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Monstrously Yours, Larry: An Interview by Emma Westwood

Larry Cohen

I was lucky to interview writer-director-genius Larry Cohen for my book, Monster Movies, in 2007. He was one helluva interviewee. He talked about getting fired from I, The Jury and shooting Q – The Winged Serpent instead. He compared It’s Alive to ET and confessed to out-grossing My Fair Lady at the Singapore box office. He even used the term ‘cop a feel’.

Now that he’s been silenced in eternal rest, here’s one last chance to hear his voice again, entirely in his own words. RIP Larry Cohen.

“The Host obviously brings to mind Godzilla, but Bong says his inspiration was Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent, a 1982 film in which a creature swoops down from its nest on the Chrysler Building to attack unlucky New Yorkers.”
Review of The Host by V.A. Musetto, New York Post (9 March 2007)

Larry Cohen: ‘Monsters have been in everything from our childhoods. All the little fairytales and folk stories that we heard had monsters in them. There’s Jack and the Beanstalk with the giant, the witch in Hansel and Gretel who baked the children in the oven, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with the vicious queen… They all have elements of power and fear in there… and kids love it.

My kids would always say to me at bedtime, “Dad, tell us a spooky story” and I’d make something up for them. If it makes them feel scared, then they feel safe because they’re in their parents’ arms. So the same thing applies to the movies. People go to the movies and get scared, but they’re secure in the fact that it’s only a movie. They’re not really in any danger.

Girls love it because they get to cuddle up to their boyfriends and act feminine and afraid, and the boyfriend gets to be protective, put his arms around her and cop a feel – so he’s enjoying himself. Everybody likes horror movies and it will be like that forever. There are good ones and there are bad ones. You get enough bad ones and it kills the cycle for awhile because people get sick of seeing bad movies. But then a good one comes along and the whole cycle starts again.

There are certain people who profess they don’t like horror movies because they’re too childish or too excessive, but then they’ll give an Academy Award to Silence of the Lambs that has a cannibal running around biting people on the face. It all depends on how well it’s done. If it’s done well like Alien or The Exorcist, then it crosses all the barriers and it reaches everyone.

The best monster movies in my thinking are the ones where you see the least of the monster. You keep waiting to get a look at it – it’s there but you never really get a good look. You only get to see sections of the monster in the first Alien movie. In Jaws, you wait for over an hour before you got to see the monster for the first time – it was down below the surface, but you didn’t see it.

I tried to do the same with It’s Alive, which was made before Jaws. You saw very little of the monster and you kept wanting to see more. You didn’t get to see enough of it to have a full understanding of how it really looked, so you were still afraid of it.

No matter how good the monster is, if you put it on the screen long enough, people get used to it and then it ceases to be frightening. It just becomes interesting. They might say how well it was affected, or how great the animation was, or how good the prosthetics were, but it’s not scary anymore. The audience might become enamoured with the technique, but they’re not afraid anymore. We always fear what we can’t see – what’s hiding in the dark.  

Many of my films that I’ve written I’ve also directed, so when I want the monster to appear in the film, I draw a rendering of what I think the monster’s going to look like and then I give it to the special effects people and they go from there. Not everybody does that, but I always like to play a part in the whole process.

Many films are made by different departments, where the special effects people, more or less, take over the movie – it’s their movie. The film then has the look – the stamp – of whatever company has done the special effects. Whether it’s Stan Winston’s company or ILM… all those pictures have a similar look to them.

I made Q – The Winged Serpent after I was fired from I, The Jury. I didn’t get along with the producers. They were just under-financed and terrible people. I didn’t want the people who were kind enough to give me equipment and who had faith in me to get screwed, so I told these people that the company didn’t have enough money to pay the bills. The producers heard what I’d said to everybody and then they fired me. But it all worked out OK in the end because, if they hadn’t fired me from I, The Jury, then I wouldn’t have made Q.    

The day after being fired, I decided to stay in New York and make Q, so I started shooting the very next day. I got a crew together and we did the helicopter stuff. That was pretty scary flying in-between the spires of all those buildings. I remember we flew right up to the twin towers too – just a little left without going through them. It looks like we go through the gap because we zoomed in when we got close enough to the space between the two towers. Now that I realise those buildings are gone, I feel quite sad.

By the end of the week, we had the actors and we were shooting and making a movie. The other people from I, The Jury couldn’t believe we were making Q. We finished shooting before them and we opened in theatres in New York on the same day. Q did three times the box office of I, The Jury – total vindication. The company that made I, The Jury also went into bankruptcy and that was the end of them.

Q was a pretty complicated movie to make with special effects and everything. But I just did it. I knew where everything was supposed to go. I decided to shoot it my way and then the special effects people just had to do what I wanted them to do.

One of the guys who did the special effects – Randy Cook – he just worked on Jackson’s King Kong. He actually played the pilot in the plane that shoots King Kong at the end of the film. Well, Randy was flabbergasted with my approach – “You don’t do it this way – you work it out with us and we tell you where to put all the monster stuff.” I said, “Well, it’s too late now. Do the best you can.” They told me it wouldn’t work because the camera was moving when the monster was moving. Having the helicopter footage swooping around the Chrysler Building wouldn’t work because the camera was always in motion. I said, “You’ll make it work – you’ll put the bird in motion too.” The special effects guys weren’t too happy about it.

Nobody quite knew what that Quetzalcoatl big bird god looked like, except for some very crude drawings, so the special effects makers – David Allen and Randy Cook – designed the monster in their imagination. I think they made the thing a little too heavy. It should have been sleeker and a little lighter in form. That damn thing didn’t look like it could get off the ground very well. But frankly, they were putting up with me and my odd way of making a special effects picture, so I went along with them. Although I wish today that I’d been a little more demanding on the design of the monster.

