Beverly Gray describes herself as “movie-mad.” In the 1970s her madness led her to Hollywood, where she worked closely with legendary B-movie director Roger Corman. He would become the subject of her first biography, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers.
In this interview, Beverly talks about:
- How she chose her subject (or did he chose her?).
- Her low-tech organizational methods.
- How her relationship with her subject continues to evolve.
HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Roger Corman?
Beverly: My situation was not a conventional one. B-movie legend Roger Corman was my boss both at New World Pictures (1973-1975) and later at Concorde New-Horizons (1986-1994). As Roger’s story editor, I was deeply involved in the making of 170 low-budget features, until the day in 1994 when I unexpectedly discovered I was out of a job. (It seems Roger had decided to hand my position to a former employee who was talented, needy, and willing to work for much less than what I was being paid.)
Desperate for a new source of income, I began teaching screenwriting through UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. That gig entitled me to take the occasional UCLA Extension course, free of charge. So I enrolled in a class called “Writing the Non-Fictional Book Proposal.”
At the outset, I had no idea what I wanted to write. But on the first evening the instructor impressed upon us the fact that in order to break into the publishing industry, it was essential to choose a topic that no one else could handle quite as well. For me it was a lightbulb moment. I went home and wrote, “The first time I ever saw Roger Corman,” because I had a really telling anecdote about my job interview back in 1973. Then I wrote “The last time I ever saw Roger Corman,” and explained why I was no longer on the Corman payroll. Those two stories were featured in my book proposal, and they ultimately kicked off the introduction to my published Corman biography.
HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?
Beverly: Of course I began with my own recollections, as well as memorabilia I’d collected over the years. And I did some important research in the Roger Corman files at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, while also reading every book that had previously been published about Roger.
But most essential to the success of my biography was the series of interviews I conducted with Corman alumni, many of whom had been my colleagues and friends over the years. I remember that actor Dick Miller was one of the very first I approached. Like so many others, Dick spoke to me at length, going into lively detail about both the admiration and the resentment he felt toward this B-movie giant.
By the time I completed the book, I had traded Roger stories with well over a hundred former Cormanites from every phase of his career. Biggest coup? Maybe the tracking down of Charles B. Griffith, the eccentric but brilliant writer of such signature Corman films as Little Shop of Horrors and Bucket of Blood. I found Chuck in Australia, and a long email correspondence ensued. I should add that I’ve somehow never stopped researching Roger Corman, and my collection of interview files continues to grow.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Beverly: For the purposes of this book, I invented an elaborate but low-tech system involving large, colorful index cards. Each chronological phase of Roger’s career was assigned its own color. For example, I chose the color yellow to represent Roger’s New World Pictures era. Using my stack of yellow cards, I gave each one a heading, like Money, or Family, or Death Race 2000. Then, moving methodically through the printouts of all my transcribed interviews and other materials, I pulled quotes and details that fit the topic and notated them on the appropriate card. Eventually I ordered my cards in sequence, and that’s when I began to write.
It was a long slow process, made even more difficult on the day that the ceiling above my dining room table started leaking (because of a poorly installed second-floor shower), leaving many of my cards sopping wet.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Beverly: I never have typical days! I’m a wife and mother, and am quite used to being pulled in many directions, sometimes needing to set my professional life aside completely in order to deal with family obligations. It’s not the most efficient way to work, but I must say that I never get bored.
And the Corman project, which had a short deadline, was such a labor of love that I found myself being remarkably productive. During the writing process I remember going to bed late and rousing early, always knowing exactly where I would pick up the narrative thread when I sat down at the keyboard. Despite all the pressure, I slept beautifully and woke up happy. Writing has never been quite as exciting for me since, though I’ve regained some of that joy in the last few years by way of my Beverly in Movieland blog, which covers movies, movie-making, and growing up Hollywood-adjacent.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Beverly: It’s hard to imagine, but when I wrote the first edition of the Corman book a lot of the tools we now take for granted didn’t exist. My tape recorder was hardly high-tech, and I had no special equipment for transcribing interviews. The invaluable Internet Movie Database was available but full of errors, and neither Wikipedia nor YouTube had yet made an appearance. Of course today I constantly use all three of these sites.
I also use a number of film archives, of which the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, California, is by far the most comprehensive. It’s also a delightful place in which to work.
Bonus question: Have you found any unique challenges in writing about Hollywood celebrities?
Beverly: Great question! Hollywood celebrities, whom I’ve interviewed for all sorts of writing projects, are very good at being self-protective. They are often surrounded by handlers, and they like to use their clout to put their own spin on a writer’s findings.
Roger Corman, in particular, did his very best to take control of my work, even after I told him that one of the key things he’d taught me over the years was the value of artistic independence. Now, even though my book has been hailed by critics and Cormanites alike, he’s still finding subtle ways to show me his displeasure, by (for instance) having me edited out of commentary tracks that are intended to accompany Corman video collections. I provide a few more details of his low-key vendetta against me in the new 3rdedition of Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. It’s quite an eye-opening tale.