New documentary follows a cult US filmmaker’s time in Connemara

A new documentary looks at the reign of the King of the B-movies in Connemara, says Richard Fitzpatrick

New documentary follows a cult US filmmaker’s time in Connemara

BRIAN REDDIN flew to Los Angeles to interview Roger Corman for his documentary about the time the US filmmaker spent in Connemara in the 1990s.

Reddin asked Corman if he had seen Nebraska, which was on release in cinemas at the time.

“Actually,” said Corman, “I saw it last night. I got a call and I went to Jack’s house, and I watched it there with Bruce and Peter.”

Reddin asked, “Is that Jack Nicholson?”

He said, “Yeah, Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern and Peter Fonda. It was a great night.”

Corman, who is known as ‘The King of the Bs’, is Hollywood royalty.His star is on Hollywood Boulevard.

He’s still making movies at 88 years of age, having begun shooting films 60 years ago.

Over the years, the likes of Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and James Cameron have all worked on his sets.

He was enticed to set up a studio in Connemara in 1995 for tax reasons and the bones of a €1m start-up grant given by Michael D Higgins, who was Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht at the time.

His ties with Ireland include his wife Julie, the mother of his four children, who was a producer on the film adaptation of Hugh Leonard’s Da.

The low-budget movies Corman churned out during his stint in Connemara are derided as schlock, although the stunts are impressive.

Day shoppers to Galway often stumbled upon fight scenes his crews had set up on Shop Street. They were largely horror, sci-fi and spymaster affairs.

Even though the scripts were woeful, Corman cajoled some notable names from the industry to work on them, including Michael York, Patsy Kensit, James Brolin and David Carradine.

“The actors were paid reasonably well, but not very well. They did it because they wanted to be in a Corman movie or they owed him a favour,” says Reddin.

“For example, I asked James Brolin, the lead star in Hotel, why he did it.

Brolin said, ‘I wanted to get into directing. I had gone to Corman with a script and he wasn’t interested but he said, ‘I’ll tell you what: act in this movie I’m making in Los Angeles. If you do that, you can direct the next one, which I’m doing in Ireland’.”

“So he acted in this horrible movie. The premise of the movie was that the world’s population is dying because the men’s semen has been infected with an alien bug so every time they have sex they kill the women, but there’s only one man whose semen is pure, and that’s James Brolin’s character.

"He has to repopulate the world.

“When he got over to direct the film in Ireland he wasn’t going to act in it, but when he got over here, he was told, ‘Oh, you’re playing the lead as well’. So Corman kind of coerced and coaxed actors.

"It was a trip to Ireland: ‘Come on over. We’ll put you up for three weeks in a nice hotel. You’ll get to see the west of Ireland. We’ll pump you full of Guinness and oysters. You’ll have a bit of craic.’ And all the major stars I interviewed said, ‘Yes’. They all enjoyed themselves.”

The budget for each film was about $1m. A lot of it went on paying the director, the director of photography and equipment.

“He didn’t skimp on equipment or stunts,” says Reddin.

The rest of the crew were paid a pittance for long hours, sometimes sleeping overnight on bunks inside a lorry on set.

In the documentary, a production manager recalls sitting down with Corman one time, and asking for a 10% increase in wages for the crew.

Corman said: “That’s fine. Give them 10% and cut the crew by 10%.” It was all about the bottom line.

The crews’ resourcefulness was extraordinary.

They only had a limited number of American cars on set. In the morning a car might be painted black and white for a cop car scene. In the afternoon, it would be re-painted as a yellow cab.

Or a favourite device was to paint a car one colour on one side and another colour on the other side so it would drive past a camera one way, turn around, and come back the other way.

Sometimes, the kickboxing legend, Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson, who featured in several of Corman’s films, would wander into an ‘American’ store to buy a can of Coke and the fridge would be crammed with Madden’s milk and Galtee cheese.

Corman built a house next to the studio, which was called The Manor House.

When he came to Ireland, which was about three or four times a year for week-long stretches, he would stay there, as would a lot of the actors. It also doubled for film sets.

“In the 20 movies that were made there about 17 featured his bloody house,” says Reddin.

“At one point, it’s haunted. At another point, it’s CIA headquarters. It’s the scene of a hostage kidnapping.”

Corman’s Irish adventure came to an end before the turn of the millennium.

A controversy blew up at the 1997 Galway Film Fleadh in which one of his films, entitled Criminal Affairs, was castigated for its explicit sex scenes.

“He was upset by the way the media treated him,” says Reddin.

“After Criminal Affairs came out in Galway, he was basically being accused of being a pornographer and exploiting people.

"There were newspaper articles about Údarás na Gaeltachta funding porn in Connemara.”

The main reason for the exodus was financial, though.

He had to cut budgets because his films were no longer getting theatrical releases with the advent of DVDs and a crash in the exchange rate between the dollar and the punt meant Ireland was less attractive as a location.

Corman’s legacy endures.

For all the penury his film crews in Connemara suffered, they did, however, gain invaluable experience.

TV production companies in Galway like Abú Media are run by Cormanistas, the term that Irish graduates of the Roger Corman School of Film use to refer to themselves.

They include RTÉ’s Evelyn O’Rourke, Love/Hate director David Caffrey and Hector Ó hEochagáin.

“Hector made two movies with him,” says Reddin.

“He worked in special effects, and is in one of the movies – the first movie that Don The Dragon Wilson made in Galway, Blood Fist VIII. Hector plays a cop.

"He doesn’t even try to disguise his Navan accent. He runs out at one point to the superintendent and goes, ‘Come here, boss, there’s a ship on fire there in Galway Bay’.”

  • Roger Corman i gConamara will be broadcast on TG4, 11.15pm, St Stephen’s Day

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