The director talks about the early days with Roger Corman, getting The Ramones in the movie and how the film was almost called Disco High

Movie PictureAllan Arkush exemplifies what it means to be a “professional Director.” Helming such studio fare over the course of his long career as Heartbeeps and Caddyshack 2, Arkush has also made a steady name for himself in the realm of TV, directing such shows as “Ally McBeal,” “Dawson’s Creek” and currently producing as well as directing the hit, “Crossing Jordan”. However, it is an early film from Arkush that is currently being revisited.

Rock ‘N’ Roll High School is that rare youth in revolt film that takes a very fun angle towards it’s subject matter. Vince Lombardi High School has quite a reputation: it's the wildest, most rockin' high school around! That is, until a thug of a principal, Miss Togar, comes along and tries to make the school a totalitarian state. With the help of the Ramones, the students of Vince Lombardi battle Miss Togar's iron-fisted rule and take their battle to a truly rockin’ conclusion!

This 1979 film, which was just rereleased as a Special Edition from Buena Vista Home Entertainment as part of the Roger Corman’s Early Films Collection, still packs as much of a punch and is still as socially relevant now as it was when it was first released. In fact, this DVD release will most likely endear itself to an entirely new generation of rockers.

How did you come to work with Roger Corman and get Rock ‘N’ Roll High School made?

Allan Arkush: Well, the way I came to work for Roger Corman was I went to NYU Film School. While I was at NYU, now we’re talking about in the Sixties, my teacher at NYU was Marty Scorsese. Now, Marty went and worked for Roger on a movie called Boxcar Bertha. And I think while he was working for Roger, Roger was starting New World Pictures, and he was looking for young Directors to do these nurses and teachers movies. So, he asked Marty about it and Marty recommended a bunch of people and I think, especially, Jonathan Kaplan, who was a friend of mine from film school. And Jonathan came out to Los Angeles and directed Night Call Nurses. And then, went on to direct Student Teachers and another friend of mine of went out there, Jon Davison.

Then Jon brought out his friend Joe Dante. And Jon said, “You know, I can’t offer you a job now, but if you come out here I’ll give you a place to stay.” So I stayed in Jon’s garage in Jon’s house and in Jonathan’s garage on the floor, and eventually a job opened up in the post production part of Corman. I became an Assistant Editor to Joe Dante. And then Jon Davison, Joe Dante and myself were basically the Advertising Department of New World Pictures in a sense. We worked on all the trailers and TV spots. Jon supervised the posters and we wrote the ad campaigns, and we did that for a couple of years until we got a chance to make Hollywood Boulevard. Which was one of the first movies, Joe and I co-directed it and Jon produced it. And Jonathan’s in it and Paul Bartel’s in it and that was how we got started.

Then what happened was Roger really liked our work. We still continued to cut trailers and TV spots, and those were the days when Roger also distributed foreign pictures. So one week we’d be cutting the trailer for Big Bad Mama and Death Race 2000, and the next week we’d be doing Fellini’s Amacord and Truffaut’s Small Change. Throughout this we could constantly talk to Roger about more chances to direct. That’s how we got to do Hollywood Boulevard. Then I would go and do Second Unit on certain movies, or action sequences for Ron Howard’s Grand Theft Auto. And a movie called Blast and Deathsport which was a sequel to Death Race 2000.

Meanwhile, when I was in High School, I had these daydreams staring out the window, about putting on a Rock ‘N’ Roll concert in my High School and blowing up the school, and having motorcycle races in the hallways. That kind of stuff. I actually wrote it up as a treatment called “Heavy Metal Kids”. I presented Roger with the idea, I wanted to do a High School movie and that became a High School movie that was never made, thank God, called “Girl’s Gym”. Ultimately, when I did a really good job for Roger he said, “Why don’t you make your High School movie and call it ‘Disco High’ because I hear this Disco music is very popular?” And that was because Saturday Night Fever and Thank God It’s Friday and Grease and all those movies had done well. And that was the original version Roger wanted was “Disco High”. I never ever wanted to make “Disco High” we wanted to make Rock ‘N’ Roll High School.

It seems like if you worked for him for a certain period of time, and you did want to make a film, you would eventually get a shot back in those days?

Allan Arkush: Yes, that was true, especially because of the fact that Joe and I and Jon were there for a long time, and were in the formative years of his company. We were constantly talking with him and he really got to know us, and heard our opinions and when the company was small and more adventurous, in those days. Plus, you had Jonathan Demme who’d come and gone through there, Lewis Teague, Paul Bartel, Jonathan Kaplan, a lot of people became really famous editors. So, there’s a lot of talented people coming through there, so Roger always had a good eye for talent. And if you kept delivering and kept giving good stuff to him, like good trailers and TV spots, he really liked the action scenes that I had directed, he kind of listened to you.

If you were passionate about filmmaking as I was about Rock ‘N’ Roll High School, and the parts of it that he was intrigued by, the rebelliousness, the blowing up of the school, he knew I would deliver that. So whatever else I brought to it, my interest in The Ramones and Punk Rock and what Rock ‘N’ Roll meant to kids, he allowed me to add that to it. That was the formula that would lead him to tremendous success. The people could deliver. Like if you were doing the car chase movie, you better deliver the good car chases, and the rest of it, yeah, go have fun.

Now at the time, did you have any idea that Rock ‘N’ Roll High School would hold up over time and be as appreciated by the fans?

Allan Arkush: Well, you know, I thought it would be popular but then I thought The Ramones were great at the time. And that was certainly not proven by how many records they sold. So I was really into The Ramones, I was shocked that we did as badly as we did when it came out. I didn’t think it was going to be a giant hit but I thought we’d do better than that. I was surprised that we didn’t do better when we played San Francisco and hipper places. There was kind of a schism within New World between who liked the picture and who didn’t, because it was so different than your average exploitation movie of New World Pictures at the time. It wasn’t really a genre, car chase movie or something like that.

