With archival footage of American culture and countercultures from the 1950's to present day, and dynamic interviews with alumni of Roger Corman's cutthroat school of ﬁlmmaking, Corman's World takes us back to the days when Roger was King.
We recently caught up with director Alex Stapleton to talk about this cool new documentary, in select theaters this Friday, December 16th. Our conversation is below.
Did you use Roger Corman's aesthetic and vernacular in building your own film?
Alex Stapleton: Oh, definitely. We had a budget, but not a big one. I definitely was using lessons and pearls of wisdom from the Roger Corman school of technique. From creative decisions, like Roger is a firm believer in keeping the camera moving...Even in a documentary, even though you don't have that much verite, especially with this film in particular...We do have a lot of talking heads. I went the extra mile to get people moving, or doing something interesting, instead of just sitting down, on a stage, that was well lit, in a clichéd talking heads set-up. For example, with Ron Howard, we went on a walk in Connecticut, where he had been editing. We went on a walk through the neighborhood. It was really cool, because all of the people I interviewed, I would pitch to them, "Hey, let's do something interesting. Lets not just sit and talk, let's get up and move!" They were all really excited to do that, and participate. Because all of these people had been trained by Roger Corman. I remember Ron Howard saying, "Gosh, Roger would be so proud of you. He would be so proud of both of us. Because we are walking around, and we are keeping the camera moving." We were like students, sharing that. And just from a financial standpoint, we were doing this gorilla, and low budget. That's one of the reasons the film looks like it does. I was in contact with people who had agreed to do the interviews. I would hear, "Oh, you are going to go get a haircut? Can I meet you with my camera?" I would go with one other crewmember. I remember specifically on the set of Dinoshark, I had enough money to have the whole crew with me for one week exactly. Unfortunatly, the Dinoshark head and the blood and guts hadn't arrived to set yet. I had to release the crew, because I ran out of cash. I didn't even have money for a hotel room. To stay in. So Roger Corman agreed to let me stay there. I had to send the crew home. I became the sound person, camera operator, I did everything. And I shared a room with one of the PAs. Roger said, "You can do that! You also have to go to work for me, too. We'll give you some work." The trade-off was that I ended up shooting some second unit for the movie. I was an actress. I had three different roles. I was recording sounds. I was shooting visual effects plates. Everybody works when you are in Roger's world. So, yeah...
So he just grabs you and says, "You're going to act in this scene!"
Alex Stapleton: Exactly. I remember, there are a couple of climactic scenes in Dinoshark, where this whole crowd is looking at this water polo match. And the monster-creature attacks these teenage girls. Everyone is reacting. I am one of the extras in the scene watching. In the script, just for the sake of Dinoshark, I am video taping the water polo match. But in real life, I am documenting Roger on the set of his own movie. We were doing that kind of stuff all the time. It was crazy.
Everyone is so surprised that you got such a great interview out of Jack Nicholson. How hard, or easy, was it to lock this interview in for the movie?
Alex Stapleton: It wasn't an easy thing. Jack Nicholson was definitely the wholly grail interviewee for the movie. From day one I wanted to get him. I knew it was going to be very hard. I am not Ron Howard or Martin Scorsese. I am not a famous director. But we just put one foot in front of the other. We sent out a traditional request in the beginning. From that point, until when he agreed, that took two years. A couple of things helped us. Polly Platt came on as a producer. She personally reached out to Jack, and legitimized the project to him. Along with a number of people I ended up interviewing. We had twelve people surrounding him trying to get him to say yes. I'm not sure, exactly, what it was that topped him over. I don't know what made him agree to talk to me, but he did. And I think the interview was extremely emotional, and moving. I think what got him to say yes was how important and meaningful Roger is to Jack. He really is a Cinefile, and a lover of cinematic history. And the community. I think recording all of this stuff was really important for him, to put it on camera, so that younger generations could be inspired by his story, and Roger's story as well.
Even before watching your movie, having talked to a number of the people involved, its quite evident that Roger Corman is someone who is hugely respected. These people being interviewed don't have anything bad to say about the man...
Alex Stapleton: The negative part that people talk about freely, that they will say to Roger directly is, you know, the penny-pinching experiences they have lived through. The agony of not having any water on set. Or having to eat McDonalds twenty days in a row. Whatever it is. Working under crazy conditions. Not sleeping. These are all things that fall under the apprenticeship of filmmaking. Everyone has to cut their teeth somewhere. Everyone starts at the bottom. That is how you are groomed. It's like your hazing process. That is probably the worst part about working with Roger. But everyone knows when they sign on that you are not getting paid anything. There are never any false promises. I remember David Carradine saying why he had so much respect for Roger as a low budget producer. Its because here was never any funny business when it came time for him to collect his checks. And that is saying a lot for the indie world. And the film industry. I think Roger is a man that sticks by his word. And he does exactly what he says he is going to do. He says, "I am going to pay you two dollars, and you are going to work your butt off." You agree to that, and that is what you get. How can you fault him, or be upset? How can you fault the guy who listens to you, when no one will employee you, or listen to you? And no one will give you a shot. This is the only guy that would. In a subsequent event, such as your career taking off, how can you talk smack about a guy like that? I think the point of the movie wasn't to get into the nitty-gritty gossipy tales that might exist. The point was to capture a great, American inspiring story about a filmmaker who had nothing, and build a world with his own two hands.
You bring up these new movies that he is currently making. Like Dinoshark and Sharktopus. Were you in Sharktopus?
These new movies are hanging pretty strongly on the public subconscious. Maybe because the titles are so much fun to say, even if you haven't seen the movie. In making this documentary, how much did you want to focus on the new films of Roger Corman?
Alex Stapleton: I definitely wanted to bring it up. Times have changes. He is onto new things. He is still trailblazing the new way of distribution. Moving to cable and online. He is finding new ways to get movies seen, even though he has been squeezed out of the theatrical game. He has to reinvent himself all over again. That is what his hardcore fans love about him. It is pretty phenomenal.
Do you feel here is one movie that defines Roger Corman as a man?
Alex Stapleton: That is impossible to pinpoint. If there is one movie that represents his integrity, that would be The Intruder. That is a movie that is so Un-Corman like. It is a movie about race relations at a really low point in our history, in the south. He took a stance against segregation, and bigotry. He put his own money into financing that film. It represents the equal way that he looks at everybody. He has afforded opportunities to women, to people of color. He doesn't care. He looks at everyone the same. "Do you want to work? Or do you not want to work?" If you want to work, you are in the right place. That movie represented that part of
Roger. He is also a fanboy who loves horror, and sci-fi. The movie that represents that the best would be A Bucket of Blood. Which blends comedy into a satirical take on a horror thriller story, and it pokes fun at the artsy-fartsy world. Those two movies together best represent him.