‘King Cohen: The Wild Life of Filmmaker Larry Cohen’ – Exclusive Interview

We chat with legendary director Larry Cohen (Q The Winged Serpent, Black Caesar, Phone Booth) and Steven Mitchell (Chopping Mall).

“Studio execs love to ask: What’s it like? And when you tell them the idea is like nothing you’ve seen before! they get very nervous. Nobody wants to be first in terms of trying something new. It takes someone with bold vision to do that.” – Larry Cohen

The new documentary King Cohen: The Wild Life of Filmmaker Larry Cohen is currently making the festival rounds, with upcoming screenings at Fantastic Fest and Sitges International set for the coming weeks. Directed by Steven Mitchell (the 80’s cult classic Chopping Mall), the doc spotlights the amazing life and career of legendary B-movie genius Larry Cohen (Q – The Winged Serpent, God Told Me To, The Stuff, Black Caesar, It’s Alive, Phone Booth, Cellular), who for over 40 years has had his hand in some of the most wild, fun, and altogether crazy cinematic creations that one could ever fathom. Steven and Larry spoke with We Are Cult’s Nick Clement about the documentary and a bit about their respective careers.

Guys, let me first say how excited I am to chat with you both. This is a true honor. Steve, I watched Chopping Mall so many times back in the VHS days of my youth – that film is totally crazy and so much fun.

Steve: It’s funny, so many people bring up Chopping Mall to this day, and you know, when it came out, it didn’t do very well. Nobody got it. But over time, it’s really developed this wonderful following, which is great to see. I’m glad you’re a fan!

And Larry, my dad showed me Q – The Winged Serpent when I was about nine or 10 years old, and it left a big impression on me. I still watch it once a year as it’s such a blast.

Larry: Well, we should get your father on the line, too! He’s a good man to show you that movie when you were a kid!

Absolutely! I grew up in a very film-friendly household, whether or not my parents knew exactly what I was watching down in the basement when they were upstairs watching their nightly shows.

Larry: That’s the way it should be!

I guess we should jump into the documentary, which I can’t wait to see in full. I had the chance to see five extended clips, and between the talking-head comments and the interviews with Larry, you can just tell that this is a really fun and special film. Steve, how did this come together?

Steve: It really started as I was looking at Larry’s IMDB page. Of course I’m a huge fan of the work, but when you really examine his credits, you get a real sense of the complete picture of Larry as a filmmaker, and there were films that I wasn’t overly familiar with. I’m a credits junkie at heart so I take this stuff very seriously.

Larry Cohen.

And it’s interesting to note how Larry has been able to straddle the line between the obvious B-movie treasures he’s given us, while also still playing ball with the studios as a screenwriter.

Steve: Exactly. He’s someone who has had this large career, both in and out of the mainstream, and not many other people can say the same thing.

Larry: Well, I did realize that I could make more money selling my scripts to the studios than try to get all of them made myself. Who doesn’t want a million bucks to write a script?!

And getting the documentary pulled together, how did it come about?

Steve: I had looked into the financial side of doing this a while back, and realized I didn’t have the resources to get it fully made. I tabled it for two years, and then I started a crowd funding campaign, through Indiegogo, which was a spectacular flop. I didn’t know what to do with crowd funding and I don’t think I handled the process in the proper fashion. I then met an executive at La La Land Records, and we had lunch, and I told him about the project. He’s a big genre movie fan too, so he was immediately interested in getting this made. I tracked down Larry’s phone number, gave him a call, and he answered. Because when you call Larry, you get him on the line, not some assistant. And I pitched him the idea over the phone and he said come over! We had coffee and he was very receptive.

Larry: I just let them do their thing. Of course, it was a big honor to have someone making a doc about my life and career. The entire process was very surreal. I just saw the film with an audience in Canada and the response was tremendous. Seeing yourself on screen is just so odd and I don’t even remember the event as it went by so quickly.

When will people be able to see the film in theaters, or on disc/VOD?

Steve: We’re so happy because people are really loving the film, and responding to the same things that made us so excited while we were making it. We’re working on a distribution deal right now as there’s been a lot of strong interest from the first two festivals we’ve screened at. We’ll be going to Sitges and taking the film to Europe in the fall. I don’t want to say too much more but it’ll be out for everyone to see as soon as we can make it happen.

Larry, I want to ask you, what was your favorite part of making these films you’ve become so famous for?

