Kings are chosen by gods, fingered divinely as part of a history that has been written before their birth. Larry Cohen has reigned for over 50 years writing, producing and directing dozens of films – a royal bounty of stories, ideas, and myths for a horde of loyal subjects. Cohen’s narratives can seem absolutely, full-on absurd when you read a quick synopsis. Q (1982) is about an ancient Aztec god biting the heads off of New Yorkers. It’s Alive (1974) is about a killer baby. Phone Booth (2002) is set entirely in a phone booth and Cellular (2004) takes the phone call thriller into the cell phone era. The stuff that everyone’s gobbling up in The Stuff (1985) takes over people’s brains. And Maniac Cop (1988) is exactly what you think it is, but better. Through these fantastically weird stories Cohen proves that an audience will happily go along with anything if it’s packaged in just the right way. Identifiable characters, black humor, guerrilla shots of city streets, convincing special effects, nearly perfect performances from a crew of reliable actors like Richard Roundtree and Michael Moriarty, and stories free of fat are all components of Larry Cohen’s finest films.
The new documentary King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen (2017) takes advantage of Larry Cohen’s ability to create authority and intimacy while telling his at times unbelievable true tales. Through interviews and film clips, the film reveals its subject’s passion for storytelling-at-any-cost. With such a long and diverse career to pick apart, filmmaker Steve Mitchell still manages to go through most of Cohen’s filmography (sorry, Full Moon High  fans, not every film is discussed). Michael Moriarty, Joe Dante, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, Mick Garris, Yaphet Kotto (wearing a Court TV baseball cap), Traci Lords, Tara Reid, JJ Abrams, and many others tell their Larry Cohen stories, but the beating heart of the film is the man himself. Shoehorning himself into the worlds of TV and film, shooting without a permit in New York City, befriending Bernard Herrmann, shooting guns off at the top of the Chrysler Building, hiring gang members for security, and trying to keep Betty Davis’ dentures in her mouth – these stories and more help to mythologize Cohen as a singular filmmaker and keep King Cohen propelled. While occasionally choppy in threading together stories through different interviews, the film is a collage of dialogues. The most captivating interplay is between Cohen and one of his regular players, the cigar chomping Fred Williamson. Cohen’s on set stories are countered by Williamson’s own conflicting recollections; the two are not filmed together, but the editing effectively creates a conversation between the two. Occasionally the conversation is between Cohen and himself as footage from different locations (in his living room, next to the pool, at a convention) are jammed against one another to get the best version of one of his routines. This technique is common for stand up comedy albums, but in a film it can create a disconnect. Luckily, Cohen’s a seasoned raconteur and his bits are well rehearsed and refined.
With Larry Cohen, there’s so much to talk about that we able to cover topics not discussed in the film, but we still didn’t get to ask him about hiring James Brown or how they made The Stuff. Cohen was filled with energy and enthusiastic to share his stories and wisdom, so genuflect now to the King of the Island of the Alive as Diabolique discusses with him topics like meeting Alfred Hitchcock, filming in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, a potential Maniac Cop (1988) remake, Peter Falk, Richard Lynch’s scars, future projects and much more.
Diabolique: This is Mr. Cohen?
Larry Cohen: That’s me! You’ve got me and you’re stuck with me.
Diabolique: You’re at home in LA?
Larry Cohen: Yes.
Diabolique: Is that the home that’s in King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen (2017)? They show some clips of your house where you filmed a few movies.
Larry Cohen: Same house. I’m not going anywhere. It’s been my studio, my office and my home. Everything you could possibly want it to be.
Diabolique: Wow. That was a surprise to me. There were a lot of surprises in the documentary.
Larry Cohen: It’s been very well received. It’s 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, not one bad review. We just got a wonderful review in the New York Times -”Pick of the Week.” So, it certainly has had a wonderful response.
Diabolique: It’s easy to see why. It such a treat to hear so many candid stories from such a wide variety of films.
Larry Cohen: Well, they left a lot of people out. They couldn’t get them on the phone – Tarantino, Spielberg, people like that. That’s for the sequel.
Diabolique: It sounds like there would be enough material!
