Interview with Larry Cohen
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
and by the early 1970s, became a full fledged feature film director.
Recently, someone finally made a documentary about his life and work
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.
Sheffo, FulvueDrive-In.com: I wanted to ask you about the
documentary. When did you first hear about it.
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
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.
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
I wanted to ask about various works in your career and star with
one of the great horror films is probably the biggest hit you had,
did you originally do it with Warner Bros. or independently?
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.
And you usually get final cut on everything you do.
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.
Especially in the pre-digital, pre-non-linear editing era.
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
I cashed the check.
[Laughs.] I guess that's just the OK.
One of the best parts of it is that it was dreadful.
It was weird. They tried to do something really different, they
moved too far way from your film, I thought.
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'.
You said on the audio commentary on the DVD of the first It's
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?
I must admit I haven't looked at it.
I didn't catch it yet either, but the trilogy Blu-ray set is on my
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.
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.
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
by Blue Underground.
Blue Underground's great.
They did a really fine job with that and the same with God
Told Me To
The Winged Serpent.
We just [covered] The
which is hilarious and it seems to be as relevant as it ever was.
The picture has gotten more popular as the years have gone by.
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
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.
Your films always look good.
Well, I'm glad you said that.
They do. Also, in the case of Bone,
you got to work with Yaphet Kotto towards the beginning of an amazing
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
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.
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.
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.
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'....
I would currently recommend people see Bone.
I agree, and Yaphet, people love him, there are so many people that
ant to see that film that have not seen it yet.
Yaphet went on to do things like [Ridley Scott's] Alien
and stuff like that.
He was really good in Star
and of course, he was in Live
And Let Die,
Life On The Street.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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?
I was really surprised and thrilled because Wood had written the
and the updated Hitchcock's
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
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.
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
Robin Wood thought Cimino's Heaven's
(1980) was an extremely ambitious film. What did you think of the
film, if you saw it?
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.
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.
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
Do you think it being a Western is one of things that hurt it at that
I don't think so, but I think the picture killed Westerns pretty
A personal tech question. You prefer to shoot on film over HD?
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
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.
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
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...
Plus you can now watch them all on high quality Blu-ray.
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.
I want to ask about [the hit TV series] The
You created it, but you didn't stay on the show.
They didn't want me on the show.
And it only lasted two seasons, I always wondered when I found that
out, might it have lasted longer had they kept you on?
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.
Was the False
script for the Way
[TV anthology] series, was that your first major professional genre
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.
Another great writer.
Yes, a great creator of all kinds of wonderful entertainment.
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.
I don't remember seeing that show.
They even remade the Leg
story originally filmed for Alfred
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.
I tell you, they had two good hosts.
most people though False
was the best episodes.
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.
That's like the jokes in Robert Altman's The
Oh yeah, absolutely.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
That wasn't a very good movie, unfortunately. The other one was far
is there a film or script or something you wanted to make you have
not got around to make?
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'
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.
Remakes of sequels.
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.
That happens all the time and I remember Dan Curtis (Dark
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
the way Tom McLaughlin had done on Billy
a film that Warner also eventually picked up and distributed.
I knew Tom and the big mistake he made is on the final film of that
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
Wow, and Billy
had been such a big hit. That's happened before with D.W. Griffith
Of A Nation (1915)
and Jacques Tati (a series of comedy hits, then his 70mm masterpiece
bombed) so its a mistake that sadly happens often. Even Francis
Coppola on One
From The Heart,
after the two Godfathers
though the critics had it out for him for some reason at that time.
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.
If I had a million more dollars, I could have made that look better.
I think if you had Rob Bottin, that would have been the one person
who could have delivered. His underrated stop motion animation work
(1990) was the last stop motion ever for a big budget Hollywood film.
Otherwise, another film of yours that everyone should see.
my final question is, do you have a new feature film in the works?
I do and hope to get it made soon.
That's good news. Please keep us posted.
Thank you! I want to once again tell everyone to be sure they see
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...
DVD (now on Blu-ray)
Told Me To
The Winged Serpent
interview was conducted late November 2018.