Seven Decades of Cinematic Storytelling: Roger Corman on Screenwriting
Roger Corman on what he looks for in a script, telling stories for teenagers, and how to plan a low budget shoot.
In the early 1950s, Roger Corman began his creative career in the film industry as a story reader for 20th Century Fox, but left in order to create his own independent studio with its own distribution.
Within only a few years he became the undisputed king of the low-budget movie. In his seven-decade career he has produced over 400 movies, most of which were financial successes (the title of his autobiography brags How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime). In addition, he has contributed story ideas to hundreds of films.
Corman’s low-budget features also launched the careers of dozens of actors and filmmakers, including Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, and Jack Nicholson, giving many of them their first professional credits.
Following on from our video interview with Roger Corman on Death Race 2050, Creative Screenwriting spoke with him about other aspects of his career as a filmmaker.
When you’re producing a movie, what is your role in terms of helping the writer and director tell the best story that they can?
I work differently to most producers, because I started as a writer myself, then became a director, and then became a producer. Generally, such as with Death Race 2050, I will write a treatment which includes the basic storyline, the themes, and the ideas I want in it. I’ll then work first with the writer, and then I always want to bring the director in at least for the last draft so we’re all working together.
For instance, on Death Race 2050 I thought it was important to maintain certain themes. Death Race 2000 actually won a poll as the greatest B picture of all time. So I thought about how the picture is essentially car racing entertainment, but the attention that Death Race 2000 has had through the years isn’t really because of the car racing.
There have been many car racing pictures. For instance, I made a car racing picture in the 1950s called The Fast and the Furious. I sold that title to Universal, and they’ve done very well with it. So the car racing has to be there, but I think that it was additional elements that made Death Race 2000 be remembered. There’s social comment, satire, and the idea of points for killing pedestrians.
As a matter of fact, since we’re talking about screenwriting, that wasn’t in the first draft of the Death Race 2000 script. The first draft was a straight car racing action picture. I thought, “This is a little thin. There have been so many car racing pictures, and even though this is futuristic which makes it different, what else can I add?”
So I started thinking about the violence in society, going all the way back to the Roman gladiatorial days of bread and circuses, and the idea of keeping the working class down by entertainment through violence so they don’t think too much about their situation.
For instance, if you’re an unemployed worker in Pittsburgh with nothing going for you, and the Pittsburgh Steelers win the championship, you’re a champion! I started thinking about that as a way in which you control the population. I thought if I go that next step, I’d like to bring the spectators into the picture. Then the idea of having the pedestrians killed came to me.
I thought “This is a good idea, I’m going to stay with it.” But you can’t really take it that seriously. I thought that the only way to do this was to do it with humor. That thought process of starting with a futuristic car racing picture, then bringing in the killing of the pedestrians, and then doing it with humor, created a mixture that elevated the picture from just straight car racing.
But it was important to always remember this was a car racing picture, and that we must deliver the action of the car racing. These additional thoughts, which are important to me, must be in there but they must always be secondary to the action.
One of your first jobs in the industry was working as a story reader for 20th Century Fox. What did you initially learn about storytelling while there?
I didn’t learn much! As a matter of fact, the story editor called me in one day and he said, “Roger, you have never given a good comment to anything. You’ve knocked every single thing you’ve read!” [Laughs] And I said, “That’s because I’m the youngest guy here. You give me all the rotten stuff! Give me something that’s good, and I’ll give you a good comment.”
They did, and things started to change. But I remember that as a reader I was looking primarily for the narrative action, and narrative line of the plot combined with the characterizations and the depth of interest in the characters.
For instance, I can tell you something that happened last night. We’re making another one of our creature features, and I was looking at what was supposed to be the final cut. In it, the character who is almost the lead is really evil, and is a really bad guy, and he’s portrayed that way all the way through.
But he has a son, and the son is killed. We cut from a close-up of the dead face of the son to him. He reacts, and then he moves back into action.
I cut very fast. As a matter of fact, Marty Scorsese once said, “Roger never once saw a picture he couldn’t cut ten minutes out of.” [Laughs] But when I looked at this, I thought we were cutting too fast. I wanted to stay on the face of the bad guy for his reaction to the death of his son, because he is genuinely distressed. I think we’re missing something by not holding longer on his face to show his distress over the death of his son, because it makes the character more complex. He’s no longer just an evil man because now we see a different side of him, which is the love for the son.
