Exploring CORMAN'S WORLD with Documentarian Alex Stapleton
In an awards season awash with nostalgia for the movie culture of yore, it's nice to see a bit of living history up on the screen in the form of Alex Stapleton's Corman's World. No question that Hugo and The Artist present engaging fantasias on film history. Similarly, Corman's World's is for anyone who's in love with the movies, but has the added advantage of being, well, real (although often slightly less believable). Yet while both Hugo and The Artist present tales of filmmakers who did not adapt to changing times, Corman's World is all about longevity and the savvy flexibility that it demands.
Roger Corman as a topic is certainly no stranger to nonfiction--indeed, Mark Hartley's Machete Maidens Unleashed! covers a slice of the same ground. The difference is that Corman's World is a loving portrait, an "authorized" bio that nonetheless dispenses with much of the personal details of its subject's life and smartly moves right to the films themselves. Lord knows there are enough of them. The uncharacteristic social justice drama The Intruder, an early '60s William Shatner-starrer that has recently enjoyed a critical reappraisal, earns itself a decent chunk of screen time, but otherwise we're treated to an all-you-can-eat buffet of Twitcherific fare. The audience experience, then, is of a mind-melting cascade of outlandish genres and styles--from biker flicks, to the stylish Poe adaptions, to no-budget rubber monster romps, to full-on exploitation fare, and a whole lot more.
The end result? One of the most satisfying documentaries of
the year, Corman's World has the
power to reaffirm why you're crazy about cinema in the first place. In
the weeks following the film's screening at The New York Film Festival I had
the pleasure of chatting with director Alex Stapleton.
Twitch: Have you always considered yourself a fan of low-budget genre films or exploitation films and the name Roger Corman gradually came to, well, loom above others? Or did you first know of his work, and then--?
Alex Stapleton: --was it the chicken or the egg?
Alex Stapleton: I grew up watching all [kinds of] crazy movies. When I was a kid--I'm an '80s baby--I had a very experimental childhood with very liberal parents. I was exposed to a lot of avant-garde cinema and a lot of low-budget horror cinema--everything. I had the opposite childhood to most kids in the '80s: I saw Rocky for the first time when I was 20. I didn't really get a chance to see mainstream American movies that all my peers grew up watching...
Twitch: --and now you're grateful that you weren't force fed that stuff.
Alex Stapleton: I saw Piranha, I didn't see Jaws [laughs]--that's how I grew up. As a child of course I didn't really understand that Roger Corman was Roger Corman. I didn't recognize the name, I didn't know what a director was. But Frank Henenlotter was a big mentor of mine as a teenager, and he was the first person who turned me on to Roger. I didn't go to film school: Frank Henenlotter was my film school. I would go over to his apartment and he would give me a stack of films, and I'd walk out. One week the lesson was The Intruder and Roger Corman's autobiography. I read Roger's book, and as I turned the pages it was like Grand Theft Auto, and oh, Eat My Dust, and oh, Pam Grier--this puzzle came together.
Twitch: It's as if you could study bits and pieces of American popular cinema and almost think that there are different guys named "Roger Corman" who surfaced every decade to make a few exemplar films.
Alex Stapleton: Yeah, exactly--"It's not the same guy, not one human being." [laughs] So that was shocking, and then I watched The Intruder, and Frank said, "This movie is gonna blow your mind. " And I was still very snotty and thought I knew it all... and it blew my mind. And all of a sudden it went from this love of genre cinema to this man, and understanding the making of [The Intruder]: his putting his own money into the movie, and the fact that he made the movie before the Civil Rights movement was really "in fashion," if you'd like to put it that way. It wasn't something that white liberal people were going around saying "Hey!" about--and as a black person I really felt this connection to this person. But I had no [real] connection to Roger, no connection to any of his protégées. And so I started [Corman's World] in New York, with Frank Henenlotter, with people like Dennis Dermody--all of these people in the fabric of my world here in New York.
Twitch: And it went from there. Actually, I saw in the closing credits all the interview subjects, and that's a fascinating list of people. I saw Frank's name in there. So I'm just wondering if could you see in the DVD just unloading a bunch of that stuff.
Twitch: Can you give us a sense of what might be eye-opening or unexpected for Corman fans?
Alex Stapleton: We started the DVD extras' process--and, you know, my first cut of the movie was six hours long.
Twitch: A mini-series.
Alex Stapleton: Exactly! There's so much stuff that was cut out and is on the cutting room floor, it's epic. I'm so excited to pump it into the DVD. And you get to spend more time with some of the subjects as they have these little tangent stories. They're still making movies for Roger [at the time], but--like Monte Hellman and Jack Nicholson going off and making The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind. It wasn't part of my 90-minute experience with Roger, but it's this incredible story of this period with the two of them, and it's great. There's a lot of Monte Hellman, actually. The "Schwab's Diner" stories, too, where we have people like Jonathan Haze, Dick Miller, discovering Jack, the "waiting for the phone to ring"--they all worked at the same gas station, and they took turns pumping gas when they were flat broke. And more stories from [David] Carradine. Carradine made, God, a lot of movies with Roger.
