All Hail King Cohen!
We all love Larry Cohen. If you don’t yet, you will. The writer/producer/director has worked in every realm of the industry and crafted every flavor of cinema. He has gathered an army of acolytes around him, and they’re all too happy to sing the praises of the craziest guerilla filmmaker in the business. King Cohen celebrates the DIY bravado necessary to get your dreams sold. Here is the confident madman in all his glory. He is all too happy to share tales of location bombardment and afternoon chats with Alfred Hitchcock. Does he miss the only era that could produce the terrors of It’s Alive and The Stuff (you can’t get enough of The Stuff)? Sure, but Cohen is not one for pessimism. Hollywood may not make much of what interests him these days, but that doesn’t mean there is not plenty of entertainment to be found on that Netflix box in your living room.
We spoke to Mr. Cohen just a few days after he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cinepocalypse genre film festival in Chicago. We discussed everything from Hell Up In Harlem to Chris Evans’ Cellular. Cohen is happy to discuss his unique position in filmmaking history even if he’s not sure how to handle all the adulation he gets these days.
I guess congratulations are in order for receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, over at the Cinepocalypse Film Festival.
Well, they were very gracious over there, at the Music Box Theatre, and I had a really good time.
Obviously, you’re loved. That’s gotta feel pretty great.
I always like being loved. It beats being hated, I’ll tell you that.
What’s it like, touring with this documentary, with King Cohen, and it’s championing your achievements in cinema? That has to be a surreal experience.
Well, it’s very odd seeing yourself on the screen and seeing a documentary on your life. At first, you’re a little disoriented. First time I saw it, was up in Montreal, at the film festival, where we won the Best Documentary award, and I hadn’t seen the thing before, so I had to adjust to it. And, as I always announce before each screening, this movie is a smear job, and it has nothing to do with me, and I don’t like the guy they have playing me either. He’s all wrong for the part! So I always make a disclaimer right away.
It’s obviously a celebration of everything that you have achieved, over your career. And I’m overjoyed by the love that you’re seeing from various filmmakers, and other creatives. I love seeing Martin Scorsese. He seemed, obviously nostalgic for that era in guerrilla filmmaking. Are you also nostalgic?
Well, I know that I couldn’t make these kinds of pictures today. There’s just too much security, too many people are nervous about terrorism, there are cameras on every street corner in New York, and the police are very very nervous, and agitated, and apt to respond too quickly. I wouldn’t want to get anybody shot, and I wouldn’t want to get arrested, and I wouldn’t want to go to jail. Although that would have been a good section of the movie, my prison sentence, and my years behind bars for making movies, and all that kind of drama that would have made the picture even better. But too late for that now.
You can’t go firing machine guns off the top of Chrysler Building anymore. And you can’t go shooting people at 57th Street, on that very corner where Trump Tower is located. Can you imagine, shooting somebody in the street, in front of Trump Tower?
Yeah, you’d get a pretty big reaction.
I would say so. So I do have to look back and say, well we were lucky to do it when we did. Even when we made The Ambulance, the girl, Janine Turner, she collapsed in the street right in front of Trump Tower also, so … We did two movies back there, on that same street corner, and neither one of them would be doable today.
And you just showed The Ambulance, what, two nights back, right?
Yeah, we did. We had a very nice screening. The audience really reacted well. Laughed at all the jokes. They were really with the picture. I was very pleased.
That’s a madcap thriller for sure. Eric Roberts is so great in it.
And he was here. Eric Roberts came to Chicago for this, and he was just lovely. He’s a really nice guy, and he had nothing but good memories of being in the picture, so that was great. And I know James Earl Jones loved being in the picture also, so it’s a big compliment to you as a director when the actors have good thoughts about something they did so long ago.
I had the chance to see the film over at Fantastic Fest when you were there, and the adulation from that crowd was electric. How do you deal with all that?
You don’t, you just accept it, that’s all. In the business, you accept rejection, and you accept criticism, and you accept positive criticism, adulation when it comes, but you don’t take it too seriously. Because around the corner, there’s going to be somebody else who’ll say, Larry Cohen’s a terrible filmmaker.
Well blast them. Forget that.
Yeah, but you just have to let it come and go. You don’t take anything to heart, and it never affected me one way or another. I just went on and made my movies. Some of the movies, that were not received well originally, are now considered classics, so what can you say? Some of the films, which didn’t do any business back when they first were released, are now playing all over the place on DVD and Blu-Ray, and they’ve come back and asked me to do narrations. And they’re doing very well, and being picked as the pick-of-the-week, and yeah. It’s great to see that these films have survived. Because how many pictures survive 30 or 40 years?
Two of my favorites of yours are Black Caesar, and Hell Up in Harlem, and one of my favorite moments from the documentary, is Fred Williamson, sort of contesting who jumped out of that speeding cab first.
Yeah, well, he didn’t contest who went into the coal bin first, in the scene where he got buried in a big pile of coal, in a coal yard, because there’s a picture of me and him, standing outside, and I’m blacker than he is, cause I was in the coal before he was. I had to do all the stunts before he would do ’em. He just doesn’t want to admit it. I love Fred, and he’s a scoundrel. And that’s my kind of guy.
