Allan Arkush’s lifetime passion for rock music and film, have led him to some incredible places. His musical education was forged by the New York City airwaves. A position at Fillmore East from 1968 to the early ’70s, allowed him to soak in the magic of the nearly every legendary rock act of the time. His journey eventually led him to film school where he forged the bonds that would last a lifetime. He soon made the jump to California in the hopes of blazing his own trail in the movie business. It wasn’t long before this hungry young artist found himself working for Roger Corman’s legendary B movie company, New World Pictures. It was there where the seeds were planted for what would become one of rock history’s most revered films — Rock ’N’ Roll High School!
Based on Arkush’s own high school fantasy, Rock ’N’ Roll High School quickly developed a devoted following after its release in 1979 and became a mainstay of the midnight movie cult circuit. Arkush, a self-described “unabashed rock ’n’ roll fanatic,” chose the Ramones to star as the film’s musical heroes, as he felt they epitomized pure rock ’n’ roll. Executive produced by Roger Corman, Rock ‘N’ Roll High School boasts performances by the Ramones and stars P.J. Soles (Halloween) in the lead role of Riff Randell, Vince Van Patten (Hell Night), Clint Howard (Grand Theft Auto), Dey Young (Spaceballs), Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000), Dick Miller (Piranha) and Paul Bartel (Hollywood Boulevard).
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Allan Arkush to discuss his amazing career, the making of Rock ’N’ Roll High School and Shout Factory’s 40th Anniversary Edition Steelbook release of the film!
You’ve carved out a truly unique career path, so I wanted to go all the way back to the start. How did you get drawn to the arts?
I grew up in Northern New Jersey in Fort Lee, where the George Washington Bridge is located. My father had tried to make a career as a painter. He had gone to art school, but he couldn’t really do that and support the family. He always had an interest in the arts, as did my mother, who was a Holocaust survivor and lived in France. She had a European cultural background. They took me to museums and things like that. I became obsessed with the music in Walt Disney movies, along with any other movie. To protect themselves, because I kept playing the same record over and over again, they gave me the radio from the kitchen. That radio became my window to the world. I was listening to a DJ named Murray The K, who had a show called the “Swinging Soiree.” We’re talking 1956 or 1957 when I’m in 4th grade or something. I listened to Murray The K every night. My parents also loved movies, so as many people of that era did, you went to the movies together as a family. I distinctly remember seeing North By Northwest and Doris Day in The Thrill of It All. I loved westerns, so my parents recommended that I go see “Shane” when it was reissued.
They also took me to see this incredible movie when I was 13 years old that kind of changed my view of the world. It’s an Indian movie by Satyajit Ray and it’s called The World of Apu. They wanted to see it and they just took my sister and me because they didn’t want to get a babysitter! [laughs] I was 13 years old and I had never seen a foreign movie before, one with subtitles or a culture like what was portrayed in the movie. I don’t know how much of a film fan you are but it’s very much in the style of Italian Neo-Realism, except that it’s Indian. This was Satyajit Ray’s third movie. It kinda shook me up and stayed with me. I started watching whatever my parents recommended and taking in foreign films. My dad loved classic American movies, so he would recommend stuff and I’d watch it. At the same time, there was a show called “Million Dollar Movie.” Now, if you approached all the baby boomer directors and writers from the tri-state area and asked, “What role did Million Dollar Movie have in your life?”…they would all unanimously say that it changed everything! In those days there was syndication but there wasn’t enough material for all the stations. New York had 5 or 6 stations, so in order for them to have programming, they bought these packages of movies and they’d air them. “Million Dollar Movie” had RKO and some foreign pictures, so they would show them 5 times a week. If you liked something, you got into the same habit that my kids had with VHS and DVD, where you’d watch the same movies over and over again. That’s where I saw Citizen Kane, The Red Shoes, and so many other movies. In high school I went to see Citizen Kane, Breathless, and 8 1/2 in a theater and I was hooked!
