Death Race 2050: Roger Corman on His Latest Dystopian Pit Stop

Legendary independent filmmaker Roger Corman cools his engines for a chat about Death Race 2050 and more!

Bye-bye Baby! Hello 70 points! The race is on. That’s Death Race 2050, the biggest, baddest, most dangerous reality competition show on TV. It’s not just dangerous for the daredevil racing contestants. It’s not just dangerous for the racing fans. It’s dangerous for every pedestrian on the street. Collateral damage means points. The Transcontinental Road Race started with Death Race 2000, the 1975 political action satire directed by Paul Bartel, which featured Kung Fu and Kill Bill star David Carradine, Simone Griffeth, and Sylvester Stallone.

Death Race 2000 predated virtual reality, real reality, and reality TV. Paul W. S. Anderson directed a 2008 prequel (of sorts) that starred Jason Statham, and that spawned two direct-to-video projects that are best left forgotten. The actual sequel premieres this week. Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050 was directed by G.J. Echternkamp. The film stars Malcolm McDowell, the iconic nadsat malchick Alex of A Clockwork Orange, as the Chairman of the United Corporations of America.

Based on the short story The Racer by Ib Melchior, Death Race 2000 was made for about $300,000 and scored $5,000,000 at the box office. That would pay for a lot of body work. The mechanic who put it together was the legendary filmmaker Roger Corman.

Roger Corman is 90 years old and shows no sign of stopping. He’s made movies in every genre and on every timetable. Legend has it that The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was shot in two days and one night. It was edited during a coffee break. As a producer, he jumpstarted the careers of world class directors: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and George Lucas all graduated from “The Corman Film School.”

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He did jukebox movies like Rock All Night from 1957, which featured the music of The Platters. He worked with the Ramones on the 1979 punk classic Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, directed by Allan Arkush.

Corman united Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Peter Lorre with Jack Nicholson. The Edgar Allan Poe cycle, which Corman directed off scripts by Richard Matheson between 1959 and 1964, consisted of eight movies House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Premature Burial (1962), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) and they put American International Pictures (AIP) on the map.

Corman’s first big-budget studio movie was The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), starring George Segal and Jason Robards as Al Capone. He delivered it to Twentieth Century Fox under-budget and under-deadline and went back to the independent low-budget films he did better than anyone else. As an actor, Corman put in cameo appearances in a lot of the films his students went on to make, like Coppola’s Godfather 2.

Corman worked with a young William Shatner, which might account for the space of land called the Kirk Land Tenements on the Death Race map. Den of Geek got an advance screening of Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050. We saw the blockbuster sex tape from Minverva, joined the cult of Tammy the Terrorist, and agree with Frankenstein that pre-race kills should count. The cinema legend spoke to Den of Geek on the day after the election. Corman spoke about being a role model, but didn’t expose any soft spots under that armor.

Den of Geek: Hi and thanks for doing this. I watched Death Race 2050. It was fun. What would you score?

Roger Corman: If I were one of the drivers? I would probably, on a score of one to ten, get a nine. I believe I would be the runner-up to Frankenstein. Frankenstein would win, but I would come in right behind him.

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Have you ever run your car up a building?

No, I’ve come close, but I’ve never quite done it. As a matter of fact, if I could put myself into some sort of a science fiction computer graphics situation, I’d be happy to do so.

You made a bunch of these speeding car movies going back to Grand Theft Auto, have you driven with any of these directors?

Yes, as a matter of fact, in the original Death Race 2000, Paul Martell was directing. I was there when they were shooting some second unit one day while Paul was working with the first unit. We had some racing scenes to shoot and the stunt man in this one car asked for a double bump. A bump is when a stunt person gets his regular salary. If it’s a dangerous stunt, he gets a bump. It’s a bonus for the danger, over and above his regular salary. If it’s really dangerous, he gets a double bump. So, he wanted a double bump and I thought: “that shot doesn’t seem that dangerous to me.” I said ‘forget it. Get me the helmet. I’ll drive the car.’ And I did drive the car for that stunt.

Wow. This is the first time you worked with Malcolm McDowell?

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Yes.

What kind of interaction do you have with the actors? I’m sure you’re not doing line readings.

When I’m producing, I talk to the actor about the, I should say my training, because I was originally an engineer who wrote a script and then produced it and directed it and I felt that I didn’t know that much about directing, whereas I could pick up some of the technical aspects. So, I was trained in a method. The method talks about the text and the subtext. What is the surface manifestation of the performance and what is the underneath true meaning.

So I talked generally to the actors about that. So that we’re all on board with the motivation. That’s specifically when I’m talking to the actor. I talk about his motivation, what he thinks of the picture, his position in it, what he wants. After that I don’t get too much involved because then I think it’s really the director’s job.

As a producer, do you ever think you find a time that you have to step in and give guidance to the director? You did start the Corman School of directors.

That does happen but I make a point of not being on the set that much. I remember on the first day of shooting on a picture that was one of the first that I produced but did not direct, I found that the crew was coming to ask me questions that they should have been asking the director. So I excused myself, I talked to the director for a little while, explained what happened and told him. What has been my technique ever since is that I work very heavily with the director in advance of shooting on the characterizations and the motivations and so forth. I’m there for the first few days of shooting, seeing that everything is alright. Then I step away. I feel that at that point it’s up to the director and the production manager.

