Movie-Crazy: A Conversation with Allan Arkush

In 1970, legendary filmmaker Roger Corman founded New World Pictures, an independent studio that produced and distributed everything from B-movies and exploitation films to acclaimed foreign art-house fare by Federico Fellini, François Truffaut, and Ingmar Bergman. It became a breeding ground for eager cinephiles looking to get their start working in Hollywood, and among them was Allan Arkush, who began his career editing trailers for Corman and codirecting B-movies before getting his big break helming Rock ‘n’ Roll High School in 1979. A raucous musical comedy about a group of rebellious, rock-obsessed teenagers who overthrow their tyrannical principal with a little help from the Ramones, the film was a counterculture sensation beloved by moviegoers and music lovers alike.

Nearly forty years later, we’re featuring Rock ‘n’ Roll High School on the Criterion Channel as part of our latest Adventures in Moviegoing program, which includes a new interview with Corman and highlights from New World’s catalogue, including Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 and Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. I hopped on the phone with Arkush to chat about the cinema-obsessed world in which Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was born and his experience working for Corman.

Tell me about your initial impulse to make Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. Was it a love of music?

I started collecting albums because I felt there was a voice for my feelings in those records. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Rolling Stones—all of their classic records spoke to me. Music was a major social connective tissue for the baby boom generation. It all crystallized for me on a night in July 1964, when I went to see A Hard Day’s Night. It left a profound impact on me. When my parents asked me about the movie afterward, I said, “I think it was really well-directed.” I was aware that someone had controlled what was on-screen in a very specific way, and that was something that I knew a little bit about but had never experienced in such a personal way.

I’d seen things like Lawrence of Arabia, westerns, West Side Story, all that stuff, but they were so exotic to me. I hadn’t actually thought about directors and what they were thinking when they made their films. But here, someone had taken the Beatles and made them look joyous, expressing an antiestablishment point of view.

When I was in college, at NYU’s film school, I worked at the Fillmore East, which was on Second Avenue and Sixth Street. This was from 1968 to 1971. It was the premier rock theater in New York, and all of the great bands and artists would go there: the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Janis Joplin. I was an usher in the theater, and my position was right at the top of the aisle, next to the lobby. Tickets were only two dollars and fifty cents, so there was a crowd of people that used to come in on the cheapest tickets and then hang around in the lobby and watch the show from there.

How did you go from being a film student to meeting Roger and becoming an editor at New World Pictures?

In the late sixties, NYU’s film school was very small, and we had an interesting body of students who went on to become big filmmakers. We had one teacher named Haig Manoogian, who was a mentor to all of us, and his number one student was Martin Scorsese—Raging Bull is dedicated to him. When one of the teachers got fired, Scorsese was asked to come teach a class at NYU a year or two after he graduated, so a lot of us were in his class. A lot of the same people also worked at the Fillmore East because NYU was literally on the other side of the wall of the theater. There was one guy named Jon Davison, who was a big Roger Corman fan—I learned about Roger from him. Two years after graduating, another one of us, Jonathan Kaplan, got a call from Corman and an offer to direct a movie out of the clear blue sky. That happened because our teacher, Scorsese, was directing Boxcar Bertha for Roger at the time. Jonathan Kaplan ended up making this movie called Nightcall Nurses, which did really well, and then he got hired right away to do another one called Student Teachers. Then he hired his best friend, Joe Dante, to come out and work for Roger too.

I was doing rock ‘n’ roll lighting in England, and when I came back to the States, I heard that these guys were having this great break. That’s just how things happened then. Roger hired Francis Coppola on a blind call to UCLA’s film school! So I saved up my money from driving a cab, came out to L.A., and Jon Davison got me a job in Corman’s editing room.

We were all doing post-production for him, which was essentially editing trailers and TV spots, color correcting, and doing the mixing. Joe Dante and Jon Davison were so important because they were not only supportive as my good friends and people I worked with, but they were extremely knowledgeable about film and collected movies. It was like they had their own Criterion Collection, but it was on 16 mm.

