Listing all of the films made by director Larry Cohen would be pages long, and if you added in the number of TV show episodes, it’d be pages and pages past that. Even if you were to distill it down to the number of Blu-Ray reissues over the last few years, it would be absurdly lengthy. Suffice it to say, in the last five years, the genre icon has seen Q: The Winged Serpent via Scream Factory, Maniac Cop 2 and Uncle Sam on Blue Underground, and The Stuff via Arrow Video, all of which come with amazing commentary from Cohen, if not a deluxe making of, as well. It’s an embarrassment of riches for fans of the New York-born movie-maker.
And now, the “triple-threat” writer / director / producer has a film all about his work. With insights from the likes of Michael Moriarty, Fred Williamson, and Yaphet Kotto, King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen is a love letter to Cohen’s films from writer/director Steve Mitchell. It plays this weekend at Cinepocalypse in Chicago, and we spoke with the film’s titular subject by phone about his work and what it’s like to have a movie made about you.
You’ve had ample opportunity to talk about yourself over the last few years, with all of these reissues of your classic films.
Well, these things are playing all over the place. They’re all available on Netflix now, you know: you just say my name, and my picture comes up, followed by a list of fourteen of my movies, which you can watch at any moment you wish to. That’s great that all these films are available to people.
It really seems like you’re getting a chance to tell your story with all of these commentary tracks, as well.
Hell Up in Harlem just came out on DVD with narration by me, and even the TV series I created, Coronet Blue, came out a few weeks ago, and I did a narration on that. Just about every picture I made is being reissued with narration, and sometimes, with video interviews.
You seem to have an amazing recall for all the work you’ve done.
Well, I had a really good time making these movies – as opposed to some directors who don’t enjoy the experience that much, and don’t like actors. I love actors, and we get along very well, and I have a great time doing the pictures, so it’s just like a big party. And, I do remember all these very, very pleasant experiences.
What’s it like, getting to go back and re-watch these movies and talk about them?
The hard part about it is to imagine how long ago it was, because some of these pictures are fifty years old, and to me, it seems like I only made them two or three years ago. I look at them and I say, “I remember making this picture and – my goodness! – how much time has elapsed?” It’s truly amazing, but what’s nice about the films is how many of them went into profits.
I’m getting money from pictures I made forty-five years ago. You open the mailbox, and there’s a nice, juicy check for a lotta money for a picture that’s forty-five years old.
Watching the clips from King Cohen, one of the clips which stood out had you saying, “Everywhere I go to make a movie, I hear, ‘That’s not how it’s done,’ but I do it and it works.” Having to do things on the fly, and puzzle things out – is that what makes the memories so vibrant?
It’s just that I like to do things in a sensible way, and it seems like the people in the mainstream industry have it worked out so that the picture’s gotta go over budget. They just can’t use their heads. I mean, we did one film where most of the thing was shot in a motel, and the station where the hair and wardrobe and makeup was done was about five miles away, in a vacant lot.
I said to them, “What are you doing over there? You’re wasting all of that time going back and forth. Put the makeup and the hair in a hotel room. We’ve got all these vacant rooms: nobody’s in ’em. Use ’em for dressing rooms, and no-one will have to go anywhere.”
They said to me, “Well, that’s not how we do things.” [laughs] I said that doesn’t make any sense – that’s not a good answer! They did it, and we ended up saving at least one day out of the shoot by not wasting time with all that.
I did another picture in New York, and there were a hundred people on the crew, and we could only fit twenty people into the location to do the shoot. It was eighty people standing on the street, eating off of the craft services table. All these people getting salaries, eating, and they have nothing to do? I said, “Send ’em to the location we’re shooting at tomorrow. Let them set up the lights, set up the equipment, and tomorrow when we get there, everything will be there.”
“Oh, we don’t do things that way.” Oh, well. What can I tell you? This is continually – if I don’t have control, there’s a tendency for pure idiocy. Most of the pictures I did – over ninety percent – I was the producer, director, the writer: full control. I edited the picture. I just didn’t have any input from anybody else, and I didn’t have to explain anything. Whatever I said, they did it, and that was great. I got used to it, and couldn’t work any other way.
That’s great that you say that, because one of the things which comes up in King Cohen, and in many of the making-of documentaries on all these DVDs, is that you’re called a triple threat. It seems though, based on what you’ve said, that it’s almost a little reductive, and that you should be a quadruple threat: producer, director, writer, and accountant.
Well, I was the accountant, and I signed all the checks, too. After shooting all day – sometimes thirteen-fourteen hours – I had to sit down for another hour and write all the checks to everybody. That’s the way we did it. We didn’t have a production office: wherever I was, was the production office.
“Why don’t you have a production office?” Because the only person who can make a decision is me. We saved all of that money and put it up on screen. I always came in under budget, because if I came in under budget, I could keep the money myself. [chuckles]
How did you learn how to do all of this?
I didn’t learn. I just did it. [laughs] I just used common sense, basically. Unfortunately, most people go to film school, and they learn to make movies a certain way, and that’s the way they make ’em. I never had a board with all the scenes and all the casting and stuff, I never had a day-to-day schedule – I never had any schedule.
The only person who knew what was going on was me, and I didn’t have to answer any questions, because nobody knew anything but me, and I wasn’t going to tell ’em anything. When the time came for them to know, I would tell them, “Just watch me, react to what I do, and everything will be fine.” After a while, they got used to it.
Having watched a bunch of making-of documentaries on all these Blu-rays, it does seem like the actors and crew took a while to get used to your style, but they can’t deny how well it worked. The story of shooting the opening scene for The Stuff, in particular, where you shot during a snowstorm, even though there was the possibility of equipment failure.
Well, we shot it until all the bulbs blew up, but we did get the scene. Now, on a regular production, they would’ve gone home. Soon as it started to snow, they would’ve left. I said, “My god, this is fabulous production value. We’ve got this huge landscape of snow, and it’s still snowing, and we’ve got the actors? Let’s shoot the scene, and I’ll integrate the story into the plot.” It worked beautifully, and everybody had a good time doing it – except they were scared, because of the chance of getting electrocuted. [chuckles] There’s always some element of danger about all of the pictures that I do.
My absolute favorite quote of yours from King Cohen is that all of your movies are about “taking something benevolent, and turning it into a monstrosity.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone sum up their career so accurately, be it child-rearing in It’s Alive or ice cream in The Stuff.
We even did a job on God in God Told Me To, or the police department or the ambulance in Maniac Cop: all of these things that are thought of as benevolent, but in my movies, if the ambulance gets you, nobody ever sees you again.
Very few people have a unity in their work, where their pictures have one relationship to another. My films – they’re part of a body of work that is there for a reason. I’m telling the story of the things that we think of as being good, but in my versions, they all are bad.
What’s the appeal of inverting concepts in that way?
It just shakes up people’s expectations of what the norm is, because there’s a lot of truth to it. Religion – God – has done a lot of damage to people. We think of religion as being wonderful, but in reality, look at all the massacres and murders and destruction that’s been done in the name of God. In the medical profession, they do harm all the time when they’re trying to do good. Just turns out wrong.
Everybody says they’re sorry, and then you go bury your relatives. What can you do? So, there’s a certain relevance to my concept that people take something that’s wonderful and turn it into something terrible.
King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen screens this weekend as part of Cinepocalypse at the Music Box Theater in Chicago, with both Cohen and Mitchell in attendance. Details on that screening and the festival here. The movie will also be at DOC NYC in New York City on November 13, with Mitchell and Cohen in attendance there, as well.