From The Archives:
A Previously Unpublished Interview with Larry Cohen
Director of Cult Classics like It's Alive, Black Caesar and The Stuff
by Lee Sobel
Larry Cohen was a very successful screenwriter, the creator of the 60's SF TV show THE INVADERS (please, God, release it on blu ray already) and the director of many movies that are still loved as cult classics today. Mr. Cohen passed away in 2019 but I was lucky enough to speak to him several years before, when I was working on a book about maverick film directors that I ended up aborting.
Larry Cohen had a very long career and even into his later years was getting big studio movies made from scripts he'd written, which was pretty much unheard of for a veteran screenwriter over 60 years old. There is a great documentary about him called King Cohen (2017) directed by Steve Mitchell that I highly recommend. Mr. Cohen passed away in 2019, so
Larry Cohen on the set of Black Caesar (1973)
it is with great pleasure that I present to you now my previously unpublished interview with this writer/filmmaker whose career was truly one of a kind.
Lee Sobel: I know from things I've read about you that having control of your product is of utmost importance to you. Would you say that’s correct?
Larry Cohen: That’s the truth. I made my own movies. I edited them, directed them. I supervised them, sometimes even the ad campaigns. I’ve done everything I wanted to. It’s been my responsibility. I like doing it. People think of movies being a collaborative medium but to me, it’s a one-man show.
Lee Sobel: I want to ask you about your first movie, Bone (1972). I couldn’t help but notice that this movie came out three years after the Manson Family Murders. The Sharon Tate murder happened in Beverly Hills. Everybody always talks in these history books about how people in Beverly Hills wouldn't lock their doors until the Manson murders, how that changed the vibe of Hollywood. Was that present in your mind when you came up with the idea of a criminal breaking into a Beverly Hills home?
Larry Cohen: The answer to the your question is, absolutely not. If I started with the Manson thing, I never would have written the piece in the first place. It was supposed to be a black comedy, and it was supposed to be funny and satiric. The Manson thing was so gloomy and brutal that if that had been in
my mind, I just never would have written the thing. I just wouldn’t see the humor in such a situation: someone coming in and slaughtering everybody in the house, and killing a pregnant woman and everything. I just wouldn’t have seen any possibility for humor in that subject. If I had really thought about it and connected the two, I never would have done it. I wrote something about what I consider to be every white man’s nightmare, that he’s going to find a black man in his house.
Lee Sobel: What was it about racism that you wanted to explore in the film? Was that a subject you wanted to explore at all in your earlier TV work? Was that too risky for TV? Where did that idea come from?
Larry Cohen: Certainly I could have never done that on television, the subject
of a black rapist coming into the house terrorizing the family and doing it as a comedy, was something beyond the scope of television. That’s not the kind of thing that television would accept. No one would have had that as a television show. As a movie, it was still pretty hard for people to take. As a matter of fact, the response to the movie was that, black people enjoyed it and laughed at all the jokes, but a lot of white people were offended by the film. Even when the picture was shown in Chicago about five or six years ago, at an art theater. The manager told me that the white people were offended by the picture. They still didn’t get it. They still didn’t see themselves as portrayed in the movie. Black people got it -- the saw the prejudice and fear that white people have of them.
Lee Sobel: Do you think in hindsight that maybe you were more forward thinking than the mainstream audience was, in terms of exploring breaking down stereotypes?
Larry Cohen: Definitely, I mean, even some thirty some years later, when we showed the picture again in Chicago, people still aren’t up to speed. There’s still underlying fear in a lot of white people that black people are a threat to them.
Lee Sobel: This movie was released under a number of different titles. Even though the film was intended to be a black comedy, some of the trailers were clearly marketing it as sexploitation.
