Friday, 10 January 2014

Fear and Horror: Interview with Roger Corman

The Fall of the House of Usher (Directed by Roger Corman)
In 2009, the legendary film producer and director Roger Corman received an honorary Oscar for his ‘rich engendering of films and filmmakers’. The Oscar citation summed up his career as follows:

‘Through ingenuity, boundless energy and a deep love of movies, Roger Corman has made more of them than just about anyone. His legendary ability to stretch a dollar allowed him to swiftly conceive and create period films and sci-fi epics on budgets that wouldn’t cover the food costs on a modern studio shoot. When he had more to work with, however, Corman made the most of it: The string of Edgar Allan Poe-inspired horror films he produced at American International Pictures (AIP) in the early 1960s featuring Vincent Price have been hailed as artistic gems.

‘A true collaborator by nature with a keen eye for talent, Corman mentored many of the film industry’s best-known talents. Among the graduates of what James Cameron (Battle beyond the Stars) called The Roger Corman Film School are Martin Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha), Francis Ford Coppola (Dementia 13), Ron Howard (Grand Theft Auto), Jack Nicholson (Little Shop of Horrors among others), Robert De Niro (Bloody Mama) and Jonathan Demme (Fighting Mad).

‘Born in Detroit with no ties to the film industry, Corman had to make his own way in Hollywood. Beginning as a messenger at 20th Century-Fox, he became a story analyst and later a screenwriter. He received a story credit for Highway Dragnet (1954), which he also co-produced, and got his first producer credit on The Fast and the Furious (1955). Over the next five decades, virtually every type of genre film arrived in theaters and drive-ins with the name Roger Corman attached as producer—and often director as well. His colorful titles, often set before a script was written, promised much to youthful audiences seeking chills, thrills and spills, and the films themselves delivered without pretention.

‘After many commercial successes, Corman was able to expand his operations as an independent distributor and his New World Pictures released significant films by Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa and others. Corman continued producing, however, and among the cult classics fondly remembered from this period are Death Race 2000 (1975), Piranha (1978) and Rock ’n’ Roll High School (1979). Filmmakers who received early opportunities on New World productions include, director Joe Dante (Piranha), composer James Horner (The Lady in Red), film editor Mark Goldblatt (Humanoids from the Deep), producers Jon Davison (Hollywood Boulevard) and Gale Anne Hurd (Smokey Bites the Dust), and writer John Sayles (The Lady in Red).

‘The Academy’s Board of Governors voted Corman the Honorary Oscar for his unparalleled ability to nurture aspiring filmmakers by providing an environment that no film school could match’. (Source:

The Fall of the House of Usher (Directed by Roger Corman)
In 1973, Roger Corman gave a rare interview to Patrick Schupp of Séquences Magazine who seized the opportunity of Corman’s visit to Montreal to preside over the Canadian Film Awards to ask a few questions of one of the masters of fantasy cinema.

PS: Mr. Corman, can you tell me how you started your series on Edgar Poe?

RC: I was working at the time for a studio that had us make groups of two films with a small budget – about $100,000 or $200,000 – in black and white. We sold them as a group.

PS: ‘Attack of the Crab Monsters’ and ‘Not of This Earth’?

RC: Exactly. But I was more inclined toward science fiction, and I didn’t want to mix genres. All the films, however, had a common theme: horror. And then, one day, I was fed up with working like that, with a small budget and in black and white. I had been asked for two other films to be made in ten days, as usual. So I suggested that I make one instead, in color, and with fifteen days of filming, which was a lot more ambitious. I suggested a story by Poe that I like a lot, The Fall of the House of Usher. My studio, however, American International, a small company that had never done more than fifteen days of filming or put up a $200,000 budget, got scared. Finally, after several discussions, my bosses agreed and I started filming.

The Fall of the House of Usher (Directed by Roger Corman)
PS: ‘Usher’s immediate success encouraged you to keep going, and probably the studio to keep paying. Poe was a goldmine, I believe. Based on his works, you directed ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, ‘Premature Burial’, ‘Tales of Terror’, ‘The Raven’, ‘The Terror’, ‘The Haunted Palace’ (which borrowed as much from Lovecraft as from Poe, if memory serves!), ‘Masque of the Red Death’, and ‘Tomb of Ligeia’. What connection have you drawn between films and books? I imagine that, in order to adequately translate the atmosphere created by Poe’s language in cinematographic terms, you must have run into some difficulties?

RC: Indeed, that’s an excellent question. We ran into some difficulties. First, there’s the brevity of Poe’s stories, which rarely go beyond a few pages. That meant that we had to explore Poe’s psychology and recreate the atmosphere in which he worked as well as his themes. Then we went back to the story in order to check and to clarify. Do you want an example? In The Pit and the Pendulum, Poe describes only the torture chamber itself. So in a sense we invented a prologue, a first and a second act. The characters end up in the chamber, that is, in the third act. What counts is in the chamber and that’s where Poe’s story begins. That, in fact, is one of our techniques: using Poe’s story as the conclusion to a story whose premise we came up with.

