Jason Souza chats with director Steve Mitchell on his latest film King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen…
Steve Mitchell loves storytelling, and is a fan of all things film. He created the 80’s-slash-blast of a movie Chopping Mall, has written for numerous TV shows like Viper and the animated series Jem, and has produced DVD documentary extras for Never Say Never Again and Casino Royale. As an artist and media chronicler, it stands to reason that his directorial debut is about another renaissance man, Larry Cohen. King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen, is a documentary chronicling the work and character of an artist who’s never compromised, the man who wrote and directed influential blaxploitation films like Hail Caesar, 70’s creepers It’s Alive and God Told Me To, 80’s consumerist critique horror The Stuff, and more recently the writer of thrillers like Phone Booth and Captivity. Mitchell was kind enough to break with his busy schedule and talk with me about his new project:
Souza: When did you start work on King Cohen?
That is a complex question with a simple and a complex answer. I’ve had the idea for the better part of the last ten years. It was an idea, I was working for Image Entertainment doing DVD special features and I was looking something up on Larry Cohen’s IMDB page, I’m a big fan of Larry’s, and I was sort of surprised to see so many more credits than I was aware of, and I’m kind of a credits junkie, and I’ve been very aware of Larry my whole life, but I was very interested to see the context of his LARCO work, which is basically independent, and his mainstream, primarily TV writing work. This is a guy who was working both sides of the system, and what was interesting to me was he seemed to be doing it at will, and doing it at will at a time when you were usually typed, TV people were TV people and Movie people were movie people…Larry was Larry people. Larry was independent of being boxed by the system and I find that very interesting. I thought about it and I said “you know, it might not be a bad idea to do a documentary about him”. The credits are there, the idiosyncratic LARCO pictures, even his TV work in the 60s, and so I was intrigued and that’s kind of where it all got started. And then, I tried putting together some numbers to see about a budget, and the folks at Image were saying “it sounds interesting, if you can get it made we can look at it for acquisition.” I don’t know if you know anything about this town, but acquisition is the big thing in a lot of places. People want a project that costs ten dollars but they only want to pay two dollars for it. This is what I ran into at Image. Between their kind-of apathy and the fact that the clips were going to cost a lot of money, I kind of back-burnered the project in terms of going after it, but I never lost interest in doing it. Jump ahead to about three years ago, give or take, when crowd funding was becoming very popular I said “oh, maybe this is the way to do it.” Then I realized that I had to find out if Larry even wants to participate in something like this. It is tough to do a documentary about a living creator without them being interested in cooperating. I knew somebody who knew somebody who could get his phone number. Armed with his phone number I called him up one day. He answered the phone very quickly and I said who I was and was very interested in doing the documentary. He said, and here comes my very bad Larry Cohen impersonation, he said (impersonating Cohen) “Come on up to the house!” So I went up to his house, which was very familiar to me, it was sort-of deja-vu all over again because his house has been in pretty much every one of his movies. We talk about that in the documentary. He greeted me and offered me a cup of coffee and a couple of cookies and I told him what I wanted to do and he basically said “well, I’d be happy to help in any way possible if you can get it financed.”
I asked, I said I need to put a trailer together for the Crowd-Funding, and so he brought out a big box of stills and let me search through it, and I found what I thought I needed. I got together with my editor Kai Thomasian who had cut some of my DVD special feature stuff with me, and we went about cutting this promotional trailer. We did that, and we started the Indigogo (Crowd-Funding) campaign and it was a colossal flop. I think there is a trick to crowd-funding that I was not aware of. I think you have to promote Crowd-Funding for six months ahead of timealmost like you are promoting a film. I didn’t know any of that stuff, and it was a just a colossal flop. So that was attempt number two down in flames. Then I met, socially, at Comic-Con as a matter of fact, a guy named Matt Verboys who is the co-owner of La-La Land records, which is a label that puts out limited-edition soundtrack albums. I’m a movie music fan, so I knew the label, but I didn’t know Matt, and I was interested in meeting the guy because I’m a soundtrack fan. And the first thing he says to me is “are you the same Steve Mitchell who co-wrote Chopping Mall?” And I said “yes I am.” From that point on we became fast friends and got to know one another socially. At one point he says, he and his partner, Michael Gerhard, were thinking about maybe trying to do more than just music and expand in some way. So, because I have a head made of cement, that didn’t penetrate immediately. Then about four or five months after that I thought “I wonder if he might be interested because Matt is a tremendous movie fan. I’m a big movie fan as well, but he is deep genre. He once said to me that “he is the king of crap and that he likes bad movies.” I said “I have this idea, would you want to have lunch?” And he said that he doesn’t know if we can do something outside of our box right now, but let’s have lunch.” So we finished our lunch and I said “Here’s what I have on my mind. I’ve been wanting to do this documentary about Larry Cohen now for some time. His response was “I’m already interested.” We talked some more and by the time lunch was officially done he said to me “I don’t know how we’re gonna do it, but we’re gonna do it.”