Larry Cohen: Jack Harris who distributed it was a very nice man and who was very kind to take the picture in the first place. He returned the money for it. He paid off all the debts and expenses for the movie and he didn’t really make any profit on the picture. He was a wonderful guy in that respect but in terms of selling the picture, he didn’t understand what it was at all. Because there were some successful black pictures at the time, he thought he could sell the picture as a black exploitation film. He might have very well have been able to do it if he advertised it as a comedy, but he tried to sell it as an action film. The audience came to see some action picture and when they got in, they saw something that they didn’t understand what the hell it was. I just said to Jack, “The picture’s supposed to be a comedy and you’re selling it as a drama.” I said, no matter how good that you give people the best chocolate ice cream they ever tasted, they’re still disappointed because they came for vanilla. You can’t sell people something when they want something else. You can’t misrepresent a picture. His response was, “I’m not telling them they’re not supposed to laugh.” I said, “Jack, if they’re coming to see a drama, they’re not gonna know they’re supposed to laugh. They’re going to be confused.” We got a couple of reviews saying it’s the most unintentionally funny movie of the year. But nobody was laughing. He changed it to Housewife. I guess he should have called it Desperate Housewives. Cause when he changed it to Housewife, he tried to sell it as a sex picture. And that was not what it was. And so then the picture went over to England and I went to London to the distributors and they were very, very intelligent gentlemen. We had a wonderful lunch and I told them all about my film experience with Jack Harris and that he misrepresented the film and they said, “Oh, it’s such a great film, there’s so much humor. We enjoyed it so much that we want to distribute the film.” I finally put it in the hands of intelligent people. When they got the picture, they called it Dial Rat for Terror. And they did a worse thing than Jack Harris did. They seemed to understand everything and yet they understood nothing. Dial Rat for Terror has got to be the worst title I’ve ever heard. So the picture went out once again and went into a marketplace that couldn’t possibly understand it. It was one thing after another but by that time, I'd already gotten together the financing to make Black
Ceasar (1973). So then I made that movie and I had a successful picture. It was #1 at the box office. Bone served its purpose, it got me started. I thought someday the picture would come out again and someday the picture would find its audience. It went very well with the DVD release. We got wonderful reviews. Every place the picture was reviewed when the DVD came out, it got very good response from the critics. As far as the sales go and stuff like that, it did not do very well. The picture stillhasn’t found its own yet.
Lee Sobel: With the movie God Told Me To, that was another film that was released under a different title. It was at one point titled Demon and marketed as a violent horror film. It wasn’t exactly a slice-and-dice kind of horror movie.
Larry Cohen: Absolutely not. I made the film, and Roger Corman bought it for his company New World. He didn’t do anything for the making of the film. All he did was acquire the distribution. We thought he was going to do a good job with it because he was enthusiastic about the picture. After opening the picture down in Texas, which was the worst place to open a film like that, which was full of religion, a very religious-based marketplace like Texas. We released the picture and the campaign said that there’s a big group of people there to see the film, and that’s not the way to sell the picture, with religious tone. Roger said, "Well, we gotta change the title." I suggested changing the title to Alien. Oh, he blew up, “You can’t call the picture Alien. People will think it’s about Mexicans making it across the border.” I said, Alien’s a great title for this movie. He wouldn’t let me use the title. So he
finally settled down to Demon which was always spelled sideways. We went out with that and of course, later on Alien became one of the most seminal titles in science-fiction history. So what can you say. Roger Corman's a nice guy; he’s not a bad guy, but contrary to what some may believe, he didn’t know much about anything.
Lee Sobel: New World Pictures made The Stuff, correct?
Larry Cohen: By that time Roger Corman had sold the company. It was not the same Roger Corman company. The name continued but Roger in the meantime had founded his own new company. He had absolutely no connection with New World when The Stuff was made.
Lee Sobel: You were shooting so much at New York at various times. Did you have a residence there as well? Were you living in New York?
Larry Cohen: I always had a place in New York and I still have. After I had a few successful movies I bought a brownstone on 79th, between Park and Lexington. It’s a beautiful, fabulous house. I wish I still had it today. I have quite a presence in New York City. I always kept my house in Beverly Hills. Now I have a place in Chicago as well, when I do movies there, and I have a house here. I don’t have any big house in Manhattan anymore. I have an apartment there.
Lee Sobel: What was it like filming in New York? When you were in New York, you’re famous for, and everyone always talks about how you filmed without permits and took a lot of risks. Clearly, you can’t do those kinds of things today. Was it a lot of fun to shoot in New York at that time, and try to get away with as much as you could in your productions?
Larry Cohen: Yeah, well, to tell you the truth, I thought I owned the city. I felt I was infallible and that there was nothing I couldn’t do - drive taxi cabs on the sidewalk, we’d do gun fights on the streets, just running up to a place and we’d invade the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, with thousands of cops. We invaded a parade without any permission. For some reason, I got away with everything.
Lee Sobel: You had some incidents. When you made Q: The Winged Serpent (1982) you were firing off blanks at the top of the Chrysler building. You were really pushing it, weren’t you?