Larry Cohen: Oh, there’s enough material. They only touched on some of my projects.
Diabolique: One thing I noticed about the documentary is that it focuses on your films primarily and doesn’t dwell for too long on your background. They mention that you spent a good bit of time taking in movies as a child, but what were some of the films you saw when you were a little older that made you realize you could be a filmmaker yourself?
Larry Cohen: I don’t think there were any films that gave me that idea, I just knew I could do it. I did see one or two independent films that were made in the 60s. Made by individuals. Those kind of Cassavetes type films where someone went out and made a picture based on their own idea. I thought, “Well, I could do that, too.” I could get a bunch of actors together and a script and I can make the picture. I knew I could do it, I just had to go out and find someone to give me money to make the films.
Diabolique: You were displeased with how Daddy’s Gone a-Hunting (1969) turned out?
Larry Cohen: That was a great script, it was originally pitched to Hitchcock. The Universal story department had a meeting set up for me in New York at the St. Regis Hotel with Hitchcock. The meeting ran for three and a half hours, we got along great! We wound up talking to each other and I told him the story and he loved it. He said it was a wonderful story and it was full of suspense and he said he wanted to go ahead with it and that he was going out to California and when could I get there? We were to go right in to working on it. It was terrific. I told everybody I knew that I was going to be working with Hitchcock on this project. I was so thrilled, it was the highlight of my career. And when I got to Los Angeles the head of the story department called me up and said, “Hitch changed his mind.” The studio talked him out of it because abortion was a major plotline of the story. It was about a girl that gets involved with a guy that’s a little bit psychopathic. She gets pregnant so she has an abortion and then the guy approaches her and says “you murdered my baby,” and he disappears. Then some years later she’s married to a guy and she’s having a baby and this guy returns. He tells her “you murdered my baby, now I want you to kill his baby. And I’m going to make sure you do it.” So, he tries to maneuver her into killing her own child. Hitchcock loved that idea, but Universal didn’t like it because they thought abortion was touchy and they talked him out of it. It broke my heart! Then, I didn’t know what to do. I got an offer from Mark Robson, a big director at the time. He directed pictures like Champion (1949) with Kirk Douglas, The Harder They Fall (1956) with Bogart, Bridges on Toko-Ri (1954) with Grace Kelly and William Holden. He was a big director, an A-class director, and he wanted to do it. And they paid me a huge fee, so I sold it to ‘em. He made a terrible movie out of it, just awful. I was so disappointed. My wife at the time told me, “you’ve gotta go make your own movies.” That’s what propelled me into doing it.
Diabolique: It sounds like that would make for a good movie today. You wouldn’t even need to change it.
Larry Cohen: Well, it’s a good story. The project today is owned by Warner Brothers. I don’t think they’re going to do anything with it. It’s not the kind of picture they like to make. They like to make comic books and sequels, but time will pass and new styles will come in. Nothing stays the same, it always changes.
Diabolique: I’ve always enjoyed your films. The first one I saw was It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987) in high school. One thing I’ve noticed about your films is that they grab you right from the beginning, is that a conscious decision to hook the viewer right away?
Larry Cohen: That’s just my style, I like to get into the movie and get the audience involved immediately. I watch a lot of pictures and sometimes it takes SO LONG to get to the point. To find out what the movie’s about. There’s just so much wasted time that doesn’t add up to anything, then you find out what the movie’s about 15 minutes into the picture. I like to let them know what it’s about right away. That’s common to all my films.
Diabolique: You tell such diverse stories. If you give someone a quick runthrough of the films and what the films are about, they might think it’s a low-budget thing or may not be plausible, but you always, without exception, keep the films plausible. Are there ever ideas that are too big? Maybe the special effects would be impractical to create, or a creature or a stunt?
