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Category:    Home > Interviews > Film > Filmmaking > Production > Celluloid > Industry > An Interview with Larry Cohen

An Interview with Larry Cohen

If you love movies or TV, then you have watched something created by writer, director and creator Larry Cohen. He started selling scripts in the 1950s, invented TV shows in the 1960s like The Invaders and by the early 1970s, became a full fledged feature film director. Recently, someone finally made a documentary about his life and work called King Cohen, which is now out on Blu-ray (et al) and we recently got the chance to talk to the legend about his career, the industry and much more.

Nicholas Sheffo, FulvueDrive-In.com: I wanted to ask you about the documentary. When did you first hear about it.

Larry Cohen: They called me up and asked me and said 'sure, go ahead', just as long as I don't have to be involved or anything. I didn't want to be making the picture for them. They wanted to make it, I didn't want to interfere. I'm definitely a control freak. If I'd gotten involved, I would have told them how to do it. I didn't want to do that, [just] tell me what you want me to do and if you want em to contact anybody. They did all the contacting and they did all the interviews.

FV: I thought it turned out really good, the kind of documentary that could have gone on as a mini-series 'cause you've done so much work.

Cohen: On the DVD [and Blu-ray], they have an additional hour of interviews and stuff that are very good, some of the best stuff is on the extras.

FV: I wanted to ask about various works in your career and star with It's Alive, one of the great horror films is probably the biggest hit you had, did you originally do it with Warner Bros. or independently?

Cohen: It was kind of a [special] deal with Warner, they were financing it from the beginning, b before I even started, we went to them with the script and they liked it and they wanted to do it, so they made a deal and they were always involved. They had nothing to do with the shooting or editing of the picture... financing it all along.

FV: And you usually get final cut on everything you do.

Cohen: Usually because the other people don't have time to bother, its a low-budget picture and they're always involved with their high budget pictures and they don't know what I've shot [or] haven't shot, so I can say that I don't have that footage. They're not going to run 100,000 feet of film to check whether I shot it or not, so they have to take my word for it.

FV: Especially in the pre-digital, pre-non-linear editing era.

Cohen: Right.

FV: So you did a whole trilogy of [those] films and I saw somebody did a remake. Were you involved with that or you just gave your OK on the remake?

Cohen: I cashed the check.

FV: [Laughs.] I guess that's just the OK.

Cohen: One of the best parts of it is that it was dreadful.

FV: It was weird. They tried to do something really different, they moved too far way from your film, I thought.

Cohen: Well, it was badly done, in every way and shape. The special effects were bad, the acting was bad, the script was bad. They were trying to do a Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, the baby looks normal, but then it turns into a monster, then a normal baby then a monster again. It just didn't work and badly made in Bulgaria, but the money was extremely good. I was happy to take it and the picture was hardly distributed anywhere. It was so bad that the producer of the picture, Avi Lerner, apologized to me one day, stopped me and said 'I want to apologize for the terrible job we did with your property' and I said 'Well, the apology is accepted'.

FV: You said on the audio commentary on the DVD of the first It's Alive that I think is now on the Blu-ray that you were you were so impressed with the previous transfer that you thought it looked as good as a three-strip [dye transfer aka imbibition, 35mm] print because Warner produced those for that first film. Did you see the new Blu-ray and did you think it looks as good or better?

Cohen: I must admit I haven't looked at it.

FV: I didn't catch it yet either, but the trilogy Blu-ray set is on my list.

Cohen: The best transfer version of the picture is the British Technicolor version, British Technicolor is better than American Technicolor and I really liked the British Technicolor. I don;t know if they used that for the latest transfer.

FV: The labs are a little different and the British labs in general are a little darker in their results, while British Technicolor made three-strip prints for a few years longer than the U.S. lab did [1974 versus 1978-ish in the U.K.] and somebody ought to post picture captures of both.

Cohen: Well I'm always please dot see different versions of my films. Some of the transfers to the Blu-ray have been exceptionally good, the one for Bone by Blue Underground.

FV: Blue Underground's great.