Twitch: And he's very well spoken in the film. That helps.
Alex Stapleton: Yeah--and Irv Kershner. Irv Kershner and Coppola, they were kind of working for Roger around the same time. And Kersh just had great stories that we weren't able to include about his first film called Stakeout on Dope Street that are just hysterical accounts, and really inspirational. To know where all these guys came from... And Floyd Crosby and David Crosby--that's another thing that we cut. Floyd Crosby, the great DP, shot about 80% of Roger's movies from the '50s and '60s, and he's also David Crosby's father. Floyd Crosby won the first Academy Award for cinematography, for Tabu, and he was blacklisted and couldn't get a job in Hollywood.
Twitch: Until Roger Corman...
Alex Stapleton: Yes, until he hired him, and he put his name on the line to hire Floyd. When I interviewed David Crosby, he was almost in tears, saying, "Because of Roger I had food on my table." My father was humiliated coming back to this country after World War II--after having fought for this country--because it was like he was an alien, he was spat out.
Twitch: So did you realize at inception or some point along the way that what may have started as an exploration of one man's creative world was really turning into a history of multiple eras of American filmmaking...?
Alex Stapleton: Yeah!
Twitch: Was that exhilarating or did you feel, "Wait, this is getting away from me a bit"?
Alex Stapleton: Well, I went through everything, I felt all of those emotions.
Twitch: But you didn't scale back or re-assess the scope in any way.
Alex Stapleton: No, because part of making a documentary is you don't have a script--it's organic. I always had an idea of what I wanted, and a lot of it came true, but I definitely didn't know that Roger was going to receive an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement.
Twitch: But what perfect timing--that's crystal ball stuff.
Alex Stapleton: [laughs] Yeah, I got the phone call and I was like, "Really?" So a lot of [the process] was surprising. I think the biggest surprise for me was, originally, because I am a lover of these exploitation movies and offbeat genre cinema--I started the film as one person and one idea: we're going to have this fun, zany movie, and we're just going to have clip after clip, and this is going to be just hysterical accounts of blah, blah, blah. And people will just be slapping their legs for a full 90 minutes, and it'll be great.
And as I started to film I was getting all these really personal stories about--well, it wasn't just about giving someone a start, as a career move. It was that this man actually affected their lives--who they are as a person. Definitely the biggest moment in the film that I was able to capture was Jack at the end of the film, and his emotional moment was exactly that: just realizing that for 12 years this was the only man who said, "You know what? I have faith in you." It's not about filmmaking, it's about just being a human being. Anything you want to do in life, if you are constantly being denied, but you have this light that's hiring you. It may not be the best money, the best conditions, but it's this one thing that you keep going back to because it's allowing you to grow as an artist. That's what Roger Corman was for these guys. I would hope that the film could encourage more people to form those kinds of communities again.
Twitch: Interesting. I see that theme now, but at the time I was simply struck by how revealing certain segments were, not of Roger Corman, which you'd expect, but of other filmmakers or actors. Jack Nicholson you mention, but also Ron Howard. Were there other cases where you went in and was really surprised by what the interview yielded--where you just went, "Whoa..."
Alex Stapleton: I learned early on in the process--this is my first film as a director of a documentary but my third as a producer, so I know you need to keep your expectations low as far as what people will give you on camera. Most of these interviews were set up with me only getting twenty minutes. That's how it started: [in a dismissive tone] "Oh, I'll give you twenty minutes." And then my job as a filmmaker and as an interviewer is to engage them, to develop some kind of quick bridge of trust where they want to talk more. And where they understand that my intentions are sincere and honest, that I'm really here just to highlight this really positive thing that I believe in. I think that people read off that energy. And you get further, you dig deeper.
Alex Stapleton: And I was really lucky that everyone I interviewed--I think it was a combination of my persistence, possibly, but more so that this was a really special time in all of their lives. When you speak about a time when you were young and hungry, you can look at it fondly. Even if there was drama. Some of the guys were still kind of salty about stupid crap that nobody cares about anymore. But it was so long ago and life has gone by, and so I think that [the interview process] was fun for them. It was also a way, I strongly believe, that they could actually talk to Roger. And a lot of these guys were men with... big names [laughs].
Twitch: But they saw where you were coming from. They knew you weren't doing some quickie thing for cable TV to put out around Halloween. Or some series on "Famous Directors--Where Are They Now?"
Alex Stapleton: Exactly. And I think that they saw this was a way to be very expressive with how they felt about Roger. Because when I look at the movie, I see them as talking to Roger. I was just a medium for all of this to happen.
