Interview: Steve Mitchell, Writer & Director Of ‘King Cohen’
By Dr. Zaius
Monday, August 6th, 2018 at 5:00 pm
King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen is a fantastic new documentary written and directed by Steve Mitchell that covers the life and career of maverick filmmaker Larry Cohen and it opened in NYC this week. Larry Cohen began his career writing TV noir and westerns in the late 1950s and early 1960s before building up a filmography in the 1970s, writing, directing, and producing such genre classics as Black Caesar (1973), It’s Alive (1974), Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), and The Stuff (1985). While Cohen hasn’t directed a feature film since 1996, he has written some popular genre films such as Phone Booth (2002) and Cellular (2004). His IMDb page features over 80 writing credits with over 20 in the director’s chair. I recently got to speak with Mr. Mitchell, who co-wrote the 1980s horror film Chopping Mall, about his new documentary, his goals for the project, and his relationship with the film’s subject.
Geeks Of Doom: I guess I’ll start at the beginning: When and how did you meet Larry Cohen?
Steve Mitchell: I had no direct connection to Larry. I had the idea for the project and realized if I was going to go forward with it I would have to see if he was interested in me making the film in the first place. I knew somebody who knew somebody who could get me Larry’s phone number. I was a fan of Larry’s work and to me Larry was a legend, so you don’t just call legends on the phone but I had to do it. I called him up and I recognized his voice from some commentary tracks. I explained what I wanted to do and he said, “Okay, come to the house.” So I went to his house, the same one from the movie and from his movies, which was sort of an out-of-body experience. He opened the door, offered me a cup of coffee, and I told him what I wanted to do and he said he’d help me any way that he could. There was some doubt in his voice about if the film could be financed because he knows about how hard it is to get financing for anything. But we got the financing together and Larry was a man of his word and he got very enthusiastic about the project.
Geeks Of Doom: One of themes you get into in the film with Larry’s career was how he constantly wanted to control more aspects of the projects he worked on. When he wrote he wanted to direct, and when he directed he wanted to produce. So here you are the writer/director of a film about him; did he ever try to get involved in the creative process?
Steve Mitchell: That’s an interesting question, I think you’re the first person to ask me that question. The answer is no. He did want to take a look at a cut at one point when we had a cut that we were mostly satisfied with. He weighed in and gave me a few pages of notes. He then went to his photo archive and basically through it and all the imagery in the film is from Larry’s archives. He has letters from 50 years ago, give or take. He brought out some more stills and had some more ideas, but he wasn’t controlling or really hands on. He would just say, “You might want to look into this or that.” I think I implemented 75%-80% of his notes. There were one or two things I didn’t necessarily agree with and he respected my rights as the storyteller. But most of his suggestions were not only good ones, they were welcomed.
Geeks Of Doom: Larry Cohen is not a name casual fans know. I even started my review saying, “You might not know his name, but you’ll know his films.” What was your goal in making a film about a filmmaker who for many had flown under the radar?
Steve Mitchell: The whole project got started because one, I was checking out his IMDb page. What struck me was not all the projects that I was aware of, but the work I didn’t know. That he had done so many other things other than the ones I knew. A lot of it was television, a lot in the ’80s. I knew almost all his feature work. But what struck me most was that his career was like no one else’s. He shuffled between mainstream, independent, television, features. He did these two pictures — Special Effects (1984) and Perfect Strangers (1984) — which were really New York underground movies, I mean they were on a lower level than what Larry’s stuff was on normally.
Geeks Of Doom: I have to admit I had never heard of those films until I saw the documentary.
