Sunday, May 1, 2011

Fast, Cheap, and Furious

You can’t copyright a title. So Universal Pictures, which has just released Fast Five, one more entry in its lucrative car-racing franchise, didn’t have to ask Roger Corman for permission when it made The Fast and the Furious in 2001. Roger’s own The Fast and the Furious dates all the way back to 1954. This 73-minute race-car drama—shot in nine days on a $50,000 budget—was the twenty-eight-year-old Corman’s second film as a producer. It also marked Corman’s first opportunity to step behind the camera himself, when for one climactic sequence he served as a second-unit director. He filled in as a stunt driver too, later telling journalist Ed Naha that he had ruined one take by failing to let the hero pass him in a key racing sequence. Said Roger, “I got so excited about driving a real race car that I drove to win the race.”

As Roger’s filmmaking career gained traction, his passion for speed did not abate. Though notoriously frugal in most respects, he sometimes treated himself to sports cars, even (briefly) a Lotus. Cheapie director Jim Wynorski, who started as New World Pictures’ head of advertising, once told me a revealing story about Corman’s car mania. It seems Roger was driving a Los Angeles freeway, with Wynorski as his passenger, when somebody cut them off: “I remember going down the 10 Freeway, with him hitting 80, 90 [miles per hour], trying to beat this guy to the exit who had cut him off. He was living Eat My Dust for real. And I thought, ‘There’s a reason he made all those car movies. He likes cars. He likes fast cars.’” Wynorski wasn’t worried, though, about his own safety: “For some reason, I felt the Roger Corman angels were hovering over that car.”

But the Roger Corman angels have their limits. Former Corman assistant Anna Roth (now the author Anna Hays) remembers her very first day on the job, when Corman ran out of gas in Beverly Hills’ Benedict Canyon and she (then a newcomer to Los Angeles) had to quickly track him down. Remarkably, he had called her at the office because he didn’t know his own home telephone number. Roth finds it disconcerting that “he wasn’t aware of his gas gauge or his home number or even his home address. At the same time, he was very detail-oriented and very precise.” Once, writing with a pencil stub on a tiny scrap of paper, he showed her the formula by which he worked out his video contracts, using pre-sales to guarantee $250,000 in profit before each film was even in the can.

If Roger’s behavior contains contradictions, so does his choice of vehicles. In my day, he mostly drove a large black Mercedes. But you might also see him tooling around town in one of the fleet of cut-rate picture cars on which a Concorde minion had gotten a good deal: a not-fast, not-furious Chevy Caprice Classic.


  1. I have seen Corman's film once a long time ago. It wasn't quite my cup of tea at the time, but his movies (including the non horror ones) got frequent television when I was growing up.

    Great stories as always, Beverly!

  2. Thanks for being my number one fan, Brian. Oh wait -- that sounds like something out of Stephen King's "Misery"!

  3. Mr. Corman's The Fast and the Furious is another of his early movies to fall into the public domain - legendarily because his frugality prevented him from laying out the money to secure the proper copyright - or so the story goes - any thoughts on that, Ms. Gray?

    The movie itself is a very low budget affair, but John Ireland is a fun actor and the movie clips along for its running time.

    Another question - do you know if Mr. Corman was put out that they started making hugely successful new F+F movies this century - with no renumeration coming his way?

    1. Yes, Roger was too cheap to copyright many of his early movies, with "Little Shop of Horrors" a case in point. Later, when the musical became a Broadway hit and his public-domain film version stared showing up all over the tube, he had his lawyers coming up with creative ways to prove that the film had been under copyright all along.

      To answer your second question, I suspect he was philosophical, but he did like the fact that some critics overtly compared his little film favorably to the big budget version and its sequel.