Steve Mitchell explains how his fandom for Larry Cohen led to his own documentary delight.
After years of obsessing over the films of Larry Cohen, director Steve Mitchell had to channel that love into his own cinematic expression. The documentary King Cohen is the result of countless hours of genre immersion. Rounding up fellow fanboys like Martin Scorsese, J.J. Abrams, Joe Dante, John Landis, and more confirms Cohen’s placement in the not-quite-Hollywood hall of fame. It’s easy to yearn for that era in which Cohen staged Fred Williamson’s Black Ceasar assassination to an unsuspecting New York City crowd, and Mitchell dares us to find a contemporary filmmaker with the insanity to even try.
Earlier this week, we chatted with Larry Cohen about this new spotlight on his career, and he expressed both humility and joy towards the recognition. He is proud of the work he’s produced, but certainly not down for the count yet. Here is an icon worthy of the fanaticism. Speaking just days before King Cohen’s New York premiere at the Doc NYC festival, Mitchell explains the challenges of constructing such a love letter as well as maintaining the same passion that Larry Cohen epitomized.
How did you first encounter Larry Cohen?
How did I first encounter him? I called him! I had the idea for the project and I said, “Well, I should try and find out whether or not Larry Cohen is interested in having somebody make a movie about him or not.” I knew someone who, I don’t want to be vague, but sort of like I knew someone who knew someone who got me the phone number. Then I got the phone number, and I sat down, I took a deep breath and I said, “Alright, I’m going to give this guy a phone call and see what happens.” I didn’t even expect him to answer it, that was the thing that sort of surprised me right out of the gate. I called him up and after I think two or three rings he picks up the phone, and I say, “Hi, I’m Steve Mitchell, and I’m interested in making a movie about you.” Basically, I’m paraphrasing a little bit.
We chatted a little bit, and he was friendly, but I got a sense maybe he was a little wary at the same time. He said, “Come on up to the house.” I went up to the famous house. If you know Larry’s movies, you know you’ve seen his house in all his movies. He made me a cup of coffee, gave me a couple of cookies and we talked about it. He was very friendly and very willing to do this. He said, “Well, if you can get it financed, I’ll help you any way I can.” It took a little while to sort of get the picture financed, but he was true to his word and he helped us in every way possible. He was, basically, he’s a very pleasant guy.
Obviously, you were a fan of his, but when did that fandom start?
You know, sometimes it’s hard to remember when something starts, but I was aware of him when I was a little boy. I was aware of him because of The Invaders, and then in the 70s, I think the movie that really put him on my radar initially was It’s Alive when it was reissued. I think that was in ’76. I thought it was just a crazy, nutty, original movie, with a score by Bernard Herrmann which amazed me. I said, “Alright, I’m going to look out for his credit now. He’s now on kind of my mental list of directors I’m going to pay attention to.” I think God Told Me To came after that, and that was just one wild, crazy, nutty, unhinged movie in so many ways.
I think the movie that really made me a big fan of his was Q: The Winged Serpent. That movie just … That hit so many sweet spots for me. I’m from New York City originally and it’s so New York. I love giant monster movies. I like scenes of cops trying to kill giant monsters with machine guns. The movie is so much more than that. I think what’s great about Q is it’s fundamentally Michael Moriarty and Jimmy Quinn.
Now, I once asked Larry, I said, “Does the Q in Q: The Winged Serpent also stand for Quinn?” He said no. I thought I was being very clever when I asked that and he said no, but at the end of the day, and this is true with every movie, Moriarty and Moriarty’s character was so great and so different and so fresh that that’s really part of the allure of that picture for me. I mean, running around New York and the cop stuff, and David Carradine and Richard Roundtree, and all the other great New York actors. That’s all swell, but Moriarty was really the, was and still is I think, the big component of why that’s such a good movie.
Agreed 100%. So what was the inspiration to finally reach out to Larry to make King Cohen?
