Tuesday, April 5, 2016

My Roger Corman Life: A 90th Birthday Tribute

Roger Corman changed my life. Today, remarkably, the famous supplier of B-movies to the world’s youth market turns 90 (and I’m not feeling so young myself). My relationship with Roger has been complicated, and I’m sure the same holds true for most of his employees, past and present. As one of them told me, “Just when you think he’s the shit of the world, he turns around and does something of extraordinary niceness.” True -- yet his magnanimity can’t always be trusted.

I met Roger Corman in 1973, when he interviewed me for a job at New World Pictures. He had gotten my name through the Phi Beta Kappa chapter of UCLA, where I was finishing up a doctorate in English. It was typical of Roger to seek out someone with lofty academic credentials: he loved to shore up his credibility by hiring underlings with fancy degrees and titles.

On that first morning, I was impressed (as everyone always was) by Corman’s handsome face, deep voice, and good-humored manner. We had a serious talk about motion picture aesthetics, and he told me I’d need to promise to read and discuss with him Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film (1960). Of course I complied, wondering how this ponderous tome would shed light on the making of monster movies and biker flicks. I’m still wondering. He never mentioned Kracauer again.

After sixteen lively months as Corman’s all-purpose assistant, I left New World in 1975 to return to academia. Years later, I was persuaded by Roger to become the story editor at his re-vamped company, Concorde-New Horizons. Signing on in 1986, I once again plunged into the madcap world of low-budget filmmaking. My duties included overseeing writers, consulting with young directors, and earning the occasional script credit on horror films and thrillers that needed emergency fixes. Yes, I played a few bit parts too, in all of which I kept my clothes on. But one April afternoon in 1994, Corman called me into his office, where we had another pivotal conversation.

Roger told me his fears for his company’s financial health. (This was nothing new; he had these concerns every week or two.) Then he brought up the plight of a close friend of mine. She had been an early Corman employee and had taught me a great deal when I first arrived at New World. Later, she’d moved into more lucrative positions with more prestigious companies. But she’d hit on hard times, and was now desperate for work. It was a nice gesture on Roger’s part to make a place for her on his staff. It was not so nice, however, to give her my job.

So after eight years of loyal service, I was rewarded with two weeks’ notice. All the while Roger insisted that I had been an exemplary employee. He told me to write myself a glowing recommendation (“Don’t be modest,” he said), promised to sign it, and did. I later discovered that in typically shrewd Corman fashion, he’d hired my old friend on a cut-rate basis. Which meant that while lending a hand to someone in need, he was actually saving the difference between her salary and my own. So his altruism (though undoubtedly genuine) was also to his material benefit. Such is Roger Corman: the buck stops with him, in more ways than one.

No, I don’t hold a grudge. My memories from my Corman years are priceless. And writing Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers has given me a career I never anticipated. So I’d say it’s been a fair trade.

Happy birthday, Roger!

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