Roger Corman, the 90-year-old producer/writer/director comes from a nearly extinct generation that refers to movies as “pictures.” It’s quite charming, but also a bit sad. They don’t make guys like Corman anymore—directors who make lovably trashy genre pictures without winking, detached irony. The Detroit native’s knack for sniffing out talent is unparalleled, with Corman nurturing the early careers of Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron and Martin Scorsese, among many others. With almost zero budget and shooting days, the Corman school of film was trial by fire. Necessity was the mother of invention, and what Corman’s films lacked in polish, they more than made up for in gonzo intensity and a passionate love that radiated through the film stock.
We caught up with the “King of the B-Movies” to discuss his return as producer to the faithfully updated Death Race 2050, a rapidly changing film industry, and the gushing pride he feels for one of his most illustrious proteges.
Paste: What made you want to return to the Death Race?
Roger Corman: The original Death Race 2000 was quite successful—it won some poll as the “Greatest B-Movie of all time.” I emphasize the letter “B” because it was a true B-movie—a car racing picture set in the near future. It also had some unique ideas behind it, particularly the relationship between violence and spectators.
I had made a number of car racing pictures, and they had all been successful, but I felt I had to do something different this time. It couldn’t just be car racing. The first idea was that the drivers knocked each other off the road, but I wanted to add something else. I felt like the ultimate would be to integrate the audience into the violence, and from that I came up with the drivers getting points for the killing of pedestrians. I loved that idea but realized that I couldn’t take that concept too seriously. That’s when the film became something of a black comedy with social commentary.
[For Death Race 2050], I was thinking about how society might change by 2050. The United States of America has become the United Corporations of America. The President has become “The Chairman.” We had an idea that seemed funny at the time and now is much more meaningful in that we gave this semi-dictatorial Chairman a hair combover. It bears a strong resemblance to a certain prominent politician. We thought of it as a joke and never dreamed that we would have a president with a combover. Some of the ideas expressed in Trump’s political campaign are here, such as benefits for the wealthy and the opposition to this hierarchy proving ineffectual. One of the beauties of science fiction is you can make social comments that you might have difficulty expressing in a realistic film.
Paste: The idea of a Death Race doesn’t seem that subversive or far-fetched anymore.
Corman: That is the difference between the original and Death Race 2050. What was so subversive in the first one now seems a little closer to an actual possibility.
Paste: How have you seen the role of producer change? Is it more difficult than ever to get funding?
Corman: It’s more difficult to get funding for a medium or lower budget picture. With these 100 and 200 million dollar pictures, the studios are often in partnership with some other entity and are willing to green-light these massive pictures very easily. A lower budget, independent picture or particularly something like Death Race, which presents certain concepts that might be controversial, is much more difficult to get funding.
Paste: Did your nice guy demeanor come from upbringing, or was it a reaction to assholes you found in the business?
Corman: I think it’s just built in. I’m not certain how much of a nice guy I was, but so many people have stories about all the terrible things in their childhood, from divorce to outright horror stories. I just grew up in a middle class family. It was just my brother and me, our parents treated us nicely, and we had no particular problems in school or at home. We reflect a certain kind of upbringing that continues to this day. At the same time, you have to be fairly tough in this business, particularly when it comes to financing and distribution.
Paste: How do you feel about the “Film is Dead” topic? Is long-form narrative our new means of storytelling?
Corman: I think there’s no question that long-form television shows, some of which cost more than a movie, are eating into the pie. I wouldn’t say they’re taking over, but they’re taking a larger share. I think there will always be movies, but what we’re seeing now are so many different types of entertainment—the pie remains the same, but the pieces are cut smaller. Just the other day I read that the ratings for professional football have gone down. I don’t think that means people have lost interest, but there are so many other ways to get entertainment. I was talking to someone in distribution recently, and he phrased it very well. He said, “I used to sell a picture for a dollar. Now I sell it for 20 nickels.” He’s selling the same product for the same amount of money but in many different ways.
Paste: If you were a young man poised to enter the industry today, would you do it or has it grown too volatile?
Corman: I would still do it, but I would be aware of the trends that you’re talking about. If you’re making a film now, it’s easier than it’s ever been. The digital cameras and lightweight equipment allow you to shoot less expensively and more efficiently. The making of the film becomes an easier process, but the distribution is much more difficult. When I started, any picture of semi-decent quality got a full theatrical release. Today, it’s very unusual to see a medium- or low-budget picture play theaters. DVD’s, which replaced theaters a number of years ago, are fading away. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon pay less and are very tough. It’s easier to make a movie today but tougher to get your money back.
Paste: As a guy who grew up working with practical effects, do you see CGI as lazy filmmaking?
Corman: Yes, I do a little bit. The shooting of scenes in reality reflects reality. Using CGI and Green Screen enable you to do things that were impossible before. In Death Race 2050, we have something like 200 CGI shots, and they’re all very impressive. But I think there’s a slight edge, when reality is stripped away, that takes you out of the picture.
Paste: Do you believe there are any taboos or lines that should not be crossed in film?
Corman: The boundaries are fluid and are being pushed a little farther each time. Most of the horror films I made were really about suggestion and not showing that much horror. This changed with special effects, when somebody decided to chop somebody’s hand off and blood spurted across the screen. Then the next filmmaker had to cut the arm off. The next guy had to chop off a leg or a head, and the boundary keeps getting pushed farther as each filmmaker tops the other in terms of gore.
Paste: What young filmmaker would you consider mentoring today?
Corman: I don’t see anybody that I’m particularly impressed with. Almost the only low-budget pictures that break through theatrically are horror films. Producer Jason Blum seems to make those films work, and I think he’s reintroducing the concept of the way films started. I see Jason as one of the more talented people in the industry doing good work.
Paste: Are you friends with Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman?
Corman: I always laugh when I hear Lloyd’s name. He’s a very bright guy, graduated from Yale, and makes the wildest pictures I’ve ever seen. I’m always amazed that this Yale graduate is doing things like The Toxic Avenger. I say, “All power to Lloyd!”
Paste: Have you ever had a day on set or in post when you said, “I can’t do this anymore.”
Corman: I’ve had many days like that. Anybody who has worked any length of time in the movie business has had days like that. But, you always come back. John Boorman (Deliverance) who is a good friend of mine, once said to me that every time he finishes a film, it is so exhausting that, “I can never do it again.” A couple of months later, and he’s ready to go again. That’s just how it goes.
Paste: Do you have a proudest moment, a specific protege or film, that will always stay with you?
Corman: I’m proud of all my proteges, and I’m particularly proud of Jim Cameron. He was the head of all of our special effects, and we were making a science fiction film. The night before shooting, I was going over the sets with Jim and there was a wall of one of our spaceships that was totally undecorated. It was just a plain wall and we needed something to break up that wall. Jim said, “Don’t worry Roger. It’ll be there tomorrow morning.” I came in the morning, and it was great! There were all kinds of instruments and gadgets on the wall. I said, “Jim, how did you do this?” He said, “I went to McDonald’s and bought a bunch of hamburger containers. I glued them to the wall, spray-painted them, and it cost 12 dollars.”
Jim made Titanic for $100 million, which at the time was the biggest amount of money ever spent. Then he did Avatar for $200 million, and those films are masterpieces of using a giant amount of money successfully. I see too many $100 million pictures with two people walking around a room, and I’m thinking, “Where did the money go?” I think the talent that enabled Jim to create an entire portion of a spaceship for 12 dollars is the same talent that enabled him to make Avatar for $200 million.
Deathrace 2050 is available starting January 17 on Blu-Ray and Digital HD.