Well, frankly to tell you the truth, I was looking for a project to do. I was in the DVD special features commentary world, and that work was … It was sort of drying up and I was sort of a little tired of making … Well, I was never tired of it, I loved doing it, frankly, but I wanted to do something more. I wanted to do a bigger picture that would sort of reflect me maybe a little bit as a filmmaker. I’d had the idea for the project when I was working up at Image Entertainment. I was doing stuff for them, and it kind of got into my bloodstream a little bit, and it wouldn’t go away. At one point I think I had done a budget and I was trying to figure out what the clips would cost, and it was going to be really high. Then I’d asked those guys at Image, I said would they be interested in doing it. They said, “Sure, sounds great. When you make it, bring it back, maybe we’ll acquire it.”
You know, it kind of went away for a little while and it kind of came back. Eventually, crowdfunding kicked and then I sort of became aware also of how things could be done fair use. I gave it another try and I was terrible at crowdfunding. I think that’s when I first got in touch with Larry. I was spectacularly bad at it. Then, again, the project still wouldn’t go away. Like I said, it was in my bloodstream, and then I met Matt Verboys who’s one of the co-owners of La La Land Records. Socially, because he knew a movie that I wrote, a movie called Chopping Mall which you may or may not know.
You kidding me? I love it!
When we met, he said, “Are you Steve Mitchell, the Steve Mitchell who wrote Chopping Mall?” I said, “Yeah, I am.” He says, “Oh, man, I’m a huge fan.” Like I said, we got to know each other socially and then eventually he had said something in passing that he was thinking about trying to expand into other types of areas. He didn’t say specifically he wanted to make films, but he wanted to start thinking about doing other things. It took a long, long time for that to sort of sink in with me. Then, I don’t know, probably a few months later I had the idea and I said, “He might be interested in doing it.” We had lunch, and he said, “Well, I’m not quite sure if this is the time, but what was on your mind?” I said, “I want to do a documentary about Larry Cohen.” He said, “I’m already interested.”
Then by the time we were really done with lunch, he said, “I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we’re going to do it.” He and my other producing partner, Dan McKeon, set out to get the movie financed. Of course, Larry was on board immediately so we knew we had to start with Larry and then, oh boy, then the floodgates opened. If you have interviewed Larry, you know that once he starts, he is off to the races. He can go forever. I made a joke once, I said, “You know, we could have just set the cameras, lit Larry, and said ‘action’ and then gone out and had a two or three-hour lunch. I guarantee you when we came back, he would probably still be talking.”
He is such a raconteur.
Once you get Larry’s approval and you get the financing, how do you reach out to all these various artists, directors, writers, actors?
Well, you make a list, that’s for starters, like who you want to get. Then you sort of try and figure out how to get in touch with them. I mean, IMDB Pro is helpful up to a point, but agents don’t really want to help you talk to their clients and not make any money. Sometimes you have to be clever and find ways around that. Part of it is, “Oh, I know so-and-so” or “I have so-and-so’s phone number.” Larry was somewhat helpful in that regard.
Then you just start to put together a cast. Some people were fairly easy to get to because we had access. I mean, people like Joe Dante, and Mick Garris, and John Landis. Robert Forster I met at a screening. These people are people that were kind of in Larry’s world and we were able to get them through Larry. Then you ask them, you said, “Do you happen to know how to get in touch with so-and-so?” Because like I said, you don’t want to really go through agents and managers. Well, sometimes managers will be helpful. Then there was the story of Moriarty which was he had no agent, he was exiled up in Canada, no one really knew how to get to him. We knew that Moriarty was a real bedrock cast member.
Yeah, you had to get Moriarty.