Cohen: They did a really fine job with that and the same with God Told Me To (aka Demon) and Q: The Winged Serpent.

FV: We just [covered] The Stuff, which is hilarious and it seems to be as relevant as it ever was.

Cohen: The picture has gotten more popular as the years have gone by.

FV: Its sort of... like Kubrick's films. They come out, people see them, and then they start to get a bigger reputation and people catch up with them.

Cohen: Well that may be so, I think that a lot of the pictures have been discovered years later and Bone is certainly one of them because its gotten rave reviews on every site [via] home video. Everybody who sees the picture on home video just seems to love it and it looks so great, the transfer is so great, it almost looks three-dimensional.

FV: Your films always look good.

Cohen: Well, I'm glad you said that.

FV: They do. Also, in the case of Bone, you got to work with Yaphet Kotto towards the beginning of an amazing career.

Cohen: Well, Yaphet was the perfect actor for the part and he just loves the role, he still thinks its the best thing he's ever done in his career and I... agree with him and we just got a wonderful relationship [starting back then there] and he's very proud of the picture and so am I.

FV: Well its a film that's ahead of its time like a lot of films that were addressing those issues and I hope more people rediscover it.

Cohen: I never thought when I made the picture that almost 50 years later, racism in America be still such a terrible problem. Its just amazing in all that time nothing has changed at all though we have had a black president and so many black heroes that the white public loves and they're crazy about them, yet they're prejudice at the same time.

FV: Its a huge contradiction. Spike Lee always says that the persons who hold those African Americans as great that they treat them as exotic but they don't treat them as people necessarily.

Cohen: That's correct.

FV: There's a scene in Do The Right Thing where [his character Mookie] asks [a white character] 'who is your favorite music star, sports figure'....

Cohen: I would currently recommend people see Bone.

FV: I agree, and Yaphet, people love him, there are so many people that ant to see that film that have not seen it yet.

Cohen: Yaphet went on to do things like [Ridley Scott's] Alien and stuff like that.

FV: He was really good in Star Chamber, and of course, he was in Live And Let Die, Across 110th Street ...and Homicide: Life On The Street.

Cohen: But in the end, when it comes down to pure acting and great dramatic performance and development, because in [Bone] he has a tremendous, terrific change, starts off as one person and becomes an entirely different person right before your eyes. You don't see that in most acting performances, a transition that happens on screen. People usually play the same character all the way through the picture. That one, he makes a tremendous transition.

FV: Its more like a character study, we get a lot of characters in your films that, they're going through some kind of change or they're facing some kind of unusual challenge they have to overcome. God Told Me To (aka Demon) is a good example of that. I'm amazed you do all these genre films, yet there are three-dimensional human beings in your films al the time. I wish I saw that more in other people's work.

Cohen: People seem to like the fact that my films are about something, not just a bunch of people jumping out of a closet and stabbing someone with a knife. You know, that's the standard horror movie. My films are really dramatic films with real development of character and they're about something too. They're about something that's relevant.

FV: That's why they hold up and stand out from so many other people's work. One of the biggest persons in film theory that has raved about your work, who just passed away, is Robin Wood in Hollywood: From Vietnam To Reagan [and the updated Hollywood: From Vietnam To Reagan ...and Beyond], reviewed elsewhere on this site]. I remember you did an interview about Black Caesar where maybe you thought ideas about the duality of the characters [antagonist/protagonist] he was talking about, the shoe polish sequence, went too far. Maybe he went overboard on it, but I thought he was very on the money about your pictures. What did you think about what he wrote about you?

Cohen: I was really surprised and thrilled because Wood had written the book on Hitchcock [Hitchcock's Films and the updated Hitchcock's Films Revisited], it was kind of a bible to me before I even knew him personally many years before, when I was thinking of directing my own films. The original book was so useful to me, then of course, to have him start writing about me, he was the first critic of note to recognize my work and I did get to meet him, be friends with him and I went up to Canada [his home country] at one time and made some appearances with him. Saw him in New York as well, [so] he became a personal friend as well as a critic [who happened to extensively write about my work].