Larry Cohen: Well, I’ve written some scripts that I just wouldn’t want to undertake myself because they take too much cooperation with other people, too much involvement with special effects people, production people, and set designers and stuff. I don’t want to get involved in a big committee. I want to make pictures that I can control every aspect of myself. I want to go off and make the film without having to discuss everything. Those scripts I sell. I’ve sold quite a few scripts for movies that I just didn’t want to undertake the making of myself. I just don’t have the capacity to shoot every movie I write. Writing comes very easy for me and I turn out a lot of scripts. I just couldn’t do more than one or two pictures a year, because I’m not a workaholic. Although, most people think that I am. My movies only take a month to shoot, a month in the editing room, and the rest of the year I have to myself for vacations and to have a good time. And write other things. I never worked very hard except for the times when I was shooting and working 20 hour days. But, after that I was looking forward to a long vacation.
Diabolique: Are the 20 hour days part of the reason you don’t wind up directing any longer?
Larry Cohen: No, the reason I don’t direct any longer is that the films don’t get the proper distribution. I want my movies to play in theaters and nowadays they have a very hard time finding theatrical distribution. They want to put them on Netflix or Hulu. Before you can turn around your picture is being played on the internet. My friend John Landis made a film in England, he spent a year on it, about body snatchers. I said “I saw the picture, John. It was really good.” He said “where did you see it?” I said “ I saw it on Showtime.” He said “What do you mean?! What about my theatrical distribution?!” I said “you mean you didn’t know the picture was on Showtime? The distributors didn’t even TELL you?” And they didn’t! Here was a distinguished director that’s had a lot of hits and they didn’t have the courtesy to tell him his film was not going to play in theaters. That’s what’s going on. To go through the agony of shooting a movie – and it’s hard work – and to not get the distribution you want is just heartbreaking. I’d rather take a million dollars for the script and go on my way.
Diabolique: Let someone else deal with it. Interesting. That reminds me that you had a hand in the Abel Ferrara version of Body Snatchers (1993).
Larry Cohen: That was a different kind of body snatcher. The Landis movie was about the ones over in England. The grave robbers, you know?
Diabolique: Oh, Burke and Hare (2010).
Larry Cohen: The body snatchers you’re talking about are the pod people. The one I sold to Warner Brothers took place on a military base. You can’t tell the real people from the pod people on a military base- everyone’s a pod person. They went for that, then they turned it over to Abel Ferrara and he had it rewritten. It turned out to be a pretty good picture. I was happy to have been associated with it, though I never had any dealings with Abel Ferrara at all.
Diabolique: You’re both New York filmmakers…
Larry Cohen: And we both worked with Zoe Tamerlis (Lund). I think I met him for five seconds at a party, but there was no collaboration there.
Diabolique: How much of a hand did you have in casting your films?
Larry Cohen: I was integral to all the casting. I never had a casting director. I cast it all myself. But, I had a wonderful agent in New York City who sent over a lot of very good actors. She was very on the nose about picking people who were good. But, I made all the selections myself.
Diabolique: It blew my mind that you met Michael Moriarty at a cafe.
Larry Cohen: He was just sitting next to me at a cafe and I was thrilled to meet him because I knew his work. We got a conversation going and I asked him if he’d read a script, he said yes and the next day he was in the picture. As a matter of fact, I made that movie, Q (1982), with only one day of preparation. I had been on another film, I, The Jury (1982), which I wasn’t getting along with the producers. They were trying to control me and I couldn’t take it, so I left the picture. The next day I started a new one of my own. Most people do six weeks of prep, which is usually a waste of time. Things get contradicted and changed by the time they’re finally before the cameras. So, I said, “I’m making the picture,” I called the actors on the phone – Moriarty was in it with his part – two days later we’re before the cameras! We did one day of helicopter photography, then the next day the actors were there.
Diabolique: You get such great actors for your films and I assume they all work differently. Did you learn certain techniques to allow them to prepare for the roles or did you let the script work for you?
Larry Cohen: I cast them very well and I usually start off a shoot with a very important scene, a difficult scene, a complex scene. I don’t segue into the shoot with a bunch of entrances and exits and all kinds of transitional things. I go right for the throat. It gets the actors in right away, because they’re interested when they’re doing an exciting, important scene. I get rid of the boredom ratio by doing something right away that gets into the character and challenges them. I’ll do additional writing, touch up the script, add scenes for them. They love it when they see me sit down and write a scene, give it to them and say “OK, go do it!” And they do it right away. After that they just follow me around all the time and say “can you write me a new line? Can you write me a new scene?” I like to get them interested in the project. I like to be the star of the show. I like to be the center of attraction on the set. There’s no stars running around in my movies, I’m the star.
