CCI: Corman and Shatner Reflect On Their Legendary Careers
It was fanboy heaven at Comic-Con International as film legends Roger Corman and William Shatner discussed their careers and promote their new films during the appropriately titled “Epix Originals: William Shatner and Roger Corman” panel, moderated by Kevin Smith.
“You are going to be able to tell people for the rest of your lives that you sat in a room with two people who truly made a dent in the universe,” Smith told the crowd before showing a trailer for Corman’s new film Attack of the 50-ft Cheerleader — in 3D, which stars Treat Williams, Sean Young, Jena Sims, Ted Raimi and Olivia Alexander.
After the trailer, Smith ran through a list of the careers Corman has launched: Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron, Curtis Hanson, John Sayles, Jack Nicholson, Talia Shire, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Robert DeNiro and … William Shatner.
“I know people are inspired by the work of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, J.J. Abrams. Idiots, these people,” Smith said, eliciting laughter from crowd. “They’ve done a lot with a lot of money, but this guy here has produced over 300 movies and directed 50 of them—with pocket change! Give it up for Roger Corman!”
Corman was escorted onto the stage by two young cheerleaders as the audience erupted with uproarious applause. “Sir, it is an absolute honor to have you here,” Smith said.
“Let’s get to it,” he continued. “This is one of the things that absolutely blows my mind when they talk about you: You didn’t even want to get into film. You originally wanted to be an engineer, is that correct?”
“That was my start,” Corman replied. “I went to Stanford. I was an engineering major and I was writing for the Stanford Daily and I found out the critics for the Daily got free passes to all the theaters around town, so I became a film critic.”
“How does one go from being a film critic to making movies?” Smith asked.
“Well, looking at films as a film critic, I was still looking at them partially as entertainment, and partially I was analyzing them,” Corman said. “And the more I analyzed the work, the more interested I became. On the other hand, I didn’t want to switch my major. I was a senior, I wanted to get the degree and get out of there. So I was the failure of the Stanford engineering class that year. I got the worst job out of anybody in the class. I was the messenger at 20th Century Fox for $32.50 a week.”
“I think that’s what a pretzel costs out on the convention floor,” Smith joked. “Well, at the point, did you put engineering away? Did you ever even try to get an engineering job?”
“Actually, I couldn’t even get a job as a messenger and I was broke,” Corman continued. “So I signed with U.S. Electrical Motors as an engineer, and I worked Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and then on Thursday I went in to the personnel office and I said, ‘This is all a terrible mistake. I have to leave.’ And they said ‘Roger, work on Friday. Think about it over the weekend and we can talk on Monday,’ and I said ‘I really can’t come back tomorrow. This is it.’ And that ended my engineering career.”
“So you start working at Fox,” Smith said. “Where do you start at Fox? At the top? Of course not.”
“I was riding a bike delivering the mail and messages to all over the studio,” Corman said.
“The part about the bike makes my gut hurt,” Smith joked. “That’s part of your job, to ride a bike? Why didn’t you just quit that day?”
“I used to know how to ride a bike,” Corman replied. “I figured, I’ll give it a shot.”
“You’re such an ‘Up With People’ person” Smith quipped. “So how long were you there? How long were you riding a bike before someone said, ‘Why kid, you look like a producer!’”
“Well I did some extra work,” Corman said. “In those days, studios worked five days a week, except when shooting, where they worked six days. I volunteered to work on the sixth day for nothing if I could work on the set. So they accepted my offer because this guy will work for nothing, and I met people on the set and I got a job as a story analyst, which really means — I was reading scripts.”
“So what was the first break that you had?” Smith asked. “The script that you read that changed everything, where people were like, ‘He’s got some brains.’”
“What happened was this,” Corman said.“ The story editor called me in one day and said, ‘Roger you’ve knocked every script we’ve ever sent to you,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m the youngest guy in the department and you send me the worst stuff. Send me something good and then I can criticize it.’ So they sent me a script called The Big Gun, which was a Western, and it was really very good and I made some notes about it, and they bought it, and it became The Gunfighter with Gregory Peck, which was a major Western. That does it at that point.”
