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Roger Corman, king of Fantastic Fest

The master of low-budget exploitation movies comes to Austin

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

You work hard, put in the hours, do your share, that sort of thing.

Roger Corman, the legendary low-budget movie titan, is here to prove you're a slacker.

Since 1954, he has, according to the Internet Movie Database, produced or executive produced more than 300 movies. He has directed 56. And he stopped directing in 1990.

In 1995, as he produced more for cable TV and the home video market, his executive credit could be found on 28 pictures.

This is a pretty impressive run, and you'd think he'd slow down a bit, right?

Well, according to him, yes.

`I don't work the six and seven days a week I formerly did,' Corman says from his Los Angeles office. His voice still has an almost feline smoothness. `I work a five-day week and generally leave around 4 p.m.'

At this point, it seems worth pointing out that Corman is 84.

Not for nothing is Fantastic Fest granting him and wife/production partner Julie Corman lifetime achievement awards. Corman has made enough movies for 10 lifetimes, launched the careers of the some of the world's most popular and influential filmmakers and actors and considers a five-day work week slowing down.

Helping launch careers

It's hard to overstate Corman's importance as both an aesthetic benchmark and as an incubator of talent. He built his career - first at American International Pictures, then with his companies New Word and New Horizons - making gonzo exploitation and genre movies not with the budget he wanted but with the budget he had.

Corman movies entertained with every dollar they spent. His latest opus, `Sharktopus,' made for the SyFy Channel, screens Friday at the Paramount Theatre as part of Fantastic Fest.

`Not only is Corman responsible for the best exploitation movies ever made but some of the classiest,' says Stephen Romano, an Austin-based screenwriter and author of the brain-erasingly great book `Shock Festival,' a (fictional) account of an AIP-like studio, complete with fantastic fake posters for movies such as `Judge, Jury and Executioner,' `Red Planet Warriors' and `Bad Kitty '69.'

`People forget he was a brilliant director and how good his Poe movies were,' Romano says.

From 1960 to 1964, Corman directed a series of movies based (for the most part) on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, sort of American versions of the classic horror movies the British studio Hammer was cranking out across the pond. They hold up as well as any of the genre pictures of the age, even if the plots were changed to suit Corman's whims.

(While the House of Usher cracks and sinks into the marsh in the book, it burns up in the movie, a shot that Corman used a couple of times more - burning houses is not cheap.)

`We always integrate humor into our pictures,' Corman says. `Not necessarily out-and-out comedy, but humor. If the audience isn't laughing with you, they're liable to laugh at you.'

Corman helped launch the careers of such directors as Francis Ford Coppola (`Dementia 13'), Martin Scorsese (`Boxcar Bertha') and Ron Howard (`Grand Theft Auto'), Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme and James Cameron. Actors such as Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd, Robert De Niro and Charles Bronson all did time on Corman pictures.

`I expected them to leave,' Corman says. As more than one Corman vet remembers the boss telling him or her a variation of: `You do a good job on this picture, you'll never have to work for me again.'

`He is responsible for the genesis of new Hollywood,' Romano says. `All these guys had to start somewhere.'

And it wasn't just actors and directors. One of composer James Horner's earliest works was the score for `Battle Beyond the Stars,' the classic `Star Wars'/'Magnificent Seven' rip-o … um, homage, starring Sybil Danning and Richard `John Boy Walton' Thomas. (John Sayles wrote that movie and James Cameron worked on special effects and production design.) Two years later, Horner scored `Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan' and became an overnight sensation.

In other words, you start playing Six Degrees of Roger Corman and you can reach virtually anyone in Hollywood.

Away from the camera

These days, Corman stays away from the director's chair. He stopped directing regularly in 1971, doing uncredited work on `Battle Beyond the Stars' and `Deathsport,' and directed his last movie, `Frankenstein Unbound,' in 1990.

`It was a conscious decision to stop,' Corman says. `I had directed more than 50 movies in 14 or so years and I was just tired.'

That same year, Random House released his autobiography, `How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime,' which was all but required reading for a certain strand of college student in the 1990s. (My copy eventually fell apart.)

Now, Corman works mostly on pre- and post-production. `I will write the original treatment for our movies, four or five pages, then hand it off to a writer,' Corman says. `He'll do a first draft, then a second; the director and I will give notes to the writer, and he'll do a third draft. We usually don't do a fourth.' (I can hear screenwriters whose work languishes in development hell reading the preceding sentence and weeping.) He's involved in casting, editing and, of course, the budget.

In some ways, the movie world has become more Corman over the years. `Cameras have becomes smaller, lighter and easier to use,' Corman says. `All of the equipment is more portable. When I started, the budget confined us to the studio. Now, we can do a lot more location shooting.' Computer graphics and digital special effects costs also have plummeted.

But times are tough, and New Horizons no longer has a full-time production department. `The market for low-budget and mid-budget movies has weakened,' Corman says. New Horizons produces four or five movies a year rather than the 10 or 12 it did a decade ago. And distribution is radically different in 2010 than it was in the AIP days or even when New World was at its height.

`When I started out, every pic I made went into theaters,' Corman says. `Now almost none of them gets a full theatrical release. I'm dependent upon DVD and cable and foreign sales.' The SyFy Channel has become Corman Central, airing such films as `Dinoshark,' `Dinocroc vs. Supergator' and `Sharktopus.'

The punch line, of course, is that exploitation movies, the kind that Corman specialized in, went mainstream.

`All of the ideals of a Corman movie, getting people in the seats, are just as evident in the biggest-budget blockbuster,' Romano says. `People got a lot better at disguising it. Guys like Michael Bay turned exploitation movies into the McRib.'

And theaters are still magic, both for the bottom lines and for one's ego. `It is impossible to have a giant hit without a theatrical release,' Corman says. `Plus I miss having my pictures in theaters, I guess. But I'm a little nervous about showing "Sharktopus" on the big screen. I usually have a test screening for just me and the director, so if we notice a bad laugh, we can pull the movie back and fix it. But I think it will play well.'

The man's aesthetic is why Fantastic Fest exists. It will play just fine.

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Roger and Julie Corman Lifetime Achievement Award

Where: Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress Ave.

When: 9:45 p.m. Friday. Screening of ‘Machete Maidens Unleashed' begins at 10 p.m. Screening of ‘Sharktopus' begins at 11:55 p.m.

Tickets: Single day pass $20. Most festival badges have sold out. $40 daytime only badges (before 6 p.m.) available.

Information:www.fantasticfest.com