Meanwhile, I was also a music fan because of Murray The K. When I saw The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that was it! A Hard Day’s Night was the movie where I realized that someone actually directed movies because it seemed someone had taken the music and found the visual equivalent. That was something that had never occurred to me before. That was the big awakening for me!
When did you realize that your passion for film was something you wanted to pursue professionally?
When I was in high school, I went to see my guidance counselor. This was 1965. I was a junior, it was the end of the school year, and he wanted to know what colleges I might think about applying to and what I interested in. At the time, they had this insane psychological survey they did of you to tell you what they thought you were interested in. He said, “What would you like to study?” I said, “Is it possible to study movies? I love film and movies.” He looked at me like I had lost my fucking mind, ya know! [laughs] He had to look it up because he didn’t know if you could do that. He found in whatever books he had that there were 4 colleges that taught film at the time. Those schools were NYU, USC, UCLA and Boston University had a documentary division. My parents didn’t let me do that and I ended up going to Pennsylvania for a year before transferring to NYU film school. I was exactly where I wanted to be at that point in time. I was living in the East Village in the late 60s. Allen Ginsberg lived two blocks away from me and the Fillmore East was 3 blocks away from me. It was truly a great time to be there!
I was collecting records and I had been a DJ on the college radio station, I got a job at the Fillmore and now I was working with all the great live bands, all while studying film at NYU. It was all these things and it was ideal for me. I mean, I didn’t have two nickels to rub together but it didn’t matter! On weekends, every Friday and Saturday, I would work 4 shows at the Fillmore. I saw combinations like Miles Davis, Steve Miller and Neil Young with Crazy Horse. That was one show! The Allman Brothers and The Grateful Dead were another show. Then there was Traffic and Cat Stevens. The list goes on and on with all of these fabulous shows, which I was on the stage crew for eventually. I was within 15 feet of all of this amazing music. I saw the first Led Zeppelin tour, the first time The Who did “Tommy.” I saw all the classic older acts like B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Jefferson Airplane. I could just go on and on!
Once you start down the path as a filmmaker, when do things start to break for you professionally?
At the time I started film school, as far as me and my friends knew, there was only one person who had ever gone to film school and directed a movie. That turns out to be not true but that’s all we knew, and that person was Francis Coppola. He came and spoke at the school and was really inspirational. He was telling us that we had to go outside the system because Hollywood didn’t care about you. Right around that time, Roger Corman had hired Francis and all these other people like Peter Bogdanovich. Movies were changing and you had movies like The Trip and The Wild Angels. The Graduate made a big difference. There were more movies that were not just B-pictures aimed at us. I got very involved with foreign pictures. When I graduated from film school, I didn’t have a job, so I continued working at the Fillmore. That’s where I started doing psychedelic lighting for rock and roll shows. Have you ever seen those liquids behind the bands from that era?
Yes, absolutely. I had always wondered who was doing that.
That’s me! That’s me! [laughs] I was in a group called Joe’s Lights and we were the premiere ones at the Fillmore East. We were doing that, then moved to England to do that and then I went broke! The light show collapsed, and I ended up back in New York City driving a cab with no prospects. That’s when a friend of mine from film school, Jonathan Kaplan, through our film teacher had been recommended to Roger Corman. Jonathan worked at the Fillmore East and went to film school at NYU. A film that Jonathan had directed, for virtually no money and two weeks of prep, had come out. That movie was called Night Call Nurses. Roger was distributing and making these movies. He had gone into business for himself rather than work for any other company. Thank God, Night Call Nurses made some money and Jonathan got hired to do Student Teachers. At that point, he brought out some of us from film school. Like I said, I was in New York City driving a cab when I spoke to a friend of mine, Jon Davison, who I also went to film school and worked at the Fillmore with. He told me that he was working for Roger Corman as an assistant. Roger’s company, which was New World Pictures was composed of, aside from the upper level people, was entirely composed of film students. We worked for nothing because we were movie crazy! I drove my cab until I had saved up enough money. I can give you the date! On October 4th, 1973, I landed in Los Angeles to start the next part of my life! About 4 months later, I got a job in the New World Pictures editing room as an assistant! Then I started editing trailers with Joe Dante. After about a year and a half, that same group people, did a movie called Hollywood Boulevard. Jonathan Kaplan is in it, Jon Davison produced, and Joe and I co-directed it. That movie cost about $75,000. For directing it, we got paid $85! And that movie is still playing! [laughs] That’s how things got started for me, piece by piece. I worked for Roger for 5 years and over that period of time, I gained his trust. He thought I was talented, along with Joe and Jon. I kept asking him about doing a high school musical and, eventually, that is how Rock ‘N’ Roll High School happened.