Larry Cohen: In that particular occasion, we did have the permission to do that and all the guys firing in the shoot were all off-duty police officers. They were all cops. But when we arrived at the place in the neighborhood, the gunfire from the top of the Chrysler building, the city turned around and made a big deal as if we hadn’t done it without permission. That was one of the few cases where I had a permission to do it. Today with fears of terrorism and all that kind of stuff, firing at the top of a skyscraper probably sounds like it created more of a panic. It didn’t cause any panic at all. The camera man and I got on the streets and just captured people reacting. They just walked by, people going to places, and they just kept walking. There was no big deal at all about it. But when the newspapers got a hold of it, they tried to make it like some kind of wild panic in the streets, but it was totally untrue. If we had, I would have been very happy about it. We would have gotten pictures of it, but it didn’t happen.
Lee Sobel: The thing that’s so impressive about you is how prolific you’ve been, how you’ve made multiple films in the same year, basically shooting one picture Monday through Friday and then shooting another one Saturday and Sunday. Did you ever sleep?
Larry Cohen: No.
Lee Sobel: How did you physically handle that?
Larry Cohen: I don’t know but at that point in my life, I was so
hopped up on myself. A lot of people said I must have taken drugs or something but I never took any drugs. At the time, I’ve never been into taking any kind of stimulus or drugs, any kind of sleeping pills or, nothing. I never took any kind. I was so high about what I was doing, I was high on myself, I was high on the fact that I had a whole crew of people that did what I told them to do. We went out doing crazy stuff and it was just so much energy that was generated by it. I will say this - the shooting schedule was only around eighteen days, about maybe four weeks and after that, I don’t know if I could have continued on. At the end of the shooting schedules, I usually got sick. Usually as soon as the picture dropped, I was in bed for a week. As soon as the picture was finished, goodbye, I’m out. I would always get sick. I’d get the flu or something like that. The one thing I hated about shooting was that Sunday, I wanted to give everyone the day off and that’s what frightened me the most, a day off. I was mortified that I would just completely collapse. I was kind of happy to do two movies at once because there was no day off.
Lee Sobel: With Bone, although your intention was a black comedy, you were obviously grappling with a very serious subject matter which clearly the mainstream market was not up to speed with it yet. From there, you were into making more commercial movies, most of which did deal with strong subject matter, but not quite as heavily. Was that satisfying for you, or were you frustrated that you were making B movies and not as films as serious as Bone was intended to be?
Larry Cohen: I would say this. If Bone had been received differently, my whole career would have gone down a different direction. If Bone had been accepted by critics and at the box office, as I had hoped it would, then things might have turned out different in terms of the kinds of pictures I was able to direct and the subjects I was able to do. But since Bone didn’t take off, I was lucky to just do Black Caesar, which was a big hit. I think it had serious sides to it. It took thirty-five years for somebody else to make the same picture, American Gangster, a big hundred-million dollar budget movie with Denzel Washington. It’s basically the same thing as Black Caesar except that Black Caesar was better, but at that time I think it’s about police corruption and a black man trying to live in the white man’s world.
Lee Sobel: While you were getting all this success, making It's Alive (1974) and the movies you were making after that, were there any personal stories that you wanted to tell as well?
Larry Cohen: I think you get whatever pictures I could get on short notice. There were other projects that were proposed. Those are the ones that we made. You still have to go to a studio to get a picture made so I had to go to Warner Brothers with something and they liked the It’s Alive pitch and then I wrote the script and those are the ones that got made, and other pictures didn’t. I as a writer had about forty-five movies shot that I actually produced but I must have twenty-five more sitting in the filing cabinets for one reason or another. But I did want to make The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977). I thought it was a serious subject and I did get it made. Ones that you really like and care about the most are usually the hardest ones to get made. When you just do it for the fun of it, those pictures get made quicker than the ones you really have your heart wrapped around. It isn’t always, whatever you want to make the most gets made. But I have some nice thoughts about all the pictures that I made. Well, perhaps with the exception of Hell Up in Harlem (1973), which I thought was sloppy. I only made it because of the success of Black Caesar. The distributor wanted a sequel to Black Caesar so we just did it. I didn’t hardly have a script even. I was just making it up as I was going along.
Lee Sobel: One of the other movies I wanted to ask you about was Wicked Stepmother (1989) because it sounds like that had a bit of an uphill battle, in terms of making that film. At some point you lost Bette Davis and then you had to rewrite the whole script. How much of a nightmare was that?
