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 first part of a three-part interview I spoke with Cohen about why he loves filmmaking, his approaches towards his craft, and how he measures the success of each film.

What do you love the most about filmmaking? 
In my particular case it was the freedom. I got to write, produce, direct and edit, and be in control of all of my 20 movies from start to finish, which was a unique experience. Most directors have supervision from studio executives, producers and investors, and a lot of interference, so half of their time is spent arguing with these people and trying to convince them of things. I never had to do that. Whatever I wanted to do was allowed without any committee interference. I just made my movie and changed whatever I wanted to. I sometimes wrote new scenes or created new characters.

On the set of IT'S ALIVE. 
How do you measure the success of a film you have made? 
It's just whether I am personally happy with it. I make films to please myself. I do like to go to the theater and see audiences responding to my films in person. I hear of these filmmakers who say once they finish a film they never see it again ever. I don't believe it. I just got back from Manhattan, where they ran seven of my movies, and we sold out every show. I got to do a Q and A, and I enjoyed seeing the pictures again after all these years, particularly as the prints held up very well.

Which accolades have made you the happiest over your career? 
I've received plenty of different awards from different places. I have a whole shelf full of them, but they really don't mean anything to me. Even an Oscar wouldn't mean anything to me because I know the history of the industry. I've had many Oscar winners work on my movies who were happy to get the job. Having an Oscar doesn't always mean that you are going to have continued success or affluence. One person wins it one year, another the next year, and so on, and no-one remembers particularly.

You have proved adept at many different genres. How do you feel about the balance of the genres you have worked in over your career? Would you have liked to have made more films in different genres, like comedy for example? 
I didn't have too much success with comedies. There was a lot of comedy and comedic sections and comedic characters in my 'straight' movies but the films that I did that were pure comedy never fared as well, although I did enjoy making them because of the people that were in them. I'm best known for thrillers with a high degree of comedy in them.

You once said that had your first film BONE been more of a success, you might have had more of a career as a more esoteric director. Do you have any regrets that your career didn't go that way? 
If BONE had become a success, I would have become a studio director of high-budget films, and I never would have had the same degree of freedom that I have had, and I probably would not have known what I was missing. On the few experiences where I have written screenplays that were produced and directed by other people, there were so many petty arguments and disagreements between people, and jockeying for importance amongst the staff, that it was just miserable for the director of the picture. They weren't the pure experiences I was used to making my own films. There aren't too many of us that have that prerogative of making films how we want to make them. You usually have to be either very successful or able to make movies at a lower budget. If you're anywhere in the middle you're just subject to constant irritation by people butting in all the time and trying to tell you what to do. I wouldn't have been able to make movies like that. I got spoiled early on, and after that I could only do my own thing.

You have a distinct interest in taking things we consider as benign and making them malignant. Where did this interest come from? 
I don't know where it came from. Every human being has their different outlook on life. I always saw a great deal of dark humor in serious events, and that is what I put on the screen. Taking a baby and making a monster out of it (IT'S ALIVE). Taking ice cream and making a monster out of it (THE STUFF). Taking an ambulance and making a monster out of it (THE AMBULANCE). There's certainly a tradition that I have followed in each of my movies.

You are also excellent at twisting preconceptions and bringing together different tones and genres in a single film. What is the key to pulling this off? 
Claude Chabrol, the great French filmmaker, was a fan of my movies and kept asking me ''How do you do that? How do you get the comedy into the drama without affecting the dramatic elements and ruining the suspense?'' I suppose it's just a style I have and something I'm able to do, like some other novelists or filmmakers. The characters that I create are solid characters. They're not foolish or frivolous. They're not in there just to make a joke and look stupid. They have a reason for being and a logical progression of character. If they do something funny in the process, it doesn't destroy the reality of the situation. There are some filmmakers who make attempts to do all this and it just comes off as silly.