Diabolique: That sounds like an intuitive way to work with actors, did you have experience with actors through TV? Was that where you learned those techniques or was it just intuition?
Larry Cohen: No, I didn’t direct television. I didn’t like the idea of directing television, because you go on to direct an episode of a series and the actors are all there from previous episodes and they have the characters they’re going to play. The staff has all been working on other episodes, so you walk in like a guest. You’re not the boss. I like to be the one who runs the show, so television never attracted me. I never wanted to be a showrunner and have to write the same show every week, direct the same show every week. A lot of people thrive at it, but to me I like to make every movie different if possible. I’ve made sequels, but I try to make them different from the originals.
Diabolique: I just rewatched the It’s Alive series and they’re all so different from one another. Plus, those are shot a year or two apart from one another. You aren’t going back week after week to revisit the same cowboys or hospital workers.
Larry Cohen: The cast members were different in each sequel. They were all quite different from each other. The third one in particular had a large comedic quality to it, as well as the horror. I just didn’t want to do the same movie over and over again.
Diabolique: What was it like to work with Richard Lynch on God Told Me To (1976)?
Larry Cohen: Well, Richard Lynch was a very fine actor. Id’ seen him in a picture called Scarecrow (1973) where he beat Al Pacino half to death. He was an itinerant and they were on the road and he decided to rob him and give him a terrible beating. I said, “this is the guy, he’s a really good movie villain.” I hired him and he was very affable. As a matter of fact, we were changing in wardrobe and I saw his body. I said “my god!” His body was covered in scars. He had set fire to himself in a protest. On the Vietnam War, I guess. He had incinerated himself. He survived, but his entire torso was covered in scar tissue – including the thing that looked like an opening in his chest. I said “hey, can we use your body in the show? Will you let us photograph you as you are?” He said he would! So, that’s how that thing came about with the opening in his chest that looked like a sexual organ. I didn’t have that in the script; that was completely improvised based on what was really there. I didn’t have to do a makeup job on him. He said to me when it was finished, “should I come to California?” He thought maybe he could get work out in LA. I said “if you come to California you’ll be on every show and every TV show. You’ll be the villain in every movie.” Sure enough, he came out to California and it was true, he DID get all those heavy parts.
Diabolique: My ex-wife wanted me to tell you this – she’s a big fan of yours – she has a tattoo that says “God Told Me To” along her lower back.
Larry Cohen: Why would she have that?!
Diabolique: She has a lot of crazy tattoos!
Larry Cohen: She sounds like a real fan to me.
Diabolique: She was jealous that I was going to be talking to you.
Larry Cohen: You know what’s amazing? God Told Me To was made over 40 years ago and today there are people going around killing and blowing other people up. The last thing they say before they do it is “God is good.” That’s their saying before they commit a terrible, atrocious crime. It’s not too far from “God told me to.”
Diabolique: Part of the lasting power of that film is how the story is so human and it translates so well to today.
Larry Cohen: I was cleaning out my drawer the other day and I came across a note from Penn Jillette from Penn and Teller. From a few years ago. I didn’t ever remember I had this. He said he just saw God Told Me To on video and it was one of his favorite movies of all time. I appreciated that. I wish I would have remembered; he could have been in the documentary. I blocked it completely from my memory, but there it was.
Diabolique: He’s big and loud. He would have been a fun person to have in there. How did it feel to be the subject of a documentary? Did it come naturally, or did it feel like you had the spotlight a little more than you prefered?
Larry Cohen: I never thought about it, really. It wasn’t my idea. They called me up and said they wanted to do it and I said “that’s great as long as I don’t have to have anything to do with it. I’m not financing it and I’m not directing it. I’ll just cooperate and you guys do what you want and when the picture’s finished, show it to me.” I didn’t want to be in there controlling the project. I’m a control freak, so if I got involved at all, I’d probably try to take it over. I didn’t want to do that. I just wanted them to make what they wanted to do – and they did! And it came off pretty well.
