About a year ago, I came across this book, called “Roger Corman. Unathorized Life” (officially titled “Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers”), which was one of those books that would capture your attention from the first page.
By most, Roger Corman is considered the “original King of the Exploitation Film”, as he’s done it all – from sci-fi tales filled with space monsters to cheesy martial arts flicks.
Corman filled his movies with images of blood-sucking vampires, rampaging biker gangs, vigilante strippers, and abducting aliens, all while producing each of his four-hundred-plus films on a shoestring budget and making a profit on nearly every one. For the record – nobody has been able to come even close to him. And yes, Corman still continues to make movies up to this day.
The “Roger Corman. Unathorized Life” was written by someone who not only worked with Corman for quite some time, but also knew him well – his assistant, Beverly Gray.
She has been working with Corman on numerous films, and today Gray is known as a public speaker, teacher, and script consultant. Beverly is also quite active online, running her own website at – http://www.beverlygray.com.
In this exclusive interview to BZFilm, Beverly Gray tells about her years of working with Roger Corman, explains how she holds screenwriting workshops, and recalls how she first met a guy named Sylvester Stallone.
Throughout all your years of working with Roger Corman, in your opinion, were there any miscalculations, or mistakes that he made regarding a particular film (making, distribution etc.), maybe something he should have done differently?
Roger’s impressive track record proves that he rarely makes mistakes. If his plan for a movie project doesn’t work out, he generally has a knack for re-cutting, re-shaping, and re-titling, as a way of attracting the largest possible audience. But I do occasionally recall him using bad judgment. In one case, we were making a movie called “Stepmonster”. It was intended as a family film, based on the notion that a young boy’s dreaded (but attractive) new stepmother turns out to be an actual monster, whom he ultimately defeats in a novel way.
The script was charming, and the film was well-shot. But Roger took it into his head that a monster needs to be scary. He insisted that the director insert additional blood and guts, far more than a family film could handle. “Stepmonster” ended up with a PG-13 rating, indicating that it was not appropriate for youngsters under the age of 13. This deeply troubled the Concorde-New Horizons marketing folk, who were convinced that “Stepmonster” would have done far better if the gore had been eliminated and the film had been aimed at a younger audience.
Another example would be “Battle Beyond the Stars” was Roger’s answer to “Star Wars”. Of course he spent far less money than George Lucas did, but for this film he built his own studio and had his staff working hard on special effects. It was the most ambitious project he had ever launched, so you’d think he would have chosen an experienced director. Instead, he selected a talented animator who had little or no experience directing live action.
I wasn’t there personally, but by all accounts the director couldn’t handle the on-set challenges, and Roger himself (along with star Richard Thomas) had to step in to take charge. This story shows that Roger, despite his famous eye for talent, sometimes got things wrong.
In the U.S. it was Roger Corman, in Europe it were Joe D’Amato and Jess Franco. In your opinion, who now among the U.S. filmmakers is going the same steps as R. Corman did in his time? Anyone in particular?
Honestly, it’s hard to make comparisons because the industry has changed so much since the days when Roger was starting out. Roger’s low-budget empire flourished because Roger knew how to make movies and had the means to distribute them. Today it’s much simpler than it used to be to shoot your own small film.
And that film can be circulated via the Internet, thus bypassing all the traditional channels of distribution. The question is: how do you make enough money on your movies to generate an ongoing career? From my California-based perspective, I don’t see that happening.
There was a time, about twenty years ago, when schlock-movie specialist Jim Wynorski was hailed as the Roger Corman of a new generation. I know and like Jim, but he’s not nearly as talented as Roger, and not nearly as versatile. Moreover, he doesn’t truly grasp the complexities of the business world that Roger understands in depth. I’m glad to say that Jim is still making low-budget monster movies for his appreciative fans. But it’s clear to me that he’ll never have the influence that Roger has had over the years.
According to IMDB, you only have two acting credits, both in the mid 90s, one in “Midnight Tease”, and the other in “Full Contact”. Why have you decided not to act anymore, yet in your earlier years, you’ve expressed vivid interest towards acting?
I’ve enjoyed acting since I was ten years old. When I was growing up, I participated in community drama groups and performed in school plays. But it’s always been clear to me that acting is a very daunting profession. At the college level, I was cast in scenes directed by friends who were studying drama, but I myself was too deeply involved in literature and other subjects to ever want to try for an acting career.
In my years with Roger Corman, I had the fun of performing bit parts in several films, including those you listed. I also play a nurse in “Candy Stripe Nurses”, a birdwatcher in “Nowhere to Run”, and a woman calling a sex hotline in one of the “Body Chemistry” films. I haven’t acted in a number of years, but I still enjoy speaking on radio, on television, and at personal appearances. If anyone offered me a good acting role, I’d be glad to play it!
In one of your interviews, you said that among many projects where you worked with R. Corman, the one you really admire is “Death Race 2000″, with late David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone. Any memories about working on that film? Have you met any of the actors?
