King of the losers

Roger Corman had what every film director dreams of - success in every genre he tried, from horror to beatnik cult. So what made him give it all up?
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The Independent Culture
Who is Roger Corman? It depends when you ask. In the beginning, he was cinema's King of the B's. In his directing youth, he was a legend of thrift. His first film, Monster from the Ocean Floor (1953) cost $15,000. One of his most famous, the original Little Shop of Horrors (1960), was shot in two days. Roger Corman raced from one film to the next in that feverish beginning. Jon Davidson, a fan and later colleague, recalls that early work as "action painting. You had the feeling that people were running." In 1960, 20 films into his career, Corman changed. The House of Usher was a Poe adaptation of chilly decadence. It took 15 days to make, but it wasn't cheap. Corman had found something he wanted to say. He spent the early Sixties making more Poe, developing as a director, till he had crafted a classic. The Masque of the Red Death (1964) was a gory art film, an articulation of the attraction of evil. Corman had attained icy perfection. He changed again. With collaborators including Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, he threw himself into the Sixties counter-culture. His 1966 biker pic, The Wild Angels, anticipated Easy Rider, The Trip (1967) was pro-LSD. Gas-s-s (1970) nerve-gassed the over-25s. Bloody Mama (1970), a savage gangster film, made Bonnie and Clyde look anaemic. His Sixties canon, ranging from cheapskate jokes to nouvelle vague shock, had become remarkable. Corman changed again.

In 1970, he stopped directing. He founded his own studio, New World, instead. It made low-budget exploitation films. The only place where young film-makers could gain experience in the Seventies, New World gave a start to Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles and others. Roger Corman had become a legend three times; as cost-cutter, auteur and talent-scout. This week, Roger Corman is at London's Raindance Film Festival to discuss the independent cinema in which he remains a power. Who is Roger Corman? It hardly seems possible that he is one and the same man.

In conversation, the thought recurs. Roger Corman, now 70, is consistently equable. He is polite in his responses to every inquiry. But contradiction and evasion slither at his words' smooth edges. He makes a statement in one answer, and pulls it gently back in another. Whenever a suggestion is made about his motives, he says: "You're probably right." It could be honesty. But it feels like evasion. What he says is still revealing. Roger Corman's career makes no sense as a straight line. Instead, it's a series of turnings, a career made out of crossroads. Most were reached in one short period, in the Sixties. The decisions this elusive man made then add up to one picture of who Roger Corman is.

1966 was one turning point. Corman had just put his Poe pictures behind him, at the height of their success. Searching for something new to exploit, he thought of the Hell's Angels. His producers wanted a film from the viewpoint of terrified citizens. Corman made it from the viewpoint of the bikers. The Wild Angels was like nothing before it. Loosely structured, with occasional sharp cuts - nods to Godard - Corman was unrecognisable from the classiest of the Poe films. By The Wild Angels' penultimate scene, his days as a skid row scamster seemed finished, too. In a climax that still shocks, Peter Fonda's King Angel leads his men in trashing a church and beating a priest. It's a shapeless scene, an orgy of violence and rape. Corman still remembers the day he dragged it into life. "There was nothing in the script," he says. "I told the actor we're just going to do it and I request that you follow whatever lead your emotions take you on. I wanted unrehearsed, improvised, spontaneous performance."

But that scene is so brutal, so extreme. What else was Corman striving for? "I wanted the scene to crystallise the emotions of the Angels, in relationship to society. The fact that they were out of society, and knew that they were not going to get back into society. They were therefore creating a society of their own, of losers, of nihilism. What they were doing was good." In 1967, the French gave the one time King of the B's a grander title: America's Outlaw Director.

That year, Corman reached his second turning-point. It was one that could have changed him for good. Preparing to direct The Trip, Corman took acid himself. It was, he admits today, "the most powerful experience of my life". He meant to take more trips.

He meant to go further. He teetered on the edge of an extremity from which he could not have come back. The orderly, pleasant man in front of me could have become Dennis Hopper. But, worried by government "propaganda" about LSD's effects, unable to contemplate a trip that didn't stop, Roger Corman pulled back. The "rational part" of his mind took over. He had reached his limit. The Trip still cemented his counter-culture reputation. He was feted by hippies, sat on panels with Godard. But, like most things in Corman's life, it didn't last.

In 1970, in Ireland to make Von Richtofen and Brown, Corman reached his final turning point. It took place, fittingly, at a crossroads. Each morning, in his neat anecdote, he could turn right to Galway Bay, or left to the set. Each morning, he was tempted to turn right, "just to sit on the beach and look at the ocean. I realised then that essentially I was tired. I had done too many films, too fast. I don't think there was a day in 15 years when I wasn't making films. I said, I will take year off from directing, and come back. I never intended to stop." But that was the end. Corman founded New World and, though he tried once or twice to get back to the director's chair, he never did (with one exception, in 1990). "We were making money I had never dreamed of," he explains simply. At 44, three years after he had reached cinema's cutting-edge, Roger Corman had made his most frustrating turn.

Perhaps he was just tired. But a stray remark in 1970, on Von Richthofen and Brown's set, gives a clue to something more. "I can't tell you why, but it seems in some area I'm involved with great losers," he told a journalist. Von Richthofen, Robert E Lee, even Judas, these were "extremely interesting people". It seems an odd remark. Roger Corman has been a success all his life. Why should he sympathise with losers? "I've always been on the surface an accepted member of the Establishment," he answers. "But somewhere within me I can't really believe that. Although in reality I was never on the outside, there is a feeling within me that I was and am." If he believed that he was accepted, that he had won, would it make him uncomfortable? "It probably would. If you win, the game is over. You walk off the field." What does he sympathise with in Judas? "The fact that he believed something at the time and then changed his beliefs. I thought he was not an evil man. He was a man who had made the wrong turn in the road."

When he stopped directing in 1970, Roger Corman said he wanted "freedom and control". But at first glance, it's hard to see what it's gained him. He still produces 30 films a year. But none are as good as the films he directed. What has he achieved with his freedom? "Well, my life has changed a little bit," he finally answers. "I got married about the same time that I stopped directing. I'd had enough of being outside. I have the freedom to move a bit inside and to have a wife and family. I express myself in those areas, too." If the turn he took in 1970 is a dead end, it may be that Roger Corman doesn't care. For all the effort and energy of his years as a producer, perhaps the turn that he took was to "Galway Bay", to sit on the beach and smell the ocean. It may have been then that one of the longest, most slippery and surprising careers in American cinema stood stilln

`The Trip', is screened at the Prince Charles cinema, Leicester Place, London, WC2, 9.15 tonight (booking and info: 0171-287 3833) as part of the Raindance Film Festival. Roger Corman will take pitches from prospective screenwriters on Thursday

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