Think you know everything about Roger Corman, the low-budget filmmaker whose body of work includes such cinematic classics as Swamp Women, She Gods of Shark Reef and Creature from the Haunted Sea? Well, think again. Director Alex Stapleton has spent the past several years putting together Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, a meticulously-researched documentary about the man who famously shot Little Shop of Horrors in two days on a leftover set just to prove it could be done.
Stapleton not only spent months trailing Corman himself, she also put together an all-star line-up of well-known Corman alumni, including what may be one of the most revealing interviews ever done with the notoriously press-shy Jack Nicholson. With ‘Corman’s World’ about to open in limited release, the documentarian offers a tantalizing preview…
What made you decide to do a film about Roget Corman? With all due respect, most of his work was before you were born.
Believe it or not, I grew up watching a lot of his movies. The eighties years; Chopping Mall is one of my all-time favorite movies. I’m a huge Jim Wynorski fan, but I also grew up watching a lot of the Poe movies on television. And Pam Grier was a big idol of mine when I was a girl. I wanted to be her. And I had a mentor when I was a teenager, Frank Henelotter who was a horror film director and an encyclopedia of cinema, who gave me a copy of Roger’s book [How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime]. He also gave me a copy of a movie called The Intruder and said, ‘Go watch the movie, read the book; learn a little bit!’ I didn’t go to film school, so Frank was like my film school and every page I turned, Grand Theft Auto: Roger Corman. Eat my Dust: Roger Corman. Jack Nicholson: Roger Corman. All these roads led back to him, so I found that fascinating.
And then I watched The Intruder, which was a one-off for him, but as a black woman whose mother was a Black Panther, he was using the ‘N’ word, and it was really raw and gritty. It was like a f**k-you kind of movie about how this country used to be, and he made this movie before Martin Luther King was a household name, so I fell in love with the guy all around. Around age 19, I said, ‘It would be cool to do a story about him!’ but I just put that in the back of my mind. Years went by, and I was writing for film magazines and requested an interview with him for an arts magazine. I flew to Los Angeles and asked him on the spot if I could do a documentary about him and he said yes. That was six years ago, and that’s how it happened.
Did you have a definite idea in mind from the start, or did it take shape over time?
I knew that there was a good idea, and obviously I wrote a treatment of what I wanted to do. Look, I’m just a girl from Brooklyn; I had no real connection to Roger Corman or Jack Nicholson or any of these people that I ended up interviewing. And as you know, Roger doesn’t like to talk a lot. After 15 minutes, he is like, ‘Okay, we’re done now!’ and I would think,’15 minutes? There’s like six decades of storytelling; I need a lot more time!’
The big thing I learned about Roger was his honesty and integrity. After he said yes to me, I spent a couple of years trying to do the movie on my own and then a really big Hollywood Corman-ite director who’s won Oscars knocked on his door and said, ‘You know what? I want to do a documentary about you!’ I had just got financed with a company in Los Angeles, so the movie was going to become very real. We were starting to bang out interviews with people like Peter Bogdanovich, when the producers of that film called me and said, ‘Just put your popsicle sticks down, take your arts and crafts stuff and go home! We’re the big boys and we’re going to do it!’
I called Roger who said, ‘Oh yeah, isn’t that great? I figured you two could work together!’ I said, ‘No Roger, it doesn’t work that way. This guy is not going to work with me. There’s no co-directing on this film!’ I just started crying and said, I swear to god, I’m going to make the best film possible; I have to tell this story! There’s nobody that wants this as much as I do!’ And then I said, ‘Do you remember when you were working for Sam and Jim at AIP and you were 28 years old and you needed them to take a chance on you?’ and Roger finally said, ‘Okay, stop crying; I told you first. I gave you my word that you could do the film; you do the film. I’ll call the other people and call the guards off!’ so that was Roger. It’s been several years, and the film has taken a lot of incarnations. It’s now a very different beast.
One of the biggest interviews you got for the documentary was Jack Nicholson. Everything else after that is a bonus, isn’t it?
Yeah, but the challenge was, it’s not Jack Nicholson’s life story, so the challenge in the edit is you find yourself saying, ‘There’s a lot of Jack!’ You want to incorporate other people’s stories, but he’s so exotic to us, because he never does interviews, so when he talks, even if you don’t realize that fact, you haven’t ever really seen him talk as Jack Nicholson before. And he’s talking about a part of his life before he was a star, which not a lot of people, even a lot of journalists, if they had a chance to talk to Jack, would talk about. I was in that same place with a lot of the other interviews, like Bogdanovich, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme and David Carradine.