Larry Cohen: It wasn’t a nightmare. It was an enjoyable experience. I liked Bette Davis a lot. I liked our time together. She was at my house a lot and we hung out. I got to know her quite well, and I got a lot of enjoyment out of it. She was one of the greatest stars in my youth. She was once the biggest female star in Hollywood so I got a kick out of working with her. I wish she had been more honest with me before we started shooting. When filming she was always having a problem with her dentures because we would postpone the picture until she got her teeth fixed. She had a crack in her mouth before we started and she was trying to get through it, readjusting her teeth. After every night of that, she would stop and try to get her teeth back in place. It was very odd. I didn’t know what the hell was going on because she didn’t tell me. And then they finally broke completely and she couldn’t work anymore, then she had to go back to New York to her dentist and that was going to be like seven weeks before she could come back, which the distributor was not prepared to put up with. They were going to cancel the picture and call off the insurance and the completion guarantee. So I wouldn’t have gotten paid and that would have been the end of it, but I was trying to salvage the fifteen days that she’d shot and I was trying to salvage the production so I said, “Listen, I can rewrite this thing and finish the picture and you could actually let me get your money back.” So that’s
what we did. Oddly enough, the picture did go into profits from the insurance company and the completion guarantee company. They got their money back and they made their profit on the film. Everybody was happy. I was happy that we finished the picture. Bette probably wasn’t happy but we still finished with her name. Her name was still on it. I don’t think she ever saw it. I think if she saw the picture, she probably would have been amused by it because all the other people were very good in the film: Lionel Stander, Colleen Camp, all the people that were in it did a nice job. It’s a very cute little film actually. Not one of my favorites but the experience of making the film was a very enjoyable to me because I got so much fun out of working with Bette Davis.
Lee Sobel: One of the things that I noticed in your career is that you’ve worked with a quite a few actors who had difficult reputations.
Larry Cohen: You’re absolutely right. I mean, Ron Cey had a very bad reputation and so did Michael Moriarty, but that’s my favorite kind of actor. I never really had a problem with those guys. First of all, I’m always honest with them. I tell them the truth. Most of these people just don’t like being lied to. Some of them have this big sense about being lied to; they just kind of know it. I tell them the
truth, I’m straight-forward with them, I write them good dialogues, I write them new scenes. I engage them. I want their opinions and feelings. I want their criticisms. I enjoy talking to them. Every director I know hates actors and wants little to do them as possible and
Larry and Bette Davis making Wicked Stepmother
they treat them as adversaries. I don’t do that. I get a kick out of working with actors and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t direct pictures. I know other people who are very adverse to getting in bed with the actors. They have a gulf between them and they try to maintain authoritarian positions and dictate to the actors and try to make the actors respect them and all that nonsense. I never had that problem.
Lee Sobel: It was never a concern of yours, given that you made some of these movies on tight budgets, with tight shooting schedules, that you might be taking on actors who might be risky on a fast shooting schedule? That’s gotta be a little bit dangerous, no?
Larry Cohen: I never thought about it. Frankly, I liked Zoe Lund aka Zoe Tamerlis who I cast in SPECIAL EFFECTS (1984) from seeing her in MS. 45. I had a feeling that she was a drug addict; she was extremely thin. But she’s beautiful.
She could act, and she’s trained. The people who were working for me said, “Oh, you know, we can’t find out where she lives. She won’t give her phone number. She won’t tell us where she lives. We don’t know how to give her her call everyday.” And I said, “Well, she calls you, doesn’t she?” And they said, “Yes, she calls us everyday.” I said, “Well, what’s the problem, then? She’s calling you everyday, you’re giving her her time and her location. Does she show up on time?” They said, “Yes.” I said, “Then what are you bothering me for?” “No! That’s not the way it’s done!” I said, “Who cares how it’s done? As long as the actor shows up everyday and she does her part and knows her lines, I don’t care where she lives.” They tried to follow her one day when she left, and she changed taxi cabs. I don’t understand. Everyday she
came to the set, she was carrying a big bag and, I'd ask “What’s in the big bag that you’re carrying?” She’d go, “Oh, it’s a script I wrote.” I said, “What do you have to carry it for?” She said, “I can’t leave it at home in case somebody breaks in and steals it; it’s my only copy.” I said, “Wait a minute. Why don’t you make a copy of it? Then you won’t have to worry.” “Oh, but whoever makes the copy might steal the copy for themselves and I can’t have a copy person see it. Someone might duplicate it or something so I have to carry it with me.” I said, “Okay, Zoe, go ahead and carry your bag wherever you want, and that script was THE BAD LIEUTENANT.”
Lee Sobel: Which is a great movie. I find it fascinating that you found the New York indie film scene of interest. You worked with a number of actors that had been in New York indie films. What was it about LIQUID SKY and SMITHEREENS and Abel Ferrara’s work that led you work with to these actors?
