From the beginning, Roger Corman was interested in doing it his own way. After getting famously screwed over by 20th Century Fox (Corman provided many ideas for Gregory Peck’s The Gunfighter, but was given zero credit), Corman started making his own films on his own dime. He shot The Little Shop of Horrors in two days, took a few more to edit it, then peddled it around LA as best he could.
But Little Shop of Horrors is just one of the early films Corman had a hand in. Truth is, if a horror film came through Hollywood from the mid-‘50s to the early ‘70s, there’s a damn fine chance Roger Corman had a role in it, whether as producer, director, writer or all three.
After he developed a name for himself, Corman began enlisting help from eager kids who were looking for an in. A typical Corman-produced shoot would go like this: Corman would give a kid $10,000, and tell him he had two weeks to shoot a film. Do that (and make it somewhat good) and we can talk about the future.
Here’s a quote from Peter Bogdanovich that I love: “I went from getting the laundry to directing the picture in three weeks. Altogether, I worked 22 weeks – pre-production, shooting, second unit, cutting, dubbing – I haven't learned as much since.”
Corman cut deals and started careers, and he did it with class. It’s true, Roger Corman isn’t necessarily responsible for masterpieces of American cinema, but he is responsible for launching the careers of filmmakers who have crafted their fair share of masterpieces.
Today marks Corman’s 86th birthday, and what better way to highlight him than by highlighting the influence he created? Here are some of the most known pupils of The Corman Film School.
Francis Ford Coppola
Has anyone ever seen Battle Beyond the Sun, Dementia 13 or The Terror ? I haven’t, but without the financial backing and emotional encouragement of Roger Corman, Coppola may not have made those movies, thereby gaining enough clout to direct The Godfather.
After Scorsese made the micro-budgeted Who’s The Knocking at My Door (which no one saw at the time) Corman financed his rather dismal Boxcar Bertha. When it was clear that Boxcar was going to tank, Corman demanded that Scorsese make something close to his heart, the result of which was Mean Streets.
Corman told Howard that if Howard starred in one of Corman’s films, he would finance a directing gig for Howard. Several TV movies later, Howard directed Night Shift, then Splash then Cocoon…
Bogdanovich’s first films were Targets (which, despite being based on two seemingly random ideas, that of the University of Texas sniper and old monster movies, isn’t all that bad) and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. What came next? The Last Picture Show.
Nope, I’ve never seen the Corman-produced/Demme-directed Caged Heat, Crazy Mam, and Fighting Mad, but I’ve seen Melvin and Howard, The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia many many times.
Although the production of Piranha II: The Spawning was a nightmare, and the film was eventually taken away from Cameron in post (which I hardly doubt made a difference anyway), Cameron’s next flick was The Terminator, so, enough said.
The list goes on and on. Curtis Hanson, Robert Towne, George Hickenlooper, John Sayles, Monte Hellman – all notable pupils of The Corman Film School. And for every director Corman helped launch, there are three actors he catapulted to fame, including Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Talia Shire.
Corman hasn’t directed a movie since 1990’s Frankenstein Unbound, but he has maintained a prolific career as a B-movie producer, while occasionally popping up for cameos in films directed by his protégés.
Here he is as the Director of the FBI in Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs:
And as an unforgiving witness in Demme’s Philadelphia:
And as a Congressman in Howard’s Apollo 13:
Today, I like to image Corman sitting back, eating some birthday cake and reminiscing on the empire he built based on bad movies, raw talent and an impeccable work ethic.
If you’re a moderate fan of contemporary cinema, then wish Roger Corman a happy birthday. American film wouldn’t be the same without him.