Roger Corman on Losing Easy Rider, Polling Sharktopus Fans, and the Future of Indie Film

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Seminal schlockmeister Roger Corman may be 89 years old, but you wouldn't know it from his output. Though the B-movie king hasn't directed a film since his ill-fated adaptation of Brian Aldiss's Frankenstein Unbound in 1990, he still produces knowingly goofy SyFy monster films like Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf and the upcoming Sharktopus vs. Mermantula. Last Saturday, Corman presented three of his films (Man With X-Ray Eyes, Tomb of Ligeia, and Bucket of Blood) at the Anthology Film Archives's ongoing retrospective of movies produced and distributed by American International Pictures (AIP). Vulture caught up with him to talk exploding helicopters, pteracuda-fighting sharktopi, and the future of movie-watching.

One film that Anthology Film Archives is surprisingly not showing in its AIP retrospective is The Wild Angels. That film went on to influence Columbia, with Easy Rider seeming to be its attempt at replicating The Wild Angels' success. Do you think people at Columbia were paying attention to The Wild Angels because of the period from 1965 to 1967, when you worked with them?
It was a little bit different than that. Easy Rider was brought to me by Peter [Fonda] and Dennis [Hopper]. Peter had been in Wild Angels, and Dennis had been in The Trip. They wanted to make a motorcycle picture that was very personal to Peter. They wrote it — though Terry Southern later claimed credit. But I don't want to get into that.

Anyway, I was going to produce the film with them for AIP. The deal was set, and at the last-minute meeting before signing the contract, an executive at AIP said, "We want the right to replace Dennis as director if he falls more than one day behind schedule." Well, the meeting ended, and I could see that Peter and Dennis were really mad. I said to the executives, "Look, we all know Dennis does not have a good reputation, but he worked with me on The Trip, and there were no problems. He was thoroughly professional. And I'm gonna be there every day. You should not have said that."

Bob Rafelson and his partner Bert Schneider [of BBS Productions, a subsidiary of Columbia] heard about this, and they offered a better deal to Peter and Dennis, who accepted. To that point, Wild Angels was, I was told, the most profitable low-budget film ever made. Easy Rider broke the record. We all lost a lost of money because of that one AIP executive's statement.

Before that period, in 1962, you made The Intruder with William Shatner. What did the box-office failure of that movie teach you?
That was the first film I ever made that lost money — though it got wonderful reviews. One of the New York papers said — just a moment, it will take a second to remember —  "The Intruder is a major credit to the entire American motion-picture industry." Around 2000, Bill Shatner and I did audio commentary for the DVD version, and we finally got our money back. Forty years later! The Intruder was a very personal film that I financed with my brother Gene, and I think the main problem was that racial intolerance was a subject matter that the public simply didn't want to see. Not only were they not interested, they were against it.

Jumping forward almost 50 years — what you’re doing now, with monster films on SyFy, is something that a certain set of the public very much wants to see. So much so that after you made Sharktopus in 2010, you polled fans online to see which monster the Sharktopus should fight in sequels. Pteracuda won.
Yeah, Pteracuda! Half-pteradactyl, half-barracuda. And we followed it with one this summer for SyFy:  Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf. We stayed with Sharktopus and went with whatever our surveys indicated Sharktopus should fight. We didn't want to do Sharktopus 2 or Sharktopus 3. We wanted to introduce a new creature for him to fight.

In the spirit of giving people what they want, I heard that Tom Vitale, who at the time worked for SyFy, once told you that TV viewers need to see a creature shot within five to ten minutes or they change the channel. Have you found that to be true?
Tom explained the theory to me, and it makes sense: In a motion picture, you can wait a while, build suspense. I always preferred to hint at the creature and not disclose it until later. But Tom's theory — and I think he's right — is that in the theater, people have paid money to come in, so they'll sit and wait, and expect the suspense to build. But in television, within the first five to ten minutes, they'll simply change the dial. It's a totally different concept.

You've said that TV may be the last bastion for independent filmmakers. What do you think about the possibilities offered by video-on-demand distribution? Or television release patterns like the kind Netflix does, where they release a season of TV all in one day?
The whole pattern of distribution is changing. In the long run, it's going to help the independents. Because, theatrically, the major studios dominate to an extent where very few independent films get shown in theaters — whereas when I started, every film I made got a theatrical release. Television and DVD — which is slipping, but still a potent source of distribution — are the bastions for independent filmmakers today. And I've been saying for years that the internet is going to be the new area for independents. The problem is, nobody's been able to properly monetize the internet. So the pictures are being shown, but you're not making a great deal of money. Eventually, there will be some way for the filmmaker to get his money back with something over the internet. I thought it would be here by now, but it's still a few years away.

Are day-and-date theatrical releases no longer essential?
I would hazard a guess that you'll start to see more DVD or VOD releases in conjunction with theatrical distribution. But I don't think it will, in the foreseeable future, ever come before theatrical. The biggest amount of marketing and money has been poured into the theatrical release. They're not going to put all that money in just to make theatrical releases come second.

On the subject of marketing, [Gremlins director] Joe Dante started working with you by editing trailers for your films. What advice did you give him on his trailers? What makes a good trailer?
A good trailer is simply an effective selling tool. The advice was not original, but: "Joe, pick the most exciting moments in the picture. Then break up that excitement so it isn't just action scenes, horror scenes, or science-fiction scenes." We wanted a little bit of the dramatic dialogue scenes from the picture, but just enough to break away from the straight action.

Were there any elements that you had to tell Dante to tone down?
Not really. There was one memorable moment when Joe showed me a trailer for a picture just before lunch. I said, "Joe, it's alright, but it isn't quite as exciting as I would like it to be." He said, "Let me work on it through lunch.” I came back after lunch, and it was exactly the same trailer, trimmed a little bit, with an exploding helicopter. I said, "Joe, that's an exploding helicopter from a war picture we shot in the Philippines!" He said, "Well, don't you think it helps the trailer?" It did. It was great. And I thought about it for a little while, and I figured, there's no law that says every scene in a trailer has to be in the picture. So we left it in. After that, whenever Joe had a dull moment in a trailer, he would add the exploding helicopter.