“So now you do that. You’re the reader who makes some notes, it gets made,” Smith said. Naturally they give you all the credit. They heap lauds on top of you. They’re like, ‘Roger, write your own check. The world is your oyster.’”
Corman smiled, replying, “They never recognized anything I did, so I wanted to go to Europe. I had some time on the G.I. Bill, so I went to Oxford for a while. I came back and I started writing scripts on my own and got a job as a literary agent … and sold a script I had written to myself. So I paid the agency their 10 percent fee and then again offered to work for nothing. I went to the producer and I said that I would work for nothing if I get a credit as an associate producer. He said, ‘Sure. Why not?’ and credits are important in Hollywood. After that picture, I was able to say I had a credit as a producer and as a writer, so I then went to some people in Hollywood and also some guys from the Stanford engineering class who had good jobs and who had some money, and I raised $12,000 and made a picture called It Stalked the Ocean Floor. I sold that picture to a little company and they thought It Stalked the Ocean Floor was too arty of a title. They changed it to Monster From the Ocean Floor, and it did very well, so I did a second picture — a road-racing picture called The Fast and the Furious and I scored twice on that picture. The picture was a big success, and a number of years later Universal offered to buy the title The Fast and the Furious from me. Universal did very well with that title also,” he finished, eliciting applause from the audience.
“So it sounds like you did some work on a studio picture but got none of the credit,” Smith said. “With that in mind you were like, ‘Forget it. There’s another way in.’ Instead of going in the front door, you’re one of the first cats ever in the entertainment industry to go, ‘You know there’s a back door, there’s a side window, there’s a basement,’ or something like that. At what point did you hook up with AIP — American International Pictures?”
“Actually I hooked up with them on The Fast and the Furious,” Corman said. “That was the second picture I produced. I had no training whatsoever as a director. Frankly, I looked at what the director was doing and I said, ‘Well, I can do that’ and on the next picture, which was a Western called Five Guns West, I directed, and it did well, and I started getting offered jobs as a director-producer.”
“Now for AIP, you just worked for them, you never owned that company. You owned New World. So at AIP when you worked there, was there someone there, one of the bosses who was your mentor?” asked Smith.
“Not really, because nobody there was experienced with films,” Corman said. “The head of production was Jim Nicholson, who had been a theater owner, and the head of business affairs was Sam Arkoff, who was a lawyer, and I made about 30 films all that time I was at AIP, but I was never under contract, I worked picture to picture.”
“So all that time you’re working picture to picture, it sounds like you had the keys to the kingdom,” Smith said. “It doesn’t sound like you had any competition there. Nobody knew what they were doing, so they were just like keep making movies.”
“Yeah, they were like, ‘Let’s just go with Roger again,’” Corman said.
“Now people always refer to those films as cheapies or low-budget,” Smith said. “Did you ever think of them as cheapies or is film just film?”
“A film is a film,” Corman replied. “These were low-budget films and they were not all perfect. In fact, none of them were perfect. To me, it was working as a craftsman. Ingmar Bergman once was asked if he could have any job in the world, what would it be. His answer was he would be a worker on a cathedral in the Middle Ages. I understood what he meant. He wanted to do something that was creative and satisfying, that would endure, where he could work as a craftsman. And that’s what I considered myself. I was a craftsman.”
“That could be the best thing you hear at Comic-Con this year,” Smith said to the audience, “other than Chris Nolan shouting, ‘There’s gonna be another Batman film!’”
They then briefly discussed how Corman started his own company, making movies while also distributing foreign films in the U.S. market. Corman said he was always a fan of the auteurs — Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut and Kurosawa — and because New World was successful early on with its independent releases, it was able to buy distribution rights for some foreign films. He said not only did New World end up doing well financially, but there was a six- or seven-year run during which the releases the company distributed won more Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film than any other Hollywood studio.
