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Roger Corman 1926 – 2024

The great Roger Corman has passed away. He was 98 years old. Roger gave lots of young filmmakers their first breaks in the the Film Biz, including me. Roger helped to launch the careers of young directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, Allan Arkush, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, John Sayles, Jonathan Demme and James Cameron. Roger also supported a lot of struggling young acting talent by giving them roles in his films, actors like Jack Nicholson, Charles Bronson, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd, Sally Kirkland, Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone.

Roger bought my first screenplay, Kain of Dark Planet (retitled by Roger as The Warrior and the Sorceress). I also created three movie posters for Roger: The Lady in Red, Up From the Depths and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

Roger was always very approachable. You could pitch him your film idea and get a “Yes” or “No” on the spot. If he said “Yes,” you had your shot at making a movie. You wouldn’t get much money to make your film –– but you got your chance without having to slowly claw your way up the studio chain of command which usually ended up with a solid “No.”

Here are a few of my Corman stories.

1) I painted the poster for the John Sayles film, The Lady in Red. Roger noticed that I had Louise Fletcher holding a bottle of champagne or bathtub gin.

“Bill, take out the bottle and replace it with something else. We don’t know if Louise has ever had a drinking problem. Having her hold a bottle of booze might be embarrassing for her if she was struggling with alcoholism.”

I thought that was so classy and kind of Roger.

2) When I got the job painting the poster for Up From the Depths, Roger instructed me:

“Bill, make that shark a huge prehistoric shark with lots of heavy scales. Then turn the shark into a three quarter view so it doesn’t look exactly like the shark in the Jaws poster. Then, use the swimming girl from the poster for Piranha. We own that image.”

3) I loved doing posters and making movies for Roger. He was very up-front about everything, which was basically… “We’re not going to pay you much, but you’re going to get the chance to do what you want to do.”

Traditionally, when I would do movie posters for other studios, the agency would have me do a whole series of roughs. I’d get so much per rough. From the roughs they’d select a few ideas to do as comps – comprehensives (sort of in between a rough and a finish). So I’d do maybe more four or five comps. Then if they liked some of those comps, sometimes they’d have me do a color comp or two, which was like the poster in color but not quite as finished as a finish but more detailed than a rough. Eventually we’d go to a finish, though, at that time I’d rather not do the finish. I had to work slower on a finish and there was the added pressure of it having to be perfect, whereas with the roughs and comps I could just bash ‘em out. I always made much more money from my roughs and comps than from my finishes.

Roger Corman didn’t want to spend that kind of money on a movie poster. So, I could just show him a thumbnail sketch in my sketchbook. Corman was very lucid visually; he could look at a thumbnail, completely understand it and go, “Yes, Bill. That’s what I want. Go to finish.” So he cut out all of those other steps, saving himself a ton of dough. And, that way, I could use all of that energy that would have been sucked away by roughs and comps and pour that energy into the finish. I’m one of those guys who hates to draw the same drawing twice, which is why I never became an animator.

So, Roger was great. From rough to finish and BOOM. And I got paid upon delivery. With Roger it was fun and I made a little money. With the others, it was work but I made a ton of money.

I’ll never forget his instructions to me for the Rock ‘n’ Roll High School poster.

“Bill, you can do anything you want — as long as it looks like Animal House.”

4) Before the release of Kain of Dark Planet, the film I wrote for Roger, Corman called me up and invited me to see the poster for my film. Upon seeing the poster I was stunned. Roger had changed the title of the movie from Kain of Dark Planet to The Warrior and the Sorceress.

I was mystified by the change.

“But Roger — there’s no sorceress in the movie!”

“That’s okay, Bill. The object of the title of a film is to get butts into seats. Once they’ve paid their money and their butts are in those seats, it doesn’t matter if the film’s got a sorceress or not. Plus, that title means we can put a scantily clad sorceress on the movie’s poster.”

Yielding more butts in seats.

5) Roger always paid. He didn’t pay much, but you never got stiffed. And, unlike many of the big studios, he always paid off on points if you had participation points in a film’s profits.

6) One year, I saw that Roger was being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. I hadn’t seen Roger in a while, so I thought that this might be a good chance to reconnect and show Roger some support. I got to talk to Roger during the event. He completely amazed me. He had been following my career ever since we had worked together. He knew every film I had worked on. He told me he was very proud of me and the work I had done in cinema.

“Roger,” I said. “Don’t waste your time following my career. Keep making movies!”

Which he did.

I highly recommend the documentary on Roger Corman, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel. I was invited to a private screening of the film at my friend Harold Bronson‘s home. Harold had also invited several filmmakers, all of whom had worked with or for Corman. After the film ended, Harold invited us back into his living room, whereupon we were all surprised to find Roger and his wife Julie waiting for us. We swapped all kinds of great Roger Corman stories for the rest of the evening.

I feel incredibly lucky to have known and worked with Roger Corman. He was a very sharp, decent guy who, despite his reputation for being cheap, was actually quite generous when it came to helping young filmmakers to make their own first marks in the film business.

I’ll miss you forever, my friend.