Talking to Roger Corman is always an incredible experience. The director of dozens of cult classics and producer of hundreds more has developed a reputation in the film industry for his trend-setting genre films and ability to discover talented actors directors early in their careers: alumni of the Corman school of filmmaking include James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Paul Bartel and Jack Nicholson, to name just a handful. Corman's latest film, Attack of the 50ft Cheerleader, premieres on EPIX on August 25 (visit epixhd.com if your cable provider doesn't carry it) and could very well add to that list the names.
At Comic Con 2012, we sat down with Roger Corman and Attack of the 50ft Cheerleader's co-stars, Jena Sims and Olivia Alexander, to discuss the past, present and future of B-Movie filmmaking, what Corman learned for James Cameron about 3D, the actresses' favorite Corman films and Corman's interest in moving on to "pure" sci-fi filmmaking after the SyFy Channel "Creature Feature" genre dies out.
CraveOnline: I’m an enormous fan of yours, particularly your directorial work. I’ve talked a lot about Gunslinger and Teenage Caveman in particular.
Roger Corman: Somebody asked me about that. I said I never shot a picture called Teenage Caveman. What happened was I shot a picture called Prehistoric World, and just before the release the distributor changed the title to Teenage Caveman.
Yeah, Robert Vaughn wasn’t all that teenaged at the time.
Roger Corman: That’s true.
But I love that movie because it feels like it presaged “The Twilight Zone” in so many ways. It had a wonderful twist ending. But Attack of the 50ft Cheerleader… one of the things that’s always fascinated me about your work was that a lot of your work was very feminist.
Roger Corman: Yes!
But you’ve also made this wonderful career out of exploitation cinema, with movies with a lot of nudity. Where do you find that balance?
Roger Corman: I feel that all types of filmmaking are valid. I’ve done musicals, I’ve done comedies, I’ve done horror films. They’re all part of filmmaking.
This is a “Giant Person” movie, and when I think of that genre I usually think of Bert I. Gordon.
Roger Corman: Yeah, Bert was a friend of mine.
What are your thoughts on some of his movies, and now working with giant cheerleaders?
Roger Corman: Well, Bert made some very good films but they were low-budget films, made in the 50s and 60s, and the special effects we had at that time simply were too rudimentary to fit today. So Cheerleader, the special effects are really quite good. We were very pleased with it, and Liv and Jena look good at this size, and at the size they are in the film they look that much better. [Laughs]
Kevin O’Neill directed this one. He’d done Dinocroc and Dinoshark. Did you think he could handle this? Did it come close to being Dinocheerleader?
Roger Corman: I thought he could [do it], and I think he did. He did a good job for this reason: he had directed some straightforward films for us with a limited amount of special effects, and he’d also worked on the Miramax Piranha-whatever. We having made the first Piranha, but Miramax ended up with the rights. And so I knew he had experience working in 3D, so I had full confidence in him.
What are your thoughts on 3D? There are opinions on whether it should be immersive or gimmicky…
Roger Corman: I follow, almost, the teachings of somebody I taught. [James] Cameron started with us. I was talking to him before he did Avatar, and he said “I’m not going to do those shots where the spear comes through at the audience, or anything like that.” He said, “I will push a few things for 3D, but I’m going to shoot this just as a normal picture, but taking a little bit of advantage of 3D.” And we’re following what Jim did in Avatar, but we’re being a little more exploitative [laughs] and we’re pushing 3D a little bit more than he did.
Did you see the new Piranhas?
Roger Corman: No, I made the first one. There was a little trickiness in some contracts, and that’s why I didn’t make the follow-ups. So I have no reason to see it.
Roger Corman: I heard it was not good.
They’re not awful, but they’re no Joe Dante, that’s for sure. Jena, can you talk about your experience working with Roger Corman on this kind of a movie, and your thoughts on this kind of movie in general?
Jena Sims: Definitely. You know, when you hear “B-Movie” you have certain expectations going into it, what you’re going to expect and how it’s going to go. But working with Roger honestly changed my life. I thought, “Oh, it’s going to be a B-Movie” or “Oh, it’s going to be cheesy or whatever,” but honestly I am so proud of it, and I think it’s going to be so amazing and such a great movie. I think it’s just as good as any of these multi-million dollar blockbusters.
Have you practiced your Oscar acceptance speech in front of a mirror?
Jena Sims: I’ve been doing that since I was like three or four years old. [Laughs]
Is there anyone you’d want to thank now, just in case it takes a couple of years?
Jena Sims: Olivia, my co-star. My mom, Roger, my agent, and… Who else? I’ll think about it. I’ll come back to you about that one.
Olivia, working with Roger and the B-Movie experience?