Steve Mitchell: It’s interesting. I knew all his theatrical stuff as it was coming out, but those pictures got such a minimal distribution that they flew under my radar. And I’m a guy who would get the newspapers on Fridays and Sundays to see which movies were coming out and which were getting minor releases. I’m a movie guy. But back to the question, I just felt that Larry was, from a career standpoint, unique. He was doing something nobody ever did. Back in the day you used to be pigeonholed. If you were an A director, you were an A director; if you were a B director, you were a B director and you rarely became an A director. If you did television, you were a TV guy. Larry’s opinion was, “I’ll be whatever I wanna be whenever I wanna be it.” So he just worked seemingly at will doing what he wanted when he wanted for who he wanted. I think that was of course a little self serving; Larry was a guy who wanted to make a living and do well. And he did well starting in TV. Even Roger Corman flirted with the A list, but was always seen as that B guy moving up. Larry didn’t want to be any kind of guy. That was interesting to me. Roger Corman had a documentary, so why not Larry Cohen? Then I met Larry and the most important thing when making a film, or writing any fiction, is great characters. Larry is a great character. And the people in his universe were interesting characters. The beginning impulse was always to tell a story about a guy who determined his own path in Hollywood.
Geeks Of Doom: He certainly was unique. You mentioned his underground films and his style was so frantic. I noticed on his IMDb page that he has not directed a feature film since 1996. I think it was Joe Dante in your film who said that Larry could not have made the films he did after 9/11. Is there any way that someone today in the 21st century could mimic Larry’s style?
Steve Mitchell: In terms of his approach to shooting movies, look you can do it, I can do it. In terms of equipment, I shot some of King Cohen on my smartphone. In terms of the mobility Larry had, the technology has improved. A friend of mine whose an editor and a cameraman was telling me you can actually get lens that can expand the ability of your smartphones. They attach to the phone and you can hook the phone to a tripod. You can actually get good sound off your phone. If you want to make a Larry Cohen movie, equipment is not going to stop you. But that’s Larry’s approach to making the movies, not his style. His style to making movies to me is basically dictated by Larry the writer. The ideas he has are what drives his pictures. I like most of Larry’s pictures. But the thing is even if you don’t like a Larry Cohen movie, they stick to you, because they are Larry Cohen movies. I think Paul Kurta talks about it in the film, Larry always wanted to say something, he always had ideas. Q: The Winged Serpent is my favorite movie of his. The Ambulance is a very close second. Larry told me I couldn’t use this in the movie, but he would always go to the movies in the ’50s and there were these sci-fi monster movies with scientists and they had female scientists who always had big boobs and they were filled with so much useless exposition. He liked those movies, but felt there was always too much silly talking. So when he made Q, which is, let’s face it, a classic monster movie, he took a very Larry Cohen approach. He found a very interesting character in Jimmy Quinn, played by Michael Moriarty. The movie is a genre mashup of a New York street crime movies with low lives, a detective, investigations, and then he brings politics into it. So what you end up with is this wonky, original very satisfying monster movie, but it has so much more attached to it. Jimmy Quinn may be the best character in any monster movie I’ve ever seen. He’s real, he’s legit, and that’s all Larry. That was Larry working with Moriarty and them improvising stuff. That being said, I assume you saw the film Get Out.
Geeks Of Doom: Of course.
Steve Mitchell:Get Out was like if Larry was making movies today, they’d be something like this. It had a very Larry Cohen feel. Here’s a horror movie that had ideas outside the horror genre and so I said, “Yeah, Larry could’ve made this.”
Geeks Of Doom: The list of interviewees you got for this film is mighty impressive. You open with an anecdote from J.J. Abrams, who is the “It Guy” right now in Hollywood. You have Oscar-winner Martin Scorsese. What is about Larry Cohen that is revered by his peers?
