Interview: Alex Stapleton Talks About Breaking Into “Corman’s World”

The filmmaker discusses getting her big break by making a movie about the man who has given them to so many others including Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Jack...

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“A lot of people in the snobby film world just dismiss Corman movies,” said Alex Stapleton. “They’re like, ‘yeah, he made ‘Women in Cages,’ ‘Private Duty Nurses’ or “Caged Heat” and I don’t really think I need to get to know who Roger Corman is.”

To go by a similarly superficial description, Stapleton might seem like an unlikely candidate to be the one to tell them. Somehow, it's all too appropriate that a young, hungry director making her first feature such as Stapleton is able to place the legendary filmmaker in the context he deserves with the biography “Corman’s World." The director hadn’t yet been born when Corman began cranking out movies that were exploitative in every sense of the word, films that thrived on cheap thrills such as explosions, shock scares and scantily clad women delivered by even cheaper talent, many of whom went onto become standard bearers for the industry.

Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Jonathan Demme, Robert De Niro and Ron Howard are just a handful of the survivors who reflect on starting out on Corman’s ultra-low budget productions in the documentary. Naturally, there are hard-won anecdotes abound, such as when Nicholson found himself to be the last man standing on the 1963 horror film “The Terror” after both Francis Ford Coppola and Monte Hellman had to quit after shooting a day or two to pursue higher-paying gigs, or how Peter Bogdanovich had to twist Corman’s arm to shell out for sound on the schlocky 1968 Mamie Van Doren picture “Gill Women of Venus.”

However, Stapleton’s film doesn’t dwell on the good ol’ bad days as much as it sheds light on one of cinema’s greatest behind-the-scenes innovators. While Corman may prefer to go unnoticed with a kindly, professorial demeanor and tunnel vision towards the future, the film is a valuable document of a true icon and recently, Stapleton spoke with me about Corman’s legacy, how she got into filmmaking herself, the tantalizing six-hour version of “Corman’s World” and the artistry of Corman’s work. But first I had to ask about the screening of a rarity we both were in the audience for in Los Angeles…

GetCrazyArkushSternSince you received a nice shoutout at the New Beverly last week during Edgar Wright’s Wright Stuff festival of films he hadn’t seen before, I have to ask did you like “Get Crazy”? It is, after all made by Corman disciple Allan Arkush [who directed “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School”].

Oh my God. First of all, I’m Allan Arkush’s biggest fan. I adore him as a filmmaker, but also just as a human being. And so there was no way I was missing that one That movie is epic. It’s hard for me to say that I even like “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School” more than “Get Crazy.” [laughs] I love that movie. Love, love, love, love, love it.

Since it was barely released theatrically, had you actually seen it before? 

I had my hands on a grimy VHS copy of it, but I had never seen a clean print before, so it was really, really cool to see it on the big screen. That whole series was just so important and really cool of Edgar to do and the New Beverly —I almost I want to throw a New Year’s Eve party just so I can screen that and make people watch it right before New Year’s. It’s just so good. It’s so Allan Arkush. You can really see his love of music. Also, just because I know a lot about his life, his time spent at the Fillmore East [the concert hall in Manhattan], the main character [a theater manager played by Daniel Stern] you could definitely see a lot of the parallels of how Allan probably was when he was younger.

CormansWorldThat’s a nice segueway into my first question about “Corman’s World” since you have so many amazing stories to tell, it must’ve been difficult to narrow it down. Was this something where one thing simply led to another?

The whole movie started five-and-a-half years ago. I never had the chance to go to film school. I was living in New York and I figured out these tasks for how to teach myself movies. A lot of my friends were at Tisch, NYU Film School would give me their homework assignments and sometimes I would even go crash some of their classes and act like I was a part of something that I wasn’t. So I was vicariously going to film school through my friends. A friend of mine, R.A [the Rugged Man, the rapper], introduced me to a director by the name of Frank Henenlotter, who quickly became a film mentor to me and it was still back in the days of VHS cassettes, he would just give me a stack of cassettes and send me off to go watch movie after movie after movie. He really exposed me to movies I had never seen before, then I read every book that I could and one book that I read was “How I Made 100 Movies In Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime,” which is Roger’s autobiography.

