Cinema of Excess: Alex Stapleton on Roger Corman’s Remarkable Career

Published October 14, 2011

 

ALEX STAPLETON

Five years ago, Alex Stapleton decided to fly to Los Angeles, on a whim, to interview the low-budget movie producer Roger Corman. The man she met was surprisingly mild-mannered, considering Corman is best known for making films about lesbians in prison, mutant dinosaur sharks, flying piranhas, and murderous racecar drivers. But as Stapleton explains, Corman turns out to be a surprisingly worldly and erudite man who has been crucial to the careers of Hollywood’s most legendary directors and the world’s most beloved international art-house filmmakers.

KEN MILLER: What got you started making a documentary about Roger Corman?

ALEX STAPLETON: I read Roger’s autobiography, How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, when I was 19 and decided I wanted to become a filmmaker. The book quickly became my bible, because I never had the chance to go to film school. It was filled with stories about how Roger started his career from scratch, churning out low budget films for teenagers at the drive-ins back in the ’50s. Roger was king of the do-it-yourself technique; he learned how to make movies by making movies. His story was inspirational to me, and whenever I found myself discouraged, I would pick up the book to pump myself up about my decision to become a filmmaker. I had no prior intentions of becoming a documentary filmmaker, but for some reason I felt compelled to tell his story.MILLER: To people who are unfamiliar, how do you explain Corman’s importance to film history?

STAPLETON: Corman is an American independent—he has made over 500 movies outside of the studio system and has managed to survive as an independent filmmaker for the past six decades. Along the way, he helped create the blockbuster cinema that the major studios subscribe to today. He’s also mentored hundreds of hungry kids desperate to catch a break in the movie biz, including Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Francis Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Ron Howard, James Cameron, and Martin Scorsese. The list goes on and on….

MILLER: Is he still on good terms with any of the filmmakers he helped get started?

STAPLETON: Pretty much—I mean, how can they knock the guy they got their start with? Sometimes they might have felt exploited, and there were always disagreements when Roger would refuse to fork over more money for a shoot. However, I think after years go by, you end up looking back fondly to a time when you were young, hungry, and willing to do anything to get a movie made.

MILLER: What led him to start distributing foreign films, and why did he stop?

STAPLETON: Ingmar Bergman was the first foreign filmmaker to ask for Roger’s help. He needed to secure more funding to complete Cries and Whispers. Roger has always been a great lover of foreign cinema and saw a new opportunity. At that time, Roger had been extremely successful with his distribution company, New World Pictures, churning out exploitation titles such as Deathrace 2000, Women in Cages, Private Duty Nurses, and Caged Heat. Roger saw a way to distribute these highbrow foreign pictures as double bills to get people in the theatres. The plan worked, and Cries and Whispers did very well at the drive-in. So he then brought over more foreign pics, like Fellini’s Amarcord, Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H, and Kurosawa’s Dursu Uzala. These pictures made money, and they also received great critical acclaim, winning numerous Oscars. The major studios quickly saw a way to follow his example, basically squeezing Roger out of that game.

MILLER: What do you think keeps him so committed to making these low-budget films?

STAPLETON: I think it’s about continuing to be the master of his own domain. For Roger to stay in business, he has to keep the budgets low so that he never has to depend on anyone bailing him out if a film fails.

MILLER: Do you have a favorite film of his?

STAPLETON: My favorite would probably be Bucket of Blood, a movie that should seriously be remade today.

MILLER: You’ve been touring this film around for several months now—what is the oddest place you’ve ended up?

STAPLETON: Seeing the film play in a theater here in Los Angeles and remembering that it was just this crazy idea I had sitting in my living room in Brooklyn.

CORMAN’S WORLD PREMIERES AT THE NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL ON SUNDAY BEFORE A FULL THEATRICAL RELEASE IN DECEMBER.