When it comes to maverick filmmakers, very few embody non-conformist ethos as much as Larry Cohen does. Cohen has been making movies for nearly 60 years, starting off as a screenwriter before taking up directing because other directors of his scripts didn’t understand his vision. As a screenwriter, he’s sold countless scripts which directors have adapted for film and television, and many of them are really good. However, Cohen only considers his films to be the ones he’s maintained full creative autonomy over, and those are the movies that have made gained him legendary status in genre and cult film circles.
The last time Cohen helmed a project was over a 10 years ago with the Masters of Horror episode, “Pick Me Up.” Therefore, one could be forgiven for assuming he was taking a well-deserved break to enjoy the fruits of his labour after such a long, storied career making films with messages that matter. However, the reality is that he just can’t get projects off the ground unless he’s willing to compromise his creative license, which he isn’t prepared to do. Cohen is an auteur in the truest sense and one who forever remains stuck to his guns.
If the socio-political climate has shown us anything these past few years, it’s that the themes in Cohen’s films are proving to be timeless. Racism still exists, mass consumerism of dangerous products continues to fund ethically questionable industries and corruption is still evident in our justice systems. As art, credit must be given to Cohen’s films for remaining relevant after all this time, possessing that ability to resonate with contemporary audiences nearly 50 years after the release of his powerful debut, Bone (1972). That said, as reflections of our society, it’s upsetting to know that Cohen’s films can be interpreted as vital deconstructions of contemporary issues. In 2017, it would be nice to view a film like Bone as a product of its time, appreciated for its entertainment value and a reminder of what times used to be like. Yet, here we are in the 21st century, and racism – as well as other issues Cohen explored – still plague our world and probably always will.
But Cohen’s films are also entertaining. Their social commentary is delivered with biting satire and their concepts are often outlandish brilliance – like murderous rampaging babies (the It’s Alive series), yogurt that turns consumers into melting zombies (The Stuff, 1987), and monstrous gods terrorising New York City (Q, 1982). A Larry Cohen film is unquestionably a Larry Cohen film and quite frankly, we need more of them. However, at the same time, we’re just lucky that we have so many of them, spread across a variety of genres, defiant of conventions, and still resonating with audiences.
Ahead of his retrospective series at New York Cinema’s Quad Cinema this weekend, we caught up with Larry to discuss his career, the difficulty of making films like his nowadays, and his legacy.
Diabolique: New York has a storied history in horror and crime cinema, and a big part of that is because of your films. What is it about New York as a setting that’s inspired you throughout the years?
Cohen: Well I grew in New York. This is my hometown. I travelled the city as a kid and had all kinds of dreams of someday making movies. Some of the locations stuck in my mind that I wanted to use, and so when I was writing scripts I tried to develop New York into the story.
Diabolique: Some of your films from the ‘70s and ‘80s reflect New York as a corrupt, dangerous place. Were there any notable events that occurred in the city back then that had an impact on you?
Cohen: It wasn’t just New York. Things were going on all over the country and the world that I wanted to try and deal with in my films. Take The Stuff, which was about products being sold on the market that kill people. There are still so many products like that being sold today. In those days you still had cigarettes being advertised on television. Nowadays it’s not cigarettes, but it’s medication that’ll probably kill you just as fast. As a matter of fact, every time they advertise a different pill of some kind they have a disclaimer afterward telling you all the side effects – like death. So, The Stuff was an allegory for consumerism in America and the fact that big corporations will sell you anything to get your money, even if it’ll kill you.
Diabolique: Looking at the messages in your films and current society, a lot of the subjects you tackle – like racism, police corruption, and dangerous consumerism – are still, unfortunately, relevant. Do you feel that the films you made back then reflect current society?
I think the subject matter in most of my films was ahead of its time. Many of the films I made are extremely volatile and deal with controversial subjects like racism. My first picture, Bone (1972), is way ahead of its time – even today. When I made it the ‘70s, I thought by the time we got to 2015 that racism would be finished – but it isn’t. Now you have people being shot by cops, people shooting cops and riots in the streets. It’s the same old thing again – blacks against whites – and it’s just sad that after all these years, nothing has changed. Even with a black President and a black Attorney General, it doesn’t matter, we’re back where we started from. I think Bone is an important film and I hope it gets rediscovered by today’s audiences because it has something to say about the very essence of racism.
Diabolique: As you said, nothing has changed. However, given the state of the current divided socio-political climate, does it inspire you to make more films?