And that’s what it takes to get a project like this off the ground, is that kind of thinking.
It really does. He wasn’t going to write the check for the whole picture, we were going to have to go out and get financing, but that’s how it got started. It was to get a like-minded person who frankly probably has more business experience than I have to say “alright, we’re gonna somehow, we’re going to do it.” And that started the ball rolling. It’s been an extraordinary experience just to make this. Not only the creating of the picture, but the adventure of behind the scenes and getting ourselves in the position to make the picture.
Did you ever get to a point when you felt overwhelmed by the project? Where you were like “Oh my God, I may not make it to the end.”
Oh, God yes! Just to backtrack a little bit. We had called Larry up and said that we got our initial financing, and he said (imitating Cohen) “Oh great, great!” He was very enthusiastic. We said “let’s get started with (interviewing) Larry and do our first session.” Well, I think I sat down and I came up with about somewhere between 80 and 100 questions…a lot of career there. We sat him down and started doing the interview, and we could have just then walked away. You put Larry in front of a camera, and he just flips a switch and he is off to the races.
He likes to talk…
He does like to talk. In fact I think with Larry alone I think we had fifteen to seventeen hours of raw interview material.
That’s a lot of stuff right there. And then we went out and did interviews with a lot of people on top of that. To circle back to your question, I mean there were a couple of moments where Kai and I were just trying to figure out how to tell the story. When you start one of these things, you don’t have a screenplay, you don’t have a script. The content of your interviews in many ways helps you define the structure and the spine of the film, and I think there were a couple of moments where I said to Kai “remember that scene at the end of Castaway with Tom Hanks standing at the crossroads, he’s in the middle of this incredibly flat piece of real estate, and he’s at these crossroads. He could’ve gone down four different roads. That’s kind of the way I felt. The other analogy is that I often felt like I was in a life raft in the middle of the Pacific, and I didn’t know which way to paddle.
Oh wow, that must have been frightening.
Somehow you get past it. The battle cry of this picture is “We’ll figure it out,” and that’s what we did. So, just to sort of pull this question toward some sort of resolution, we figured out that Larry’s career was going to be the spine, but every movie or tv show that we talked about was going to give us someone sort of idea as to who he was personally and/or creatively. Each movie or tv show that we deal with goes to some of Larry’s character as person and as a creator. We’re creating a mosaic about Larry. We used his career as various bullet points to certain aspects of who he is. That was how we did it. In addition to figuring that out, we went to a convention in Indiana, and I walked around with a video camera for three days just getting B roll of him and B roll of the convention. That was very useful, I’m glad we did that. We went to a screening of It’s Alive in Los Angeles and it was great to have him there. And then I did various stuff with him in his house. So it’s not just all talking heads, there’s more visual variety, and the best thing is I had access to all of his visual archives. This is a guy who just never threw anything away. Because of that I have a lot of interesting stuff that I’m able to cut away to. When you do a documentary, well when you do any film really, it’s like “What am I going to cut to?”
Yes. It really helps when your subject is very agreeable and very passionate about his own work. It seems that he is.
Oh yes, Larry in a sense is a big fan of Larry. Part of Larry’s success I think is his creativity, his ideas, and also his will. He is very strong-willed. Larry Cohen is Larry Cohen because of all of those things. At the end of the movies there’s always a single card that says “A Larry Cohen Film.” That means something. A friend of mine who I wrote a screenplay with, a guy named Bob Sheridan, we were writing a script that ultimately became a movie called Against The Law. In the morning when we were getting ready to work, we would just sort of talk about “Oh I watched this,” and “Oh I watched that”. He said to me that he discovered this Larry Cohen movie called Perfect Strangers. I said “How was it?” He said “It’s a Larry Cohen movie.” I knew exactly what he meant. How many directors, then or now, especially now, can you say that about? Maybe Quentin Tarantino? It was daunting, we felt like we were out to sea a little bit, but somehow we figured it out.
That is fantastic. How do you maximize exposure of what might be considered a niche documentary? Obviously, you want to get as many people to see it as possible, but how do you promote that?