Larry Cohen: I saw the movies, that’s how I can tell you. I saw the movies. I was looking to make two low-budget films. We didn’t have much money. The company gave me five-hundred thousand dollars to make two pictures, so that was almost nothing. I couldn’t make a union movie with
Screen Actors Guild actors. I had to find the actors who were competent actors but weren’t members of the Screen Actors Guild. Zoe Temerlis was not a member of the Screen Actors Guild. Neither was Eric Bogosian and neither was Brad Rijn. So I cast those pictures with non-union actors. That way I didn’t have to pay them over-time and didn’t have to pay them certain fees. I mean, I did films back-to-back. We shot them very cheaply and I thought the pictures were very good too. One of those movies was PERFECT STRANGERS. It’s a film that many people talked to me about doing a remake of. Somebody wanted to buy the remake rights to it or something. I got a proposal last week through somebody who’s a major filmmaker who’s interested in the property. Guillermo del Toro. He’s a pretty heavyweight director. He’d like to make a remake of PERFECT STRANGERS.
Lee Sobel: Can you tell me a bit about the journey of the idea for PHONE BOOTH (2002 - written by Larry Cohen and directed by Joel Schumacher) and how eventually it got made?
Larry Cohen: Well, Hitchcock has always been one of my favorite directors. One time I had met with him in New York at the St. Regis Hotel and he agreed to do a property with me. By the time I came out to California about ten days later, Universal had talked him out of it. Unfortunately, in the latter stage of his career he was under the spell of Universal executives who more or less ran his life for him. It made him a very rich man but it also had a very detrimental effect on his movies. The quality of his pictures declined in his later years. They continually talked him out of doing the things he wanted to do. So I had a relationship with him but the picture that I wanted to do with him was later done by Mark Robson (DADDY'S GONE A-HUNTING, 1969). It wasn’t very good. Robson did a pretty bad job of it so that’s what influenced me into directing myself after that experience. But I knew Hitchcock. Even when I met with him again some years later, he and I came up with the idea of making a movie inside of a phone booth. But I could never figure out a way how to do it and neither could he. When I would run into him at an event he would often say, “How’s our Phone Booth movie coming?” and here I am.
Lee Sobel: At what point did you write the script?
Larry Cohen: Hitchcock was already deceased by that time.
Lee Sobel: So you wrote the script on spec?
Larry Cohen: Yes.
Lee Sobel: How did it come to be made?
Larry Cohen: We got it to somebody at CAA, which is a big-time agency, and they liked it. They wanted to package it and they sent it out. We got everybody to read it and everybody liked it but nobody wanted to make it. Everybody thought it was a great script but it wouldn’t work. They just thought they couldn’t engage the audience about a guy in a phone booth for an hour and a half. Everybody thought it was a very well-written piece of work, but nobody wanted to buy it. Then CAA involved director Joel Schumacher and Nicholas Cage to star in it. In those times, Nicholas Cage and Schumacher were willing to do it. 20th Century Fox stepped in and bought the script. So they decided almost immediately that they didn’t want Nicholas Cage. They thought they wanted Mel Gibson. They didn’t want Schumacher because they felt Mel Gibson could direct the picture. There was a clash of personalities before it finally went back to Schumacher again.
Lee Sobel: In the 60's you created the sci-fi TV series The Invaders. One of the things that I thought was quite remarkable for its time was that from episode to episode the story progressed. This is something I didn’t see on TV certainly in the sci-fi genre. I know that you created The Invaders and then really were not involved with the series. I guess that’s one of the few times where you created something and didn’t have full control over it - was that frustrating?
Michael Moriarty in Cohen's Q: The Winged Serpent
Larry Cohen: I wrote about twenty storylines for them when I created the show. They used mostly the story lines that I wrote in some form or another. But I didn’t actually work on the show on a weekly basis just because Quinn Martin who produced the show really didn’t want me on it. He wanted me to write the show. He wanted to be the boss. He didn’t want anybody else to influence the show that would be in conflict with him. I was too strong of a figure for him to deal with so he sort of phased me out. The show was sold to ABC directly where he was producing. I’m fine with that. I just kept my money, which was substantial and let them produce the series the way they wanted to. The series the first season was okay. It got progressively, I felt, repetitive. There were too many invaders and they died too easily. They would show up, six and twelve, and for episodes, they just shoot everyone, they’d all burn up. It must have been fun for a while but after a while it became predictable and tiresome.
