yes. I went to school here for a while, and I did two pictures here in the 1960s, two of the Edgar Allan Poe pictures: Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia."
Do you enjoy travelling around the world?
"Yes, I think that's one of the excitements of making films. For instance I'm starting a picture Monday in Ireland. It's a martial arts film with my great star Don 'The Dragon' Wilson and it's called Trained to Kill. I've got a new company and I've got a subsidy from the Irish government to build a studio. And I got some financing from private sources in Ireland too. My studio won't be up and running until next year; I'm shooting without a studio at the moment, just shooting against a location."
Are you still a big film fan? Do you go and see other people's movies?
"I do. I don't see as many as I should because I see so many in my own screening room during the week. For the past four or five years we've averaged about twenty pictures a year. And this year, largely because we did that thirteen in the first five months, I'll do about thirty pictures, which means, on various cuts of my films, I see two to three pictures a week, of my own. And it's tough to go out in the evening and say, 'For fun, I'm going to see a motion picture.'"
Do you enjoy going to conventions?
"Yes, I get invited to a number. I try to hold it down to two or three a year because I could end up like a number of my contemporaries for whom part of their life is going from convention to convention."
You're going to be a guest at Worldcon, I believe. Worldcons tend to be very literary. Do you read much science fiction?
"Yes. Again, I don't read as much now as I formerly did, but when I was younger I did read a lot of science fiction."
Out of all these hundreds of movies that you've worked on, are there any movies beyond those that you look at and think, 'I wish I'd made that'?
"Oh yes, any number of truly wonderful pictures. There are so many that I couldn't begin to list them."
And out of your canon of work, what one movie of yours would you like people to still be remembering in a thousand years?
"I would doubt that any of my films would be left a thousand years in the future."
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