Piranhas In 3D & The Psychology Of Fear: The Roger Corman Interview

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Our fear of aquatic creatures has been restored in a huge way today with the release of Roger Corman’s original Piranha on DVD ($15, Amazon) and a remake that’s now in 3D. Techland caught up with the B-movie King, who produced the original in 1978, to talk the evolution of horror and why, even at 84, he says he’ll never retire.

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Allie Townsend: You’ve made so many films and so many of them really concentrate on fear. Has our idea of fear changed since the start of your career?

Roger Corman: I think the underlying reasons for fear have not changed. I think, we’re really recreating childhood fears that are buried in our unconscious mind. The child is afraid of many things including lightning, thunder, monsters under the bed. As he grows, he realizes that it’s okay, there are no monsters under the bed, but that fear is still in his unconscious. I think the basic reasons for fear have never changed. The way that fear is expressed is changed from period to period, according to the culture of that period, but the basic fear itself stays.

AT: What are your thoughts on the way violence in film has evolved over the past few decades? Do you ever think that maybe it’s gotten a little cheap?

RC: I think violence has grown consistently. There’s much more violence in films today. It’s as if a director in one picture cuts off someone’s hand at the wrist. The director of the next picture says, “Well, I’ve got to top that. I’ll cut off the arm at the elbow.” The next one says, “I’ve got to beat that. I’ll cut it off at the shoulder.” Eventually, you reach the point of diminishing returns or no return at all and I think violence has gotten a little out of control because it’s an easy way to get a reaction.

AT: You were known for your ability to make films on a low budget. Is it possible for filmmakers today to make a name for themselves making movies with smaller budgets?

RC: Yes, I think it is possible. You can look at the career of Christopher Nolan for instance, who has the biggest picture out this summer, Inception, which I believe cost a few hundred million dollars. He started with a film that was medium low budget, Memento, and it was such a good picture that I saw it myself. I said to people, “This is a director to watch.” He’s really very talented and his career has simply grown since then and there are many others who follow the same trajectory.

AT: Whenever I read about you, I always see more about the mentoring role you took with some of today’s top filmmakers. Is this something you set out to do during your career?

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RC: Not really. It started in the 1960s when I made some money making my own films and I wanted to invest. I didn’t really know much about the two traditional ways one invests – the stock market, or real estate – but I feel I knew motion pictures, and as a young producer/director around town, I feel I knew many of the other young producer/directors. So, I decided to back Andy Fenady and Irv Kershner, Andy went on to be prominent television producer and Irv had a very good career as a director. He’s currently teaching at USC. I backed them on a little picture called Stakeout On Dope Street that we sold to Warner Brothers and it was quite profitable. I eventually started my own company and started backing young directors and producers and writers that I felt were talented, simply because I thought it was the best way to make low-budget films.

AT: Do you think there’s anyone in Hollywood who has taken on such a mentor role today?

RC: It’s more every man for himself, for this reason: The market for low-budget or medium-budget films has diminished. The major studios dominate theatrical distribution to such an extent that only occasionally will a low-budget picture get a reasonable theatrical distribution. Without a good theatrical distribution, the opportunity to form a company and make a series of low-budget pictures has diminished. For instance, a few years ago, we were making 10, 12, sometimes more pictures a year. We’re now making four, five or six pictures a year.

AT: Right, now the line of Roger Corman Cult Classics are hitting stores and a lot of these films, it’s their first release onto DVD. Why do you think these films will really resonate with today’s audience?

RC: I think the basic elements that are in a film that attract the public, stay. Just as I said with fear, it stays. It just changes with the culture. I think films such as Piranha, which we’re releasing this month on DVD, it was a good picture when we made it in the 1960s and I think the basic qualities of the film remain and will resonate with at least a portion of today’s audience.

AT: Speaking of Piranha, the remake is out and we’ve heard a lot of buzz. Why do you think we love these creature features?

RC: I think again it comes from our unconscious minds. We’re afraid of certain things, including spiders, insects, anything that is a danger to us. There’s still some residual fear of piranhas – what is the plural of piranha? Is it still just piranha? I don’t. I think piranhas are particularly frightening because of the way you’re helpless against them. If you fall into the water with a group of piranha, a shotgun or a knife won’t help you because there are so many. You have no defense. They can strip all of the flesh from your bones in a matter of minutes. That’s a horrible thing to contemplate.

AT: If you could go back into the 1960s and remake the original Piranha, would you want to see it in 3D? Would you want more technology?

RC: Yes. I think 3D has established itself as one of the major components of filmmaking. I think we’re going to see more and more pictures in 3D. I don’t think they will all be 3D – at least for the foreseeable future, but it certainly is a more exciting experience. The success of Avatar shows you that.

AT: Do you think all films should be shot or shown in 3D?

RC: I think it works best for spectacle-type pictures: special effect-type pictures, science fiction, horror pictures, big action films. Yet, at the same time, we’re starting to see animation done in 3D, so it’s spreading. I don’t know if eventually it will take over all of filmmaking, but eventually it will take over a lot of film making.

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AT: What’s the one trend in film today that you really hate?

RC: I think we talked about it. The trend toward overuse of violence. I think overuse of violence and gore, it’s an easy way to get a reaction and I see it very much in slasher films, whereas a more subtle approach to horror using film techniques is more creative and ultimately more satisfying. You can only go so far with violence and gore.

AT: What’s one trend that gives you hope for the future of film making?

RC: I think there is beginning to be a reaction against the $100, $200, $300 million pictures. There is a niche opening up for the well-made medium-budget film. I think that is the most encouraging because it means that filmmakers don’t have to spend a fortune on each film. There’s nothing wrong with spending that much money on certain types of films, but when you are spending that much money, there’s a tendency to play it safe because the amount of money is so great, it’s difficult to gamble, whereas on a medium budget film, you can gamble. You can take chances.

AT: I’ve read in interviews that you’ll never retire, but will you direct again?

RC: No, I doubt that I will direct again. I’ve reached an age that I know how difficult filmmaking is. People think of filmmaking as glamorous, and it is to a certain extent, but it’s also very, very hard work and at this stage, I think I’ll just stay on as a producer.