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Now shooting: 'King Dinosaur' and 'Avalanche Alley'

graphic
iconRoger Corman's new $12 million "Black Scorpion" airs on the Sci Fi Channel at 8 and 11 p.m. EST on Fridays. And it's one rare commodity: A series with its first season in the can, all 22 episodes. Click here for an interactive gallery of some characters in the show.  

Roger Corman: Attack of the independent filmmaker


In this story:

'Teenage Caveman'

'Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes'

'Dementia 13'

'Night of the Cobra Woman'

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



(CNN) -- "I was going to go for an unknown actress to play Black Scorpion. And my demands were -- I felt -- not difficult in Hollywood. I wanted an actress who was beautiful and had a great figure. Because we economized on the amount of cloth we used in the costume."

Roger Corman waits the perfect cinematic two beats for his laugh, then forges ahead.

  QUICK VOTE
graphic It's a career dilemma. While even his biggest fans sometimes call his work "brilliantly bad," many people credit Roger Corman with establishing independent filmmaking in the United States. How do you see Corman's career?

He came from outer space. He may be papier-mache.
He's a genius who knows independence is better than money -- or art.
He's a latter-day Andy Warhol. He turns kitsch into "culture."
His practicality is his strong suit. He makes films, not budgets.
He plays on our worst impulses -- sex, sensationalism and sleaze.
He's a commercial craftsman. He knows how to turn a penny.
View Results

 

"I wanted a tall actress. She does a lot of martial arts. I couldn't have a 5-foot-1 actress beating up all these big guys. So I wanted a tall, beautiful woman with a good figure, who was a good actress but I wasn't looking for Meryl Streep, just a good actress. I figured this would be pretty easy in Hollywood.

"It turned out to be incredibly difficult. I've never seen so many beautiful bad actresses in my life."

Fortunately for Corman and his new show, "Black Scorpion," one of the actresses waiting to audition was a former Miss Kansas who knows Tae Kwon Do.

"The scene she was reading called for her to get into a fight with the leading man. At the end of the scene, she walked over and kicked the script out of the leading man's hand. I said, 'That's it, Michelle Lintel is our Black Scorpion.'

"And you know, this isn't brain surgery. But I've always tried to be one jump ahead."

Again the timing -- beat, beat: "If I can't be one jump ahead, then I try to be no more than one jump behind."

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'Teenage Caveman'

Roger Corman -- at 74 the grandest man of tawdry tinsel -- right now is one generous jump ahead. On Friday night, he premieres "Black Scorpion," his new series on the Sci Fi Channel. And in the fast-production style for which he's so famous in show business, Corman has the entire season in the can: shot, edited, dubbed, done, finished. All 22 episodes. He spent his own $12 million to make it. Without a buyer in sight, a considerable gamble.

"This was originally my idea and I co-developed it with a writer named Craig Nevius. I wanted to do a female Superman-Spiderman-Batman. It was that simple."

"I've been doing this for a long time. I take moderate pride. Not every picture has turned out quite as well as I expected. But some of them have turned out better."
— Roger Corman

A made-for-TV "Black Scorpion" film was part of his "Roger Corman Presents" series on Showtime. When a German producer asked about licensing the rights to make a series out of the show, Corman decided that this was work best left to him.

"I couldn't quite figure out how a German 'Black Scorpion' was going to go because she's supposed to hang out around the beach in California. Doing that at the North Sea was going to be a little chilly."

Within minutes, a Corman conversation makes nothing so clear as how consummately comfortable he is with himself.

His film titles alone spell out a splendid squalor now synonymous with the genre Corman rules. Consider just 10 of those titles.

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 •  "It Conquered the World," 1955

 •  "Attack of the Crab Monsters," 1957

 •  "She Gods of Shark Reef," 1958

 •  "Night of the Blood Beast," 1958

 •  "A Bucket of Blood," 1959

 •  "Attack of the Giant Leeches," 1959

 •  "The Creature From the Haunted Sea," 1961

 •  "Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women" (also known as "Gill Women of Venus"), 1968

 •  "Gas-s-s-s! Or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It," 1970

 •  "Humanoids From the Deep," 1980

Corman shot the original 1960 "The Little Shop of Horrors" in black and white -- in two days and a night.

He was the director and producer behind all those Vincent Price films based on Edgar Allen Poe stories -- "House of Usher" (1960), "Pit and the Pendulum" (1961), "The Premature Burial" (1962), "The Raven" (1963), "The Masque of the Red Death" (1964).

  SUPERCORMAN
As the Scorpion Mobile rolls out on the Sci Fi Channel, allow us to offer you this quick look at five of the characters you'll meet on the show. Some are calling it "Baywatch Meets Batman" -- almost a title worthy of Roger Corman, in itself.
 

