Roger Corman placed his hands in wet concrete outside the Vista Theater on Wednesday night. Joining the ranks of those with immortalized handprints in the front area of the Los Angeles theater (which some fans may remember as the site of Alabama and Clarence’s “Street Fighter” triple bill in “True Romance”), the 90-year-old legendary director and producer signed his name next to his fresh mark, adding in cursive below: “So great.”
That small inscription was an accurate prediction of the rest of the night’s festivities: a live read of the script for the long-gestating Corman biopic, “The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes.” Corman acolyte Joe Dante has been trying to bring the script to fruition for a decade, making it an ideal dual candidate for the new Cinefamily series “The Greatest Movies Never Made” and for a prominent event at the heart of SpectreFest 2016.
After a short introduction by Cinefamily director Hadrian Belove, the evening ramped up with the introduction of Dante himself, on hand to read stage directions. “We almost made this movie twice,” Dante said, citing the familiar last minute changes in the independent film industry for the aborted attempts. But without any other preamble, like he was ready to see this project finally get to an audience, Dante brought up the cast.
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“The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes” details the inspiration for and production of Corman’s 1967 LSD movie “The Trip,” a film that brought into its orbit the likes of Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern and Peter Bogdanovich, the latter of which was in attendance, seated on the aisle at the front of house left. Bill Hader had been announced in advance as Corman, along with Jason Ritter as Fonda. Rounding out the evening’s lineup: Ethan Embry as Nicholson, Claudia O’Doherty as longtime Corman collaborator Frances Doel, Pat Healy as screenwriter Charles B. “Chuck” Griffith and James Adomian and Sarah Burns playing various other peripheral characters.
There’s a certain air of anticipation with live reads, even with previously produced scripts. Wednesday night, every performer’s first lines were greeted like grand, on-screen entrances. As soon as Hader intoned “Good morning, Frances,” aping Corman’s low, smooth speaking style, the audience erupted. Even Hader had to give a little chuckle.
Embry also got a round of applause from his opening dialogue, playing Nicholson with the recognizable scrunched-up affect, but wisely avoiding a cartoonish impression. As the credited writer on “The Trip,” this version of a strapped-for-cash Nicholson was more idealistic, far from the caricatured courtside Jack of decades since.
“The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes” hews close to the origin story of “The Trip,” not incorporating too much of Corman’s past or lingering too long on the filmmaker’s future works. Picking up in the wake of the release of “The Wild Angels,” Corman’s trailblazing 1966 biker flick, the film paints the director as a kind of visionary square (despite having enough charm to be a casanova of independent film). He’s someone whose cinematic output belies his bookishness and initial removal from the counterculture of the day.
As a result, Hader’s performance took on an element of playful investigation, like a subdued version of the comedian’s Keith Morrison “Dateline” character, sniffing around for clues about psychotropics. One trip to visit a dealer feels like something out of a suburban family comedy of errors, made all the more absurd with Corman’s calmness at the center.
Healy showed that Griffith can serve as a needed straight man for the antics circling around him. O’Doherty played Doel with a “Mad Men” secretary streak: acknowledging the madness and occasional incompetence exhibited by her superiors, all while finding some room to exert her own invaluable ideas. But if this script ever makes it to screen, the casting of Corman will make or break the project. Throughout this incarnation, the joys of watching and hearing Hader slowly sink into Corman’s inaugural LSD haze came from a carefully controlled manner in every scene previous.
Even though the actors were stationary (all sitting in director’s chairs, fittingly), the evening’s production staff had taken great pains to help envision what a potential “Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes” film might look like. A quick, trippy opening credits sequence mimicked the Corman-era style. A handful of montages of Corman work (including images from “The Trip”) popped up on the screen behind them whenever the script called for it. The slide show of stills cycling behind on screen provided enough of a glimpse into the time period, with signs for gas at 32.9 cents a gallon and offices filled with mid-century modern furniture.
But the crowning touch was its impeccably timed needle drop. As Corman enters an altered state during his pre-production psychological prep for “The Trip,” a loop of the cowbell tick-tock from The Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today” persisted underneath Dante’s description of Corman’s hallucinations. As imagination and the acid finally took over, the drums on the song kicked in and the stage was bathed in orange light.
The overwhelming atmosphere of the evening may have smoothed over some elements that might not eventually translate well to the screen. There are a handful of on-the-nose nods to the time period and future work (a line of dialogue ripped from a Doors lyric here, a cheap reference to “The Shining” there). But most of the detail from the script would serve as a nice window into the Corman psyche rather than a late-’60s production design sledgehammer.
Even with this period piece, there were still a few elements that seemed oddly relevant to the evening. With Hader, an “SNL” vet, up on stage performing as an episode of his “Documentary Now!” show premiered on IFC, it was another representative example of how we recreate figures from the past (whether recent or long-gone) to understand our present. Though written in the script as a sight gag, Nicholson reading a newspaper with a headline proclaiming “Film is a dying art form” reinforces how long that argument has been disproven. And in a moment not lost on some, Hader included, when an under-the-influence Corman threatens to file a “defamation of character suit,” it was an eerie reflection of the national news story that was freshly developing as theatergoers were waiting in line.
Lest you worry that a movie about Corman would adhere strictly to the traditional rhythms and conventions, the evening provided one final fun twist. The script calls for a closing scene LA spin on “American Splendor,” featuring the movie version of Corman and real life Corman in a game of tennis. For this finale, Corman rose from his seat in the front row and onto the stage, verbally volleying with Hader before delivering the film’s “where are they now” epilogue.
“The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes” makes frequent references to the divide between reality and our perception of it. How fitting to feature a story about a man who slips into another world to make a better film, all for an event that imagines how a film like this would look in another world. After Corman himself delivered the film’s final lines and the audience rose for a standing ovation, a list of Corman’s tree of influence flashed on the screen. From Francis Ford Coppola to Ron Howard to Monte Hellman to Gale Anne Hurd, a laundry list of directors, writers and producers who Corman helped usher to prominence.
Like the fresh cement outside the Vista that had hardened by the time the patrons left the theater, the man’s legacy was set.