Larry Cohen is the subject of the brilliant new documentary by Steve Mitchell - KING COHEN: THE WILD WORLD OF FILMMAKER LARRY COHEN. A true independent and maverick, Cohen got his start in television creating the Western series Branded (1965-66) and the sci-fi series The Invaders (1967-8), and writing episodes of series such as The Fugitive and The Defenders. Making his feature directing debut with the dark comedy BONE (1972), Cohen established himself as a filmmaker able to craft wildly entertaining, challenging, socially satirical films on tight budgets, in an array of genres. His incredible filmography, which has inspired other filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, J.J. Abrams, John Landis and Joe Dante (all of whom are interviewed in KING COHEN), includes the blaxploitation gangster pic BLACK CAESAR (1973), the monster movie/ drama IT'S ALIVE (1974) and its two sequels, the extraordinary GOD TOLD ME TO (1976), the historical drama THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER (1977), the monster movie/ heist thriller/ drama Q - THE WINGED SERPENT (1982), the satirical horror film THE STUFF (1985), the horror comedy THE AMBULANCE (1990), and the screenplays for PHONE BOOTH (2002), BEST SELLER (1987), GUILTY AS SIN (1993), BODY SNATCHERS (1993), CELLULAR (2004) and MANIAC COP (1988). In the second part of a three-part interview I spoke with Cohen about THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER and GOD TOLD ME TO; his experiences in TV as a writer before making his directing debut with BONE; his hopes for how audiences respond to his films; the influence of his work on other filmmakers; working with Michael Moriarty and Bernard Herrmann, and his impressions of Alfred Hitchcock, whom he spent some time with.
Part one of the interview.
Part one of the interview.
Well, I certainly hope that the pictures have some significance other than they entertain people, and that audiences carry something with them. Apparently they do, because some of these pictures are 45 years old and people are still watching them and talking about them. Most movies of that time, and particularly low-budget movies, have been forgotten. If the films have a big star like John Wayne in them then they are remembered and constantly replayed, but not the movies that didn't have any stars. I have people come up to me and want to talk to me about films I made decades ago and they remember all the details. That's extremely complimentary to me.
I felt your film THE PRIVATE FILES OF EDGAR J. HOOVER had something in common with Oliver Stone's NIXON, in that where one might have expected an unflattering, condemnatory approach towards its subject matter, what we got was a sympathetic portrait of a deeply flawed man.
Oliver Stone is actually a big fan of GOD TOLD ME TO, and he congratulated me on the film the first time I met him. He also told me he liked the J. Edgar Hoover movie. At that time I was one of the few people who was making politically-based movies, and certainly nobody had ever made a movie about the FBI that was in any way derogatory or controversial. Up until that time everybody had to present a whitewashed version of the FBI, and they had to have Bureau people on the set to approve everything. I was the first person to make a movie without approval from them. I actually shot scenes at the FBI Building, which was an amazing achievement.
Today, they are talking in the political world about Trump and the FBI Director getting fired, and the question of whether Trump and Comey spent time alone in the Oval Office. Well, the President and J. Edgar Hoover spent a lot of time alone in the Oval Office. Hoover was very intimate with Lyndon Johnson and Roosevelt, and many of the other Presidents. They conspired together to break the law all the time. Watergate would never have happened if Hoover hadn't set it up to bring down the entire Nixon administration. The guy who was known as Deep Throat and supplied all the information to Woodward and Bernstein was the Acting Director of the FBI, Mark Felt, acting as a surrogate for Hoover. FBI people have a very intricate story to tell. Everybody is being very naive today to think that there is something unusual for the President and the FBI Director to be talking alone.
How did you feel about the way the film was received?
The problem we had with our movie was that the Democrats didn't like the picture and the Republicans didn't like the picture either. The Democrats didn't like the way Lyndon Johnson, Roosevelt and Kennedy were portrayed, and the Republicans didn't like the way Nixon was portrayed. In the entertainment business, if you make a political movie, you have to be either on the Right or the Left. And we weren't either. When we opened the picture in Washington D.C. at the Kennedy Center, everybody hated it. It wasn't what they wanted to see. They wanted to see something that supported their political views. In our movie, everybody was a bastard, which is the way it really is.
GOD TOLD ME TO continues to get strong reactions from audiences.
The picture is the most requested of mine from film festivals all over the world. I'm happy they like the film, and that it got re-discovered. I think it has influenced stuff like The X-Files, and many other movies.
Do you still go to the cinema a lot yourself?
Not much. I'm not particularly into special effects movies or cartoon movies or comic book movies. I couldn't make one of those movies because being in charge of one of them is like collaborating with 15 different divisions, which is why the end credits go on for over ten minutes. In my films, the credits go on for thirty seconds. I couldn't work with so many people. I even make my own titles.