By some counts, Corman has been connected with more than 550 films. The Internet Movie Data Base gives him 293 producing credits. Cannes in 1998 awarded Corman its first producer citation. He's had a retrospective showing of his works at New York's Museum of Modern Art -- for years he had an apartment in midtown Manhattan overlooking MoMA.

And yet -- well, how to say it? Some of Corman's most earnest fans say his is a career of the "brilliantly bad." And this is, in their lexicon, the supreme compliment.

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'Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes'

How not to say it is clearer: Corman doesn't enjoy the phrase "B-movie." He prefers "exploitation film." He defines it as "a film about something wild with a great deal of action, a little sex and possibly some sort of strange gimmick."

Did you know he acts? -- You saw him playing small roles in others' films, much more highly regarded than his own: In "Apollo 13" (1995, he played a Congressman; in "Philadelphia" 1993, Mr. Laird; in "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991), he played FBI Director Hayden Burke.

But there's no trace of bitterness in the voice that called the shots in "The Wasp Woman," "Piranha," and "Captain Nuke and the Bomber Boys," all in 1995.

"We're making two pictures now," he says, the "we" being his California production company, New Concorde.

"There was some poll on the Internet during 2000. They asked people what they considered to be the 50 best B pictures of all time. And I had five on the list, including No. 1: 'Death Race 2000.'"
— Roger Corman

"One of those films is called 'King Dinosaur.' You can imagine from the title what it's about.

"The other is called 'Avalanche Alley.' And you can imagine from that title what it's about, can't you?"

This man who made Hollywood safe for papier-mâché monsters and gave an awful lot of A-people their early careers' B-breaks is actually a symbol now of the independent filmmaking movement. He's not the "King of the B's," as some have called him. He's the prince of upstarts. To this day, he's talking about underbudgeting, outselling, bypassing and -- best of all -- embarrassing "the studios." No killer crab, giant leech or toothy piranha looks as much like a monster to Corman as one of the major film studios does.

"It feels good. I've been doing this for a long time. I take moderate pride. Not every picture has turned out quite as well as I expected. But some of them have turned out better. There was some poll on the Internet during 2000. They asked people what they considered to be the 50 best B pictures of all time. And I had five on the list, including No. 1: 'Death Race 2000.'"

Sylvester Stallone is the trophy name attached to "Death Race 2000." And Corman tosses off an intriguing tidbit as he carries on -- "we may be doing a remake of 'Death Race 2000,' you know. With Tom Cruise."

When?

"It's in development hell."

graphic

'Dementia 13'

Of the artists he's worked with early in their careers -- Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Dennis Hopper, William Shatner and more -- who means the most to Corman now?

"Jack Nicholson. He and I started together -- he's a little bit younger than me -- we started when neither one of us had much going on. He did a number of pictures for me at the beginning. I feel very close to Jack. He's a brilliant actor and he's had a great career."

In return, Nicholson has contributed one of the most entertaining anecdotes about working with Corman. In 1990, Corman wrote a book with Jim Jerome, "How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime." One of the actors interviewed in the book is Nicholson, who recalls making the 1963 Corman film "The Terror" with Boris Karloff, Dick Miller and Sandra Knight.

"We're just finishing a picture called 'Harold Robbins' Body Parts.' It's an action-adventure film. It goes straight to home video in March."
— Roger Corman

"I believe the funniest hour I have ever spent in a projection room," Nicholson recalls in the book, "was watching the dailies for 'The Terror.' You first saw Boris coming down this long hallway in the Baron's blue coat. Then he'd move out of the shot. Then I'd come down the hallway and after I'd cleared the frame -- Roger didn't even bother to cut the camera and slate the shots -- Sandra would come down the hallway. Then it was Dick's turn, looking weird in his black servant suit. And then Boris would come down again, this time in his red coat. All of this shot as if in one take with no cut."

Corman says he also has special memories of "Charlie Bronson, Peter Fonda -- worked with him a number of times. Sylvester Stallone. Bobby de Niro -- I guess he's put on a number of years, you'd call him Robert de Niro today. More recently, Sandra Bullock: She made 'Fire on the Amazon' with us (1993). She was young and the first actor who was really that good in years. We went right back to hire her again, but she'd already signed with Fox or Warner Bros."

His search for talent today, Corman says, is hampered by the large studios. "The majors now have sort of semi-independent companies allied with them, making lower-budget films. They're competing with us. And television is a huge target for young people. So we don't quite have the monopoly on young writers, directors, producers and actors that we formerly did."