Cohen: I’m always working on scripts and trying to get pictures made. Unfortunately today, they aren’t the types of movies that get played theatrically and instead end up on cable, Netflix or DVD. They never get to play in theatres, and that disappoints me because I love seeing my movies on a big screen with an audience; experiencing it with a lot of people and hearing their reactions. A lot of the fun has been taken out of making movies for me because of the way pictures are distributed nowadays.
Diabolique: The types of films you make aren’t really being made anymore, let alone released in theatres.
Cohen: If it’s not a sequel to something that’s been done before then it’s a remake of something that’s been done before, or it’s a comic book movie. The special effects all look the same and when you’re sitting in theatres watching trailers, all the movies look the same. It’s all digital and a different world of moviemaking now, and that doesn’t interest me. I want to make movies myself – write them, direct them, produce them, edit them, make my own titles – and I don’t want anybody else to interfere. But it’s hard to do that in this industry right now.
Diabolique: You’ve stated before that unless you have 100% creative control, you’re not interested in directing. Is that the why you’ve taken a step back since Masters of Horror?
Cohen: That’s the way it is. I’m very unusual I think in that I write scripts, I direct the pictures and I maintain creative control. And that’s why I deal so well with the actors – because they’re not used to dealing with someone who has total control. Usually, they’re in the midst of disputes all the time – arguments, compromise, studio interference – but with me, they’re on a creative journey and working with a cinematic artist making his picture. And they want to jump on board and help me as much as they can. I’ve never had any trouble with actors, even difficult ones with bad reputations. When they come to work for me they’re usually as good as gold. I like actors. Many directors don’t, but I enjoy working with them.
Generally, if I give them a script and they like it, then they know that they will be working with somebody who can bring the script to life – without making a lot of compromises. That’s the strength that I have; there isn’t anybody looking over my shoulder and second guessing my work. If I want to change a scene, or illuminate a scene, or rewrite scenes, or add a new character, I can do that. I don’t have to redo the budget, or the production schedule because I usually don’t have one – and I usually don’t have a budget either. Just keep going forward, never look back. I have a good time making pictures and I’d like to make more of them, but I’d need to do it on my terms.
Diabolique: You’ve worked with some terrific actors throughout the years. Do you have any particular favourites?
Cohen: Well I made five movies with Michael Moriarty. I enjoyed working with him and we really hit it off well and looked forward to making pictures together. Certain filmmakers have actors they have an affinity with; like Scorsese and De Niro, John Ford and John Wayne. There’s been a long history of people who like working together and make really great movies together. That’s what I wanted to do – create my own little stock company of players that I enjoyed working with and who I admired.
Diabolique: Have you considered crowdfunding?
Cohen: No, I would never do that. I would only take money from studios because they would get it back. But to take money from fans and people who like me? I could never do that. That would be against my way of life. I’ve never accepted money from individuals to make movies. Because I knew they were going to get cheated – and not by me. I only make the pictures but when it comes to distribution and advertising it’s out of my hands. I could never take money from people who wouldn’t get it back.
Diabolique: Can you tell us the story behind Hell Up In Harlem (1973). I understand that you made that one up on the spot…
Cohen: Well they wanted a sequel immediately and I didn’t have time to write a full script, so I just made it up as I went along based on locations, as well as the time I could get from the actors who were also working on other pictures. We had to shoot it on weekends and it was a challenge, but I actually enjoyed it. I knew I would get a movie out of it and that it would be fine, it’s just that everybody else thought I was crazy. I am crazy.
Diabolique: There’s a documentary about you called King Cohen slated for release later this year. What can you tell us about that?
Cohen: It’s a wonderful documentary. Martin Scorsese is in it, so is J.J. Abrams, as well as dozens of people who have been in my films or enjoy them. There are scenes of me directing films and people talking about the films. It’s a tribute and I hope that it puts my movies back on the map, because after people have seen the documentary they may want to go out and see the movies.
Diabolique: Your films have stood the test of time and I have no doubt that they’ll continue to for years to come.
Cohen: If there’s one thing about these movies it’s that they live on. They’re like the Frankenstein monster, rising from the dead and coming back to life. If you haven’t seen them they’re like a new movie, right? And based on what’s playing in the theatres now, it’s a refreshing experience to see movies that are original. I hope that these movies live on for many, many years. Some of these pictures are 40 years old, so it’s nice to see them play and see audiences enjoying them.