The Frida Cinema

Orange County's Year-Round Film Festival

Saturday the 14th: Interview with Producer Julie Corman

Saturday the 14th: Interview with Producer Julie Corman

The cult classic horror-comedy Saturday the 14th, celebrates its 40th anniversary, as a zany love letter to classic 1930s and 1940s horror films.

Directed by Howard R. Cohen, and produced by Julie CormanSaturday the 14th follows a family who inherits an old home, unknowing that it hides a powerful book, wanted by monsters and monster hunters alike.

Julie has been a film producer for nearly fifty years. She began her career producing films for the distribution company she and her husband, Roger Corman owned. Her first credited producing role was as an associate producer for Boxcar Bertha, the directorial feature film debut of Martin Scorsese. She went on to also produce The Dirt Bike KidBrain DeadChopping MallThe NestNight Fall, and A Cry in the Wild.

In this extensive interview, Julie shares with us the responsibilities of producing, her memories of Saturday the 14th, and her inspirations for filmmaking.

Justina Bonilla: How did you become a producer?

Julie Corman: In the early 70s, my husband Roger asked me, “I’m making three films now for our distribution company. I wonder if you would take one on and just watch the money on it?” Not knowing what that meant, Roger explained, “Just make sure that the money is spent appropriately.” I replied, “Well, I learned how to balance a checkbook in fifth grade. So, I think I could do that”. Roger continued, “Now, you’re going to need a cameraman, a gaffer, and a grip”.

None of this made any sense to me. I expressed my concern with Roger, “Roger, I can’t produce this, I have no idea what I would be doing”. He assured me, “I’ll be here if you have any questions”. Little did I know, this is Roger’s sort of standard way of operating. Unfortunately, he really wasn’t available. However, everything went well working with the production manager, the equipment houses, and the postproduction houses.

I’m probably the only woman in show business who didn’t want a career in show business but has one.

Bonilla: What was one of your earliest memories as a producer? 

Corman: Either a couple of days before shooting or on the first day, the cameraman mentioned that he was going to need a hi-hat adapter. Of course, I had no idea what a hi-hat adapter was. I called the equipment house and asked, “Does he really need this?”  I was told, “If you want the camera to go up, down, back, and forth, he needs it.

For technical support, I came to rely very much on a position in the crew that you probably don’t hear about a lot, the key grip (a senior role responsible for camera equipment, supervising grip technician crew members, and collaborating with cinematographers/directors of photography).

Bonilla: How was your experience as a producer for Night Call Nurses?

Corman: I was on edge for the entire shoot of Night Call Nurses, which was 15 days. I realized how many things could ruin the day shooting, like an actor not showing up, or an inappropriate prop. Thankfully, at the end of the day, when Roger asked, “Did you get the day’s work?”, we did.

I like doing research. I loved finding Boxcar Bertha. I’m happy to look for projects, but I thought, “No. I’m not doing this again. The amount of tension. This is insane!”

Bonilla: After producing Night Call Nurses, what lead you to continue producing films?

Corman: Night Call Nurses came out and made a lot of money. Now, the pressure was on. Jonathan Kaplan, the director, wanted to go again. Then, of course, Roger wanted to go again. I reluctantly agreed, “Okay, one more time, but that’s it. Right?”

Then, Francis Doel, who had worked with Rogers for many years, was married to actor Clint Kimbrough, who wanted to direct. Clint asked if I would produce his film The Young Nurses. I was adamant, “No, I don’t ever want to do this again.” Then, Clint revealed, “Julie, you’re the only one I could trust. I know you’ll have my back. I know you’ll help me.” I agreed.

Bonilla: What do you enjoy about the filmmaking process?

Corman: I really enjoy developing a script. I had been an English major at UCLA. I also love working with actors and trying to put actors at ease. I saw what they went through and how difficult it was.

Bonilla: You produce a lot of films that are family-friendly or comedies. What draws you to these genres in particular?

Corman: My children. I had three children in two years and three months.

I went looking for the perfect nursery school and ended up taking the one that was closest to the home in the Pacific Palisades. It’s an area that has grown and changed over time, but it had a kind of small-town flavor. It almost seemed like a Midwestern town.

