THE FILM WEST INTERVIEW
BY NICKY FENNELL

" Corman may have profitably exploited the services of young enthusiasts eager to break into films and willing to work for small wages, but the lessons he taught them in the name of keeping films visually and narratively vital has served his apprentices well in their subsequent, more prestigious endeavours."
Richard T Jameson. 1981.




The deal was this. I was to be on set at 9.30 am on Saturday morning, where I could look around, ask a few questions, not ask certain questions (I'll leave them up to your imagination) and not get in the way. Mr. Corman would arrive around noon, his first visit to the Irish set and after a walk around I could talk to him.

So I headed off to the location on Saturday morning, the new Clinical Science Institute Building in Shantalla, Galway City. It was day six of the five week shoot which will be Trained for Action, the eighth in the series of martial arts Bloodfist films starring eleven times American kick-boxing champion Don 'The Dragon' Wilson and produced by Roger Corman.
To-day they're shooting a sequence which involves 'Rick' (The Dragon) confronting his ex-employers from 'The Agency', Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (geddit fanboys?). But first Rick and his son Chris (played by J.P.White) have to get past the marines in the reception area. And did I mention that the scene takes place in L.A.?

I get there about a quarter to ten and the place is a hive of activity. The signs at the front of the building have been taped over, there's a large American flag hanging in the hall, and about thirty people are buzzing about the foyer erecting HMI's, moving cables, positioning cameras and rehearsing the interior shot of The Dragon's entry into the 'FEDERAL BUILDING, L.A.'
I sidle down a side corridor lined with boxes of crisps and biscuits and bananas and cakes to the coffee making facilities where I overhear John Aronson, the American director of photography mumbling "I'm so fucking sick of bananas" to no-one in particular. The director, Rick Jacobson, the first AD Marco Black and John Aronson have been working with Corman for the past few years. The way they see it, they're here for the next six weeks to make a film and train in an Irish camera crew to the equipment and methodology of Roger Corman's Concorde Distribution and Production Company.
On the current shoot there are about eight or nine American staff; those mentioned and the co-producer, Mary Ann Fisher, the gaffer Joey Brown (half the Irish crew are in awe of Joey 'cos he's reputed to have worked on Reservoir Dogs), stunt co-ordinator Carl Milinac, fight co-ordinator Donny Hair and the head of make-up Kathleen Carradine. The plan is that when the next film starts shooting in November there will be a few less Americans and that gradually the new 'Concorde Anois Studio' out in Tully will be an entirely Irish run operation. Already there are about 55 Irish people employed, and approximately 50% of those are Irish speakers. That's not counting the Irish actors, actresses and extras. To-day there are five or six Irish extras dressed in sharp, American style business suits with brief cases and a number of suspiciously short and pasty looking U.S. marines, all on their twentieth cup of coffee in the dining area awaiting their calls.
While the set-up is being rehearsed I lurk about asking some of the Irish crew how they're finding it. The reactions are pretty uniform. Everyone is really looking forward to Sunday, the first day off in six days of 7.00am starts and 8.00pm finishes.
"Its really great and it's going very smoothly. It's highly intensive, a whole new ballgame. When there's a 100ft left in the mag, they throw it away!! "
And are you learning?.
"Yeah, I'm learning. Some of the job descriptions are different to the work I've done here, so it can be a bit confusing, but I'm really learning. I'm working with lighting gear I've never worked with and would probably never have got the opportunity to work with."

Everyone seems to have either a walkie-talkie or a headset and messages are being relayed back and forth between people standing less than 20 feet apart from each other. But boy, are the American crew impressive. Rehearsals complete, they shoot the entrance shot at 10.25. They do three takes and are setting up and rehearsing the next shot at 10.30. Three takes of that are in the can by 10.47. By 10.53 they've done a further three takes each of two cutaway shots.
The predominant sound is American voices, instructing politely;
"Guys, watch it there, you're nuclear if there's light on you!", "Make sure this passage is clear, lets not leave anything for people to trip over." "Guys, lets try and remember, with equipment and stuff, always leave it on one side of the hall. Thank you."