Your films are never ever boring. Do you often think about the attention span of the viewer? Do you use yourself as a gauge? 
Yes, I do. I like movies that move along and I find that almost every movie that I see these days is too long. Now that some directors get final cut, they don't want to lose anything, and sometimes you have the same scene played two or three times. Then, when the film comes out on DVD and Blu-ray they put in all the other scenes that they took out, and you have to sit through another half hour of the movie. My movies are always around 90 to 100 minutes and that's it.

You manage to make New York look and feel different than other filmmakers. You also seem to always find locations that haven't been used before. 
I love New York. It's a great backlot. Everywhere you go, there's something interesting. It has an interesting texture. There are a lot of old and decrepit buildings. Modern buildings. Skyscrapers. Glass buildings, silver buildings, gold buildings. It's a wonderland, and I like to capture it on film. It's great because you don't have to deal with the expense of building sets. It's all there. You just have to find the right places. For Q - THE WINGED SERPENT, the Chrysler Building was absolutely perfect. We couldn't afford to build any parts of the building, so we had to shoot in the real turrets of the Chrysler Building, 88 storeys above the street. We were up there on little ladders, perched with cables, trying to keep from falling off the building as we shot the movie. It was dangerous, but I went up there and the crew followed me and we got the scenes and made a very good picture I think. Most people would have built that building in a set somewhere, but it wouldn't have been the same.

On the set of BLACK CAESAR. 
Is it a conscious decision to cast actors who don't look like movie stars and look like people you'd meet on the street? 
I just try to cast actors who are going to be believable in the parts. I've shot so many movies in New York, and there are so many good actors there who have theater experience and are dying to be in the movies. Back when I started directing movies, nobody was making movies in New York. Now a lot of film and TV is shot there because of the tax benefits, which we never had. In fact shooting in New York was difficult to put together because the union requirements were so heavy and it was so much more expensive to shoot there than in California. I didn't care because my movies never cost so much money and I always knew how to control the budget.

Your films have a very loose, exciting, in the moment energy. Do you keep a very energetic set when you are filming? 
Oh yeah, absolutely. We shoot very long hours. I am sure that people who have worked for me over the years thought I was on some sort of drug because I never got tired and I was always so full of pep and energy. We'd be coming up to 13 or 14 hours and I would be tap dancing around and telling jokes and trying to keep everybody entertained so they didn't get too exhausted. Everybody always complained that I worked them such long hours but when I announced my next movie the same people would be back wanting to work with me again. So they obviously enjoyed the experience, even though I was a slave driver!

Do you think you're at your happiest when you're on a set? 
Oh, there's no question. There's nothing to equal it. On most other movies, particularly big movies, the actors come in and they're the stars of the movie. Everyone is catering to them, and in fear of them. The stars don't want to be spoken to by the crew. They don't want people to look at them. They have all kinds of demands that are just nonsense. On my pictures, it doesn't matter who the actors are, I'm the star of the movie! They're all gravitating around me and want to see what I'm doing next. The actors forget about being the stars and they just get into their parts. Even on the days they're not scheduled to work, actors often show up to set just to see what is happening. That's a huge compliment to me.

Do you write every day? 
Yes, I do, even if it's just a couple of scenes or a couple of notes. I'm constantly coming up with new ideas. More than I could possibly turn into scripts.

What usually kickstarts a script? 
I just get an idea for a story and I feel like I want to make it as a movie. That compels me to write the script. I don't write outlines. I just start writing a story and the dialogue. I usually start somewhere in the middle. I write an interesting scene that has a lot of juice, something that gets me hooked up into the whole movie – a scene where the characters start coming together and interacting with each other. On the first day we start shooting the picture I like to shoot a scene like that to help get the actors hooked into their parts right away, the same way I got hooked originally into the story. Often I give the actors some money and say ''Go and buy your own costumes. '' It helps personalise the parts for them. I give the actors a lot of responsibility.

Part two of the interview. 

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.  

Larry's website

The KING COHEN website.

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved.

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