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.
Once you officially had the film, without any interferences, did you have to go back and re-watch all of his 400 or so movies? Or watch many of them for the first time?
Oh, yeah! It’s funny, because that’s actually why I went into debt. [Laughs.] I was like an addict. I couldn’t have a job, because I would stay in my apartment’s living room, draw the blinds, and I’d watch movie after movie after movie. And not only was I watching every movie I could get my hands on, DVD or VHS cassette, I was also watching all of the bonus featurettes, and I’d watch movies twice to see them with the commentaries. And I was reading every book I could find, and reading a lot online, past magazines articles written about Roger.
In that two-year time period, I probably watched about 500 movies. [Laughs.] Because I wasn’t just watching his movies—I also had to watch movies like [Martin Scorsese’s]Mean Streets, for example, because I had to understand why Mean Streets was derivative of Roger’s whole thing. Or a movie like Easy Rider, which isn’t a Roger Corman movie, but it is a hybrid film that directly combines Roger’s The Wild Angels and The Trip. I remember reading an article with [director] Jonathan Demme where he said, “When I made Silence Of The Lambs, it was such a Roger Corman film—I took so much creatively from him.” And the first blockbuster that people say revitalized the studio system was The Godfather, and there were a lot of people who were commenting in articles back in the ’70s about the fact that [director Francis Ford] Coppola had come from Roger’s camp and there were a lot of things in The Godfather that came from the kind of genre sensibility that Roger had given to all of his students.
So in order to be able to talk about these things in interviews, I needed to know all of those movies like the back of my hand. I took it really seriously, I was really obsessed. I completely lost my social life doing that. [Laughs.]
Was it difficult just to find his movies? Doing some research myself, I found that a lot of his movies don’t even have any details available online other than his credits and a few actors—they’re that low-budget and obscure.
Oh, yeah—it was really hard. And there are some that I still haven’t…I’ve either seen them or I’ve seen a horrible-quality version of it but I’ve never seen a clean print. There are some movies that I haven’t been able to get my hands on, though very few. When we were in production, I was really all over the place. Some of the footage we got is from people in, like, Iowa, some weird collector who, for some reason, had a 16mm print of whatever movie.
Out in L.A., there are a lot of people like Joe Dante [director of the Roger Corman-produced Piranha, from 1978, and later Gremlins], who collects trailers and has his hands on a lot of clean copies of obscure movies. I remember Roger’s The Terror, that Poe movie that was such a disaster—you can’t find a clean copy of it anywhere, but Joe Dante actually gave me an HD version of the film, so that was the first time that we’d seen this movie that was put together with gum and toothpicks projected in this really beautiful, clean way. There was a lot of that. I found myself in people’s basements and garages, trying to get my hands on anything.
Doesn’t Roger Corman himself have prints of all of his movies?
That’s the crazy part: Roger doesn’t keep anything. Roger’s a man who lives in the present moment. [Laughs.] There were so many stories from people I’d interview who were like.... One story I heard was about going to Roger’s house and cleaning out his garage. They’d go through boxes, and Roger would keep saying, “This all goes in the trash,” but inside these boxes were pictures from the ’60s of Roger hanging with all types of famous people, and Roger taking his films on big festivals, and Roger in advertisements. Someone told me that he had an ad for a martini brand in the ’60s; he was kind of like the Wes Anderson of his day, this swanky, cool hipster.
He could’ve made one hell of a book with all of those pictures—genre heads would buy that in a heartbeat.
I know! Roger only has like three pictures of himself. I think the only photo in the entire movie that I sourced from Roger and his wife Julie was their wedding photo—that was the only picture that they actually gave me. He just doesn’t keep any of that stuff around.
That’s crazy—just think about all of the Hollywood memories lost. When you were watching all of his movies in those marathon viewing sessions, did it ever get to a point where you became totally desensitized? He’s made some great, high-quality movies, but he’s also made tons of bad, C-grade ones. I’d imagine that your brain could start feeling like jelly after watching Attack Of The Crab Monsters three times in a row.
[Laughs.] Unfortunately, when you’re editing your whole mind-frame changes. I would have to catch myself with my editor. Sometimes I’d get so serious; I had this whole method where I had a list of specific movies that I wanted to give shout-outs to, the ones that I couldn’t talk about in the film. Because I was just around the content for so many years, I was just completely desensitized to it by year four. So my editor, Victor Livingston, was really great because he’d be like, “Yeah, Alex, we should put that part back in with Peter Bogdanovich talking about The Viking Women story, because it’s really funny,” and I didn’t think it was funny by that point. [Laughs.]
Victor was my balance. It is a really funny story, Victor was right; Peter Bogdanovich and Roger had to use, like, telepathy to communicate on the set because Roger wouldn’t pay for sound. It’s crazy, so that story got put back into the movie. I tried to pick some of my favorite moments, though. My favorite gore scene from any Roger Corman movie is from Chopping Mall, and that’s actually one of the scenes edited into the film’s intro. That’s the one where a bunch of teenagers are locked in a mall and this robot comes in, it’s bloodthirsty, and it starts killing them off. It always happened that the teenagers got killed after they’d do these bad things, like sleeping with each other. [Laughs.] There’s this epic scene where the robot shoots at this girl and her head explodes, and it so obviously looks like an exploding watermelon.