I ask one of the Irish camera trainees how he's finding it;
"There's so much equipment and gear its really on the job training. We've three cameras and hundreds of lenses, It's fuckin' great."

I sidle down the corridor again for a coffee. There's a plastic bottle taped to a light stand full of pound coins and a sign saying "Dollar Days", and in smaller print, "If you don't know how to play, ASK AN AMERICAN". It seems that any of the crew can throw in a pound coin with a sticky label with their name on it. You can throw in as many as you like and every Saturday whoever's coin is pulled out gets the lot. I meet John Brady, the unit production manager, and ask him if my computations regarding Irish and American crew numbers are correct. He assures me that on this set there are no Irish and no Americans, just a crew. I try not to smile.

By 11.15 they're ready for the first 'fight' sequence of the shoot. The 'U.S.' marines, Brendan Savage and John McHugh, have the honour of being the first people in Ireland to get a pasting off Don 'The Dragon' Wilson. They're padded copiously, and Carl, Donny and Don take it slowly and carefully as they choreograph the piece. Don Wilson is polite and patient and by 11.25 they've done the first of what will ultimately be about 11 takes. The director, Rick, mans a second camera and Brendan and John are hurled about in a controlled and carefully co-ordinated manner for the next half hour. At the end of each take Carl asks "Is everyone OK?" adding "Will you guys please answer when I ask that!" after the third take. There is virtually no standing around. Already, after only six days, people are becoming familiar with the drill, and the Irish crew are starting to get it together.
Mary Ann Fisher arrives and apologises for a change in plan. Roger's tired after his flight so instead of visiting the set this morning, we're going to pick him up and drive out to the Tully studio with him. I can interview him in the car and come back to the set with him in the afternoon. We drive down to his hotel where he's waiting in the foyer, dressed in a red wind-breaker and grey slacks, looking for all the world like one of the countless thousands of elderly rich Americans who passed through Galway this summer. But this is Roger Corman, the man who has made 250 films and never lost a dime!! There's something a bit 'Twilight Zone-ish' about it. He gets into the car, smiling and affable, insisting I call him Roger and assuring me of as much time as I want. He starts the interview before I even get to ask the first question:

"Well, we hope to be in almost constant production. We will shoot two pictures this Fall, before we have the studio ready. I had hoped to have the studio ready for at least the second of the two pictures, but it won't be ready until later so we're treating them simply as Irish location pictures. One of the reasons we're here is that both my wife and I have shot pictures in Ireland before. Between us, we're fairly established Irish producers. I think we've done at least four, maybe five pictures in Ireland, which is one of the reasons that brought us here, plus Michael D. Higgins' offer of help, and the people in Udarás.
We will be doing a series of bigger budget films, which means to me budgets in the area of 2, 3, 4 million dollars. It's possible that we'll go higher than that, but not at the beginning. We will also, between the big pictures, be shooting some very low budget films here, which is what I do in Hollywood. I shoot twelve pictures a year at my American studio, a picture a month, and those are all moderately big budget. But every now and then however, instead of shooting one big picture per month, we'll shoot two lower budget pictures, so we sometimes go up over twelve, but it's a minimum of twelve. I don't know exactly what we'll be doing here but I would be thinking a minimum of four or five bigger budget pictures here and maybe two or three lower budget pictures. I'm not sure exactly how it will work out. It will depend partially on how these first two pictures go, and we'll reassess. We plan to finish them both before Christmas and our studio won't be up until Spring, so we'll reassess our situation after the first picture and particularly after the second picture over the Christmas holidays. We may not shoot again until the Spring, or we might come right back with a low budget picture even before we have the studio on the basis that if we have the equipment here and the personnel, and we're not ready for a big picture until the studio is ready, we just come right back with a lower budget film."

Kieran Corrigan had forecasted that maybe three years down the road there'd be about six films a year with approximately 50 people employed. That seems to be the case already.

That was our original thought but my feeling is that I want to move faster. So we have accelerated our earlier plans.

The plan was that gradually the American presence would be faded down as a fully trained Irish staff came up to scratch and took on key positions. Is that still the plan?

That has always been the plan and it remains the plan.