They just didn’t have stories which were interesting enough in terms of, which person was the invader and who is it? At the end of the show, almost everybody was an invader. There were just too many invaders and they died too easily. I particularly like the ones with Michael Rennie. I got a big kick out of seeing him as the leader of the invaders. He was very good. They should have used him more actually, but they didn’t. So what can I tell you? There’s always talk of re-making it or making a feature of it. But we’ll see what happens. It could have been a much better series than it was. The writing was really where the fault lied. I have to blame the producers for it - Alan Armer and Quinn Martin. I mean, because we tried to give them something and they would just ignore it. You just do the best that you can. And then, if you’re a smart like the guy I am, then you just move onto other things.
Lee Sobel: You did a great deal of work in TV and I suspect that back then it was especially difficult to transition from television to features. From your early work in television, is there a movie or an episode that really stands out, that you’re particularly proud of? And I’m assuming, that you saw theatricals as being kind of what you wanted to graduate to. Is that a fair assessment?
Larry Cohen: Well, everybody felt that television was a stepping stone to feature pictures. In those days, there wasn’t the kind of money to be made in television like the money today. People make phenomenal amounts of money from a series now. Back then there wasn’t the respect of television that the rest of motion pictures had. Everybody who could moved on over to motion pictures if they could. I did, but I was writing movies at the same time as doing television. I was doing both simultaneously. I was never exclusive to any show. I was still free to do my feature work and I didn’t have to go into an office everyday and sit there. TV is really done by a committee so they would have writers in the room. A dozen guys who are writers would collaborate on the script. You look at something like Law and Order and see the names of seven or eight producers, co-producers, supervising producers, every one of those
Gene Hackman guest starred on an episode of
The Invaders created by Larry Cohen
guys is a writer. They’re all making the script. When I was writing television, the best work I did was in a series called The Defenders with E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed. It was produced by Reginald Rose. It was on CBS and it nearly won me an award almost every year. It was on for five years and I wrote for three of those years on that show. I wrote some very, very good episodes. I wrote them. I was the only writer. Sometimes, I would get notes from Reginald Rose but there weren’t many. They shot what I wrote. One time the director wanted to make a lot of changes in the
Roy Thinnes starred in the sci-fi TV series
The Invaders created by Larry Cohen
script. They replaced the director and they put another director in. So instead of replacing the writer, which is the usual function in L.A., they replaced the director. So it was a writer-oriented show but instead of having dozens of writers on the show there was really only one writer and that was me. I enjoyed doing that show because I wrote them, I delivered them, and they shot them. And that was great. And I was also welcome to come on the set on that show. Usually writers aren’t welcome on the set unless they’re producers. I had a good period there.
Lee Sobel: You’ve had such a remarkable career of working so long. Clearly Phone Booth was a very significant boost to your career. What’s your perspective on how both the TV business and the feature business in Hollywood has changed from when you were first working at it and what it’s like today?
Larry Cohen: Most of the directors by the time they’re fifty-five or sixty-five, their career’s over. In order to work, you have to have ideas. I’m constantly coming up with new scripts and new concepts, and putting them out there in the marketplace and firing it up to get things made. They always want to make comic books, established properties or so-called blockbuster movies like Harry Potter or something so it makes it difficult to today to get a low-budget picture made. Today you go to a film festival and it used to be, they would get a hundred submissions. Now there’s two thousand. Everybody’s got a video camera. It used to be, there was much less competition. Today, thousands of independent films are made by people. 98% of them never get distributed. Ones that do get distributed, you sometimes have to buy the theater to get the picture played for a week or ten days in a theater and nobody goes to see it anyway.
Lee Sobel: One of the things I feel today is that television, especially cable television is better than ever.
Larry Cohen: You’re absolutely right. Movies that get made on HBO and Showtime are much better than the movies that are getting put out theatrically. If you have any degree of intelligence and you want to see a dramatic well-done, well-produced story, you probably have a better chance to see it on HBO or Showtime than you will at a movie theater when all The Stuff is made to be for a ten-year-old mentality. So that’s absolutely true what you just said.
Lee Sobel: When you saw your pictures playing in Times Square, do you remember the audience interacting with your movies at all?
Larry Cohen: When you go to Times Square on 42nd Street, the audience talks to the movie. They yell things at the screen. It’s the best place to prove your picture, actually because if something’s wrong with the movie, you find out right away, because they tell you. I had a film, it was Brian Dennehy and James Woods’ Bestseller. It was a very good movie. I wrote it. The audience liked the picture all the way to the end and at the last five minutes, there was something that went wrong with the picture and they started yelling at the screen, and I had told the producers to fix that, to change that, and they wouldn’t listen to me. Sure enough, when the picture played the audience started screaming at the screen, when they didn’t like something and they evidently didn’t quite like that. I think the picture went down because of that. It would have been much better if they had fixed it then. I’m sure I was correct. The audience told me I was correct.