Diabolique: It did, I loved it. You have such a diverse and long career, were there any stories you wanted to get across that didn’t wind up in the film?
Larry Cohen: Sure, there were plenty. They left out all of my theatrical credits, my stage stuff: Broadway, off – Broadway, London. They left all that out. That’s for the sequel I guess. And they left out my involvement with Peter Falk. I wrote one of the first TV shows that Peter Falk ever did – Kraft Television Theater (1947 – 1958) on New York live television. That propelled him into his movie career because the producer of Murder Inc. (1960) saw him on my show and they hired him for that movie. He came on and played the same character he played on my show, wore the same wardrobe, even. He got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and became somewhat of a star. Years later, Peter and I worked together on Columbo (1971 – 2003). We always kept our friendship up over the years. That would have been nice to show the initial scenes that Peter Falk and Jack Klugman did on my TV show, Night Cry (1958). But, that ALSO will be in the sequel.
Diabolique: What was your role in Columbo?
Larry Cohen: I wrote a bunch of episodes. I didn’t direct any of them. I wouldn’t try to direct a show that had been on for that length of time. It’s embedded in the show already; you can’t add anything or change anything. You can’t change the characters. You can’t change anything. You’ve got to follow the rules that have already been set and that’s not my kind of work.
Diabolique: Cassavetes and Spielberg both directed episodes
Larry Cohen: It was a very good show when it was 90 minutes. Then, because Peter Falk was getting so much money, they decided they had to expand the show to two hours. The show was never as good at two hours, it was just too long. It streched the thing out and made it tiresome and repetitive. The 90 minute ones were the best ones.
Diabolique: What is the word on the Maniac Cop (1988) remake?
Larry Cohen: As far as I know there is no Maniac Cop remake. Nobody asked me to do it and nobody asked me to write it. I would have, but they went and got somebody else and script didn’t turn out to be particularly good. They were never able to raise the money. I really have no knowledge of whether they’re going to make the remake. All I know is that if they do, they have to pay me $250,000. So, I’m hoping they’ll make it, frankly. But, I haven’t heard anything new about it. It seems to me that it was abandoned. If they were to call me up on the phone and say “would you write another Maniac Cop for me,” I would certainly do it. All I ask is for a little courtesy. I would be glad to do it if that would help them get the picture made. So far, it’s all politics and people’s egos – everything that I try and avoid in the making of my movies. I worked all alone. I didn’t have partners, I didn’t have producers, I didn’t have studio executives. I didn’t have anybody to give me conflict or any problems whatsoever. It was easy to make the movies because I was in complete control. To make a movie is easy if you don’t have to deal with people.
Diabolique: Was Sam Arkoff pretty hands off or would he just drop a check in your lap?
Larry Cohen: He never bothered me. He let me do almost everything I wanted to do. God bless him. I wish he was around today. I could use someone like Sam. You can go into a room with him and tell him an idea and he’d say “go make it” and write you a check. And that’s it, you go off and make your movie. I don’t know anybody around like that anymore.
Diabolique: It seems like a Maniac Cop film would have a different tone to it today, as opposed to when the original one came out.
Larry Cohen: I’ve got plenty of good ideas, but unfortunately there are too many people involved. Too many grudges, too many complaints, too much ego. If they didn’t come to me to write the script, that means they just didn’t want to deal with me.
Diabolique: That’s a shame. It seems like making a film about a murderous cop shouldn’t wind up with hurt feelings and bruised egos. Seems like that would be an easy one to get off the ground.
Larry Cohen: The first couple were because it was just me and the director Bill Lustig. I wrote it, he went out and got the money and they made the picture. Bill was really good at getting financing. All I had to do was write it and the next thing I know, it’s being shot. Bill was much better at raising money than I was. One of the failures I’ve had is trying to raise funds to finance pictures. I’ve always gotten the money eventually, but it could be a long time. A lot of turndowns, a lot of submissions, then finally a “YES” after a lot of “NOs.” I’ve never found that to be the most pleasurable time. Raising the money is always the toughest part of making movies. Anybody out there wants to make a movie with me, all they’ve gotta do is call me and say “how much do you need?” Then, I’ll make the movie for them.
