With a career that spans seven decades, Roger Corman has become synonymous with bravura American indie filmmaking. Having directed and produced in most every kind of genre, and launched the careers of everyone from Martin Scorsese to Jack Nicholson, the eighty-five-year-old Oscar winner has nothing left to prove. So the fact that he's now enjoying a new phase of his career, as the mad monster maker behind the Syfy Channel's "Syfy Saturday" movies, is downright inspiring. Dinoshark, Supergator, Sharktopus – they're all born from Corman's legendary fevered brain, and demonstrate a kind of old-school showmanship in their over-the-top insanity that's reminiscent of William Castle and Alfred Hitchcock. I had the good fortune to chat with Corman and his wife and producing partner, Julie, at last week's Famous Monsters of Filmland Imagi-Movies Film Festival in Beverly Hills; and the pair told me a little about the plans for their next creature feature Piranhaconda, as well as their heist film Stealing Las Vegas and their Sharktopus sequel. Read the full interview after the jump.
Note: After reading this interview, be sure to vote for your favorite Corman creature creation in the Syfy Saturday Monster Madness Tournament, which runs throughout this month on Syfy.com!
You recent creature features have been unprecedented hits on the Syfy Channel. How did this phase of your career begin?
It began eight or nine years ago. I made a picture called Dinocroc. I was aware of the Syfy Channel, but I'd never been with them before. I just made the picture, to sell it to cable TV, to DVD and so on and so forth. And they called when they heard about it and said they'd like to see it. They saw it and they bought it, and it got a very good rating. So it just started a series of pictures. I went and did Supergator following Dinocroc. Then Julie and I co-produced Dinoshark and then Sharktopus. And I've just done Piranhaconda. So the beat goes on, as they say.
When can we see Piranhaconda?
Piranhaconda will be around the end of the year. The problem is always the CGI. It takes forever. I always talk to them and say, "Look, I really want this on time." They say, "Yes, we will deliver it on time." Not one effects house has ever delivered on time. If they deliver on time on this one it might come a little earlier. But I sort of doubt their ability to do that.
How do each of these films begin – with an idea of yours?
Dinocroc started just with the idea. With an idea I had. And then we hired a writer, a director and made the film. The other ones started with titles. Because Dinocroc did so well, the Syfy Channel said, "Let's figure out different titles." All the titles were my titles except Sharktopus. I've told this story before, but… They came up with the title Sharktopus. They said Roger, "You come up with all the titles, but we've got Sharktopus. Do you want to make it?" I said, "No." They said, "Why not?" And I told them my theory, which is that you can go to a certain level of insanity with these pictures, and the audience is intrigued; but if you go over that level of insanity, the audience says, "Oh, cut it out," and they don't want to see it. I said, "Dinocroc and Dinoshark are within the acceptable level of insanity. But Sharktopus goes way over that line." [Laughs.]
One thing led to another and I finally said, "Okay." Julie and I produced it and the net result was the biggest rating in five years on the Syfy Channel. Which proves two things – 1.) I'm still capable of learning, and 2.) the accepted level of insanity is clearly higher than I thought. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Is there a method to this madness – in terms of how you go about selecting two animals to fuse together, to create each new species?
That was the problem with Sharktopus. I said, "Look, for Dinocroc and Dinoshark, I could see how prehistoric crocodiles and prehistoric sharks, and therefore Dinocroc and Dinoshark, could exist. But there's no such thing as a Sharktopus!" They said, "Roger, you'll figure out something." So this time I couldn't go to any historical recreating of DNA from fossils or anything like that. I came up with this idea: the Navy wants to go in the waters where these fishermen go, and they're particularly interested in small boats in shallow waters, and there are Somali pirates and terrorists sometimes with small boats. So they commissioned a company I created called Blue Water, to design a creature that can operate [in those waters], that's connected to the US Navy. So they create Sharktopus. Needless to say, something goes wrong. There'd be no story if something didn't go wrong. And so that's our explanation for Sharktopus.
Have you thought of branching out into other media with your creatures – like toys?
We've sort of played around with the idea, and there is a Sharktopus toy that we're selling over the internet.
Julie: We haven't advertised it yet. There are some that have been made up. Oh, and there are Sharktopus mugs.
So perhaps it might be possible we'll see more of this down the road?
It might. The thing is, it's been amazingly successful for a picture I didn't want to make. [Laughs.] I have to admit, I was really wrong.
Do you conceive of these films one at a time? Or, for example, as you're working on Piranhaconda is there another hybrid you're already thinking of?
Well, I'm thinking of a sequel to Sharktopus. It may be just a sequel to Sharktopus, or it may be Sharktopus versus Dinoshark.
That would seem to be the next logical step.
Julie: Sharktopus refers to Dinoshark as "Dinnershark". He's not happy with any of these other creatures in his territory.
With these creature films, do you like to produce at least one a year?
One or two a year. We don't want to overdo that. We want to still diversify into different types of films.
Do you generally prefer to keep your creatures water-based, or might we see air creatures some day?
Well Dinocroc was on land, but somehow, starting with Supergator, the water creatures seemed to hit a note with the public. I'm not sure exactly why. Maybe it's a mystery connected to the ocean, a fear that we don't know what's at the bottom of the ocean.
How do you go about casting your films? Some of your recent actors, like Eric Roberts, have a charisma reminiscent of your earlier stars, like Vincent Price.
The words I might use are charisma and gravitas – that can anchor the film, because these films are so wild that you need total believability from your actors, and particularly from your lead. The lead actor must believe in the story and portray it well. This is one of the reasons why Vincent Price was so brilliant. He could put himself in those roles and give a total sincere performance. Eric Roberts has done a number of films with us. I wouldn't say he's like Vincent Price, but Eric Roberts is someone we like very much. Eric brought humor to certain situations. And Michael Madsen, who just did Piranhaconda for us, is very strong.
He always brings a commitment to his roles.
He's a little quirkier than Eric. So it's a slightly different interpretation, but they're both very good.
What else is next for you?
A picture called Stealing Las Vegas, which I'm doing with the students at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. When you think of robbing a casino in Las Vegas, you think of Ocean's Eleven and slick crooks. This is different. These are employees. You see, Vegas is having tough times right now, as you may have read. And these employees are going to be laid off; and they decide to rob their own casino, because they know how the casino runs better than anybody else. So the electrician blows a fuse at the same time that the plumber stops up the toilet at the same time the drinks girl spills a drink in the lap of the head of security at the same time that the parking attendant parks a car in a position blocking the exit to the hotel and throws away the key, while a couple of maintenance men break into the vault and steal the money.
Your recent creature films harken back to some of your earliest work, and this sounds like a return to your crime pictures. Do you see Stealing Las Vegas as a rebirth of that phase of your career?
A little bit. But the twist is that these are not really criminals. These are guys who have been unjustly laid off. It's supposed to be a secret, but they find out. And then they decide to take action.
In real life, what are your greatest fears?
My greatest fear would be losing control of my mind. I don't mind being physically damaged, but losing control of my mind is my greatest fear. Julie, what is yours?
Julie: I grew up in St. Louis. So it's mosquitoes. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Could you see yourselves fusing a mosquito with some type of sea creature some day?
I could. I could make it a flying sea creature. [Laughs.]