The Pit and the Pendulum (Directed by Roger Corman)
The second point is that, in my view, Poe worked quite a bit in terms of the unconscious, in a middle world that Freud tried to explore in Austria in the nineteenth century. Poe in America, Dostoyevsky in Russia, Maupassant in France, even other artists, in literature, music, and painting, have followed the same path – the subjective exploration of the unconscious. You see, I firmly believe that the artistic and scientific fields are tightly interwoven, that numerous, apparently contradictory or opposing facets are in fact joined together, but in a context that is not always self-evident. And yet, since Poe’s works are situated directly in terms of the unconscious, I’ve tried to recreate a completely imaginary world by using technical studio equipment. At that time, however, I tended to work in a more realistic manner, in the outdoors, etc.... I have no trouble saying that Poe brought me back to more intellectualized studio work. There, I had perfect control over the film’s atmosphere with lighting, scenery, accessories, photos, etc.... And when we had to leave the studio for certain reasons...

The Tomb of Ligeia (Directed by Roger Corman)
PS: In the case of ‘Tomb of Ligeia’, I believe?

RC: Yes! Tomb of Ligeia was my last film about Poe, and in it I proved my theory! In fact, at the beginning, I wanted to maintain that imaginary world, except for some ocean shots. On that note, I have to talk to you about the ocean. There is a deep fascination in man with the sea, just like when you look at fire. There’s a sort of hypnotism. So once I shot the ocean, and another time there was a fire in the Hollywood hills. And I reworked my schedule in order to go all the way to the burned area, to film and in that way to preserve a few scenes of a landscape with a supernatural atmosphere.

PS: So those are your outdoor shots. Burned land. Is that what you used in the opening sequences of ‘Haunted Palace’?

RC: No, Usher. But for Haunted Palace, I remade a similar set, inspired by that fire. I admit that that was a few years ago and my memory may cause me to overlook some details. I know that, for Usher, I went to the burned area, and in Haunted Palace, I used the shots of the ground where I remade a similar set. But that had had enough of an impact on me to make me want to reuse that impression of otherworldliness, of absolute desolation that only fire can offer.

The Tomb of Ligeia (Directed by Roger Corman)
PS: That, in effect, is the impression I had gotten. But the resulting atmosphere was remarkably accurate in comparison with Lovecraft’s text, I mean in ‘Haunted Palace’. I am one of his great admirers, and I was wondering how the film would come out when I knew that it was in production with you.

RC: Me, too. I love Lovecraft, but I find Poe more interesting.

PS: Indeed, if only because of his themes...

RC: Lovecraft, however, is probably one of the best occult writers of the twentieth century. I worked only once on a script based on Lovecraft, in Haunted Palace. But my artistic director for the Poe films, Daniel Haller, directed The Dunwich Horror, which I financed.

PS: I really liked that film. Really well done. Especially the wave effect at the end.

RC: You see, there again we were using the idea of the sea!

PS: It was very effective, and magnificently offset the real by hinting at the invisibility of those unspeakable beings.

RC: In fact, we found ourselves in a world that was identical to Poe’s, but contemporary.

The Raven (Directed by Roger Corman)
PS: I wonder if Lovecraft is as popular with film directors as Edgar Poe! He’s somewhat of an international craze. By the way, have you seen Alexandre Astruc’s version of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’? It was directed by the ORTF [Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française] in 1968, I believe. 

RC: No, but I heard a lot about it.

PS: I think that I preferred yours, probably because of those ‘acts’ that precede Poe’s story that you spoke to us about. Astruc has a totally different vision – more withdrawn, and more clinical.

RC: !!!

PS: I would like you to talk to us now about Vincent Price, who has appeared in almost all of your films, and whom you cast in spectacular fashion into a genre in which he will henceforth reign as an undisputed master. The link that exists between an actor and a director, in general, reached an exceptional level between you two, I believe.

Masque of the Red Death (Directed by Roger Corman)
RC: Indeed, you could say that! I chose Vincent for House of Usher first and foremost because I found him smart and distinguished. It also seems to me that Poe described himself or used certain aspects of his own personality in his characters, at the very least those that had a leading role. He never wrote an autobiographical story as such, but often used the first person. And so he was describing himself, if only to a certain point, of course. That is why I wanted an actor who was as smart as he was cultured. And there aren’t too many, to tell the truth, who exhibit these two traits while at the same time looking the part. So it was totally natural for me to choose Vincent because, in addition to bringing a real dignity to his characters, not to mention a great talent for acting in keeping with a given time period, he conferred on them a raw and unaffected authenticity. Certain actors, as good as they may be, are used to acting ‘modern’, and they have trouble ‘passing off’ a character from the eighteenth or nineteenth century, which Vincent’s flawless theater training overcame.

