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Notes from the Vancouver Film Festival

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Roger Corman and the Art of Efficient Effects

The veteran filmmaker shares his experience working with low-budget special effects.

By Frank Garcia     October 19, 2000

Warm applause from an audience of about 150 people greeted legendary filmmaker Roger Corman as he sat on the front stage of a discussion panel titled 'Efficient Effects.' Corman was in Vancouver, Canada attending the 15th Annual Film and Television Trade Forum at the Vancouver International Film Festival. It was September 28, the second day of the Festival, and seated with him was commercial and music video director Tony Pantages, serving as panel moderator. In this one-hour discussion, Corman revealed his thoughts and experiences with special effects moviemaking. Adding their voices to the panel were Brian Moylan, director of Digital Imaging at the Vancouver-based SFX facility Rainmaker Digital Pictures, and Rory Cutler, from International Special Effects.

Corman has been called one of the most successful filmmakers of all time. Almost all of the 550 films he has produced, including 50 that he directed, made a profit. Most filmmakers can't say that. When Corman's name is mentioned, instantly a long list of low-budget cult film classics covering a variety of genres (gangster pics, teen dramas, gothic Edgar Allen Poe horror films and science fiction melodramas) comes to mind. Corman has also gained a reputation for discovering new talent behind and in front of the cameras, having helped launched the careers of Martin Scorsese, Dennis Hopper, Talia Shire, Bruce Dern, David Carradine, Sylvester Stallone, Peter Fonda, James Cameron, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard and John Sayles, to name a few.

The definitive tale of Corman's filmic odyssey was chronicled in a 1990 autobiography, How I made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, from Random House. At 74 years old, Corman was looking very slim and fit, soft-spoken and polite.

In his first question to Corman during the panel, Pantages unleashed an extended anecdote about two of Corman's earliest black-and-white SF films: ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTER, which starred Russell Johnson (yes, the Professor from Gilligan's Island) and IT CONQUERED THE WORLD starring Beverly Garland. Corman said the films were made in 10 days with a budget at the time of about $80,000. 'The special effects were all mechanical,' said Corman. 'The Crab Monster was simply a large paper mache crab, which I paid about $1,200 to build. It was not very easy. It was done with three guys inside the crab moving it around. And they were moving the wires to move around the crab things.'

Corman recalled that during IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, 'I rebuilt the monster on the morning of the shooting. The monster was supposed to have come from a very large planet. I reasoned that if it came from a large planet, that there would be a great deal of gravity--very heavy. Giraffes could not exist on a large planet. So I designed a monster that was a very low-to-the-ground, squat monster, which would fit on a planet of high gravity. On the first morning of shooting, I was having a cup of coffee while the crew was setting up, and my leading lady, who was a very young, hip actress [Beverly Garland], went over to the monster and she knew that I was looking at her. She bent over the monster, looked down at it, and said, 'So, you've come to conquer the world, eh? Take that!' and she kicked it. And one prime rule of filmmaking went right through my mind immediately. 'The monster must always be bigger than your leading lady!' '

With his monster now crushed by is lead actress, Corman simply turned to his Key Grip and said, ' 'Chuck, I was going to open with a monster but let's switch to something else. Let's go with the monster after lunch and between now and 1 pm or 1:30 in the afternoon, that monster is going to be 10 feet tall!' So Chuck built something on top of it. Actually, the monster ended up being famous because it ended up so insane looking.' Amid the laughter of his audience, Corman quipped, 'You have to be a little flexible with monsters.'

In those days of 1950s low-budget filmmaking, there were no 'special effects departments' like there are today. Corman often relied on free-lance monster makers like Paul Blaisdell, who more or less worked out of his garage. But filmmaking today is very different. Just recently Corman's production company Concorde/New Horizons filmed a feature version of Isaac Asimov's classic SF short story 'Nightfall' in India starring David Carradine. (Corman's company also produced a 1988 version of the film directed by Paul Mayersberg and starring David Birney.)

Asked about the state of special effects in a foreign country like India, Corman said this film, produced by his wife, was 'a strange film,' but he was pleased with the work accomplished in that country because of the availability of a very modern studio. 'The latest computer effects were really wonderful,' said Corman. 'I made the deal as a co-production. The way I and most people work now is using a combination of mechanical and computer effects. The union there was very good with mechanical effects. They were involved for years in that and were quite experienced in it. Their computer work was very bad. They were incapable of using the equipment. The owner of the studio was a very wealthy man, and he had all the latest, extremely expensive materials from the United States and Europe, but these guys, at that stage, were inexperienced in operating them.

'We used all of the mechanical effects because they were good. We used one or two of the computer effects. A couple of them we redid ourselves. We contracted out the talent. But the picture suffered. They promised a tremendous amount of special effects for a low price. What we got was much smaller special effects. We had to pay extra to get the work done. So, as you say, you have to deal with someone who knows what he's doing.'

Corman was surely commenting on today's big-budget special effects blockbusters when he opined that 'I think effects have become more necessary to a certain type of film. I think now we try to build our films around the effects. The effects should serve the story. I think you always start with the story. However, some stories are geared towards special effects.'

During a question and answer period, Corman was asked which of his genre films he considered personal favorites. 'Of the horror films I've directed and also produced, I think probably FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH,' replied Corman. 'With SF films, maybe THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES. Of the SF films I didn't direct but produced, I would say DEATHRACE 2000.'

Later, Corman was asked about the unreleased live-action rendition of Marvel Comics' THE FANTASTIC FOUR, made in 1994. This is a film that actually received considerable attention in the genre press and was slated for home video release, but that didn't happen. The film was written by Craig J. Nevius and Kevin Rock and directed by Oley Sassone. It starred Alex Hyde-White as Professor Reed Richards ( 'Mr. Fantastic'), Jay Underwood as Johnny Storm ('The Human Torch'), Rebecca Staab as Sue Storm ('Invisible Girl'), Michael Bailey Smith as Ben Grimm ('The Thing') and Joseph Culp as Victor Von Doom ('Doctor Doom').

In his reply, Corman gave his perspective of that affair. 'A German filmmaker named Bernd Eichinger [of Neue Constantin Films] came to me. He had optioned FANTASTIC FOUR for a long period of time. He was trying to make a $30-million film. He said, 'My option runs out on December 31st. I can't raise the $30-million. What could you make this picture for?' We worked through the weekend; I came up with a figure and said I could make it for about a million and a half dollars--with a few changes!' said Corman, as the audience laughed. 'I said, 'I'll start shooting December 30th.' His contract was that he had to be in production by December 31st. He said that would be obvious, so [start] it by December 28th or 29th! Bernd said that they could put up a million and a half dollars for advertising. I thought this would give me a chance to see what we can do, and the picture turned out reasonably well. But he put in [the contract] a clause to pay me a rather large amount of money instead of my distributing it [the film].'

According to a 1994 WIRED magazine report, that check was $1 million. That allowed Eichinger to reacquire the rights and sell them to 20th Century Fox, where a multi-million dollar version is being planned for 2002. 'And that's what he did!' laughed Corman. 'He sold it to 20th Century Fox. We had lunch. He gave me the check and said, 'I'm delighted to give you this money...' I said, 'What are you going to do with the film?' He said, 'Fox is going to do a $60-million version of it.' I said, 'What are you going to do with this one?' He said, 'I'm going to hold it and after we do the $60-million film and get all the publicity, I'm going to distribute this one as a prequel!' So you figure the Germans are just as wily...'

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