'We made a good little film': Roger Corman's oral history of his Fantastic Four

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Aug 7, 2015, 7:52 PM EDT (Updated)

When the Fantastic Four reboot opens in theaters this Friday, it arrives after a year of onset rumors of clashes between director Josh Trank and the studio, late in the game reshoots, poor messaging about the film from the cast, racist Internet commenters, and mediocre reviews.

But it will open. And once it does -- much like its 2005 predecessor and 2007 sequel -- the audience will decide whether to show up or not, thus making the movie a success or dud. That turn out will then either guarantee years of FF sequels or another reboot in a couple years.

That is a chance Roger Corman’s 1994 Fantastic Four didn’t have. Shot for a million dollars during the post-Burton Batman 1990s -- a time that now looks like a surreal wild west of disconnected super hero flicks – Corman’s stab at Marvel Comics’ first family has become the stuff of Hollywood “what might have been.” The film was never theatrically released, and existed primarily as something most people had heard about until it began popping up on YouTube.

Why didn’t audiences ever have a chance to pass judgment on low-budget auteur and executive producer Corman’s flick? It is a question addressed in the documentary Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four. I recommend checking out the doc, directed by Marty Langford, as it tells the story of a movie that was not meant to be through interviews with principal cast and crew members. The documentary's account, along with Entertainment Weekly's 1994 article on the film, tell a story that at times involves shady players and motivations. 

However, I wanted to get the full story from Roger Corman himself.

What follows are not the recollections of a man bitter, burned, or even shocked by the fate of his movie. Instead, he tells the story of a film that may have ultimately been foiled by loose lips. And although he says he wishes it had been released theatrically, he says he made a “good little picture” and succeeded in what he set out to do, while also doing pretty well financially with the film.

In his own words, here is the story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four:

I can tell you the exact story because I made the film.

What happened was this: A German producer Bernd Eichinger came to me in October, sometime in the 90s. He said he had a problem and maybe we could work together. He had the rights to Fantastic Four, and had the script written with a $30 million budget. But he didn’t have the $30 million. If he didn’t start shooting be Dec. 31 that year [1992], he’d lose the option and the whole thing. He said he had a million dollars, and asked if I could make the picture for that. I knew it wouldn’t be the same picture but wanted to see how close we could come. We worked over the weekend, and I said, “yeah, we can do a decent picture; this is a good script.” Being October, and a picture with a lot of special effects, I said we need every day we can get, so let’s start shooting Dec. 30. He said, no, let’s start Dec. 26. If we start shooting on the 30th, it will be obvious we’re trying to beat the option date. I said it’s going to be obvious what we’re doing anyway! We finally compromised and started the 28th or something like that.

Then he came up with, what I thought was a really good idea. We worked something out, and I had some money and a piece of the picture, or one thing or other. And he said he wanted 90 days to see if he could sell it to a major studio. If he could, he would pay me quite a bit of money. If he couldn’t, he would put up $500,000 for prints and advertising, and would send it out and see if we could make any money theatrically. I thought this was a really good idea because even in the '90s, the theatrical market for low-budget pictures was starting to fade, and I was getting worried.

When we finished the film, he put up a little money and started up an advertising campaign. I’ve still got the poster around here somewhere. It was a really good poster, and the picture was pretty good – for a million dollars instead of $30 million. I thought this would be a great test. Maybe this is a way to go. Taking something from a famous comic book – before all these people were making them – on a low budget, and maybe there’s a new revenue here.

Just before the 90 days were up, he sold the thing to 20th Century Fox. He paid me my money, and it was a lot of money, and I was needless to say pleased to get money. But I also felt … I almost wished he hadn’t sold it and I didn’t get the money. I really thought the experiment was worth it.

Anyhow, I was having lunch with him sometime later, and I asked how it’s all working out. He said Fox was doubling the budget, and we’re going to make the picture for $60 million. I said, “Great. What are you going to do with the $1 million picture?”

At that he laughed, and he said here is the beauty of the deal: “I’m going to wait until the $60 million picture comes out, and we assume it will do a huge amount of business, and then I’m going to release the $1 million picture as the prequel, and make more money off the $1 million picture than the $60 million picture.”

Unfortunately, he mentioned his plan to too many people, and Fox inserted a rider in the contract that he would not release the $1 million picture. As soon as they found out what he was doing, they knew it was not good for them.

So the picture was never released. It was really a pretty good little picture. Everybody liked it.

That is the true story of what happened.

A lot of people worked on this movie, and their work was never given a chance to shine. Did that upset you?

I understood the situation, and he was clearly trying to use the $1 million picture to promote the $30 million picture. Everybody got paid. The only people who might be unhappy were maybe the actors who thought this might jumpstart their careers. But for the guys on the crew, it was just a job. They were paid for the job.

Did you ever have hopes of staying on as a producer for the $60 million picture?

No. It was Bernd’s picture, and his project from start to finish. I just came in for the $1 million film, and we used our studio.

When they finally got around to making the 2005 film, did you look at that and think they had a lot more money, but we did it better?

I wouldn’t say we did it better, because it was clearly a bigger, better film. But what I thought was we made a pretty good film. Better than that, we made a good little film for a million dollars. We took a giant budget, budgeted for $30 million, and made a film that was OK. I thought it would play. So I was a little disappointed. On the other hand, I made a chunk of money, so my disappointment was eased slightly. Even so, I would have like to have gone forward with the experiment.

So Roger Corman was not left out in the cold or misled?

No, there was no problem. I made a fee off the picture, and a fee for giving up distribution. So I am not going to be too unhappy. I did not feel bitterness in any way. I understood from the beginning exactly what Bernd was doing. He was a good guy.

We like conflict with these stories, and it’s good drama to have a villain behind the scenes. So did you have encounters with any studio execs or Marvel brass, like Stan Lee?

No, my dealing was entirely with Bernd, and the script was finished. He had a finished script. All we did – and this was a production process -- was simplify the big special effects action scenes we knew we obviously couldn’t do. It was kind of fun to say, “How do we take a $30 million picture and make it for a million?” From the standpoint of making motion pictures, it was Making Motion Pictures 1A.

Briefly, you did attempt a different super hero movie in the early 1980s, correct?

Yes. It was another Stan Lee creation, Spider-Man. I had the option on Spider-Man, and was working with Mike Medavoy at Orion Pictures. They were financing it. Again, the option was due December 31. I was meeting with Mike at the beginning of December, and we had just finished the first draft script, and he was giving notes before the second draft script. I said, remember you have to pay the option money to renew it the end of this month. He said, “Don’t worry about it, Roger. We have a full legal department to take care of everything.” Needless to say they didn’t take care of it, and we lost the option. For that one I did meet with Stan, and he was a nice guy. We got along very well.

What do you think when you hear things now about the super hero genre -- or the new Fantastic Four being gritty or bleak? Because your movie was not that.

It depends on the movie. For some of them, they have to be gritty. For others, they can be like Spider-Man and not as gritty. Whereas Batman is. Our version was more of a wholesome thing. A family gets super hero powers.