Lee Sobel: One thing I noticed is that when you did the Masters of Horror TV movie, “Pick Me Up,” this is one of the first things that you had directed in quite some time. Was there a reason for taking time off of directing? Are you back in the saddle? Are you going to direct any new movies?
Larry Cohen: I did that because they were old friends. All the guys that directed Masters of Horror, we’d all get together and did it together. We got everyone in the horror business show up on these things. I didn’t think it was seriously that good. I was disappointed in most of the episodes that the guys did. John Landis could have done a much better work than he did. I thought mine was pretty good actually but I’m glad I did it. It was done in a worst possible condition. It was freezing cold. It rained everyday that we were shooting. So it was a minimal
shoot. But I did it, and I enjoyed doing it, but I was really glad it was over because the weather was so unpleasant everyday. We really had to suffer through it. But I was glad to do a picture with Michael Moriarty. That was the first time we did in years.
As far as other pictures go, I’m not making them because there’s no way to make any money off of them. That’s the problem. All the pictures that I made, I made money on, even pictures like The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, which was making about $355,000 profit on the movie. Every picture we did, we made money on. Today there’s no chance of making any movie on the pictures. Somebody can go to a theater and make a video of your movie and sell it or it ends up on the internet and put you out of business. It’s not a very appetizing situation to me.
Anne Carlisle in Larry Cohen's Perfect Strangers
That’s why I’m not making them, too many chances of getting your picture stolen and too few chances of getting any money back. So many of the independent companies that would distribute a film nowadays have gone out of business and big companies only want big blockbuster films, not smaller pictures. So once in a while, somebody comes out with a horror movie and makes some money but in general it’s an anomaly. That’s why I’m not doing it. If you can’t make a profit then there’s no sense in doing it. You’re better off to sell the script.
Lee Sobel: How seductive is Hollywood? Do you feel that
filmmakers often lose their ideals because making money is so attractive to them?
Larry Cohen: Yeah, making a lot of money, that’s a different story. There’s a lot of great filmmakers who started out making interesting, fascinating movies. A lot of the guys start out making great introductory movies and then once they’re established they start making pictures in the genres that the studios want and the pictures are indiscernible from everybody else’s pictures. They all look alike. You go to the previews and one picture after another that comes on, they all look like the same movie. They’re all cut the same, same kind of special effects, same kind of CGI. You’re not even making your own movie anymore. You’re having the company as your partner, they’re making the movie too. The bigger you get, the less individuality there is. That’s the problem with the thing. People start out with tremendous promise and make fascinating movies, low-budget.
Eric Bogosian & Zoe Tamerlis Lund in
Larry Cohen's Special Effects
Then they get into the Hollywood big-budget business and they’re making the same movies as everybody else.
Lee Sobel: Was the 70s' the golden era?
Larry Cohen: In those days, Martin Scorsese was making interesting movies. His films at the beginning of his career were very interesting films, like Taxi Driver. But then as time went on, he was making big budget films like Gangs of New York, which I didn’t think
was very good. And The Aviator, which was good, but I didn’t think it was very good.
Lee Sobel: Oh, don’t forget Goodfellas.
Larry Cohen: Goodfellas was a pretty good picture, yeah. I thought the movie might have been better under a different actor frankly.
Lee Sobel: Did you feel that in the 70s there were people in the industry had something to prove? I mean, look at all the great movies that came out of Hollywood in the 70s. We
don’t have any movies like that anymore.
Eric Roberts and James Earl Jones in Larry Cohen's The Ambulance
Larry Cohen: You’re absolutely 100% right because
everybody’s trying to make the big blockbusters. Once in a while, you do see an interesting film coming along and people who make the pictures - if the picture does any business at all - gets swept up by the studios and the next thing you know, they’re doing a big CGI movie. I mean, there’s Kenneth Branagh made all kinds of fascinating, high-level quality pictures. Now he’s directing Thor. I didn’t see Thor, but people said it was a pretty good picture for what it was. But what the hell is he doing directing Thor?
Lee Sobel: And Ang Lee made the Incredible Hulk. I thought that was bizarre.
