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“Bill Hader is Roger Corman,” said director Joe Dante, standing outside Hollywood’s Vista Theatre on Wednesday night after a sold-out live-read of The Man With Kaleidoscope Eyes, a screenplay about the elder cult filmmaker that Dante has been trying to get produced for 10 years. Since the assembled cast hadn’t done any rehearsal ahead of the recitation, Dante was as surprised as anybody by the Saturday Night Live alumnus’ hilariously dead-on impression of Corman, which fans of both comedy and 1960s genre movies might hope gets committed to film someday.
If it never does, at least the 400 ticketholders inside the Vista will always have this glorified table read. The no-frills production of The Man With Kaleidoscope Eyes was the first in a series called “The Greatest Movies Never Made,” which Cinefamily executive director Hadrian Belove hopes to continue, perhaps on a more modest scale, back at the Cinefamily’s home base of the Silent Movie Theatre. Between the casting of Hader and the fact that the Vista had been looking for an excuse to bring the 90-year-old Corman in to put his handprints in the forecourt, a move-over to the bigger venue was inevitable, and paid off with peels of film-nerd laughter.
The Corman quasi-biopic script also could have served as the opening night for a “Geekiest Movies (N)ever Made” series. Because the unproduced screenplay centers around Corman’s making of The Trip for American International Pictures in 1967 — with an apparently real-life Corman acid trip as its comic centerpiece — it has a big role for a young actor to play that vintage movie’s credited screenwriter, Jack Nicholson, as well as small ones re-creating the legendary likes of Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern, Monte Hellman, Peter Bogdanovich (who was in the Vista audience) and Samuel J. Arkoff, as well as some more fictionalized LSD dealers and go-go girls.
A decade ago, reports emerged that the movie might be made with Colin Firth as Corman; three years ago, it was reported, and then quickly denied, that Quentin Tarantino would play the role. For this incarnation, the Cinefamily and event coproducer SpectreFest brainstormed Hader, and SpectreVision’s Daniel Noah made the call. “He’s got that really square, white-guy vibe, and he’s the right age,” Belove said the morning after the read. “And I knew he was a big film buff. He used to rent at my video store all the time [Cinefile Video, his pre-Cinefamily gig] and between the TCM thing and Documentary Now!, we suspected he would understand why it was cool. It’s a funny kind of character — this kind of cool square who’s also sort of daddish and cheap, getting jokes out of what a good businessperson he is.”
In the script, Corman’s trademark timeliness and thriftiness come up repeatedly (“Punctuality is the soul of business,” he says, early on, juggling three pictures for AIP), and that doesn’t lessen when he’s convinced by Nicholson that he has to experiment with LSD to fully grasp the Trip script before he directs it. After another character assures him that he looks like a narc (“But I’m wearing jeans,” Corman protests), the director tries to make a deal with a dealer: “Here’s our situation. I am not an officer of the law. … I require your product for the simple reason that I am planning a major Hollywood picture on the subject. Every dime we spend on supplies steals a dime from the movie itself. The nature of this transaction is therefore restricted,” he says, offering $1.50 a tab, before finally agreeing to give the hippie an associate producer credit in return for the drugs. Even when he’s eventually tripping, Hader’s Corman maintains the real-life director’s famously sonorous vocal tone, intellectually cataloging everything about the experience (“Heightened awareness … check”). His trip comes in two hours under the time budget, reinforcing the central joke: While Corman is an artist and certainly open to having his consciousness expanded, he’s already on a natural high — stoned on sheer efficiency.
While Hader had to tone down any wildness to play the mild-mannered Corman (and occasionally had to stifle a laugh, as he did in his Stefan/”Weekend Update” days on SNL), he did cut loose just once, going out of character to play Vincent Price, seen on a motel TV injecting himself with drugs in The Tingler, yelling, “The walls! The walls are closing in! The walls!”
Besides showing up for a pre-show handprint ceremony, Corman took the stage toward the end for a closing sequence in which he would play himself, playing tennis with Hader’s younger version. Insiders say Corman already did some filming of his small role, to have in the bank for whenever the film might get a green light. “I kept asking, is Roger really gonna read all those lines?” said Belove. “Is he going to be able to walk up the stairs to the stage? They said, no, he’s great, he goes up and down the stairs all day at the office.”
Belove admitted he got the idea for the “Greatest Movies Never Made” series from being a fan of the LACMA live-reads hosted by Jason Reitman. But those were of existing films, of course, which doesn’t leave as much room for the radio of the mind. “As a programmer, I actually was thinking about what would work at the Silent Movie Theatre that would be nerdy and weird, which is unproduced scripts that I’ve always been curious about,” said Belove. “My first idea was actually to do some elaborate re-creation of Jodorowsky’s Dune [a legendarily aborted project that merited its own documentary in 2013] with a slide show and DJs playing Pink Floyd, trying to evoke it. We did a lot of research and I’ve got a long list of titles: [David Lynch’s] Ronnie Rocket would be fun, or La Brava, an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel Hal Ashby was going to make. Robert Towne wrote an adaptation of John Fante’s Brotherhood of the Grape that was on the list. Obviously we’re kind of drawn to the Hollywood nerdy ones, like Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of the novel Flicker. Larry Cohen did one in the ‘60s where it was going to be Alfred Hitchcock and his composer Bernard Herrmann as detectives, basically, attempting to catch a killer. Who Killed Bambi [the scotched Russ Meyer/Sex Pistols romp] always sounds amazing, although I don’t know if the actual script would be. John Cassavetes was said to have a closet full of 40 unmade scripts, and it would be fun to find one that would be a good fit. But there’s not a director out there who doesn’t have one” — that is, a languishing dream project that it would only take a small village to read out loud.
Unlike most of those Never Mades that Belove mentioned (not to mention Kubrick’s Napoleon and Terrence Malick’s The Moviegoer, a couple he brought up more jokingly at the Vista, in contrast with this comedy’s lesser ambitions), The Man With Kaleidoscope Eyes still has an actual shot. The live-read was produced in conjunction with the October-long SpectreFest, co-presented by the Elijah Wood-co-founded genre specialty company SpectreVision, which is interested in reviving the film. “I’m hoping they will be encouraged to look for more people to come out and give us money,” said Dante. “It’s not that expensive.”
In the meantime, the mid-’60s sense of urgency commemorated in the script — with Sam Arkoff barking, “You mean an LSD picture? Let’s do it now, before the kids start getting high on something else!” — may have to wait on mid-’10s insolvency a little longer.
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