Larry: It was a different time. I got along great with the actors, and we’d wind up making multiple films together. It was like a little family. Every picture was an adventure, and I just loved getting out there and getting down and dirty on the streets of New York. You just wouldn’t be able to get these types of movies made today, for so many reasons. Most people in the industry, they wake up, they got to the set, they do their job, and then they come home. It’s like a factory. And it was never that way with me.

Yeah, I can’t imagine in our post 9/11 world that you’d be able to make a movie like Q – The Winged Serpent on the streets of New York.

Larry: Absolutely not. Not with today’s fears of terrorism and yes, after 9/11, of course, everything changed. Nobody is going up to the Chrysler Building with machine guns and shooting off blanks! You couldn’t get away with the street action we pulled off. These days, with cameras everywhere, and armed cops, you’d be shot in the street before lunch. My films were all about mischief and craziness. I just didn’t want to miss out on anything. I made my films in the right place and at the right time.

Yeah, your films have an amazing sense of verisimilitude despite none of them being very expensive. And of course, the way you’d blend genres together was always inspiring because of the way the threads would all tie together.

Larry: I love cinema, and I love to mix it up. At heart, I’m a lover of the oldies, Charlie Chaplin’s stuff and silent films. It’s always about getting your film made no matter what. Listen, back in the day, those guys would hear about a fire somewhere in town, and they’d run off and film it and work it into their script. It’s all about being resourceful.

Steve, do you have a favorite film by Larry, or one that really stands out for one particular reason or another?

Steve: My favorite film from Larry has always been Q – The Winged Serpent.  It’s just a perfect example of a Larry Cohen film. And that’s the thing, when you see that credit on screen – that credit has been earned. I remember seeing the print ad in the New York Times, and just saying to myself that I had to see the film. His name guarantees something, which is not something that every filmmaker can do. Q is just a blast. It’s a New York movie, it’s a cop film, it’s a monster movie, and you have what I think is Michael Moriarty’s greatest performance. It’s a brilliant genre mash-up. And also, I love The Ambulance. That’s a close second. The absolutely nuttiness of the picture is wild to see unfold, and Eric Roberts gives a fabulous performance. That’s a fun movie to see with a big crowd because it’s such a crazy idea and it’s executed so well. Larry’s movies were never empty calorie experiences, and he was a true NY underground filmmaker.

I often think about how the studios love to advertise a movie as A film by so-and-so, in order to clue the audience into knowing what to expect. I’d argue that right now, Christopher Nolan, especially with the blockbuster success of Dunkirk, which is basically an art-film about war, is one of the only directors who nearly assures the studio of an immediate success. Nolan and Clint Eastwood, especially Eastwood post Mystic River.

Steve: At the studios, box-office failure is simply not an option. Sure, the big guys can afford to fail, but most modern movies mean life or death to a studio and the executives who sent those films into production. Everyone is on the line with each of these massive event movies. Each film is marketed as the next big thing, which is damaging to the overall landscape of movies. Back in the day, you could make a movie, and if it got a smattering of good reviews or did some decent business at the box office, you’d be off to your next project. It takes much longer now and the thought processes are so different in terms of what gets made. There will never be another Larry Cohen. He’s a product of his time, and he’s a truly idiosyncratic voice. His movies were his movies, if you know what I mean. The phrase A Larry Cohen Film still means something.

Larry: Studio execs love to ask: What’s it like? And when you tell them the idea is like nothing you’ve seen before! they get very nervous. Nobody wants to be first in terms of trying something new. It takes someone with bold vision to do that. If someone pitches them something that they feel they’ve seen before, then in their head, it’s a potential success, because the audience recognizes the elements and what they’re being sold, which is why we now have an endless onslaught of remakes, sequels, and superhero films. They are literally the same movie, over and over.

Larry, which one of your films might you point to as being your favorite, or a project that really means something special to you?

Larry: Q – the Winged Serpent was my favorite film to make. The experience of being up on the Chrysler building and having all those guns going off, that’s something I’ll never forget, and it’s something that’ll never happen again. It was an experience to be cherished, and the fact that all of those actors actually went up there to the top of the building, it’s a huge accomplishment. I like being innovative, and I love the creative process. I love to write, and the biggest pleasure is seeing the film come to life on the page, and then on the screen. It starts in your head, moves to paper, and if you’re lucky enough, it makes its way up on screen. But so many scripts get butchered during the development process. It can be very tough at times.

I’m also curious to know if there’s a script you wrote for the studios, one that you didn’t direct, that you were really happy with, in terms of the end-result on screen?

