Roger Corman Austin Film Festival
More info i
Jack Plunkett/Austin Film Festival

Roger Corman looks back on his favorite films and teases Death Race 2084

Contributed by
Nov 5, 2018, 12:00 PM EST

"It's just a matter of keeping going. Going onto the next one," says Roger Corman when talking about his overwhelming body of work. At age 92, Corman has produced, directed, written, or starred in hundreds of films in a career that began with the 1953 noir Highway Dragnet.

In that time, he's been ordained as the revered "Pope of Pop Cinema," a filmmaker whose efficient as he is prolific, particularly in regards to b-movie genre and drive-in ready fair.

When he spoke to SYFY WIRE, Corman was basking in the glow of the Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking at the Austin Film Festival, one of many accolades the filmmaker has received over his seven decades in show business. His first retrospective was in 1964 at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, after he already had more than three dozen films under his belt.

He attributes his success partly to being "a little bit ahead of the curve."

"Particularly when I was younger, I was very much aware of a sort of pop culture and the way things are going, and horror films never go away, but there had been sort of a dearth of horror films when I did The Fall of the House of Usher and I brought back the classic horror film."

"You can't say that was original," Corman adds, "but it was original for its moment."

Even as Corman's filmography continues to grow, with multiple projects in various stages of development, there some films that stand out in his mind.

The first is 1975's Death Race 2000, a dystopian sci-fi flick that starred David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, chronicling a cross-country race where drivers can kill pedestrians — and one-another — for points.

"I was trying to combine an action picture with a little social commentary and at the same time some humor and put it together," explains Corman. "I sold the remake rights to Universal and it's been remade four times. Actually, I made the last one, which was Death Race 2050."

It's also an example of how influential Corman's work is on other filmmakers. While he's known for having brought everyone from Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, and Ron Howard under his wing, Death Race 2000 inspired one of the most celebrated action franchises of all time.

"George Miller told me he saw Death Race in Australia and he said, 'I can make one of those,' and he made Mad Max. I said, 'Well, George, you made a better picture,'" Corman recalled. "Matter of fact, I voted for Mad Max, the current Mad Max, a couple of years ago for Best Picture. I was pretty certain it wasn't going to win, but I just thought I'd better vote for George's picture."

Corman then mentions another billion dollar franchise that took some cues from Death Race 2000, the survival adventure trilogy The Hunger Games, based on the books by Suzanne Collins.

"The Hunger Games, well that I've been advised to sue. Hunger Games is Death Race. It's the same storyline except they couldn't use Death Race, so they had to invent some other sort of contest, and it was the Hunger Games," he said. "But even then, I can't say I was original because there may be something done in 1931 that I'm not aware of."

"You can never say an idea is original," Corman continues. "If you were giving a lecture and you say this original idea I had somebody at the back of the room will stand up and say you are forgetting the 1919 German expressionist film. Of course, you've never heard of the damn German expressionist film, so you can never say you are really original. Everything builds on what's gone before."

Keeping with the spirit of that sentiment, Corman revealed he'd just started writing another installment to the long-running Death Race series.

"I wrote an outline just before I came here, which I'm calling, at the moment, Death Race 2084. It's taking some of the concepts of Death Race, the Death Game. It'll be one man who's on the run for certain political reasons. Again, it will try to be something of a commentary within the context of an action film."

He also has some sentiment for the films he made for SYFY, back when it was known as Sci-Fi, starting with the 2004 monster movie Dinocroc.

"It did very well," Corman recalls. "I remember Tom Vitale was head of the channel at that time, and I was having lunch with him in New York and he said 'We'd like to have a second one.' I said, 'Fine, a Dinocroc 2 or Dinocroc Too,' and he said, 'No, for films you can say something too, but we find that rather than having a second version, we want something similar.' I made up a title right then and he took it on that basis. They ended up making, I don't know, six, seven, eight films for SYFY."

Those subsequent films, which included the notorious Sharktopus, incorporated the same shared-universe feeling that was pioneered by the Universal monster movies. A gimmick that's best utilized today by Disney's MCU.

"We put Dinocroc with something else. Then Sharktopus was a success, so we put Sharktopus and Dinocroc together."

While Corman does appreciate witnessing an era where horror films, and genre at large, are regarded as Award-worthy prestige cinema, he's quick to point out that it's not the first time he's seen this happen.

"Films work to a certain extent in cycles. What's happening now we're seeing that type of film now being made but on much bigger budgets," Corman explains.

"When Jaws came out, Vincent Canby, the critic for The New York Times, said 'What is Jaws but a big-budget Roger Corman film?' He was right, but also, it was better. When I saw that film, I thought 'This is a bigger and better version of what we've been doing — and we're in a little bit of trouble here. They're they're taking our audience.' And they have taken away a lot of the audience. When Star Wars came out after Jaws, I thought. 'If I was in trouble after Jaws, now I'm really in trouble,'" he says with a laugh.

Corman, a master of minimalism, earned a reputation early on for shooting films over five or six days on a shoestring budget. While appreciates the cyclical resurgence of genre, he takes some issue with what qualifies as a low-budget film in today's market.

"It's really surprising. They call a 30-day picture a low-budget film. There's Jason Blum, who does very good work. I really think the films he's making are among the best of contemporary horror films, and he'll spend $5, $6, $7 million, and they're called low-budget films. And I admire Jason, I think what he's doing is great, but I don't see where $5 million is a low-budget picture."

Granted, he admits that his more recent work does benefit from this line of thinking, including his upcoming Death Race 2084. Especially compared to the cost of the original, which was made for $300,000.

"I will move up," Corman says with a grin. "I'm anticipating around $2 million. I think you almost have to do that now. The limited production value that was acceptable 20 or 30 years ago really isn't acceptable today unless it's something really unusual or new. You've got to move up to provide more."

Finally, when asked about the one thing in his career that he'd never do again, Corman doesn't hesitate to bring up Little Shop of Horrors, the 1960 comedy about a flesh-eating plant. It also featured a young Jack Nicholson, whose first acting job was Corman's teen crime drama The Cry Baby Killer two years prior.

"I shot [Little Shop of Horrors] in two days and a night, and when it was over a I thought about it and I said, 'Okay, that's about as fast as they can go. I think I'll turn around and go back making pictures on the schedules of generally 10 days,' but had just moved up to the big time with 15 day schedule."