FV: When I think of some other filmmakers who don't get respect, I'll give Wood credit that he also gave a lot of raves to George Romero and Brian De Palma [in the same Reagan book too]. The two filmmakers you remind me a little bit of are Peter Hyams and Michael Cimino where they've done so much good work, but hardly any of their films were hits. They always tried to make films that were interesting or honest, about people, even when they were working in genre.

Cohen: I did know Cimino. As a matter of fact, we were at a film festival in... France, a ski resort and he was on the jury with me. He wasn't friendly at all when he was [there] and I didn't think he liked me, particularly, then... a year later, I was at a restaurant, somebody came up behind me and stuck their finger in my back and said 'stick 'em up', turned around and it was Cimino. He was a friendly as could be, he was so jolly, how his personality changed, and said 'we've got to get together, we have to have dinner'. I said 'Sure', I gave him my phone number, I never thought he'd call. Couple of days later, he calls, says 'Let's go out to dinner' I said 'that's great, where should we go?'. He said 'What about the Hamburger Hamlet?'. Now the Hamburger Hamlet was a nice place, but it was not really a Class A restaurant.

FV: Robin Wood thought Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980) was an extremely ambitious film. What did you think of the film, if you saw it?

Cohen: I was like a great big feast, it needed a big star and though the actors were good, they were not to support a big epic film like that. The big lead actor was Kris Kristofferson, who never caught on as a big star and it just wasn't enough star power.

FV: I think that after A Star Is Born (1976 with Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand), they thought he might be a bigger star and Christopher Walken, you can do no wrong with him, but I don't know if he ever really became an outright lead.

Cohen: Well he became a top supporting actor, but there were not big stars in the film and film's like that need it. What are you going to say about Charlton Heston, in his prime, he carried a lot of big movies like that.

FV: Do you think it being a Western is one of things that hurt it at that point?

Cohen: I don't think so, but I think the picture killed Westerns pretty much.

FV: A personal tech question. You prefer to shoot on film over HD?

Cohen: I never shot on anything but film... we used Kodak almost al the time. I always thought Kodak was the finest quality, I wanted them to look the best they can be. We could have used Fuji and it probably would have looked just as good. The processing lab was important. If the film was processed by the MGM lab MetroColor, the picture lasted. If it was MovieLab, they all faded, those pictures did not hold up because they cheaped out on the [chemical] baths, they used the baths for too long for economy purposes, so for some reason, the quality of the material didn't hold up over the years... turned color. The films processed at the MGM Labs or at Technicolor were finer and as I said, British Technicolor was the best. Its not only who processed the dailies and who processed the original negative, but also who processed the release prints. AIP [American International Pictures] did Black Caesar and Hell Up In Harlem [35mm prints] did that thought MovieLab. Those prints years later, if you want to show them in a screening or something, those prints have all changed color. The negative may be alright, however, transferred from the original negative or CRI [a controversial storage film type] they transferred it to make the DVD [or Blu-ray] because the negative was processed by a different lab, but the release prints didn't hold up.

FV: And for legal, anti-censorship and preservation purposes, you always have a 35mm print made just for you of all your films to keep as back up.

Cohen: I just donated all my films to The Academy [of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences] because I was running out of room. When you have film canisters about to spill out of your closet...

FV: Plus you can now watch them all on high quality Blu-ray.

Cohen: Yes, and looking as good or better than many of the prints of my film made over the years. I can put them on anytime.

FV: I want to ask about [the hit TV series] The Invaders. You created it, but you didn't stay on the show.

Cohen: They didn't want me on the show.

FV: And it only lasted two seasons, I always wondered when I found that out, might it have lasted longer had they kept you on?

Cohen: Well, you might like to think so, but once they embarked on the road they were on, they were doomed, because they had too many invaders, killed them too easily and became so repetitious. Every time they'd shoot one or kill one, he would just burn up and be gone in 30 seconds instead of having some kind of a major immolation or some kind of a more interesting demise. And every other person turned out to be an invader, so the fun or deciding who was an invader and who wasn't, the mystery of it all was completely dissipated. It became tiresome. Maybe [producer] Quinn Martin was too much like me, too much of a control freak, he didn't want me around because he couldn't control me. He wasn't used to anyone else saying no to him, so since he saw the handwriting on the wall, it behooved both of us to both go our separate ways.