Larry: I really liked how Phone Booth turned out, though had I directed it, I would have done things a bit differently. They shot in Los Angeles, and did a full mock-up of Times Square. I’d have shot it all in New York, and I would have done portions of it at night, and really had some fun with police spotlights and helicopters and those nocturnal elements. But Joel Schumacher did a very good job with building suspense and they had a wonderful cast, and remember, there were tons of guys who wanted that lead role. Jim Carrey, Mel Gibson, and Will Smith were all interested in that part.

I did tell Joel during production that I wasn’t a fan of who they had initially cast as the Voice. I told the studio and they said that Joel was very much firm on whom he’d chosen and that it wasn’t going to change. I called Joel up and told him I didn’t think it was working, and the next day, he replaced his original actor with Kiefer Sutherland, who did a superb job. When you’re not going to see the bad guy’s face, the voice has to be special. And they’d worked together in the past so it made sense on a lot of levels. And besides, he’s got that great, menacing voice which was really needed for that role to be pulled off.

Wow! I didn’t realize that another actor had gotten the baddie role before Kiefer.

Larry: Yeah. And you know, originally, I wanted Marlon Brando to do it!

Brando! WOW – what an inspired idea. Too bad that didn’t happen!

Larry: I really wanted it to happen, and he could have done it from home, and worn the ear-piece if he wanted to wear it!

Ha! Yeah, they wouldn’t have had to write it into the script, like how they did on The Formula.

Larry: Exactly! But he was just too lazy. He couldn’t be bothered, which is a shame. It would have been very interesting. What I really wanted to do was shoot three different versions of the same movie. I wanted to cast three different actors in the lead role, have them on set together, and just have them rotate in and out and do the same scene. Then Fox would have had something very different to sell to the public, the same film but with three different leads. That would have been something truly new and adventurous, but the studio wasn’t interested.

Writer/director Steve Mitchell.

Steve, I’m curious, what types of films do you gravitate towards these days?

Steve: I have a couple of friends and we do movie lunches every week. Films come and go every month but Larry’s films have real staying power. They’ve endured. They’re packed with ideas and passion and ambition, all made with strong concepts. He always worked with great actors, which is a huge plus, and the characters were born out of the stories he was telling. When you’re young, certain films make a big impression on you. And then over the years, those films take on a new life through a new type of appreciation. Money has always driven the film business, but it’s sad to see how the middle-ground, those smaller films with big ideas, how those projects have mostly disappeared. I love those 2.5 star movies, those films where not everything clicks exactly but the elements are there and the filmmakers took a chance with the material. Those types of films have tons to offer the audience.

Larry Cohen.

And Larry, what types of films do you come back to when you want to sit down at night and watch something?

Larry: I’m partial to the old Warner Brothers movies. James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson, and Michael Curtiz’s films. He was a terrific filmmaker, able to bounce between genres effortlessly. Errol Flynn’s movies were big for me and still are, and I just always went for the gritty Warners product, rather than the glossier stuff that MGM was putting out. Films these days have hardly any shelf life, though, these massive movies that come out every weekend.

Steve, why do you think Larry’s films have had such a lasting impact on film culture, especially buffs?

Steve: Larry’s movies were always interesting, and always unique. You can’t say that about most films that come out these days. I’m still blown away by how many people love The Stuff. You know, that film operates on an insane idea, and yet, people love it, they responded to it, and they still do. Those types of films have true staying power, and they last with their fans because they’re always fun to watch. I hardly ever watch the Oscar winners. Who remembers those movies for the most part? Larry’s films have terrific re-play value, and he makes you want to revisit them because you know how personal they all were to him.

Larry, if there’s something about your work that you’re the most proud of, what might that be?

Larry: We just went for it, with each film. We didn’t worry about permits or the logistics. We’d just go out and make a movie. And I think that’s one of the things I’m most proud of. I think about when we made The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover. We were running around Washington DC and doing everything illegally, shutting down Michigan Avenue as police were waving to us, because they thought we belonged there! And we just waved right back at them and kept doing our thing. It was hilarious. I mean, we actually went to Hoover’s house, and shot inside of it – the head of the FBI! You couldn’t worry about it because you didn’t have the time. Nowadays, these things just wouldn’t happen. So I’m glad to have done what we did when we did it.

The makers of the upcoming feature-length Larry Cohen documentary, King Cohen, have just dropped their official trailer, along with a website, www.KingCohenMovie.com

Watch the site and follow them at @KingCohenMovie  for information on future events and special screenings!

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