The ongoing University of Mississippi Press Conversations with Filmmakers series compiles carefully curated, career-spanning interviews with notable directors. These three recent installments, on Roger Corman, George A. Romero, and Charles Burnett collectively function as something of a history of the American independent cinema over the second half of the twentieth century. Corman’s prolific stretch of double features through the 1950s and 60s melded a canny knack for anticipating audience tastes with a hardheaded frugality, and relentless pace of production. Romero’s feature debut, Night of the Living Dead (1968), outstripped the exploitation tendencies of Corman’s films with its nihilistic worldview and pseudo-documentary style. During the 1970s and 80s Romero continued to win critical praise for his thematically rich body of work, while never truly transcending the confines of the horror genre. Burnett, the youngest of the three directors, completing his first feature, Killer of Sheep (1979) as part of his MFA, but struggled to translate the plaudits and honours laid upon that film into opportunities to continue working. History has been kind to these three directors whose works were often not accepted by audiences and critics upon their first release. Central to the legacy of each of these filmmakers is their status as iconoclastic independents, who have persisted in making original American films outside of the Hollywood system. The interviews featured in these three books give a sense of the evolution of the directors’ thematic concerns and industrial practices, and represent a welcome reappraisal of their work, and their place in the American cinema.
Roger Corman’s early career is neatly encapsulated in the following anecdote concerning War of the Satellites (1958), from an interview with Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn in The Kind of the Bs: Working within the Hollywood System, reprinted in Constantine Nasr’s Roger Corman Interviews volume:
“The Sputnik went up [October 4, 1957], and the day after it went up I told Steve Broidy, the president of Allied Artists, that I could deliver the picture in eight weeks, I think it was, and that if they would start the ads right away, based upon what I told them the picture was about, and if they would give me the money, I would deliver the picture… We did it exactly on schedule… We booked it directly into the theatres, and the picture did very well” (p. 76).
Corman’s keen eye for exploitable subject matter informed his ability to transform audience interest in current events and popular culture (be it the launch of Sputnik, the arrival of motorcycle gangs, or a newspaper article that happened to catch Corman’s eye over breakfast) into full-scale motion picture production that would arrive in cinemas before public curiosity dissipated. “Everything interests me… everything was useful to me; everything enriched me”, Corman would tell Positif in 1964 (p. 7), by which point he had accumulated an astonishing 42 directorial credits over a nine year period, in the most extreme case shooting Little Shop of Horrors in two days and one night.
Such myths are an attendant component of Corman’s continued legacy, and in fact, he demonstrates himself here to be a more than active participant in the construction of his own mythology. One problem with compiling collections such as these, reproducing a number of original interviews in unexpurgated form, is circumventing the tendency of the subjects to repeat themselves over multiple interviews. This is particularly evident in Nasr’s Corman volume, given the director’s fondness for retelling stories such as the lure of the beach while shooting Von Richthofen and Brown (1971) in Ireland, or the circumstances by which he came to direct his first colour film, House of Usher (1960). Furthermore, there is an unfortunate tendency for discussion of Corman’s mid-1960s cycle of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations to dominate the interviews throughout this book resulting in a good deal of repetition, at the expense of many of Corman’s earlier films (the first interview featured herein dates to 1964, which more likely represents the earliest date of journalistic interest in Corman, rather than any editorial shortcomings on the part of Nasr). Meanwhile, it becomes something of a running gag that after his decision to temporarily retreat from the director’s chair in the early 1970s to focus on production and distribution, Corman continually promises, in interview after interview, to return to directing in a year’s time. In fact, this would not eventuate until Frankenstein Unbound in 1990.
Nevertheless, Corman’s shift to production enabled perhaps his most enduring contribution to the wider cinema, as he practiced another kind of exploitation, giving individuals as diverse as Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Robert Towne, and Jonathan Demme their first opportunities to work in the film industry, for nominal fees. There is a sadness to the fact that many of these directors went on to Hollywood success, and, in the case of Cameron and Coppola, helped to shape the modern blockbuster, whereas Corman, too set in his self-sufficient ways under his own model of production, was unable to make that transition himself. Nasr himself acknowledges this in his 2008 interview with Corman, entitled “Godfather of the A’s,” casting the box-office dominance of genre spectacles as a kind of glossy, high-budget reimagining of the kind of B-movie fare Corman was churning out in the 1950s, a trend upon which Corman was unable to capitalise himself. Corman remains philosophical, comparing his role in assembling his stable of directors to a coach building the list of a football team. “All I did was be the first to recognise their ability,” he tells Nasr (p. 210).
