alling maverick producer, director, mogul, and strange cinema visionary Roger Corman a living legend is not hyperbole.
An inventor and indie film philosopher, Corman – first on his own in the 1950s and ‘60s and, later, alongside his wife and producing partner, Julie – broke rules and built an entire dynasty of fearless and profitable counter-culture genre entertainment that defined generations. From quickie crime classics such as Machine Gun Kelly and The Cry Baby Killer, to riotous horror comedies like A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horror, to full-blooded, opulent horror/fantasy masterpieces like his Poe cycle, to his more explicit and socially volatile pictures made under the company he nurtured with Julie, New World Pictures, the name Corman has long reigned as the very definition of cult-movie royalty.
We could go on about how this empire the Cormans built birthed the future of feature filmmaking, from Martin Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha), to Francis Ford Coppola (Dementia 13) to James Cameron (Battle Beyond the Stars, Piranha 2); but so much has been said about the “Corman School of Filmmaking” that it would be redundant (check out the killer documentary Corman’s World for a more effective overview of Roger’s cultural impact).
That said, the stories that both Roger and Julie have about the making of their hundreds of incredible motion pictures are mesmerizing, and efficiently documenting every wild tale would be a near-impossible task. This notion was a challenge that directors Ashley Sidaway and Robert Sidaway took up in their new series Cult-Tastic: Tales from the Trenches with Roger and Julie Corman, a gonzo, go-for-broke new show produced by Shout! Factory that airs on Shout! Factory TV’s Amazon Prime Video Channel. Split into genres and sub-genres, the Sidaways simply sit back and allow the Cormans to talk and tell true stories about sculpting a body of work that has served as the secret spine of filmed pulp fiction for decades. It’s edifying and electric entertainment.
FANGORIA reached out to Roger and Julie to discuss not only the new series, but to get their thoughts on the future of cinema exhibition, the nature of making more sophisticated trash and whether or not their former “student” Scorsese is right in his assessment of comic book movies …
FANGORIA: How did the concept for Cult-Tastic come about?
ROGER CORMAN: It came about from Shout! Factory. We made a deal with them, licensing our library, and they came up with the idea. We did something like over 30 hours of interviews on these old films, which was interesting because it brought back some of the old stories -- as best we remember them, anyway!
JULIE CORMAN: We had been working with Shout! Factory for several years. They came out of the music business and segued into film and we really liked them. We enjoyed working with them and then they came up with the idea of the film library and putting it out in this way.
FANGO: And this is interesting because it seems like everybody and their sister is starting a streaming channel right now. And this brings up discussions about the future of the film industry, and how we’re exhibiting movies now and going forward. What is your take on that?
RC: When talking with friends of ours, in my opinion - and I think Julie agrees - we’re in the middle of the biggest change in distribution we’ve ever had. The streaming services are growing increasingly powerful, and I think that streaming is maybe going to be the major source of distribution. Theatrical distribution will remain, but it will be more like seeing a play. I think that the days of every Friday night going to the movies, I think that’s all gone. You’re going to see more and more an individual picture like you’d see a play. And so, distribution in theaters will continue, but it will change in that direction. On the other hand, nobody really knows. We’re all guessing.
JC: I asked my daughter -- she’s 30 -- what is the biggest issue with your generation, and she said that it’s the internet, pro and con. So I think it’s just opened it up to endless ways of streaming or whatever the next thing will be.
FANGO: Your protégé Martin Scorsese, who has just released a movie (The Irishman) thanks to Netflix, obviously has been in the news lately because of his opinions about how movies are being shown and what is being fed to the audience in these giant superhero films, and whether these are actually cinema or not. What’s your take on that?
RC: My feeling is this: You have to really think about what cinema is. It is the only modern art form, because it is the recording of movement, and that was impossible until the late 19th century. You’d have a play or an opera or a painter would do a painting. Now, with this modern art form, a single person can’t do it. You have to have a crew and so forth. So I think the cinema today is really a combination of business and art and you have to recognize that. I think all films -- with the possible exception of some individual auteur driven films -- all films are a combination of business and art. And I think what Marvel Comics is doing is really recognizing that. They’re clearly business-driven. Yet, at the same time, I think the stories would be considered somewhat simplistic, but the production values are excellent. These are beautifully photographed, well-acted, well-directed, and specifically, in regard to special effects, just wonderful effects. You can think of them as modern fairy tales for our age. I do think what Marty and Francis Coppola have said is correct; it’s not pure cinema, but I don’t think there is any such thing as pure cinema. I think the key statement is it’s a combination of business and art and Marvel recognizes that.
