Friday, December 18, 2015

Roger Corman: When The Force Was With Him

No, I don’t have any up-close-and-personal stories about the making of the original Star Wars. But I can disclose how George Lucas’s 1977 space opera helped change the way Roger Corman did business. My former boss was always a master at jumping on bandwagons. When Jaws made oceans of money in 1975, Roger commissioned a film about an even more lethal (though much smaller) fish, Piranha. And the success of Star Wars convinced him that he too needed to produce an intergalactic thriller.

When Corman founded New World Pictures in 1970, he had no studio of his own. Most of his films, like Big Bad Mama and Death Race 2000, were shot on practical locations, giving them a rough vigor prized by many fans. When we shot Candy Stripe Nurses, our hospital scenes took place at a local home for wayward girls that had recently been shut down. But once Roger decided to make his own low-budget Star Wars, he knew he needed interior space in which to create elaborate settings and shoot special effects. The result was the purchase of a property near Venice Beach. It had been the site of a now-defunct lumber yard. A ruling by the California Coastal Commission, a band of ageing hippies terrified of gentrification, forbade Corman from modernizing the exterior of the facility in any way. So the Hammond Lumber sign remained in place (Roger balked at the cost of its removal), and the studio continued to look like a decrepit DIY headquarter. Occasionally an innocent would wander through its gates in search of a two-by-four The late writer-director Howard R. Cohen once told me that he and Roger were standing outside the main soundstage when a would-be carpenter inquired about purchasing some wood. They politely explained that this was now a movie studio, and he went on his way. Afterwards, though, Roger turned to Howard, gestured to the clutter all around them, and said, “You know, I could have made some money off him.”

The studio lot, on Venice’s Main Street, was 50,000 square feet, or about half a city block. It boasted three rather makeshift soundstages, one of them housed in a tin shed. There was also a ramshackle wooden post-production building that had been sinking steadily for years, and was regarded with suspicion by the fire marshals. Challenges abounded. The shooting stages were never properly soundproofed, and because the site was located directly in the flight path for Los Angeles International Airport, production had to grind to a halt when a plane flew overhead. Ambulances and motorcycles, both frequent in that neighborhood, also pierced the silence that filmmaking demands.

Corman’s answer to Star Wars, 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars, was made as a co-production with Orion Pictures. Roger claimed to have invested $2 million out of a total $5 million budget, although he’s notoriously prone to exaggerating his own expenditures. In any case, the film raked in $11 million—not exactly Star Wars numbers, but an impressive total for a Corman flick. The plot hinges on the notion of transporting The Magnificent Seven to outer space. In the Corman film, a band of scruffy space jockeys is recruited by a young farmer to save his peaceful planet from enemy invaders. The Magnificent Seven, featuring a clutch of American frontier roughnecks who ride into Mexico on a rescue mission, itself borrows directly from Akira Kurosawa’s great Japanese jidaigeki epic, The Seven Samurai. In moviemaking as in Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the places you’ll go!”

It’s so much fun talking about Battle Beyond the Stars that you can expect a continuation next week. 

A gentle reminder: the updated, unexpurgated 3rd edition of my Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers is newly available as an audiobook, ideal for holiday listening.


  1. I thought BATTLE was so much better than the STAR WARS movies it took advantage of. STAR WARS is so pretentious, while BATTLE never takes itself seriously.

  2. Obviously yours is a minority opinion, but I'm sure Roger and company would be thrilled with it. Stay tuned for more Battle Beyond the Stars inside stories this Tuesday!

  3. I love Battle Beyond The Stars. It's one of the best PG rated Corman films ever.