Exploiting Feminism: An Interview with Stephanie Rothman (Part One)

The Viennale (the Vienna International Film Festival) will be organizing a special tribute this year to filmmaker Stephanie Rothman. They will be showing a range of Rothman’s works, including Group Marriage (1973), Terminal Island (1973), The Student Nurses (1970), The Velvet Vampire (1971), and The Working Girls (1974). Here’s what they have to say about her work on the festival’s website:

In the mid-1960s the young director Stephanie Rothman started to work as the first and only woman at the time at Roger Corman’s “New World Pictures”.

Rothman launched an impressive and highly successful debut with The Student Nurses in 1970, the story of a group of attractive nurses told in a previously unknown, ironic and intelligent combination of sexploitation and social criticism, nudity and a feminist brand of “girls and guns”.

In the mid-1970s Rothman made her last film and then fell into oblivion – and with her one of the most headstrong and interesting women of American cinema of the 1960s and 70s.

Because I had written an essay about Rothman, which appears in The Wow Climax, I was invited by the festival’s director to do an interview with her for the festival program. They have been nice enough to allow me to reproduce the interview here for my regular readers. Here, Rothman provides some interesting background on what it was like to work for Corman in the 1970s and about the claims made for her work by feminist critics.

If you want to get a taste for how Rothman’s films were marketed, you can check out the trailer for The Velvet Vampire over at YouTube.

Roger Corman was an early mentor for you. What did you learn from your work with Corman?

Roger Corman was not an early mentor, he was the only mentor I ever had. It was he who first offered me work as a filmmaker and I will always be grateful to him for that. He hired me in the fall of 1964, when it was rare for anyone who did not have family connections to find employment in the film industry, in or outside of the jurisdiction of the labor unions. It was even rarer for a woman to be hired. It was traditional to exclude us from nearly all types of work behind the camera.

I met Roger because I was the first woman to ever win the Directors Guild of America Fellowship, which was awarded annually to the director of a student film. He hired me as his assistant and put me to work immediately on low-budget independent films that he was personally financing, or that he had bought completed but that still needed further improvement. I did everything: write new scenes, scout locations, cast actors, direct new sequences and edit final cuts. It was a busy, exhilarating time.

Roger did not teach me these skills, I learned them in film school. But he did share his greater experience with me, giving me useful criticism and, equally important, information on how to efficiently organize work on the set so that a film could be shot on schedule. The schedules he set were much shorter than those of the major studios. Since it was his own money he was using, Roger did not want a film to go either over schedule or over budget.

He also taught me a valuable lesson in psychology: he encouraged me, often expressing his confidence in my abilities, and I therefore tried to do the best work for him that I could. It worked to my advantage too, because less than a year after I began working for him, in the fall of 1965, he financed It’s A Bikini World, the first full-length theatrical feature film that I co-wrote and directed.

Corman had a number of women working for his company in those days. Was there a gender divide behind the scenes or did the male and female directors, both of whom were emerging from the film schools for the most part, support each other’s work?

There were no women hired by him to work in production, while I was directing. I was the first woman he ever hired to direct, and the very small number of women who directed films for him after me, made them long after I was gone.

There was no gender divide and no mutual support when I worked there, because directors met each other infrequently and it was usually in the process of passing each other coming in or out of meetings with Roger. We were all involved in our own projects and there were no shared working spaces, such as offices or sound stages. Furthermore, our backgrounds and areas of interest, judging by our films, were different.

Many of those who worked with Corman describe a kind of compromise–work within exploitation formulas and in return gain a certain degree of ideological and creative control over your work. How do you think that balance between genre constraints and creative freedom influenced your work?

In 1970, Roger started his own production and distribution company, New World Pictures. He invited me to direct the first picture to be made there. It was called The Student Nurses. My husband, Charles Swartz, co-produced and co-wrote the story with me. We made it while Roger was out of the country, directing a film of his own, Von Richthofen and Brown, so we were free to develop the story of the nurses as we wished, as long as there was enough nudity and violence distributed throughout it. Please notice, I did not say sex, I said nudity. This freedom, once I paid my debt to the requirements of the genre, allowed me to address what interested me–and continues to interest me today– political and social conflicts and the changes they produce. It allowed me to have a dramatized discussion about issues that were then being ignored in big-budget major studio films: for example, a discussion about the economic problems of poor Mexican immigrants–who were and still are America’s largest immigrant population– and their unhappy, restive children; and a discussion about a woman’s right to have a safe and legal abortion when, at the time, abortion was still illegal in America. I have always wondered why the major studios were not making films about these topics. What kind of constraints were at work on them? My guess is that is was nothing but the over-privileged lives, limited curiosity and narrow minds of the men, and in those days they were always men, who decided which films would be made.

But, to return to your question: How do I think the balance between genre constraints and creative freedom influenced my work? There was always a struggle in my mind between the two. I would have covered the same topics, but made the films very differently, if I had not had these constraints. I knew it then. But I tried not to be discouraged and, as I said in answer to an earlier question in this interview, I tried to do the best I could.

The Student Nurses was very successful. Some critics welcomed its unapologetic feminism. It made a lot of money for Roger and he wanted me to make a sequel to it, but I wasn’t interested. I had said all I wanted to about student nurses, and so he hired a series of male directors to make the sequels.

I never watched them, so I cannot say if they contained any feminist ideas. But the lesson Roger derived from my film’s success was that you could make exploitation films whose narratives included contentious social issues, including feminism, and he consequently encouraged his directors to do it.

What did it mean to you to be working within the exploitation genre? Were there aspects of that formula that created discomfort for you? Were there special opportunities you saw there?

I was never happy making exploitation films. I did it because it was the only way I could work. While I do not object to violence or nudity in principle, the reason audiences came to see these low-budget films without stars was because they delivered scenes that you could not see in major studio films or more supposedly ambitious independent American films. (Today, of course, you can see these scenes and more, but we are talking about standards operative in the mid-nineteen sixties to seventies when I was working.) Exploitation films required multiple nude scenes and crude, frequent violence. My struggle was to try to dramatically justify such scenes and to make them transgressive, but not repulsive. I tried to control this through the style in which I shot scenes. That was one of my greatest pleasures, determining how my style of shooting could enhance the content of a scene. Comedy was another method of control I used. I have always enjoyed writing and directing comedy– I was, in fact, more comfortable working in a comic idiom than a dramatic one–and so I also used comedy to modulate a scene’s tone. Visual style and comic invention were my personal salvation or, as you put it in your question, the “special opportunity” to escape what troubled me about the exploitation genre.