Yeah. Somebody made a reference just recently that he was John Wayne to Larry’s John Ford. Oddly enough, and this is why Facebook is worthwhile at least 10% of the time, Lee Pfeiffer of Cinema Retro had, I think, written an article about how Moriarty is involved with doing political blogging and mentioned a website that he was on. I basically was in the middle of cutting the movie. I said to my editor, “Well, you know, maybe I should send the editor of the website an email and see if he’ll hook me up with Moriarty.” Literally 24 hours after I’d sent the email, my phone rang and on the phone it said Vancouver, BC. It was Canada, I knew Moriarty was in Canada. I said, “Holy shit, maybe it’s Moriarty.” I pick up the phone, I say, “Hi, it’s Steve.” He goes, “Steve, Michael Moriarty. How are you?” We had a very, very pleasant conversation and he wanted to see what the questions were going to be like. Ultimately, we flew up to Canada and we talked to him up in Canada. He’s a very sweet guy.
What was your greatest victory in putting King Cohen together? Was that one of them? That had to be.
You know, I think that was the big one. I think the second big one was getting Yaphet Kotto.
Because Yaphet Kotto won’t talk to anybody. In fact, he told us the day we talked to him that Roger Moore had called him up about doing something Bond related, I think. I think maybe it was to be interviewed, and he turned it down. He says, “I don’t do it.” But Yaphet Kotto loves Larry, and believes that Larry did a lot for his career by casting him in Bone. Actors really seem to love Larry, and Yaphet Kotto who is, oh just put it this way, he’s a handful in a lot of ways, was willing to talk to us because of Larry. That was an interesting day. He wasn’t in the best of moods but we sort of warmed him up. He was very interesting and articulate and he had a lot of great stuff to say about Larry.
Then because I’m a huge fan of Midnight Run, along with all my partners and my crew, we all sort of gave him a little bit of curtain call as Agent Mosley. We all told him how much we loved him, and how funny he is. I don’t know if we resorted to clapping or not, but I don’t know that he really completely understands how much fans of that movie love what he does in that picture. That was an interesting day, but getting Moriarty was big one, and then … Oh, we got Martin Scorsese, too. That just took a lot of time and a lot of perseverance, and my partner Dan McKeon deserves pretty much all the credit because he stayed on top of that.
The story behind that is sort of interesting. If you were to say, “Oh, what was Martin Scorsese like?” My answer is, “I don’t know” because I never met him. What happened was he was getting ready to go to China to do his last film, I think, and he was aware of the project and he wanted to do it. He kept saying I guess at his weekly or monthly meetings, “What’s going on with the Larry Cohen thing?” I would have gotten on a red eye if he said, “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” I would have gotten on a plane that night and I would have been at his office or wherever he wanted to do the interview, bleary eyed, whatever. I would have taken caffeine drinks, I would have mainlined coffee, whatever it takes. I would have gotten it done. But he just basically said, “Send me the questions and I’ll have one of my guys do it.” That’s what he did. It was great and we’re very grateful to him. He’s an important component to the picture.
I love the nostalgia that he has for the era and the guerrilla filmmaking of Larry’s.
I do too, and that sort of became the secondary theme of the movie about how movies were handmade by individuals who had a certain kind of talent. The idiosyncratic filmmaker. That’s what Scorsese grew up with, that’s what I grew up with. I think movies today for the most part, not entirely, but for the most part miss that. Ideas that were interesting or thrown against the wall and you would see if it would stick. The economics of movies today have changed that tremendously, and in the process, we’ve lost a certain kind of film. I grew up, and this goes to Larry in a sense, I grew up looking … I grew up in New York City, I would look at the New York Times on Fridays and Sundays and say, “What’s coming out?” I wanted to see who the director was. If it said a so-and-so film and if I liked so-and-so, I’d go see the movie. I didn’t care what it was about because I was interested in the director.
I don’t think we have a lot of that anymore today. I think that’s too bad. I think it was two weeks ago now, I saw Spider-Man: Homecoming with a buddy of mine. We were watching it and we were going, “You know, it’s perfectly fine. It’s well made. Michael Keaton was great. It’s like, so what?” I’ve more or less forgotten the picture. I find that to be true a lot these days, that you can even go see good movies today that you’ll never watch again. When I was growing up, and we always idealize our youth and our past, but I was growing up and I would see certain movies from certain directors and I’ve seen those movies dozens of times. I just don’t think we have … I don’t think the business is wired that way anymore, and I don’t think it’s wired … I don’t think the business supports filmmakers. You can make two really bad movies but if the third one or the first one was great, you would still be in sort of the casting list that people have about hiring directors.
