Francis Ford Coppola. Ron Howard. Martin Scorsese. James Cameron. With 11 Academy Awards among them, these famous filmmakers have long been household names. However, there is another name that unites these award-winning writers and directors, a name belonging to the man who mentored the lot of them and helped to kickstart their cinematic careers, yet it’s a name that’s not nearly as well known as the living legends he inspired. That man is Roger Corman.
Known as “The Pope of Pop Cinema” and the “King of Bs” among other nicknames, the 90-year-old Corman has long been lauded in independent film circles for his low-budget films and horror-comedies which have become cult classics. He’ll perhaps best be remembered for his dedication to adapting the works of Edgar Allan Poe, even if his most recent work has been as a producer on such schlocky combo predator TV movies as Piranhaconda, Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda, and CobraGator, or high-octane thrill rides like the Death Race series. But what’s even less well known than Corman’s enormous filmography is his background in industrial engineering, making him one of our Secret Science Nerds.
Born in Detroit, Michigan as the son of an engineer, Corman’s childhood path soon took him to California where he attended Beverly Hills High School (as a side note, he also happens to be in the school’s Hall of Fame). Despite his proximity to Hollywood and the lure of the silver screen, Corman followed in his father’s footsteps and took up engineering at Stanford University. His schooling was interrupted by World War II; Corman enrolled in the V-12 Navy College Training Program and graduated from it as an officer in the Navy. Though that program granted a completion degree, Corman still returned to Stanford after his service in order to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Engineering. His career as an engineer, however, was comically short; it began on a Monday in 1948, at U.S. Electrical Motors in Los Angeles, and ended on that Thursday with Corman telling his boss, “I’ve made a terrible mistake. I really have to quit. Today.”
That was probably the best decision Corman made in his young career—though he would not leave his education behind once he moved to the world of filmmaking. In fact, it was his experience in the highly detailed work of engineering that allowed him to stretch his famously low budgets to the max in a process dubbed “value engineering.” Corman explained as much in his 1990 memoir How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, which shows how his “obsession with efficiency—literally inventing new industry standards, mostly in the interest of turning a profit—would influence nearly every movie bearing his name as director or producer.” In other words, science made his method of movie-making possible.
Corman received an honorary Academy Award “for his rich engendering of films and filmmakers” and his impact on the current generation of auteurs like Quentin Tarantino is difficult to overstate. That legacy is thanks, in part, to Corman’s early scientific studies which formed the foundation of his artistic process.
Now that you know that Roger Corman is one of our Secret Science Nerds, who else would you like us to profile in the future? Let us know in the comments below!