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Boxcar Bertha

Interview: 80th Birthday Celebration with Julie Corman

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Julie Corman, veteran independent film producer, celebrates her 80th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the first movie she produced, Boxcar Bertha, the feature-length film debut of director Martin Scorsese.

Corman, with over 30 film credits as a producer, has made a name for herself producing a wide variety of independent movies from family fare (The Dirt Bike Kid) to cult-horror classics (Chopping Mall) to 1980s comedies (Saturday the 14th).

She and her husband, Roger Corman, have produced films for their previous company New World Pictures and currently with New Horizon Picture Corporation. 

Corman is also a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the International Women’s Forum. She has taught producing at NYU, while also serving as the chair of the NYU Graduate Film Department, and later taught creative writing at her alma mater, UCLA.

In this extensive interview, Corman shares with us her life before becoming a producer, how she became involved in filmmaking, and the many unique experiences of film production.

The Early Years:

What were the movies that inspired you or had an impression on you when you were younger?

My favorite movie from my childhood was Francis the Talking Mule.

As a child, I was terrified by a couple of movies. I don’t know how it was that I saw this movie or how old I was, but Samson and Delilah, when the temple comes crashing down. It was like a nightmare.

When I was a little older, the other movie that terrified me, which is more of a psychological piece, was The Day the Earth Stood Still, when the elevator stopped. To this day, I can’t get in an elevator without thinking, “I wonder, is it safe?”

When I was older in the 1960s, which was a more formative time of my life, there was a movie that really shook me up called Woman in the Dunes. The alienation portrayed in the film stopped me in my tracks, psychologically. When I came home, I remember I wanted to do to reconnect to reality, so I boiled an egg.

There were romantic films that as a young woman I really liked, Two for the Road and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And, of course, The Graduate.

How did you decide to pursue English at UCLA?

My grandmother was reared by her Irish grandmother in Eddyville, Iowa, because her parents died when she was very young. The Irish grandmother refused to learn English because it was “the language of the devil.” My grandmother, who only had a high school education, read a lot. She was very interested in poetry. In those days, people memorized poetry and recited it.

My mother, who I’m sure would have been an English major in college, would have gone to college, but that was the year the Great Depression started. Her father was a building contractor. It hit him first. She went from a kind of cushy, private school life to “You need a job.” She went up for a job as a secretary against 100 people and got it.

She impressed the importance of reading on me. It was ordained that I would go to college. I remember her taking me to the library to get a library card and going up those steps with the lions on either side, feeling very important.

In grade school, I worked in the library and learned how to bind books. I was always drawn to books and the library. I wasn’t a sports person.

What was your initial career goal before becoming a producer?

Well, I wasn’t thinking about a career. I kind of stumbled into things. When I graduated from UCLA, what is now the HR online department was then two women with Rolodexes. One of them sent me on three job interviews: one at the LA Times, one at an advertising agency, and one to be Roger [Corman]’s assistant.

What do you remember from going for your interview for the position of Roger’s assistant?

I remember going to the interview with Roger and coming up in the elevator with the person who had the job, who was temporary. I asked, “Can you tell me about the job?” She replied, “Not really.”

The first thing Roger asked in the interview was, “Here’s a letter from France. Do you know French?” I said, “Well, I can read it.” He further inquired, “Well, what does it say?”

To this day, there is no explaining what the job of assistant to Roger is. There’s just no knowing what might be needed.

Which job did you decide to take?

I went to work at the advertising agency. I really enjoyed it there. It was a training program in which you worked six weeks in each department. I worked in copywriting, in the art department, and also for a project manager. Then, I almost became a model.

How did you almost become a model?

It’s kind of funny. When I was in the art department, the project manager told me, “You ought to model. Go up and see Nina Blanchard.” She was one of the top modeling agents at the time. He arranged a meeting for me.

It was getting to be lunchtime when I walked into her office. Nina was arranging things on her desk and made a little note. She remarked, “Your teeth are big. It could work for you, or against you.” She analyzed me, going down the line. Then, she said, “Forget it. You only have three good years. And, in the meantime, you could be building something else.”

What did you learn from that experience?

50 years later, Nina retired. I picked up the LA Times magazine section and she was on the cover of it. Nina was telling her story about having a successful career as a modeling agent. She stated, “Whoever comes to me, I tell them, ‘Don’t do it.’ Do you think I want someone who is ambivalent about modeling to be out there? I’m not going to make money from that person. It’s gonna be the person who says, ‘I’m going to do this. I don’t care what you say!’”