Larry Cohen: It is bizarre, but you know, but you talk about seductive. People offer somebody big enough money to direct a picture, and they have a $150 million budget to spend and I can’t say that I can resist that temptation if somebody made me the offer. Maybe I was lucky that they didn’t make me the offer. I don’t think I can handle that kind of work anyway because it’s too collaborative. For that kind of picture you have to have too many partners, too many meetings, too many endowments with other departments and special effects departments and this and that and the other. I’m just not interested in meetings. I just want to be able to run out and do what I want to do. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m going to do until I get to the location and then it comes to me and I shoot the scene. I enjoy the mystery of it, kind of. But with the big studio picture you have to do everything in advance, storyboard every scene. I don’t like storyboarding, I don’t like making up the whole picture and then trying to put the people into it. It’s like paining a picture where there’s numbers all over the canvas; you paint the #12 brown, and #6 green. It would come out to be a horse when it’s all finished. I don’t like that. That’s not my kind of painting. I’m more a kind of filmmaker that I like to slop over all the paint on the canvas and discover what’s gonna be there as I’m doing it. That’s the way Picasso painted if you ever saw the documentary on him. He didn’t know what the fuck he was doing until he got a picture painted. And then when he didn’t like it, he painted over it. That’s a fascinating documentary
on Picasso but when I saw it, I said, you know, he paints the way I write. He doesn’t know what’s gonna happen when he starts and the fun of it is discovering what the picture’s gonna be. These other pictures, you have to know everything before you start and go through the motions of filling in everything, making it all hold together. That’s just not my kind of picture-making.
Lee Sobel: People always talk about how studio executives know very little about movies. A lot of them come out of business schools, maybe they have a father who was a producer or something. Was this always the case or is this more so today? Have you had any memorably bizarre meetings in the industry?
Larry Cohen: You do find that many of the studio executives don’t know much about older motion pictures. They don’t have much to draw upon. Very often if you mention a movie out of the past then they don’t know the movie. They get very uptight and nervous about it. They don’t like to be made to feel stupid. Nobody does, I suppose, but there’s usually six or eight people in the room and they've all got yellow pads and
you mention older movies to the executives and nobody in the room has ever heard of the pictures, the memorable films that they should know about, and they don’t. They get very nervous and uptight and I observed something like that. I feel like I write for free and I get paid to go to meetings. The writing is pleasant and enjoyable but the meetings are something you just have to get through. And as I said, when I get notes from people, I just usually go home and do what I want to do anyway. When I get back, they don’t even remember the notes that they give you. They’re all in the room and they feel like they have to say something to justify their presence so they gotta come up with something to say. Usually it’s supremely
Larry Cohen received story credit on the big budget action-thriller Cellular (2004)
Larry Cohen directing Janine Turner and Eric Roberts in The Ambulance (1990)
ignorant. One of the more bizarre things I had happen was with Joel Silver at Warner Brothers where they hired me based on a pitch to write a screenplay, it was a picture called Bad Deeds that I came up with. They paid me $500,000 to write the screenplay. When I went through the notes, I didn’t like the notes, so I called Joel Silver to ask him for his input and it became apparent to me that he had never read the script. So then I said, “Have you read the script, that they paid me $500,000 to write?” He said, “Well, I was exposed to it.” I said, “What do you mean you were exposed to it?” Does that mean they held the script up and showed it to you and said, “Hey, look, here’s the script! It’s 128 pages; Larry Cohen wrote it”? For half a million dollars of Warner Brothers money couldn’t you have read the script? Well, you know, he didn’t like that. I felt it was kind of bizarre that people hire you and pay all that money to you and then never read the script. I mean, god bless him. He could have found a time, an hour at least, you know.
You usually can’t pitch things anymore to the person who’ll buy it; you can only pitch it to the development staff, so they come in with yellow pads. Two or three people or maybe more, sit down and write down what you’re saying. Then they have to go and repeat your pitch to their superiors. I’m sure my story doesn’t come out the way I told them, but there’s nothing you can do about it, so that’s the problem. Years ago, there were fewer people in development so you could call up and get in there and pitch to somebody who could buy the property and sometimes you could get a deal right there in the room. You make the pitch and the person says, “Okay, we’re going to go with this.” And you walked out of there with a job. But today you've got to go to all these levels of development people and it’s not an advantage because I’m sure the people don’t get to hear the real gist of what the idea is. But still, things get made, pictures get made, business continues. I’m not one of those people that goes around complaining about the business. I’m very happy that I’ve been able to be out here in Hollywood and be treated so well. I could make so many movies, I have so many scripts to do. I’ve had very few unpleasant experiences. I just go ahead and do my thing and enjoy it, and still have my health and my energy and my creativity, and continue on. The town’s been good to me. I came here with absolutely nothing, unemployment insurance for the first six months I was here and today I have a big mansion and lots of acres of property and plenty of money and still writing scripts and getting invited to film festivals all over the world. So I really enjoy my career and I really have no complaints overall. I’ve had the best of everything.