FV: Was the False Face script for the Way Out! [TV anthology] series, was that your first major professional genre sale?

Cohen: It certainly wasn't my first television sale, I sold 5 or 6 scripts before that. All of these were done of live television and that was a live TV show. Roald Dahl was the host, as you know, but he was not around when I did it, but he did come to visit my house years later and I spent the evening with him.

FV: Another great writer.

Cohen: Yes, a great creator of all kinds of wonderful entertainment.

FV: Interesting thing is he wouldn't let anyone use his materials much, then the Tales of the Unexpected series, not Quinn Martin's, happened in the late 1970s [reviewed elsewhere on this site] and he hosted the first season. They got a lot of really good shows done.

Cohen: I don't remember seeing that show.

FV: They even remade the Leg Of Lamb story originally filmed for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Some are on film, some of tape, but you'd be very impressed. The way [Dahl] hosted them was terrific and at least in [the U.S.], John Houseman took over hosting after Season One.

Cohen: I tell you, they had two good hosts.

FV: On Way Out!, most people though False Face was the best episodes.

Cohen: Live television is a lost art... I'll never forget sitting in the control room, watching the show go out over the air. This is it, its on! [A moment] happened that only we noticed and not the TV audience. It didn't hurt us. It was a wonderful period, because the writer would be present through the read-through of the script, all the actors, then you'd make changes, then you made contact with the cast and the director, then you'd be there for the rehearsals and you'd be there for the day the show went on the air. You had to be there, because after the run-through, it would either be too short or too long by a few minutes and you'd have to write a few more lines of dialogue or cut something out. One they went to videotape, that wasn't necessary and the writer was no longer welcome and the writer never became welcome in television again. Years later, the writers became show-runners and they run the show. Today the big talent and power in television is the writers, in movies, its still the director ans the writer is still generally considered replaceable.

FV: That's like the jokes in Robert Altman's The Player.

Cohen: Oh yeah, absolutely.

FV: Able Ferrera did the third official version of [Invasion Of The] Body Snatchers (1992, reviewed elsewhere on this site), you wrote the script. Were you originally supposed to maybe direct that?

Cohen: No, I just went to Warner Bros. with [Producer] Robert Solo with the idea of the pod people being on a military base. They liked the idea that you can't tell the pod people from the regular military [i.e., overly serious monotone talking]; they're all cut from the same cloth. I thought that was fun, so they hired me to write the script, then they brought Ferrara in and he brought his own writers with him and they made a lot changes, but it still turned out to be pretty good movie.

FV: I think they're is a longer version, I don't know if were ever going to see it because the version that came out was obviously cut down from whatever they [originally] intended. The Blu-ray from Warner Archive issued exclusively [reviewed elsewhere on this site] looks and sounds pretty good.

Cohen: It was good. They didn't like Able Ferrara over at Warner Bros., the picture went way over-budget and caused a lot of rift. They ultimately blamed Robert Solo and took away a lot of his salary. In response, Solo quit the business and retired, so that had an unfortunate effect on him. Warner did not have any faith in the movie, so they more or less dumped it and they were astonished when it got almost unanimously good reviews and it was too late to do anything about it, but they put it on a release which was suicidal anyway. They didn't give it enough support, so it came and it went, but those who see the picture find it pretty good.

FV: When The Invasion came out years later with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, that went over budget and they did a lot of switching around [its schedule] on that and made the same mistake again.

Cohen: That wasn't a very good movie, unfortunately. The other one was far better.

FV: is there a film or script or something you wanted to make you have not got around to make?