I think it’s the same in film. People will send their children to me and say, “He’d/she’d like to work in film.” I ask, “Well, what would he/she like to do in film?” They reply, “Well, he/she doesn’t know. Can you advise him?” No. I can only advise the person who is specific, who says, “I want to be a film editor no matter what. What do I have to do to get there?” That’s the person I can advise.

How did you start as a producer?

Our distribution company, New World, needed product. I had no intention of being a producer. Roger asked me, “Would you watch the money on this movie?” I replied, “Well, I know how to balance a checkbook. Would that help?” He mentioned, “Now, you’re going to get a director?” I volunteered, “I’ll call Marty [Scorsese]. Maybe Marty can recommend one of his students.” And Marty did.

One day, Roger started enumerating for me the crew positions and questioned, “Aren’t you going to write this down?” I wondered, “Why would I write it down?” Guess why?

Boxcar Bertha:

Boxcar Bertha was your first producing credit. How did you become a part of this film?

Roger made a movie for American Independent Productions called Bloody Mama, with Shelley Winters, Bobby De Niro, Don Stroud, Bob Walden, and Clint Kimbrough. AIP wanted another woman gangster picture.

Roger and I had become engaged. He was going to the Philippines to set up a production and proceeded to make 29 films there over the next 25 years there. He asked, “While I’m gone, could you see if you could find a woman gangster story?”

I went to the library. This kind of research is my cup of tea. But I couldn’t find a woman gangster story. I had a friend who worked in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, John Van de Kamp. When I called John, I asked him about women gangsters, [and] he shared, “Women were protected. Unless it was a really notorious woman gangster, they didn’t report it.”

Then, I finally found a book called The True Story of Boxcar Bertha, as told to Dr. Ben L. Reitman. The publisher was out of business, and Dr. Reitman was dead. Bertha was nowhere to be seen. I eventually tracked Bertha down. She was living as a recluse in a sort of flophouse in San Francisco. AIP wanted her to sign-off on the rights. I got her sign-off. 

What did you like about Bertha’s story?

I saw a great feminist story predating the women’s lib movement. Bertha didn’t think anything of hopping on a freight train to go see her boyfriend in Chicago. Later, she ended up working at a bookstore in Chicago. Bertha had a life, not exactly a criminal one, but doing things that weren’t exactly legal. That story turned into Boxcar Bertha. 

Were there any challenges that you came across while putting Boxcar Bertha together?

John William Corrington, who had written Von Richthofen and Brown, a movie that Roger had just finished directing, wrote the Boxcar Bertha screenplay. At a meeting, John insisted, “My uncle was an IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] worker, the early labor movement. I’d like to change this to the story of Big Bill Shelley.”

Showing my great maturity and my expertise in the film industry, I burst into tears and left the room. Roger came out and asked me, “What’s the matter?” I said, “He wants to turn it into Big Bill Shelley.” Roger assured me, “Well, that’s not going to happen.” I asked, “Why?” He reminded me, “Because AIP wants a woman gangster picture.”

Is there a moment that stands out to you about Marty’s creative influence in Boxcar Bertha?

We went down to Camden, Arkansas, which was the location of Boxcar Bertha. Right next to Camden, there was an early narrow-gauge railroad, which was important to the story.

We were astonished when we went to Marty’s motel room and saw that all over the walls Marty had sketches of every shot in the picture. At the end of the day, Boxcar Bertha clearly became a Marty picture.

With Boxcar Bertha celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, how do you view your role in the film?

I’m really happy to have been involved.

Teaching Experiences:

How did you initially become involved with the NYU film department?

Marty recommended me to be chair of the graduate film department.

What led you to teaching producing at NYU?

The Dean said to me, “You get to know the students better if you teach a class.” Before that, I never taught production, other than working with inexperienced crews on the films I made with the Corman Academy. So, I agreed to teach a class on production.

On the first day of class I said to the students, “You need a database or an address book. Someplace where you start writing down contact information for everybody in this class and everybody else you meet while you’re here. Because you never know when you’re going to need something or someone.” Then I added, “The question a producer needs to be asking at all times is, ‘Why aren’t we shooting?’”

Did you face any challenges with teaching production?

Between the first class and the second class, 9/11 happened. In the second class, I said to the students, “For the next class, I want you to bring me one visual about 9/11.” One of the students came in with a picture of sheets drying on a clothesline blowing in the wind. She shared, “It reminded me of the papers floating down from the towers.” Another brought in a pencil sketch of a donut shop covered in soot.