Of course, Humanoids From The Deep and the alien-birthing scene, too. So, yeah, it was funny; because I was around Roger, he would break down all of the drama they had with putting all of the monsters together. It’s unfortunate that I kind of now have this more surgeon-goggle thing going on where the movies are different for me now. I look at them very differently, so I’m jealous of people who can just watch them and appreciate them at face value for how obnoxious, crazy, and low-budget they really are.
So I won’t start bragging about how much fun I had recently while watching It Conquered The World, then. And how much that cheap, pepper-looking monster made me laugh.
[Laughs.] I appreciate that. See, me, I’d probably start detailing how much work it took for Roger to get that monster to look the way it does.
You mentioned Peter Bogdanovich, who’s just one of the many prestigious film industry heavyweights you got to interview for Corman’s World. The film really has an impressive talking heads lineup, one that’s bigger than any documentary of this kind in recent memory. Was it a thing where you called them, mentioned Roger’s name, and they immediately agreed to do it, or was it much tougher than that?
I think the spirit was definitely like that, where they wanted to go on camera and talk about him like that. Really, I think it was twofold; one, there’s not a lot of films out there that have really documented that time in film history, and a lot of these filmmakers are cinephiles, they’re film lovers. They really understand the value of going on camera and recording all of these stories. They’re older now, and, as you can see from watching the movie, I think there are five people in my film who have already passed away.
They took it very seriously once it was time to go on camera, but it was extremely hard to even get the requests in front of them, to begin with. A lot of people were working, too, so it was crazy to try to get time with them, because they’re all over the world, or in post-production, or making movies. They’re insanely busy. A lot of our good luck came from one of my producers, Polly Platt, who’s in the movie, as well. She actually just passed away not too long ago. She wrote to everyone who’s in the film personally, and she really legitimized the film for these guys, this Hollywood A-lister community. Because she was involved, they felt very safe and comfortable enough to do the interview; they knew that I wasn’t going to exploit them, or do some weird experimental piece and post it to YouTube or something like that. [Laughs.]
We had a good reputation going because of her, so it all worked out. With Jack Nicholson, that was the hardest interview to get; it took two years from the first request that went out to me sitting down with him. When I met him, he said, “You know, I’ve only done one documentary and that was on Stanley Kubrick, and I’m doing this one on Roger and that’s it.”
Being that this was your first full-length feature, was it, A, intimidating as all hell for you? And, B, a thing where you could sense these guys like Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Jack Nicholson, and Robert De Niro approaching the interviews with “Let’s see what this girl is made of” caution?
Oh, they were definitely like, “Let’s see what she’s made of.” For sure. And I was nervous as hell interviewing every single person initially. [Laughs.] But I think that two-year period when I was locked in my room watching all of the movies paid off, because I was so well-versed with scenes and the trivia part. That kind of stuff matters to these kinds of guys, you know? Because when you’re interviewing them and they’re telling you about Not Of This Earth but they can’t remember an actress’ name, if I can’t immediately spit the name back to them, their eyebrow goes up. Like, “Wait a minute.” It’s like nerd trivia, and I’m a nerd. [Laughs.] I think that impressed them and made them feel more at ease and confident about the project.
Pretty much, I’d say, with every single interview, the publicist would say, “You have 20 minutes with Mr. Scorsese.” With Jack Nicholson, it was only supposed to be 20 minutes, but it turned into hours. And with Scorsese, I think I got an hour and 45 minutes, which is crazy considering how busy these guys are. I think, first of all, they really enjoyed talking about this period of their lives, so the conversation was engaging for them. But I also think I was working really hard to prove myself with each interview. Like, “I’m not some reporter from some magazine or newspaper who’s been hired to do this interview. I live and breathe this stuff, and I really respect you. I respect this subject—I’m legit.” And that paid off.
I think a lot of them, hearing that my name is Alex Stapleton, were really shocked to find out that I’m a black woman. [Laughs.] I remember with some guys, we’d start talking and the conversation would get to the interviews and they’d be like, “Yeah, let’s just wait for the director to get here,” and I’d say, “Yeah, that would be me.” [Laughs.]
There’s a really strong, poignant moment near the end where Jack Nicholson starts crying. It shows you just how much these guys love Roger, and how much he’s meant for their lives and careers.
Yeah, I was just as shocked when it happened as I feel like people are when they watch it. It happened at the end of the interview, and I think he was just remembering that time period. For him, it was this long, 12-year period where nothing was hitting, where he couldn’t get a role that was as big for him as Easy Rider would prove to be. When he first started working for Roger, he was an attendant at a gas station; he’d work at the gas station at night and was struggling to pay his bills. I remember him telling me that he was the “master of unemployment”; he was really good at figuring out how much he had to work to be able to collect unemployment, because that’s what kept him going. He was a starving artist, and Roger gave him his first real shot to change his life.