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So I try not to be on the set so as not to take away the authority, particularly if it’s a young, first- or second-time director. I don’t want the crew to look to me. I want them to look to the director. I look at the dailies. I’m available to talk to the director. I generally do it at lunch-time or in the evening on the phone so as far as the crew and the actors are concerned the director is doing everything. I’m not there.

When you were making the first Death Race, did you realize what reality you might be moving into with your satire and is it still satire?

Yes. That was a definite part of it. I started out with simply the fact that this was a futuristic car-racing picture where drivers try to knock each other off the road. I felt it needed something else. I started thinking about the relationship of violence in entertainment to the audience going all the way back to the gladiatorial games and the bread and circus of the Romans, to today with mixed martial arts, boxing, football and so forth. I thought the audience is really an integral part of this. I would like to bring the audience in to the picture. It occurred to me. I couldn’t really think of way to put them in.

Then the thought came to me: why not have the drivers kill pedestrians and get points from that? Which I thought was a good idea. But you can’t take it that seriously, so I made the picture partially a black comedy. There’s a little thought behind that about the society in which the picture takes place, which is a society of a few people on top and the bulk of the people beneath, and they’re entertained by Death Race.

It’s been written a number of times that Hunger Games is very similar and may have taken some ideas. I didn’t think that’s true. It is true that Hunger Games is very similar but I think these ideas are in the air and they just came up with a similar idea a little bit later.

The idea of the car racing action film as a black comedy and with some social comment, is what makes the picture go. As a matter of fact, the recent election makes some of the concepts here more pertinent. For instance, the United States of America has become the United Corporations of America. The president is now the chairman of the board of the United Corporations. He is a flamboyant, wild-talking person, entertaining and nevertheless holding strong to his dictatorial position. That’s not exactly what is happening, but is a possible future route.

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I’m the gangster geek at Den of Geek, and you made one of my favorite movies, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which I still pronounce massacree. That was your first big budget Hollywood movie. Why that one? Was there something special about gangster movies to you?

I saw gangster pictures when I grew up. I had a thought, which I still believe is true, again pertaining to society. Gangsters were generally the new immigrants. People who came in and were not accepted by society and they turned to crime. I tried to make a relationship in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in the way Al Capone and Bugs Moran, to a certain extent, was really running his gang like a corporation. I was trying to make a definite connection between the Italians not being accepted and Capone being the gangster equivalent to the head of a corporation.

Were you watching other gangster movies when you made it? Which ones were you paying homage to?

Probably, of every gangster picture I had seen, the one that I remember most was Scarface, which was about Al Capone. I thought it was a brilliant film, but there were so many others. I’ve been asked ‘which picture influenced you most’ in certain areas and the answer is every picture I saw influenced me.

Do you have a favorite Capone?

I would say Scarface. Was that Paul Muni?

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Paul Muni, yeah, and George Raft flipped the quarter. They’re about to make a movie about The Trip. I’d like to know, today, The Trip would be more about psychenauts, have you given any thought to that?

Well, on The Trip, LSD was new. I took an LSD trip. My only problem after taking it was I had such a wonderful trip, if I based the picture on my trip it would be propaganda for LSD.

So I talked to other people who had trips. Jack Nicholson who, at the time was good writer and had written some good scripts for me, he had experience with LSD. So I chose Jack to write the script. We put together some experiences I had, some experiences he had and also Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s. I remember saying one time, who’s trip is this about and it was everybody’s trip.

Have you ever thought about your legacy?

My legacy is a little vague, because I’ve been at various times, a producer and a director and for a while I had my own distribution company as well. And I started as a writer. So I would say, as my legacy, I would like to be known as a filmmaker. I wouldn’t say producer, director, whatever. A producer who made primarily medium and low-budget films which were commercially successful and in as many places as I could had something to say that was important to me.

Coming out on the 40th anniversary of its original release, Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050 stars Manu Bennett (The Hobbit franchise) as Frankenstein, as well as Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) as the Chairman, Burt Grinstead (NCIS), Marci Miller (Viper), Folake Olowofoyeku (The Beaver), Anessa Ramsey (Footloose), Yancy Butler (Hard Target) and Charlie Farrell (Cantar). The film as directed by G.J. Echternkamp (Hard Candy) from a he wrote with Matt Yamashita (Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda) and produced by Roger Corman (Death Race 2000) and Luis Llosa (Anaconda).

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According to the official synopsis:

In the not-too-distant future, America is controlled by an all-powerful corporate government that keeps the masses placated with violent virtual-reality entertainment. The event of the year is the Death Race, where a motley assortment of drivers compete in a cross-country road race, scoring points for running down pedestrians and killing each other. The reigning champion and popular favorite is half-man, half-machine Frankenstein — but little does he know he’s taken on a rebel spy as his co-pilot.”

Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050, from Universal 1440 Entertainment, is available exclusively on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD in 2017.