I thought the Chrysler Building was a prettier building than the Empire State Building in King Kong. I thought that the Chrysler Building deserved its own monster. It had all these bird images on it – a feathered design and birds sculpted into the sides… really beautiful. I thought, if a bird was ever going to find a place to nest, it would certainly pick the sparkly, glittery dome of the Chrysler Building.

We couldn’t afford to build the Chrysler Building, so we shot it up there at the very top of the building, 86 storeys above the street. We had to hoist all the cameras, all the equipment up there. All the actors had to climb little ladders to get up there. We even had get pigeon wranglers to take up pigeons.

It was a big, empty spire with no barricades to keep you from falling off. You just stepped right off the building – like being on a platform 86 storeys above the streets of New York. I had a stuntman following me around holding onto my belt from the back, just to make sure I didn’t fall. If I had fallen off the building, it would have made the people on I, The Jury very happy.

When they made the Godzilla remake – the big budget one by Roland Emmerich – they basically took the story from Q. You realise, in the other Godzilla movies, Godzilla wasn’t female? Godzilla was not laying eggs. Suddenly, Godzilla was laying eggs in Manhattan. In my movie, it was the Chrysler Building. In their movie, it was Madison Square Garden. The way I shot Q and the way they shot Godzilla are identical too. When they discover there’s a new egg that’s been left behind, it’s shot in exactly the same way – the eggs cracks open and the titles come up. That’s exactly from Q.

I didn’t know It’s Alive was going to be as successful as it was. It was the number one box office picture in America for a few weeks and overseas it was very big. In fact, it was the second biggest-grossing movie in Singapore in the history of Warner Bros Studios – out-grossed by My Fair Lady. Well, I thought that was really funny. I’m glad it did so well over there, but it didn’t mean a thing to the Warner Bros people in Hollywood until the picture opened in America and did business there too.

Back in the ‘70s when we made the picture, there were so many people alienated from their children – kids who were growing up to be teenagers, taking drugs, growing their hair long, dressing in objectionable ways, engaging in blatant sexual activity. Many middle class American families felt like they had a stranger living in their house. Their adorable little child had grown up to be this unpleasant individual who was so defiant and angry and so aggressive and so doped up.

There were several cases where fathers actually killed their children – shot their teenagers. I’d read about it in the newspapers. My God – what it must be like to want to kill your own child because he’s become a monster. And I thought, “Oh, that’s an interesting idea.” Suppose a monster is born into an ordinary American family – how do they reconcile their love for this infant and the fact that it’s an abnormal creature bringing death and destruction to other people?

Of course, anybody who has a son who’s a criminal or murderer faces this kind of quandary – how can they love their child when their child has gone out and killed three or four people? It happens all the time. Everybody who is a murderer has parents. Everybody that’s a murderer was a child once.

If you look at the formula for It’s Alive, it bears a mirror image to ET. In ET, these people bring a benevolent monster into their home and hide it while the police and the government are trying to locate the creature and kill it. In It’s Alive, they bring an abnormal creature into their house, which is their child, and hide it from the authorities, even though it kills – probably in its own defence. Spielberg, I’m sure, saw the It’s Alive picture and subconsciously absorbed it. There are a lot of images from It’s Alive that turned up in ET too. The opening of It’s Alive with the flashlights – the opening of ET has the flashlights in the woods. If you look at both pictures, you’ll see the similarities.

It’s Alive was a scary idea. And people hadn’t seen that movie before. They’d seen Rosemary’s Baby, which was about the birth of the devil, but that picture ends with the birth. It more or less ends where It’s Alive begins, although I can tell you that It’s Alive wasn’t influenced by Rosemary’s Baby, even though a lot of people have compared the two. If we’d made It’s Alive about the mother, then it would have been too much like Rosemary’s Baby, whereas doing it from the father’s point of view makes it different.

   There’s been a remake of It’s Alive. It’s been shot over in Europe… and it’s terrible. Awful. I don’t make any bones about it either. I mean, I took their money, so they have rights and I let them do it, but, I must say, they made a shambles of it. That’s OK, though – people will think my version is Gone with the Wind. I wouldn’t recommend it to any of my fans. I’d tell them to cross the street. It’s unwatchable.

In the old days of monster sci-fi movies in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the characters were always very cardboard – dull. Usually, there was some pretty girl with big breasts on-screen saying how she was a physicist or something totally ridiculous like that. The actors they hired were dull. They all had that square heroic look to them.

Once in a while, you got a good movie like Them!, for example. There were some interesting characters in that one. My approach to monster movies was to make these pictures as real stories with real people. Creature from the Black Lagoon was a pretty good little movie. I liked that one. But still, there had to be a pretty girl so that the monster could pull her off the deck and swim away with her.From when I was a child, I remember the original Thing very well and I remember Them!, which I saw the first day at the Paramount Theater in New York – I was the first one to buy a ticket. Of course, I loved the Karloff Frankenstein movies. I thought his performance was so remarkable, particularly in the Bride of Frankenstein. Those pictures had a big effect on me. It’s always the ones you see as a child that have the greatest impact on you.’     

About Emma Westwood

Emma Westwood is a writer from Melbourne, and broadcaster on Triple R FM’s Plato’s Cave film criticism program, with an interest in horror and extreme cinema. She is the author of Monster Movies (Pocket Essentials, UK, 2008) and is currently working on a monograph on David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) for the Devil’s Advocates series.

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