Read our exclusive interview with producer Alex Stapleton, who’s making her feature film writing and directorial debut with the new documentary ‘Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel.’ The movie, which is set to hit select theaters on December 16, 2011, showcases the career of acclaimed B-exploitative sci-fi screenwriter, director and producer, Roger Corman. The movie not only details the working process of the fan favorite filmmaker, but also features interviews with some of Corman’s frequent collaborators, including Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Ron Howard, William Shatner and Jack Nicholson. Stapleton discusses with us, among other things, how she became interested in chronicling Corman’s life, and how she secured the interviews for the film.
ShockYa (SY): ‘Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel’ chronicles the acclaimed career of Roger Corman. Have you always admired Roger’s work, and what sparked your interest in filming a documentary based on his life?
Alex Stapleton (AS): I grew up watching a lot of Roger’s movies. I didn’t know at the time, when I was younger, that there was one man behind a bunch of different genres that I enjoyed. But when I was 19, I picked up his autobiography, ‘How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.’ I never had the chance to attend film school, but I knew that I wanted to make movies.
That book, Roger’s autobiography, sort of became a Bible for me and my friends. That was kind of my early introduction to Roger Corman. I was floored by the fact that one man had made so many movies, and created so many types of genres, and launched the careers of a lot of filmmakers that I admire. So that’s how the seed was planted.
Originally, before my career advanced and moved forward, I produced documentaries. Years after, I decided, you know what, someone should make a documentary on Roger Corman’s life. I did some research, and realized that no one had done it since the late ’70s. So I simply cold-called his office, I didn’t know him, and didn’t know anyone who knew him. But I simply cold-called his office, and asked for an interview for a magazine I was writing for at the time, and flew to Los Angeles, and met with him. Immediately afterward, I asked if he would be interested in me directing a documentary about his life, and he agreed. That was five years ago.
SY: So the production got started when you approached Roger with the idea to document his life?
AS: Yes, I approached him directly, and he agreed. Looking back on it, I don’t think he realized how serious I was. I wanted to make this end-all, be-all kind of film about him. I immediately started with this list of all the people I wanted to speak with. I think he was sort of like, okay, that’s cool.
I had no connections to the people I ended up interviewing, like Jack Nicholson and Scorsese and De Niro, at that point. But I think once I started to prove myself to Roger, he put me in touch with Polly Platt, who became one of my executive producers, who really legitimized the film to the Hollywood community. From that point forward, we started to book interviews, got financed by a real production company, got real money behind the project, and things started to become very real. We were shooting and editing for about three years.
SY: As you mentioned, ‘Corman’s World’ features interviews with such famous directors and actors as (Martin) Scorsese and (Robert) De Niro. What was the process like securing such well-known talent to appear in the film?
AS: It took years! (laughs) It took a lot of persistence, and just never giving up, really. With Jack Nicholson, for instance, that took about two years, from the first letter that went out, all the way to me sitting down with him.
Like I said, Polly had a lot of influence. She definitely helped out, because she was part of the A-list community. She’s a well-respected person in the film community. She personally wrote to every single person I interviewed.
But for every person, every interviewee, we had like 12 people lined up, trying to help us. With Scorsese, we were working every angle to get time with him. You never know what eventually makes people say yes. We were very lucky that they did.
I think a big part of it was the general feeling of gratitude all of the people had for Roger. I think that was definitely on our side. People wanted to talk about Roger. He’s not super-famous outside of the fan-base that already knows about him. I think people wanted to go on camera and share how important he is, and how important his contribution to cinema has been over the past six decades.
SY: Jack Nicholson gave a surprisingly emotional interview in the film. What was your reaction when you heard Jack’s recollection of his time working with Roger?
AS: I was probably just as shocked as most people are when they see how emotional he gets towards the end of the film. It was a very special day. It was one of the longest interviews I have ever done in my life. It was a whole day, while most of the other interviews, excluding the Cormans, Roger and Julie, lasted about one or two hours.
With Jack, it was a day, and I felt it was just the right place at the right time. He was just ready to talk. He never does interviews, so I felt he had so much stuff bottled up that he was ready to talk about. I think it was probably an emotional journey for him.
The bulk of our conversation was about a 12-year-period before ‘Easy Rider,’ when he was Jack Nicholson, and wasn’t just Jack, and he wasn’t famous. He was married, and had a child to support. He was having a hard time getting work. One of the few people who would take a chance on him was Roger Corman.
