Temecula, a growing population center in Riverside County, California, today would be called suburbia. But back in 1974, Temecula was the real deal: a rural outpost far from anywhere. That’s why it became a principal location for a classic New World Pictures Depression-era crime romp, Big Bad Mama. Angie Dickinson starred as the sexy heroine; William Shatner and Tom Skerritt played her partners in crime and in bed. At the helm was Steve Carver, not only one of New World’s most promising young directors but indisputably the best-looking. (Forty years have passed, but Steve still has dazzling blue eyes that even Paul Newman might have envied.) I recently got together with Steve and his canine best friend, a sweet-natured Australian shepherd named Indiana, to wax nostalgic about his Roger Corman years.
Steve came to filmmaking by way of art and photography. A documentary he’d shot in grad school got him admitted to the American Film Institute, then in its second year of trying to give talented young people a bridge into the industry. In that era the twelve AFI fellows (including David Lynch and one token female) met informally at historic Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. There Steve talked turkey with such masters as Alfred Hitchcock, and came to regard both Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck as personal mentors. AFI taught him a key lesson: movies need to be not just arty but also entertaining. When his final AFI project, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” caught the eye of Roger Corman, Steve was ready to plunge into Corman’s wacky world of commercial filmmaking.
After a stint dreaming up New World ad spots (“A thousand pounds of hot steel throbbing between their legs!”), Steve was sent off to Rome to direct a female gladiator flick called The Arena. (Becoming friendly with Fellini, who was shooting Amarcord on an adjoining set, was an unexpected dividend.) In Rome perhaps his biggest challenge was respecting the superstitions of the local crew. But back home in California to make Big Bad Mama, he was suddenly working with big-name stars. The delightful Angie Dickinson approached the requisite nude scenes with cheerful audacity. Shatner, on the other hand, covered his privates with gaffer’s tape and generally refused to loosen up. He was also touchy about his toupée, which rambunctious co-star Skerritt enjoyed knocking askew.
Steve made two more films with Corman connections: Capone (starring Ben Gazzara and up-and-comer Sylvester Stallone) and Fast Charlie, The Moonbeam Racer, on which he developed a high regard for the “quirky professionalism” of David Carradine. He also shot big-budget epics like Drum, a steamy melodrama set in the ante-bellum South. And increasingly over the years he was asked by studio honchos to take charge of overseas productions that had stalled. But coming onto a set to replace an ousted director could be daunting: “I hated the feeling of being hated.” Eventually, a few double-crosses further soured his feelings toward the industry. “Roger spoiled me,” he says now. Big-league producers and financiers, often two-faced, “wore me down and chased me back to doing photography.”
That’s why he currently devotes his days to fine-art portraiture. He’s especially fond of old-school techniques that require long exposures. He plans to publish a book called The Dying Breed, highlighting the formal portraits he’s taken of some of Hollywood’s old guard. The aim is to “capture an image of these character actors to preserve their legacy.” His late friend David Carradine, for one, lives on in a photo (above) that speaks volumes. As Steve now believes, “You can only capture truth with a still camera.”
Here’s a small gallery of photos of and by Steve Carver:
|Steve Carver directing Capone|
|On the set of Drum, Steve with Yaphet Kotto and boxing champ Ken Norton|
|Steve's formal photo of the Capone cast, featuring Ben Gazzara and the young Sylvester Stallone|
|New World cheesecake: Margaret Markov and Pam Grier in The Arena|
|Man's Best Friend: Indiana (Steve tells me she has a blue merle coat and speaks five languages fluently)|