What were some of the early lessons you learned that would impact the course of your career?
Let me see. In film school, I learned the basics. I learned a lot from my teachers. My film history teacher and film production teacher were one in the same. There was a shortage of film teachers at the time and I completely lucked up by having Marty Scorsese be that person. He was also my faculty advisor. He was 25 years old and he had just made “Who’s That Knocking On My Door.” He had this way of teaching where film history and filmmaking were combined. They were inseparable! They were two halves of the same thing. That has been a guiding thing for me for my entire career, where I use film history as my inspiration, and I learn from it. I think all of use filmmakers are part of this whole history of film. That was a huge lesson!
Another lesson was when I was doing the light show and a new band came to the Fillmore East. That band was Derek and The Dominos with Eric Clapton. I had seen Eric Clapton play with Cream and play solo. I didn’t know the set that he would play with Derek and The Dominos and I was doing the light show that weekend. So, I wanted to learn the songs and figure out what their setlist might be. I stood on the side of the stage as they did their soundcheck. Watching Eric Clapton play, even though he was only 3 years older than I was, his mastery of his instrument to make his art was phenomenal. He never looked at his hands! He looked at the other musicians and he closed his eyes for inspiration, but he was able to channel all his creativity through his tool, which was his guitar. It just kind of came to me that if I was ever going to be a good director, I had to learn how to direct without looking at my hands. I had to master what it took to get all of those moving parts and all of those department heads focused on what it was I wanted to create and convey that to them in their language. Film is made up of crews from the art department, a set dressing department, costumes, editors, on and on. All of these different departments speak their own language and have their own systems. I have to be able to utilize that to get my vision across.
That was the challenge and it took 20 years. I was producing and directing a TV series called Shannon’s Deal, which had Jamey Sheridan and Elizabeth Pena in it and the music was by Wynton Marsalis. As a producer on it, I had to step in at one point and direct an episode where I didn’t have any prep. I actually sat there with the script, read it and marked off what all the shots should be. That’s the moment I realized that I could think in cinematic terms and it was now second nature. That was the other big lesson!
Rock ‘N’ Roll High School is truly iconic. It’s celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. You mentioned that you had wanted to do a movie early in your career. Tell us a little about how this dream became a reality.
The original idea came to me in high school. I always dreamed of a band coming to my high school to play and that band would have been the Rolling Stones or The Yardbirds. When I was working for Roger Corman, I really wanted to do a high school movie and he said I could! With a really excellent writer named Joe McBride, we wrote a script. Joe did the script based on these notes that Joe Dante and I had given. We had done an outline and then Joe McBride did the first 3 or 4 drafts of what was called at the time, Girls Gym. In the course of that, it had to have nude gymnastics, which was really a problem! [laughs] It also had a student strike, which is an idea that Joe brought to it. It was based on something his parents, I think, did. He was the one who first suggested that maybe, at the end of the film, the students should blow up the school. At first, I couldn’t wrap my head around that. After him talking to me about it, that entered into the picture. Then I had to save another movie for Roger. He called me up and said, “Can you save this for me? I’m going to put aside Girls Gym until you’re done with all this. Besides, I think we are going to turn Girls Gym in a disco movie. Disco music and Grease is so popular, so we’ll call it Disco High.” At that point, it became more of a comedy in my mind. We took Joe’s draft and I hired two young guys who were playing mutants in Death Sport. They wanted to be writers and they wrote Disco High. When Roger realized that disco music was not the music of rebellion, that it had to be rock and roll, it became Rock ‘N’ Roll High School.
