Alex Stapleton on ‘Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel’

The director of the new documentary about Hollywood legend Roger Corman reveals the stories and celebrities that didn't make it into the film.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


I met Alex Stapleton in Sundance this year. Her film Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel was playing in the Midnight category, but we met at a screening of Another Earth. We sat next to each other in that film before I had even seen hers. Now the documentary about Roger Corman’s films is coming out and I got to catch up with Stapleton almost a year later.


CraveOnline: Is today’s generation losing this discovery of low budget films that you had in the ‘80s?

Alex Saptleton: No. Yeah, this generation of upcoming filmmakers may not know everything about Hitchcock. They may not know everything about some of the masters that we know about but they know different things. I think as they dig deeper, they’re very curious I feel, I feel like this generation of filmmakers are very, very curious and I think that they just need some guidance of where to go find content, where to go. What’s so great about Roger’s career is that he’s an instant course. He’s so tapped into so many different stories and different worlds and different people that it’s a gold mine for people. If you start investigating his life, you’re going to run into a lot of great nuggets about film history.


What if ‘Sharktopus’ is their only impression of Roger Corman movies?

Well, I guess at least they have an impression. Sharktopus, as crazy as that movie is, it’s still pretty interesting. I was just talking to someone the other day about how Green Lantern came and went but people are still talking about Sharktopus and it came out a while ago now. Like that end bungee scene, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, Roger’s movies have a way of lingering for long periods of time. It’s unfortunate if they don’t dig deeper but I hope that this documentary can service as a tool to encourage younger generations to dig deeper. We’ve played it at different colleges and it’s really amazing. Kids really take to this film. They don’t know a lot of the people in the movie but they understand Ron Howard. They recognize him. They know who Jack Nicholson is but they don’t know the whole backstory. So it’s really fun to put something out there that hopefully they’ll sink their teeth into.


Was he always this concise and level headed? Where did that mentality come from?

Well, I think he was born that way in a way. It’s just his personality. He’s not driven by his ego so he’s not loud. He’s never trying to impress anyone really. He’s slow and steady wins the race. That’s I think the Roger Corman attitude. Because of that, he’s just always very centered and very calm. I think that’s why he’s still making movies at 86, because he remains very calm and he’s dealing with a lot of problems on all of those sets because there’s no money. He just chooses to always stay centered when the set has been completely built the wrong way because the art director has never worked on a feature before, and what not.


How many Roger Corman movies have you still not seen?

Oh, there’s a black hole for me I would say with a lot of his Irish productions in the ‘90s. He had a studio in Ireland for a while. Some of those movies I haven’t seen. There’s pockets of ‘90s movies that I’m not too familiar with and early ‘00s pictures, those movies. But everything from day one through the ‘80s I’m pretty knowledgeable about.


How much time do you actually spend Netflixing and renting and watching those movies?

It took me two years. It was a full time job for two years to watch every single one of those movies, because not only was I watching all of those movies, I was renting the DVDs, listening to the commentaries to get any nuggets of information I could. I was watching the special feature extra documentaries about the making of. I was reading books about him as well as all of his protégés just to pick up on all these stories, so that when I walked into an interview, I would know what to focus on.


I love having jobs like that where I have to watch this. What else can I do? I’m doing a story on this, I have to watch these movies.

Exactly. It was a great excuse to fill my brain up with some very crazy, crazy moments from cinema.


What is it like hooking up with Anchor Bay? They’re kind of in a Roger Corman-esque position with the movies they distribute.

It’s been really great. It’s very interesting because when we first signed on with them, they don’t put out documentaries. This is a doc but it’s a special kind of genre-y doc. But they’ve been really great. They’ve been very encouraging in pushing the movie to hit exactly what Roger kind of encompasses which is highbrow meets lowbrow. Yes, there’s these hardcore genre lovers that will pick Piranha over Jaws. Like me, people like me. But then there’s also this intellectual community of people who also respect Roger’s contributions to the world of cinema. There’s an international acceptance of who he is. He’s loved by the French or by the Brits. So Anchor Bay’s been really good in pushing us into all these different worlds. He gets a write-up in the New York Times but he’s also on some kid’s blog from Iowa who just loves genre cinema. So it’s been really great.


Is that kind of what happened at Sundance too? Because you weren’t in the documentary section, you were in the midnights.

Right, which was I think a first for them. I could be wrong but I don’t think they’ve ever programmed a documentary in their midnight programming. It was really interesting. We kind of don’t fit into a category because there’s so much genre stuff happening in the film. But I think what’s interesting about the movie is it’s not a Machete Maidens movie, it’s not like the Not Quite Hollywood documentary. It’s not a series of fun stories and film clips. There is an arc and there’s an arc to this one man’s story. It gets very emotional and very serious towards the end which I think surprises people when they watch the movie. I don’t think that a lot of people are expecting the movie to go there.


Can you not wait for Mark Hartley’s Cannon films documentary?

I can’t wait to plug into what the heck is happening in the film community at large. I’ve been in such a cocoon and such a bubble from processing hundreds of Roger’s movies to my own film. When this movie comes out, I feel like I’m a free agent again. I haven’t seen anything in the past five years, seriously, that’s current and out there right now.


