Gavin Schmitt Interviews Larry Cohen
Larry Cohen is probably best known for his genre films: “Q: The Winged Serpent”, “It’s Alive”, and “The Stuff”, to name a few. He was also a pioneer in the blaxploitation genre, and continues to write scripts that become hugely successful movies like “Phone Booth” and “Cellular”. His time as a writer goes back over five decades (and counting), and he was already a well-established scribe in the 1960s.
Recently, director Steve Mitchell made a documentary on Cohen’s career, called “King Cohen”, which is making the festival rounds and should be seeing a wider release soon. As part of the publicity for the documentary, I had the immense pleasure of speaking with Mr. Cohen himself on August 1, 2017… and we somehow managed to squeeze a brief career retrospective into a twenty-minute conversation.
I learned a lot, I hope you will, too. And please, please, please… go out and rent, buy or stream Larry’s films. He’s a true national treasure.
GS: Way back in 1966, you confronted producer Walter Mirisch about how to make a sequel of “The Magnificent Seven”…
LC: It wasn’t so much a confrontation as it was just making a suggestion. He had me come in to come up with a television series based on the movie, and I talked him into making a sequel instead. I said, “There’s still life in this story.” And I felt that if it was possible to get Yul Brynner back, it would be better to do a theatrical version. Walter listened to me, made the movie, and the picture was successful. More successful, actually, than the original. The original was kind of “dumped” by United Artists and it didn’t play very much. When it opened in New York, they had it open first in Brooklyn instead of downtown Manhattan, so you can see they had no faith in it. Consequently, the original was overlooked and really became popular when it began airing on television. Around that time, all the supporting players were becoming stars: Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Steve McQueen… everybody became a star. So the picture grew in its identity. So I felt the film was ripe for a sequel, and Yul Brynner did end up doing it.
The other thing Mirisch didn’t want to do was use the music from the original. He said it was no longer any good because it had been used in a car commercial, which was true. But I said, “If you don’t use the original music, then don’t make the picture because it doesn’t work without the music.” And he did end up using the music. Lo and behold, the score for the sequel was nominated for an Academy Award. (Editor’s note: If you’re wondering how re-used music can be nominated, it was because Elmer Bernstein re-recorded it, making it technically “new”.) The original was not nominated, but the sequel was, for what was essentially the exact same music. It was very odd. Anyway, Walter and I never had a cross word between us. We were always very cordial.
GS: “King Cohen” director Steve Mitchell mentioned that you think Burt Kennedy (director of the “Magnificent Seven” sequel) killed the western. Can you elaborate on that?
LC: Burt Kennedy can share that blame with director Andrew McLaglen. Between the two of them, they made some pretty dull westerns. They were so slow, so tiresome, and had nothing new to offer. These films killed the western genre, with the exception of a handful of films that John Wayne eked out in the latter part of his career. After winning the Oscar for “True Grit” (1969), John Wayne never made an exceptional western again. There was the sequel, “Rooster Cogburn” (1975) with Katharine Hepburn, which was basically just a western version of “The African Queen”. Most of the westerns in that period were extremely dull and no one wanted to see them. So much so that even today it’s hard to get a western made. At one point there were as many as 15 different western-themed television shows at one time – “Wagon Train” and “Have Gun Will Travel”, for example – and now there’s not even one. Despite the massive expansion from three networks to who knows how many, there’s no one doing westerns.
GS: According to your website, you wrote “several treatments” for Alfred Hitchcock but “only one”, the Mark Robson film “Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting” (1969) was made. What ideas were rejected?
LC: My website is a lie, that’s not true. I never had a bunch of ideas that were rejected. There was only one picture of mine that he was interested in doing, but Universal talked him out of it. That was the Mark Robson movie you mentioned. He had directed some great movies. Namely, “Champion” (1949) with Kirk Douglas and “The Harder They Fall” (1956) with Humphrey Bogart. Robson directed a lot of big hits, but he didn’t do a great job with my picture, I’ll tell you that. It was disappointingly cast, but what can you do? That was a movie that Hitchcock wanted to do, but Universal pressured him out of it because one of the key issues in the story was abortion, a pretty hot topic in those days.
On the bright side, the experience allowed me to develop a relationship with Hitchcock. We would socialize and have lunch occasionally. And every meeting or meal with Hitchcock would last three hours or more, because he loved to talk. He was full of ideas for shots and scenes. We talked about filming a movie inside a phone booth, but we could never figure out how to do it. Years later I figured it out, but he was already gone by that time. I certainly enjoyed the relationship, and frankly, it’s probably for the best I didn’t end becoming one of his writers, because he was extremely insensitive and cruel to the writers. He would fire them over minor infractions, and paid them a pittance. Just look at John Michael Hayes, who wrote four Hitchcock scripts, including “Rear Window”. Hayes was paid very little money, and when he asked for a raise, Hitchcock wouldn’t give it to him. After four wonderful pictures together, Hayes was fired. So Hitchcock was very selfish in terms of the writers. He didn’t like sharing credit.
