Five Favorite Films with Roger Corman
The veteran independent filmmaker and undisputed king of the B-movie drops in for a chat about his career and the new documentary Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel.
Movies as we know them just wouldn't be the same without Roger Corman. Sure, filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron and Joe Dante probably would have found their way into the game eventually, but the fact remains that they all got their start under the tutelage of Corman and his low-budget genre factory -- a tireless B-picture production line that also gave early breaks to unknown young actors like Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone and Jack Nicholson. Perhaps more significantly, Corman was one of the pioneers of the independent movie model, cranking out scores of exploitation and genre films (and distributing foreign titles by Truffaut, Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa) that turned profits even as they flaunted the traditional studio system. (Not to be discounted: he also directed a handful of genuinely fine movies, like the Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Masque of the Red Death.) This week, Corman is celebrated in Alex Stapleton's documentary Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, a career-spanning look at his work that gathers together exultant testimonials from many of his most famous pupils. We caught up with Corman earlier this week for a chat about his career and his "graduates," his thoughts on independent film, and how the Lucas/Spielberg blockbusters spelled doom for genre pictures. First, here are Corman's five favorite films.
Well, if I were to pick my five favorites I would probably start with Battleship Potemkin, the great Russian silent film. To me, that is the greatest film ever made. It was probably the originator of a number of cutting techniques -- the "Odessa steps" sequence, with the baby carriage rolling own the steps at the same time the troops are marching down the steps, is still one of the most powerful montage sequences I've ever seen.
If I went on to number two, there it becomes more difficult. I would say probably Lawrence of Arabia. I would say simply for the epic scope; the broad expanses and deserts, and then cutting in tight from these giant long shots to Lawrence and the other characters. And the power of Peter O'Toole's performance as Lawrence.
Citizen Kane: So many people would pick that and there isn't much I could say about it. The photography is extremely good. He was using a lot of low angles, he was using covered sets; and at that time, and still, very few art directors will put a ceiling on a set because it makes it very difficult to light, but he gave it a great feeling of realism. Also, it was a brilliant script. It's well directed, well acted -- Welles himself is brilliant as Kane -- and it really stems from the script.
Did you ever meet Orson Welles?
Yes, I did meet Orson Welles. Orson and Peter Bogdanovich and I had dinner one night, and I met him a few other times. When I did The St. Valentine's Massacre at Fox I wanted classical actors for Al Capone, the leader of the South Side gang, and Bugs Moran, the leader of the North Side gang. We cast Jason Robards for Bugs Moran and I wanted Orson Welles for Al Capone. The executives at the studio said they agreed with Jason, but they said, "Roger" -- and I was fairly young at the time -- "this is your first picture for a major studio, we have to tell you nobody can work with Orson Welles. He takes over the set and does anything he wants." I told the story to Orson and Orson said, "[I'm] probably the most cooperative actor anybody ever saw! I don"t know what they're talking about. I would have been great as Capone!" [laughs]
Then each one becomes more difficult as I go along. On the Waterfront -- you go straight to Marlon Brando. It was a good picture all around, a good script, and Kazan directed it brilliantly. And the shooting on location, I would assume they would have never shot in a studio -- the look of the film gives a great sense of realism, that you are there on the waterfront, you're there in cold weather, you can see the breath coming out of the actors mouths. I would say it's probably -- probably -- Marlon's best performance, although you would have to give a nod to Godfather.
Avatar (James Cameron, 2009; 83% Tomatometer)
Next, Corman talks about some of his famous graduates, the state of independent film, and how the Spielberg-Lucas blockbusters spelled doom for his genre movies.
You know, I would pick Jim Cameron's picture, Avatar, as a fifth. It's the only new picture, I think, that can be up there in that group. Jim Cameron, one of our graduates -- who started making low-budget science fiction pictures for us -- went and jumped ahead and here's Avatar, the most expensive science fiction picture ever made. Jim's a technical genius, and the fact that he single-handedly brought back 3D -- which had been up there, in and out a few times; in the '50s and then forgotten -- and he used it beautifully and sensitively. So many times when a director's working with 3D you have the shot of the arrow coming out of the screen, shooting straight at the audience, and effects like that; he deliberately stayed away from that type of effect and just showed you the 3D world. And the use of computer graphics, green screen, motion capture and so forth for the blue-skinned people on the planet -- I just thought it all came together as a brilliant film, both technically, in the way he used 3D, and in the beauty of the picture itself.
Speaking of your graduates using 3D -- have you had a chance to see Martin Scorsese's Hugo yet?
Yes, I saw Hugo and I was very impressed with it. Again, Marty used 3D sensitively and intelligently, and once more he was restrained in the use of 3D. You had a few things coming out toward you, but primarily you became immersed in the story, and Marty filmed a great story. The story of Georges Méliès, the old French director and one of the originators of film, and the story the young boy I thought was beautifully down. I think it's an excellent film.