While there are more than a few works on the life and times of exploitation film pioneer Roger Corman (including his own autobiography), Beverly Gray’s biography, originally published in 2000, ranks as the most in-depth. Originally employed as a story editor at Concorde, Gray’s heavily researched tome presents a portrait of the man that paints him respectfully without shying away from less-than-flattering aspects of his personality and career.
The book makes a triumphant return this fall, as Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers has been revised with new interviews and updates about the man who brought the world DEATH RACE 2000, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and, more recently, SHARKTOPUS. We had a chance to speak to Ms. Gray about the updated version of her book, which can be purchased via Amazon here.
DG: What inspired you to revisit Roger Corman’s life and career? He seems to have entered a new phase with the likes of PIRANHACONDA and SHARKTOPUS.
BG: I’ve discovered, as a biographer, that you never stop being interested in a life you’ve explored in print. My insider biography of Roger, which originally was titled Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Biography of the Godfather of Indie Filmmaking, came out in 2000. I updated it for a paperback edition in early 2004, at a time when it seemed that the King of the Bs was winding down his legendary career. Since then, however, Roger has found a new lease on life. He’s discovered new technologies, as well as new sources of revenue. He’s had some major triumphs, and at the same time he’s had to contend with some tough personal challenges. I wanted to cover all of that, by way of truly bringing Roger Corman into the 21st century.
DG: What can we expect from the update? The revised title and cover are reminiscent of classic Corman, revisiting vintage material with a new, more “exploitation-friendly” skin.
BG: The revised title, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, has been around since the first paperback edition of 2004. Along with that title, the Thunder’s Mouth paperback was given a much more eye-catching cover. For this new 3rd edition, I kept that outrageous title but helped design a new cover, one that I feel really reflects the spirit of Roger Corman movies. I worked with a designer, J.T. Lindroos, who loves my book and is a big fan of the wonderful world of Corman. Together we chose a design that’s deliberately garish, “wild” (a favorite Roger Corman adjective), and fun. See my Beverly in Movieland blog post for January 7, 2013 for a full description of how the new cover evolved.
You’ll find within the covers of the 3rd edition a new set of vintage photos, some major additions to the capsule bios in my “Famous Alumni” appendix, and quotes from significant new sources. There’s also – most importantly – a brand-new epilogue, which I call “The Epilogue Strikes Back.” It goes into detail about what Roger’s doing now, and how his outlook has changed in the current century.
DG: Was there material that you’d wanted to include before that you’ve now included in the revised edition? If so, what prompted you to edit it out previously?
BG: When you’re an author, especially a first-time author, you follow the lead of your editor. Mine was very concerned about the inclusion of a few stories having to do with the bad behavior of Roger’s sons. He also felt uncomfortable about a brief section touching on Roger’s attitude toward homosexuality. I felt these details gave important glimpses into Roger’s personal life, and so I’ve gladly restored them.
DG: How was your book originally received by Corman and those who know him? It paints a less flattering portrait of him than his own autobiography, obviously.
BG: To make a long story short, when I first told Roger I was under contract to write a biography about him, he told me he’d gladly cooperate, so long as I intended it to be “largely favorable.” Soon afterward, he phoned me to say that he wanted my publisher and me to sign a legal document allowing him to read my book in manuscript and remove anything he considered “derogatory. “ At that point I wrote him a very polite letter, saying that of all the lessons he’d taught me, perhaps the most important was the value of artistic independence. He tried on one more occasion to get some control over my book, but I was smart enough to realize that I needed to go it alone. He never speaks of my work, but those around him know that he strongly dislikes it, mostly because he never got a chance to shape it, as he’s long done with books by others who want to curry favor. He’ll smile and sign a copy of my book when it’s presented to him at a public event, but interview footage of me has been cut out of several projects, including the “extras” for the SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE trilogy box-set, much to the dismay of the documentary filmmakers involved. I know others who’ve had similar experiences after writing about him. Frankly, I find this petty vindictiveness a bit sad.
I should add that Corman alumni of many eras love this book, which they see as reflecting the many-sided Roger they remember. I’m especially proud of the rave reviews I’ve gotten from early Cormanites, like Charles B. Griffith, Beverly Garland, and Mel Welles. Their praise means a lot to me, as does Joe Dante’s comment that, although no one will ever wholly capture Roger Corman on the printed page, I’ve come far closer than anyone else.
DG: What do you think inspires Corman to keep making films?
BG: That’s a question that many people have pondered. At times, when I worked for him at Concorde-New Horizons, he seemed weary of the whole process. A colleague has heard him say, more than once,“I never want to see another movie. But it’s the only thing I know how to do.” Still, Roger has a great capacity for discovering new challenges. These challenges are often less artistic than logistical: he enjoys planning out complicated ventures. And he absolutely loves finding new ways to make money. Even when he’s tired of movie-making, money-making never ceases to interest him.
DG: Why do you think Corman has stood the test of time as a cult movie figure? The average moviegoer may not have any idea who David Friedman or Charles Band are, but everyone seems to have an idea as to what Corman symbolizes, even if that idea is often just “cheap movies.”