Elsewhere, Corman appears haunted by the failure of his most personally felt film, the segregation drama The Intruder (1962), and embittered by the studio recutting of Gas-s-s-s (1971), which ended his long association with American International Pictures. A transcript of Corman’s appearance at the American Film Institute in 1970 provides a welcome change of pace, as Corman discusses in depth practical technicalities such as budgeting and the deferral of payments, working with union and non-union crews, and shooting ratios. The interviews in Nasr’s volume reveal that Corman is, above all else, an indefatigable pragmatist, a populist, and an enemy of pretension, who doesn’t, “believe in great films that no one liked” (p. 21). The book ends with a transcript of Corman’s acceptance speech for his Honorary Academy Award in 2009, delivered with optimism, and peppered with trademark business-smarts:
“I’ve always felt that the art of the moving image is the quintessential art of today. That includes motion pictures, television, YouTube, everything… It is the modern art form, but it is a compromised art form, because it is a combination of art and business. And I think that anyone who works successfully in it has to be able to work with one knowledge of art, with one thought of art, and with one thought of business” (218).
It doesn’t take long for Corman to rear his head in Tony Williams’ George A. Romero Interviews book, revealing the very different attitudes with which each director approached their work. Romero tells Interview magazine in 1969 that AIP turned down Night of the Living Dead for distribution due to its downbeat ending, to which the interviewer scathingly replied, “they are prudes at the American International. They like fake, cautious horror like Corman’s” (p. 5). Later, Romero waxes hypothetical to Sam Nicotero for Cinemafantastique (1973) that if Night had been made for AIP, “I think that there probably would have been a scientist in the group, explaining what was going on” (p. 29). Romero’s cinema is a more uncompromising beast than Corman’s, with no room for the lengthy passages of exposition, or the neat generic conclusions that the older director was so fond of. Likewise, whereas the ever-thrifty Corman stresses the importance of a rigorously structured pre-production phase, with shots envisioned and planned well in advance, Romero favours a more free-roaming shoot, telling Filmmakers Newsletter in 1972, “when I direct I don’t think of the cutting, I’ll go out and shoot a sequence… and I’ll literally wait until I see something I want to shoot. I don’t log it or do anything with it. I just go back and look at the footage and get familiar with it, then decide how I want to cut it.” (p. 13-14). This practice is most fully realised in the frenzied editing of The Crazies (1973), which finds Romero moving towards a hyper-kinetic formal approach which perhaps reflects the kind of image assembly Romero would have participated in given his background in advertising and industrial filmmaking. In his interview with Alex Ben Block, Romero anchors his developing construction of cinematic space to a highly formulated rationale,
“I enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles… if I had to define my style I’d say it was almost cubist. Like if I had to shoot what was happening in this room right now I’d just be all over the place and not making any decisions at all until I had the material. I’d cut it so I could look at the film and remember exactly what was happening from many different points of view. It would be cubist. It [sic] other words, there wouldn’t necessarily be any relation between shot to shot, but my cutaways would be informational cutaways. They’d be quick and I’d cut down as much as I could to go for as many angles and viewpoints as I could” (p. 14).
Of the three books, it is the Romero volume which offers the most unexpected surprises: “I’m into Don Siegel pretty hard” (p. 22) Romero reveals to Nicotero, stressing the importance of suggestive horror as opposed to graphic horror. Throughout the book, Romero expresses his as-yet unfulfilled desire to film a Tarzan adaptation, and to remake his rarely seen Jack’s Wife/Season of the Witch/Hungry Wives (1972). At times, Romero laments the commercial pressures that have limited his ability to work outside of the horror genre: “I’m still in no position to dictate something – I still have a drawer full of scripts I’d like to make on day. If you want to keep operating in this business, you have to find the path of least resistance. I feel I still haven’t done exactly what I wanted” (p. 72). Yet even as early as 1972, as he completed his second film, Romero acknowledged that his “primary thing is wanting to be in control”, (p. 17) and possessed a canny awareness that the horror realm was one that afforded him relative autonomy, and the opportunity to covertly work subversive social commentary into his films. Lamenting the mid-2000s rise of “torture porn” as a horror subgenre seemingly without political compass, Romero reasoned that, “it strikes me that just being angry isn’t enough of a reason to make a cruel film” (p. 162). It is unfortunate that the films that Romero considers to be his best, Martin (1978) and Knightriders (1982), both far removed from the escalating bloodshed of his Dead cycle, are among his lesser-seen works.