"You first saw Boris coming down this long hallway in the Baron's blue coat. Then he'd move out of the shot. Then I'd come down the hallway and after I'd cleared the frame -- Roger didn't even bother to cut the camera and slate the shots -- Sandra would come down the hallway. Then it was Dick's turn, looking weird in his black servant suit."
— Jack Nicholson on making 'The Terror,' from Roger Corman's 'How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime'

Corman's own youth was spent in Detroit and California, where he graduated from Beverly Hills High. He took a 1947 BA in engineering from Stanford, did a tour of duty in the Navy, went to 20th Century Fox as a story analyst -- and could tell within a couple of years that big-studio work wasn't for him. He studied modern English literature at Oxford, came back to the States to work as a literary agent for a short time, sold his screenplay for "Highway Dragnet" in 1953 -- and has been in the business since.

"We're just finishing a picture called 'Harold Robbins' Body Parts,' he says in the same cultured, matter-of-fact tones he might use to tell you about a documentary on astronomy. "It's an action-adventure film. It goes straight to home video in March."

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'Night of the Cobra Woman'

It was in 1970 that Corman started his first production and distribution company. By the time he sold New World Pictures 13 years later, he'd laid the groundwork for a growing sub-industry of independent film distribution. New World also opened up parts of the American market to international films, bringing in works by Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, Federico Fellini and Volker Schlondorff.

When Corman sold New World in 1983, he immediately started Concorde-New Horizons. His outfit now is called New Concorde. And he recalls resorting to cable TV and video to take up the slack in the 1980s, when the studios started dominating the theatrical-release markets. Today, the studios are making inroads on independents' place in rentals -- so Corman is exploring DVD and the Internet as his company's next key outlets.

"The majors are dominating again," he says. "We've been making 20 films a year, now we're having to cut back to 10. But it's still easier for an independent like me.

"I can sit here at the office having breakfast, reading the trade papers, get an idea, before even finishing breakfast, bring in my head of development and we'll put a rider on that idea. That gives us a huge advantage. The studios must work with a certain amount of bureaucracy. It takes them more time. They're spending so much money, they have to be a little bit more cautious."

Still, while his company may be lighter on its feet than the big studios are, Corman isn't getting any younger. "Most of my energy is still there but not quite. Luckily my two sons and daughter have all just graduated from college."

Son Roger Martin Corman has graduated from Berkeley, expects to go to film school and is working at Concorde in production. Brian has graduated from Stanford and is working in Concorde's business affairs office on the way to law school. Catherine is working in story development and as begun producing.

Career doubts: "I went to work for U.S. Electrical Motors. For four days. I started on a Monday and I came in on the Thursday and told them it was all a major mistake."
— Roger Corman

"My father was an engineer," Corman says. And like his own sons now, he started off in his father's footsteps, hence the Stanford degree in engineering. "But I found out that the film critics for the Stanford Daily got free passes for all the films. So I became first an assistant critic and then the main film critic. Those free passes changed my life."

And did he question his career path, once criticism had led him to filmmaking? "Yes, in the '50s, the studios had a complete monopoly, it was very hard to break in.

"So I went to work for U.S. Electrical Motors. For four days. I started on a Monday and I came in on the Thursday and told them it was all a major mistake."

Today, Corman says, he still loves nothing more than thumbing his nose at the big studios. But even as he goes on about it, that wry, gracious sense of easy self-deprecation is never far away.

  CLASS OF CORMAN
They came from outer circles of show business. But the breaks Roger Corman gave some of these stars helped them become the celebrities they are today. Have a look at some of the graduates of "the class of Corman.
 

"There was some kind of television convention here recently and we had Michelle (Lintel) there as Black Scorpion. And we had some of the Playboy Playmates who appear in the show as 'supervixens.' And despite all the booths there from the big studios' shows, we had the longest lines at our booth -- everybody was lining up to have their pictures taken with our stars and co-stars."

The Corman timing is in place again. Beat, beat.

"This is a new discovery of mine, you see. Always a jump ahead."

Beat, beat.

"I found out that people are interested in pretty girls."


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RELATED STORIES:
Classic authors, politics attract film producers
January 3, 2001
Southeastern exposure for Net films
December 6, 2000
Digital revolution comes to independents
October 17, 2000
Independents' day: True grit in filmmaking
October 11, 2000
Studio reps search for that one great movie
September 21, 2000
NYC film market gives hope to indie auteurs
September 18, 2000
Another Internet first: 'Quantum Project'
May 5, 2000
'Election' voted best film in Spirit Awards
March 26, 2000
From apartheid to Tammy Faye, Sundance documentaries packed punch
February 1, 2000
A brief history of Sundance
January 21, 2000
On screen in Austin: Your future as a filmmaker
October 13, 1999

RELATED SITES:
Concorde's "Black Scorpion" site
Roger Corman's Concorde Pictures
Sci Fi's "Black Scorpion" site


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