Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Steve Carver: Director, Photographer, Dog-Lover, Mensch

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) 


  1. I have known Steve for 38 years and totally agree with his good looks and awesome eyes. He also made some exciting movies with many famous name actors.

  2. Great photographs! The David Carradine portrait is amazing. I have seen half of Mr. Carver's films - and most of the other half are in my video vault for eventual watching. I just saw Mr. Carver in Machete Maidens Unleashed - and here is he is hanging out at your blog!

    Big Bad Mama is my favorite, and I think Steel is an underrated gem.

    I wish he would make more movies - but when someone finds that their true calling lies elsewhere - I'm happy that he's capturing that truth with his still camera. Thanks for the entertainment, Mr. Carver!

    And thank you, Ms. G - for shining the spotlight on a talented man whose work I enjoy.

  3. Darlene, a hearty welcome to Beverly in Movieland! Your last name is a hint that you're not completely unbiased when it comes to all things Steve, but you and I do share an honest admiration for this very special guy. I cover a wide range of movie topics on this site, with a special fondness for the many Roger Corman movies on which I worked over the years. I do hope you will stop back often!

    And thank you, Mr. C., for your enthusiasm!

  4. I've seen some of the photographs from The Dying Breed. The images are forceful, yet the depth and quality are exquisite.

  5. I quite agree. I love the images I've seen, but hope to see others. I understand Steve has photographed the late, great Karl Malden, and he told me a terrific story about shooting Jan-Michael Vincent, so I'm hoping to see those portraits too.

  6. would you believe that he was a summer counselor in Ny when I was a teenager in the 60's. I still rmember those gorgeous blue eyes.!! I's love to see him again. since I live in southern California now, I wish it were so. Please pass my e-mail info to him. thanks Malka

  7. Beverly, great to reconnect. As it happens I used to write movie reviews for my local newspaper. Now I tweet them under #MovieReviews. I love movies in their own right, but find I learn so much about writing from them.

    Carolyn Howard-Johnson

  8. Lovely to see you here, Carolyn. I'll check out your tweets. And do visit Movieland again!

  9. In 1970 I was a bright eyed kid from NY aspiring to be an actor and majoring in the Dramatic Arts, I met Steve through my Uncle LaReau who was living near San Bernardino. Even then, I sensed Steve had great talents and was destined for greatness. I will always cherish our time together. I'd love to sit and converse with him again sometime. He truly is a caring, sharing human being.

  10. So nice of you to write, John. I'll pass your comment along to Steve. And do drop in on Beverly in Movieland again soon!