Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses

From horror to sci-fi to movies about women behind bars, there was no genre or exploitation trend that Roger Corman failed to embrace. He also kick-started the careers of talents like Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, and Jack Nicholson, as Chris Nashawaty details in his outrageously entertaining oral history Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, In this excerpt, some famous voices tell the stories behind two Corman flicks from the 1970s.

Bruce Dern (actor; post-Corman credits include Silent Running, Family Plot, and Big Love): “In 1970, I worked with Roger again, on Bloody Mama, starring Shelley Winters. I don’t think Roger was ready for Shelley. She had been around the Actors Studio, and Bobby De Niro was under her wing. And Bobby was young, but obviously very, very good. Shelley was a handful. I don’t know how much Shelley respected Roger at first, but she respected him quite a bit by the end of the movie. He handled it beautifully. He’s just a good guy. I mean, I never heard him say a swear word in his life. Anyway, what I remember most about De Niro was that he was in love with a girl who drove a little blue Volkswagen, whose dad was a publisher of a small New Mexico newspaper. They drove out from New York to Arkansas. I’ve only seen Bobby maybe four times since that movie. And I brought that up to him one day, and he got the biggest kick out of it, that I would even remember her. I remember his earnestness. If he [screwed] up in the middle of a take, he’d [swear]. Which is actually a lot more clever than you’d think, because that take wouldn’t be printed. I just remember that he was destined to do something. He was a whiz kid. You could tell he was it.”

Robert De Niro (actor; post-Corman credits include Taxi Driver, The Godfather Part II, and Raging Bull): “I was starting at the Actors Studio, and I came in and met Roger with Shelley Winters. You would hear stories about how fast his movies were made, but it didn’t seem that fast to me. We shot it in Arkansas, and I think we had five weeks. I don’t remember what I got paid on Bloody Mama. Maybe $3,500—that number sticks in my head for some reason. I didn’t

Martin Scorsese (director; post-Corman credits include Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas): “I came in after Francis Coppola and Monte Hellman and Jack Hill. Roger was moving away from AIP with New World Pictures, which was the place to be if you were trying to get into the business. Around the time I went to work for him, I was trying to finish my film Who’s That Knocking at My Door. Not a great title, I never liked that title. My agent got me to meet Roger when I went out to L.A. to edit a film called Medicine Ball Caravan. I got that job by being an editor on Woodstock. So I met Roger at the New World building on Sunset—you know, with the glass elevator and everything. And I was surprised by what an elegant man he was. Judging from the kinds of films he made, I expected him to be more like Sam Arkoff, with a big cigar and everything. Anyway, he asked if I would like to direct a sequel to Bloody Mama. I said I would like to very much. He said, ‘Fine, we’ll be calling you.’ ’’

Julie Corman (producer): “Roger had already done Bloody Mama with Shelley Winters and then wanted to make another gangster picture. I started researching women gangsters, and they were hard to come by. Then I found this book, which was based on a true story. It was the story of Boxcar Bertha, and I thought it was a good story. Everyone who came to the project had a different reason that it was their project. Roger was making the next Bloody Mama, and I saw it as a kind of statement for women’s rights. She was a free spirit, she wasn’t constrained by the things that women who were even behind the women’s lib movement were. She just got on a boxcar when she wanted to go somewhere, and then along the way, some crime developed.”
Still from ‘Boxcar Bertha,’ directed by Martin Scorsese. Bernie Casey, Barbara Hershey, and Barry Primus hitch a ride on a freight train bound for oblivion.

Martin Scorsese: “While I was waiting to hear back from Roger, I started to work on Medicine Ball Caravan at Warner Bros. Brian De Palma befriended me and took me around to meet everybody. George Lucas was there. It my first time really being on my own, and I had to learn how to drive. John Cassavetes took me in as a sound effects editor on Minnie and Moskowitz. And basically I was just observing. Then Roger finally called me back in and said, ‘You have Barbara Hershey, David Carradine, Barry Primus, and twenty-four days to shoot it in Arkansas.’”

Roger Corman: “When the script was finished we brought Marty in. Marty went to Arkansas ahead of everybody to scout locations. And when we arrived, we found that he had sketched all of the shots and tacked them to the walls of his motel room. It was the most complete preparation of a picture I had ever seen.”

Julie Corman: “It was extremely impressive. And maybe not what we expected—that much detail. Marty understood immediately how Roger was able to extend the shooting time of the picture by using a second unit. So Marty sketched all of those shots, too. At the end of the day, it’s a Marty Scorsese picture.”

Still from ‘Boxcar Bertha.’ Barbara Hershey and David Carradine ride the rails between bursts of gunfire … and hay-rolling passion.

Martin Scorsese: “I think we shot it in the fall of ’71. Julie was the day-to-day producer, and she was wonderful. I remember Roger came down one day and he looked at the crew and scowled. Everything was fine. But when the crew saw him scowling, they moved even faster! That’s pretty clever. I think I got paid scale, but it didn’t matter, because basically you were getting the chance to learn how to make a film. That changed everything for me. From him, I learned how to put a picture together. He was like a great professor. He also taught you about the realities of the marketplace: There has to be a chase scene here; there has to be a touch of nudity there. He didn’t apologize for that. This is what we do—every fifteen pages in the script, there should be a suggestion of nudity. You have to embrace that if you’re going to make a movie for him. I didn’t mind embracing that Corman formula. You can’t close yourself off to a certain genre because some people think it’s déclassé.”