Of central interest to many interviewers is Romero’s decision to remain based in a city that is about as far removed from Hollywood as is possible on the continental United States (both geographically and otherwise), namely Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This blue-collar city, and its surroundings, has served as the setting for Romero’s films ranging from Night of the Living Dead through to its 2007 reimagining by way of digital video, Diary of the Dead; even though his films from Land of the Dead (2005) onwards have been shot in Toronto, he has retained Pittsburgh as a setting. Throughout this book, one gets the sense that Romero relishes the sense of anonymity and geographical displacement from Hollywood that Pittsburg affords him.
The specificity of place is even more central to the films of Charles Burnett, who has based many of his films around the issues facing African American families in South Central Los Angeles. Unlike Corman and Romero, who received college degrees in industrial engineering and drama respectively, Burnett was the beneficiary of the rise of university film studies departments in the late-1960s, making his earliest short films Several Friends (1969) and The Horse (1973) as part of his studies at UCLA, and completing his MFA in 1977 with his thesis film, Killer of Sheep, a film about the endurance of familial love amidst crushing poverty. The 10 years Burnett spent at UCLA allowed him to incubate his creative sensibilities to a finely honed degree, channelling his cinematic influences of Vigo, Renoir, Bresson, and his literary influences of Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and Faulkner, and inflecting it with his own sense of folklore, storytelling, observation, and autobiography. In one of his first interviews, with Corine McMullin for Cinéma in 1980, Burnett acknowledges his difficulty with the idea that it is possible, or even desirable, for his films to speak for African American experience. “I try to be objective and I know that, in certain situations, I express some Black values but I cannot speak of my movies as ‘Black’ movies. It is debatable. I tried to speak of the Black experience, as I perceived it” (p. 4). “I had never seen a movie with which I could identify” (p. 3) Burnett bluntly stated of his pre-college viewing habits, a comment he would expand upon the following year, in an interview with Catherine Arnaud and Yann Lardau for Le Revue du cinéma,
“I’ve worked on (and seen) many movies about the working class that showed the exploitation, then the consciousness raising, the organisation through unions, the victory, and so forth. But in reality, it doesn’t happen like that. The people I know are out of work; the kind of movie where all the problems get solved can’t be of any interest to them. Life is not an abject lesson of the type A+B=C… After I’d seen a number of these movies, made by socially involved people who didn’t have any real experience of the working class, I realised that their conception of the social movie came from their perception of the milieu that they were familiar with – the middle class. However, the people that I knew were out of work, they didn’t have union experience, or a political consciousness, or time to become politicised. This type of film, where problems were solved for the spectator, couldn’t have any relevance for them. I tried to work in another way, to look at my community in a way that allowed me to find elements inside their own lives, and to construct a theme that would be seen and lived from their point of view” (p. 6).
In the same interview, Burnett eloquently demonstrates his complex awareness of the ethical quandaries that accompany the attempt to give cinematic voice to one’s community: “I am confronted by a number of contradictions. I live in this community. I am a product of it. I went to UCLA by accident, but during my studies, I changed. I know that there is a difference between the individual I was in the beginning and what I am today. Consequently, I can’t say that I speak for the community, because my perception of things is very different” (p. 7).
Killer of Sheep would, of course, go on to become one of the legendary debuts of the American cinema, but its early Critics Award at the Berlin Film Festival did not ensure a theatrical release in the United States, and even after its selection for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1990, the film remained unavailable, tied up with music rights were never cleared. Made under the auspices of the university, with no particular audience or commercial expectation in mind, Killer of Sheep is perhaps the most unfettered, artistically pure work of any of these directors. “I wanted the texture to be rough, as if the movie had been made by someone who didn’t know how to make movies,” Burnett said of his directorial approach. “This movie was made to preserve, to write down in the memory. In music, in the thirties and forties, we had the blues; what I tried to do here is to preserve a certain way of life, to record it” (p. 9).
