Monday, May 13, 2024

Remembering Roger Corman (who made me an author and a screenwriting maven)

The death of filmmaker Roger Corman at age 98 means that his life and career are now being subjected to serious reappraisal. Critics and film historians are busily weighing his contributions to the industry, focusing on his production smarts, his mentoring of many of Hollywood’s finest, and his achievements as a maverick indie director. How can I add to this outpouring of affection for a man who has played such a large role in my own professional life?

 I’ve decided to start with a slightly edited version of two personal memories that kick off my first book. It’s an independent biography now called (in its 3rd edition) Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. Here goes! 

 I first laid eyes on Roger Corman in 1973, when he interviewed me for a job as his assistant at New World Pictures. He’d 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 that one condition of my employment would be a 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 Corman’s cinematic staples: monster movies and biker flicks. I’m still wondering. He never mentioned Kracauer again.

Several jobs later, I was persuaded by Roger to become the story editor at Concorde-New Horizons, the new company he had founded in 1983. My duties included overseeing writers, consulting with young directors, and earning the occasional script credit on horror films and thrillers that needed emergency fixes. Life was hardly dull. One April afternoon in 1994, Corman called me into his office. There, dwarfed by huge paintings that had been done on the cheap by a grad student imitating Ellsworth Kelly, we had what turned out to be 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. As an early Corman employee, she  had taught me a great deal when I first came on board. Later, she’d moved into more lucrative positions with more prestigious film companies. But she’d hit on hard times, and was now desperate for work. It was a nice gesture on Corman’s part to make a place for her on his staff. It was not so nice, however, to give her my job.

The upshot was that 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), and 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. But such is Roger Corman: truly, the buck stops with him, in more ways than one.

 Does the above imply bitterness on my part? A bit. But my book also conveys the moments when Roger could be gracious, even unexpectedly generous. Yes, he was notoriously cheap, but as he told one of my Corman colleagues who had just been handed his very first directing gig, “I get the money, you get the career.” In my case, this has meant the launch of a new life as a book author, an ongoing gig teaching screenwriting through UCLA Extension, and some great stories to share. Thanks, Roger.

The original cover and title of my first published book


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