Can you talk a little bit about what’s not in the documentary? Is there anything that you wish had made it into that film to represent you?
Oh, there are many things. They couldn’t possibly cover everything. I wish they had included Peter Falk, who … He made his first television appearance on a Kraft Playhouse that I wrote when I was only 21. And Peter Falk played opposite Jack Klugman, who also was starting out in television. And they both became huge television stars, and that was … Peter was only on for five minutes, but he was so sensational that he attracted the attention of the producers of the movie Murder, Inc., who immediately hired him to play a top role in the picture, for which he got an Oscar nomination, and put his career on the map. So I kinda started Peter Falk off. And then later on, we were acquainted with each other for years, and eventually I did many Colombos for him, in the later years. And we remained friends all that time. And he’s one of the biggest stars in television history. So I thought it would’ve been nice if we’d had him in the picture.
But I didn’t get involved in the making of the film. I didn’t look at the picture before it was finished. I didn’t give them any critique or comments. I just left everybody completely alone to make their movie, like I would like to be left alone when I make my movies. So, that will have to be in the sequel; King Cohen Strikes Back.
How did director Steve Mitchell approach you about this project?
He just phoned me, and told me he wanted to do a movie about me, and who am I to refuse? So I didn’t have to do anything, except do some interviews, other than come over to my house and photograph me, and do some commentary on my career. But I had nothing to do with the actual editing of the film, or the selection of the scenes.
When you finally saw the movie, were you surprised by anything?
I was surprised by all the great people they got to be involved, and I wish they had contacted Quentin Tarantino, and John Woo, and a few of the other … Even Spielberg, whose always been very very complimentary to me, every time I’ve run into him. They probably would have all done a piece too. But it’s difficult to reach some of these celebrity directors, because they’re surrounded by assistants, who try to protect them. But of course, the artist themselves, would have been very happy and welcome to do the interviews, if only they’d known about it. But somebody gets in the way, thinking that they’re doing the director a favor, and they never find out that somebody’s doing a Larry Cohen documentary. But as I say, all that’ll be in the sequel.
What I loved about the film was how it starts off with this very L.A. story of J.J. Abrams, and his first encounter with you, and how the film, as much as it is a celebration of you as a filmmaker, it’s a celebration of how artists need to absorb other art, to produce their own art.
A lot of these guys were fans of my films, and they went on to make pictures themselves. But they all made ’em in a different fashion. Very few people could go out and do guerrilla filmmaking like I did. Most of these people, fortunately, were able to get significant budgets, and work as part of a team with other people. Every picture that J.J. has done, has been part of a massive team effort, and I couldn’t do that. I don’t want to work with a lot of people. I just want to do my own thing. To me, making a movie is like painting a picture, or writing a script. You do it alone, and I tried to minimize the amount of support people that were hanging around, and usually asking questions all the time. Like, what are you gonna do next, when I had no idea what I was gonna do next.
But, you’ve influenced all these people, and certainly, you were influenced by others. Where do you draw your energy from?
I just draw it from myself. I had tremendous energy when I was making these films. We were working 18 hours a day sometime. In fact, when we were making A Return to Salem’s Lot, which was shot up in New England, about vampires, one day we shot 26 hours.
People were looking at me thinking, what kind of drugs is this son-of-a-bitch on? He must be on something. He must be on cocaine, or something, because he never gets tired. But I’ve never been involved in drugs. I’m just high on the whole process of making movies. I’m having such a good time, I don’t want to stop. Most of the complaints I had gotten have been that the people want to eat, and I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to take breaks for meals, so sometimes I say, put out a table of food constantly, so it’s there all day. Let everybody nosh, and we can just keep shooting straight through.
You’re still cranking away. How do you feel about the cinematic landscape right now? Do you still get excited by films that are being produced in Hollywood?
I like mostly the things I’m seeing on Netflix, and on other cable stations. I think the material on cable is superior to what’s being made for theatrical today. Today, it’s mainly big, bloated special effects movies. They all look alike. Everybody’s blowing things up, and cars smashing other cars, and flying through the air, and … The movies have been surrendered to the special effects department.
As a matter of fact, if you look at a movie that’s playing today, and you look at the closing credits, you’re looking at 10 minutes of people’s names coming up. I’ve never seen so many people. The entire nation’s been employed on some of these movies. In my movie, the picture’s over, it says The End, and a minute later, you’re out of the theater. But these films are just so overwhelmingly farmed out to different organizations, so it’s not one person making the picture. It’s a committee of different people, different companies, different special effects companies, dozens of editors. It’s just not my kind of picture making.
Q: The Winged Serpent, that celebrated it’s 35th anniversary recently. That’s a hell of a great effects picture for its era.
