Roger Corman’s lockdown diary
At 94, the master of cult cinema is down to working on just three films at once due to the pandemic. He shares his family’s choice of lockdown viewing – and his daughters’ accompanying movie poster art.
Following the California stay at home order, I’m staying at home with my wife and our two daughters who have returned from New York to sit out the coronavirus crisis with us. This has the advantage of freeing me from the mundane details of running a film production company, but makes me a prisoner in my own home.
I communicate with my staff by phone and let them run the company. My main activity now is working by phone with three writers so that when film production starts again, we’ll have three completed scripts ready to go.
The first of the three scripts is Death Games, which is a politico-sociological statement wrapped up in an action picture. This is a favourite way of working for me.
The second is Crime City, which is laid in an island off the Bahamas on which the recent hurricane wiped out almost every structure on the island, which is a great tragedy for the Bahamas, but provides a phenomenal location for a picture. The Bahamian government is working with me because I will employ a large number of the few Bahamians left on the island.
The third picture is a remake of my old film, The Unborn (1991), and will feature the son of a Nazi doctor who escaped from Germany at the end of World War II and continued his genetic experiments in South America.
To help pass the time I’ve started the first and hopefully last Corman Quarantine Film Festival, in which I ask would-be directors to shoot short pictures of less than two minutes in their homes with cellphones in order to give them a chance to show what they can do and ultimately win the Grand Prize, which I’ve not yet figured out.
Also, I’m finally doing the full amount of exercises that my doctor has been recommending I do for several years now, the most pleasant of which is exercising in our swimming pool, which provides support for a wound I suffered in WWII when I was in the Navy. I tore a ligament in my knee playing basketball.
I almost got a pension because it was a service-connected disability, but that’s another story.
Roger Corman’s lockdown movie album
During the day I work from home at my improvised desk, which is actually a table pushed up to a window where I can see out over the swimming pool and garden, which in some respects is better than being at the office.
In the evening after dinner my family and I watch a film together. My daughters asked me to make a list of my favourite pictures. It started out at over a hundred, but we’ve been trying to narrow it down.
Seeing these films brought back a lot of memories.
Fred Zinnemann, USA 1952
The first film we watched was High Noon. Floyd Crosby was the cameraman. He hadn’t been blacklisted, but he was associated with people who had, so he would sometimes do big pictures when producers or directors insisted they wanted him, like Fred Zinnemann, who directed High Noon, and specifically wanted Floyd.
So Floyd would occasionally do big pictures, but in between he would have long periods of time with no work. I found out about this and knew what an excellent cameraman he was and hired him. He worked on I don’t know how many of my pictures. So in his later years he had a bifurcated career. He would do a big picture and then three little pictures for me and then a big picture and then three or four little pictures for me.
When I was making Apache Woman (1955), Floyd suggested Lloyd Bridges for the lead, so I worked with two actors who came out of High Noon: Lloyd and Lee Van Cleef, who starred in It Conquered the World (1956) for me, before he moved to Rome and really took off with Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965).
Arthur Penn, USA 1967
They were all Method actors and the director, Arthur Penn, was a major Method director. That was one of the reasons the picture had such unity. It was at a time when the Method was controversial and many Hollywood actors wouldn’t work with it because they were classically trained. It was one of the first films where everyone came out of the Actors Studio so they all knew how to work together. It’s one of the reasons it all came together the way it did. Even Gene Wilder, who starts out laughing in the car and going along, and then realises he’s with a bunch of killers.
Michael Pollard, who played C.W. in Bonnie and Clyde, did several pictures for me. He was a Method actor, but he wasn’t too serious – he was an amiable guy. He didn’t show it in Bonnie and Clyde, but he could bring a lot of humour.
He was really almost a natural comedian. He was one of the angels in The Wild Angels (1966).
Quentin Tarantino, USA 1994
Francis Coppola’s birthday is a few days away from mine. We were born a few years apart, both in the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. We always exchange birthday greetings, and this year it was around the time California went into lockdown.
We were reminiscing about the old days, shooting The Young Racers (1963) in England, France and Monaco. Francis was my ace assistant at the time, and he and Chuck Hanawalt gutted a VW Microbus and put in shelves and cabinets to make it a travelling studio. We shipped it across the Atlantic, and Francis took the Microbus on to Ireland, where he shot his first film, Dementia 13. It was there that he got engaged to his wife, Ellie.
When we watched Pulp Fiction, in my opinion a revolutionary film, I was touched to see The Young Racers poster at the entrance of Jack Rabbit Slim’s. Quentin is brilliant, and his knowledge of film history is phenomenal.
Kurosawa Akira, Japan 1950
Akira Kurosawa came to our house when he was visiting Los Angeles. The Academy asked me to invite him to dinner because he was up for an award. He and his friends commented on an antique Japanese doll we had, and took pictures. It turned out that Kurosawa liked martinis, which happens to be my favourite drink as well.
John Boorman told me about directing a picture called Hell in the Pacific (1968). One American and one Japanese soldier are marooned on an island during World War II. John had worked with Lee Marvin before and hired him, and for the Japanese soldier, they wanted – who else? – Toshiro Mifune.
But Mifune wasn’t accustomed to loose European directors. He was used to Kurosawa, who told him exactly what to do in each scene. In the beginning they had a little bit of difficulty getting him to loosen up. He had been working in a more controlled, focused way, which was different from what John was trying to do at the time. Over time they began to understand each other.
Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy 1960
It won the Jury Prize at Cannes. It was a fairly controversial win. Some critics didn’t like it, they thought it was very slowly paced, all those pan shots. And the other thing they said was, “What is this picture? Where is the story?”
I was in Paris at the time and I made a point of going to see it and I thought it was a brilliant film. And it’s stood the test of time.
Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1972
In the early 70s we were putting most of our films into drive-ins and the majors would put their movies in the drive-ins in the spring and summer. But in the fall, when the weather started to change, the majors didn’t want to put movies in drive-ins, they put them in hard-top theatres, movie-house theatres.
In the spring and summer, we had put Cries and Whispers in the art houses and theatres in major cities. In the fall, I knew the majors were taking their films out of the drive-ins. The drive-ins were looking for content and we had all of these prints lying around. I thought, why don’t I see what happens if we put Cries and Whispers in drive-ins? Everyone thought it was insane.
What happened was, it did average business. I never heard of a scenario where both the theatre and the distributor were so happy to do average business.
People thought Bergman would be outraged – a drive-in? When he heard about it, Bergman wrote to thank me for bringing his film to an audience he never anticipated having. It was more fun and creative in those days.
Catherine and Mary Corman’s movie posters
I have a small collection of Polish posters of my Poe pictures. I’ve always felt the Polish posters from the 1960s were some of the most radical.
Inspired by Peter Doig’s Studio Film Club, my daughters Catherine and Mary have been making posters for each film we see.
It’s not a bad way to spend quarantine.