Olivia Alexander: I think that the B-Movie experience, for me… The thing that I took most from it, especially with Roger, is I think that it not only gives people like Jena and I a chance to star in a film… and for me, I’ve been auditioning in L.A. for ten years. And I love the low-budget B-Movie genre, because it’s a come-up. It’s a place where girls like Jena and I get to shine, and I think that with the lower budget, it actually lets talent shine so far. It’s like you squeeze the toothpaste out, you’re just squeezing it out, and I definitely felt freedom as an actress. More freedom on the set. And I know it’s because it’s a Corman set. I know that he hires people that he trusts, and I think that’s why he’s had such a success, because the genre allows for real art. It allows for the truth to come out. And I felt that every day on set. Every day was an experience, and every day was so freeing and liberating, and Roger and Julie really just embraced us both, and really let us run free. I love that.
I think making B-Movies is important, and I think what Roger has given the movie industry in general is so important, and I hope that the legacy is carried on in the future because not everybody wants to go see Batman. Being, also, in a sexploitation genre, too, it taught me a lot about myself as a woman. My power. I know, I’m really dramatic, I’m super dramatic, but for me I felt really liberated. I’ve gotten really connected already to people who are already fans of this film, even though it’s already out. They’re there.
They’re fans of the idea of the film.
Olivia Alexander: Right, and just getting the experience of being a giant, even though it’s just green screen, that kind of power, excitement…
Jena Sims: It’s larger than life! [Laughs]
Olivia Alexander: It is! It’s just taking it to the next level, and I think Attack of the 50ft Cheerleader has got a little bit of everything. I think it’s probably, in my opinion, obviously I’m biased, but one of the ultimate things I’ll ever do in my life. And just that lower budget allows for that freedom, and Roger is a really trusting guy. When Roger hires you he puts his trust in you. For me, just like Jena, it changed my life.
That raises an interesting question. Roger, when you’re producing a movie as opposed to directing it, how do you feel about the low-budget, run and gun, limited schedule? You’ve done movies where you’ve done everything in one or two takes. Do you want your directors now to take a little more time now that the process has changed?
Roger Corman: Well, starting as a director, I think I can appreciate it from a director’s standpoint. I try to give the director a great deal of freedom. My work is primarily pre-production. When you’re shooting on a short schedule the director can’t come onto the set and say, “Where am I going to put the camera?” He comes on the set and says, “The camera goes there with a 30mm lens.” So my work with the director is almost totally before shooting. I’m there for the first couple of days of shooting, and after that I don’t even bother to come unless something goes wrong, then I show up. [Laughs]
I can’t think of any kind of movie that you couldn’t make. Once you’ve done Sharktopus all bets are off. Is there any kind of movie, any kind of monster or any kind of theme you’ve wanted to tackle in your movies that you haven’t got to yet?
Roger Corman: I’ve always loved science fiction, and we seem to be trapped in kind of a “creature feature” science fiction world. But there’s so many good science fiction novels, short stories and even one-act plays that deal with basic ideas, and I would like to get back in some of our science fiction pictures to what I might call “pure” science fiction.
Was there anything you have in mind?
Roger Corman: There are a couple of novels I tracked a number of years ago, and both of them – it was really weird – both of them got picked up and were made. One was Dune, which actually I even wrote a treatment myself on Dune because I knew there was an option, and I was just waiting for that option to run out, but they picked up the option. The other was Ender’s Game, which I really loved.
Jena, what is your favorite Roger Corman movie and why? It seems like a stock question, but he’s made so many movies that I feel like this is really telling about your personality.
Jena Sims: I like Fire on the Amazon. I watched that right before I did Attack of the 50ft Cheerleader because I respect Sandra Bullock and I had no idea that she was in a Roger Corman movie. [Laughs] So I like that one, and of course mine, Attack of the 50ft Cheerleader, but technically I haven’t seen it yet, so… [Laughs]
Olivia, assuming that 50ft Cheerleader is your number one, what’s your number two?
Olivia Alexander: Sharktopus! It brings so much joy to just say it. Sharktopus! I want to be Sharktopus sometimes. I get a cocktail in me and I just [bites]. I just think it’s hard, there are so many movies. I learned so much about everything from even going back and watching the old ones. We had movie nights, we were trying to catch them together. Studying the body of work that Roger has done is beyond an education. I think the kind of films, like Sharktopus… Thank god somebody doesn’t take making movies too seriously. That’s another thing. It’s Hollywood. Let’s make movies. And Sharktopus for me was something that… I always want to find fun in everything, and that’s what it’s about. That’s the same thing with Attack. Not all people want to be depressed after a movie. It’s something that I think is fun, exciting, but yeah, Attack of the 50ft. Cheerleader is obviously my favorite.
Talking about the giant monster cycle. A lot of your movies go to the SyFy Channel, and that seems to be their stock-in-trade, the giant monster movie. Do you feel like that’s where the market is, or is that just what’s expected of you right now?