Steve Mitchell: That’s an interesting question, why is he so revered? The movie is about that on a certain level. Larry is an original character, he’s very creative. Actors are very fond of him because of how he relates to them. Moriarty says it, the reason he’s such a good director is because he’s a performer himself. I think the actors relate to him because they feel he understands and cares about them. I think other filmmakers appreciate the fact that he can do it all. I think other filmmakers appreciate that a Larry Cohen movie is just that. The first card at the end of his movies always says “A Larry Cohen film.” That title is earned. You see that and say, “Okay, I know what that means.” I had a writing partner some years ago, Bob Sheridan, whose since passed away, I dedicated the film to him. He told me this story. He said he saw “this Larry Cohen movie on cable that he never heard of before called Perfect Strangers.” I asked him how it was and Bob sat and thought about it and nodded his head and puffed his cigarette and finally just said, “It’s a Larry Cohen movie.” I knew exactly what he meant. There are very few filmmakers even from the more auteur era of film quite like Larry. His name represents a certain mindset. I’m a big Sam Peckinpah fan. You can put the name Sam Peckinpah in front of anything and you’d know exactly what kind of movie you were going to get. I come from a time when a movie came out you looked at who directed it and it didn’t matter what the films were about, you only cared about the director’s name. And those were Larry Cohen movies.
Geeks Of Doom: For me, that’s Quentin Tarantino. I found the documentary thoroughly entertaining, which made it surprising when there were some truly touching moments like those with Bernard Herrmann and Bette Davis. For you, what was the most surprising story you learned while making this film?
Steve Mitchell: This is going to be such a cop out answer, but there were so many stories that intrigued and surprised me. There’s so much that I didn’t use in the picture that I wish I could have. I was trying to paint a portrait of a creative filmmaker. I could have done a 4-hour movie if it was just anecdotes. But making the kind of movie like mine, you have to see the forest through the trees. The portrait you are creating is a lifetime of work. The Bernard Herrmann story was very moving to me and when Larry’s first wife pauses and looks down, I said to myself “Okay, this is important stuff.” Because I know Larry loved him, and Herrmann, even though he was a cranky old guy, I know he really loved Larry. It was important for me to have Eric Roberts say that Larry was a kind and sweet guy. Larry is a kind and sweet guy, but he’s also blunt as a hammer. He’s combative, he’s feisty, he’s complex. I tried to show that complexity and I hope I was successful. A few stories that aren’t in the movie: when he gets the call from Sam Arkoff that they want to make Hell Up In Harlem, Larry started shooting that day without a script. And the whole opening is supposed to be Fred Williamson on a gurney, but they didn’t have Fred Williamson and Larry shot the scene anyway. The other thing that didn’t become apparent to me until we were cutting the final movie was that we were celebrating a certain time of filmmaking in a certain place. Movies were made the way Larry made them and they were raw because of it, but they had personality and a zeitgeist that you don’t get in low-budget movies today.
Geeks Of Doom: Let me finish up by asking what is next for the film. I know the New York premiere is Friday, August 3rd.
Steve Mitchell: It’s screening in the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers [August 2nd] and then it opens at Cinema Village [August 3rd] and is playing there a show a night for a week. That’s a big deal for me because I’m from New York and I wish I can make it back, but I was busy. But it’s a big deal for me to know I’m playing in The Village, in the theater that still exists considering most of theaters I knew when I was younger are gone now. But Cinema Village somehow survived and I think that’s kind of cool that I’m down there within a stone’s throw from the locations in Larry’s movies. That’s exciting. We’re not getting a broad release because let’s face it, it’s kind of a niche movie. But our distributor is looking into other cities just to get it in there. But we’re also going to do the whole streaming and VOD and iTunes process. My partners and I are planning on Blu-Ray, which will have quite a few deleted scenes. I had over 15 hours of material with just Larry.
Geeks Of Doom: Well, Larry does end the film saying there could be a sequel.
Steve Mitchell: Larry was trying to get this turned into a mini-series!
Before I realized it, over 30 minutes had gone by. Steve Mitchell was a great interview and he’s crafted an entertaining and moving documentary about a legendary maverick filmmaker that also serves as a history lesson in old school Hollywood movie making. My thanks to Steve Mitchell for his time speaking with us. King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen premiered in NYC on August 3, 2018, and is running through the week at Cinema Village, located at 22 E. 12th Street in Manhattan. It’s a NY Times Critic’s Pick and truly great film. You can check out my full of the film here.