Friday, October 14, 2011

Roger Corman’s Fearless Biographer

If it weren’t for Roger Corman, I wouldn’t be a biographer today. But I am – and I’ve joined the company of a lot of smart folks. One is Dona Munker, who kindly invited me onto her “Stalking the Elephant” blog, which covers not big-game hunting but the writing of biography. I provided ten tips, the first of which reads: “In starting out, scour your life for a subject you are in a unique position to explore. When writing a biography, consider making your own relationship with the central figure a part of the story.” Good advice, if I do say so myself.

My first book, the tastefully titled Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, begins in the personal realm: “I first laid eyes on veteran Hollywood filmmaker Roger Corman in the summer of 1973, when he interviewed me for a job as his assistant.” I had a great anecdote from that meeting, and an even more telling one from the day I learned he was replacing me, both to help out a needy former staffer and to save the difference between her salary and my own.

Throughout most of my Corman book, though, I stayed in the background. Because this was Roger’s story, not mine, I never spelled out how hard he tried to take charge of my project. But since I’m now persona non grata in the Corman world -— barred from any film documentary or DVD commentary over which he has control —- it seems high time to set the record straight.

When I told Roger in 1998 that I had a contract for a book about him, he had a ready response: “I would be happy to cooperate with you in any possible way, as long as you can reassure me that this book will be largely favorable.” Taken aback by his bluntness, I stammered that I had spent wonderful years in his employ, and hoped to bring that spirit to the book. Soon afterward he handed down an ultimatum: he wanted my publisher and me to sign a legal document allowing him to read my book in manuscript and remove anything he considered “derogatory.” Obviously, this was not the ideal way to do biography, especially since I knew from experience that Roger could be prickly about his public image. I let a few weeks pass, then wrote a polite letter explaining that of all the lessons I’d learned from him over the years, one of the most valuable was the importance of artistic independence.

Roger didn’t give up easily. Once my research was well underway, he phoned to say he had told various celebrity alumni not to speak to me, because he’d heard my book was to be “a hatchet job.” No, I said, it was intended as an objective study, worthy of the finest libraries in the land. My answer pleased him, I think, but I asked no favors. Because by then I grasped that Roger would never be satisfied until he had reshaped my book to his best advantage. (Earlier biographers, eager to be hired onto Corman movies, had willingly agreed to his demands.) I wrote the biography my way, and was gratified by the number of Cormanites who insisted my book had come far closer than any other to capturing the essence of a very complex man.

I’m sorry that in its aftermath, Roger has seen fit to shun me. But I’m proud my book sits on the shelf of the Library of Congress, and in many of our best libraries. Artistic independence, it seems, does pay off.


  1. Wow, this is one of the best posts you have compiled, Beverly. I don't think Corman has anything to be embarrassed, or ashamed of. Your book regarding his noticeably complex personality was done with great integrity and with the utmost sincerity. It's at both times a vaunted and playfully critical portrait of what is without doubt the single most important figure in independent filmmaking history.

  2. Well, thank you for the lovely compliment, Brian! I'm very fond of this post too, for obvious reasons, and I hope other Corman fans find it enlightening.

  3. I took a look at those tips... Uber-cool.

    re: Post... Particularly enjoyed your description of how you had outlined to Roger the value from one of his own underpinnings...artistic independence!

  4. That was a proud moment for me, Keith! I'm not always so quick-witted, especially when it comes to encounters with Roger.

  5. I did not realize that you ended up shunned for your wonderful book. This makes me very sad - as I add my voice to those that say the book is a marvelous - and fair - look at a film icon who also just happens to be a human being - with feet of clay like the rest of us now and again. I congratulate you for your artistic independence - and moreso for maintaining an objective and even positive outlook on your time working with the man - instead of letting the negativity escalate. My hat is off to you today ma'am.

  6. It's a year late (well, almost), but I thank you for your kind words, Mr. Craig.