Interview – Larry Cohen

Interview – Larry Cohen

Creative independence, everyone wants it, but how many actually achieve it? Grabbing the bull by the horns, successful Screenplay Writer Larry Cohen realized his calling for filmmaking in the early 1970s. Going on to writing, producing, and directing some of Horror and Sci-Fi’s most beloved titles including 1974’s It’s Alive, 1982’s Q, 1985’s The Stuff, among others, Cohen is proved to be a hands on filmmaker. Where others circum to the pressures of big budget studios, Cohen sticks to his guns and creates films in his own light. Recently we caught up with the accomplished and respected filmmaker to talk his outlook on making films, the challenges they create, the future of cinema, and more. – You have been involved in film as a writer, director, an producer for nearly sixty years, and in that time have contributed a great deal to the Sci-Fi and Horror genre. First, tell us, what inspired you to become involved in cinema?  

Larry Cohen – Well, I grew up in a time you went to the movies at least twice every week. I was immersed in going to the movies. I couldn’t wait for the next movie to come and would sit through them several times. I always knew what I wanted to do. – As stated, you have worked a great deal in Horror to Sci-Fi, but your credits are not limited to such. Did you always have a passion for genre films? 

Larry Cohen – I never heard that word when I was growing up. They came up with genre films just like someone came up with black exploitations. People love to pigeonhole movies, I just made movies. I never knew if they were genre films or regular films. I just thought I was making regular movies, I didn’t know I was making genre films. Some critics decided that, I suppose. Not all my films were Horror films, a lot of them were Thriller, Suspense Thrillers, a couple of Political movies, such as The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977). I never thought of myself as being confined to a specific type of movie, but that is for the spectators to decide I guess. –  Understandable. A great deal of your films are a mix of emotions – horror, comedy, and satire. As a writer, how important is it to have that diversity?

Larry Cohen – That is just me, that is what comes out of me. Unlike a lot of people, I write, produce, and direct my own movies. I usually edit them as well, work with the composer, and make the titles myself, I don’t even farm the titles out to a title house, I make them myself. I try to do everything involved in a motion picture, I just want all the credit I suppose. 

Warner Bros.

American International Pictures – When you have a vision, sometimes it best to take things into your own hands.

Larry Cohen – Most people can’t because of the nature of the business with how expensive it is to make films and how many compromises you have to make along the way. When I started out as a writer, I wrote quite a lot of movies, and I never liked any of the movies they made out of my scripts. I always thought they missed and I thought that is not the way to make this script into a picture. Finally, my wife said, “Why don’t you make your own movies then?” I said, “You are right” and I took a chance. I was used to making a lot of money as a screenwriter, and I was going to start over as a filmmaker. We did and fortunately we had a couple of hits early on and it kept me going all these years.

It is just something you get used to, once I started making my own films and doing all the improvisations, being in total control of the entire project, I found I couldn’t go back to being a collaborator. Spending most of the time arguing with other people, trying to dominate other people, trying to get my way, have meetings and conferences, and constantly badgered by restrictions of people who don’t understand what you are doing and you have to explain it to them. I didn’t want to do any of that, I just wanted to make my own movies my own way without having to confer, so that is what I did. – It sounds like a hard job, but probably very redeeming since you are seeing your visions become reality at your own hands. Of the numerous productions you have been a part of, ranging from 1974’s It’s Alive, to 1984’s Special Effects, to 1985’s The Stuff, to 1988’s Maniac Cop, which of these projects was the most challenging, as well as the most memorable for you?

Larry Cohen – It certainly wouldn’t be Manic Cop. I wasn’t too crazy about those, they did three of them. I didn’t direct them, I just sold them the scripts. The money was nice, but I really had nothing to do with the picture. It’s Alive grossed more money than any other picture I did, and I did two sequels. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is probably one of my favorites because I got to go to Washington DC to shoot at the FBI. I had some great old time actors working with me who I always enjoyed when I was a kid – Academy Award winners like José Ferrer, Broderick Crawford, and Celeste Holm. I was working with top notch people who had a big history in the motion picture business. I also made what I thought was a definitive movie about the FBI. I had a big thrill out of doing that. 

