Considering her status as a first-time moviemaker, Alex Stapleton’s choice of subject matter for her debut film couldn’t be more apt.
With her documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, Stapleton has constructed a tribute to the consistently revolutionary producer/director/writer Roger Corman, a man known for not only his influential body of film, but also for the importance he placed on supporting young, up-and-coming talent. The list of film icons who started their careers working with Corman is a long and impressive one that includes names like Scorsese, Coppola, Bogdanovich and Nicholson. Stapleton interviewed these moviemakers and more to make Corman’s World, which explores the impact of the legendary moviemaker and his cult film empire.
Corman paved his own road, and it’s one that worked out well for him; widely known as the “King of B Movies,” he was able to make films quickly and on a shoestring budget, which helps explain why his producing credits, as of this writing, are sitting at just shy of 400 films.
“A rebel is someone who defies authority and refuses to conform. Roger Corman’s entire career has been built on his rebellious spirit,” Stapleton explains. Through his refusal to conform and his avid exploration of the peripheries of the film world, Corman was in some ways the very rebel many of his films celebrated, in addition to being an inspiration to independent artists trying to make a name for themselves. His ability to not only create art but also artists was perhaps one of his greatest talents.
In advance of Corman’s World’s limited theatrical release this Friday, Stapleton took the time to chat with MovieMaker about Corman’s influence on the world of film and her own career as a moviemaker.
Laurel Dammann (MM): You’ve titled this documentary Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel. What does the phrase “rebel” mean to you, and how does Corman most clearly exemplify one?
Alex Stapleton (AS): A rebel is someone who defies authority and refuses to conform. Roger Corman’s entire career has been built on his rebellious spirit. He has managed to make hundreds of motion pictures independently, outside of the studio system. He also made movies that were loaded with countercultural themes and agendas. He was one of the first filmmakers to make movies for youth audiences. Films like Teenage Caveman and The Cry Baby Killer featured teenagers as the protagonists, struggling with their identity and usually finding themselves breaking the law or bucking the system to make a statement.
By the 60s, Roger channeled his inner rebel through films like The Trip and The Wild Angels. The Trip explored the pros and cons of acid and was a film that was just as experimental as the drug itself. The Wild Angels was a sympathetic portrayal of one of the most feared gangs at the time, the Hells Angels. Roger would rather tell you a story through the eyes of the rebel or the outlaw [than make] him the villain, which was the approach usually adopted by his studio counterparts. This tradition of storytelling turned into the legendary “Corman Formula.”
MM: How do you place Corman’s films within the social and political climate of the film industry today?
AS: Roger was a master at churning out entertaining and culturally relevant films on shoestring budgets. He showed us that you don’t need millions to pull off a good story that will captivate an audience.
Roger’s genre formula pictures were so successful that the studios finally caught on that they, too, could follow the recipe and probably make a killing at the box office. This probably influenced their decision to greenlight pictures like Jaws and Star Wars. These films led us into the blockbuster era of moviemaking, and I believe you can trace the roots of this movement to Roger Corman and his compatriots.
Behind the camera, Roger launched the careers of writers, directors, DPs, actors, composers and even studio executives who would soar to great heights within the film industry. When [screenwriter] Robert Towne won the Oscar for Chinatown in 1975, he looked around the room and commented that he felt like he was at a giant Roger Corman reunion. He was right; that year almost every major Academy Award was given to a person who started with Roger.
MM: While interviewing the Hollywood icons who got their start with Corman, did you find that there were any lessons they had learned from him that surprised you to hear?
AS: The lessons they learned went beyond logistical tips and guidance. I was surprised that every single person stated that they walked away from Roger feeling more confident and secure as artists. It’s a priceless gift that they were happy to accept despite being paid very little in salary and working insanely hard on the job. Many of them didn’t even see their own potential; Roger was the person that would encourage them to turn their talents to something larger than they might have even thought they were capable of handling.
MM: How has industry has changed the most since Corman’s beginning in Hollywood?
AS: Making motion pictures has become more accessible to people due to digital technology, and the Internet has also made getting your content seen much easier. This is a radical change compared to when Roger first started, and people were limited to shooting on film. The independent scene is reinventing itself all over again due to audiences’ changing tastes and new methods of distribution.
MM: What was the biggest challenge for you in completing this project, and how did you overcome it?
AS: The biggest challenge was definitely slimming down thousands of hours of footage into a 90-minute film. It was so painful to cut out movies, interviews and behind-the-scenes stories that we fell in love with during the edit. Looking back on it now, it’s funny remembering my attempt to try and include everything. That resulted in the first cut, which was six hours long!
MM: As a moviemaker, what’s the most important lesson you learned from Corman himself?
AS: Never give up, accept your budget, enjoy the ride and—to quote Roger during his Academy Award Lifetime Achievement speech—“Keep taking chances!”
Corman’s World comes to New York City’s Village East Cinema and Los Angeles’ Nuart Theater December 16, 2011. For more information, visit www.cormansworld.com.