Kieran Corrigan also mentioned that you'd been looking at Irish scripts; an adaptation of 'The Ginger Man' and a Parnell script in particular. Will the key positions include Irish writers?

It will include Irish writers as well.

Will it be a function of the Tully studio to encourage people to send scripts there or will the scripts go through the American offices?

I think it will go through Tully. This operation could grow faster than we originally planned; the fact that we're moving more quickly into sustained production than Kieran had mentioned is an example of the fact that we are flexible. Things seem to be going well and as a result everything is moving faster.

In terms of post-production, will these features be edited in Ireland?

Yes. The editing will be done here and we will go through to completion with sound and music here as well. We're negotiating with the company Telegael, and we're hoping to do the sound with them. On the other hand, we brought in an Avid and it is possible to do sound editing on that. It takes a little bit longer and it can't be quite as complex as on the bigger consoles, but you can do an adequate job; then you can do what's known as sweetening. You can go in for one day or two to a big sound studio and put in more complex effects, laying them down over your earlier effects. We would like to work with Telegael if possible. If not we will do the preliminary sound on our own equipment and then either go to them for sweetening or possibly go to England or Los Angeles or even Dublin.

The market for these films Roger, I presume it's the same as the standard market that Concorde has in the States?

Yes. A limited theatrical release and then to either cable television or to home video and then to regular TV The lower budget pictures will skip the theatrical release and go straight to cable or video.

When you started out in the '50's, cinema and TV were competing for audiences. Now we have cable and video as well. The TV market in the 50's and 60's meant films had to be shot in colour to have any chance of a TV sale. Do video and cable place any such requirements on your current output?

No, because in this particular case the type of film that does best on cable TV is the motion picture film. They don't want to see as much "TV movie-of-the-week" as they would like to see a regular feature film. So we make no particular adjustments for the sale to cable TV and on to TV. On regular TV, if some of our films have a little bit of violence, or we occasionally have a little bit of nudity in an R rated film, then we cut back on that a little.

To get back to your work in Ireland; were you actually in the country when Coppola shot 'Dementia 13'?

I was in Ireland at the beginning of the shoot, but I left Francis to carry on his own.

You directed 'Von Richtofen and Brown' here in 1971. Why did you shoot it in Ireland? Was it affection for the country?

I've great affection for the country but in the case of Von Richtofen and Brown, the planes had been built and stored here for The Blue Max, so I simply came here on that film because the planes were here. I did another picture called Paddy, from an Irish novel; I've forgotten the name of the novelist (Lee Dunne), he lived in Ireland at the time, and then my brother Gene did a picture called The Big Red One, which was a war film, and he shot the European scenes in Ireland. So between us, I've done three, my wife Julie produced Da and Gene did The Big Red One, so we've done five films in Ireland.

There's no nudity in the 'Trained for Action' script. Was that a conscious P.R. decision?

No. In the Don Wilson films, the Bloodfist films ... , Bloodfist was the first one and we've continued with the name, adding a secondary title to each one. So Trained to Kill (sic) is in the Bloodfist series and in that series we do not have nudity. Don is a rather famous champion and teaches children's classes and so forth in kick-boxing, so we don't use nudity. This is his eighth film with us, and we had in one film just a brief note of nudity, but in all the others we've had none, and that's really part of our, as it were, design, for the Don Wilson films.

Will you be spending a lot of time in Ireland when the studio opens?

I'll be spending some time, but I'd like to have a place for the actors and the Americans; people who are coming in even if they're only coming in from Dublin, to stay, rather than have the expense and the travel time every day of the long distance from Galway.

In the American studio people seem to work with you for a number of years and then move on. In Ireland there really isn't the other production companies to move on to. Do you foresee a smaller turnover of staff?

Yes. I see a more stable workforce and we're even beginning to see that at Concorde in Los Angeles. We're holding our people longer than we formerly did because formerly our pictures were quite low budget and we're starting to do bigger pictures in Los Angeles as well. As we start to move up into slightly bigger pictures there's no major reason for people, particularly technicians, to leave us. If a director gets hot, or an actor gets famous or something, I can understand them going on to a major film, but for the majority of our people, they're staying longer.

