At this past weekend’s Overlook Film Festival, Roger Corman was on hand to receive the “Master of Horror Award,” presented by Mick Garris. There are few people in the movie industry that have had the long lasting effect that Roger Corman has, and I was honored to speak with him during the festival to get his thoughts on modern filmmaking, seeing his older films digitally restored, and he also gave his advice to young filmmakers looking to stand out from the pack.
Congratulations on receiving the Master of Horror Award at the Overlook Film Festival. It’s such a great team behind the festival and I’m happy to see you as the first in hopefully a long line of “Master of Horror” recipients.
Roger Corman: I'm very pleased because I know the festival. I know this is the first time it's been held here, but I've known Mick Garris for many years, and of course I know the history of this location. The Shining was shot at this hotel.
Thinking back on your work on 400 projects over the last 60 years, what films are your favorite or are you most proud of?
Roger Corman: Of the Poe films, Masque of the Red Death. I had a slightly bigger budget, and shooting it in England, I was able to get a bigger look and it came out very well. And then, I'd say maybe the first picture that Bill Shatner played the lead in, The Intruder, which was about the racial integration of the schools in the South in [the early] 1960s.
Speaking of the Poe films you created for AIP, can you tell me a bit more about how these films came together and why you felt Vincent Price was the perfect collaborator?
Roger Corman: I never really planned to do a series of Edgar Allan Poe pictures. I simply wanted to do The Fall of the House of Usher. I had been making some black and white, ten-day pictures for AIP, and they were sent out as a double bill: two horror films together, and I got tired of that, and I said, "Why don't you give me 15 days and let me shoot in color?" And they said, "Well what do you want to make?" And I said, "I want to make The Fall of the House of Usher."
So, they agreed, and I felt I was in the big time. I had three weeks to shoot a picture; I had never had three weeks before. And my first choice for Roderick Usher, right from the beginning, was Vincent Price. Roderick Usher, if you know the story, was a very aristocratic, intellectual, slightly neurotic New England gentleman. And I thought Vincent had the intelligence and the sensitivity, and could play this little bit of neurosis within Roderick Usher. I sent him the script, he read it, he liked it and suggested we have lunch. We had lunch, we talked about it, and our feelings were pretty much the same on the character. And as a result, he said he'd be happy to play the part.
The picture turned out to be more successful than anybody thought, and AIP asked me to do another one, and I chose The Pit and the Pendulum with Vincent again playing the lead. And this led to, I think I did six of the Edgar Allan Poe Films. Finishing up in England with The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia.
Obviously, filmmaking is in a very different place from when you first started producing. What would you say are the benefits and drawbacks to modern filmmaking?
Roger Corman: The production is easier. When I was shooting the Poe pictures in the early '60s, we had the big Mitchell cameras. All the equipment was very heavy, bulky, and hard to move around. Today, you have the digital cameras and lightweight equipment. The lighting, the lights themselves are easier to work with. So, technically, you can work more efficiently today with the digital equipment than you could with 35-millimeter film.
The distribution, however, has become more difficult. We used to be able to open in major theaters and compete very often with major studio films for a week. We would slip a little more than the majors in the second week, but we could play one, two, three weeks in big theaters. Today, the major studios dominate theatrical distribution to such an extent that only occasionally will a low-budget film get a full theatrical release. Very often it will either be an auteur-driven film, or a horror film breakthrough. For instance, this last film I did, Death Race 2050, which is the sequel to my old Death Race 2000, Universal changed the title. The title is now Roger Corman's Death Race 2050. I think they've got a little more faith in my name value than I do.
But that will not even go theatrically. It's just come out on DVD, on straight DVD and Blu-ray, as you say. And I was doing some publicity here, I was doing an interview such as this, and I said, "It came out a few weeks ago on DVD, and then it's going to Netflix." And the publicity woman from Universal, who was with me, said, "Roger, it's coming out on Netflix the same day it's coming out on DVD." It had never occurred to me that it would be, as it were, day and date. But I think Netflix is now so powerful that they can sort of dictate the terms. Universal had sold the picture to Netflix, and Netflix insisted that it come out the same day the DVD came out.
The last ten years have been especially good for indie horror productions. Are there any movies that really stand out to you in the last ten years, or filmmakers that you're really impressed with?
Roger Corman: Well, speaking of horror, I would say Jason Blum has somewhat changed the equation. Long ago, people talked about the producer. Then, starting with the French New Wave, people started talking about the director. With Jason, they're now starting to talk about the producer again, because each film has Jason's hand.
I thought Get Out was a brilliant piece of filmmaking because it brought in a little bit of social comment on race relationships and so forth, integrated into a horror film. And I've always liked the idea of taking a horror film and combining it with something else. For, in this case, a social comment, some of my own films, like Little Shop of Horrors and so forth, were comedy horror films.
So many of the horror films you’ve produced and directed are getting new life on Blu-ray and on VOD. Is it exciting for you to see a whole new generation enjoying your films?
Roger Corman: It's a joy and I'm very pleased that my older films, particularly the Edgar Allan Poe films, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Masque of the Red Death, and The Pit and the Pendulum and so forth, have been remastered on Blu-ray. They've done a very good job technically, so people are able to see them for the first time since they first came out the way they were really shot.
What’s your next project that you’re really excited about?
Roger Corman: Death Race 2050, which has only been out a couple of weeks, turned out to be a bigger success than anybody thought. It's hard to believe, but you know the Rotten Tomato score system? We got 100. Almost nobody gets 100. That's a higher score than any picture that was nominated for the Academy Award last year. So, as a result, Universal's talking about doing one more. And I'm saying, "Well, [I’m] happy to do one more, but it's been my experience you can play this franchise only to a certain extent." We did well with Death Race 2050, so my new title is Death Race to the Finish! It fits the storyline I'm working on, and it also says, "Okay, we've had a great time with Death Race... it's time to move on."
What would be your advice to young filmmakers who want to make the next great horror or sci-fi movie? What can they do to stand out from the pack?
Roger Corman: When you're talking horror or sci-fi, you're working in a genre that has loosely certain thematic elements, or, you could even call them rules. But rules are there to be broken.
I think that young filmmakers should go all the way back to the history of horror, from silent films like Nosferatu, and through to today's horror films, so they understand the history of horror films and what has been done. Understand that, and then add something new or original.
Picasso once made a great statement about art. He said, "If an artist can add one small bit to what has gone before in art, that is a full career as an artist." You can work a little bit with that statement and say, "What can I do?" As with Get Out, "What can I do to add something new? I understand, as it were, the rules of the game, but now I want to work with them, break them to a certain extent, and add something new that is original from me."
Keep an eye out for more coverage from my time at The Overlook Film Festival. To keep up on the latest from the festival, visit http://overlookfilmfest.com