“So cut to 50 or 60 years later,” Smith said, “and Epix comes to you and asks if you want to do a 3D movie. It’s amazing to me that you haven’t made a 3D movie in all that time.”
Corman said that in the heyday of 3D, neither the films nor the technology were very good. “Then one of our graduates, James Cameron, did Avatar, which is a brilliant film,” he said. “I think it is a masterpiece.” The success of Avatar led to the revival of 3D, and when Epix approached him with Attack of the 50-Foot Cheerleader, he was intrigued both by the name, which fit with the outrageous titles of his films, and by getting to work with 3D. “It costs a bit more, but Epix had a little more money than I did so I said yes.”
“You gave Jim Cameron his earliest break, and I mentioned before so many others,” Smith said. “We’re going to bring out a guy now whom you gave a start, so it’s kind of a sweet poetic that you’re here together. They always say this person needs no introduction, but in this case the person actually does. He is probably one of the most important figures in pop culture history ever and one of the most entertaining people I’ve ever met in real life, and he’s fucking Canadian, which I’m a big fan of. Give it up for the one and only William Shatner!”
The room erupted with applause and the audience stood as Shatner walked across the stage, shook Corman’s hand and sat down.
“I’ve known Roger Corman for many years,” Shatner said as he looked at the poster for the new film placed on the stage behind them. “Attack of the 50-Foot Cheerleader in 3D. Wow. Is that her bust size?”
“I’d have to … calculate the size,” Corman replied.
“There’s the engineer in him,” Shatner laughed.
The crowd was then shown a trailer for Shatner’s new film Get a Life, documentary focusing on Star Trek fans, and featuring many actors from the franchise.
Once the applause died down, Shatner revealed he wanted to learn why fans attend conventions, and after talking to people for the film, “I reached a conclusion so astounding and mysterious to me that I was flabbergasted. I don’t want to tell you what the conclusion is, why you all are here. You don’t even know why. That’s how good the ending is. You’ll be fascinated as to why this phenomenon is.”
Shatner then steered the conversation to his relationship with Corman, saying, “We almost died together. He directed a film I was in, and together, our lives were in jeopardy! We got death threats! And it wasn’t even over the quality of the film.”
He went on to tell the story of how they were in the Four Corners area of Illinois shooting a film about integration, which wasn’t popular at the time. “Let me tell you what kind of filmmaker this engineer — this craftsman — is: We were told by the police to leave town. ‘We don’t want you here,’ they said. But he needed to get a shot, so we got that shot and ran out of town.”
“And then there was another moment which I thought was spectacular,” Shanter continued. “I remember it so vividly. The rabble-rouser that I was playing had a defamatory speech to make on the stairs of the courthouse, and Roger had advertised, ‘Come be in the movie and see how a movie’s made this Friday evening.’ So the crowd is full of people who don’t like us, and I’m supposed to scream at them to riot, pillage, kill, mame. And Roger and I talked and agreed that when he was shooting over my shoulder (at the crowd) I would tell them I can’t speak, I have laryngitis, I have to save my voice. So I’m going to do a lot of this,” he said, shaking his arms in the air with clenched fists, displaying anger, “and you people scream and yell and shout, kill and mame. So we shot over my shoulder and I was talking like this,” Shatner said, whispering, “for about three hours. He got all the reaction shots he needed. By midnight, all of the crowd had gone, and the shot was reversed, facing me, but nobody’s there … and I go, ‘KILL ‘EM! HANG ‘EM!’ He was a daring, daring director.”
“And Bill won a number of awards for acting at various film festivals” for that role, Corman added. “Bill was a major star on Broadway before he came to Hollywood to make his first film, which I believe was The Intruder. He took parts that kept getting bigger and better, and then came Star Trek, and that was a phenomenon.”
“I want to go back to The Intruder for a second,” Shatner interrupted. “You know, Roger’s always said for years that he’s only lost money on one film over the years. Just one: The Intruder. He’s said it while I’ve been sitting next to him. ‘You know, it’s the darnedest thing. That’s the only film I’ve ever lost money on.’ But recently, it’s changed, yes?”