Cohen: Oh, plenty of them, I must have 10 or 12 really wonder scripts and many of them I sold to the studios for a great deal of money to studios and they never made the picture for one reason or another. So the scripts are there in the vault over at the studio, whether its Warner Bros. or New Line, which has now also been absorbed into Warner Bros. and to other studios like Fox and other places. They're sitting there and nobody knows they exist and what can you do about it. You've taken their money and you can't get the script back unless you give them back the money and they want interest for on the money for all the years [they've had it], so by the time you get around to it, they're looking at twice as much money they paid you, where are you going to find the money to pay them for that kind of dough on a film, so the scripts remain there. Maybe someday, someone will dig them out, a fan will become a top executive at the studio and say let's go back and see what Larry Cohen sold us over the years and let's look at it and read it. Maybe its better then the stuff we're trying to do'

All the executives are looking for is to retain their positions and not get fired, not a big mistake that they're going to be held responsible for. A big flop that's going to cost them their job. When I go in to sell something today, make a pitch, the first question they ask is sadly is 'what's its like?' and I say 'It's not like anything. If it was like something, I wouldn't have written it. It's different' but they don't understand that. Its got to be a rip-off of something else. Today they do sequels.

FV: Remakes of sequels.

Cohen: Its sad, the lack of originality is very, very sad, but I've been almost immune to this over the years. I'm sorry that many of my great scripts have never been made, but I'm happy I took the money, I certainly enjoyed the dough. Who am I to complain, but I wish the pictures had been made and many of the pictures that have been made from scripts of mine were not made the way I wanted them to be made. People monkeyed with the material. Sometimes it was amazing, they would stick with the script all the way through, then 20 minutes before the end of the movie, they would change everything and the whole picture would go down the drain. Its like guiding somebody through the jungle and then just before you get out of the jungle, they decide to go off on their own and walk into the quicksand, so you say 'I can't believe it' and at the last minute, they got the 'great idea' on their own and bugled the whole thing.

FV: That happens all the time and I remember Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows, Night Stalker, Night Strangler) complained about that under the guise of 'redevelopment' until the final result was junk. To avoid that, filmmakers sometimes make a film and 'four'-wall it' meaning hey buy out a movie theater like a press screening that gives away free tickets to see a film for promotional purposes, then sell the tickets themselves. I thought at first you did that on It's Alive the way Tom McLaughlin had done on Billy Jack, a film that Warner also eventually picked up and distributed.

Cohen: I knew Tom and the big mistake he made is on the final film of that series, Billy Jack Goes To Washington (the fourth film), he put up all his money, everything he owned, his house and lost his shirt when the film failed. He lost his house and I would never put up my house for any movie. He was hurt bad by that.

FV: Wow, and Billy Jack had been such a big hit. That's happened before with D.W. Griffith (Birth Of A Nation (1915) and Intolerance) and Jacques Tati (a series of comedy hits, then his 70mm masterpiece PlayTime bombed) so its a mistake that sadly happens often. Even Francis Coppola on One From The Heart, after the two Godfathers and Apocalypse Now, though the critics had it out for him for some reason at that time.

FV: On Q: The Winged Serpent, its an underrated film, fun giant monster movie film and it gets bashed for the visual effects, yet with all the bad digital monster CGI effects we get today, it does not look that bad.

Cohen: If I had a million more dollars, I could have made that look better.

FV: I think if you had Rob Bottin, that would have been the one person who could have delivered. His underrated stop motion animation work on Robocop 2 (1990) was the last stop motion ever for a big budget Hollywood film. Otherwise, another film of yours that everyone should see.

So, my final question is, do you have a new feature film in the works?

Cohen: I do and hope to get it made soon.

FV: That's good news. Please keep us posted.

Cohen: Thank you.

FV: Thank you! I want to once again tell everyone to be sure they see King Cohen and the many films and TV projects Larry Cohen has made over the years. Below are links to the documentary, followed by key works of his we've covered over the years...

King Cohen Blu-ray/CD set


Invaders Season One DVD


Invaders Season Two DVD


It's Alive DVD (now on Blu-ray)


God Told Me To Blu-ray


Q: The Winged Serpent Blu-ray import


Body Snatchers Blu-ray


Phone Booth Blu-ray


The Stuff Blu-ray


Maniac Cop Blu-ray


Uncle Sam Blu-ray


This interview was conducted late November 2018.


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