The irony is undeniable: a documentary about Roger Corman, a Hollywood maverick with over 400 movies to his credit, made by an unproven, first-time filmmaker. In recounting the colorful, storied career of genre movie master Corman, Alex Stapleton took on a Herculean task, setting out to reflect upon the man’s dominance throughout the 1960s and ’70s through the firsthand memories of Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Robert De Niro, and countless others.
It only takes one viewing of Corman’s World: Exploits Of A Hollywood Rebel (opening in limited release today) to acknowledge the fact that Stapleton’s efforts delivered a rousing success of a film. Funny, insightful, and extremely entertaining, Corman’s World unites some of Hollywood’s biggest names to show admiration to one of the industry’s most underappreciated shotcallers, the king of schlocky B-movies.
For Stapleton, Corman’s World is a dream come true. Growing up a fanatic of low-rent horror flicks and over-the-top exploitation cinema, the Brooklyn girl, by way of Houston, first dabbled in movies as a producer on Just For Kicks, a 2005 MTV-backed documentary about the hip-hop culture’s fascination with sneakers. Based on Corman’s World, we’re hoping that she remains in the director’s chair from here on out.
Complex recently chatted with Stapleton about the film’s long road to completion, Corman’s untouchable legacy, why Jack Nicholson broke down in tears in front of her, and the joys of Viking women and exploding heads.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Corman’s World feels like a love letter to the man’s career and films—it’s something a casual fan couldn’t make. When and how did you become such a huge fan of Roger Corman’s movies?
I didn’t know that I was being introduced to his movies at first. I didn’t know that they were Roger Corman movies necessarily, but I definitely grew up watching Pam Grier movies. I’m an ’80s baby, so a lot of Roger’s movies were playing on television at that point. I wasn’t around in the ’70s to go and see them, but on TV the [Edgar Allan] Poe movies played while I was at my grandmother’s house on the weekends. I just remember them being on television and I was always a big fan. I was definitely raised on genre flicks and movies of the weird kind from my parents; I didn’t have mainstream tastes at all.
When I was 19, I was kind of being mentored by a horror film director named Frank Henenlotter, in New York. I couldn’t afford to go to film school, and I never went, but Frank was kind of like my film school. And I was friends with this guy named R.A. The Rugged Man, too, actually—the rapper. He introduced me to Frank, and Frank would give us stacks of VHS cassettes. I was a teenager, and a lot of the movies he would give me were Roger Corman movies. Then I got my hands on Roger’s autobiography, How I Made 100 Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime, and that’s when it hit me that this one guy was responsible for so much. I think the idea of doing a film about him was planted in my head at that time.
But I’d moved on with my life and my career. I actually ended up producing a feature-length documentary when I was in my mid-20s, so I thought, You know what? I think I should make my own documentary. I think I can handle it. I thought it’d be really cool to do a doc on Roger Corman. I didn’t know Roger, I didn’t know anyone who knew him, and I’d never directed anything before. I had no money, but somehow I thought it was a good idea. [Laughs.] I did some research and found out that he was still working even though he was in his 80s. He was in L.A., so I convinced my friend who’s an editor of Tokion magazine to let me write a story about Roger, so this way I could schedule a real meeting with him and get to meet him in an official capacity.
I cold-called his office and they were like, “Well, he’s in Bulgaria making Cyclops, so you have to wait for him to come back.” I booked a plane ticket, flew to Los Angeles and met with him, and immediately after I went for it. I said, “I know you don’t know me, but I think I could make a really good documentary about your life,” and he said, “Very well.” [Laughs.] “Come to my office and can talk about it in further detail.” So it was like that—we were off and running.
That’s the vibe I got about him from the movie, that he’s a really friendly, chill, down-to-Earth guy. He seems like he’d be totally willing to talk to someone at length about his career. Was it a hard sell on your end?
I think he was just like, “OK, you’re up for this challenge? All right.” That’s just how he is; I guess how he plays it out in his head is like, “Well, this person has obviously done the research and is willing to do the work to make a film, so why not give her a shot,” you know? It’s funny, though, because as easy it was to set up, it wasn’t an easy movie to make. That was almost six years ago, when he said “yes.”
For two years, I was trying to do the movie myself, and I went into major debt, charged up credit cards, and I wasn’t getting anywhere. And then I finally got it to a place where I got real financing and a real producer. My producer/financier came on board, and literally the minute he signed a deal with me, Roger called me and said, “Alex, I just want to let you know that there’s a producer who called me to say that there’s another team that wants to make a documentary on me, as well.” I was like, “Are you serious?” And he said, “Yes, and I gave them your number because I think you can all work together. I have to go now, bye.” Because Roger only gives you like two seconds of his time. [Laughs.] He’s very on the ball.
He hangs up, and then this other producer calls me, and this producer is a real, kind of…scum-bucket. He was trying to scare me into not pursuing my film any further, because they were going to blow me out of the water. And the director they had for this project started with Roger, actually, and has won a lot of Academy Awards, and he’s very famous. His producer was like, “Girl, go back to Brooklyn—we got this. You have no chance.” I was freaking out, so I called Roger back, like, “Roger! I finally got real money, I finally got the movie set up. It’s finally happening! I can’t turn back, and these guys are not gonna work with me—come on! I totally get that you want an Academy Award-winning director to make the story of your life, and I know that I’ve never done anything before. But I know that I’ll bleed for this movie, and I just know that they aren’t going to put as much into it as I will.” He was like, “You know, I think you can still work together,” and then I just started crying.
In tears, I was like, “Remember when you were in yours 20s and you just needed someone to take a chance on you? That’s all I need—just a chance.” He said, “OK, stop crying.” [Laughs.] “I gave you my word first, I’ll keep to my word—it’s your movie.” It’s interesting how he’s really not that complicated; he’s a guy who’s a man of his word, and really straightforward. It’s weird because you’d think he’d be this overweight, obnoxious, cigar-smoking, cheesy producer who’d be trying to take advantage of people all of the time, but he’s not like that.
Like Tom Cruise’s character in Tropic Thunder, Les Grossman.
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. He’s the opposite of that.
So I’m assuming that this Academy Award-nominated director isn’t somebody who speaks in the film, then?
I can’t say anything. [Laughs.] To be clear, this had nothing to do with the director—this had everything to do with the producer.