Well, Cannon Films was another low budget producer and distributor.

Yeah, it will be really interesting to see. There’s lots of these pockets. On the east coast there were things happening and then here [in L.A.] There’s different pockets of the indie story and Roger’s story is just one of those. So anything that’s in that vein is really awesome.


Now that you are a director, what is next for you?

Well, this year I made another documentary about street art and graffiti that was about the installation of the MOCA exhibit Art in the Streets here in L.A. It was a really cool project to get involved with and I kind of fell in love with documenting these artists and that movement. It’s kind of another underdog story. I’m really attracted to underdog stories and the rebels of different worlds. These guys are the rebels of the art world, and of society in general because what they do is illegal. So I’m developing that. We’re going to go into production turning it into a miniseries that will kind of be the history of street art and graffiti which I’m really excited about. On top of that, the narrative feature side of myself, I’m going into production on a science fiction movie in 2012. It’s very Roger Corman in spirit, low budget, science fiction, intergalactic love story that has a really hot girl and kind of unsuspecting male lead who finds himself involved with this crazy alien story.


An original script of yours?



What was your process of writing a script versus gathering documentary material?

It’s been a challenge because it’s exercising similar muscles in your brain but very different ones at the same time. A lot of it is coming from being inspired by watching so many low budget genre movies, specifically Roger’s low budget science fiction pictures. And not just those of Roger but a movie like Brother From Another Planet that John Sayles wrote. He didn’t make that with Roger but it’s definitely a movie that Sayles wrote paying homage or being heavily influenced by his time working and writing for Roger. So I kind of want to take that spirit combined with another movie that I was really inspired by is Hollywood Boulevard, that Joe Dante and Allan Arkush directed which is probably one of my favorite New World movies of all time and just kind of capturing that energy and throwing it into one modern day story. I’m really excited.


Going low budget, would you go CGI or try to do it all practical effects?

We’re going to try to do a lot of it practically because that’s an aesthetic that I think is becoming in fashion again. But there will be CGI. First of all, you have to work with what you have. I’m not James Cameron and I don’t have the CGI budget to pull off effects that the studios are putting out.


Or even Syfy Channel.

We could do Syfy Channel level. I want to do some practical stuff too because I think it’s fun and I like that kind of handmade feeling. It’s going to feel pretty ‘80s in tone.


Have you cast that film yet?

No. It’s happening now so no major news to report just yet.


Did you go after James Cameron for a Corman’s World interview?

We did and unfortunately he wasn’t able to participate due to his schedule with Avatar.


Who else didn’t make the movie but might be on the DVD?

Oh, David Crosby, Monte Hellman, Tom Hanks.


You cut Tom Hanks!

Yeah, never worked with Roger but he was interviewed. Nancy Sinatra, more time with Gale Anne Hurd, Catherine Hardwicke. Steve Carver who was a really great New World director that made The Arena and a couple of other pictures with Roger. Oh, Clint Howard. That was really sad when I had to cut Clint Howard’s interview. More time with Irv Kershner. He only gets a little snippet but we had a great time with him.


That’s priceless now.

Oh yeah, like unbelievably priceless. There’s a handful of people that have passed away and we were the last people to talk to them. Irv Kershner was one. David Carradine, I was the last person to interview him before he passed. George Hickenlooper passed away unfortunately. He was actually in the middle of promoting Casino Jack when that happened. Polly Platt is not with us anymore, and Dennis Hopper said yes to an interview but we weren’t able to get to him in time. That’s another reason why securing some of these interviews with people like Peter Bogdanovich and Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, it’s really great that we got them and they spent a lot of time really going into depth about this really special period in cinema.


Could it be another 90 minutes of material as bonus features?

Oh my God, yes. I’m, not fighting, but I’m in war right now trying to convince these guys to give me like six DVDs to fill with content. I want it to be epic because it needs to be out there. It’s important information that should not just be sitting in a computer stored on a hard drive. It needs to come out.


Are there a lot more Nicholson stories?

Oh my God, yeah. Some of the great ones that we had to cut had to do with the shooting in Ride the Whirlwind that he did with Monte Hellman. Monte Hellman was great too. He did those films with Jack and then he did a movie called The Cockfighter starring Warren Oates that’s just one of the best production stories ever told. Monte had a big history with Roger. Monte started working for Roger in the ‘50s, in the late ‘50s as an editor and directed his first movie called Beast from the Haunted Cave. Roger was on location, he was in Dakota and had given his brother the go ahead to get two movies off the ground and he was like, “You know what? I think we can squeeze a third in there while we‘ve got everyone on location. He gave Monte the honors of directing that film. So yeah, there’s a lot.


Did you make any changes since the film played at Sundance?

Yes, we took about 10 minutes out of the film. I wanted to take time out. Roger wasn’t involved with the choices I made of what made the picture and what didn’t, but he did suggest it’s too long. I agreed so I went in and carved out some time so I’m really happy that we got it down to 90 minutes. I want people to want to go out and explore his movies and more about him on their own.


Would the greatest compliment be that I watched the movie and wrote down titles I want to watch later?

You just made my day. That’s the best comment that anyone can say because that’s the point. That’s really the point of all of this.