You've started using bigger names in the acting department; Mimi Rogers, Bill Paxton etc. Is this part of your strategy for bigger budgets?

Yes. Its a conscious decision because of the competition on the less expensive films. We've started to increase our budgets, and that means going for slightly more expensive and better known actors and actresses as well.

'Reflections in the Dark' (1992 Jon Purdy film produced by Corman) went down extraordinarily well in America, with Mimi Rogers winning the best actress award in the Seattle Film Festival and favourable reviews from all the critics. Were you taken aback by its success?

We weren't really taken aback because we had surprisingly good reviews. People think generally that low budget films don't get good reviews. Of course we were pleased, but we generally get good reviews. Reflections got the best reviews we've had for a little while; its success with the critics and on the film festival circuit was somewhat greater than some of the others. Although on the other hand, a few years ago Peter Bogdanovich came back to us to do St.Jack which won the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival that year (1979). So we are represented reasonably well on the festival circuit.

Is that unusual that somebody like Bogdanovich comes back, or others who have passed through your hands?

It is. Peter wanted to do this specific picture and he was unable to get financing, so he called me and I said fine, lets get together. But Joe Dante and I are talking at the moment about possibly doing something together and there's a possibility that Joe will come to Ireland.

Can I ask you about "The Intruder" (1962). You've been quoted as saying it was one of the biggest disappointments in your career when it failed at the box office and it discouraged you from experimenting with political themes. Do you still harbour regrets over it?

No. I think the worst thing I or anybody else working in film or any other creative media could do would be to keep repeating some formula because it was successful. I think you have to change, you have to expand, you have to, as it were, spread your wings and experiment, and inevitably some of these experiments will not work out well. I'm pleased with the picture, and over a period of time it's more or less got its money back. It still brings in money; it was re-released in England, and probably by now its eh, I haven't looked at the books, but its probably more or less even. Its even conceivable that it's in profit, (laughs), although you never know.

There was a gap of about 18 years between your directing 'Von Richtofen and Brown' ('71) and 'Frankenstein Unbound'('89). What accounted for this break?

On Von Richtofen I was really tired. I had directed 50 or 60 pictures in a period of less than 15 years and I just felt burnt out. So I thought what I would do is simply stop directing for a year, take the traditional one year of the Sabbath off, and then come back. But I got bored during the year and I started a small production and distribution company (New World Pictures), and it grew much faster than I anticipated and I ended up running it as a producer and head of the company rather than directing. So although I was offered a number of opportunities to come back and direct outside of my own company I just thought, well, I'm comfortable with what I'm doing. When Fox offered me Frankenstein Unbound, we discussed it and I thought, OK, I'll come back and do it. And just the day before yesterday I directed a commercial for Greenpeace on the ecology and on the destruction of the earth. It was really a charity thing; they asked me would I do it and I said I'd be happy to.

Do you miss directing?

I miss it more in theory than in practice. Sitting in the office and being away from the set I say I wish I were back there. But when I did Von Richtofen and when I did the charity thing, the Greenpeace commercial, I enjoyed it, but I was also conscious of the fact that it's a lot of work and I've gotten older (laughs). I'm not certain I would want to work that hard continually anymore, as a matter of fact I know I wouldn't. If I do go back, if there's a possibility to direct something, it would be no more than one picture a year or one picture every two years or something like that. I would definitely not go back to a steady run of directing pictures.

Was 'Frankenstein Unbound' an enjoyable experience?

It was pretty much of an enjoyable experience. It was complicated as I was directing for another company, so I couldn't make all the decisions on an individual basis as I generally do, but basically it was an enjoyable experience.

You were courted by all the major studios in the late '60's and early '70's, 'The St. Valentine's Day Massacre' being the major outcome. Are you ever tempted in terms of your own company to say, well this is a really good script, there's good people attached, we're going to give it an A budget?