Roger Corman: That’s where the market is now. But assuming there is a river of time, I’ve been around long enough to know that when these cycles start they build and eventually they slide away. I’ve had various talks with the executives at SyFy saying that these pictures are getting good ratings, but just from my own experience I can predict that within a year or so, these ratings are going to start to slide and we had better figure out what the next move is.
One thing I like about your movies is that you’re always able to get good cameos. How were you able to get Sean Young to be in 50ft Cheerleader?
Roger Corman: It was really strange. I’ve forgotten his name for the moment, but Sean’s agent called me and said, “Is there anything for Sean in this picture?” And I said, “Well, she gets a fair amount of money and we don’t really have anything…” and what he said essentially was, Sean just wants to work. So we brought her in as [Jena’s] mother and she was very good in it!
What’s it like working with Sean on set? She has a reputation for being something of a personality.
Jena Sims: She definitely has a big personality. But I learned positive and negative things, like how to act on set. I learned to show up on time from her! [Laughs]
Jena Sims: But yeah, it was really nice. Having her, not even as a mentor, but you know, just to talk about things. She’s a veteran in the industry and I’m so new, so it was nice just talking to her, having her as a mother figure. I’ve never had a fake mama in a film before.
Did you get to bond at all, or did you just have to show up since it’s such a low-budget production?
Jena Sims: You know, a lot of our scenes we shot as sort of a Skype thing, so we shot separately. I’m away at college, so we’d be Skyping in to each other, so very rarely did we actually get to work together.
Did you get to Skype at the same time?
Jena Sims: It was different, on the same day. So we were there on the same day, in the makeup trailer together, but not like, literally, we weren’t Skyping together.
Besides being enormous, what was your favorite part of working on 50ft Cheerleader?
Olivia Alexander: For me, I play the villain, and that’s something I’ve dreamed of my whole life. I know a lot of people probably won’t admit to that, but I always wanted to join the mean girls of film, so I think the character, Brittany Andrews, for me is just something that was a dream. From the moment I walked into the audition I was going to do whatever it took to play her. I would have sat at New Horizons, on the floor, in the lobby, until they gave me the part. I couldn’t live without it, and every single day getting to bring her to life was just a pleasure. And then meeting Jena and connecting with her. And our director, Kevin O’Neill, taught me so much. So I guess it would be my character, Brittany Andrews, she was just a dream of mine. The writing was a dream, for me as an actress.
Jena Sims: Olivia is now one of my best friends in real life, which is cheesy but so true. But I was a cheerleader in high school, so getting to do cheerleading in the actual film. I actually did tumbling, small stunts. And also learning how to fight.
Olivia Alexander: Yes!
Jena Sims: That was so cool.
Olivia Alexander: Duh!
Jena Sims: Our stunt coordinator was one of the original Ninja Turtles, and we’d beat the crap out of each other. Literally. He has this whole schtick that he puts on. Fake fighting with her for five days straight was one of the best experiences I’ve ever experienced on TV and film. So amazing.
Roger, what was your favorite part of the 50ft Cheerleader experience?
Roger Corman: Well, for the two lead actresses, for Cassie… Actually, both of these areas have nothing to do with special effects. When Cassie, who’s been sort of put down a little bit, I remember one shot when she’s emerged as a beauty and she walks forward into the party. It was just a shot of Cassie walking, but it showed the whole difference, not just the exterior but the interior. And somewhat similar with Olivia, who plays the main girl but you see in a couple of moments that she’s vulnerable, and I thought that was very, very good because you don’t… As you used to say in Westerns, you don’t want the guy in the black hat to wear the black hat all the time. [Laughs] And I thought that one or two moments of vulnerability on the part of Olivia, or Brittany, were just as important to me as the special effects.
I always like to ask you this, because I think people need to know. In your experience discovering talent, like James Cameron and Joe Dante, what do you look for in recognizing talent and giving them an opportunity? What do you seek?
Roger Corman: Well, in the long run, whether it’s an actor or writer, director, producer, the first thing I look for is intelligence. People may not realize, particularly with an actor, but almost every really good actor is intelligent. Then there is simply the creativity connected with it. That varies from one actor to another.
Any last thoughts?
Jena Sims: I’m really excited to be at Comic Con. I’m a huge nerd. I was in Paris last week, at Comic Con Paris. So I’m hoping I actually get to go to the convention and walk around because I’m a huge fan of Jim Lee, Batman, I’m just a huge comic nerd so I’m thrilled to be here.
Olivia Alexander: I’m a noob at the Comic Con. It’s my first time at the Con. But it’s something that I’ve dreamed of my whole life, and I’m popping my Comic Con cherry. I’m pretty excited about it.
It hurts the first time, but it gets better.
Olivia Alexander: Oh, as I was coming down on the train I went through a vortex. And then when I got down here, it was like being in a different universe, and I was screaming when [Jena] picked me up at the bar. For no reason.
Jena Sims: You were like AAAAAAAAGH!!!
Olivia Alexander: AAAAAAAAGH!!!