Beverly Gray has spent her career fluctuating between the world of the intellect and show biz. As she was completing her doctorate in Contemporary American Fiction at UCLA, she surprised everyone (including herself) by taking a job with B-movie maven Roger Corman. At down-and-dirty New World Pictures, she edited scripts, wrote publicity material, cast voice actors, supervised a looping session, and tried her hand at production. She collaborated with such rising directors as Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, and Paul Bartel, and thought up the twist ending to a cult classic, Death Race 2000.
Leaving New World for academia, Beverly also found time to write about theatre and film for Performing Arts magazine, Theatre Crafts, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. Then Roger Corman beckoned once again. Beverly went on to spend eight years at Concorde-New Horizons Pictures as Corman’s story editor and development expert, overseeing the making of 170 low-budget features. Some of these were family-friendly, others decidedly not. Along the way she earned six screenwriting credits and played several cameo roles, in all of which she kept her clothes on
Plus she is a heck of a lot of fun…
Beverly and I have been talking for a couple of years now and I was honored to throw some questions her way.
(1) How did you first meet Roger Corman?
The introduction to my best-selling biography, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, contains the whole story. I was finishing my PhD in contemporary American literature at UCLA when I got a call from a favorite professor. He knew that I was interested in popular culture, and that I’d been writing movie reviews for the UCLA Daily Bruin. He didn’t know much about movies himself, but as the head of UCLA’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter he’d been contacted by someone named Roger Corman, who was looking for a bright young assistant. I was a literary sort of person, and honestly didn’t know who Roger Corman was. But I must have impressed Roger with my eagerness to learn the film business, because I hired on at New World Pictures soon thereafter. What interests me a great deal was that Roger was obviously looking to hire an intellectual. I soon learned that Roger loved to point out to visitors the academic credentials of his employees. In a curious way, I think he was actually trying to legitimize himself by hiring young people with impressive scholastic records.
(2) Can you describe your ascent in the world of the Corman school of filmmaking?
As a filmmaking novice, I had a lot to learn. I had never even seen a screenplay before being handed the script of Cockfighter and told to write up a set of notes on its strengths and weaknesses. Fortunately, my knowledge of great literature helped me in assessing the stories we were telling at New World Pictures. I quickly came to understand film’s visual dimension, but I was already well-grounded in the requirements of a strong plot and well-realized characters. Looking back on my New World years, I now realize Roger was giving me the opportunity to try my hand at many sorts of film-related jobs. I scouted locations for Big Bad Mama, but quickly realized this was not my niche. I worked in the editing room with Joe Dante to rewrite dialogue for TNT Jackson, and helped to cast (and direct!) the voice talent for the English language version of Fantastic Planet. As the production secretary on Big Bad Mama I learned all about the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, using my organizational abilities to keep track of schedules and payments. But I most enjoyed working with writers to hammer out the best scripts possible. Eventually I left New World to return to academia. When Roger came calling once again, he offered me the job of story editor. This title means different things to different people, but to Roger it meant that I would be in charge of every aspect of a screenplay: hiring a writer, developing a basic story line, helping to bring the script to life in collaboration with the writer and eventually the director, sometimes personally writing the final draft. That’s how I earned six screenplay credits.
(3) What lessons did you take away from your time with Corman?
Good question! Anyone who works for Roger Corman soon learns to make movies fast and cheap. Today, when I lead UCLA screenwriting workshops, I make sure that every aspiring screenwriter has some sense of the fiscal realities of his or her project. Another lesson: the importance of promoting a film via advance hype, a great ad campaign, and memorable key art. Roger was sometimes able to sell movies that hadn’t yet been shot (or even written), on the strength of an enticing concept and a terrific poster. In researching my book, I also realized that Roger stayed one step ahead of the competition because of his willingness to innovate. For instance, long before the big studios realized the promise of videocassettes for home viewing, Roger’s product line filled the shelves at local video stores. He was also excellent at capitalizing on trends launched by others. For instance, while Jurassic Park was still in production, we at Concorde managed to get Carnosaur into theatres a month ahead of the big-budget Spielberg epic, thus taking advantage of the public’s appetite for seeing dinosaurs run amok.
(4) What motivated you to first write a book about Corman and why release an updated versions years later?