I was 19 when I first read it and it was epic. To me and all my friends, it was our bible. It made all of us feel like we were going to be okay. The autobiography is interesting in that Roger writes his story, but it’s full of all these excerpts of people writing in about their time spent with Roger, so it’s kind of like my documentary. Peter Fonda writes, Jack Nicholson writes, Julie Corman, everyone talks about their introduction to Roger. After reading it, I realized that Roger was the creator of some of my favorite movies that I watched in the ‘80s on television. Obviously, the Poe classics, but he also discovered one of my heroes, which is Pam Grier, who I wanted to be as a young girl. I just was blown away that he was responsible for launching so many careers and making so many movies that are classics to exploitation nerds like myself, so the idea got planted into my head in my early twenties that it would be cool to do a film about him. I produced my first film in my mid-twenties and then I was like, you know what? Why don’t I just go and make my own film and I think I should make a film about Roger Corman. Why not? No one had done it since the late ‘70s, so that’s how it all started.

While no one’s made a film strictly about Roger’s life since then, his work has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. You definitely carve out something different here, but was it hard to find something that hasn’t been said in films about the exploitation era like Mark Hartley’s “Machete Maidens Unleashed” [which spends a great deal of time chronicling Corman’s years in the Phillipines]? 

When I first started, I did definitely have a different kind of story in my head. The movie was going to be more in the vein of “Machete Maidens” and the Ozploitation movie [“Not Quite Hollywood”] that [Hartley] did beforehand. I thought “Okay, I’ll talk to Roger, I’ll talk to all of his protégés and it’ll just be a series of clips where we’ll just laugh our asses off at how obnoxious some of the films are. I didn’t really think at the time that I would have moments of salient storytelling. As I got more involved in the project and started sitting down with people, it was really interesting because we would laugh and we would spend time talking about the craziest stories you’ve ever heard. But at the end of the interview, it always tonally went into a different direction where every single person was like, “He gave me my confidence. The only reason I’m sitting with you is because of Roger Corman.”

TheIntruderShatnerCormanThen I started to pay more attention to films like “The Intruder,” which is a perfect example. It’s the only movie Roger ever made that was actually very serious and a critical essay about how screwed up this country was in the 1960s over race relations. As a black woman, I took that really seriously, the fact he put up his own money to make that movie before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. [which] was in 1963. Roger made this film in 1961, so the civil rights movement was going on, but it was still absolutely crazy for two white men from Los Angeles to go down south on location and make a film like this, using real people as actors.

It’s very common when you set out to make a documentary [for] the film to get a life of its own and this movie, the control went away from me [laughs] and it was making itself. Another huge thing that happened while I was shooting was Roger got the lifetime achievement award from the Academy, not that Roger’s goal was to ever receive that honor, but it’s the biggest honor the American film community gives artists, so all of these big things kept happening. The really huge watershed moment for the creation of the film was when I interviewed Jack Nicholson and he got really emotional. Working with my editors, I just realized like this is where we have to end up. This is where the story has to go. We realized we could have fun with exploitation stories and we can have jokes along the way, but this is a movie about a person. It’s not a movie about a movement, it’s not a movie about a genre. It’s not a movie about movies. It’s a movie about a human being.

Yet even though it’s not about a movement, it’s interesting that like the other film you recently directed, “Outside In” about street art, “Corman’s World” might’ve been an appealing subject since it takes on the question of what is legitimate art. Was that the case?

It’s probably a little bit of projecting my own personal experience into what I make. I’ve always felt like an outcast and the outsider, the underdog in my life and Roger Corman is definitely the underdog. Now, it’s hard to call him an underdog because he has a lifetime achievement award, but when I started this movie, that award didn’t exist. With the graffiti artists and the MOCA story [in “Outside In”], it was the same type of thing. I looked at these artists and they take the craft very seriously, but they’re often dismissed as thugs that are illegally vandalizing property. No one ever takes the time to break down and look at [their work] as true artists.

