1. The Intruder (1962)
This picture was about racial integration in the South, so it was difficult to shoot on location at the time. We even received death threats. But it was a film of important personal interest to me—it was before Martin Luther King Jr., when racial integration was first introduced in schools down there. The picture won several small film festivals and The New York Herald Tribune wrote in a review, “This film is a major credit to the entire American film industry.” It was also the first picture I ever made that lost money. I really believed in it and was disappointed in its commercial reception. But it changed the way I made films. I felt the reason it had failed commercially was that it was too much of a message from me and not entertaining enough. From then on, I made films primarily for the audience’s entertainment. Any personal statement or scene that was important to me would be a beneath-the-surface subtext.
2. The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
This was the first of my Edgar Allen Poe series to be filmed in England. We were shooting at a studio that had some flats left over from A Man for All Seasons, and we reassembled them into an incredible set. I thought the photography and the whole look of the picture was the best of my Poe films, which were all based on his gothic horror stories. Some were so short that in order to make the future film, we would use the story Poe had written as the third act and write a first and second act leading up to it. We felt that was fitting with Poe’s style. Masque of the Red Death was the second-to-last Poe film I made. They were all successful, and American International Pictures wanted me to make yet another one after The Tomb of Ligeia, which was the ninth in the series. But I felt I was starting to repeat myself by always shooting in the studio. I told them I needed to get out in the streets and shoot reality—and they agreed!
3. The Wild Angels (1966)
The Wild Angels was the first of the Hells Angels motorcycle films and the biggest-grossing low-budget picture ever made at the time. Peter Fonda played the lead, and I insisted that all the actors be able to ride a motorcycle. I didn’t want the old business of the actor jumping on the motorcycle and then cutting to the long shot when the stuntman drives away. I wanted the actor to get on the motorcycle and ride away in one shot. While the lead roles in the picture were all played by actors, I’d actually hired the Hells Angels to play themselves in the film. In the climax of the movie, the Hells Angels get into a fight with some townspeople. I tried to explain how they should fight in the scene, but of course they did it their way. Needless to say, the fight got out of hand, and the crew had to wade in and break it up. The state police also followed us everywhere we went because they had warrants for some of the Angels. I told them, “Look, these guys are working! They’re not breaking any laws.”
4. The Trip (1967)
The Trip was a follow-up to the Wild Angels in which I was again working with the counterculture of the 1960s. But instead of the working class Hells Angels, this counterculture group was higher up on the social scale. The film was about an LSD experience, and I had never taken the drug, but I decided as a conscientious director that I should experience a trip. When I did it, a number of others joined me, since I was sort of the straightest guy in a fairly wild group. They thought, “If Roger’s taking it, it must be OK.” Jack Nicholson wrote the script, and Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, and Dennis Hopper played the leads. With the exception of Bruce Dern, everybody had experimented with the drug and chimed in with script ideas. Finally I said, “I don’t know whose trip this is!” One of the problems was that my trip was wonderful! But I felt I couldn’t draw on it too much in the film because I didn’t want it to come off as a pro-LSD feature, and I knew a lot of people had bad trips. So Jack, Peter, Dennis, and I talked amongst ourselves to figure out the best way to incorporate the good experiences from my trip with other people’s bad experiences. Later in the ’80s, when Ronald Reagan declared some sort of a war on drugs, The New York Times asked me to comment on it since I was, according to them, “a spokesman for the drug movement.” I said, “Spokesman for the drug movement? I had one trip!”
5. Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
This was my first bigger budget film—the most expensive film I had made after forming my own company, New World Pictures, in 1970—and the first film we shot at the company’s studio. Our director, Jimmy Murakami, was running behind schedule one day, so he asked me to shoot some simple shots of Richard Thomas running down a hall. But in one shot, Richard was supposed to run down the hall, jump up and hit his feet against a corridor post, then spin off the post into another corridor. So while we were setting up, I did a demonstration and told Richard, “That’s how I’d like you to do it.” When it was time to shoot, the assistant director brought in a stuntman for the scene. I told him, “I’m 50 years old and just did it! Send the stuntman home.”
6. Piranha (1978)
Piranha was a film that far exceeded our expectations in quality and commercial success. It was the biggest success New World had had up to that date, and brilliantly combined horror with comedy.
7. Grand Theft Auto (1977)
Grand Theft Auto was a comedy car-chase film which Ron Howard both starred in and directed. It was the first time Ron had directed a film, and he combined the two roles flawlessly. Ron had worked with me before on another car-chase film called Eat My Dust, in which he was the star. It was extremely successful, so we decided to make a sequel. When Ron suggested he direct, I said, “You always looked like a director to me, Ron.” I still remember the words.
8. Death Race 2000 (1975)
I always liked the plot of this film, which was about a car race from New York to Los Angeles in the year 2000. The basic premise was that racers were scored on two accounts: how fast they could drive, and how many pedestrians they could kill. It was another of our biggest successes and led to many jokes like, “How many points can we get for the little old lady in the crosswalk?” We had a stunt-driver on set for some of the racing sequences when cars are crashing into each other and flying off the road. Stunt-drivers typically get a basic salary but can request a pay bump for more dangerous stunts, or a double bump for extremely dangerous ones. So when our stunt-driver wanted a double bump for something that didn’t look that difficult to me, I said, “Forget it. I’ll drive the car myself.” I had to drive the car off the road and crash it into a tree. I figured all you had to do was turn the steering wheel at the right time, and twist it so it hit the tree from the passenger’s side.
The film starred David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, and it was Sylvester’s first leading role. I gave him the green light when he asked to rewrite some of his lines—and he actually improved them. So I wasn’t at all surprised by the success of Rocky and other pictures he wrote later in his career.
9. Rock ’n’ Roll High School (1979)
The most memorable part of this comedy starring the Ramones as the rock group is when the students blow up their own high school. Writer-director Alan Arkush said he had always fantasized about blowing up his high school. When rock and roll was new, I made a successful picture called Rock All Night. Since we were making this film in the disco era, I suggested to Alan that we call it Disco High. He said, “Roger, you can’t blow up a high school to disco music. You’ve got to do it to rock ’n’ roll!” He couldn’t have been more right.