Warner Bros.

New World Pictures – These all sound interesting and are different experiences which you had over the years.

Larry Cohen – Every movie is a different experience. There are different people, different challenges, but it is not hard to do if you are in complete control and you don’t have to deal with other people. Everyone gets involved with these big productions where there have 75-100 people to deal with just answering the questions that everyone asks.

On my projects, I say, “Don’t ask any questions, just watch what I do and you will know what is going on.” You can’t do that on a studio picture. There are too many restrictions, too much paperwork to be filled out. If you want to change or add a scene, you have to go through a whole commitment to get permission to do it. By the time that comes down, the time has passed, and there is no chance to do it anyway.

If you haven’t worked like I have worked, then you don’t know what it is to have total control of a movie. The actors respond to it too because they seldom work with anyone who has total control. They are enthralled by the fact that you are there and re-writing the scenes, adding new dialogue, and writing new scenes for them. There is no one else for them to talk to, I am the producer as well as the director. If you have any questions, arguments, or complaints, it all goes to me. – Yes, and that has to make it a smoother process on set because if there is any issues they go right to you.

Larry Cohen – As soon as you get a bunch of people on a picture, everyone wants to be important and make themselves important. They end up offending people, they offend the actors, they end up offending the crew and cameramen. There are so many feelings getting hurt right and left because small people are trying to make themselves big by throwing their weight around. They have no authority to do so.  I tell all the actors at the beginning, if you have any problems at all, even the smallest problem, I want you to come to me. Usually I come on set and see a couple of people with walkie talkies, I usually fire them. They have nothing to say, so why should they be walking around with a walkie talkie for? – That is a good way to cut out unnecessary headaches. Recently, Quad Cinema honored your work with screenings of seven of your films on May 6th and 7th. How did you become involved with these special events?

Larry Cohen – They called me and said they want to do it. I didn’t seek it out. Quad Cinema just re-opened with a brand new theater and it looks like they have a nice program of films they are showing. I am honored to be in that kind of company so of course I was glad to do it. I am glad to see these pictures shown in theaters. Sure they are available to order on Amazon or Netflix, say my name, a picture of me comes up and a list of my movies which you can rent for around $1.99 each. People have access to my movies, but I like the idea of seeing them in the theater where there is a live audience where you get the feeling of actually making a movie rather than a television show.  

New Line Cinema

Warner Bros. – Yes, and there is something special about seeing a film in a theater. Perhaps some people have not seen these films in a theater, so it is exciting for that opportunity. 

Larry Cohen – Yes, it is a shared experience. There are other people laughing and responding. I also get a kick out of seeing it on a big screener. – Fantastic! Hopefully they will have you back in the future. In 2006, you had worked with Mick Garris for an episode of Masters of Horror called Pick Me Up. Mick is always conjuring up some great ideas, is there potential for you to team up with him again on a future project?  

Larry Cohen – Yes, I like Mick, he is a very nice gentleman and a good filmmaker. I enjoyed working with him on Masters of Horror. I think Pick Me Up was one of the best ones in the series. I would work with him again! – Excellent. Since then, there has been an influx of Horror based series. Back in the ’80s into the ’90s, you had Tales from the Crypt and then Masters of Horror, but nothing really compares to those nowadays. You mentioned how you sold the script to Maniac Cop. There has been talks of a reboot of Maniac Cop. What are your thoughts?

Larry Cohen – I have heard about it and I get a lot calls from people looking for jobs. I tell them I really have nothing to do with the picture, I just wrote the early ones. I get a nice fee if they make a new one, so I am hoping they will. The last I was told they didn’t have enough money to make the picture. We are waiting to see what will happen next. 

United Film Distribution Company (UFDC)

Starz / Anchor Bay – Interesting. Speaking of remakes, there seems to be a great deal of them. What are your thoughts about all these remakes in all genres?

