Roger Corman makes a racing movie
Motor Racing Released - Feb 28, 2016
Filmmaker Roger Corman wrote a book some years back entitled, “How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.” Roger Corman was a gentleman, but he was also cheap, the king of low-budget thrillers that cost very little to make, that were generally panned by critics, but drew in the crowds in small towns across America’s heartland. It so happens Roger was a car guy. In the early 1960s he decided he wanted to vacation in Europe and get American International Pictures to pay for it. To do so, he decided to make a Grand Prix racing movie. With a budget of $150,000, he began putting together a film crew and cast.
“I called on all my old friends and put together one of the all-time great crews,” he says, “offering them low money but round-trip airfare and room and board along the circuit—Monaco, Rouen, Spa in Belgium, Holland, and England. The plan was to shoot the dramatic scenes and the races every other weekend—the qualifying on Saturday and the actual race on Sunday. Then, we’d all get a week’s vacation, showing up on Monday a week later at the next city. Everyone I called accepted immediately.”
Francis Ford Coppola, who would go on to make “Patton” and the “Godfather” trilogy, was just out of college and looking to break into the movie business. Out of the blue, Roger called asking if he knew of a good sound man. Coppola didn’t know a thing about sound but jumped at the opportunity. “Gee, yeah, I do,” he said. “I’ll do the sound.” After hanging up Coppola got the Nagra portable audio recorder out of the closet at the office and went home to read the manual.
Roger needed a screenplay, and found one about a young American who gets involved with a bullfighter and his wife in Spain. He called the screenwriter. “Can you make this bullfighter a young race car driver who gets involved with a great Grand Prix driver and his girlfriend? Race car driver, bullfighting—same thing. Danger. Action on the weekends. Intrigue during the week.” The screenwriter agreed but needed time to rewrite the script. There was no time. “I’ll pay your way to Europe,” said Roger. “You can polish the rewrites as we move through the circuit.”
Roger signed a cast of B-actors, gathered up his film crew, and flew them all to the Monaco Grand Prix to begin shooting. Roger hadn’t arranged any advance work, hadn’t any permits, but he was eternally optimistic. “I was convinced nothing could go wrong.” Being outgoing and friendly, he moved easily among the Grand Prix crowd. He made friends quickly and enlisted their cooperation, including Colin Chapman, owner of Team Lotus, and John Cooper, owner of Cooper Cars, both top racing teams. Roger doesn’t remember, but he thinks he paid both owners about $2,000 each for the use of their cars for close-ups and stunt driving. Even then, it wasn’t a lot of money, but Roger convinced them the film would give them a great deal of exposure in the U.S., where their passenger cars were sold. Joe Machin, the fictional world champion, was the driver of Team Lotus, while the other character, Stephen Children, journalist turned racer, is his teammate. The racing sequences and close-ups were of Lotuses and Coopers exclusively (no one could say Roger didn’t deliver on a promise). Adding to the effect, actor Bill Campbell, who played Joe Machin, wore the Scottish blue racing helmet of Lotus driver Jim Clark, and actor Mark Damon, who played Stephen Children, wore the yellow helmet of Clark’s teammate, Trevor Taylor.
“I made a deal with the race organizers that after a practice run before the race, Lotus driver Jim Clark would come once around the final turn, drive up, stop, and I’d come up for a close-up,” says Roger. The camera would stop, Clark would step out of the car and Bill would step in wearing Clark’s helmet. “Then in one shot the girl would run out and put a wreath around Bill and kiss him,” says Corman. “He then drives off in front of a hundred thousand people for a victory lap.”
And so it went, from race to race, with what amounted to the actual Lotus driver and future world champion, Jim Clark, doing stand-ins for actor Bill Campbell. And it was all done on the run, during busy race weekends, in one take, with the cameraman rushing in, getting the closeup, and then getting the heck out of the way. Out on the circuit, meanwhile, Roger employed two other cameras, each located where the racing action was sure to be the most dramatic. All of the equipment—three cameras, sound equipment, lights, dollies and tracks—fit inside one mini bus.
Among the other cars being promoted in the film was a sleek Sunbeam sports car, like the one Grace Kelly drives in “To Catch a Thief.” It was to be Joe Machin’s personal car in the movie. Rather than transport the car to the next race, one of the crew offered to drive it. “Okay,” said Roger, “but just be careful. This is the lead’s car.” The crewman was named Chuck Griffith. He and his girlfriend set off from Monaco in the Sunbeam and encountered a severe rainstorm. An English van camper that had been tailgating them failed to brake as they slowed going down a slippery hill. “It just plowed into us and knocked us all to hell,” says Griffith. “We flipped over five times. The ambulance got us to the hospital. I got hold of Roger at the Nice airport and broke the news.”
“Well,” he said calmly. “tell ‘em to patch you up and get here as quickly as possible.”
“We escaped from the hospital,” says Griffith. “The Sunbeam was history. Roger had to write it out of the picture. When Machin was supposed to drive into frame, now he walked into frame instead.”
The final race to be filmed was the British Grand Prix, at Aintree, a circuit outside Liverpool. During the race, Machin crashes, but the actual footage was of a real accident, shot earlier in season at the Belgium Grand Prix. The car involved was a Ferrari which was filmed burning at the edge of the circuit. Anyone familiar with Grand Prix motor racing can clearly see the burning car is a Ferrari and not a Lotus, but no matter. Corman didn’t have to spend a dime in expenses for what would have been a costly shoot.
