Gavin Schmitt Interviews Steve Mitchell
If you love 1980s horror films, you might recognize the name Steve Mitchell. When he wasn’t writing episodes of children’s cartoons (“G. I. Joe” and “Jem”), he was a regular in the world of low budget evil genius Jim Wynorski. Most notably, Mitchell can take credit for writing “Chopping Mall”, one of the all-time greatest horror films of the decade.
More recently, he has been involved in the production of special features for DVDs and Blu-rays (including “Chopping Mall”), but has returned with what be his magnum opus: “King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen”. In this feature-length documentary, we learn everything we might possibly want to know about Cohen, the mastermind behind such cult hits as “It’s Alive”, “The Stuff”, “Q: The Winged Serpent”, “God Told Me To” and many, many more.
On July 18, 2017 as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival, Steve Mitchell sat down with me to discuss Cohen’s career. This 20-minute conversation could easier have lasted hours, as Steve’s passion for the topic is overflowing. Without further ado…
GS: The obvious question to begin with is, of all possible subjects, why did you pick Larry Cohen?
SM: I picked Larry Cohen because I was a fan of his, but also because some years back I went to IMDb to check out a credit. My memory is not as good as it once was, though I have a real head for credits. And I then realized that Larry had a tremendous amount of credits, primarily as a writer, for projects that I wasn’t aware of. The picture that became very clear to me was, “Wow! This guy has done something that almost no one else has, especially at the time that he did it.”
That feat was this: he began in television, and was fairly successful. He then decided to become his own independent filmmaker. That happens all the time – on some level – but maybe not as much back in the 60s. But with Larry, at the same time he was making films for his own company, Larco, he was still polishing scripts for mainstream movies and TV. I realized, I don’t think anybody’s ever done that. Because of that, that intrigued me out of the gate. And I was looking for my own project to do, my own documentary. I had been doing DVD special features and producing audio commentaries. But I wanted to do my own work. And I’ve always liked Larry’s movies to one degree or another. I really like a lot of them. I don’t like ALL of them, but we won’t name any names.
In any case, that’s how it all got started. No one had really done anything on Larry. There was a book or two that came out many years ago from McFarland or Scarecrow Press, but that was it. Everybody talks about Roger Corman as being a B-movie genius. And he is, but Larry is his own kind of genius. So that was the impetus.
GS: When Larry Cohen directs a film, you know it’s a Larry Cohen film. But as you mentioned, he has also done a lot of writing for others. Do you think that Larry shines through even after another director takes over?
SM: Certainly, a lot of Larry comes through in “Phone Booth” (2002). I think a lot of Larry comes through in “Best Seller” (1987). He had a very, very comfortable life in the 1960s as a writer. His famous house that you see in almost all of his Larco films was purchased with his television income. And it’s a fairly sprawling home in Beverly Hills. It’s probably worth a small fortune. Larry had been approached to write “The Return of the Magnificent Seven” (1966), which Walter Mirisch wanted to do as a TV series. You may not know this, but Mirisch was one of the ten most influential producers in Hollywood in the 1960s. But Larry stood up to him and demanded that the script be written as a feature film, and Larry also said that Elmer Bernstein had to be on board to do the music. Bernstein’s music had been so landmark. Larry got his way, and was happy with how the movie came out though he was not a fan of director Burt Kennedy. Larry once told me that he felt Burt Kennedy was one of the directors who killed the western genre.
Another early project was the script for “Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting” (1969), which Larry co-wrote with Lorenzo Semple. I believe the film was destined to be an Alfred Hitchcock picture. This didn’t happen and Mark Robson wound up in the director’s chair. I would say Robson did a fair job, a professional job. But I don’t think he was very enthusiastic about it. Getting back to the question, I don’t think Larry’s personality really came out in these early films, which was really why he created Larco. He wanted to make movies that were HIS movies.
His screenplays for other people, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s are full of “Larry” ideas. We see him in the writing of “Cellular” (2004). In the documentary, Joe Dante describes Larry as someone who is full of ideas, an “idea machine”. Larry’s ideas always come out regardless of who the director is.
GS: When you approached Larry about your documentary, what was his response? Was he surprised someone wanted to tell his story, or did he expect to get that call someday?
SM: I’m not entirely sure I know the answer. What happened was I tried to finance the film through crowd-funding, through Indiegogo. As part of that, I had to make a trailer, and then it occurred to me, “What if he doesn’t want someone to make this movie?” That’s an issue you run into when you have a subject who is still alive. So, I knew someone who had Larry’s phone number and I went ahead and called him up. I explained to Larry who I was and what I was trying to do. His response was something along the lines of, “Come on up to the house!”
So I went to his house, that famous house. It was déjà vu all over again because I’ve been there, but I’ve never been there. He makes me a cup of coffee, and I probably said something corny like “someone should immortalize your career”. And he says, “I’m all for that. Someone should do it.” So he was all for it, and told me if I could get it financed he would help me any way he could. I did get it financed, as you know, and he has helped me any way and every way. One, he was very generous with his time. But two, and this was a godsend, Larry has never thrown anything away in his entire life. He had files and boxes full of stills, press kits, promotional sheets… he has a rejection letter for a script he sent in for the “Naked City” television series (1958-1963). The documentation and photos were profoundly helpful.
So Larry may have felt that he was someone who was worthy of a documentary, but he never verbalized in such a way as to suggest, “Well, it’s about time!” But he was very helpful and very enthusiastic.