Around the corner from the nursery school was a hot dog shop. They famously had a little train on tracks that ran around the place and my kids loved that. Little did I know it was the drug drop place for the high school kids, in the afternoon. One day, we drove into town for nursery school and there was a big sign up in front of the hot dog shop that it was going to become a savings and loan business.

Based on that experience and the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, I wrote a treatment for The Dirt Bike Kid. It’s a comedy about a boy with a magic dirt bike, which he gets using money his mother gave him to go buy groceries. He saves the hot dog shop from becoming a bank.

 

Bonilla: What was the initial reaction to The Dirt Bike Kid?

Corman: Rogers as the distributor was concerned, “A family film? I don’t really know about family films. I’m really not so sure about this.” I emphasized that I really wanted to make this film. He suggested that I get some outside financing. So I did. I wrote this story, developed the script, got the outside financing, and made the film. Roger distributed it to theaters, but it lost money. I was so convinced that this would be a successful film.

Bonilla: How did home video impact The Dirt Bike Kid?

Corman: During the time we were out of distribution, home video reared its head. We were only vaguely aware of it but didn’t think of it as a big source of revenue. However, The Dirt Bike kid went out on home video and sold 100,000 video cassettes. It was our most successful film of the year. That was my introduction to family films.

Bonilla: What lead you to produce the script for Saturday the 14th?

Corman: The screenplay was written by Howard and the story was by Jeff Begun. They brought the project to us. I thought, “This is a lot of fun. I’d like to produce it.”

Bonilla: Who were some of the key people you worked with behind the scenes?

Corman: My normal way of working on a film, is to work with the director to get the cast and crew together. Daniel Lacambre, the film’s cinematographer, had worked with Nestor Almendras and my husband when he made some films in France. Then, I worked with Daniel on a few films here in the US. The editors were Kent Beyda and Joanne D’Antonio. The music was by Parmer Fuller. Parmer is married to a godchild of mine. He runs a music program at USC, and he’s a very talented musician.

Bonilla: With stars Paula and Richard being married, how do you see their marriage influencing their roles as a married couple?

Corman: Anytime actors know and are familiar with each other, it can be very helpful to their performance together. They had very individual ideas about their characters. I didn’t get the feeling that one dictated to the other.

Dick was generally in charge of presenting a message that maybe I wouldn’t like to say to Paula. For example, Paula, who’s supposed to be a vampire in the movie, didn’t want to wear fangs. I thought, “How can I tell Howard that Paula says she’s not wearing these fangs?” Dick assured me, “Trust me, you will believe she’s a vampire.” He was right.

Generally, if actors ask for something, I try to give it to them, because you don’t know why it’s important to them. But you can bet at some level it’s important, and it will have an influence on the performance.

Bonilla: How essential was it for Paula and Richard to play their parts as straight as possible?

Corman: It was essential for them to play their characters straight because everybody tends to get a little wacky. I noticed how they constantly kept like the straight man position. They understood comedy well.

Bonilla: Who were some of the memorable supporting cast members?

Corman: Severn Darden was the guru for The Second City comedy group. I didn’t know the history of Severn with Second City. It was a feather in Howard’s cap to get Severn to be in his movie. Stacy Keach Sr., I believe had been in a film with Roger. Stacy’s comedy chops are well known. And with Rosemary de Kamp, the same thing. Rosemary was the kind of person Howard was happy to have in his film. Roberta Collins had been in some of our other films. Howard wanted Paul Garner, the character actor. He was great. The comedy team Howard put together, with input from me, works well together like a family.

Bonilla: About how long did it take to film?

Corman: It was about three weeks to film. Generally, my schedules were somewhere between three and four weeks, with the early ones in three weeks.

Bonilla: What techniques on set save time for the filming schedule?

Corman: One of the ways that we were able to film in three weeks, was from Roger’s playbook to make films in such a short amount of time. It was to have a second unit, who would go off and shoot.