Now, I think if you don’t make money, you’re cooked. It’s really cold blooded now, more than ever. I think it always was cold blooded, but I think now more than ever it’s cold blooded. The attitude is, “Well, if this didn’t work, who just graduated from USC and won an award for his final project? Who can we hire that’ll be cheap, and we can manipulate and control?” Nobody wants to hire Ridley Scott in a sense because he’s going to say, “Well, I want $100 million, I want to hire all my usual guys who are expensive, and I want to do it my way.” It’s like, the studios have no control over that. Well, as corporate filmmaking continues, real filmmaking starts to sort of diminish, I think. I think that’s what Scorsese was talking about to some degree. That became kind of an important secondary theme to me in the movie. I know I rambled there. I rambled there for a bit, I’m sorry.
No, please do. Stemming off of that though, what I appreciated so much about King Cohen as this celebration of Larry, it also became a celebration of how one artist effects another artist, who effects another artist.
Wow, okay. Thank you.
Well, you start-
I’m not entirely sure that’s what I did, but if that’s what I did, great!
The film starts with this JJ Abrams interview where it’s this very LA story where he encounters Larry at a bus stop trying to get to a meeting, and then it evolves into Larry seeing a puppet of the It’s Alive baby in a Bad Robot office, and the glee that is on Abrams face as he’s telling this story, you see the impact that Larry had on him. JJ is very much a part of the corporate Hollywood scene right now, and it just shows how Larry has had an impact on the current cultural landscape, or cinematic landscape.
I think that’s what good filmmakers and original and idiosyncratic filmmakers do. They make their mark, and if they make their mark enough, it’s kind of like what John Landis said, “If you look at seven or eight movies, they’ll tell you a lot.” Larry likes Sam Fuller personally. He casts Sam Fuller. He liked his movies, and Sam Fuller was Larry in the 50s, in a sense. I’m a Sam Fuller fan. I don’t like all of his pictures, but I think I’ve seen almost all of his movies because I’m curious to know what Sam Fuller does. I think artists impress other artists. I think there isn’t an illustrator or a painter in the world who doesn’t look at the greats and go, “Alright, well, there’s the bar. That’s what I have to work towards.”
I think that’s true with Larry as well. I mean, Larry’s a big Hitchcock fan. Larry is a big Warner Brothers fan. I think in another life, had Larry been born like maybe 20 years earlier, I think he would have fought tooth and nail to get over at Warner Brothers and try and be a Warner Brothers director just like Michael Curtiz. It’s interesting. Larry is fundamentally a guy who I think likes to do thrillers, but … I’m trying to think of any movies of his that are even remotely mainstream.
I mean, a couple of those screenplays that he did in the early aughts, Phone Booth and Cellular, they’re pretty mainstream.
But they’re thrillers. But they’re still thrillers.
Bone is not mainstream, but Bone is not genre, either. I mean, Larry has always worked in and through genre through his movies, but yeah. I mean, the thing is that Larry could have been in his own way, I mean we’re playing with the time space continuum here which is always a dodgy thing, but Larry could have been perhaps like Hitchcock had he gotten an earlier start, another one of those go-to thriller/suspense kind of guys. Yet, his movies were always more than genre. Larry’s movies are very entertaining, but they’re more than just entertainment. He always has something on his mind which is what makes him interesting.
Absolutely. I know I have a limited time here, but I would hate myself if I didn’t ask about the Fred Williamson interview, and how he remembered things maybe slightly differently than Larry does.
Well, two things about Fred. Fred Williamson is everything you expect he is. He refers to himself in the third person, he refers to himself as The Hammer, he drives a Hummer which has Hammer on the license plate. He’s bigger than life. He’s very charming. He was very pleasant. I think we talked to him for about an hour and 15 minutes on camera, and then we chatted with him for about another half hour or so on the front and back end. He was not in a hurry to sort of say, “Okay, guys, you got to get out of here.” He was very, very pleasant to be with and I enjoyed his company. He remembers it the way The Hammer remembers it. If that’s the way Fred remembers it, then that’s the way Fred remembers it. Larry remembers things another way. I mean, that was part of why we did that sequence.
