Guest of honor at the Locarno Film Festival's Filmmakers Academy, Roger Corman is in the Swiss town to receive a lifetime achievement award and hold a masterclass open to all festival goers. For a festival like Locarno that continues to celebrate and champion the cinema of independence, to award a luminary like Corman is only natural. Though his pivotal role in the industry he forever changed hasn't always been adequately acknowledged, this year's award is yet another step towards the canonization of a man known as “The Pope of Pop Cinema.” A man whose influence on postwar American cinema cannot be overstated, having launched the careers of people like Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Sylvester Stallone, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron and many others, Mr. Corman was kind enough to grant us an interview. Amiable, sharp and unassuming, the legendary director and producer talked about his career which at over 90 year old of age hasn't ended yet.
NOTEBOOK: What first attracted you to cinema?
ROGER CORMAN: I was always interested in the motion pictures, I was writing for the university newspaper, the Stanford Daily, and I found out that the film critics—there were two at time writing for the paper—got free passes for the movie theaters in Palo Alto, so I thought I'll try to become a critic, wrote a sample review and was taken on. I then started to analyze the pictures, looking at them more closely, and as I started to study them more seriously—at the time I was completing an engineering major—I realized this what I wanted to do. I wanted to make films.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about your working method? Did you conceive it in opposition to Hollywood modes of production or did it just end up being an alternative to it?
CORMAN: It really ended up being an alternative to Hollywood. It was simply the most efficient way I could think of to make films, which was to put a very heavy emphasis on pre-production planning. For instance, my first film was shot in a week; after that I generally shot films in two weeks and it occurred to me—and maybe my engineering education influenced this—that if I was shooting a film of which I was both the producer and director over a two weeks period I should have all of my problems solved as much as I could before I started shooting. There is no time during the two weeks to figure something out, which is why I had figure out as much as I could beforehand. That includes talking with the actors, working out my shot list and so forth so that when I start I can just come in like that and start shooting straightforward.
NOTEBOOK: Despite being a pioneer of independent filmmaking, you didn't get as much attention as the people whose careers you've launched. Are innovation and mainstream recognition compatible?
CORMAN: [laughs] Yes, I would say it's probably because I stayed in the independent field whereas a number of people I helped getting their start moved on to the major studios because they were simply independent filmmakers. I had my own production company and eventually my distribution company too, so my main effort was to make movies for my own company.
NOTEBOOK: You just mentioned the fact that at some point you also worked as a distributor, which is a lesser known aspect of your career. What motivated you to move into distribution?
CORMAN: I felt that my movies were not distributed as well as they should have been. The company I was working more with at the time was American International—this was in the 1960s, when I started capturing more the counter-cultural movement. American International got more conservative and started cutting my movies after I finished them, which is when I felt that I wanted to have my own company. So in 1970 I started New World Pictures, which is my own production and distribution company over which I have full control.
NOTEBOOK: So were you mainly distributing your own films? Or also other titles?
CORMAN: We were mainly distributing the films that I was making, but we did distribute a few films from other producers from time to time.
NOTEBOOK: Despite being commercial products, most of your films have a strong political subtext. How did you reconcile the imperatives of the market with your own political views? How did you blend them into a commercial product?
CORMAN: My own feelings have always always been that of a man of the Left, and I wanted to have those same feeling in my films. Yet at the same time I understood that films must be an entertainment, so I tried to make my films, almost all of them, entertaining on the surface but beneath the surface there would be some statement or some thought that was important to me. Maybe I did a mistake when I made The Intruder [Corman's 1962 film screened in 35 mm in Locarno], a film about racial integration in the American South which was the first film I ever made that didn't make money. I felt it was too much of a message, too much of a lecture, but I also felt that the public didn't wanna see a picture about racial integration in the South. So from that moment on I decided to make my films with the personal or political thought buried within them.
NOTEBOOK: How did your relationship with the directors whose careers you've launched (Joe Dante, Scorsese, and Coppola, to name but a few) evolved once they became famous? Did they show some gratitude? Did you keep in touch?
CORMAN: I think I've had good relationships with all of them. I didn't keep in touch with all, but with a number of them I still do and they are all good friends of mine.
NOTEBOOK: How did the advent of digital technologies impacted the way you make and produce films?
CORMAN: On the level of production it's helped; by shooting digitally with a small lightweight camera and also other equipment that is more easily portable we are able to work more efficiently than we ever were before. That is from a production standpoint. From a distribution standpoint it hurt a little bit because now the major studios are not constrained by the number of prints that were very expensive. Now you can make a digital copy which costs essentially nothing and with the major studios dominating the market it is very difficult for low-budget films or even medium-budget films to get a theatrical release. We occasionally go out on a theatrical release but in general these days we go out on DVD, television, Netflix and things like that.
NOTEBOOK: By the end of the 60s you stopped directing and exclusively dedicated yourself to production. Can you tell us why?
CORMAN: In 1970 I just got tired, I had directed 59 films in about 15 years and I was just worn out. I thought: I'm gonna stop for a year and rest and then come back to directing. But during that year I decided to start my own production and distribution company and that became so consuming that it took all my time and energy. So basically I never intended to stop directing—it just happened.
NOTEBOOK: So you don't rule out the possibility to direct another film?
CORMAN: I don't rule it out, but at my age it might be a little difficult.
NOTEBOOK: You are remaking one of your classics, Death Race 2000 [directed by Paul Bartel starring a very young Sylvester Stallone]. How is that coming along?
CORMAN: We finished shooting and we are now in post-production, but as it happened so many times already, the special effects and post-prodution brushing up are behind schedule and I have to give the picture to Universal, we're making it for them, for September. So I'm here at this festival but I'm on the phone, checking my emails, Skyping and everything everyday talking to the post-production house.
NOTEBOOK: When will the film come out?
CORMAN: In January. But they want it delivered in September.
NOTEBOOK: Do you have new projects in the pipeline?
CORMAN: I have a couple of thoughts in mind, nothing definite. I'm making fewer films than I used to some time ago.