I've thought of that, but the market has become very difficult for the independents, in particular the medium and low budget independents, and we are almost the only one's who are still surviving and prospering.
There was an article in 'Variety' about the independents and they said "Roger Corman's company is at the top of the food chain" (laughs), which I thought was a funny way to phrase it, but it could be considered to be true. And being at the top of that particular food chain, having a distribution company that's functioning very well and the need to produce for my own distribution company, it kind of puts it all together into an integrated unit that I've spent a number of years developing. To step away from that for just one picture.....
It's conceivable that I'd do it but I'd rather develop and change within my own company. We're moving to bigger pictures, we're changing some of our subject matter. We just did 13 feature films for the Showtime Cable TV Network, which we've never done before, and its been the highest rated series on any cable station for the last thirteen weeks. So I'm more inclined to, as I say, expand and change but within the structure of the company that I've built up. Which means, in Ireland, which is a 'stand-alone' production company, though it is vaguely connected with the L.A. company, the studio is a totally new development for me. To start a studio and a full time production unit outside of the United States is a big step, but it still fits within the overall plan.

You mentioned the possibility of a 'script-house' in the Tully studio. In terms of what you've just said, what sort of material would you be looking for? Typical Concorde material or European and Irish slanted scripts?

I would be looking for both. When I talked to Michael D., and to the Udarás, they asked me what types of films I make. I said'I make horror films, I make science fiction films, I make action/adventure films, I make thrillers, I will continue to make those films, with an international outlook, and I will make some films with an Irish locale simply because I'm in Ireland'. And they were pleased with that answer. I was quite straightforward in saying that I wasn't here to make totally Irish films, although some of my films, in fact, both of the first two films, are set partially in Ireland.

Can I ask you is there any truth in the story that you turned down 'Waterworld' because you thought the budget would exceed $ 5 million?'


(Laughing) It's true. In fact, 'Waterworld' was written for me. It started with Deathrace 2000, which this Australian team saw, and they've stated this openly, they saw this picture I'd done in the '70's with David Carradine and my new discovery, Sylvestor Stallone, and they said, we can do a picture like that, so they did Mad Max and Road Warrior (Mad Max II) and it got me thinking; I've done several pictures with that sort of action/adventure laid in a semi-destroyed future world, so I began looking for ways in which I could vary it and one of the ways was to put it on water. We were going to shoot it on Manila Bay in the Philippines, with my partner Sirio Santiago. So I got this young writer to do a treatment for me and then I had second thoughts about it. Having shot on water I thought, this is going to cost more than we've budgeted, water is difficult. I'd budgeted about $600,000 in my mind for the picture, and I thought, this picture could easily go to a million dollars!! (laughs). So I passed on it and Universal bought it immediately. They sat on it for a couple of years before they made it. But I was right, it did cost more than $600,000 (laughing).

Did you see the finished product?

I haven't seen it. However, Universal sent me a couple of tickets to the world premiere, which I thought was very nice of them, but my teenage son was trying to impress his girlfriend so he persuaded me to give him my tickets. But he said that he liked the film, that it was a good action/adventure film. I think the only thing that went wrong was simply the budget!!

You've been quoted as saying; "Motion pictures are the Art form of the twentieth century, and one of the reasons is the fact that films are a slightly corrupted Art form. They fit the century - they combine Art and business." Could you elaborate on that for me?

I believe it's true. I think the traditional art forms consisted of a writer by himself, just writing, or a painter or a sculptor by himself or herself, just painting or sculpting, or a composer doing the same thing. They were one person, and the human race existed in societies that were oriented very heavily to one person doing something; the craftsman for instance, or somebody who made clothes. You know, there were more tailors at one time, now you have ready-made clothes. As we moved into the twentieth century, commerce and industry and society became more orientated towards mass production, toward people working in teams in big factories and so forth, and I think motion pictures reflect that in the fact that it isn't just one man out there making a motion picture, its a grouping of many men and women each doing and co-ordinating their individual job; the writers, the producers, the directors, the actors, and many other people as well.

But you don't mean anything derogatory by the term "corrupt"?

No. As a matter of fact I say it affectionately. It's almost, as they say, the child that's most loved is the one that has the most problems(laughs). So when I say corrupt I still love it as ... I love it and appreciate it as both Art and business.

