Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Beyond “Battle Beyond the Stars”: Roger Corman Makes His Own Cheapie “Star Wars”

The original edition of my biography of my former boss Roger Corman, which appeared in 2000, called him on its cover “the godfather of indie filmmaking.” He was then 74 years young. Yesterday, on April 5, 2021, he turned 95. And he’s still at it, producing and distributing low-budget flicks.  He’s still the godfather, but also something of an ancient mariner, plying the rough seas of today’s entertainment industry.

 I’ve just happened upon a relic of one of Roger’s most productive periods at New World Pictures. Emmy-winning film editor Allan Holzman, credited with editing the ambitious 1980 Corman space epic Battle Beyond the Stars, kept a diary throughout the five-week shoot of a film that Roger later grandly claimed was two years in the making, at the cost of $4 million. Now Allan has assembled what he calls “Celluloid Wars: Lessons Learned From Making the Movie Battle Beyond the Stars.” This as-yet-unpublished volume offers a trove of images and sketches from the film’s production period, along with such bonus features as Allan’s after-the-fact interview with SFX wizards Robert and Dennis Skotak, regarding its  cheap but nifty visuals.

 But the heart of the book is Allan’s running account of the day-to-day challenges faced by Corman minions as they struggled to do the impossible, turning out a credible “Magnificent Seven in Space” in time to beat The Empire Strikes Back into theatres. They overcame every possible obstacle: a director who’d never before worked in live-action cinema; some newbie actresses (to go along with seasoned veterans like Robert Vaughn and Richard Thomas);  a lumber-yard-turned-studio with a leaky roof; questionable equipment; and Roger’s own mercurial temperament. One personal victory for Allan came after he’d spotted a dejected young worker whose long labors on a series of front-projection slides of faraway galaxies were wasted because they’d come out too dark to be of any use. Once Allan recognized the beauty of these images, he alerted Roger that perhaps the young artist had a future in set design. So James Cameron was promptly promoted to art director, and the rest is cinema history.

 Partly I love this book because it includes so many people with whom I too have worked. It also gives a fascinating editor’s-eye view of how a production staff interacts with the Corman front office, speculating in a way I find extremely credible on why Roger prefers to surround himself with yes-women. But above all this book teaches the reader what a film editor is, and how his mind works. He describes himself unsparingly: “I’m a hermit and a voyeur.” He’s frank about how, as an AFI graduate, he worked his way into editing partly because—as a lifelong stutterer—he found in this particular job a way to sidestep his own physical challenges, as well as a chance to indulge his perfectionist instincts.  At times he reveals his frustration with the rest of crew: “They probably just think I’m an uptight asshole who can’t mellow out and give in to the fact that at New World Pictures, sloppiness is our most dependable product. Sorry for the putdown, Roger, but it’s true.” But he also makes clear his love for the exacting process of trying to spin straw into cinematic gold. He writes at one point: “I wish people would stop thinking editors just put things together by taking out the waste or tightening things up. We mold and manipulate as we wend a tale through the existing footage in such a way that the overall movement of a scene is equal to the underlying emotion.”

 Bravo, Allan. And happy birthday, Roger! 





  1. There's truth in what Ms. Gray says about editors....they can 'make' or 'break' a movie during the post-production process. They carefully dissect each scene in the script, then mold a segment together from various pieces of celluloid shot by the director. It takes a lot of 'know how' and innate talent to do it well. I personally saw director/editor Allan Holzman make it happen during the production of my first script for Roger Corman, FORBIDDEN WORLD. After filming had completed, Holzman holed himself up for weeks in a dank editorial room at Roger Corman's studio/lumber yard. Surrounded by what seemed like endless strips of celluloid, he strung together the 'first assembly' of the feature. His fast-paced editing style sometimes included splicing single frames of film together ad infinitum to achieve his goal of startling his intended audience. The sticky rolls of tape that bound it all together were most times at a premium around his upright moviola. Thankfully, in the current digital age, that laborious process has now become extinct. But what will never go out of use is the talent it takes to create a movie - an experience for all to enjoy - by stringing together pieces film in such a way as to make people laugh, cry and applaud wildly in a darkened movie theater. Bravo Beverly and Allan!

  2. Well, thank you very much, Jim, for chiming in so beautifully. I hope all is well in the Wynorski corner of the universe. BTW, I bring you greetings from someone who knew you way back when -- Donna McCrohan. From New Jersey, I think.