10 Lessons on Filmmaking from Roger Corman
The legendary Roger Corman is America’s proto-independent filmmaker, having produced literally hundreds of films and directed dozens more, most of them genre films made under a “fast, cheap and profitable” model that still offers guidance for new filmmakers everywhere. And while Corman is best known for films made during an earlier independent era, one in which regional distribution circuits and drive-ins offered screens for movies made far away from Hollywood, Corman is still innovating — and monetizing. Corman’s Drive In is his VOD YouTube channel, where, for $3.99 a month, you can dip into his vast library and sample films like Rock and Roll High School, Swamp Woman and Strip Teaser.
Aside from the still prolific nature of his filmmaking — his Sharktopus vs. Werewolf premiered last month on the SyFy Channel — Corman is known for discovering talent. Early directors of Corman pictures included Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Francis Ford Coppola, all of whom took something away from the Corman School of Cinema.
On August, 22, Corman will be appearing at the Anthology Film Archives in New York to screen his 1959 horror comedy, A Bucket of Blood. In the below interview, conducted in 2013 but appearing here for the first time, Corman distills his various experiences and insights into ten lessons for producers and directors making films of all kinds.
It’s about the story and the script. I put tremendous emphasis on the story. It all starts with the story and the development from that story into a screenplay. and I put tremendous emphasis on the script. I’ve never seen a good picture made from a bad script. Maybe somebody’s done it somewhere, but I’ve never seen it done. You develop your script to the point where you say you’re ready to shoot. And unless you’re under some time constraint, like if the film has been commissioned, you wait until your script is right. You take your time. I’m sure you’ve heard that statement by William Goldman, an Academy Award winning screenplay writer: “Nobody knows anything.” I would modify that and say, “Nobody knows everything.” You know reasonably well when [a script] feels right to you. And you should be trying to make the best film you can make for the given circumstances, which normally means the given budget. You should recognize your limitations and not write in sequences that are for a $200 million film and so forth. You should write for your budget, but you should take advantage of when there are good natural locations.
Take your time in pre-production. Take all the time you need in preproduction because you don’t want to be solving problems during shooting that you could’ve solved before shooting. For instance, I talk to all our new directors about sketching their shots beforehand. Martin Scorsese did the best job of that I’ve ever seen. I did a picture called Boxcar Bertha in the South, which was strange because Martin had only made an underground film in New York before. But I always say, “A good director is a good director.” Marty sketched every one of his shots. I, myself, would sketch at best 80 percent. But Marty really sketched the full 100 percent. He was the only one.
In preproduction, you find your locations or, if you’re shooting in a studio and you have an art director, you build the sets. You do all the preparation, and you take your time in casting. You rehearse as much as you can with the actors. You do what you can to have everything prepared, ready to go, so that you come in ready to shoot and you spend your time shooting the picture, not solving problems you could’ve solved in your office two weeks before.
Prepare for change. Now knowing that, you will never shoot a picture exactly according to plan. You sent up a shot, it doesn’t work and you’ve got to change it. Or, you get a better idea on the set and you say, “I’m going to forget what I planned here. I’m going to do this.” Or, say you’re shooting outside, the sun’s going behind the mountain, and in 10 minutes you need to get three more shots. You’ve got to figure out how to condense those three shots into one moving shot and get it in 10 minutes. In other words, there are always going to be changes, but if you have it really prepared, you’re changing from a set plan. You’re not making something up out of thin air.
Be confident on set. Don’t walk onto the set and say, “Where do I put the camera?” The crew always looks to see what the director is doing, particularly at the start of the picture. They make a little judgment as to how much they’re going to be with a director. They’ll [support] all directors, but they’ll try a little harder for some. I remember when Ron Howard directed his first film, Grand Theft Auto. Ron came onto the set and said, “The camera goes here, and the actress comes through the door there. The camera’s here with the 30mm lens. We dolly back with her, we pan. She sits down in that sofa there, and she picks up the telephone. We’ll cut as she picks up the telephone into a closer shot. I’m going to get some coffee. Let me know when it’s ready.” The crew knew immediately that Ron knew what he was doing. I’ve often thought he had that rehearsed [that speech] in his own mind because I had said to him, “You come in and tell them the shot.” And he did it exactly. He had the marks. He knew the lens he wanted on the camera, and the crew knew he had done his homework. They were with him.
Another director did exactly the opposite. We don’t normally start shooting at night, but for some reason, we were shooting a night sequence, and it was on a vacant lot in East Los Angeles between two buildings. The director came in and said, “All right, we’re on this actor here and with the building behind him.” So they lit the whole thing, got the shot. And he says, “Now we’re on the reverse on the other actor here on this building there.” They tear it all down, light this. And he said, “All right, now we’re back on the building that we started with.” The gaffer got in his car and went home. He said, “I’ll get another job in a day or two. I’m not going to work for an idiot.”
Producers, lay back during production. The producer and the director should be working very closely together in preproduction. When I develop a script as a producer, generally, I don’t have a director set on the first draft, but I try to bring a director in for the second or third draft of the script so that he can have input with me and the writer, and so that there’s some of the director’s vision in there. Then, because I was a director, I believe that my job is three quarters done if on the morning of the first day the director is able to say, “Cut and print” on the first shot. At that point, I really step away [from the production] more than most producers. At that point, I believe the director and the production manager should be running it. I’ll be looking at the dailies, but after the first day, I very seldom go to the set. Maybe that’s because I’ve had so much experience, and some directors are so young that the crew starts asking me questions, which is wrong. They should be asking the director. So, I arrange to talk to the director on the phone, and I look at the dailies. But, I try to stay away from the set after the first day.