JC: I don’t think I can answer that better than Roger did. I think that’s pretty well-stated. I will say that someone who worked for me went on to be head of post-production at Netflix, and he said that, very often, the post-production eclipses the production because of the special effects. But yes, I think Roger stated it really well when he talked about the modern art form. I hadn’t thought about them as fairy tales for our age, but you certainly make a case for that, Roger.
FANGO: Whether it be the films Roger made with American International or the pictures the both of you did with New World and then Concord and onward, you’ve always been making genre films first, entertainment first. But there almost always seems to be subtext or politics hidden on the back end of them. Am I right in saying that?
RC: Yes, that’s exactly right. I would refer to it as text and subtext. The text is, if you’re going to have women in prison, you’re going to have the elements of a woman-in-prison picture. The subtext is you have something relevant to say about this subject. And it should be - and I’m talking particularly to the young writers and directors, here - there has to be a statement in there. The statement could be wrong. It’s better if it’s right, of course, but it’s better to have an incorrect statement than to have nothing there at all. It gives complexity to the film that allows you to make some statements you want to make and I think the film becomes a better film for that reason, but you still must recognize on the surface that this is entertainment first.
JC: I think there are a couple ways we used of putting in things that meant something to us. One was using minorities in the film, which we just did in a standard way, not having it stand out at all, like the Nurse pictures and the Teachers pictures. We put in a black Hispanic girl as one of the leads, and it wasn’t common to have that happen. My personal cause is smog and pollution, so in the early days, I made a film in which there was a bad doctor who was polluting the water in the marina and it fell absolutely flat. It was not a way to get people interested in pollution. Then I had one of the Teachers pictures; one of the girls gets up and is getting dressed in the morning and she opens the window and the radio announces, “No smog in L.A. today!”, and she starts coughing because of the smog, which was something that happened all the time. So that was a way that was more palatable to audiences, I think. So, we did try and make some statements about things we believed in. Like a revolution, right Roger?
RC: The continued revolution!
FANGO: A continued revolution, exactly. Back in those early days, Roger, when you left AIP to start your own studio, New World, was that a high-risk move for you at the time?
RC: It was a high risk because we’d never been public. We were privately held, so we financed our films ourselves. It was a major risk for us. That’s why, when picking the first films and continuing to a large extent, I tried to anticipate what the audience was looking for, which you can never really do. I think William Goldman, in his book on screenwriting, the first sentence, which has become famous, is: “Nobody knows anything.” I think I would modify that to, “Nobody knows anything completely, but you can have what I call the educated guess.” You can take your experience, you can do some research, and you can make a prediction that is likely to come true but not always. And you have to recognize that. With New World, we were trying to have it both ways. We were trying to make films that we could be proud of and gave us some creative satisfaction. And then of course we had to have those films be profitable in order to continue the company.
FANGO: As far as contemporary inheritors to the Corman throne, I think maybe Blumhouse might be the closest cousin to what you’ve built and the philosophy you have. What do you think?
RC: Exactly what you said. I remember -- this was a year or so ago -- someone asked me who was doing something similar, and I said Jason Blum. At the same time, somebody interviewed Jason Blum and asked him, was there anyone he could think of that was doing what you’re doing earlier, and he said Roger Corman.
JC: Yeah, I agree. Pretty much anytime we go anywhere there’s somebody doing a development deal with Jason Blum for a horror movie; there’s a lot of them coming down the pipeline there. Yeah. He’s prolific and he called it right.
RC: And also, he has a vision. You can tell what is in his films and particularly the fact that something similar to what we’ve done. He’ll do a horror film, but there’s a statement in that horror film, the same sort of reasoning we’ve used.
FANGO: My favorite episode of Cult-Tastic is the “Monsters” installment. Being a horror fan, I obviously found this of particular interest, but I loved listening to the discussion on the making of Humanoids from the Deep. Could a politically incorrect horror movie like Humanoids be made today?
RC: Yes, and as a matter of fact, it could be made much better today because the special effects -- the CGI and so forth -- are so far advanced that the film could really benefit from a newer version. As a matter of fact, that’s not a bad idea. As we talk, I’m writing that down …
Chris Alexander is the former editor-in-chief of FANGORIA (2010-2015) as well as the editor and co-founder of cult film magazine Delirium. He is the writer, director and composer of the films Blood for Irina, Queen of Blood, Blood Dynasty, Female Werewolf, and Necropolis: Legion (produced for Full Moon Features). As a musician, he has released the albums Music for Murder, (Giallo Disco Records), Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (Future City Records) and The Drink Your Blood. More on Alexander’s work can be found at www.ChrisAlexanderOnline.com. FB: www.facebook.com/chris.alexander.54966834 IG: @chris_alexander_films