There isn't a splashier or more sensational documentary subject than Roger Corman, a man who has produced hundreds of exploitation and genre movies over the years, answering to no one but himself. In the process of churning out drive-in (and now direct-to-video) fodder, he's launched the careers of countless big time directors, actors, and producers (quickly, among them: Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, Gale Anne Hurd, James Cameron, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, and Peter Fonda). First time feature director Alex Stapleton took it upon herself to make the definitive Roger Corman documentary "Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel" (out this week) and she succeeded, big time. We got to talk to her about her inspiration for the film, how she shaped a 90-minute version out of a six-hour rough cut, and what it was like working with the French duo Air for the film's score.
"The idea came from me being a fan for a big portion of my childhood and teenage years. I didn't know that Roger Corman was behind a lot of the movies that I loved," Stapleton says, of the film's genesis. "When I was about 18 or 19 years-old, a mentor of mine, a filmmaker named Frank Henenlotter [director of 'Basket Case,' 'Frankenhooker' and 'Brain Damage'], gave me a copy of Roger's book, 'How I Made 100 Movies and Never Lost a Dime.' He also gave me a copy of a movie called 'The Intruder.'"
She said that both the book and film were truly helpful. "I never went to film school so this is kind of became this weird Cliff's Notes version of how to make movies. Then I watched the movie 'The Intruder.'" "The Intruder" is probably the one movie Corman ever lost money on, a gritty drama about a racist (played by William Shatner) in the segregated south. And it clearly left a mark on Stapleton because there's a whole section of the documentary devoted to this one film.
"I watched that movie I was totally floored that this man put so much on the line to make this movie that was so raw about how horrible the country was," Stapleton says of 'The Intruder. "He did it before it was even in fashion to have that liberal voice, before Martin Luther King was a household name, before the Civil Rights movement exploded. So that was it – I felt like I had to tell some story about this guy, because it was just so amazing."
And while the story was amazing, it was also unwieldy. An initial cut came in at six hours, but a prized recognition of Corman's work, late in the game, gave the film some structure. "Once he won his lifetime achievement Oscar, it gave me a nice ending to the movie. I was a year deep in post when that happened, so I worked backwards in a way, to come up with a story from that angle," Stapleton said. Another thing that dictated the structure of the film was the interview with Jack Nicholson, which also happened late in the game, and proves to be some of the funniest, most emotional stuff in the movie. It was then, after Nicholson broke down, that Stapleton refocused the documentary.
"I chose in the middle of post-production to go from this kind of zany exploitation kind of a movie to this more human story how this man has severely impacted people's lives not just in careers but in giving them confidence," Stapleton explained. "I thought that the arc of the story lay in that and the movies were secondary to all of that. The movies became the icing on the cake."
The list of interviewees in the movie is long and impressive, but it look a lot of time to get everyone to commit. "I probably have 80 interviews and I had a year's worth of letter-writing to hundreds and hundreds of people all over the world," Stapleton said. "Not only the Cormanites but people who I knew were really big fans and heavily influenced by his body of work as filmmakers. And I interviewed pretty much everyone who said yes. The interview process took three years from beginning to end." One of those non-Cormanite fans turned out to be Eli Roth, who offers surprisingly intelligent explanations for Corman's lasting appeal.
But, to net the big fish of the documentary, one Jack Nicholson, took even more time.
"Getting his interview took two years of letter writing," Stapleton said. "I was really fortunate to hook up with a wonderful human being named Polly Platt who ended up being one of my producers (and who Roger introduced me to) and she wrote to Jack personally. We just tried and tried and tried." Not that her dogged hard work was the only factor in getting Jack to say yes. "The Lakers won, so that was a good thing. Right after the Lakers won the championship, we immediately got the yes."
Another truly wonderful aspect is the film's score, composed by French electronic duo Air. "About 80% of what you're hearing is new original score by Air. People have raised eyebrows like 'What made her choose Air?' But to me, Air, their sound definitely is very Roger," Stapleton said. Hiring the duo, too, let her stay away from the hackneyed "funk" sound that usually goes along with depictions of 70s exploitation cinema. "I wanted to have a score that represented the clean cut nature of Roger and I didn't want to go to the traditional bow-chick-a-bow-bow sound because the movie is about Roger. They're very stylish and very sleek but their music has a very sultry undertone."
Once Air was approached, they seemed really jazzed. "I sent them a four-hour cut of the movie and they ate it up and loved it. The French love Roger. They were really, really thrilled." Sadly, Stapleton doesn't know if the score will find its way to iTunes. We're crossing our fingers.
Given the extremely long running time that the film initially carried, we assume the eventual home video release will have a bunch of that stuff? "The DVD will be mind-blowing," Stapleton confirmed. She then gave us a little taste of what we can expect from the eventual release: "My favorite part that I had to cut out was with Monte Hellman and Jack Nicholson and their whole thing making 'Ride the Whirlwind' and Roger shipping them off to the middle of the country. And they went over budget so Roger took the amount of money they went over budget and deducted it from their salaries." Amazing.
Since 'Corman's World' ate up five years of Stapleton's life, she was quick to follow up with something that wouldn't be such a commitment; she made a documentary short in the few months in between the film's premiere at Sundance and its screening at Cannes. "I wanted to make a movie in five months so I made a movie called 'Outside In' about street art, and it's about the history of street art and graffiti. It's a 30-minute film and we're looking to expand that into a bigger story." She also has a movie that the master himself wouldn't have a problem distributing. "And I have a narrative I'm going to shoot next year; an intergalactic love story set on Hollywood Boulevard." She paused. Then added: "It's very Roger Corman."
'Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel' opens this Friday in select cities.