Stanley Yung’s first date movies with his wife were Raise the Red Lantern and Midnight Cowboy, but he somehow convinced her to marry him anyway. He continues to encourage her to watch his “syllabus” of favorite movies, which she considers “dark and depressing.” A graduate of UCLA Film School, Stanley worked as a director for Roger Corman and produced the features The People I’ve Slept With, Ethan Mao, Catfish in Black Bean Sauce, and Shopping for Fangs.
With Roger Corman winning a Lifetime Achievement Oscar this year, I’ve been reflecting on my experience of working for the “King of the B-movies.” Fresh out of film school, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of great directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, and James Cameron. What do they all have in common? Yes, they all won Oscars for Best Director. But they all also directed their first features for Roger Corman.
Working for Corman was definitely a grind, but it’s where I learned the most about the filmmaking process. Being at Concorde-New Horizons Studio was like going to film school, only better. Where else can you go from being a P.A. to directing a feature film in just 18 months and get paid to do it? But we weren’t working on highbrow material by any means. On the spectrum between art and commerce, Concorde was all about pumping out movies designed to make money. It was a factory for genre and exploitation films, where plenty of gratuitous sex and violence was committed to celluloid.
Everyone starts out at Concorde as an intern, so my first job at the studio was as a runner, driving around town picking up equipment and expendables. But one of the production managers soon took me under her wing and gave me a shot at being a production coordinator. The first feature I coordinated was Carnosaur 3: Primal Species, an homage to Jurassic Park. It was a trial by fire experience, because I had to prep most of the movie on my own even though I’d never done it before. Because of the low budget, they used a lot of old school special effects – stop motion animation, puppets, and guys running around in rubber dinosaur suits – but it was a lot of fun.
This was during the heyday of the studio when it was pumping out 14 features per year. There were three in-house production managers, and sometimes two or three features were shot simultaneously. It could be chaotic at times, but it was also a great learning environment. There was a natural weeding out process. New recruits get thrown into the deep end. If you sink, you don’t get hired back. If you swim, you’re brought on for the next project and quickly promoted. Just about everyone there wanted to direct, but first you had to pay your dues and work your way up the ladder through different departments.
I learned all the ins and outs of putting a low budget film together by working on B-movie classics like Starquest 2, Last Exit to Earth, Born Bad, Don’t Sleep Alone, Club Vampire, and Taxi Dancer. But my big break came when I finally got to work as a 2nd Unit Director – the coveted precursor to directing. Working on 2nd Unit was like fighting in the trenches, because we did some crazy stuff. You had a tiny crew, very little equipment, and no film permits, so it was guerilla filmmaking at its finest. Creative improvisation was the name of the game. One time I was told to shoot a night exterior with a couple of leading actors, but we had to do it without permits, lights, or electrical power. We improvised by finding a street with barely enough illumination from the streetlights and surrounding businesses, so we opened up the aperture, stole the shot, and were lucky enough to get something on film before the cops showed up.
The craziest thing I ever did was to shoot a car chase in Griffith Park without any permits. It was for a racecar movie called Overdrive – a rip-off of Days of Thunder starring Steve Guttenberg. We drove around with a camera in the back of a pickup truck and had a stunt driver circle around us at high speed in the picture car. We ended up getting pulled over by the police, but my out of date student I.D. came in handy. Whenever we got caught, that was always our cover story – “But officer, we’re just shooting a student film.” Those were the good old days.
Soon after, my dream came true when I got the chance to direct my first feature. But the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.” Shadow Dancer turned out to be an erotic thriller set in a strip club. I’m just glad they didn’t go with the original title – Lap Dancer. It was definitely trial by fire, because I only had 11 days of principal photography. We had a really tight budget, so I was only allowed to shoot two takes per setup. Another way to save money was the patented “stock footage car chase.” That meant pulling shots of car stunts from older Corman movies, editing them into a new action sequence, and then reshooting close-ups of our actors in matching cars. Fortunately, I had a talented and hardworking crew. We often shot over 50 setups per day, but I was barely able to get enough coverage to have the story make sense.
It wasn’t art, but I worked hard to make the best damn stripper thriller that I possibly could. I fought with the development people to refine and polish a really poor script. Another trade secret at Corman was that they would recycle stories from older movies. Shadow Dancer was actually a rehashing of another movie called Midnight Tease. I spent a lot of time choreographing and designing the sensual but tasteful dance numbers. The actors weren’t the best in the world, but they were eager and tried their best. But in the end, the movie was what it was – a T&A exploitation film that I’m still embarrassed to show my Mom. I think it ended up getting a theatrical release in Romania or something. But hey, before Martin Scorsese did Mean Streets, he directed a little gem called Boxcar Bertha.
Unfortunately, just as I achieved my goal of directing for Roger Corman, the studio was changing. Straight-to-video B-movies were becoming less profitable, so Concorde began paring back on production. Corman’s last hurrah was to self-finance a superhero TV series called The Black Scorpion. It was campy like the 1960s Batman TV show except with a woman in a sexy leather outfit. I was fortunate enough to direct both first and second unit for that show, and it eventually aired on the Sci Fi Channel. After that, Concorde did fewer and fewer projects. Eventually, the old Venice studio lot was torn down to build million-dollar lofts. These days, I think they’re mostly just distributing films and producing very little in house.
Looking back, I never realized how good I had it working for Roger Corman. Most of us were too busy griping about the long hours, low pay, and crappy working conditions to really appreciate how much we were learning on the job. I rubbed elbows with cool actors like Robert Duvall, Farrah Fawcett, Sonia Braga, John Savage, David Carradine, Ally Sheedy, and Robert Englund, albeit most of them were on the downside of their careers. I worked with a lot of talented people behind the camera whom I’ve since lost touch with. But I occasionally see their names in the credits of some pretty big movies, and I’m glad that they’re doing well. So here’s to you, Roger Corman. Long live B-movies!