The final racing shots were filmed south of Liverpool at a club circuit called Oulton Park. It was here they filmed the close-ups of the actors driving the actual Lotus F-1 racing cars. “We did only one day of actual stunt driving,” says Roger. “What we did to make the movie was shoot the actual races, and later (back in Hollywood) cut in the close-ups of our actors behind the wheel. Mark Damon and Bill Campbell drove the cars around the circuit, jockeying for position, as if racing one another, and we had a camera mounted on a car ahead of them, and another camera mounted in the nose of another race car, for more close ups.” Thus, in the movie, when you see the two dicing for position at Rouen or one of the other racing circuits it’s actually shots taken at Oulton Park that were spliced into the actual race footage.
Filmed in 1962, “The Young Racers” came in under budget, at $90,000. Roger Corman and his film crew had a such a small presence on the Grand Prix circuit that American journalist Robert Daley who covered the sport for the New York Times had no idea a movie was being shot that summer.
Four years later, director John Frankenheimer made epic “Grand Prix” for a reported $9 million. “Grand Prix” featured an all-star international cast, truckloads of equipment, scores of crewmen, and breakthrough technological camera equipment that changed how action movies would be made in the future. The cast took auto racing lessons, the studio purchased a fleet of race cars, one of which actually competed in a race with mounted camera, and Frankenheimer even staged one race at a circuit not in use that season. The making of “Grand Prix” was a gala in itself, with celebrities not connected with filming on the set, and retired world champion drivers who did cameos, and expensive parties, and private trailers for each of the stars, and on and on, in stark contrast with Roger Corman’s bargain basement production. Indeed, “The Young Racers” cost one percent of what it cost to make “Grand Prix.” Bargain basement or not, Corman’s actors drove actual F-1 racing cars in close ups, while Frankenheimer’s stars drove minor league F-3s made to look like F-1s.
Roger’s movie made money, of course—all his movies made money. “Grand Prix” on the other hand, was the highest grossing motion picture of 1966. Both movies were filmed in color, on location, and showcased the sport of Grand Prix motor racing. The scripts are essentially the same—racing by day, romancing by night. Neither captures the actual life of a Grand Prix driver, which apart from racing is quite dull. Therein the similarity ends. “Grand Prix” has superior close-ups, has more racing action, and is a better movie. Considering the $9 million cost to make it, it should be. And, at three hours, “Grand Prix” is twice as long.
How does Roger feel about “The Young Racers”? “Today, it would not stand up,” he said in a 2001 interview, “because of the stunt driving. I felt that I would have liked to have had a little more stunt driving in it. I had good shots of the races—I had enough to cover it—but for one, I didn’t have a lot of money, and second, we were using Formula 1 racers in the middle of the season, and Colin Chapman and John Cooper, they are not about to let us do anything of significant damage to a Lotus or Cooper, particularly when Lotus was competing that year for the world championship.”
And what about “Grand Prix”? What does he think of it? “I liked their film. They had the money to do the picture the way it should be done. They slightly over-romanticized the business with the girls, and it isn’t quite, you know, as glamorous as they made it seem. With that slight exception, I thought Frankeheimer—and I wouldn’t even say that, frankly—I thought Frankenheimer did a good job. I thought it was a good picture.”
There is a post script to the story. Fast cars and motor racing were a theme Roger returned to again and again in his long career making films. In 1954, he made the original “Fast and Furious” with actor John Ireland. A number of scenes were shot at the Pebble Beach road course, with Roger himself doing the stunt driving. Roger later sold the rights to the title to Universal Pictures. In 1967, he returned to Europe to make yet another Grand Prix film called “The Wild Racers” starring Fabian—the less said about the better. He will tell you he produced but did not direct it, and that they had even less money to make it. And, of course, he will also tell you the film made money. In 1975, he did “Death Race 2000,” with David Carradine, and Sylvester Stallone in his first movie role. It’s a campy sci-fi thriller, a fictional cross-country race where anything goes, including forcing cars off the road and running over pedestrians. The cars were stripped down Volkswagen beetles outfitted with weird futuristic-looking bodies. Imagine an alligator on wheels and you have the general idea. “I did the stunt driving in that,” he says. “I came out of stunt driving retirement.”
“Death Race 2000” was Roger’s most successful film ever. And the critics loved it. “Maxim magazine had some survey or poll or something of the best B-pictures ever made,” he says, “and ‘Death Race 2000’ came out number one.” Roger says he has a handshake deal with Tom Cruise to do a remake of “Death Race 2000.” “He and I will co-produce, and he will probably star.”
Roger did two other movies involving fast cars in the 1970s, both with Ron Howard. “I did ‘Eat My Dust’ and ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ but those were more car-chase films, though ‘Eat My Dust’ started out in a stock-car racing track. Ron Howard steals this car to impress his girl, and it becomes a chase out of the track.” Howard not only starred but directed. These were the movies that launched Howard’s career as a director. In 2012, Howard made a Grand Prix racing movie entitled, “Rush.”
Being a car guy, Roger has owned a number of fast cars over the years: Mercedes, a Porsche Targa and a Porsche Carrera, various Jaguars, an Alpha Romeo, a Lotus, but no Ferraris (too expensive and not reliable). His wife gave him a restored MGTD for a his birthday some years ago, like the one he drove in college. His daily transportation? The Corvette that was used in his TV series “Black Scorpion.”
(Quotes are from Corman’s book and from my interview with him in 2001).
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