Furthermore, over the course of several conversations, Vincent and I came to agree that horror comes from the unconscious. In fact, for years we have had this theory, developed little by little over the course of our working together, that horror and fear are two quite distinct things. Horror is in part the reconstruction of childhood fantasies, and in part the anxiety from the world that surrounds us. You always fear someone bigger and stronger than you, who could hurt you, even if it’s in your unconscious. Civilization advances, of course, and that fear is currently transforming into a fear/horror of a superior culture, one that is around us and watching over us, or that comes from a distant past that you can sense and that ordinary people don’t suspect... And each time Vincent admirably knew how to express that ancestral fear that spurs horror...

The Tomb of Ligeia (Directed by Roger Corman)
PS: Let’s turn now to one of your films, ‘Tomb of Ligeia’. The characters of Rowena and Ligeia are played by the same actress, Elizabeth Shepherd. Why?

RC: Well, I think that, in Poe’s mind, these are just two sides of the same personality: one good, one bad. And so the same actress could easily –  and logically – play both roles.

PS: An exciting job for Ms. Shepherd, especially since Rowena’s makeup, starting out very pale, turned white as the film went on and indicated the personality shift and the increasingly profound taking of possession. Your directing and your relationship with Elizabeth Shepherd must have been very interesting in terms of the study and execution of this personality change.

So now we come to ‘Wild Angels’, from 1966, which marks a total turning point in your work.

RC: A necessary decision! While making the Poe films, I didn’t think I was making a series! I made House of Usher. It worked out. I was asked to make others. Fine. And one of the reasons I chose Ligeia is because it gave me the chance to get out of the studio (we had filmed in an old abbey, near Norfolk, in England, which gave me the ‘gothic’ atmosphere I wanted, as well as that sense of infinite space, which is impossible to recreate in the studio) and to drive home my own theories.

Also, after Ligeia, despite the studio’s requests, I refused to keep going because it seemed to me that I had nothing left to say, that I was repeating myself. So I went off on a totally different path with Wild Angels, which had no historical references, period costumes, or spider webs. It was a tough and serious story bearing on an awfully contemporary problem, as a response, I suppose.

The Wild Angels (Directed by Roger Corman)
PS: Indeed. For that matter, ‘The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’, in 1968, and ‘The Trip’, in ’69, are in the same vein, as is ‘Von Richthofen and Brown’ in 1970. In ‘The Trip’, did you also want to address a problem that was as current and serious as it was sensitive? Or did you want to show the deleterious effects of the drug, LSD, as they were?

RC: No, not in the very least. I myself had taken LSD, as had Jack Nicholson and the screenwriter, and Peter Fonda as well. In fact, everyone who was involved in the production on every level did. You see, we believed in the potential of LSD and, when I made the film, I approved of drug use. But since I’m trying to be honest, I wanted to show the dramatic effects of a ‘bad’ trip, even though my own experience may have been positive and pleasant. I owed it to myself to show both sides – the first part, euphoric, the second, agonizing – for the sake of fairness. In the end, the film was rather tough and seemed to me to go a bit too far. And since I left for Europe for another film as soon as filming for The Trip had ended, I didn’t see the film before flying off. The studio made a few cuts, changed the ending and certain elements in the editing in order to give the impression of an anti-drug film. But that absolutely wasn’t my idea at the start.

PS: I see. Editing determines a film’s impact in the end, and I could give you certain probative examples of tampering.

RC: I won’t make you! It happened again with one of my last films, Gas-s-s-s, not so long ago.

Masque of the Red Death (Directed by Roger Corman)
PS: I’ve seen almost all the films you’ve directed, even the minor works from your early period, over the last fifteen years, let’s say. Of all of them, I think that ‘Masque of the Red Death’, made in 1964, remains one of my favorites. I think that it also marks a turning point, or a significant stage in your understanding of the fantasy world. May I have your thoughts? 

RC: In Hollywood, I was given three weeks to film and a rather small budget. I made Masque in England (it was the first film I made outside the United States) in five weeks, and with a much more substantial budget. But since English crews are a bit slower, let’s say that it took four weeks to film with neither wasted time nor regrets.

The script, on the other hand, was heavily reworked. The first version was by Charles Beaumont. But I got the sense that, for the first time, he hadn’t understood what I wanted with respect to Poe’s works. So I reached out to Bob Campbell, who had never worked with Poe, and the two of us redid the whole script in two weeks. Because I had more money, I was able to build more complex sets, and because I had redone the script, I knew exactly where I was going with it, and I deliberately settled on that baroque vision, that look that is decadent in its opulence. So my perspective changed based on the circumstances, and that’s what gave the film a different feel...

– Extract from ‘Patrick Schupp: Meeting with Roger Corman’. In Séquences 78 (October 1974): 20–24. Translated by Gregory Laufer.

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