Movies - A documentary recalls the mayhem of Roger Corman's time in Connemara
Roger Corman is a true legend of American cinema, a ridiculously prolific writer, producer and director whose no-nonsense approach to film-making helped transform the move industry and launched literally thousands of careers. He's been active since the mid-1950s, has directed almost 60 films and produced nearly 400, mainly B pictures in the horror and thriller genres.
A good number of them have been pretty dire, to be honest, but it's Corman's methods rather than his style that have proved really influential. He arrived in the era of unwieldy studio productions, and revolutionised American cinema with his low-budget, almost guerilla-style of film-making which encouraged a whole new generation of independent directors and producers to enter the business.
Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich, Nicolas Roeg, Ron Howard, Curtis Hanson and James Cameron all learnt the business working on Corman productions, as well as actors like Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper. His distinguished alumni are so numerous that his production company is affectionately known as the 'Roger Corman film school'.
In the mid-1990s, Corman came to Ireland, and for a brief but wonderfully incongruous moment, established a studio in Galway that pumped out schlocky B-movies using a crew mainly composed of untrained locals who were forced to learn the ropes fast. And this heady era for Irish cinema is memorably captured in a new documentary called It Came from Connemara, which will screen next Saturday (September 27) as part of the IFI's Stranger Than Fiction festival.
Directed by Brian Reddin, the film features extensive interviews with Corman himself as well as most of the key local protagonists, and does a decent job of telling a pretty incredible story. Roger Corman had been considering Ireland as a possible location for a European base for some decades before he actually came.
In 1963, Corman was shooting a picture called The Young Racers on location in Liverpool. "I had built," he explains, "with the aid of my ace assistant Francis Coppola, a travelling studio in a Volkswagen microbus. The labour laws were very strict in England but were easier in Ireland, so I said what you do is you just put the bus on the ferry from Liverpool to Dublin, and shoot Dementia 13, which was Francis' first film, in Dublin."
Eight years later, the ever-thrifty Corman returned to Ireland to shoot a war film called Von Richtofen and Brown, using aircraft and locations left over from John Guillermin's 1966 action film The Blue Max.
"We were shooting at this private airport outside Dublin," Corman says, "and I would drive there each morning, and I remember there was a divide in the road, and it was left to the airport and right to Galway, and every morning I thought, I just want to go to Galway." Roger, though, was no romantic, and would probably never have headed west if it hadn't been for some pretty generous tax breaks.
In the mid-1990s, Michael D. Higgins took over as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, and began pushing the development of an indigenous film industry. "My original plan," says Roger Corman, "had been to build a studio around Dublin, where I'd shot before. The Ministry of Industry or something like that offered me a certain grant to help me build a studio, and Michael D. Higgins offered me more money, but I had to build it in the west of Ireland because they were trying to develop industry in and around Galway. So I built the studio and shot my pictures in Galway, and I thought that in America, there's no way the Ministry of Arts would be able to offer more than the Ministry of Industry!"
He built his studio in a small, abandoned factory in Baile na hAbhann, Connemara, with the help of generous grants from Udaras na Gaeltachta. "There was a condition attached to the contract in relation to Irish," explains Terry O'Laoghaire, formerly of Udaras. "The company name had to be in Irish, that's why it was called Concorde Anois Teoranta. And he had to employ people with Irish or people from the Gaeltacht."
The grants from various sources came to about a million pounds, and Corman was initially obliged to employ 50 locals. That number increased over the years, and at its peak in 1998, the studio boasted a staff of 83. Suddenly, young people from the west of Ireland had a chance to get a start in the film business, without having to travel to Los Angeles, or London.
In It Came from Connemara, Corman veterans like John Brady, Celine Curtin, Evelyn O'Rourke and Fair City actress Ciara O'Callaghan wryly recall their experiences at the studio. "The first two films were done out of two 40-foot containers," John Brady remembers, " that was the production office. On the first movie, with 66 of a crew, I'd say six or seven had worked on a movie before."