I think most people who interview him care about his career after ‘Easy Rider.’ I think we were re-hashing a period of his life that maybe he doesn’t think about much, I’m not sure. I think it just got to him. At a certain point, it was like he was talking to Roger, and I was just a medium to allow that to happen. I feel he got very emotional because he wanted Roger to know how special he is, and how supportive he is of Roger.
SY: As a first-time screenwriter and director, what was the process like working on ‘Corman’s World?’
AS: Like I said, I didn’t attend film school. It really felt like, because it was my directorial debut, I was learning by doing. It was like I went to film school, making this movie. I got to meet my idols in the film industry. There’s a lot of stuff not included in the movie, with all of these directors and writers and actors that break down the science of making movies, that Roger taught them, that hopefully we’ll see on the DVD release of this movie.
There was so much information that I was absorbing, as I was making the film. I feel really lucky. I felt like I went through the Roger Corman School of Film-making. It was strange, but a good experience, none-the-less.
SY: While filming, did Roger give you any tips on directing, or was he uninvolved in the production aspect of the film?
AS: There was definitely a divide between Church and State. From day one, he was like, this is your movie, I’m not going to call anyone to be in it. He didn’t want to influence the film on any level, nor did I want his hand in the making of the film.
But he is a director, he is a filmmaker, so every now and then, he would chime in with some advice. When you’re filming a director, I noticed this with all the directors I sat down with, they always have an opinion of what your shot is, and how you’re positioned. (laughs) They can’t help themselves.
I think I had the most techie conversations with him when we were in Mexico, when he was making ‘Dinoshark.’ I actually started to help him on the set of that movie, and that was the deal. He said, “Oh yeah, you can come film, you can come to Mexico, you can capture what it’s like to be on a Corman set. But you’re going to have to work as well.” So I ended up filming second unit, and I was an actress in the movie. It was crazy. It was cool to get tutorials from Roger in that way.
When we were in post-production, ‘Corman’s World’ was about two hours. Even at Sundance, when we premiered, the movie was at 100 minutes. Afterward, Roger was like, “I don’t want to tell you what to do, but I really think you should consider cutting some time out.” He was right, and he gave me some tips and suggestions, some of which were really good. Some things I had to trim here and there, but nothing about the integrity or lines that were used in the movie.
SY: With ‘Dinoshark’ and the rest of his SyFy films, Roger has connected with the current generation. Why do you think fans still enjoy these science-fiction films, including ”Supergator’ and ‘Sharktopus?’
AS: Roger Corman has become a brand. When his name is on something, even if ‘Supergator’ isn’t the same as ‘Attack of the Sea Monsters,’ or ‘Battle Beyond the Stars,’ I think people enjoy seeing Roger’s name on something. His fans know they’re going to get a low-budget experience. I think people just enjoy it.
I think specifically, what Roger’s so good at, why he’s the master of what he does, is that he knows how to put a story together, and give you the thrill and chills you’re looking for, all in a low-budget way. These movies are not ‘Avator,’ and people know that when they’re watching them. People can really appreciate the more hand-made nature of his films.
Roger always told me the difference between the guys who became really famous and successful and the guys who never really had the careers was that the people who took the movies really seriously were determined to make the best movie they could possibly do. I think that’s the Roger Corman authenticity stamp. You know that you’re going to get a movie that’s low budget, and it might be cheesy. There might be things not following in continuity, or the monster may not look as spectacular as James Cameron can pull off with hundreds of millions of dollars. You know people are behind the camera, and the people making the content really care, and they’re really trying as hard as they can to provide a good roller-coaster ride for you.
I think that’s different from a lot of people who are out there, making a lot of movies, low-budget science-fiction or horror, and are just doing it to make a quick buck. They’re just doing it to ride the gravy-train of what they think audiences want to see. There’s a slight difference between those two worlds.
SY: Would you be interested in shooting more documentaries in the future?
AS: Yes! I actually made another documentary this year on the Arts in the Street exhibit at MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, here in Los Angeles, called Outside In. It chronicles the history of street art and graffiti, that I’m now developing into a mini-series for television, which I’m really excited about.
I feel like I have some more ideas for some more bio-documentaries that I would like to do, in the future. Documentaries take a very long time to make, typically. But I’m really excited for 2012, because I’m working on my first narrative feature, to exercise some different muscles in my brain. (laughs) The narrative feature that I’m going to do is very Corman-esque, in spirit and content. It’s an intergalactic love story, that I’m pretty excited to make.
Written by: Karen Benardello