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Roger Corman: Still "King of the Bs"

"War of the Satellites" was a classic B Movie, as the dubious dialogue and not-so-special special effects probably make clear. It takes a special breed of director to churn out B movies year after year . . . and our Mo Rocca has tracked him down:

At 85, Roger Corman is still making movies his way. "Attack of the 50-Foot Cheerleader" (in 3-D!) is just the latest in the filmmaker's 50-year career.

He told Mo Rocca he has directed about 60 films.

And produced? "Now that's a question I've been asked and I don't know," he laughed. "Because I think it's around 350!"

If on the off-chance you never saw "Attack of the Crab Monsters" or "A Bucket of Blood," or "Sharktopus," that may be because they're all independent films, made very quickly for very little money.

"I really worked rather efficiently," Corman said. "I planned very heavily in advance."

"Efficiently" is an understatement.

A typical major studio film can take 12 to 18 months to shoot. Corman shot "Machine Gun Kelly" in just 10 days.

Is there a creative upside to working fast and cheap? "Sometimes there is," he said. "You can solve a problem with money, or you can solve it creatively."

In that 1958 film newcomer Charles Bronson led a bank robbery. But Corman didn't have a bank set to shoot in. So it was all done with shadows.

"It was done only because I had no interior. But one of the French critics said what a brilliant idea to show only the outlines of the robbery!" Corman said.

And necessary, too. Corman has always worked on a shoestring budget, refusing to work for anyone but himself.

"I do have a hard time with authority," he admitted. "I was in the Navy for two years. They were the worst two years of my life. Any rule they set out, I felt it is my duty to break that rule."

Early on, his rebellious spirit was reflected in the stories he told about teenagers. "Movies for teenagers were generally innocuous teenage comedies - Walt Disney specialized in a number of films of that sort," Corman said.

"And I understood that youth is not that frivolous. So I dealt with more serious subjects, frankly somewhat exploitation. I had teenage crime, teenage hotrod pictures and so forth. But they

were tougher films. And they succeeded very well. The teenagers liked those films."

Corman's movies are first and foremost meant to entertain, he says - the meaning buried in subtext. And yet . . . "I'm willing to say there are a few of my films in which there was NO level of meaning underneath the entertainment whatsoever," he laughed.

Those would be the many Corman "exploitation" films.

"What IS an exploitation movie?" Rocca asked.

"You are exploiting a subject matter," the director explained. "You are taking something, making it exciting, and presenting it in such a way that the audience will come. So the word exploitation doesn't bother me in any way."

"Does it mean sensationalizing?"

"It can mean sensationalizing. It can be done in subtle ways, and it can be done in outrageous ways."

"Outrageous"? Sure, if you think women dressed as strippers firing machine guns is "outrageous."

What is it about women breaking out of prison that's so exciting? "I think there's something in the unconscious mind. I really do. I'm not certain what it is myself. But I know from a box office standpoint, we never missed."

It's movies like these - and horror films like "The Beast With a Million Eyes" - that earned him a reputation among some as a schlockmeister - a "king of B-movies."

He said he doesn't particular like that moniker: "But I'm not particularly against it. I could be called something worse. I could be called something better!"

But mixed in with these unforgettably forgettable films are some classics, like a very small picture starring an unknown Jack Nicholson.

"'Little Shop of Horrors' was done in two days and a night," Corman said. "There was a set standing at an independent studio in Hollywood where I had my offices. And it was a very good set . . . and why let a set go to waste? So I had about $30,000, and I designed a picture that could be made for the $30,000 that I had available."

"Little Shop" went on to become a hit stage and movie musical, and Nicholson a giant - just one of many that got their start under Corman.

"The first was Irv Kershner [who went on to direct "The Empire Strikes Back]. Then Francis Coppola, then Peter Bogdanovich, then Marty Scorsese, Ron Howard, so many - Jonathan Demme, Jim Cameron, Joe Dante.

"Of the actors, the first was Charles Bronson, then Jack Nicholson, Bob De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, a number of others."

If you don't remember "Fire on the Amazon," you surely recognize lead actress Sandra Bullock.

"I remember thinking, 'This is the best actress I've worked with in years,'" Corman recalled. "I called her agent immediately and said, 'I got another picture for Sandra.' He said, 'Roger, you're too late. She's already with the majors!'"

So many names that went on to bigger budgets and bigger careers.

"Did you ever think that focusing on doing things fast and cheap held you back?" Rocca asked.

"It may have. It may have held back the pictures I was making. And it may have held back the perception of what I was doing."

Even so, in 2009 Corman was recognized for his pictures with the Lifetime Achievement Oscar. Several graduates of the so-called "University of Corman" were on hand to honor him.

"When Tom Sherak, the president of the Academy called me and told me they had voted to give me the Academy Award, I really was surprised," Corman said. "I had heard I was up for it. And I had said, which I believe, 'I'll never get the award. I make low budget films. They will not give an Academy Award to somebody who makes low budget films.'"

But don't expect Academy Award-winner Roger Corman to go all Hollywood on the independent community.

"If Hollywood's a high school, you're definitely the 'cool teacher,'" Rocca said.

"I would think that would be a reasonable thing," Corman laughed: "The cool but slightly weird teacher!"

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