What do Avatar, Arrested Development, The Godfather, Passion Fish, The Silence of the Lambs, Taxi Driver and Gremlins all have in common? They likely would not exist without Roger Corman.
In fact, fans of most any genre would do well to thank Corman. Without the DIY foundation laid by the godfather of independent cinema, there’s no telling the state that modern filmmaking would be in.
Despite the fact that Corman sculpted a new methodology for filmmaking, his legacy tends to thrive under the mainstream surface in the same esoteric circles where his so-awful-they’re-glorious movies dwell. For this reason alone, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel succeeds immensely. This entertaining documentary shows the sheer range of influence the Detroit-born writer, producer and director has wielded on entertainment. For example, what do Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Robert DeNiro, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, William Shatner and Ron Howard all have in common? Answer: Roger Corman.
While the Six Degrees of Corman game is mind-boggling, the narrative behind the man’s B-movie empire is downright surreal. After abandoning a career in engineering and suffering through two years in the Navy, Corman became a story reader at 20th Century Fox. After vetting the Gregory Peck western The Gunfighter with no recognition from Fox, the frustrated auteur went on a reckless B-Movie-making spree for the rest of his life that even sees his schlocky goodness released on the SyFy Channel today.
Director Alex Stapleton isn’t concerned with the psychological whys of the Corman machine so much as the whats. For much of the film, that means conveying the adoration (and occasional frustration) from everyone who’s been absorbed in the notorious producer’s guerilla filmmaking tornado. Corman “went around the sound stage, doing one take on everything…we were happy to be working,” explains Nicholson, who both acted in his first feature and wrote his first script under Corman. Even half of the equipment in the duo’s most notable feature, Little Shop of Horrors , was borrowed from Corman’s personal dentist. This thrift is at the heart of much of what constitutes the legend’s enduring legacy. As much as Corman’s cache of dollar store sci-fi, horror, biker, jailer, grind-house exploitation drive-in fodder gets attention, the producer was a visionary businessman and operations specialist. His shoots produced quick and dirty features without the aid of permits or finesses. (“Your job if the cops come is to pick up the camera and run,” Corman told Dinoshark scribe Francis Doel only a few years ago.) More importantly, almost all of these features earned profits.
This audacious approach not only allowed Corman to make ten films a year—it also fostered the next generation of filmmakers. The fact that these triple-A directors showed up to pay homage to their mentor in a documentary from a first-time director speaks to the emotional bond Corman built with them. The only glaring absence is Cameron, who broke his teeth directing Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. The heart-felt, honest anecdotes from Scorsese and Howard add a natural narrative structure. The undeniable highlight, Nicholson provides candid reverence that never feels mawkish, not even when he breaks into tears near the film’s climax.
These interviews put Corman’s World in the coincidental realm of It’s a Wonderful Life, showing the paradigm shift one auteur created with his hard work and how detrimentally different an entire industry would be without him. As a result, it’s fair to say that anyone who likes movies (any movies) will like this documentary—a beautiful, one-sided love letter to a man who deserves it.
Director: Alex Stapleton
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard & Jonathan Demme
Release Date: December 16, 2011