But if you’ve got Nicholson, doesn’t that make it easier to get other people to participate?
Oh absolutely. It was a domino effect, and even getting to Jack was part of that whole process. The community is very small, so people were talking and saying, ‘This is the official doc, so you should definitely take part!’ I think there was a feeling with the ‘Cormanites’ as I like to call them, that if you didn’t do this interview, you weren’t going to be part of this very special thing, so I was really lucky that people were willing to share their stories, good and bad. They were all very honest in saying, ‘Hey, he really pissed me off, because I couldn’t get 75 extras for that scene and it looked kind of crappy because of that, but I still love the guy, because I got my start with him.’ or, ‘I got the confidence to move on and become a great actor or writer or filmmaker.’
How important is research for these interviews?
I’m the anal-retentive person who has to know everything before I even feel worthy enough to sit down with somebody, especially with some of these guys. If I’m sitting down to interview Martin Scorsese, I sort of have to know my s**t. I think the trick for me on that level is, they’ll give you 20 minutes, which will turn into five if you don’t know what you’re talking about, but it turns into an hour if you’re engaging enough, so I was constantly having to prove myself. When I said my name was Alex Stapeleton, at first they thought they were going to meet an older gentleman and when I walk in, they’re like, ‘Oh, she’s a baby; what does she know?’ so I would have to say, ‘Oh, I heard that you had dinner with Truffaut when The Story of Adele H was being marketed in New York!’ and they would say, ‘How the hell do you know that? Okay!’ and they’ll give you more time.
Even when you’ve researched one of your subjects as much as you possibly can, do you still come across the occasional little surprise that you didn’t know about before?
That’s a good question. I think my surprises were more about the people that were just hanging around at the time, especially in the New World era. It was kind of like a fraternity, and I was surprised to hear how they thought certain directors back then that were doing really well with Roger were going to be this huge directors, and a lot of those guys just ended up staying in that B movie world, while some of the guys that were not doing too well for Roger and could never get past second unit directing, became the big stars of the industry. Those stories were interesting.
I guess I would also have a very nerdy answer to that question, because it would be full of a lot of weird trivia that I can’t imagine anyone really caring about but me. I think the most fun and most shocking things came out of Joe Dante and Allan Arkush’s mouths, like when they cut the Amarcord trailer during the period when distributing foreign films. I know that trailer really well; the woman sitting on the bike with the big butt and a lot of breasts. That trailer was cut because Roger was selling it and his direction to Allan and Joe as trailer editors was, ‘I know it’s Fellini, but we’re going to sell this like we sell everything else, so load it up with the sex!’ That trailer is extremely sexual, and a lot of it was because of were Roger’s orders. I could go on and on about little tiny stories like that, which I find fascinating.
Will you be putting a lot of unused material back into the DVD release?
Absolutely. We’ve already started working on the DVD extras. My first cut of this film was six hours long, and I was in post for three years cutting down over a thousand hours of interview footage and more than 500 movies that I was pulling from. I also had all of the dailies from the Christian Blackwood documentary that was made about Roger in 1976, so that was really great. With the first cut, it was really hard to start killing my babies. You had these great epic stories about Monte Hellman and Jack Nicholson making Ride in the Whirlwind, which was like this whole other movie unto itself.
There was also the Gene Corman/Roger Corman story and the whole Sam Arkoff connection with Roger, but for the 90-minute tale I had to tell, I just couldn’t fit everything in, so it’s all part of the DV extras and I’m really excited about that. When you buy the DVD, it’s a really cool experience, because if you’re a hardcore fan, or you just want to hear more from Jack Nicholson or from somebody else, you can go to the DVD extras and get that.
The other great thing is beyond the interview is Dinoshark, where I was on set with Roger for a month. I was also in the movie, because Roger said, ‘You can come film it, but you’ve got to work too!’ so me and the crew all worked on it. I was recording second unit sound, I was filming second unit, so that’s also a great nugget, to be able to see how a Roger Corman movie runs. Words can’t even describe what that experience was like.
And finally, there are some great interviews from the younger generation of fans, so Eli Roth is in the movie, but there are even more Eli stories on the DVD, and the same with the guys from the Saw franchise. There’s a whole section about Roger’s influence on younger filmmakers today that may not have worked with him because they were too young back then, so that was really interesting to me. Part of the film originally was to show his influence today, so there’s more of that as well.[Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel is currently in limited release in New York and Los Angeles. The DVD will be released
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