For her first feature film, director Alex Stapleton narrowed her camera lens on the work of unsung iconic independent filmmaker Roger Corman. It took five years for her to create the entertaining new documentary Corman’s World. In it, Stapleton celebrates Corman's nearly six decades in the business, and his B-movie glory, which includes hundreds of films and highlights his contributions to the Blaxploitation and blockbuster film movements.
BET.com spoke to Stapleton about her start in filmmaking, what initially drew her to Corman’s work and why all film fans should be familiar with Roger Corman movies.
You’ve interviewed several Hollywood heavyweights who worked with Roger Corman, like Robert DeNiro, Jack Nicholson, Pam Grier and Martin Scorsese for Corman’s World. When did you realize you wanted to be a director?
I knew from my teenage years I wanted to pursue a career in filmmaking, but I couldn’t afford to go to film school. And I had a group of friends who were all in the same boat. We had one friend who was in NYU film school and she would give us books and we would vicariously take film classes through her. One of the books that I read that [was] like a bible to me was Roger Corman’s autobiography, How I Made 100 Movies in Hollywood And Never Lost a Dime.
So how did you break into the movie business without film school?
I got an internship at a company called the Shooting Gallery. My friends and I used to spend the night at work because we were so obsessed with learning everything that we possibly could. We worked for great producers back in those days that were holding down the independent film scene in New York City. Before I knew it, I was on my first film as a producer for a movie called Just For Kicks, which was about sneaker culture — that was how I got into documentaries.
When did you discover Roger Corman's films?
I was probably like ten or eleven when I introduced to the world of Pam Grier, and the Roger Corman movie that I was really in love with was The Arena. It was about women that were taken in as female gladiators during the Roman Times. Pam was drop-dead gorgeous, she was so in command and she was a total badass. She was really powerful in it, smart and she wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything.
In addition to his work with Grier, Corman made a huge contribution to the '70s Blaxploitation movement. Can you tell us how?
Roger played a huge role [in the success] of Black filmmakers, Black stories, the Black voice in the independent film scene — not only in front of the camera but behind the camera. One film in particular was Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet SweetBack's Baadasssss Song, which many describe as the first Blaxploitation film and started the genre. Roger distributed that movie when no one would really touch it. And by putting that movie out he started this whole new voice that was put in theaters. Roger went on to put out a lot more films in the Blaxploitation genre and was quite successful with it.
And Roger Corman’s only serious film that wasn’t sci-fi or campy was a sobering story about racial intergration in the South.
Roger put out a movie called The Intruders, which was a serious stand about segregated communities. And Roger and his brother, Gene Corman [producer on the film], were against segregation [and] wanted to make a movie spreading a message about how wrong it was. They used their own personal finances, went down south — when most people shot their films in Los Angeles — and filmed The Intruders in 1961, which starred William Shatner. I made it a very serious point of bringing that out [in Corman’s World] and also taking the time to tell the story about the filming of The Intruders, which included Roger and his brother getting death threats over the movie's subject matter.
Do you believe the low-budget, campy, monster and space B-movies that Corman is best known for inspired such classic '70s blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars?
It didn’t just start with Jaws and Star Wars — there’s a whole buildup to why those movies worked. And Roger was making a lot of these films and created this formula that was adopted by people with more money and more power and more control over the theatrical game.
So did these beloved blockbuster films take over and change the game for independent filmmakers like Roger Corman?
It’s kind of sad: Roger ended up representing the American independent filmmaker and as a result the blockbuster completely squeezed out the independent voice. But at the end of the day, it’s all okay. There will be another movement — it’s already happening. The new voices are out there and they’re finding new ways to get their films out there. There’s a whole movie world online, so it’s all part of the course.
Corman’s World will be released in theaters December 16.
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