Corman now produces less than half of his films in the US. The majority are shot in other locations around the globe, including Ireland, Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria. Steven Yates talks to the king of schlock about working in the Old World.
Last December's Bratislava International Film Festival paid tribute to the most successful B-movie producer and director of all time, Roger Corman, with a retrospective of highlights from the 550 odd films he has produced and some 50 others he has directed. Amongst the works on show were The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964) showcasing his work as director and Boxcar Bertha (dir Martin Scorsese, 1972) and Big Bad Mama (dir Steve Carver, 1974) representing him as producer.
Corman is little-known in Slovakia—and, indeed, generally on the other side of the former Iron Curtain. His films are rarely screened and the younger generation wouldn't recognise him from his cameo appearances in The Godfather: Part II (1974), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Apollo 13 (1995).
But while eastern Europe may not be familiar with Corman, Corman certainly knows eastern Europe. The producer has been doing business there since the 1960s and was one of the first to recognise the potential for the former Communist countries for providing cheap actors, crew and services for "runaway" productions—an industry now worth millions, if not billions, of dollars to the region every year.
In fact, as little as 40 percent of productions by Corman's New Concorde company are shot in the US. A further 40 percent are shot at the company's Irish studios, strategically set up to give the company a foothold into the European cultural subsidy system and to take advantage of low taxes and generous job creation subsidies. The remaining 20 percent are shot in other locations around the globe, principally the Phillipines and Russia, where Corman entered a deal with Mosfilm that enabled him to use for free the expensive sets left over from high-budget productions such as La Reine Margot (1994).
While at Bratislava, Corman spoke to Kinoeye about his work in Europe and also took part in a Q&A for independent producers. Here we present our interview with Corman with additional material from the Q&A, added seamlessly for the sake of readability.
You seem to have been operating in Europe from quite an early date in your career. Can you remember when you first came to eastern Europe?
Well, in the 1960s I bought the American rights to several Russian science fiction films. They were made with big budgets and tremendous special effects. They were, unfortunately, filled with anti-American propaganda. I said to the Russians, "I'm going to have to cut the anti-American propaganda out. I can't show these pictures in America," and they said that they totally understood. One of Francis Coppola's first jobs coming out of UCLA Film School was to cut the Russian propaganda out of these films for me [which were shown dubbed]. I didn't work again in eastern Europe until the 1980s, which is not to say I didn't work at this time.
I came back and did those three or four films in Bulgaria as co-productions in the 1980s and then three or four films in Russia in the early 90s; I was working with Mosfilm in Moscow, and I've gone back there. We've just finished Fire over Afghanistan in Bulgaria and a picture called Keeper of Time in Lithuania, and I'm exploring the possibility of shooting elsewhere, particularly Romania.
Have you produced films in Romania before?
I've not done films in Romania, but I've talked to a Romanian director who won one of the awards tonight [Siniša Dragin, who directed În fiecare zi Dumnezeu ne sãrutã pe gurã (Every Day God Kisses us on the Mouth, 2002), which won Dan Condurache the Main Jury Award for Best Actor] and we were talking about the possibility of doing something.
Were there any particular problems doing deals with Communist countries?
There were no real problems. There were slight problems that I think were misunderstandings just because of the culture and because at that time, particularly with the Russians, they didn't understand the way in which the international film world worked. But other than that I got on very well with them and there were never any problems in shooting. I think, as a matter of fact, Mosfilms is one of the great studios in the world.
I think anyone who went to eastern Europe before the end of 1989 must have some stories to tell about what they encountered. What do you remember from this period that stands out?
Well, in both Bulgaria and in Russia there was a little bit of disorganisation. They had been working under a Communist regime, which didn't push the efficiency of production very much. So, their pictures were likely to run on for months and months and months in the shooting, and nobody particularly cared. When I was first dealing with them I was insistent upon the budget, the length of the shooting schedule and so forth; and they didn't really understand why I was so interested in this. I said "Well it determines how much money I'm going to have to put up," and gradually they began to learn. The experience was very good. In both Russia and Bulgaria, the first two places I shot, the crews were slow. Again, they had never been pushed to work efficiently, to get a certain number of shots in the day, but once they understood, I wouldn't say they caught up immediately but they came half-way there.
You withdrew from Russia in 1997 and your producer there, Anatoly Fradis, was quoted in the Hollywood Reporter as saying "Who needs cold weather, the Mafia, rising costs, political instability and dilapidated studios anyway?"
