Interview: Roger Corman on Vincent Price

Today marks what would have been the 108th birthday of iconic actor Vincent Price. Perhaps best known for his horror films, his distinctive voice and features graced classic films, Edgar Allan Poe shockers, Scooby Doo, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands among others.

In early 2011 I had the privilege of interviewing legendary director/producer Roger Corman for a magazine I was compiling to mark the Price Centennial. What follows is a transcription of the conversation, published in full for the first time.

Publicity still of Roger Corman

ROBERT JE SIMPSON: If I can kind of go about this a bit backward, I was at the Edinburgh Film Festival a couple of years ago and listened to you talk then, and you were talking about making a new short with Joe Dante.


RS: Has that seen a, let me think what’s the way to word this, from that, has that got you back into the sort of mindset of filmmaking as a director?

RC: I didn’t totally understand what you said but we did make the short, with my wife and me co-producing and Joe directing and eh… on Netflix for Halloween. And the whole idea of it was that it would play on three successive nights, three successive nights separated by one week each, starting on Halloween. And the audience would vote as to who they wanted killed in the next episode and, and we then had one week to write, shoot and edit the episode in which that person was killed.

RS: Right, okay, and it was well received wasn’t it?

RC: Yes, it did very well. It was extremely successful

RS: And you’ve not been tempted to go back and do more? Is there more planned?

RC: We don’t directly have anything to do with Netflix on another one but we like the idea, and what we did was to shoot all possible endings so if they did [decide that] character die, we had already shot that and would cut that in. If they picked character B to die, we’d already shot that and cut that in, so we’ve been able to sell it around the world on the same basis that whoever say the audience in Australia wants to die, if its character C, we’ve got it… And so it will be completely original everywhere it shows.
RS: Okay [laughing]. I didn’t know that about it. It makes it sound a very interesting project.

RC: Yes. Joe came back really cus he said “This is the way we all started, this will be fun” and that’s the reason I did it.

RS: That’s what I was going to ask, is it, this kind of filmmaking, was it very different from the sort of thing you were doing in 1960? Creatively at least?

RC: It was similar. The main thing is that when I was shooting the Edgar Allan Poe films with Vincent we shot on sound stages with sets constructed for the picture; in this one we found an old house in the Hollywood Hills, and we shot within that house; so it was a different situation we’re more limited in the scope of our shooting simply because of the size of the rooms, but it was a similar concept to what we did with Vincent.

RS: Ok. How did you… you’d been directing a lot of varied projects before you came to the Poe, what brought about the first of the Poe films?

RC: I had been making a series of pictures, which American International Pictures and Allied Artists, two independent companies, distributed, and the way I did it I would shoot black and white pictures, each in ten days, and they would sell them as a double feature – two horror films or science fiction films, two action/adventure films and so forth. And I was talking with AIP (American International) and they wanted me to do two horror films, ten days each in black and white for around 70, 80 thousand dollars a picture. And I said I thought this concept of double bill was getting tired, and the audience wasn’t responding as well, and that what I would prefer to do – if they would back me – was to do one fifteen-day horror film in colour for about $250,000, and they asked me what I wanted to do, and I said The Fall Of The House Of Usher, which had been a favourite story – I’d read it as a schoolboy. And they agreed to do that, and surprisingly enough my first choice for Roderick Usher was the same as Jim Nicholson’s who was head of production for AIP -we both picked Vincent Price.

RS: Right. And what happened… why did you pick Vincent?

RC: Vincent embodied some of the characteristics of Usher in the short story, in which he was an intelligent, educated, rather courtly gentleman, of great sensitivity, and I felt Vincent had all of those characteristics.

RS: Had you met him before you cast him then?

RC: No. I had never met him before. I had lunch with him before we shot the picture, we discussed the picture and the character and how we [perceived] the character and the general style of the picture, but that was the first time I had met Vincent.

RS: Right. Okay. His performance in The Fall of the House of Usher is, needless to say, quite disturbing. What was Price’s sort of working methods on set?

RC: Would you repeat that?