Larry Cohen – I was talking about this recently. I am so tired that they are doing another version of the same movie. They are doing Murder on the Orient Express (1974) again. Well, how can you do it better than it was done originally with that cast of great actors? Who needs to see it again! Then they are doing Witness for the Prosecution (1957) again. Who needs to see that remake? Charles Laughton was so fantastic in that picture, why would you want to remake it? Why can’t they come up with something original, something new, something fresh? Why is everything a remake, a sequel, or a Comic Book? How about something new?

I have plenty of original screenplays and I would like to make them. I just get appalled by seeing everyday in the trade papers some new remake is being made. It just seems like such a lack of talent and lack of imagination by studio executives who can’t see anything unless it has already been made. – It is very frustrating to see. It is also frustrating for more knowledgeable consumers as well. Maybe it is a matter of cashing in on ideas people already know.

Larry Cohen – They just remade The Magnificent Seven last year and it really had nothing to do with The Magnificent Seven (1960). It didn’t really use the concept of the original seven stars. The original was not really a hit when it first came out. It became popular on television over the years. Then I made Return of the Magnificent Seven (1966), I wrote it with Yul Brynner. That was better than the Denzel Washington one which was just made. There was really no reason to remake that. There was a television series a couple of years back which didn’t make it. Then they rehashed it again to make a tired movie out of it. They probably spent a lot of money. A lot of times you could make a very interesting, original movie with the same money, rather than wasting it beating an old horse. 

It is just a lack of talent. People who are running the studios have no talent. You come to Hollywood, you want to be in the movie business, but if you don’t have any talent, you become a studio executive or an agent. The agents have become studio executives as time goes on, that’s what it is. That is why I like making my own movies, because I don’t have to deal with these people.

20th Century Fox

New Line Cinema – Yes, and it seems the best films being made are in the Independent area of film and in television. 

Larry Cohen – The most interesting stuff being done today is being made for television – Netflix, Amazon, and all these different cable companies make product directly for the internet. That stuff is much more interesting and entertaining than the theatrical movies. I used to like going to the movies, but now it is hard finding something worth seeing. Not unless you want to a 250 million dollar spectacle with a lot of special effects. The special effects all start to look alike after awhile. They are all made by the same company who do nothing but special effects.

So you don’t really make your movie, you make part of it and farm the rest of it out to a company who does special effects. They do all the explosions, spaceships crashing, and all the other big scenes. Then you put them into your movie, that is it, it is a communal effort. You are not making the movie, you are just kind of organizing the movie. – A sad but true reality. You hit the nail on the head. What are some of your personal favorite Horror/Sci-Fi films?

Larry Cohen – Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which I saw as a kid. It really launched me into that type of film. That was a low budget black and white movie played at the second half of a double feature. I thought it was just a terrific movie and I sat through it several times. I thought this is a great way to make a movie, if you can make a story that you can control and do at a reasonable price and substitute originality for the excess most of these movies have with very similar sequences of action, fights, and explosions. There is almost nothing you haven’t seen before, every time you go to the movies you say, “Hey, I saw this movie 100 times.” Once in awhile you get something original and that is nice. 

I don’t go for slaughter. I don’t like movies where there is a lot of blood where people have their hands cut off, eyes gouged out, torture movies, that is not my kind of picture. I never did that in my films, it is usually suspense. That is what I deal with, suspense and character. Most of the time, in my movies, when there is a monster, people are more interesting and important than the monster. The emotions that occur in the lives of the participants are more important than the monster. I try and show the monster as little as possible. The more you see it, the more bored you get with it. No matter how beautifully executed it is, after you look at something for a while, it is not scary anymore. – Very true. Character development is essential. Movie viewers want to connect with the characters. 

Larry Cohen – If you are involved with the people, then the story really works. In order to care about the people, you have to have some kind of reality and depth. Hopefully you have some kind of originality in the relationships, saying something and doing something that nobody has done before. That is what I try to do with my movies. They are all extremely original. Some of them did better at the box office than others, but they seem to hang out. They rise from the dead like Frankenstein. They come back, my movies always seem to come back. I am always going out there and doing narration for a blu-ray release or something, I am very happy to do it. 

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