BH Interview: 'Corman's World' Director Alex Stapleton - Hollywood's B-Movie King the 'Backbone of Cinema'
If you love B-movies with plenty of camp, comedy and gore, then you’ve probably seen a few films created by the writer/producer/director Roger Corman, the man behind SyFy channel pictures like “Dinocroc vs. Supergator” and older classics like the original “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Up-and-coming director Alex Stapleton turned the camera onto the camp master in her film “Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel.”
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It follows Corman’s career – over half a century of cheap-as-dirt indie filmmaking – and the resulting 400-plus films that he created in that time. The film launched earlier this month, and Stapleton called BH recently for an interview about her film, Corman’s influence, and getting Jack Nicholson to cry on camera.
BH: Where does Roger Corman fit into the history of cinema?
Stapleton: I definitely think he’s part of the backbone of cinema. I think, creatively speaking as a filmmaker and director, he kind of helped – along with his compatriots – to birth the kind of blockbuster genre film experiences that we experience today that the studios are making.
I think Roger was definitely one of the pioneers in that movement. When you look at the movie “Avatar,” you look at the director and it’s James Cameron, and James Cameron [worked] under Roger Corman for years and… I think that James Cameron would probably tell you the same thing: that he learned a lot about how to put together a genre story by working for Roger.
I also think that as far as moments in cinema history, Roger has had a huge influence, specifically with the American new Hollywood movement, by finding and mentoring people like Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, [and] Peter Bogdanovich, starting their careers but also giving them the idea – Peter Fonda, Denis Hopper and Jack Nicholson – giving them the idea to make the movie “Easy Rider,” which is a hybrid movie of Roger’s movies “The Trip” and “Wild Angels.”
“Easy Rider” was one of the… watershed points of movies that kind of changed the game in ’69. So I think Roger’s influence can be seen creatively and also in all the talent that he’s discovered. My movie kind of deals specifically with directors, writers and actors, but Roger also started the career of James Horner, the famous composer. The line of students was way too much to encompass in my film.
BH: Several directors that Corman influenced have gone on to be the big-budget movie-makers that – as Corman said in an interview in the film – he opposed, at least as a younger man. Do you know what his thoughts are on Cameron’s work or Scorsese’s “Hugo”? Because big budget films changed the way he operated and what it was like to see his films.
Stapleton: I think he does not think it’s completely wasteful when you do come up with a movie like “Avatar” where the money is in the effects and you can really trace the money. I think where he has the major problem is when you throw money like that into a romantic comedy where there’s a boy and a girl in a room for 90 minutes, or on the street arguing or talking about their love life, and they are on again/off again throughout the movie, and its like, “There you have it, that’s the end,” and that movie is $90 million. I think that’s when he’s like, “What the hell is going on here?”
BH: Can you talk about his dirt cheap filmmaking style?
Stapleton: I kind of look at his career in two phases. There’s Roger Corman as a director, and then there’s Roger Corman the producer. As a director, I know in one year he made eight movies as a director in one year, which is insane. As a producer when he had the Venice lumber yard he was churning out movies.
The Venice lumber yard was actually a stage, a production facility that he bought, and he had a working stage there and that stage was in operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so they would basically build sets … and they would basically have a revolving door with two crews, a daytime crew and a nighttime crew that would come in. The daytime crew would shoot and then they would leave and the nighttime crew would use the same exact set to make a completely different movie.
Then there was a series he did in the 90’s called the Bloodfist movies and that movie was reincarnated so many times (laughing). It was a movie when kickboxing was really big in the 90’s and it was kind of like a spin-off of the Jean-Claude Van Damme films. The first one is like a revenge film set in LA. And then Roger would go, “Let’s change the set and let’s set it in Europe.” It was like the same movie being remade over and over and over again, and I think the last one they did was set in space. And then he would depict the same movie and cast women in it instead of men. So he was definitely pumping out a lot of movies.
BH: It’s interesting that both your documentary “Outside In” and “Corman’s World” focus on underappreciated, independent artists who operate in a non-traditional way. And the Nike “Be True” campaign that you’re working on seems to have that theme as well.
Stapleton: Its interesting. I guess that’s what’s going on in my subconscious mind. I guess I have a tendency to tell the story of the underdog. I’m attracted to those stories. Actually, the title of “Comran’s world,” when I first got started with the movie, was called “The Underdog” because it was before he won the [honorary] Oscar. When I pitched him the idea, I sent him a track by Sly & The Family Stone called “Underdog” and I gave him this whole idea about how I was gonna shoot a trailer set to the song “Underdog.” (laughing) I don’t think he was too happy with that, because I don’t know if he views himself as the underdog.
But yeah I definitely like those stories. I probably feel like an underdog myself sometimes. Because I’m a woman and a black woman. There’s not a lot of black female directors, I guess, so maybe there’s some sort of connection I have to the underdog athlete or movie maker or whatever.
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BH: So what are you working on now? I heard you have a Corman-esque picture of your own in the works.
Stapleton: I’m currently juggling two documentary projects. I’m doing a series profiling interesting women as part of the whole YouTube channel thing that has been started.
I have the “Outside In” project I’m working with Roger Gastman – he was the curator with the show art in the streets. We’re doing a television series, a six-part, one-hour series that’s going to trace the history of street art graffiti. So it’s expanded into a bigger project. And the Corman-esque movie is still in development. It is a science fiction intergalactic love story I guess you could call it. It takes place with an alien and an earthling. I’m really excited about that. It will be a quickie movie, but fun, with the old-school spirit of Corman movies from the late '70s, early '80s.
BH: Is there anything that you learned from Corman or making “Corman’s World” that you’ll incorporate into that film?
Stapleton: Yeah, I mean a couple of things. I never had a chance to go to film school. Making this documentary was kind of my film school-slash-graduate program all in one. I didn’t know how to do anything when I started, so it was definitely a film school for me from the ground up. Roger was like, “When you get started on your first narrative feature you can’t take five years to make that.” So I’m like, “Thanks, Roger. (laughing)”
BH: You got Jack Nicholson to cry on camera. What was that like?
Stapleton: It was the longest interview. It was the Holy Grail interview from day one, because he doesn’t do them. It took two years from the first letter that went out until I was actually sitting down with him. It lasted for hours. It was the longest interview I conducted, with the exception of Roger and his wife, spending time with them.
So it was amazing, and I think that at the end of the day, I was at the right place at the right time. He had a lot to say about Roger and to Roger, and I just happened to have a camera there and picked it up. It was very intimate. I always keep a very small crew size, so there were only two other people in the room besides myself and Jack, and I think he felt very comfortable. We had spent so many hours together by the end of it that he just got very emotional and worked up. So that’s what happened.
BH: Corman’s movies have always had a sort of B-movie feel, and that’s part of their charm. He obviously recognizes that his films are campy, but it seems to be the goal he’s embraced.
Stapleton: Oh yeah. I mean I think he is very, very aware. The only one really that has no camp at all, being “The Intruder,” if anyone said it was campy I think that would be very offensive to him. But beyond that, he’s not in denial that he puts camp all throughout his movies and has since the very beginning. And he loves it. It’s actually harder than one would think to pull it off in a good way, to pull off comedy and genre and slap it all together in an entertaining less-than-90-minute experience with no money, so (laughing) he’s the master at it.