It’s hard to believe that the Ramones weren’t necessarily the first choice for the film.
I don’t want to overstate that part of it. We’re only talking about a two-week period there, ya know. Once The Ramones were in it, it really gave us the engine that we needed. They were so perfect for the vision of it. Music is, for teenagers, part of your identity. It’s part of who you are, who you identify with and how you find your friends. The idea that a cheerleader type like Riff Randell would become fixated on a punk band and that it would dictate her identity rang true for me. You have to remember that, in those days, The Ramones were much more edgy to the world than they are now. Even little babies have Ramones t-shirts on these days! Back then, The Ramones were so out there that they might as well have been from outer space! [laughs] This is very important for me. I think that the movie’s success, the fact that we’re doing a 40th anniversary edition release for the film is due to The Ramones and their iconic position in it. Their music is such a part of the music canon of great American rock ‘n’ roll. In addition to that, the Riff Randell character is the secret! It’s not a secret to the longevity of the movie. She’s an empowered young woman who will not take shit from anybody, is not a groupie, and wants to pursue music because she loves it. That continues to ring true over the course of the past 40 years. I’ve heard it hundreds of times from young women as well as women in their 40s or 50s who realize I made Rock ‘N’ Roll High School. That’s the takeaway from it and that’s why it continues to pull people in. It’s about taking charge of your life and not being told that something you love is bad and then not listening to it. It’s about not having your education thwarted by authority. That’s the lesson!
P.J. Soles is amazing in the film. What made her such a standout when it came to finding your Riff Randell?
We liked her right away. There was an energy to her that was so upbeat. There were a couple of other people up for it, but we really liked her. We got invited to a sneak-preview of a movie that P.J. had just been in. It was on Hollywood Boulevard and we went and saw the sneak-preview of John Carpenter’s “Halloween.” That really sold us on her. She was perfect because she had the drive and energy, but she was also wholesome. We thought that was the funny part. It’s funny to think that this wholesome young woman would be around The Ramones and made them look like they were aliens! Like I said, they looked like they were from another planet and that’s what we were going for!
As a fan of the film, I couldn’t be more excited about this 40th Anniversary Edition of the film from Shout Factory.
I have to hand it to Shout Factory. They’ve done the best reissues. This reissue has every single extra imaginable, so if you like the movie you will get this huge background on it. It has all the behind-the-scenes stills. You’ll get to see hilarious shots of how we made the movie. They are so cool because they didn’t make us go through all of these lawyers and sign these things. We don’t know who everyone is in these photos! They are all in there. They also made yet another documentary on the making of the movie. We went back and dug into how music has affected my life. So, the stuff we are talking about here, if you guys want to get a deeper view of the effect of music on me and how it led to Rock ‘N’ Roll High School this release is for you. Above all else, you get a real sense of what it was like to work for Roger Corman on this. We were an independent company — an outlaw company in the 1970s! It’s all there in that documentary!
The film looks better than it ever has, so it’s exciting to know that alone will attract some new fans!
Shout Factory did an amazing 4K transfer! It’s absolutely gorgeous! Can you believe it? It’s hilarious that a $300,000 movie gets the same kind of care that Apocalypse Now gets! [laughs]
How did the success of Rock ‘N’ Roll High School impact your career?
