Critically overlooked and always underappreciated, Roger Corman, the king of exploitation cinema, is just the kind of character that practically screams for his own documentary. Thankfully, filmmaker Alex Stapleton has done just that, and this weekend, "Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel" (which premiered at Sundance before going on to play Cannes and the New York Film Festival), will be released in limited release. Corman is a grandfatherly figure now in his 80s that is still able to churn out some vile, whacked-out shit. It's pretty impressive. We got a chance to speak to Corman himself about the documentary, what surprised him about it, and what gonzo stuff he's got coming up.
In explaining the process of the documentary, he said it was all Stapleton: "Alex Stapleton, the young woman who made the documentary, approached me a number of years ago, with the idea to do it," Corman said. "There had been a documentary made about me in the 80s but nothing since. And she talked intelligently and explained to me what she was planning to do. And I said 'Let's go ahead.' "
We wondered if there was anything that surprised Corman about the documentary, since almost all of his former employees (everyone from Bruce Dern to Ron Howard) wax poetic about their time in the Corman charnel house, working for no money and getting hopelessly ripped off, because it made them more savvy and tough. But there was one documentary interviewee that particularly got to Corman.
"Probably the thing that surprised me most was the emotion showed by Jack Nicholson," Corman said. "He became sentimental about our early relationship and our relationship through the years and I was moved by what he said." Still, he's kept in touch with most of his former protégés, as he said (philosophically): " People's paths diverge but I stay in touch with most of the people I work with."
And while he says, he liked the final film ("I think the final product is very good"), there were still some interviewees he would have liked to have seen make it into the documentary. "I think Francis Coppola and Jim Cameron were not available. I would have liked if they had been in it," Corman said. He was quick to point out, though, that he still liked the final version. "I thought it was a good representative series of interviews."
One of the issues the film brings up is the fact that even though Corman produced hundreds of movies he was also reluctant to take that next step and break through to the mainstream. Most in the film (particularly David Carradine) seem befuddled by this, but Corman holds steadfast that it was a choice. Teaming up with the big studios would have diluted his control. "I have done several pictures with major studios and I have good relationships with them. It's just that certain controls are put on you by the major studios," Corman said. "But I prefer to stay independent so I can control my own destiny."
As early as his relationship with production company and distributor American International Pictures (a group who distributed everything from beach party movies to the American roll-outs of Hammer horror films), Corman knew that he had to work for himself. His rebellious streak was already there.
"The first picture they distributed was my picture the 'Fast and the Furious,' a title I later sold to Universal and they've been very successful with that title," Corman said. "Towards the end they started, in the late '60s, as I was becoming increasingly involved in the counterculture and they became more conservative, they started editing my pictures after I finished them, taking out some things that I thought were important but they felt were too controversial. And it was at that point that I decided to start my own company."
Corman's dream, of late, has been to return to bigger budget sci-fi stories. "The science fiction pictures I did we used the available special effects at the time, and also the cheapest as well," Corman said, matter-of-factly. "I'd like to go back into a kind of speculative science fiction using the current computer tools."
On the subject of computers, Corman, who feels like it might be the worst time in his entire career to try and launch independent films, thinks that the Internet could truly save cinema. "However, I do have hope, and it's based on the Internet, I hope and believe that the Internet will be our savior and we will come back," Corman said. He then outlined how it could happen. "We bypass theaters, we bypass large organizations, we go directly to the person who wants to see the film and the market is now the entire world. I think the potential is tremendous."
Of course most recently Corman's films have been delivered directly to our living rooms via the Syfy Channel (Corman calls them "creature features"). This is where we can now get movies like "Dinoshark" and "Dinocroc." But one of his biggest successes on the channel he was initially skeptical of. "Well I originally thought 'Sharktopus' was too silly," Corman said. "I had come up with all the previous titles and they came up with the title 'Sharktopus.' And I told them my theory that these insane titles intrigue the audience and they want to see them up to a certain point and when you go beyond the acceptable level of insanity, the audience turns against you. But they wanted to make it and I have a good relationship with them and to my surprise it's been one of the biggest rated films we've ever had. It must be that the acceptable level of insanity is higher than I thought."
Later, Roger said, "I just finished 'Piranhaconda' for the Syfy Channel and I'm having a breakfast with them tomorrow about a possibility of doing a sequel to 'Sharktopus.' " Sharktopus lives!
One of the highlights of the documentary is the footage of Corman accepting his lifetime achievement award from the Oscars, a long overdue honor that Corman accepted with humility and grace. But, given his history of being a bit of a troublemaker, we wondered why his speech was so polite.
"What they showed in the documentary was only a portion of the speech. I did talk about the wastefulness and the lack of creativity in the big budget tentpoles. So the full speech at the awards ceremony was stronger," Corman admitted. "But Alex chose not to deal with that."
Corman, who is now 80 years old, says that he has slowed down somewhat ("We used to make 10, 12 pictures a year. I now make 4 or 5 a year") but he's still got a whole slew of projects on his plate. "I'm going to be in Asia next month and I'm meeting with a studio in China about possibly doing a science fiction story centered around Chinese mythology," Corman said. He then gleefully noted: "I'm calling it, tentatively, 'Dragon Woman!' "
He also admits that while the socially conscious subtext of his movies is still important to him, the recent SyFy creature features have moved away from that. An upcoming project, though, sounds like it could be a more thoughtful project. "We're halfway through post-production on a film called 'Virtual Heroes' which is ostensibly a Vietnam war picture, it's filled with a lot of action, but it has an unusual twist," Corman said, debating about whether or not to give away the twist. "About halfway through the characters begin to realize they are not human beings, they are characters in a videogame. I like that type of film – I've got the action that I know can be sold but I have an interesting intellectual concept there."
Well, whatever Corman cooks up next, we'll be happy to wolf it down. Even if it is a Syfy Channel original called "Pantherjaguarsquid." "Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel" opens in limited release this week.