I came home to LA during a break, and, using my own advice, I called a number in my database: Jerry Offsay. Jerry was the head of programming at Showtime, where we had made a number of films. I met with Jerry and showed him the students’ pictures. 

I asked Jerry, “What do you think?” He said, “I think $100,000 for 10 NYU student films about 9/11.” Two weeks later we had a deal, and the students were working on their projects. The films aired on Showtime the following 9/11. That was the crowning achievement of my producing career.

Looking back, how do you see your experience at NYU?

I’m very glad that I did it. A lot of it was frustrating and difficult. But it was a good experience. I love New York.

After NYU, you taught at UCLA. How did you decide on teaching at UCLA?

That came about because I was asked to give the commencement speech in the English department at UCLA. When the Dean asked me if I’d be willing to teach a course, I said yes. I taught courses in screenwriting and creative writing in the English department.

Producing Experiences:

What was it like to work with so many great filmmakers in their early years?

The one I worked with most closely was Jonathan Demme. I had no idea that he would rise to the heights he did. However, a clue was that even his low-budget exploitation films were about something. I always felt that Jonathan would stay more of an independent filmmaker, and I think he always was, at heart.

Jonathan and I had great debates over the music for Crazy Mama. He got the songs “Black Slacks”, “Money (That’s What I Want)”, and “Western Movies.” I got “All I Have to Do Is Dream”, “Running Bear”, and “Transfusion.”

I really came to love Jonathan. He was very close to Roger and me. It’s such great sadness to us that he’s gone.

Can you talk about the diversity of films you’ve produced?

I like to do family films. There’s a nice atmosphere on the set.

It’s also great to be on a comedy set because things just happen that you don’t expect that are funny. And the crew is a little more lighthearted. I also produced Moving Violation, in which we crashed 26 cars. I was seven months pregnant when we did that.

Are there advantages to producing independent films?

With independent films, there’s a lot of leeway, but there are drawbacks. I think some films that Roger and I made would have been better if we’d had bigger budgets. As Vincent Canby said about Jaws, “What is Jaws, if not a Roger Corman movie on a big budget?”

How do you decide on what films to produce?

It’s always different. Two films I did were family films [adapted] from books. One was a book my daughter read and recommended. And one was a book that my son recommended.

Sometimes, people walk in the door with something. Once, an Italian comedian walked in the door with five million dollars and said, “I want you to produce my film.”

Did acting classes influence you as a producer?

For producing, the thing I didn’t know about was acting. Roger recommended Jeff Corey, with whom he had studied with Bob Towne and Jack Nicholson.

I went to Jeff and shared, “I don’t want to act, but I want to know about acting for producing.” From the day I walked into his class, he treated me like I was an actress. I thought, “I don’t think I made myself clear to him. I don’t want to be one.”

Jeff was very bombastic. He’d yell out, “That’s no good!” And “You didn’t study!” One day he yelled at me, “You wouldn’t be a bad actress if you’d open up a little more!”

I realized that I didn’t want to be an actress, but […] the only way to understand what an actor was, [was] to go through in the process of learning to act. And I was taking the place of somebody who did want to act. I never went back to the class, but I understood the terror that actors go through based on that class. And for that, it was worth it.

Looking over your career, have you learned as a producer?

When they say be prepared, you can’t. It’s a mindset that you’re going to get the film made.

For example, Paula Prentiss showing up for Saturday the 14th, in which she was supposed to be a vampire, and refusing to wear fangs. The crew was panicking. “What are we going to do!? She’s not gonna wear fangs!” My solution was, “If she doesn’t want to wear fangs, she’s not going to wear fangs.”

Also, I helped Roger on Von Richthofen and Brown, shot in Ireland. A problem was getting a necessary part for a World War I replica airplane. I finally found it in South Africa. You never know what’s going to happen.

After the first film, I thought, “I’m never doing this again! This is insane! There’s no control, and anything can ruin your film!” By the time I did the ninth film, I thought, “No matter what, I’ll finish the film.”

What advice do you share with aspiring producers?

Rolodex, database, and “Why aren’t we shooting?”

Did you ever have a “Why aren’t we shooting” moment on set?

There was only once in my history of filmmaking that I didn’t know why we weren’t shooting. I’m pretty good at walking on the set and figuring out where the holes are.

I was shooting in New York. The camera was in position, the actors were on the set, and the sound man was ready to go. I couldn’t see any reason we weren’t shooting, and I asked, “Why aren’t we shooting?”

Nobody would tell me. The production manager had forgotten to order film and they were getting it to the set as fast as they could, hoping to get it to the set before I found out.


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