GS: You interviewed Martin Scorsese…
SM: Yes and no. Yes, Martin Scorsese is in the documentary. But I did not personally interview him. What happened was that we were trying to contact him for months. His office kept saying he was interested, he wasn’t turning us away or saying no. He just had a tight schedule. We found out later that he was actually very anxious to be a part of it. And the December before he was going to Taiwan to shoot “Silence” things were escalating because it was now or never. So he told us if we send him the questions, he would have his people in New York film him. So I sent about 5 or 30 questions. He sat down with his crew and answered a handful of questions. Not all 30, but a handful. He’s technically answering my questions, but I’m not in the room. The irony is that if he had told me to be in New York within 24 hours, I would have hopped on the next flight and been bleary-eyed and adrenalized at the same time. People ask me what he was like, but I don’t know. I can say he was very gracious and can’t thank him enough. He’s a very important component in a lot of ways. He offers his film historian, professorial commentary that he is known for, but also has a very personal anecdote that he decided to share with us. So it was great, but I’ve never met him.
GS: You probably don’t know, but what had me curious was how Scorsese approaches documentaries. He always seems to know everything about everything, and I don’t know if that’s him or if he brings notes to these interviews…
SM: Well, I’m going to flatter myself here. I understand Scorsese because I feel that we’re kindred spirits in the sense that we’re both film people. I always make the joke that movies are my religion and the theater is my church. My bet is that Scorsese would agree with that. His life is movies – watching them, absorbing them, and of course making them as well or better than anyone else in history. He’s not just a filmmaker, but a lifelong film fan. He’s very much like Tarantino in that way. They’re sponges, they just soak it all in as part of their DNA. On a much, much lower level that’s me as well. Everything I’ve watched informs who I am. Those two guys have absorbed film, studied it, put it through their filters and it has made them the great directors that they are.
I know it’s occasionally in fashion to dump on Tarantino, but he’s one of the few guys… Well, back in the 1970s, you used to open the newspaper and the movie ads would say “A fill-in-the-blank film” where the blank was a director’s name. Depending on what was in that blank, you had an idea of what that movie was going to be based on just the director. A great example is Sam Peckinpah. If it said “A Sam Peckinpah film”, you had a pretty good idea of what you were getting. Tarantino is one of the few guys today who is like that. You see his name and you know what you’re going to get. Martin Scorsese fits in here, too, though the big difference is that Tarantino writes his own stuff and Scorsese doesn’t. But the “Scorsese touch” or “Scorsese filter” is still there and imprinted on each image.
Bringing this back to Larry Cohen, this is one of the reasons that I wanted to do the documentary. Larry is an idiosyncratic filmmaker. When it says “a Larry Cohen film”, that tells you something. Many movies today you see “a fill-in-the-blank film” and what does it tell you? Just that this guy was sitting in the director’s chair. He doesn’t have the idiosyncratic filter of Larry, or Scorsese or Tarantino. Matt Reeves directed the new Apes movie, “War for the Planet of the Apes” (2017). I hear it’s terrific, but I know that when I see it, I’m not going to get a sense of who Matt Reeves is. It will be a corporate picture made by a few thousand people to tell a story. But it won’t be an idiosyncratic story filtered through one individual psyche. That became a byproduct of making the documentary is I realized how much Larry represents a certain time and a certain mindset about making movies that is in short supply today.
I dedicated the film to my friend Bob Sheridan, who recently passed away. We used to write scripts together. (Editor’s note: Sheridan passed away in 2014. Much like Steve Mitchell, he was involved in a variety of Jim Wynorski films not just as writer but in many roles.) One day before we were going to sit down and do some work, he told me he had caught a Larry Cohen film on television, “Perfect Strangers” (1984). I said, “Gee, I don’t think I’ve seen that. How was it?” He paused to think about it for a bit and then said, “It was a Larry Cohen film.” I knew exactly what he meant. Incidentally, “Perfect Strangers” is a very interesting film.
GS: I’m assuming you have watched or re-watched a large amount of Larry’s films in the past five years. Is there one that you appreciate more now than you did the first time?
SM: Kind of, yes. That movie is “The Ambulance”. I saw it on cable one night back in the 90s, when it first came out. I didn’t know what it was, but at the time was kind of like, “Eric Roberts? The Ambulance? What the hell is this?” Then I saw it was a Larry Cohen film, which instantly made it more interesting. And by the end, I was like, “Holy cow, this is one crazy, nutty picture.” That movie has really grown for me. My favorite overall is probably “Q”, because everything just coalesced for me with that movie. It has the crime thing, the monster movie thing, and Michael Moriarty is outstanding. Plus the New York aspect. But “The Ambulance” has become a close second. I recently saw it with an audience at the American Cinemathecque in Los Angeles. The movie plays incredibly well in the theater, the crowd loved it. They laughed in the right places and had a great time. Larry was there to introduce it and I think he got a kick out of the whole thing because he strongly believes movies should be seen in a theater with a big audience. That’s how he experienced movies growing up. And you appreciate movies more when you see how the audience reacts. “The Ambulance” has ideas, like all Larry Cohen movies, and it’s krazy with a capital K. Like his movies or not, they are rarely empty calories.
GS: We’re up against the clock, so I have to thank you for your time and thoughts, Steve. It’s been fun.
SM: Oh, thank you. I love talking about Larry. Sometimes you do these things (documentaries) and you become a little jaundiced, and get sick of the subject. But not so with Larry Cohen. I’m still a Larry Cohen fan!