Look for and trust new talent. I believe a director learns more on his first picture than he’ll probably learn in the rest of his career. First-time directors, they can be somebody like Francis Coppola, who was my assistant, and who then moved up to be the second-unit director, and who I felt had the ability to direct. Or, like Martin Scorsese. I’d seen this underground film he’d made in New York. I liked it, met him and talked with him, and I was just impressed with his knowledge of film. Or, there was a Russian director, Timur Bekmambetov. I’ve been working with Moscow in partnership on a number of films, and we had sent an American director over. And then, it occurred to me, I’m wasting money. There’s so many good Russian directors, why don’t I just have a Russian director who speaks English direct the film? So I asked for reels of five good Russian directors who spoke English. They were good, but they were more or less standard. I said, “Send me five more.” And I picked Timur. They called me from Moscow and said, “We’ve sent you the work of 10 directors. You’ve picked the only director whose never made a film, who makes commercials.” I said, “I don’t care. He has the spark I’m looking for” — the way he worked with the actors and particularly his use of the camera, the way he framed his shots, the way he set up the shots, the way he sometimes had the camera moving when it should be moving. He had it steady when it was supposed to be steady. The whole technique. I mean, it was a fresh style. And so, I picked Timur. And right after he did the picture for me, he did a Russian picture called Night Watch, which was the biggest-grossing film in the history of Russia.
I look at both a director’s basic ability but also his style and whether his sensibility fits the scripts. I mentioned Marty Scorsese earlier because the underground film in New York certainly didn’t indicate that he could do an action picture in the rural South. It was away from his sensibility, But that’s very unusual that I will do that. Generally, I will try to play to the director’s strength. But as I said, I believe a good director can direct anything.
Make sure the actor and the director understand each other. Very seldom have I seen problems arise between the director and the d.p., but I have seen problems between the director and the actor. I won’t say they’ll be eliminated, but they will be minimized if the director and actor have discussed beforehand the basic outlines of the performance. I mean, from the Method technique, which is how I worked, it’s that old [question]: What is the goal? As Stanislavski would say, what is the red thread? What does the character want? What is the actor’s motivation? If the director and the actor are agreed on those broad outlines before shooting, there’s very little to argue about because arguments aren’t generally about whether an actors sits here or stands there. It’s about the interpretation of the scene, and that should have been solved before shooting.
Don’t read actors cold. [Often] the actor will come in, you hand them the pages and say, “Read this.” I pick a scene, or a couple of scenes from the script, and very often, because a script has short scenes, I will sometimes have somebody in their company rewrite the scenes and make them longer than they are in the script so there’s more for the actor to work with, so he’s really giving a performance that is complex, has mood changes and so forth. And, I will send those pages by email to all the actors coming in the day before they are to come in and read so they have had a chance to study the script. They’re not coming in doing cold readings. They’ve come in having prepared. And then, I have them do improvisations. I put a lot of faith in improvisations because things change on the set and you have to have an actor who can adapt and sometimes improvise. When I was directing, I would shoot primarily from the script, but I would improvise, occasionally. I like actors who have the ability to improvise.
Give the director two cuts. Post production is generally the smoothest of all [phases of production] because what’s been shot has been shot. You’re not worrying about whether it’s raining when you’re supposed to shoot an exterior scene, or an argument between a director and an actor. You’re not wondering if an actor’s going into a meal penalty or overtime or anything like that. You’ve got the film. So, it’s a director, the editor, and the producer. I normally do not come into the editing room unless there’s something really difficult to work on. I will have the director do the first cut, and then the director sends it to the producer. I will generally say, “I’m so busy I don’t have time to look at the first cut, go ahead with the second cut. I’ll look at that,” because I like a director to have two cuts before I see it. Then, I and certain people in the company will give him notes. “None of these notes are orders,” I say. “These are suggestions. You must look at them all, consider them all, but use only the ones you agree with.” Not very often, but occasionally, there will be times when I say, “All right, I’ve given you the time and I’ve made the suggestions, but now I want this cut here.” But, that doesn’t happen very often.
I always had sneak previews of a film. I know a number of producers and directors don’t believe in sneak previews, but I have always believed in them. I want the picture to be shown before an audience. Sometimes [a picture] may have had laughs in places where we didn’t want them. I want the ability to put that picture back in the editing room. We don’t have the money for a big reshoots or anything like that, but we can change some of the editing if a sneak preview has not gone well. But we don’t do sneak previews in theaters any more because for low-budget films you’re very seldom going to be playing in a theater. As I said, I give the director two cuts before anybody else can say anything. Then, I will look at it. People in the office will look at it. Somewhere along the line, we’ll have an invited screening and bring a number of people in to get their comments as well. The picture is constantly evolving.
Learn by watching movies. The number one [piece of advice] is to look at other films, films that are good, and to look at them two or three times because the first time you see it, you’re going to be involved in the entertainment value of the film. The second or third time you see it, you start to be aware of the technique, how the camera was used, how the actors are playing it, how the film is being cut. And you learn just by looking at good films. You can learn something by looking at bad films, but that’s another story.
(Above: Roger Corman photographed at Posterati in New York, 2013.)