So my note when I came in first thing this morning was, “Extend the reaction shot on him a little longer” so we see that distress.
Speaking of your Creature Features, you’ve produced so many Creature Features dating back to Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954). What makes the stories of this genre of film work over and over again?
I’ve thought about this, and I think it’s embedded in our psychology. I think it’s from when you’re a little kid, when you wake up screaming and tell your parents that there’s a monster the bed. Your parents say there is no monster under the bed, and eventually you come to realize in your conscious mind that there is no monster. But in your unconscious mind, you still think that there’s a monster under the bed.
One of the functions of these Creature Features is to break through the conscious mind and hit our unconscious fear of the monster.
In the early 1960s, you made several adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s works with Vincent Price, which many consider some of your finest work. What is it about Poe’s writing that translated so successfully to film?
Once more, I go back to the unconscious mind.
I think the concept of that was more-or-less in the air in the 19th century, and I think Poe was working as a writer with the idea of the unconscious mind, just as a few decades later Freud was working with the unconscious mind as a medical concept. I felt it would be very interesting to take Poe’s stories and his ideas, and utilize what he did to break through in order to go into the unconscious mind. I was thinking of that specifically, along with the fact that I always loved the work of Edgar Allan Poe.
Many of your films have been aimed at different generations of teenage audiences, from the drive-in audiences of the 1950s, to the counter-culture audiences of 1960s, to Rock and Roll High School. What should a filmmaker keep in mind when telling a story to teenagers?
I think the number one thing is that you must be on the side of the teenager.
There are so many pictures that are told from the standpoint of the adults about how they must tame the teenagers. I’ve done a lot of teenage pictures, and every one of them was from their standpoint, and not from the standpoint of the adults.
In addition to Death Race 2050, are there any other films that you’ve made that you think should be remade by today’s filmmakers?
I made Ron Howard’s first picture as a director, Grand Theft Auto. I actually sued the video game manufacturer who flat-out stole the idea. We settled out of court and they gave me some money.
I retain the right to remake it, but the way it was actually written in the contract is a little bit cloudy. My lawyers are actually studying that contract to make certain that I have a clear title to remake my picture, and I will remake Grand Theft Auto.
You’ve mentored so many careers of filmmakers. Do you think there is enough mentoring done in the industry today?
I haven’t really thought of it, but actually I think there is. It’s easy to say that there should be more, but frankly, I think that there is enough. Nobody mentored me and I just learned as I went along, but I think it’s probably good to have a mentor if you can.
But basically, it’s your job to learn how to make films. You could go to film school, or what’s easier is that there are so many low-budget independent films being made for almost no money with digital cameras, and they’ll hire anybody to get on the crew.
You get on the crew to do two things: one, to do a job, and two, take it as a learning experience.
Since nobody mentored me, I’d say, “Screw it! Do it yourself!” [Laughs] It probably would help to have a mentor, but essentially it’s up to you to create your career.
You’re famous for producing films under budget and, in cases like Little Shop of Horrors and The Wasp Woman, films that were shot in less than a week. Are there any particular ways you encourage filmmakers to create stories that would be entertaining, but maximize time and resources?
As with both Death Race 2000 and Death Race 2050, it’s best to be doing a story that is important to you and is your personal vision. At the same time, you must keep in mind that there is an audience out there, and your personal vision must have a relationship to the audience. That’s sometimes a very difficult combination to achieve, but it’s of prime importance.
From a production standpoint, I’m a strong, strong believer in pre-production planning. I teach that to every one of our new directors.
You plan everything in advance, because when you’re shooting a low-budget picture on what used to normally be a ten-day schedule – now we’re normally doing fifteen to twenty-day schedules, but those are still industry-wide short schedules – you don’t want to come onto the set as a director and say, “Where shall I put the camera?”
You want to have all – or almost all – of your shots, and all of your thoughts about the acting and everything else, worked out in advance. It doesn’t cost you any money to do that in advance, and you don’t want to do it on the set because you’re wasting time. You just want to shoot.
On the other hand, you must remember that you will never follow your plan one hundred percent. Sometimes what you thought of doesn’t work. Other times you get a better idea. Therefore, the best thing is to plan everything in advance, but know that you will have to vary to a certain extent from that plan, and be aware of both these things.
Featured image: Roger Corman filming Death Race 2050