Roger Corman reflects on 'Battle,' James Cameron
There are plenty of reasons to celebrate Roger Corman's cult classic "Battle Beyond the Stars," including its July 12 debut on Blu-ray to celebrate its 30th anniversary.
But perhaps more remarkable when looking back on the legendary filmmaker's space opera, is that it's the very film where Corman gave a young filmmaker named James Cameron his start in the business. After all, this is the same Cameron who three years later would go on to write and direct the sci-fi classic "The Terminator" -- and eventually make the two highest grossing films of all time with "Titanic" and "Avatar."
The funny thing is, Corman was operating a bigger incubator for success on "Battle Beyond the Stars" than he ever could have imagined. That's because Corman's assistant was Gale Anne Hurd, who was sent on a fateful trip from the producer's office in Brentwood, Calif., to the studio in Venice to see why the special effects on the film had fallen behind.
"When Gale came back from the studio, she said, 'The guy you hired to head the special effects department is good, but he, as many people do, slightly overstated his experience. The No. 2 man -- Jim Cameron -- is actually much better than the No. 1 man,'" Corman recalled in a recent interview. "So, I did something I very seldom do and went to the studio myself talked to Jim and said, 'I'm giving you a raise in the middle of picture and I want you to run the special effects (and art direction) for the rest of it.' Plus, that started the relationship between Gale and Jim, who then got married and produced the 'Terminator' pictures together."
Of course, before Cameron and Hurd released "The Terminator" to the general public, they gave Corman a peek first.
"I remember they showed me a cut of the film and asked my thoughts," Corman recalled. "It was an expensive film but it looked bigger than it really was, so I asked them how they did it. Jim and Gale said, 'We did just what we did for you, but we had a bigger budget and we could do more.'"
Engaging The 'Battle'
"Battle Beyond the Stars" tells the story of Shad (Richard Thomas), a young space warrior who scours the galaxy to recruit mercenaries to help defend his peaceful planet from the evil tyrant Sador (John Saxon).
Made for $2 million, "Battle Beyond the Stars" was without question Corman's most expensive film to date when filming began in 1980. A master at low-budget filmmaking, Corman admits he took a bigger risk than usual by making the film, first by expanding his usual shooting schedule from 15 to 20 days, and employing veteran actors like George Peppard and Robert Vaughn, whose fees were higher than what he was used to paying his actors.
Fortunately for Corman, he had loads of more undiscovered gems in his stable of talent, including composer James Horner (another future collaborator of Cameron's) and John Sayles -- the screenwriter who would go on to write and direct such acclaimed films as "Lone Star" and "Passion Fish," which both earned Sayles Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominations.
The involvement of Cameron notwithstanding, Corman believes the biggest reason "Battle Beyond the Stars" is still being celebrated 30 years after its release boils down to the work of his screenwriter.
"I think it all starts with John Sayles' excellent script," Corman said. "We were thinking of doing something in terms of Kurosawa's 'The Seven Samurai' and of course, 'Star Wars.' We were looking at different elements of those. I'd been making science fiction films for many, many years, including one called 'Battle Beyond the Sun.' I figured we'd just change the title to 'Battle Beyond the Stars' to see what we could do."
Apart from its notable stars like Peppard, Vaughn and Sybil Danning (who played the sexy mercenary Valkyrie Saint-Exmin), "Battle Beyond the Stars" also featured the burgeoning talents of Richard Thomas, previously known for his work on the classic television drama "The Waltons."
Corman believes "Battle Beyond the Stars" was a breakout project for Thomas because it showed a completely different side of the actor.
"He was very instrumental to the success of it by bringing a little bit of humor into it," Corman said. "One of the keys to the success of the film was that it looked bigger than it was in comparison to other low-budget films. But there was a little bit of humor running through it just to take the edge off. Richard was very good at that."
Use And Recycle
Without question, one of the reasons Corman, 85, has had such amazing longevity in Hollywood is due to his thrifty use of film budgets. If don't believe that's true, name any other filmmaker who has lived to produce nearly 400 films.
Case in point: for "Battle Beyond the Stars," Corman curtailed the budgets on some of his future sci-fi films by reusing the spaceships from "Battle" in as many as four more projects.
But while the practice of using and recycling is justified for low-budget filmmakers like Corman, should directors like Michael Bay be called out for allegedly using a digitally-altered shot from "The Island" for his new blockbuster "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"?
While Corman doesn't think Bay re-used the shot to save money, it wouldn't surprise him if it happened because the filmmaker was on a deadline: a dilemma he said that faces all filmmakers face no matter how big of a budget they have to work with.
"Reusing effects and spaceships was a necessity for us because our later pictures had much lower budgets -- maybe $800,000-$900,000 -- and I had to use what I had to make it work," Corman said. "With Michael Bay it's a differently thing because he's got all the money in the world. I would guess that he was up against a time schedule. I'm making all of this up, but I'm guessing he had to deliver the picture, he looked it over one last time and said, 'That shot isn't right and I don't have time to make a new one, so what can I do?' So he grabbed an old shot and put it in."
If Bay did indeed reuse the shot, Corman said he doesn't blame the director in the least for recycling a previous shot.
"Particularly with these big pictures, because they cost so much money to market, they have their release date set a year in advance -- sometimes more than that," Corman said. "They know that the picture has to be ready at a certain time and special effects are so unpredictable in the schedule and the money you'll spend on them."
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