What kind of movies were you watching?

The Searchers, Only Angels Have Wings, Red River, His Girl Friday—a lot of classics. These were the movies they bought on the black market. I got to see all of Roger’s movies because they owned many of them. We also saw a lot of foreign pictures and went to the repertory theaters. Roger had all these fanatic film buffs working for him. We were like a religious order, but instead of praying every day, morning, noon, and night, we watched movies.

When I first started working there, Roger had just bought Cries and Whispers and was distributing it, and we had to go check the color on it. Then we saw Truffaut’s Small Change, which Roger distributed and we edited the trailer for. It was terrific, except it’s all about little kids and doesn’t have the usual hooks. We talked about cutting a trailer that shows that the kids are playing archetypes that Truffaut had used in his other movies because he’s a true auteur. Who would do that?! It was the best way to sell the movie, and Roger agreed because he understood our approach and trusted us. We were also doing trailers for people like Jonathan Demme and Paul Bartel. In retrospect, it seems utopian, but we were all working for two hundred bucks a week and all trying to become directors or editors. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School came out of that context.

Did you conceive of the film with classic Hollywood musicals in mind?

Yes, I wanted to do a musical. The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire—I love that movie. In a way, the musical number “Do You Want to Dance” is my homage to that film. We tried as best we could, in the three hours we had to shoot the number, to give it that Hollywood feeling, with front lighting and bright colors. I was a fanatic record collector, so I started thinking of bands to be in the movie, and one of the bands that I loved at that moment was the Ramones. When Rocket to Russia came out, I thought that was one of the greatest records I’d ever heard.

At that time, the Ramones were really obscure. They were known at CBGB and in New York, but they’d had no success on the radio. I always thought their lyrics were very funny, and that’s what I was looking for. When we were editing the movie, record companies sent us a lot of music to try out, and as much as I love the Clash, which was a band that was just starting to happen, it was the wrong tone. “White Riot” is too strong and has too much anguish to play while the kids are having a food fight.

What was it like working with the Ramones and shooting those concert scenes?

On set, they were kind of bored. You have to remember that everyone who was working on Rock ‘n’ Roll High School had only worked on one or two movies. Everyone was like twenty-five years old and out of film school, so we worked as fast as we could. The Ramones would come in, and we’d put them in an empty classroom and give them a black-and-white TV and they’d have to hang around. But for the concert scenes, we shot for over twenty hours to get those six songs and get the scenes in the club. We filmed them doing each of the songs twice, two takes with three cameras, and the Ramones decided which takes they liked better and which sounded better musically. Then we’d do it once or twice more, and we’d move the crowd around.

The only way we could afford to stage the crowd with extras, because we couldn’t afford to pay them, was if we actually charged them money to be in the movie. We distributed flyers that said, “Be in a Ramones movie! $1.50.” If you look at the crowd in the scenes inside the theater, it’s all members of the seminal L.A. punk bands of the period, like the Germs. I was trying to capture the intensity of a great rock ‘n’ roll show and how that can be transcendent.

Joey Ramone was a very sweet guy and very funny. We became longtime friends and had similar tastes in music. He grew up on the same radio station that I did, so there was a lot of common ground between us. Johnny Ramone knew everything about horror movies, so that was also common ground. They came over to my house and we’d watch movies, and they’d see my record collection and comment on how many shitty albums they thought I had.

How does it feel now to look back on your days at New World?

Working for New World Pictures with Roger was the best graduate school I could ever have had. Roger really gave me my first break. Everyone who worked there was crazy in love with movies, and in that sixties generation, there was excitement about all these foreign films coming to the States and about film school starting. You never realize while it’s happening, but it was a golden period for us. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was the peak of that. New World was an indie company, and we were the outsiders. It was wonderful to be a part of it with someone who was such a great mentor.

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