The Frugal Auteur: How Low-Budget Film Legend Roger Corman Makes Cheap Great

Roger Corman: How a Low-Budget Film Legend Makes Cheap Great
Roger Corman: How a Low-Budget Film Legend Makes Cheap Great

CANNES, France -- Low-budget legend Roger Corman told The Price of Fame that the cheapest thing he ever did in the movie biz was for the first film he wrote and produced. On the set of 1954's Monster of the Ocean Floor, he loaded and unloaded most of the equipment himself, and drove it home and back every day. That way, he wouldn't have to pay the crew for more hours.

"I was the only producer-truck driver in Hollywood," he said.

In Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, the documentary playing at the Cannes Film Festival, cheap tops the marquee. Cheap gets final cut. Cheap turns a Depression-born saver like Corman into the pre-digital age's top economizing auteur. He churned out exploitation flicks as if they were toasters on an assembly line. To hear proteges such as Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard poke fun at him in Alex Stapleton's homage, the toasters got more time.

Corman freely deployed angry teens, topless babes, and shlocky creatures in costumes a high schooler could have built in shop class. You name the variety of luridness, and Corman shot it faster on a shoestring better than anyone. He has produced more than 550 movies and directed 50, according to the press notes for Corman's World. Perhaps you've heard of a few, such as the original Little Shop of Horrors (1960), the first Peter Fonda/Dennis Hopper motorcycle journey The Trip (1967), Piranha (1978) and Candy Stripe Nurses (1974). Only one ever lost money, he claimed in the documentary: The Intruder (1960), a portrait of a racist that he called his best film.

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At age 85, he isn't finished. TPOF had to slow him down long enough to pick his bargain-powered brain for answers. Where did his thriftiness come from? "Necessity," he replied. "I had very little money."

Is cheaper better? "You can apply it to anything in life," he answered. "Working on a low budget requires ingenuity and planning. To me the most important part of making a motion picture is the pre-production planning."

Jack Nicholson, another who learned at Corman's knee, remarked in the film that a filmmaker not understanding money in the movies is like a painter not understanding paint. In TPOF's opinion, that would make Corman the Monet of independent B-movie makers.

His parents were frugal. It was the Depression, after all. "My father had been driving fairly expensive cars, and he dropped down to the cheapest car at that time, Chevrolet," Corman recalled. "It was the 1930s, and it wasn't until the 1940s that he moved up to slightly more expensive cars."

As a boy, Corman quickly learned to provide quick service at a hard-to-resist price. "A friend of mine had been given a model airplane kit for Christmas by his father and he didn't know how to make it," he remembered. "So he paid me 25 cents to make the plane for him."

Then The Price of Fame's five minutes were up. The interview was fast and cheap. Just the way Corman likes it.