Twitch: That comes across.
Stapleton: [laughs] I see it that the camera was them talking
to Roger. Really letting it loose about how they felt, and that was the most
magical part of the whole thing.
Alex Stapleton: Right, right.
Twitch: Because of the sheer size of his body of work it doesn't make sense to get too evaluative--it wouldn't be practical.
Alex Stapleton: Well, you hope as a documentarian to present a fair assessment of how it really was. There are documentaries that are made that are [assumes a voice-over baritone] a riveting [account] of "What is the answer to the big mystery? Did he do it or did he not do it?"
Alex Stapleton: This is just not that kind of movie. Those movies are great, but this isn't like that. If you watch it, and that's what you want, you're gonna be disappointed. And if you watch thinking it's just gonna be this love letter, then you're gonna find all these love-letter things about it--which aren't coming from me. I didn't pay anybody or force anybody to say the things that they said, and I'm not manipulating conversations. This is how these people feel.
Alex Stapleton: And when I watched the movie for the first time with Roger I was cringing--because I'm a human being. At points where some of them are saying these [negative] things I was like, [expressing pain] "Ooooo--that's a little jab... and that's a jab," throughout the movie. So there are [critical] things in there, but my intentions were not to make a movie to get you to be on one side or the other. There's a lot of negativity in the world; it doesn't take much to find that. My point was that I didn't go to film school, I don't have parents who are in the business. I come from a really modest background. So I love encouragement. In our country, not to get on a soapbox, but I think we could do a lot more with encouraging artists to have the confidence to go out there and make something. You don't have to be a twenty-year-old pop star to influence American popular culture. I think that Roger's story was so inspiring to me as a young adult because it gave me faith that I could go out there and do something. And that's why I made the movie. So I'm sorry to disappoint the people who are looking for something else--
Twitch: Some dark side, some expose.
Alex Stapleton: Yeah! And I'm sorry, but this just not what I made, and I don't really think that, at the end of the day, that's really that interesting. It's not like there's some lingering murder case that Roger was involved in [laughs] that needs to be answered. Nothing really happened. You know, it's like the guy was kinda cheap, and there's some funny stuff there...
Twitch: And some of his cheap creations killed people, but even that was make-believe. Like Dinoshark.
Alex Stapleton: [laughs] Exactly.
Twitch: The Dinoshark segments are hilarious actually, and I'm wondering if that's another case of serendipity, that you just happened to capture that stuff. Or is it that if one filmed any random Corman shoot of the past few decades there'd be hilarious little moments like that?
Alex Stapleton: I think any Corman set is full of craziness. [laughs]
Twitch: But in terms of your being a documentarian--okay, let me say that I was struck by the lack of that kind of footage for the earlier films. Is that because it doesn't exist?
Alex Stapleton: It doesn't exist.
Alex Stapleton: Well, think about it: here's a movie that cost two dollars--who's going to be doing behind-the-scenes?
Twitch: I thought for the last twenty years or more someone might be doing it. I didn't expect it for the '50s, '60s, or even early '70s. But I thought maybe from, say, the mid-'80s on, yes, because you sometimes see that with lesser known filmmakers and productions.
Alex Stapleton: It's because during the "Lumber Yard" years, when he was making films in the '80s and '90s, it was more like a factory. People were coming and going--it was a revolving door. There's some stuff but...
Twitch: Yeah, I just wish there were more--more Dinoshark-type stuff.
Alex Stapleton: Well, that's also part of the DVD extras.
Twitch: Oh, perfect then.
Alex Stapleton: And that's another thing that people talked about, that's been brought up. Dinoshark and what does that mean--"Is she trying to say that he's as glorious as he was at the height of New World?" That's also not my point. My point is about being able to keep working and to sustain whatever you love--and obviously Roger's the type of person who doesn't want to stop working. So the fact that you can continue to work and not work for anyone else, that's the message.
Twitch: That's what I got. That's why the whole conversation about making the so-called "leap" [to bigger budget productions and mainstream "respectability"] is beside the point. If you're doing something that you love, and you have control over it, why not stay busy doing those kinds of projects?
Alex Stapleton: Exactly.
Twitch: How many people have made that leap, and then their work suffers?
Alex Stapleton: Yeah. He knows who he is, and that's why we made a very big decision in the edit to cut the Oscar, the Academy Award, [to be] the scene before where he's editing Road Raiders, which is the Michael Madsen movie that's on the screen at the very end--and [Roger] is talking about the SyFy Network and all that stuff. So my point, my message, was this man has just won an Oscar and he goes right back to his no-frills office. He's sitting there editing his movie with his editor. You know what I mean? This guy, he doesn't have to be doing this. But he wants to... because it's a pure love of this type of filmmaking.
***Corman's World opens in theaters on Friday.