When I first decided to write a biography of my former boss, I was at loose ends in my own career. I was working as a freelance journalist while also teaching screenwriting through UCLA’s Writers’ Program. The UCLA connection allowed me to take a complimentary course, and I chose something called “Writing the Non-Fiction Book Proposal.” At the time, I wasn’t sure what subject I wanted to pursue, but the instructor quickly made clear that, especially for a first-time author, it is important to choose a topic into which you have special insight. I realized that my years with Roger had given me a ringside view of a man who had been fascinating film buffs since 1956. I also realized I had a wealth of contacts, fellow members of what we all like to call the Roger Corman Alumni Association.
My first book, originally known as Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Biography of the Godfather of Indie Filmmaking, debuted in spring 2000 on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list, and I was thrilled by the number of Cormanites who praised its accuracy and its independent spirit. Four years later, my book had a new publisher, a new name -– Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers – and a jazzy new cover. I added an epilogue, which I called “Winding Down,” because it suggested that Roger (at age 88) was near the end of his long career. Unfortunately, both of these previous editions are now out of print. My agent persuaded me that I should take my book into my own hands, which I have gladly done. It turns out there are lots of new things to say. Roger has experienced a kind of Renaissance in the last decade. He has won an honorary Oscar, has experimented with new technologies, and has found whole new generation of fans, thanks to monster mash-ups like Sharktopus on the Syfy Channel. At the same time, he has dealt with tensions at home that threaten to upend his world. So I have lots of new material for my second epilogue, which I’ve dubbed “The Epilogue Strikes Back.” My new edition (now exclusively a Kindle ebook, but soon to appear on Nook and also in softcover) brings Roger’s saga up to the present, adds a whole new selection of photos, and also restores controversial material that previous editors had insisted I cut. Even if citizens of B Movie Nation have read earlier versions of my Corman biography, they’ll enjoy finding out what Roger is up to NOW!
(5) How did Roger receive your book?
For years, readers have asked me, “What does Roger Corman think of your book?” This new epilogue has given me a chance to detail Roger’s behavior both toward me and toward other recent writers who’ve dared to explore Corman’s history without his personal involvement. Before my book was published, a number of earlier writers wanted to cover the Corman legend. Roger was glad to cooperate with these projects, but expected that the authors make significant changes to their drafts in order to keep his image well-polished. Most gladly did so, hoping (as one told me quite frankly) that their books would be their entrée into the Corman universe. One longtime Corman veteran described Roger for me as “a very private person, who also has a tremendous ego, and loves publicity.” But he only loves it when he can control it. One reason my own book has attracted so much respectful attention is that it has remained completely independent of Roger’s scrutiny.
I tell the whole story in “The Epilogue Strikes Back.” Alas, it isn’t pretty.
(6) Is the Corman model still workable in today’s market?
Honestly, it’s probably not possible for an up-and-comer to work the way Roger has done over the years. Most of his films, after the AIP era, have been self-financed. He has controlled virtually everything himself: production, advertising, distribution. One thing that has made this possible is the seemingly endless supply of talented and hard-working young people who will do just about anything (including work for free) in order to find their place in the film industry. It used to be that a Corman company was just about the only option for an aspiring young filmmaker. Today a lot of the best and brightest would rather make a small, personal film, finance it on their credit cards, and take it to Sundance or Telluride or South by Southwest. The success of a film like Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape, which was the hit of Sundance in 1989, showed that young talents could succeed in Hollywood without going the Corman route. That doesn’t mean, of course, that there aren’t eager young acolytes working for Roger right now – but the films they’re making are often rehashes of Roger’s past achievements. I don’t think his company is as adventuresome as it used to be, and I know it’s a whole lot smaller.
Beverly Gray, who worked for Roger Corman both at New World Pictures and at Concorde-New Horizons, first published her definitive Corman biography in 2000. The fully updated and unexpurgated Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches and Driller Killers is now available as a Kindle ebook. [http://amzn.to/WE0Cch] To learn more about Beverly, see http://www.beverlygray.com. And check out her wide-ranging biweekly blog, Beverly in Movieland, which covers movies, moviemaking and growing up Hollywood-adjacent. [http://www.beverlyinmovieland.com] All citizens of B Movie Nation are cordially invited to join Beverly’s Facebook page, which of course is entitled Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. See you there!
Author, “Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers”
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