At 90, Roger Corman is a Hollywood legend whose six-decade filmmaking career includes several low-budget cult-classics as well as a reputation for fostering the talents of some of the industry’s biggest names. He’s also still working, having released a new movie on Tuesday that comes more than 60 years after his first directorial effort.
Corman, who has directed or produced roughly 400 films during his career, is now a producer on Death Race 2050, which Universal Pictures Home Entertainment released on Tuesday for DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming on Netflix. An honorary Academy Award recipient in 2010 for a career that saw his independent studio, New World Pictures, churn out classic “B-movies” such as The Wild Angels, Piranha, and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Corman is also notable for the long list of A-list actors and directors who got their first Hollywood breaks under his tutelage — a list that includes names such as James Cameron, Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese.
The new movie is something of a sequel to the cult satire action film Corman made in 1975, Death Race 2000, which starred David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone in a dystopian future with a deadly nationwide car race. Corman says Death Race 2050 follows a similar formula to the original, and stars Malcolm McDowell as the chairman of an evil corporate government that distracts its citizens with violent virtual reality entertainment—including, you guessed it, a Death Race.
Ahead of the release of Death Race 2050, Corman talked to Fortune about his filmmaking over the past six decades, his latest film, and what it’s like making movies in Hollywood’s new digital era. (Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Is this a sequel to your original Death Race 2000 (1975)? What inspired you to make a new version four decades later?
I had sold the remake rights of Death Race in 2000 to Universal and they remade it very well as a direct car-racing action picture. (And, they remade it a couple of times.) Each time they left off one aspect that I always thought was important, which was the killing of pedestrians by the racers. I always liked the idea of the killing of pedestrians, which brought a different element to it. Because you can’t take that too seriously, it brought an element of comedy to the picture. The original picture, I thought, was a car-racing action picture with a little bit of social commentary and the comedy and the killing of the pedestrians.
I told Universal that they’d done a really great job with the remakes, but I thought they missed what made the first picture sort of a cult favorite, which was the political comment through comedy. They asked if I’d like to do it again myself, and I said sure. I don’t know if you’d call it a sequel or a remake—I didn’t have a definition in my mind. It was the same theme through both films, and a number of elements remain; I’ve simply moved them into the future and project the future a little differently than I did before.
What’s different about the new movie?
It is a throwback to the original Death Race, with a slightly bigger budget on this. We were able to spend a little bit more time with the car racing, build up the crowds a little bit—and, simply, give it a slightly higher production value while retaining the same basic themes, but as interpreted from today’s world as opposed to the 1970s.
The United States of America becomes the United Corporations of America, and the President becomes the Chairman. And—really, as a joke—we gave the Chairman a Donald Trump hairdo, and we never dreamed that he would be president. When we made the film, he was just one of many candidates. So, here we are, unwittingly, with the first picture of Trump as President.
And, just in time for his inauguration! Universal first remade Death Race in 2008 and that movie made roughly $75 million at the box office. What are your favorite elements of that remake?
The car-racing itself. They moved the race away from the national event that I had in the original, and that social commentary, and they moved it to a prison. Jason Statham was very good in the lead—but, also, the pure action was excellent.
It’s an interesting time in Hollywood, with the rise of big-budget franchises and countless tentpole sequels. But, there are also more and more avenues available for digital distribution of movies. How does the current era of filmmaking compare to when you were starting out six decades ago?
It’s easier to make a picture than it ever was. The digital cameras and the lightweight equipment make the production of a film easier today. The distribution of the films today is more difficult. When I started, which was the late-1950s, every film that was at least decently made got a full theatrical release. Today, very few low- or medium-budget films get a theatrical release. We’re dependent upon DVD and then into Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, or something like that. So, we’re missing the theatrical experience for most low-budget films.
Are there any modern filmmakers, or types of films, out there today that remind you of yourself?
The proliferation of science fiction movies today—that was a big part of my early work, and through the years. Death Race is partially a science fiction film. When I started, science fiction was pretty much, with a few exceptions, the genre of low-budget filmmakers. Today, science fiction has become mainstream and is a big part of expensive productions from major studios. One of our—we call them our graduates [directors whose careers Corman helped foster]—Jim Cameron, with Avatar, has shown an example of a brilliant, big-budget science fiction film taking advantage of computer graphics.
There are several A-list actors and directors who got their start working on one of your movies. They all went the mainstream route, making larger-budget pictures. Did you ever seriously consider staying in the mainstream yourself?
I’ve done an occasional film for a major studio, as well. But, unless you’re an A-list director, like Steven Spielberg or George Lucas, you’re subject to certain controls from the studio. I got along well with them, but the controls and decisions weren’t always what I wanted, so I thought I’d really prefer to have my own company and make my own films where the decision is all mine. But, that means, since I don’t have that much money, that there’s a limit with the budget of the films.
You’re 90 years old and you’ve got a new film out. Do you have any more projects you’re working on right now?
I’m working on something right now that is very strange. A company called iQIYI, which is sort of China’s equivalent of Netflix, wants to do an English-Chinese picture. They flew me to Beijing and we’ll be producing a science fiction picture with a Chinese orientation, but done in English. This is the way the world is going. So, we’ll probably start shooting in the spring.
I never dreamed that my first streaming-only picture would be streamed to the Chinese market, not to the American market.