iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Alex Stapleton


Tales From the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking

Posted: 12/14/11 10:27 AM ET

In my interview with Peter Bogdanovich, he best explains what it's like working for Roger Corman: "Roger just throws you into the water and if you learn how to swim great and if you don't well too bad!" This played over and over in my head on my way down to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to capture Corman on set while he filmed his latest film, Dinoshark. I was at the tail end of shooting my first film, a documentary about Corman's life and career called Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (which opens in theaters on December 16!).

Saying Corman makes movies on a shoestring is a giant understatement -- to him, corner cutting is an art form. How else could he have made over 300 independent films in his lifetime? Films, of course, that usually feature scantily clad women, some sort of monster, and on a good day a disaster of epic proportions. I interviewed dozens of writers, actors, producers and directors who started their careers working for Corman. People like Peter Bogdanovich, Ron Howard, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Catherine Hardwicke, and Martin Scorsese all shared countless war stories with me about Roger cutting down budgets whenever he could. Nicholson summed it up best, "If you don't understand money in the motion picture business, it's like an artist that doesn't understand paint. And Roger told me, 'Well I understand paint so if I have to, [I] thin her up with turpentine or there's no picture!"

My producer, Stone Douglass, had approved a small budget for my crew and I to travel down to Mexico and follow Roger around for one week. We met Roger's entire crew on the first day at a resort in Nuevo Vallarta called Paradise Village that was chosen because every single location in the script could be shot there.

Everyone had at least four different jobs. One production assistant was handling catering, casting, transportation, assisting with special effects, recording sound and also served as a Spanish to English translator. The line producer doubled as the First AD while simultaneously acting as one of the main characters in the film. You got to hand it to him, Roger's not afraid to multitask either. He also played a role in Dinoshark as the astute scientist who pieces together that the underwater villain is actually a prehistoric shark. One minute you'd see him in the corner rehearsing his lines with the leading lady and the next minute he's yelling at her for taking too much time in hair and makeup.

As you might have guessed, only two days had passed before my crew and I were enlisted -- no, maybe drafted is the appropriate verb here. We were asked to shoot some visual effects plates, a task I wore like a badge of honor.

I took notes on other ways Corman saved money. For starters, this was an action movie with no stuntmen. Luckily the actors had enough experience and were willing to pull off their own stunts. Problem was, I had been in Mexico for a week already and had no footage of classic Corman elements: no blood, no gore, and most importantly, no dinoshark. I couldn't leave without getting this stuff, but my budget had run dry. I had to make a quick decision: I sent my crew home and made a deal with Roger to stay. He granted me a shared accommodation with one of the production assistants in exchange for assisting with recording and shooting second unit. While he was at it, he made me an extra in a few scenes. All this as I was shooting and doing sound for my own film! This was great in theory but I had never recorded audio and was still a beginner with the camera. My DP and sound mixer gave me speedy tutorials before they left the country. I tried to act cool and calm as best as I could but I was totally freaking out inside. I was a 29 year-old female and being left behind in Mexico ... oh yeah, and this was right when that whole drug war was just starting up. I couldn't believe that I had agreed to share a room with someone I barely knew. Sigh. It was time to start swimming.

The visual effects person finally arrived into town with his treasure chest of fake blood, severed body parts, bloody heads and of course, the dinoshark. My prayers had been answered but now I had to stay focused and remember how to shoot. Admittedly, the first few days were rough. Rookie mistakes included forgetting to turn the audio on, shooting with blown out exposure settings, and forgetting to press record! I even had a few moments on boats where the waves completed came on board splashing up against my equipment. The camera crew felt sorry for me and helped me out with a plastic trash bag contraption that would keep my camera dry from then on. This is actually the first time I have told anyone about that because we did not have water damage insurance, couldn't afford it. My producers made me promise never to go in the water ... but I was on a Corman set ... permission and permits don't apply here.

After a month down in Mexico, I got what I was looking for. For my documentary I wanted cool behind the scenes moments of what it's like to make a monster film with Roger. But off-camera I got the biggest lesson of all. I learned how to shoot, record sound, produce, and in general, look out for my own safety.

I also had wrapped shooting on my first film as a director. I was walking away with amazing footage but also invaluable lessons about how make a movie through my time spent watching Corman and living through one of his pictures.

On the plane ride home I realized that I had now graduated from the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking. I had experienced it for myself and I think it was safe to categorize myself as an average swimmer.

Back in LA, it was now time to start editing. A few weeks later I got a call from Roger asking me for those visual effects plates. Somehow it had escaped me to send them over which I apologized for. We briefly caught up about what was going on with him. He was terrifically excited because he had just figured out how to squeeze another film out of his prized Paradise Village location. Title: Sharktopus.