I have so many memories of the making of “Death Race 2000″ that they would fill a small volume. But here are a few highlights. The first writer hired by Roger to turn Ib Melchior’s short story into a screenplay was a gentlemanly science fiction writer, A.E. Van Vogt.
Since Van Vogt couldn’t imagine drivers deliberately running down pedestrians in order to win prizes, he decided that all the drivers in the film were being brainwashed by futuristic devices attached to their cars. Obviously, he didn’t last long.
Next Robert Thom, who’d written the very sardonic Wild in the Streets, came aboard. He began a treatment that read like a novel. I remember his vivid description of a huge public stadium full of nude people making love while waiting for the race to start. Frankly, Bob Thom seemed much more interested in the quality of his prose than in writing a filmable story. So Roger turned to longtime collaborator Chuck Griffith, but director Paul Bartel also contributed a great deal to the film’s darkly comic moments. And I’m proud to say that the ending twist was my own idea.
Regarding the film’s actors, I’ll never forget the day when Paul Bartel, longtime Corman story editor Frances Doel, and I were having lunch in a gloomy motel coffee shop down the street from New World’s offices. Out of the darkness loomed a large, grim figure dressed all in black. It was Sylvester Stallone, who had come to read for the role of Machine Gun Joe. An old friend of Paul’s, he’d dropped by to say hello. He was an unknown at that point in his career, but he certainly made an impression.
You once said that as a journalist, you would never bet on a writing career as a steady source of income. How can you explain that now? “Writing career” means being a screenwriter, a journalist, or in general?
Sadly, I suspect that professional writers of all sorts are something of an endangered species. If we’re talking about journalists, the competition from the Internet is such that actual paying jobs (on newspapers, for example) are getting harder and harder to find. I’m on the board of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, so I know that freelancers today are really struggling to get their work placed and paid for.
It’s true that book authors can now easily self-publish, so a lot more aspiring writers are able to have books in the marketplace. At the same time, though, publishing houses are hurting financially, which means it’s increasingly difficult to sell a book to a publisher and get decent compensation. And the vast majority of screenwriters (even those who qualify for the Writers Guild of America) can’t get anything produced in any given year. Of course there are big success stories, like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and Hollywood’s top screenwriters. But these, alas, are rare. Like most writers, I continue to write because I love writing. Fortunately, writing is not my only source of income.
How in your opinion has Roger Corman’s approach to making and producing and distributing movies has changed since the 70s-80s? Any particular differences you could highlight?
Roger Corman has always been very good at changing with the times. For instance, when I worked for him at Concorde-New Horizons starting in 1986, he was capitalizing on the fact that viewers wanted to watch movies at home on their VCRs. Long before the big studios realized that video was the wave of the future, our product was filling the shelves of video stores.
I left in 1994, the start of a period when Roger hadn’t quite figured out how to change directions once again. For a while he was trying to make costume dramas at his new studio in Ireland, but this didn’t prove terribly successful. He was also discouraged by his failed attempt to self-finance and release a superhero TV series, “Black Scorpion”. But more recently he’s found success with wacky monster mash-ups, like “Dinocroc” and “Sharktopus”, that have been featured on the Syfy Channel. And he’s learned to use YouTube and other Internet outlets to publicize his movies, gaining a whole new generation of Web-savvy fans.
You’ve been conducting screenwriting workshops through UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. How many International students approximately attend these workshops? As a teacher, what is your main goal, that you try to explain at your workshops?
The online screenwriting workshops that I offer through UCLA Extension frequently draw foreign students. I tend to have about 8 to 10 students per quarter, and it’s not unusual for several of these to be living in Canada, in Mexico, or overseas. My students have included an actress in Athens, a very talented Roman Catholic priest in Dublin, and a businesswoman in Vienna. I have also taught more than a few immigrants to the United States, including an engineer from India and an art professor from Vietnam. Of course for these international students writing in idiomatic English is always a challenge, but many of them have wonderful stories to tell.
All of my recent courses have focused on the art of rewriting. Students come to me with a completed draft, and together we work to assess its strengths and weaknesses. My aim is to help my students fundamentally improve their scripts, while staying true to the artistic goals they’ve set for themselves.
According to online info, you’ve been holding screenwriting workshops both in the classroom and online. What was the major difference between these methods to you personally? Which one worked out better?
Anyone who teaches online will tell you that it’s a lot of work. When I’m teaching a course, I spend hours at my desk every day, posting lectures, checking assignments, and making extensive notes on student script submissions. By the same token, online teaching can be extremely rewarding. To my surprise, I’ve discovered that I get to know my students more intimately when we are communicating via the Internet. Shy students, in particular, blossom when they can share their thoughts online.
I typically divide my students into workshop groups, and expect students to communicate with one another as well as with me, offering feedback on one another’s screenplays. It’s remarkable to me how students who live thousands of miles apart can learn to become helpful colleagues, and sometimes even close friends.