BG: I think there are multiple answers to this important question. First of all, Roger has genuine skills as a filmmaker. He knows how to craft an exciting movie, whether or not he’s the movie’s director. His Poe films, in particular, will live on because of their intrinsic merit. And movies like THE WILD ANGELS and THE TRIP last because they’re groundbreaking cinema, reflecting (and helping to shape) the counterculture of the Sixties in a way that few films have. So they survive as historical artifacts. Though his films are all low-budget, his range is wide, encompassing many genres. Then of course we can’t forget the so-called Roger Corman Alumni Association. Roger has given a start to so many prominent Hollywood figures that this in itself is a major claim to fame. Such luminaries as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and Ron Howard laud him, and sometimes put him in their movies, which in turn helps keep him in the public eye. He’s also a charming individual who’s lived a long, full life and is beloved by the press, so it’s no surprise that moviegoers of all sorts are well aware of his existence.
DG: In the first edition of your book, you mention an attempt to get Corman an honorary Oscar, an attempt which has now succeeded. How is that honor reflected in the book?
BG: Like most Cormanites, I was delighted when Roger was granted an honorary Oscar in 2009. That was the first year of the Academy’s Governors Awards banquet, at which three or four honorees are toasted by their peers, with no television cameras present. My new epilogue provides an up-close look at that very special evening. I spoke to long-time Corman colleagues who were present, and I also gained access to the Academy’s own videotape of the awards presentations. Readers of my book will find juicy excerpts from the speeches made by Ron Howard, Quentin Tarantino, and Jonathan Demme on Roger’s behalf, as well as Roger’s brief but elegant acceptance speech.
DG: What were your feelings on the rumors that Joe Dante would be making a Roger Corman biopic?
BG: I first became aware of this project, which chronicles the acid trip made by Roger in preparation for shooting THE TRIP, when a copy of the script was sent to me by Tim Lucas, one of the original authors. Frankly, it needed a lot of work, and I wondered who the target audience might be. Later, Joe Dante became interested in directing this film, and I know there was another draft involving the talents of Michael (NADJA) Almareyda. When I last spoke to Joe in 2011, we discussed how THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES couldn’t seem to find funding, even though one of the world’s leading actors had signed on to portray Roger. That story is featured in my new epilogue. Since the publication of my 3rd edition, however, I’ve seen reports that the project is now moving ahead. I’m very curious as to whether it will really happen.
DG: Do you think a film version of Corman’s life would be interesting? He’s always struck me as a relatively low-key presence and didn’t seem interested in presenting himself as a bawdy showman like William Castle or David Friedman did.
BG: I agree that Roger is not the kind of flamboyant character that filmmakers and film audiences love. I think he’s endlessly fascinating as a human being, but it would be hard to capture his contradictions on film, and his life story as a whole doesn’t seem cinematic to me. I believe that those involved with THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES like the idea of plunking the very buttoned-down Roger into the psychedelic excesses of the Sixties. The contrast could be quite colorful, but I’m still not totally convinced that this film would find an audience. I’ve been wrong before, of course!
DG: In your book, you mention that the “dirty old man” image that Corman felt the documentary SOME NUDITY REQUIRED seemed to suggest was problematic for him — do you think that was part of the reason he moved away from doing erotic thrillers? Or was it just that the market was no longer there?
BG: Those who’ve worked for Roger Corman do not agree about the extent to which he personally enjoyed making erotic films, those requiring large doses of sex and female nudity. But we all agree that Roger makes his decisions based almost totally on what the market will bear. When, in the wake of FATAL ATTRACTION and BASIC INSTINCT, erotic thrillers were doing big business, we made lots of them. After that trend had peaked, we turned to other genres, even including family films.
DG: You worked with him primarily in the Concorde/New Horizons era, and in your book, Adam Simon, among others, seems to suggest that the films were essentially just a product rather than anything with artistic aspirations. (I was recently at a Q&A with director David Schmoeller, who suggested something similar for the films he made with Charles Band.) Do you think Corman’s views as to “producing product” as opposed to “creating art” have changed over the years?
BG: In the early days, especially during the Poe period, Roger had genuine artistic ambitions, at the same time that he was determined to make money. (He was proud of his one real message film, THE INTRUDER, but didn’t repeat the experiment after it failed to break even.) When I worked at Concorde-New Horizons, at the height of the video boom, we were cranking out movies so fast that there was little time to think about artistry. Even then Roger occasionally made a choice based on artistic considerations, but the main goal was to save money while keeping the wheels of production turning. Writer-director Jon Purdy, who shot three Corman films in the 1990s, put it to me bluntly, “Corman has evolved into someone who is essentially manufacturing toilet seats. He has no interest in style or transcendent quality because there are only limited profits to be made on each release.” Personally, I can’t help but agree that Roger’s views about creating art have changed over time. Which, perhaps, is part of the reason he doesn’t always seem like a happy man.
Follow Ms. Gray on her “Beverly in Movieland” blog here!
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