Well, that may have been a slight over-quote. Sometimes they embroider or heighten your quote to make it more interesting. I had all those problems but, in retrospect, they seem minor now. Maybe over time you forget a little bit, but thinking and talking to other people who've shot in eastern Europe, I'm inclined to think that it turned out better for me than some of my friends.
You pulled out of Russia around 1997, but you went back there last year to make Gladiatrix (dir Timur Bekmambetov, 2001) [the film had to be called The Arena in the US to avoid confusion with Ridley Scott's similarly entitled feature] . What was it that made you go back to the country?
I had met a young Russian Producer who convinced me that if I moved away from Mosfilm the films could be made less expensively. So, we shot in a forest outside St Petersburg, and we constructed our sets there and, indeed, working with the crew from St Petersburg and one that was not part of a studio bureaucracy, we were able to cut our costs substantially. And, I'm more interested in Russia again than I was.
Was the film made for the Russian market first and the international market second? As I understand it, the film's star Yulia Chicherina is a pop star in Russia and the film's theme song, also performed by her, became a hit single.
From my standpoint, it was always geared to the international market. However, my co-producer from Russia had the Russian and the east European rights and he chose to put the Russian pop singer in the film, and they released the film theatrically in Russia and it did rather well.
After 1989, you moved around quite a lot in eastern Europe. You went to Belarus, Russia, Bulgaria and the Ukraine. Would it not have been more economical to stay in one place and just use a regular film crew?
In the beginning, I followed the advice of Anatoly Fradis. Mosfilm on the first picture was very good but then, as often happens, they started raising their prices on the second and third film, and Anatoly Fradis told me that we could go back to the original prices and save money by going to the Ukraine. Which I did, but I still felt they had become a little bit too expensive and I walked away until I was offered the deal on Gladiatrix outside [St Petersburg]. Then I shot in Lithuania, which was a little bit cheaper.
What conditions do you look for when you are producing a film in Europe?
The number one concern for the American market is that they want the film to be shot in English. It is possible to shoot the film in double close-ups. So, if you're shooting in Germany, you can shoot your long-shots all the same but when you come to close-up, you would have the actor say the line in German and in English. But, that is a little bit awkward in production. Technically it's a good idea but I think the actor loses his performance a bit and it harms the film.
First, I'm looking for it to be shot in English. Secondly, I'm looking primarily for the traditional subject matter—the action/adventure, horror, sci-fi, mystery, etc. These subject matters work almost all the time. The cost of making a film in the United States is so high that to make a film in English and to make it in Europe, where you have subsidies and grants from the European Union and individual countries, works very well for me. I've done that a number of times.
Do you ever use digital?
Yes, I have just shot a film on digital in Bulgaria.
What's your main concern when you're deciding whether to shoot on digital or on film?
We have a rough figure, and our philosophy is that our most expensive films always are shot on film. We find that in the United States it doesn't make much difference whether it's shot on digital or on film, but overseas, particularly Europe, not so much Asia or South America, but particularly Europe, they will pay you more money for a film shot on film. So we figure we can save, and it varies from film to film, we can save USD 60-70,000 by shooting on digital. But, if we're going to get USD 90,000 more back for shooting on film, we might as well shoot on film.
Your films go into distribution globally. Do you have any feelings about how the different distribution markets work? Is Europe more open to imported films than America?
I think there is a world-wide film culture and I think we all belong to that. There has never been any discrimination from America against European films or any other country's films. For example, the French film Amélie (dir Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) has been a very big success in the US. However, America doesn't give financial aid to independent film-makers or producers like Europe does. More US films are now being shot in Europe because there are slightly lower labour costs there.
Production and distribution in Europe has a pretty safe and traditional market. The films that tend to break through are independent personal films. In the days, during the 1960s, when I had my first distribution companies, I was responsible for films by the likes of Kurosawa and Truffaut. We would open in one theatre in New York and LA, and by the second week we would rely on the critics that we knew, and the publicity campaign was based on what they thought.
From a distributor's standpoint, they don't really care what the film is. All they want is to see it open on a Friday night, the figures, and what the figures for the second week are, because by that point one will know whether the gross is going up or going down. So, in general, it's been the more personal European films, rather than the more commercial ones, that have had success in theatres in the United States.
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