RS: Sorry. I think Vincent’s performance in Fall of the House of Usher is quite disturbing, and the character itself is quite awkward to watch – its unpleasant, its uneasy; how was his sort of working methods on set?

RC: I worked with Vincent, in general, the way I worked with most actors; I don’t like to give a lot of direction on the set. I discussed the role in advance with the actor and j[ust] at the beginning of the day and the beginning of each scene had a brief discussion as to the interpretation, and then I leave as much as possible to the actor because I trust the actor to do the job and Vincent worked that way very well. He was a classically trained actor and he understood exactly the way in which we were working and responded very well.

RS: Okay. Obviously it was a style that worked. You kept him on for another six or seven pictures.

RC: Yes.

RS: Was that something you decided to do or was it something distributors asked for?

RC: The distributors asked for it. Usher was a big success, as a matter of fact the biggest success American International had ever had at that time, and they asked me to do another one. I was going to choose Masque of the Red Death but Igmar [Bergman’s Seventh] Seal had come out and there were some similarities between Masque of the Red Death and Seventh Seal and I felt that people would think I was copying the Seventh Seal, although Masque of the Red Death was written in the 19… 1800s, mid 1800s, and so I chose The Pit and the Pendulum instead.

The Pit and the Pendulum

RS: Okay. Did you have a particular attraction to Poe, or even to Lovecraft, who also seems to be hiding behind a lot of the stories?
RC: Yes. I have an attraction to both. Personally, I’m more attracted to Poe, I think he was, I think they were both good writers. I think Poe was a more subtle writer than Lovecraft, and was specifically working with the unconscious mind at a time when the concept of the unconscious mind was pretty much unknown.

RS: Okay. Funny enough, talking about the subconscious mind, I was reading through an interview of yours earlier on today, and you were talking about symbolism in your films in terms of Freudianism.

RC: Yes.

RS: Was this something that you were into throughout your whole filmmaking career, or was this something that came later on as the critics started to analyse your films?

RC: No. As a matter of fact it was probably one of the reasons the critics DID analyse the films. I was interested in psychoanalysis and Freudian interpretation of dreams, and his whole concept of the subconscious, the unconscious, which was similar to Poe’s, and I felt that Freud was working in a scientific way or at least partially scientific way, in the same as the way Poe was working in an artful way. And so I tried to use some of Freud’s concepts of symbolism and dream theory in the Poe pictures. This is why I had in almost every one of them at least one dream or fantasy sequence.

RS: Uh huh. And a firey ending as well! A lot of the time…

RC: No, that just happened [RS laughs] and finally I stopped it, because I said I’d burned down the set in every picture! [laughs]. I said we’ve got to find a different way to end these films.

RS: And quite literally for Tomb of Ligeia I gather!
RC: Yes. Right. We went back to it because I’d stepped away from it with Masque of the Red Death and The Raven, and I felt now it was okay to go back and burn down the set. [laughing]

RS: With the last couple of Poe pictures you came to the UK to shoot. I guess the obvious thing – its probably been said many times before – is that there’s an obvious comparison perhaps with the Hammer films that were being produced in Britain. Was this something you were consciously aware of throughout the time that you were making the Poe pictures?

RC: I was aware that Hammer Films was making films. I only saw one of them as a matter of fact, and I thought it was a well-made film. But it had nothing to do with Hammer Films, it was the fact the Poe pictures had been quite successful in England, and at that time England had something called the Eady plan, which was a subsidy from the UK government, and American International suggested that I shoot in England. Their English distributor Anglo-Amalgamated had done well with the Poe films and they had asked AIP; AIP asked me and I said ‘Sure, I’d like to go to London’ and shoot film, and then I came back to do a second film.

RS: Okay. So any kind of stylistic similarities that people can see within your Poe pictures and the Hammer gothics isn’t intentional, or its not knowing, it’s a kind of coincidental thing?

RC: Any similarity is total coincidental. I only saw one of their films, and I thought it was quite a bit different from mine.
RS: Oh yeah, they very definitely are, but there’s certain aesthetic things. But its quite interesting that you’re making these old, these classic Victorian gothic pictures at the same time you know that the British were doing the same sort of thing. And the Italians as well – people like Mario Bava.