GS: You worked with Rick Baker at the very beginning of his career, way back in 1972. What was he like before he became the “legendary” Rick Baker?
LC: It was probably John Landis who discovered Rick Baker, and he came to me through John Landis. Rick had worked on “Shlock” for Landis, which came out after my “Bone”, but was made first. I liked Rick’s work, so I hired him to work on “Bone” and “Black Caesar”. He made burns and bullet wounds. I thought his work was terrific, so when I made “It’s Alive” he came back and did the monsters. We sat down together, made some drawings, and he went off and sculpted it. I was very happy to have him do it, loved the finished project, and later on he came back for the sequel. He had his wife Elaine inside the monster costume. I asked him, “Why would you do that to your wife?” He said, “Well, I have to have somebody who’s around all the time because my studio is in my garage. I work all hours of the night and need a model to fit the makeup and effects on them.” I don’t think that marriage lasted too much longer.
GS: You’ve said in other interviews that your favorite film of your own is “The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover” (1977), which isn’t one of the bigger titles you’re associated with. What are people overlooking about it?
LC: It’s not so much that anyone’s overlooking anything as that not many people today have even seen it. It’s available on Netflix or Amazon, for like $1.99. These days it’s something of a cogent movie to see because of all the news surrounding the FBI. I’d say it’s probably the best FBI movie ever made. A lot of critics have said so.
Broderick Crawford is excellent in the title role. We shot at Hoover’s actual house, and when Crawford came out of the house, the neighbor nearly had a heart attack. He thought he was seeing his dead neighbor. Crawford resembled Hoover so much that we had to call an ambulance to drive the neighbor away. I felt terrible about it. But it’s a terrific picture, and still relevant today. If you think Trump is full of dirty tricks, you’ll see that the other presidents weren’t far behind. All the dirty tricks in those days were performed by the FBI for the president. And the film is shot not just at Hoover’s house, but the FBI Academy, the barbershop he got his hair cut, and even the restaurant he ate at with the actual waiter who waited on him every day. It was the most accurate biography you could possibly make.
GS: You started directing so you could carry your projects to completion. You still write – does it ever frustrate you to see how your material is handled by others?
LC: Always! But when you take their money, it becomes their property and that’s the way the game is played. And I tell myself that if I don’t like what they did with my script, I’ll just have to go and write another one to move forward, because there’s really nothing I can do about it. There’s no sense in worrying about things you can’t control, and if you choose to sell your material what can you do? The only reason I sell is because they pay me so well and I’m compensated for my work. Sometimes they pay me more for a script than I ever made for making an entire movie.
Every picture made from a script I’ve sold, even the good ones, are not as good as if I had made the picture. For example, “Phone Booth” is a really good movie. It’s very popular, I made a lot of money off of it, and I still get tremendous residuals. But my biggest problem with it is that instead of shooting the picture in New York, they chose to shoot it in a fake New York they constructed in downtown Los Angeles. I want the grime, noise and chaos of the city. I wanted a guy in a phone booth surrounded by madness, by all this activity that makes New York what it is. They weren’t able to capture that activity because they weren’t really there. I would have shot the film in New York, and used hidden cameras to really capture all the traffic and pedestrians. Some of it would have had to be shot at night, because you’d have to close the streets down. In New York, it’s not that hard to close a street at night. But instead, I sold the script, took their million dollars, and was on to the next picture.
GS: Steve Mitchell points out that a “Larry Cohen film” means something – your style shows through. Are there any directors working today you see asserting their vision and not getting trampled by the Hollywood machine?
LC: Absolutely. The Coen Brothers. They don’t know how to spell their own damn names, but aside from that they’re very good filmmakers. By the way, I object to the fact that they put me in their movie, “The Big Lebowski”. There’s a scene where Jeff Bridges sings the theme song to “Branded”, the TV series I created. I think he and John Goodman sing it a couple of times. At one point, the two of them decide to visit the home of the creator of “Branded”, which would be me. When they get to the house, the creator is in an iron lung. They don’t say that the man in the iron lung is named Larry Cohen, but he does have a grandson there named Larry. The creator dies while they’re at the house. I thought that was a nice compliment – first sing the theme to “Branded” and then kill me off. I know those guys, and I know they meant it as a nice tribute. They didn’t tell me they were going to do it, and I didn’t see the movie when it first came out so I found out when people started telling me. I had thought no one remembered “Branded”, but I guess the Coen Brothers certainly did.
GS: You recently wrote 10 scripts for JJ Abrams. Obviously it’s not wise to say too much before the ink dries, but can you drop a hint of any themes?
LC: Well, they’re all suspense thrillers. I can’t really say too much other than that there’s no continuity between each episode other than that they share a narrator, sort of like the old “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. I’m hoping we’ll be able to get Christopher Walken as the host. You can just imagine how much fun we would have with him as host. But the whole thing is written already, so if it gets picked up all JJ has to do is cast it and shoot it.
GS: Let’s hope it happens. Thank you for this great insight into your career.
LC: My pleasure, Gavin. Stay in touch.