Well, we only had two guys doing the effects, and me. And I shot the whole picture first, and then brought the film to them, and they said well you can’t do it this way. You have to come to us first, before you shoot the scenes, and I said, well it’s over. I’ve already shot everything. I’m not going back. And here’s where you put the monster, and here’s where you do this, and here’s where you do that. And they said, well the camera’s moving. You can’t put model animation into a moving camera sequence. And I said, why not? And they said, because we don’t do it that way. And I said, well, now you’re gonna do it that way. Well, they did it. They amazed themselves actually.
I would hate myself if I didn’t ask you about a couple screenplays that you produced in the early 2000s. Phone Booth and Cellular. Two of my favorite early aughts thrillers.
I just wanted to get, I don’t know, a few words about the history of those films. Especially Phone Booth, it has a really unique background.
Well, I’d become friendly with Mr. Hitchcock, and I had spent some time with him. Usually every time you had lunch with Hitch, it would be, like three and half hours. You’d talk about everything. And one time, the subject came up of making a movie that would happen in a telephone booth, which he liked the notion. He had done a picture in a lifeboat, and he was looking to do something like that. As a matter of fact, even after he passed away, his daughter, Pat Hitchcock, at a ceremony, mentioned that one of his dreams was to make a movie that happens in a telephone booth. That made me feel great, because that’s where he got the idea from, yours truly. But it never worked out with Hitchcock, who couldn’t figure out how to do it, or why the guy couldn’t leave the phone booth.
But then I realized that I already had the answer. I had done it in a movie called God Told Me To, in which a sniper was shooting people on the streets of New York. I said, if I combine the sniper, and the phone booth, I’ve got a script. So it only took me a week to write it once I figured that out. I’d been waiting to write this thing for years. And we put it up for sale, and 20th Century Fox bought it. I was gonna make it myself, but the offer from 20th Century Fox was such a phenomenal fee, that I thought I would just take the money, and write something else. Which I did; I wrote Cellular. So I was involved in the picture, in terms of being welcome on the set by the director, who was very pleasant to work with. I thought the picture was well done. I would have done it better, but you know … Joel Schumacher did the best job, under the circumstances.
What would have been your take?
He shot the thing in downtown L.A., which was mocked up to look like New York, and if I had done it, I would have done it right on 8th Avenue and 44th Street, in a phone booth up there. I would have liked to have had the turmoil of New York. The cluster of people, and cabs, and fire engines, and buses, and all that commotion that goes on around the city, and somebody in the midst of it, trapped inside the glass chamber that he can’t get out of. And then I would have transitioned from day to night, so that some of it would have been supposedly at night, with search lights and police, and I think it would have been more visually exciting.
But I don’t quarrel with what they did. And as I say in the documentary, I did convince Joel to change the voice of the sniper from the original actor that he had, to Kiefer Sutherland, which I think really made the success of the picture. Kiefer’s voice was so effective, and it’s so prominent in the film, that it really changed everything around. So I credit myself with that.
I love that movie. And I loved the idea that, you finally sell that script, and you take that money, and you go make Cellular, another crazy phone based thriller. It’s truly underrated in my opinion.
Well, when they advertised the picture originally, they didn’t promote the lead guy, Chris Evans, cause he was not known. But now, of course, Chris Evans is one of the biggest stars in the world, because he’s Captain America. So I mean, the whole picture’s different if you look at it now, because you’ve got a major star playing the lead part, and Jason Statham, who’s the villain, he’s become a huge star also. So it’s too bad they can’t rerelease the film, because the audience reaction would be ten-times what it was originally, because it’s a very commercial film. It’s non-stop suspense, and in many ways, is just as good as Phone Booth.
We need to get the Music Box, or the Alamo Drafthouse to do a revival showing.
Yeah, well, it would be nice to get it shown theatrically, too, around the country. I don’t think it’s a big problem getting people to pay, to come in and see a movie, even though its been on television, or on DVD. People don’t care what they spend their money on. They just want to see the movie, and experience it with their friends. I know, when I talk to teenagers, they say they’re going to see a certain picture, I say, well, you saw that last week. And they say, yeah, but we’re seeing it with our friends tonight. We’re gonna go back, and pay another $10 or $12, and they don’t care if they’ve seen the picture or not. They want to see it with their friends.
That wasn’t the way I was when I was a kid. I paid to see a movie, and then I wanted to see another movie. I didn’t want to see the same ones over again, or if I do want to see the same one again, I sat through it twice, when it was showing the first time. But I don’t think there’s any problem of … There’s only one movie in the history of the industry that was shown on television first, and then was put in theaters afterward, and made a fortune, and I bet you don’t know what it was.
I sure don’t.
It was a Walt-Disney picture. It was called Davy Crockett.
Davy Crockett was a huge television success, and then, they took the episodes and combined them, and put them out as a theatrical feature, and it was a blockbuster.
King of the Wild Frontier!
The kids didn’t care if they saw it on television. They wanted to see it in the theater. Two different experiences. So I’ve yet to see anybody do that since.
Well, I’ll start tweeting out a plan to get Cellular back. That’s what I want.
Yeah, just tell them it’s Chris Evans, Captain America, wow!
As part of the DOC NYC festival, King Cohen will have its New York premiere at the Cinepolis Chelsea on November, 13th.