Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Star Wars, Roger Corman-Style, Part Deux

When last we looked in on Roger Corman, he was launching his own bargain-basement version of Star Wars. George Lucas’s original space opera didn’t cost much by today’s standards: its budget is estimated at $11 million. Still, Roger’s 1980 attempt to jump on the intergalactic bandwagon, Battle Beyond the Stars, cost less than half as much—and it showed. Special effects were something new in Cormanland, and the results were not always convincing. But although Battle Beyond the Stars lacked the polish of a big studio production, it launched the careers of a surprising number of people who became Hollywood stalwarts.

The screenwriter of Battle Beyond the Stars, John Sayles, was not brand-new to the wonderful world of Corman. A successful writer of short fiction, he had been discovered in the pages of Esquire by my good friend Frances Doel, when Roger was looking for someone who could be converted into a low-cost screenwriter. Sayles’ first Corman flick was Piranha, Roger’s 1978 attempt to ride on the coattails (or perhaps the fishtails) of Jaws. He also wrote a New World gangster opus, The Lady in Red, and then put his earnings—as well as his growing understanding of cinema—to work in a small film of his own, Return of the Secaucus Seven. Sayles was the man responsible for finding a way to set The Magnificent Seven in space, on a Roger Corman budget. He would go on to become a well-paid Hollywood script doctor, as well as an indie filmmaking legend.

The late James Horner (whom we sadly lost this year in an airplane crash) was not new to Corman’s New World Pictures either. He had composed the score for The Lady in Red, as well as for a particularly schlocky Corman fish-tale, Humanoids from the Deep. Horner’s work on Battle Beyond the Stars so impressed Roger that he gave it his highest accolade: over the next thirty years, Cormanites continually borrowed from it to score other Corman movies. But Horner became much better known for Titanic.

For two other Corman protégés, Battle Beyond the Stars was truly life-changing. Gale Anne Hurd, who had been one of Roger’s ace office assistants but wanted to move into production, served as assistant production manager on the film. She found working in Roger’s ramshackle Venice studio unforgettable. As she told me, “Half the time it would be raining and the roof leaked, and there’d be four inches of water on the ground, and people were using power tools while standing in the water. Thank God OSHA never came by, and thank God nobody died.”

With work going on nearly ‘round the clock, death sometimes seemed a distinct possibility. One day Hurd was going over costs and schedules with James Cameron, the film’s new art director, when they heard a piercing scream. It seems a crew member kneeling on the floor had stuck a matte knife in his pocket, its blade protruding. A second man had tried to step over him, but the unseen blade caught his leg, severing his femoral artery. Blood spurted dramatically; he was convinced he was going to die. Hurd told me, “Jim had the presence of mind to take his shirt off, make a tourniquet, tie it, and we both drove him to the hospital.” Within hours, the wounded man was back on the set. Cameron’s heroics obviously made an impression on Hurd. They eventually married, and collaborated on such films as The Terminator, which elevated them both into Hollywood royalty.

But who directed Battle Beyond the Stars? Well, that’s another story.

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