The Connemara novices were worked hard, and expected to work a six-day week, from 7am to 7pm. "My first wage was £76," Evelyn O'Rourke recalls. "I remember standing there covered in mud with a cheque for £76 and asking myself 'do you want to stay here'. I did."
Though locals did the donkey work, American directors initially came in to make Corman's films. Hollywood veteran James Brolin directed one of them. He remembers arriving in Galway and then driving "for a half hour to 40 minutes to get to this concrete block thing, it wasn't a studio at all it was a vacant lot with a concrete block building, and when I started talking to the crew I realised I was literally teaching a bunch of students."
Corman's Connemara films were generally shot in three weeks, and titles like The Game of Death, Knocking on Death's Door and Bloodfist VIII will give you some idea of their artistic merit. The basic recipe involved blood, gunfire, car chases and regular doses of gratuitous nudity, and Irish director Jeremiah Cullinane remembers being hauled over the coals by Corman's representative on Earth, Mary Ann Fisher, for not showing enough flesh. "She said to me, 'do you mean to say we spent £80 for this actress to come all the way from Dublin and we don't even get to see her tits?' She was livid - I thought I was going to be fired for non-display of breasts."
Though normally absent, Corman would appear suddenly and without warning to make sure things were being run on a very tight budget, and money was saved in all sorts on ingenious ways. The studio bought American cars, and would paint them one colour one side, and another on the other side, so they'd go by one camera, and then turn around and come back the other way to make a street look busier.
The films produced were sometimes shockingly bad, and the Dublin film community quickly adopted a snooty attitude to the Corman enterprise from which they'd been so rudely excluded. Things came to a head at the 1998 Galway Film Fleadh, when a Corman film called Criminal Affairs was premiered to a packed house.
It was nasty, racy and violent, though not especially so, but the Dublin media leapt on it and soon headlines like 'State body subsidises porn in Connemara' were being thrown about. This unwelcome publicity did not help the studio, but was only one of the factors that contributed to Concorde Anois Teoranta's slow demise.
Former Film West journalist Nicky Fennell believes that the studio slowly "trickled away", and that though "people still worked there, the press wasn't interested any more, the buzz was gone. Corman did not come here and reinvent the Irish film industry in the way he's credited with doing in America. People realised that this was just a small studio making B-movies, and I suppose the novelty wore off."
Corman himself maintains that it "ended for several reasons. The restrictions against American pictures by the European Union which caused me to work in Ireland originally were eased, so that incentive went away. When I started, the wage scale in Ireland was quite low, but during that five-year period, Ireland began to become fairly rich, the economy was doing very well, the wages were going up, so my economic savings between that and the United States started to go away.
"But most importantly, independent films got less and less theatrical distribution, and the need for that many films faded so I had less reason to make so many films."
By the early 2000s, Roger Corman was gone, and the west of Ireland was a duller place for it. But though he didn't quite reinvent the Irish film industry, Corman did leave his mark in the form of an alumnus of accomplished young film crew, many of whom went on to bigger and better things. And around rural Connemara you'll now find a lot of production companies run by people who once worked for Corman.
Because, as John Brady puts it, "I learned more in one Roger Corman movie than I did in four years of college."
Roger Corman's early classics
While his later output was not so impressive, Roger Corman began his film-making career with a flourish, and was even lauded by the French New Wave. He began writing and directing movies in the mid-1950s after abandoning a career as an electrical engineer. His early horror films were full of vulgar energy, and movies like Swamp Women, Little Shop of Horrors, The Wasp Woman and Attack of the Crab Monsters have long had a dedicated cult following.
But Corman really hit his stride in the early 1960s when he took on the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Corman had a real feeling for Poe, and between 1960 and 1965 directed eight films based on his stories and starring Vincent Price. The Masque of the Red Death (pictured), Fall of the House of Usher, The Raven and The Pit and The Pendulum used saturated colours and elaborate sets to capture the gothic gloom of Poe's stories, and are horror classics in their way.