“Yes,” Corman replied. “Recently, Bill and I did a commentary for the DVD of The Intruder. The Intruder, shot in 1960. In 2006, because of the DVD, finally, we broke even.” As laughter and applause filled the room, Shatner shook his head and smiled.
Smith interjected. “This is an example of how both of you have achieved massive longevity in your careers. Here it is almost 60 years later and you’ve finally turned a profit on your film. It’s as if you’ve pulled off the ultimate Kobayashi Maru!”
Smith then opened up the floor for questions from the audience.
The first question began, “I’m here, standing in front of three giants,” leading Smith to interrupt with, “Is that a fat joke?”
“… I’ve noticed that starting with the documentary you did last year The Captains that you said that you are proud to be Captain Kirk,” the fan continued. “Do you feel you’ve become the godfather of, or the spokesperson of, the Trek Nation?”
“I could break your back,” Shatner said, doing his best Marlon Brando-esque Godfather impersonation. “You know, all of us are here at Comic-Con to celebrate fantasy and horror and science fiction. They’re objects of the imagination. They resonate with basic themes of mankind: imagination and fear. It’s the attack of the 50-foot instinct. We’re here for a communal reason — all of us. So I’m just part of the group that admires the work and the effort. Some of it’s great, some is not so great. I’m just a part of what’s going on — not a spokesperson, not the godfather. Just a participant.”
The next question came from a woman who asked Shatner if he would shout “Khan!” to the audience. After the applause stopped, the actor paused as if he were going to say it, but instead said, “The studio won’t let me.” There were a few groans from the audience. “That’s my standard answer for everything,” he said. “‘Will you sign this picture?’ So sorry, the studio won’t let me.”
“Can we call it for you?” the woman asked.
“THAT’S a great solution! ARE YOU READY NOW?” Shatner shouted as he slammed his hands on the table and stood.
“YES!” yelled back a majority of the room.
“Hit it!” Shatner yelled.
“KHAAANNNNNN!!!!” the audience shouted in unison.
“That was a Khan-Con,” Shatner said.
The next question was what film was the most challenging to make. “Every film is challenging to make,” Shatner said.
“I would agree that every film is difficult,” Corman said. “To me, the most difficult challenge is taking the original idea and turning it into a motion picture, because it’s not a straight road. It’s a winding road. And the resulting motion picture is not always the idea you started with.”
A young man then asked Shatner what his favorite storyline was from Star Trek.
“My favorite storyline … was … my storyline,” Shatner said, triggering hoots and applause from the audience. “I wanted the Star Trek crew to go on a search for God, and instead they find the Devil. That was my story, and the studio wouldn’t let me do it. So we had to do other things where instead it was an alien who thought he was the Devil and it just mitigated everything. The compromises one had to make to satisfy the studio. That was a big thing — the compromises. So the question is, Roger, when do you stand on principles, and when do you cave and compromise?”
“For me, I stand on principle until the point where the picture will break if I don’t compromise,” Corman said. “But I have found that when you stand on principle, very often the studio will give in.”
“Wow,” Shatner said. “Sure. When you work for AIP and make 200 pictures, sure. When you try to go on a search for God …”
The next question was whether the two would continue to make movies until a certain point that they decide they’re finished, or whether they intend to continue until they die.
“I don’t expect to ever be finished,” Corman said. “I’ll be making motion pictures for as long as I possibly can for two reasons: One, I love making motion pictures. Two, I’ve read that the percentage of death for men is higher one year after they retire.”
As the panel concluded, Shatner turned to Corman and said, “I just want to take this opportunity to thank you. I’ve admired you and loved you for the longest time. It has been a pleasure to be here with you today.”
“Bill, I’m glad to be here with you as well.”
Get a Life premiered July 28 on Epix. Attack of the 50-Foot Cheerleader — in 3D premieres Aug. 25th.