That is what's so great about Corman’s World: It doesn’t just focus on the schlocky B-movies that everyone knows Roger Corman for, and that they might first go into this movie hoping to laugh at. The film shows that he’s a real, incredibly important artist. The section where you shine the light on his overlooked 1962 socially conscious drama The Intruder, for instance, is really fascinating.
Yeah, definitely. First of all, Roger Corman is not a household name, and if you do know him, you know him for Death Race, or Attack Of The Crab Monsters, or the Poe movies. But even a lot of the fans out there don’t know about this movie The Intruder, so when I watched it for the first time.... Frank Henenlotter actually gave it to me. When I watched it for the first time, I was really blown away.
Just to put it into perspective, Roger made the movie in 1960, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech happened in 1963. So the Civil Rights movement was happening, but it was still pretty crazy for two brothers [Roger and his producing sibling Gene] from Los Angeles to decide to, A, make a movie like this, and, B, take it down south and shoot it on location. I don’t even know what they were thinking. [Laughs.] But they wanted it to be authentic and feel real. Yeah, the studio system was making movies that were dealing with our country’s warped prejudices and et cetera, but they were doing them in the comfort of a sound stage in Los Angeles. I was just so blown away that Roger decided to shoot the movie on location and put his life in danger to make a film that he just felt was absolutely necessary to make.
By that point, he was on a roll as a director; he’d made money from every single film that he had ever done. But when he took the book The Intruder, no one would give him the cash to make it. So I was also blown away by the fact that he put his own money into this movie, knowing how risky it was. He was taking a huge gamble in making it. I thought it was a story that needed to be shared, and, for my film, we have this good time and everyone’s throwing him little jabs and insults for being really cheap and low-budget, and you’re laughing about cheap movies like The Terror, with Jack Nicholson saying, “By mistake, he made a good picture every now and then.” But it becomes time in my movie to take it up a notch, and I thought that, to me, it’s not all that interesting to keep having these production stories about how cheap the sets were. The Intruder is a story that shows Roger was full of substance, and very liberal man with morals. He’s a stand-up guy.
And it probably also resonated with me because, yes, I am a black woman, and my mother grew up in the South during segregation. So I had a personal connection to the story.
Corman’s World ends in the most apropos way, with Roger receiving his ridiculously long-overdue Lifetime Achievement Academy Award earlier this year. How was it for you to be with him that night, behind the scenes?
He was speechless. He’s so humble that he didn’t even call and tell me that he was going to receive that award. [Laughs.] You’d think that if you have a filmmaker following you around and talking to you about your career that you’d probably call the documentarian and tell them that you’re going to receive the Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Like, “Hey, guess what.... I got some really good news!” [Laughs.] But nope. I actually read about it in the paper. Actually, one of my interns read it in the paper and forwarded it to me. I immediately called him and was like, “Hey, Roger, this is kind of something I should know about!” [Laughs.] He then said, “Well, I guess you’ve got an ending to your movie now.” That’s very Roger.
It’s funny, too, how this guy’s tentacles really are all over the town. The former head of the Academy actually ran a part of Roger’s company back in the ’70s, so that’s how we were able to get in with our cameras and film everything backstage. It was a really great moment; I was so honored that he not only allowed me to be at the ceremony, but also to be at his home with him, his wife, and his children as they were getting ready to go to the event. He didn’t say much, but he just had this grin on his face. It was the end of the movie, but it was also one of the last things that I filmed, so it definitely marked the end of our time together. It was a really cool moment.
It’s so cool how he gets this prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy but then he’s heading right back to work on a movie called Sharktopus.
[Laughs.] Yeah! That’s why I ended the movie like that. The next day, he was back in the office dealing with Sharktopus, a movie for the SyFy channel. It’s like, life goes on. He’s not saying, “OK, I got the highest honor that the Academy can ever give me, so I think I’m going to throw in the towel.” No, not at all. And it’s not even like he’s saying, “OK, now I’m going to make my follow-up movie to The Intruder. Now I’m going to go be an artist.” No, now it’s time to make Sharktopus.
And why do you think that is? Is it as simple as he just loves these campy, fun genre movies and won’t ever grow tired of making them? Which, by the way, is really cool.
Yeah, that’s what it is. His favorite filmmakers, I know, are [Alfred] Hitchcock and John Ford, and John Ford was the king of the western, and westerns are genre films. We don’t make so many westerns anymore, but when Roger was younger, those were big, and they were genre movies. He grew up just really loving horror and science fiction films.
There are a lot of people who make these kinds of low-budget genre flicks—Roger’s not the only person. But there is something very specific about the Roger Corman stamp versus other people that were making low-budget genre movies. And I think it’s that the people behind his movies, they actually really are trying to make the best movies possible. They, Roger included, really are approaching the film trying to make the best damn half-shark/half-octopus movie that’s out there, or the best movie about piranhas that has ever been seen. There’s a great sense of pride that you get when you’re around him, and it’s just infectious.
There’s never this sense of, like, “Let me just make a quick buck on this, and I don’t care.” That’s what makes him so special. He’s not about to put more money into a movie than it legitimately needs, though. [Laughs.] He’s not going to waste money, which leads to the lower quality, but, again, he’s trying to make the best possible movies he can within those confines. And you have to love and respect that.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)