We've arrived at the studio in Tully; a large warehouse near Inverin with two production portacabins and a Connemara landscape. Inside the set designers and special FX crew, all Irish, are toiling away. The walls are covered in signs, in both Irish and English, instructing care with the equipment etc.
The crew have to build and decorate a three-roomed L.A. apartment and an interrogation room here. Most of these people have been working since late August and so are well used to the routine. "I'm really enjoying it. It's really good to have the tools and materials to do this properly. Most of the shorts I've worked on you're scrambling about trying to get gear together. Its long and hard but the buzz is really good and I'm learning a hell of a lot."
Roger strolls about for fifteen minutes or so, chatting to the various crew members and sizing up the dimensions of the studio, then it's time to get back into the car and drive into Galway to visit the set. I turn on the tape recorder again.

Do you resent the media's portrayal of you as a purveyor of B-movies?

Well, I'm not happy with it but that's the way they see it, and as they are inexpensive movies I guess I'm just going to have to live with it. We're moving up our budgets somewhat and we're making somewhat bigger pictures, but there's no real answer to that, (laughs). Whatever they're going to call you they're going to call you!!


I'm amazed that you don't exploit your own body of work. How come we didn't see a Poe movie with Vincent Price in the '80's or, now you're back in Ireland, a 'Return to Dementia 13'?

Well, I'm not a great believer in remaking films I've already made. I remade a couple of films, particularly the series of pictures for Showtime. They asked me to remake four; I did thirteen pictures, nine originals. So I will occasionally remake but I really would rather go on and explore new concepts.

Your Poe adaptations were quite campy and not particularly violent. Is there room for such pictures in an era of Reservoir Dogs-style visceral screen violence?

Well, I don't know if I would use the word 'campy'. I worked mostly by indirection. I didn't show a great deal of violence or a great amount of horror; I left it more to the viewers imagination which was really the way I preferred to make them. Also at the time there were stricter rules in the States so it fit what could be shown and it also fit my predilections. Since then the rules have eased up and the films have become more violent. I personally think it is not necessary to show that much violence in films. On the other hand, I'm not in favour of censorship, so I think the concept of some sort of rating board that's saying little children cannot see these films is a reasonable compromise between censorship and total freedom to do anything you want. I think Quentin Tarantino and a number of the other younger directors who are doing extremely violent films are doing them very well.

Do you hold with the notion of cinema as a medium to entertain and inform?

I still believe it a little bit. I think it is not as clear and definite a medium to inform as people at one time thought. For instance, Lenin in the Soviet Union around 1920 said that motion pictures are our most important medium because we can inform, teach, guide, whatever, our people through it. I think that faith in the power of motion pictures was a little bit misplaced. I think you can work more suggestively; you can show certain things in films, you can let a film have a political point of view, and you will influence some people, but not as heavily as once was thought.

Yet the only place we now see the montage techniques of Eisenstein and Pudovkin is in advertising.

Yes. And in MTV and similar places. Its true. It's used a little bit in films, as a matter of fact there'll be some of it used in this ecological thing I did for Greenpeace. I specifically designed it that way. I was just thinking, as a matter of fact, back to my picture The Trip, in the '60's, when I played around a lot with notions of montage.

Are you still passionate about cinema?

Yes. I've always loved the cinema and I believe it will be, for what's left of my life, a field in which I will always work.

Is there a sense of new beginnings in terms of the Irish studio?

To a certain extent. There's an economic advantage in coming here and I'm doing it partially for that, but partially almost for just the excitement of starting something new.

Is film-making a worthwhile pursuit?

I think it is. Going back to what I said earlier, as a twentieth century art form, being both art and industry, or art and commerce, its one of the few fields where you can work creatively and still make a living. And sometimes a very good living. And I think that in an age of, to a certain extent, uniformity and limited options, there may be, and are, other and greater choices, but I think film-making is a pretty good choice.

We're back at the Clinical Science Institute and the action has moved up to the second floor. Nobody pays any attention to the man in the red wind-breaker until he gets to John and Rick, then word spreads and gradually people start smiling and nodding at him. I go down for a last cup of coffee and notice that some wag has stuck a penny into the "Dollar Days" bottle. The sticker on it reads "Roger". I can't help but feel that he'd find it amusing.

 

FW 23