Burnett encountered immense difficulty getting a subsequent project off the ground, and his next feature, My Brother’s Wedding (1983), never received a theatrical release, nor even a cut with which Burnett was happy. Burnett also struggled to stake his claim during the independent cinema boom of the early 90s, and considers the carefully paced dark comedy of manners To Sleep with Anger (1990) and the dissection of institutionalised racism in LA’s police force The Glass Shield (his first studio film, for Miramax) victims of mismarketing. Burnett refused to easily assimilate into the model of Black cinema being pushed by the major studios, one of “sex scenes from one end to the other – nonstop…five hundred murders and… [a] guy rapping over this guy’s dead body” (p. 36). Nasr unearths a fantastic transcript of a conversation from the midst of this historical moment, as Burnett and fellow African American director Charles Lane talk to American Film in 1991 about compromising to meet studio demands, representations of blacks and women, and finding an audience. From the late 90s onwards, Burnett has alternated between larger commercial projects on subjects that remain close to his heart, such as the television movie Nightjohn (1996) made for Disney about a freed slave teaching a young slave girl to read, and smaller, more experimental films completed under his own aegis. The lofty stature of Killer of Sheep has dominated discourse on Burnett, reflected in the interviews here, and it is interesting to read that Burnett often considers its semi-mythical status has actually harmed his chances of financing his subsequent films. Despite the many obstacles that continue to limit Burnett’s output, he remains committed to a socially-engaged cinema. Many of the interviewers remark on his magnanimous, untroubled demeanour in person, which is reflected in the easygoing, observational temperament of his earliest films, yet at odds with the sensitivity towards injustice that informs his social conscience. At several points Burnett reveals his deep discomfort with many of the mechanisms of the film industry, but if anything, these are the emotions that continue to drive him. “Anger is always there,” he says (p, 93). Sometimes this anger can be misinterpreted, as when Doug Cummings, for Film Journey, recounts a screening of Burnett’s ambitiously metatextual Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property at Caltech, during which the audience of “young, white college students,” took issue with Burnett’s sympathetic attitude towards a violent slave uprising, a confrontation that left the director perplexed (p. 135).
Despite their long standing reputations as iconoclasts of independent filmaking, each of the three directors profiled in these books has had brushes with major Hollywood studios – Corman with The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1967), and Frankenstein Unbound (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1990), Romero with Creepshow (Warner Bros., 1982), and Land of the Dead (Universal, 2005), and Burnett with The Glass Shield (Miramax, 1995). In every case, the interviews reveal that the move to the larger scale of production, and the accompanying manoeuvres through the hierarchies of studio power led only to disillusionment, and prompted a resolute return to independent filmmaking. For Corman, Romero, and Burnett alike, the lure of bigger budgets and larger pay cheques is not worth the attendant loss of creative control and departure from their established modes of production, and each director conveys a sense of bitter disappointment when discussing the compromised works that they helmed for major studios. This is the central dilemma for any individual wishing to participate in the costly enterprise of independent narrative filmmaking in the United States, who inevitably must negotiate the tricky line between film as commodity and film as art. Each of the books in this series contextualises the filmmakers’ work with detailed introductions (Kapsis’ writing for the Burnett volume is particularly insightful), and comes replete with filmographies and detailed timelines chronicling the lives of their subjects. Through the range of conversations curated here, each director reveals different shades of their personality: Corman as the irrepressible raconteur, Romero plain-spoken and blunt in his self-appraisal, Burnett as the born-storyteller, his tales languorously unfurling with a precise sense of timing and a keen eye for detail. What unites them is their continued willingness to traverse the tricky roads on the outskirts of the Hollywood system, and the Conversations with Filmmakers series gives interested readers the opportunity to vicariously follow those pathways.
Roger Corman: Interviews, Constantine Nasr (ed.), (Conversations With Filmmakers), Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.
George A. Romero: Interviews, Tony Williams (ed.), (Conversations With Filmmakers), Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.
Charles Burnett: Interviews, Robert E. Kapsis (ed.), (Conversations With Filmmakers), Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.