Let’s say, there was a sequence that called for you to see a horse riding up a mountain. Well, to lug a whole crew up, with maybe 20 people, with the cars, the wagons for the equipment, the lunches, and everything else, would be hugely expensive. But, to get that shot or shots, you send two or three people, to get some shots of the horse running up the mountain. Generally speaking, the second unit would not use the principal actors, because then you have to take sound, and that made it more of a deal than just second.

In this case, because we were mostly contained in the house, it was difficult to get a second unit schedule that didn’t include Dick and Paula.

Bonilla: Did the second unit have any issues while filming?

Corman: So, the first line of resistance was Dick telling me, “I must tell you, we will not work with a second unit.” I sat down with him and showed him the schedule. I told him, “If you and Paula do these four scenes with the second unit, there are days that you’re not working with the main unit. You can spend all day shooting them, and if you don’t like the results, we can reshoot it.” They agreed.

On the first day that they were going to shoot with the second unit, they came out of their trailer. Dick announced, “B team, we’re here!” Making it all fun, he continued, “We’re all together and it’s gonna be great!” This is like the kind of thing that could only happen in a comedy. They made what could have been an issue with drama and negativity into lemonade.

Bonilla: Where were the two houses featured in the film located?

Corman: I’ll tell you a funny story about this suburb one. I don’t remember where the suburb one was. It was maybe somewhere in the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles. But I do remember two things about it.

First, there was a Jacaranda tree in the front yard. Nancy Nuttall, my assistant had been a biochemistry major.  I asked her, “Nancy, you got one assignment for the week. That Jacaranda tree is not scheduled to bloom until our shoot is over, get it to bloom.” She found that if you watered it with hot water, it would fool it into blooming.

Second, we shot the scene of the family at the end, in front of the door, with the Jacaranda tree. Everything was fine, but Billy, the son, was wearing a plaid shirt. Something didn’t go right, and we needed to reshoot it. Later, it was discovered that Billy was wearing two plaid shirts, one red and one yellow in the reshoot. In the editing room, nobody noticed that he switched shirts, because our dailies were in black and white. When we switched to color at the end no one noticed the shirt switched colors. we were home free.

The old house, as I recall, either belong to or was related to Mount St. Mary’s, a Catholic women’s college. For some reason, they owned this old house, down by USC. I love location scouting. That’s the first thing I ever did in film. I’m always looking at everything when I walk in a place. I’m always thinking if the ceilings are high enough for the lighting equipment, and how many extras we need to fill the space, etc. I remember just thinking this house was great and making the deal with the nuns to use this house.

Bonilla: What was an unexpected funny moment on set?

Corman: Paula had a scene with Severn. For one reason or another, he could not hold onto his lines. So, Howard did many takes with him to get the lines.

Then, it was Paula’s turn. As usual, Paula was great. Howard printed her first take and was ready to move on. Paula screamed, “No”, with a scream that filled the whole house, because she wanted another take as Severn had had. I was there with the whole crew. They just went into a collective silence. Then I laughed. Paula got another take, and all was well. I don’t know why I laughed.

 

Bonilla: How do you see this film influencing other horror comedies such as Gremlins?

Corman: Joe Dante, who directed Gremlins, worked in our editing room. He worked as an editor, and he had a lot to do with the marketing of our films. Since he worked as a trailer editor, where you’re looking for the best shots to sell the film, he would have been very much aware of this. Now, in addition to being a top director, he has an online site called Trailers from Hell.

Bonilla: This film has gained a devoted cult following. What do you think has contributed to that?

Corman: The appeal seems to be from people who understand film history. That was definitely intentional from Howard and Jeff. They were aficionados of horror films and would get a kick out of putting in references to previous horror films. It’s also a horror film that kids can watch. People are still buying the DVD of the film.

Bonilla: How does it feel to have Saturday the 14th celebrating its 40th anniversary?

Corman: Forty years went by in daily increments for me. I have a poster for Saturday the 14th outside my office. Every day for however many years, I would look at the poster and it would give me a little lift every day. I fondly remember Howard. Unfortunately, he’s no longer with us. Howard was a very good cosmic mind, an intelligent, thoughtful, and inclusive man.