That sequence, one, it’s funny and there’s that great line, and in my business, you never cut funny. That was something we cut very early in the game and we said, “This movie is about Larry Cohen so Larry Cohen’s personality, in a sense, is a dictate of how we go about doing things.” That sequence is a little long. That was maybe the one sequence that was longer in terms of time I devoted to certain chapter and ideas about who Larry was because it was funny, but it was saying a lot about him, it was saying a lot about Fred. Then if you know anything about screenwriting, you always want to set something up early and then pay it off later. Luckily, Larry did Original Gangsters and we were able to do it again. We also did it with Moriarty, too.
Fred, Fred’s a character. Fred’s a great character. Listen, I think all movies, nonfiction or fiction, live and breathe on interesting characters. Fred was all that. I enjoy talking about Fred, talking with Fred. But then, Fred likes talking about Fred. We spent about an hour and 15 minutes interviewing him and I would say a good hour of that hour and 15 minutes always was through Fred’s filter. It was always about Fred. It was always about The Hammer, but all of it was really interesting. He’s an interesting guy and an interesting character, and when you think that he came from the streets of Gary, Indiana, he’s a remarkable success story.
Was there anything in King Cohen that you wanted to get but you just couldn’t make it happen?
There were a couple of things. I would have loved to have had Joel Schumacher talk about Phone Booth, and he was going through a period with some … He was getting some bad publicity, I think, about something. I think it might have had to do with … It might have been sexual harassment related. He wasn’t talking to anybody. He was really … He just wasn’t going to talk to us about anything. But I would have liked to have had him. I tried getting Tony Lo Bianco and maybe somehow my messages were lost or my timing was bad or something, but I would have liked to have talked to Tony, for two reasons. One, of course about God Told Me To, and secondly, and secretly more importantly to me, about The French Connection which is my second favorite movie of all time, and The Seven Ups too, which I also like. I would have liked to talk to Tony.
You always want the most, bestest, biggest, grandest cast you can get. At the end of the day, I think we did pretty good. I’m very happy with our cast, but there’s always somebody else that you want to talk to, but after certain point, you say, “Alright, is that going be a plane trip? Am I going to have to pay for the interview?” You start to get to a point, especially towards the end, where you go, “Do I have enough to tell Larry’s story?” At the end of the day, I think we did but I would have loved to have had an extra two minutes from Tony. I would have loved to have had an extra two minutes from Joel Schumacher. I had a fleeting thought maybe about trying to get Keifer Sutherland, but I’m sure that he would have been next to impossible because I think he was busy working. The financials on that one just wouldn’t have been worth it. I’m very happy with the cast, I think we have a great cast, and I think I was able to tell Larry’s story. Which at the end of the day, is what’s most important.
You certainly see that, and I know Larry wants a King Cohen Strikes Back sequel.
I know, I know. He’s only half kidding, too.
I got that impression.
Right. Larry’s always going, “What about this? What about that? Oh, we should have talked …” You know. Yes, weeks later when the movie finally ends and everybody has aged, Larry, your complete story will be told. The guy’s got … His resume is just beyond belief. The amount of work that he’s done in half a century? I mean, that’s one of the other things about why I wanted to do the movie is that this guy’s had an extraordinary career.
The length of it, the breadth of it, how original it is, that all went into the why we did it, but it’s also an example of what probably won’t happen ever again.
How many people who are working today are going to have the kind of career Larry Cohen had? Little or none is probably the answer.
Yep, and you definitely can’t shoot the way he did.
No, god no. No, you can’t. The way he shot is what made those movies Larry Cohen movies.
As part of the DOC NYC festival, King Cohen will have its New York premiere at the Cinepolis Chelsea on November, 13th.