Diabolique: Hopefully someone with lots of money will read this interview and call!
Larry Cohen: They don’t even need lots of money, just a reasonable amount to make the picture. I could probably make a movie for at least half of what anybody else could make the same movie for. Most people are going to set up a company, they’re going to want a suite of offices, they’re going to have secretaries, and assistants, and production managers, and associate producers, and before you know it, there’s 40 people on the payroll that have nothing to do with the making of the movie. All I need is a camera crew and some actors. That’s it. I never had an office. The office was wherever I was. I wrote the checks. The only phone number was my phone number and the only person that could answer a question was me. It made things very simple. All you’ve got to do is come to me, no matter what the problem is. I told actors “anything you need, you come to me. If the toilet doesn’t work in your dressing room, come to me.” I don’t want to hear of anybody else solving problems because all they do is make things worse. Everybody you hire thinks of themselves as a little executive and they’re going to prove how important they are. They usually end up causing a lot of trouble. We didn’t have production schedules. We didn’t have boards. We didn’t have “day out of days.” We didn’t have paperwork. I carried the whole thing around in my head. Nobody knew what was going on but me and that was just fine.
Diabolique: The way you used to film – shoot and runs, no permit, that sort of thing – do you think that would be harder to do these days?
Larry Cohen: Oh, yeah. You couldn’t do it today, because of all the security measures after 9/11. And all the cameras they have in place all over the city of New York. Anytime you pull out a gun and start running down the street, there’s going to be chaos. I couldn’t have made these movies for the amount that I made them if I would have gone through the process of permits. The first thing that happens when they get the permit is they call the Union and tell them where you’re shooting. Then the Unions descend and you’ve got to take on a Union crew and that’ll triple the budget right away. And you’ve gotta close down the streets if you’ve got a permit, bring in portable trailers, dressing rooms. Pretty soon the whole street is filled with equipment and you can’t even shoot the movie because the equipment is in the way of the shoot. Nobody could have made these movies for the kind of money I made them for, the picture would have cost 5 times as much. Easily. If we could have done it AT ALL, I mean how would you do the St. Patrick’s Day Parade? Well, maybe today you could do it with CGI. You could create the parade with 50 people and make it look like 500. Back in those days there was no CGI. You would have had to bring in 500 extras, put them in police uniforms, and marched them down the street. Imagine what that would have cost. What a nightmare. So, the only way you could have done that scene is the way that I did it. It worked out just perfectly. Couldn’t have been better. Couldn’t have been better. So, there you are.
Diabolique: So what’s on the horizon?
Larry Cohen: We have a series for cable that I’ve created, called High Concept. It’s ten episodes, all one hour long. Ten one hour features. High concept ideas, terrific thrillers that you’ll remember for years, not just shows that you see and forget. Shows that have such great ideas, every one of them. You won’t forget them for a long time. Wonderful acting parts, tremendous suspence. They start off at the first scene and they never stop until it’s over, a jammed hour of excitement and suspense. I’m trying to get it together for Showtime, or Netflix, or Hulu, or one of those. So, let’s see what happens.
Diabolique: That sounds great! That’s a really popular format lately. There’s Black Mirror (2011 – ) and Bobcat Goldthwait’s Misfits and Monsters (2018).
Larry Cohen: Black Mirror is a very good show, but they don’t have very good endings. My shows have terrific beginnings, terrific middle, and an astonishing ending. And they’re all written. I’ve written all ten of them. You can see what you’re going to get before you get started, so whoever finances the show can see the whole show before we start. There’s no guesswork, so hopefully someone will come forward and grab this project and I’ll be back in business again. In the meantime I have two new screenplays that are going on the market. Maybe someone will buy one of them. So, I’m still active, I’m still very optimistic, and I’m hoping King Cohen will increase some interest in my work.
Diabolique: Well, that’s all very exciting. I would certainly watch that show. It’s been an honor to speak with you, I’ve been a fan for ever and ever.
Larry Cohen: Thank you! And tell your ex-wife thank you for the tattoo.