The film is a continuing source of pride to me. I’ve directed 250 TV shows and produced another 200, so I’ve been in the TV business for 30 years, directing not just television but movies. When people see my name on the call sheet, they are always curious about who someone is and what they have done, crew members inevitably come up to me and talk about the movie. They tell me when they first saw it and how many times they saw it! 70% of the people who really connect with this movie and want to talk about it are women. They talk about how Riff Randell empowered them. I am so proud of that and how that it still stands up and it’s still funny. The scene where The Ramones play the concert, I personally think, it’s slammin! They crushed it! There were 6 songs of hard rock with the comedic commentary and point of view. Ya know, I wanted to do the kind of rock ‘n’ roll concert scenes you never saw in fictional rock movies. I wanted to do scenes like the ones I had seen in real life. If you go back to movies from the 50s and stuff, this movie is a satire of those, everyone is sitting at a table. Nobody is reacting and the people who are making the movie are just basically staring at the band. That’s how they film it — “I can’t believe this is going on!!” I wanted you to get the frenzy of a great rock concert. Plus, I added all of those funny titles, so it gave you an idea of the depth of humor that was part of The Ramones.
What are the keys to longevity in the entertainment business?
It’s all about keeping your eye on what you love. First off, getting started, don’t turn down any job. Stay close to the people who you have a lot in common with. These are the people who love film the way you love film. That’s been really important for me. I’m still friends with them. If you go to my Facebook page, we had a big party for the 40th anniversary of Rock ‘N’ Roll High School at my house. If you look at that photo, some of those people I go back to film school with me! Keeping that close connection is important, as is knowing what your reasons are for making something. When it comes to a feature film, and I’m not talking about a big studio feature film but an indie or cable film, you have to feel that nobody could make this movie better than you. That’s what I think is the secret to Rock ‘N’ Roll High School, The Temptations and When Elvis Met Nixon. Look, I’ve also done a lot of work because I have to work. It’s not the same thing but it’s been fun to interpret on these shows. You step into someone else’s show and learn about their style. It’s a little like being a studio musician. In the morning you’re playing drums for The Beach Boys and in the afternoon, you’re doing the “Mission: Impossible” theme and at night you’re playing behind The Ronettes!
You have an incredible body of work and we’re living in an amazing time where we have access to just about everything. Which projects hold a special place in your heart and what keeps you inspired these days?
Things that I love the most? Let’s make a list! [laughs] Obviously, Rock ‘N’ Roll High School. The Temptations mini-series I did, I won the Emmy for is one I’m really, really proud of. The TV movie, When Elvis Met Nixon, which was made in 1997 and I think is on Amazon Prime. I also love my episodes of Moonlighting and Ally McBeal. I did the dancing baby episode! That’s pretty good! [laughs] I produced and directed a series called Crossing Jordan where I got into some deeper, more serious themes about life and death. Then there was Heroes. I produced and directed that, and it had a fantastic first year. I just got a Director’s Guild nomination for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. If you want to see something, I did that’s really kind of cool, the episodes I did are called “Hostile Hospital.” It’s kind of a combination of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, The Marx Brothers and The Shining. I could go on! St. Elsewhere was a great experience. Did I say Moonlighting? I was nominated for an Emmy for Moonlighting. I did two seasons of Fame. I’ve also done music videos with Mick Jagger and Bette Midler and Elvis Costello. There are more that I’ve probably forgotten! [laughs]
Anyway, as to what keeps me inspired, I’ve worked a lot and I’ve been able to enact what I learned in film school, which was to use films to solve technical problems and to inspire me. Right now, I’m at a great point in my life where I teach film, just like the people who taught me — Roger Corman, Haig Manoogian, who ran NYU Film School and Marty Scorsese. I teach at the AFI and I have 140 film students. I’m giving to them the kind of thing that made me so inspired!
Thank for your time today, Allan. It’s been an awesome look back at your work. I wish you continued success!
It was a fun and a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks, Jason!
Shout! Factory will unleash the Rock ‘N’ Roll High School – 40th Anniversary Edition Steelbook on November 19th. The release is now available for preorder now via Amazon and shoutfactory.com.