But no, I wish I could say that I thought The Ramones were going to be one of the most important rock bands of all time. I just thought they were terrific and I thought Rocket to Russia was a great album. I thought they were funny and right for the picture, but I didn’t realize that things I was talking about in the movie would be things that kids still find important. Identifying yourself and your identity as a teenager to the music that you like. Suspicion of how the school is run by authority figures. All of this stuff, in a way, is timeless. I didn’t realize that it would really be timeless. That make sense?

Definitely. It goes back to what you were saying, you wish could have known that The Ramones were gonna be this big band, but you at least had the foresight to know that they were going to be something...

Allan Arkush: Right, and also, I don’t want to sound disingenuous, I was very informed about music. I worked at the Rock ‘N’ Roll theater in New York called The Fillmore East. So I had seen and heard and been close to many of the great, great bands of the late Sixties. So I had seen every great band who had ever played live, just about. So, I knew good music when I heard it, I wasn’t a casual listener. I had experienced these bands and their ability firsthand so I knew The Ramones were special. I didn’t realize they would be as timeless as they were. I guess when you look back at it, Rock ‘N’ Roll High School being a remake of a Fifties movie Shake, Rattle & Rock, the fact that these themes were still relevant and that they’re still relevant today.

They had a screening of the movie recently at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery where they run movies at night. It’s where Johnny (Ramone) is buried and Dee Dee (Ramone). They often run movies there. On a big screen and people camp out in a tent, and it was more like a rock concert than it was a screening. People talked and laughed and drank and shouted out during the music numbers, and it was like seeing the movie fresh again for me. Being as how it was a live crowd like that.

Do you still keep your ear to the ground as far as that kind of music, or...

Allan Arkush: Oh yeah. I executive produce a TV series called “Crossing Jordan”, and we have a lot of great music on the show. Our composers are Wendy and Lisa from Prince and the Revolution, originally. We have a lot of music, so I’m always listening to music. Old music, new music, you know.

How did you go about getting The Ramones to be in Rock ‘N’ Roll High School?

Allan Arkush: Mike Finnell and myself, who produced Rock ‘N’ Roll High School, had talked a lot about different bands. And we had initially thought about Todd Rundgren, because he had written a song called “Heavy Metal Kids” which was the first title of Rock ‘N’ Roll High School when I wrote the treatment. And we had actually spoken to Todd, before we really had a “go ahead” on the picture. He wasn’t that interested and then we started talking about other bands, and we had both liked Cheap Trick. Then we actually had a meeting over at Warner’s Records, because there was a connection between a Vice President of New World and Warner’s Records.

So we went over to talk to people in the A&R Department and they were surprised that we knew so much about music. They were talking about various bands including Devo and Van Halen, and then they said, “Do you know this band out of New York on Sire, which is a division of ours, called The Ramones?” And literally a light bulb went off. You know what I mean? When someone says something that seems so obvious? It was like, “Of course! That’s exactly right.” Because their music used to make me laugh and yet they rocked so hard. And that combination of elements, when you really think about it, is hard to find because really great rock music rarely has humor in it. It’s usually very straight forward and serious. Wit isn’t necessarily part of it.

Oddly enough, their managers were in LA at the time. We went right over to their hotel and talked to them. We got about halfway through the description of what we wanted to do, and they were going, “Yes! Yes, of course! Yes, definitely!” You know? Everyone agreed so it must’ve been a good idea.

Do you think you might return using a punk band from today and telling a similar kind of story? Or, do you ever think about doing something like that again?

Allan Arkush: Well, I guess about 10 years ago I did what was a prequel to Rock ‘N’ Roll High School called Shake, Rattle & Rock, which you can rent on DVD. It was made for Showtime and it was the 1950s version. I used P.J. Soles and Dey Young and Mary Woronov and they play the parents. And the star of it is Renee Zellweger, and it also uses Ruth Brown the great soul singer and John Doe from X. And there’s lots of rock people in it, so I did that and I did a mini-series for NBC about The Temptations. Which was a big hit on NBC and I’ve done a movie called Elvis Meets Nixon on Showtime. About the time when Elvis and Nixon got together in the White House and Elvis wanted to be a sheriff. And I really want to do more music stuff it’s just very hard to get it off the ground. I worked for years on doing the Ruth Brown Story. I worked on doing an Ella Fitzgerald movie, and a movie about the early days of punk in New York City. It’s a genre that’s tough to get going. So yes, I have an ongoing interest in doing more music stuff.

What are you currently working on?

Allan Arkush: I’m currently the Executive Producer of “Crossing Jordan”. I’ve been doing that for the last 5 years. I have directed “Ally McBeal”, I did the “dancing baby” episode, among other things.

We all know that!

Allan Arkush: I’ve directed “The Practice”. And “Moonlighting” I did for three seasons, probably done more “Moonlighting” episodes than anybody. I directed the TV series “Fame” for two seasons and “St. Elsewhere”, and a show called “Shannon’s Deal” and “I’ll Fly Away” and just lots and lots of stuff. Actually, a movie that Frank Sinatra did called “Young At Heart” that we did for CBS. So I am the only Director to have directed both Joey Ramone and Frank Sinatra.

That is a distinction!

Allan Arkush: And Iggy Pop! Iggy was in a TV series I did called “Shannon’s Deal”.

Rock ‘N’ Roll High School jams on to DVD shelves December 13th, 2005 from Buena Vista Home Entertainment.

Dont't forget to also check out: Rock 'N' Roll High School [Rock on Edition]

Evan Jacobs at Movieweb
Evan Jacobs