So I definitely like to get a little bit on the soapbox to stand up for these guys because it’s really challenging to make interesting content that puts a smile on your face and to do it year after year, decade after decade after decade and to do it with no money. They’re not looking for validation from the elitist communities in their respective worlds. They’re not doing it because they want everybody in America to know who they are. They’re doing it because they just have this passion for film or for graffiti or street art or whatever it is. That really hits a chord with me. As a woman, I have my own issues about my place in the film world, so I feel like I have a lot in common with these guys.

There are many filmmakers in “Corman’s World,” who like yourself grew up watching his films, but never worked with him. Did you notice a different energy between the different generations – the younger that may romanticize the films more than the older who had firsthand experience?

That was actually something back in my six-hour cut that was a big thesis of the film, like when there were 12 theses. [laughs] I really thought there was something there and there is something there. There is a divide. I interviewed all of the Cormanites, as many as I could, and then I also had a lot of interviews with working film directors that are my age and even younger, people like Eli Roth, Leigh Whannell, James Wan, Darren Bousman. These were all guys that are influenced by Roger, but they never had the opportunity of working for him and what was really interesting was the fact they set up their first features, like Leigh and James making “Saw,” heavily influenced by following the Corman formula. “Hey, let’s make a horror film, let’s make a genre movie and [do] all this action, but it all happens in basically one location. That way we can afford to make it.” That’s what I think he’s communicated to younger directors — don’t try to make a film where you have to compete with the studio system because you’re not going to win that battle. Use the resources that you have and that way, you can go out there and make your own damn movie.

That kind of energy is what I’ve taken away from it and what other working directors have. They have this admiration for Roger without the baggage of having to live through working for him. [laughs] So it’s very different than when you sit down with Jack Nicholson or Peter Bogdanovich and Peter Fonda and they’re like, “Love the guy, but let me tell you there were some days…” Or even Ron Howard, who’s very candid in the movie, he wasn’t happy with the fact that Roger wasn’t going to give him extras [on “Grand Theft Auto”] and then Roger was like, “well, do a good job for me and you’ll never have to work for me again.” It was really interesting to see both sides.

JackNicholsonCormansWorldAside from the present day material from the set of [the SyFy movie] “Dinoshark” and the the Academy’s Governor’s Award ceremony, the film ends around the time of “Star Wars” in 1977, which was a little surprising given that Joe Dante, Gale Anne Hurd and John Sayles, among others you have on camera, were breaking in and hitting their stride right at that moment or slightly later. How did you decide to stop there?

In the six-hour cut, I kept the chronology going — that’s why it was six hours. I went into the ‘80s, kind of like more slasher movies that Roger was responsible for, working with directors like Jim Wynorski, making the remake of “Not of This Earth” with Traci Lords, and “Chopping Mall,” which is one of my all-time favorite Roger Corman movies. Then we went into the “Lumber Yard” era [nicknamed after the studio he set up in Venice during the '80s where films like "Battle Beyond the Stars" were shot] all the way up until the “Dinoshark” and him starting to work with the SyFy Channel in the late ‘00s. But at a certain point, we were just going on and on and on. I really felt by the time you hit the end of the New World era, the advent of the blockbuster just really changed the game so much, which you could even technically trace back to “The Godfather,” which is just ironic because Francis Ford Coppola started with Roger. But Roger’s whole world fell apart because he was squeezed out of the theatrical game completely. He had to reinvent himself and he made a lot of movies that are really epic and there are fans out there who love those films, but I wanted to get away from just like here’s more film trivia and history for you.

I wanted to take the movie more into the human part that we were talking about earlier. I wanted to wrap up with the cast and with all these people you spent the last hour-and-a-half talking to. At the end of the day, those are human stories and that allows someone to watch this film who isn’t familiar with Roger Corman movies, but they can relate to the human story that’s there.

"Corman's World" is now open at the Village East in New York and the NuArt Theater in Los Angeles.

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