Do you see the influence of your work on other movies? I think, for example, GET OUT (2017) has a very Larry Cohen vibe and premise.
That's what I heard. I also heard it was very good, but I haven't seen it. Whenever I run into new filmmakers they are all very complimentary to me and I appreciate it. People like James Wan and J.J. Abrams, and so many others. Tarantino is a fan and he has cast a number of people in his films out of people I have been using in my films.
Before you directed BONE, you had had an incredible amount of experience in television as a writer. How did all this experience prepare you for directing features?
I started with live television shows, which were soon gone because they perfected video and wanted to do everything on tape and not live anymore. Live TV was a fantastic period, particularly for the writer, because you had to be on the set all the time. You had to be there on the day of the shoot, when it went on air, because after the dress rehearsal you might have to cut some scenes or stretch some scenes to fill out the time, depending on the timing of the show. I was always there with the actors and the director and I really became educated about the whole process of putting together a show. When film television came in, for some reason they didn't want the writers around anymore, and the writers were excluded from the process. That was when I decided I needed to start directing my own films.
Did you take that live TV ethos when you started directing your own films?
I have so much energy on the set and I think that communicates itself to the actors and then transmits itself to the audience as well. One of the most common things that critics say about my films is that the actors look like they are having a really good time. And that's the truth – they are having a really good time.
Michael Moriarty has said you were his favorite director and that he did his best film work with you. How was working with him?
Michael is a fabulous actor. He has won a Tony, a Golden Globe, and at least three Emmys. He acted with Kathleen Hepburn in THE GLASS MENAGERIE (1973), with Robert De Niro in BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY (1973), and with Clint Eastwood in PALE RIDER (1985). He's had quite a career, aside from me. I think he's one of the best actors in the business.
Did you have a good relationship with Bernard Herrmann, who scored IT'S ALIVE and IT LIVES AGAIN (1978)?
Yes, we not only did we do the music together but we spent a lot of personal time together, with trips and meals and family visits and so on. These things happen when you work together sometimes.
You pitched Hitchcock your script Daddy's Gone a-Hunting (made by Mark Robson in 1969) and spent time with him socially too. What was your impression of him?
I certainly enjoyed his company because once you sat down with him you were still there three and a half hours later listening to his stories and anecdotes. He loved to talk and he loved company. That said, I think I was lucky not to have worked with him because he was a very difficult taskmaster. First of all, he didn't like to pay anybody much money. John Michael Hayes wrote four of his movies and never got decent money. When he asked for a raise he ended up getting fired. He generally fired everybody after a while. If we had done PHONE BOOTH together, I would have gotten a fraction of the salary I got from Twentieth Century Fox, and got fired too, because he liked to bring other writers on before the end of the movie. I don't like that kind of situation. I was friendly with Leon Uris, who was the writer of TOPAZ. He said Hitchcock had him to his house for dinner, took him out for dinner, palled around with him and were such good friends, and then one day he got a call from Universal saying ''Don't bother to come in anymore, you've been fired. '' No ''Goodbye'' or ''Nice to have known you'' or anything.
Miklos Rosza, who scored THE PRIVATE FILES OF EDGAR J. HOOVER for me, told me that when he won the Oscar for composing the music for SPELLBOUND (1945), Hitchcock never called him to congratulate him. They never worked together again. Hitchcock happened to be a strange fellow, but he was wonderful company if you wanted to sit and listen to anecdotes, joke around, and look at the scripts of films he never got to make.
Hitchcock had problems later in his career getting certain pictures made.
Once he went to Universal his pictures got worse and worse, apart from FRENZY (1972), which was a good picture, and that was because he got away from the studio and shot it in England. He worked with a very good writer, Anthony Shaffer, who had written some good thrillers on Broadway. The script was good and he had no stars but a wonderful British cast. Although it's not remembered as one of his great films, it happens to be a very good, amusing picture, and certainly the best film he made in the last ten years of his life. TOPAZ (1969) and TORN CURTAIN (1966) weren't good, and even MARNIE (1964) had such bad rear projection. I think he just lost heart making that film. Universal gave him nothing but bad advice. A lot of the good ideas in his films came from the writers or the books the films were based on. Barry Foster in the potato truck trying to find the pendant in FRENZY is straight out of the book for example. What Hitchcock knew was how to put these ideas on the screen.
KING COHEN will be released in cinemas and on VOD later in the year, and will be screened at Fright Fest in London on August 25 and at the Sitges International Film Festival in October.
The KING COHEN website.
Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved.