ROGER CORMAN’S DEATH RACE
The indefatigable director/producer chats to Empire about his new film and long career.
The B-movie king returns with Death Race 2050…
What made you want to go back to Death Race? I’m thinking about the original Death Race 2000 which I made around ’75, I projected what I thought certain aspects of society would be like in the year 2000. And I’m doing the same thing again for the year 2050, with the basis being futuristic car racing in which you get points for how fast you can drive, and how many pedestrians you can kill. We combine it with a little bit of social comment on what we think is happening with society, and that’s overlaid with comedy. It’s a funny picture. So a sort of futuristic, fast, action, funny, hopefully somewhat meaningful film. I’m not sure we achieved every one of those goals, but we came close.
It must be the fifth or sixth Death Race…
I sold the remake rights to Universal and I think they made three versions of it, but they concentrated on the action of the racing. Which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. So their versions were car racing pictures, stepping away from the little bit of social commentary, and the comedy. I tried to take characters from the society of today and make them the racers. One of my favourites [from Death Race 2050] is Tammy the Terrorist. The name Tammy The Terrorist just came to me. I was thinking of pop culture, so she’s the bomb-throwing pope of a pop-culture church, and the saints are Saint Elvis Presley, Saint Justin Bieber and so forth. So I had a lot of fun with that. And we have a self driving car, those are already on the road in an experimental way. I was trying to take all these elements of today, and say what would they be like in the year 2050. For instance, the United States of America is now the United Corporations of America, the president is now the Chairman of the Board. We did something as a little bit of a joke and we got kind of lucky, it was early in the presidential race and the Chairman of the Board, played by Malcolm Mcdowell, we patterned him after Trump, with the hairdo and everything. We thought it was just a funny thing to do, we never dreamed that he would actually emerge as the president. So we made the first President Trump picture out there.
Did your lawyers have a heart attack when they saw the names of some of the regions of the
country, like the Googleplex?
Funnily enough that never occurred to me, I never talked to a lawyer about it. I’m not a lawyer but I think if something is in the public eye, it’s available. So let’s say I’m going on that basis.
You’re 90 years old now, do you ever think about slowing down?
I’m slowing down a little bit. I used to make seven or eight films a year — one year I made 10 films — now I make three or four. The years have caught up with me but I hope it never drops to zero.
You’ve produced more than 400 movies and directed 56… which are you most proud of?
As both a failure and a favourite I might go back to The Intruder, a picture I made about the integration of schools in the American south in 1960, with a new young actor playing his first picture, Bill Shatner. It was a very tough picture that I shot in the South, it got wonderful reviews, won a couple of minor film festivals, and was the first film I ever made that lost money. So that picture stays in my mind. Oh, I forgot! I shot the film in 1960, and Bill and I did a commentary for a DVD version around 2000, so I just realised I finally got my money back 40 years later.
You helped to launch dozens of major Hollywood careers — Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich… Are more proud of films you made, or the culture you helped create?
I think it’s all of one. I think it’s all working in the film medium. Now, even as I say that, I realise that dates me, because we don’t use film anymore, it’s digital now. But I’ve been, at various times, a writer, director or producer, and as a producer maybe there is a little bit of mentoring or teaching involved… but it’s all just working in the medium of film, for lack of a better word.
What’s your take on the industry right now?
I love the experience of seeing a picture at a theatre. When I started, every picture that was at least halfway decently made got a full theatrical release. Today most medium or low budget films do not get a theatrical release, and I regret that.
What is your advice to someone just starting out in filmmaking?
I would say, if you have the opportunity, go to a film school. There were only one or two film schools in the United States when I started, and I and my contemporaries, we learned on the job… but I think the best way to learn is actually in a
film school. On the other hand, if you can’t go to a film school, films can now be made very inexpensively. It’s tough to get a job in a major studio, but it’s easy to get a job, if you look around a little bit, on one of these low-budget independent films. And I would say get a job on that film, for two reasons. One, you’re going to do your job and get paid. But number two is, look around, see what everyone else is doing on the set, and learn production while you’re actually in production. I started as a writer and saw what the directors were doing, and I thought, “I could do that!”, and I did. It was a little shaky at the beginning but you learn as you go along.
What’s next? Please tell us you’re working on a Death Race 2075!
I don’t have another Death Race but I’m working on a treatment, I have an idea about the leader of a country who loses faith in the traditional system, feeling that it’s all corrupt, and decides that he doesn’t need the courts any more, he can decide who is guilty and he just kills them. So that’ll be a futuristic science fiction film based somewhat on what is actually happening today.
DEATH RACE 2050 IS OUT FEBRUARY 22 ON DVD AND BLU-RAY.
Left: Roger Corman in the 1970s. Below left: Burt Grinstead as Jed Perfectus in Death Race 2050. Below right: Folake Olowofoyeku as Minerva Jefferson. Bottom: Manu Bennett as the Death Racer Frankenstein.