RC: I saw Mario, I saw two of Mario Bava’s films. I thought he was a brilliant director. I thought he was one of the best directors of horror and other types of films, genre films, working. I’ve great admiration for him.

RS: Coming back to Vincent Price himself, and sort of your relationship with him. Was it a good working relationship you had?

RC: Yes. It was an exceptionally good working relationship. We got along well together, he was an excellent actor and a great gentleman, and actually was very funny to talk with; as a matter of fact we brought humour into some of the later films, because I was trying to vary them, because I, they were starting to look too much alike, and on The Raven and one of the segments of Tales of Terror, which was a trilogy, we played for comedy horror.

The Raven
RS: It works very well, some of my favourite sequences in your films… But its also putting Price against other screen greats – people like Karloff and Peter Lorre. What was it like to have that entire collective on set with you?

RC: It was […] stimulating. We had one slight problem on The Raven, but it wasn’t a major one. Peter liked to do a lot of improvisations and Boris worked directly according to the script and he came in I think on the second or third day of shooting and talked to me before shooting and said ‘Roger, I learn these lines exactly. I’m prepared to give the performance. But Peter is not giving me the lines that are in the script. He’s making them up similar to the lines and I don’t know the cues.’ So I had to have a little discussion with Vincent and Peter and Boris. I loved the way Peter was improvising, [laughs] but I said ‘Peter, try to stay a little bit closer to the script. And Boris, if you can understand that Peter will be varying it a little bit…’ Vincent was able to work both ways so it actually worked out well.

RS: Presumably these were people you cast because you were admirers of their work.

RC: Yes. Also there was the… I liked all of their work, I thought they were all excellent actors, and of course there was the factor of name value. We’d been working with Vincent on each one and the idea bringing Vincent and Boris and Peter together seemed, from a box office standpoint, a good idea.

RS: I guess with your lengthy experience as a producer as well there must be an element of that awareness of the needs of the film’s marketing.

RC: Yes.

RS: And did you find yourself thinking more as a producer, or more as a director when you are making these films?

RC: I try to combine them. In pre-production…. I would always be working as a producer-director, but in pre-production I would probably be emphasising the work of the producer’s side of it. But during the direction, during the actual shooting, I would be functioning as a straight director, with just a little bit of attention to the production side.

RS: The films themselves, the Poe cycle was, is a very influential cycle. Its still widely talked about by film fans, and also by the people that, I guess the filmmakers of the generation that grew up watching those. They end very abruptly in 1964. Was there a reason why you moved away from those?

RC: Yes. I just felt, I felt tired. I felt I had done as many of these as I wanted. I was in danger of repeating myself too much even though I tried to vary them […]. They were all successful, AIP asked me to do another one, I said no, I really want to do something else. I want to step away from the studio and shoot outside, contemporary films in natural locations, which I did with The Trip and with The Wild Angels and several other films. They continued with I think one or two more horror films, Poe films, with another director – I don’t remember who it was.

RS: And in all your years afterwards, I mean I know that your directing career, you kind of took a back seat from that after was it Frankenstein Unbound.

RC: Yes.

RS: You carried on producing. Were you never tempted to ask Vincent to work for you again?

RC: No. The films I was making after that were really contemporary and youth-oriented films, and they didn’t fit Vincent’s persona.

RS: Okay. And presumably you kept up a, did you keep up a relationship with him long after you’d stopped working with him professionally?

RC: Yes. We would have lunch together occasionally and just talk, and it was pleasant. And sometimes if I would have a dinner party or something at my house I would invite Vincent, and Vincent would do the same with me.

RS: I don’t want to push you too much, I don’t want to ask too much of you at this stage. I want to thank you for taking time out to talk at all. And also thank you for making those films, because they’re a set of films that I and many others have loved and been influential in whatever way.

RC: Well I thank you and I hope I’ve given you enough information for a good article.

RS: You certainly have.

Roger Corman and Vincent Price on set

Interview conducted 15 February 2011. Published on CinePunked, 27 May 2019. Text © 2011/2019 Robert JE Simpson.

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