Well, the movie’s been finished for a while. We knew we were going to have to get some festival exposure. The whole idea of festivals is it creates a situation where you can get some heat obviously and with heat or interest comes desire on the part of people who acquire films. Now, we had figured about a plan A and a plan B for the picture. Plan A would be where somebody would want to acquire the film and we would let them do their thing, but we also were prepared to go with a sales agent and a sales agent could basically go out and sell it for us and Matt, and his partners would basically go out and produce and distribute Blu-rays and stuff like that, because they have the ability to create product and they have the machinery in place to sell it. So, you know one way or the other we knew it was going to get out, which is important because you have to convince your investors that they have a shot at getting their money back. The most important thing is to get festival exposure, and you’re probably aware that we are going to be at Fantasia in Montreal, which is in about a week. The movie will be screened on the 23rd (July) I think. We’re also going to be at FrightFest in London in August. We’ve been selected by two other festivals, but I can’t tell you who they are because we have to wait for them to make the official announcement before we can talk about it. I can tell you right now that we’ve been selected by four festivals so far. This is going to be very useful for us just in terms of getting the movie seen and hopefully people see the movie with an audience and the audience responds well to that and that of course gives you creating interest, etc. All that show business stuff I find fascinating, but it’s a whole other aspect of making a picture. I spent a long time making and cutting and creating a picture with my editor. That’s the creative stuff that’s like the “How do we make this work?” Now the business part of show business kicks in and we have to sort of deal with all of that stuff which by the way is all very exciting.
Yes, it has to be because there is so much work involved I imagine, in putting something like this together, you’ve got to love it and it’s got to be exciting to you.
It’s funny. I was reviewing the film last night with my partners. We were kind of double checking some of the graphics of the end titles and stuff like that. My response to it was sort of two-fold. One, just be honest about it. I made this, and I had enough distance from the making of it that I was seeing it a little bit more objectively. I was pretty satisfied with it, and not as a matter of ego or anything like that. I thought it was entertaining and fun and interesting.
I’ve seen snippets. I concur!
Well thanks, thanks. I appreciate that. That all comes from Larry, it’s all an extension of Larry. He is a fun and interesting character. One of my philosophical bromides about movies is that audiences respond to characters. You go to the movies, I go to the movies, we see the same movies. There’s nothing that can’t be created, I mean the ability to create anything is right there. The tough part, the part where a lot of movies fall down is character. I say the three most special effects of all for audiences today are character, character, character. That’s Larry…Larry is an interesting guy. I think that people who even really know his movies at the end of the movie might say “I want to check out some of this guy’s movies,” and point of fact people may have already seen some of his films. When I mention Phone Booth to a lot of people, which is a movie he wrote, they go “Oh yeah, yeah!”
I just found that out in my research, and I’m a fan of his.
Yeah. Larry is an interesting character and that is the most special effect of the project. This is a movie that will appeal to different members of the audience. If you’re a Larry Cohen fan, okay, I think you’re in. If you’re an older adult TV fan, well Larry was a big part of television in the sixties. He started in the late fifties in live television as a teenager…which I kind of hate him for… but that’s okay. So he did a lot of work in the sixties in television. He created, I think, five shows, a couple of which were successful, one was very interesting. A couple a little less so. He was a big player in television, and then he decided he didn’t want to be a part of television, so we’ve got the tv side of Larry, we have the Monsterpalooza side of Larry, then there’s the thriller side of Larry, and he appeals to the people who just like B movies, genre fans. Larry straddles a lot of different pools. You don’t have to love everything of Larry’s to find him interesting or to find a movie interesting, and then hopefully there will be aspects of the movie that make people go “gee, I didn’t know that, gee that looks interesting.” The woman who was our lawyer who did our review (of cuts and stills) to take advantage of Fair Use laws, which means reviewing cuts and stills as long as they meet certain parameters of the Fair Use laws, she wasn’t a Larry Cohen fan at all, she barely knew anything about him but was very intrigued by him because of the documentary. He has the ability to be a crossover hit, so to speak.
Absolutely, I would agree. I really, really hope and believe that this documentary is going to bring him to people who wouldn’t otherwise know who he is. He’s got such a varied and broad filmography that goes from action to dour horror to high concept horror. I can’t think of another filmmaker like him.
That was part of the reason that I was intrigued from the beginning. Larry does not serve up the same meal every time. The zeitgeist in who he is in pretty much all of his material, but the actual meal that he serves up is different. Laurene Landon had said to me if Larry could just do thrillers, I think he’d be happy for the rest of his life because Larry always indicated to me he’d sort of like to be Hitchcock, and those sort of movies interest him a lot.
What do you think is Larry Cohen’s most underrated film?
The way I can answer that is, I’m a big fan of The Ambulance, and I don’t know if that picture is as well-known as some of his other stuff. I discovered that movie one night on cable many, many years ago. I saw the title The Ambulance and I didn’t know anything about it, and I decided to check it out, and then I discovered it was a Larry Cohen movie which surprised me, and so I watched this picture and it’s just nuttier than a cage full of monkeys on sugar and coffee, and I kinda fell for it. I loved the conceit of it, I loved the idea of it, because Larry’s movies always have ideas, and I think that’s probably one of the lesser known pictures of his and it’s one of my favorites.
The Ambulance, I’m going to have to track that one down. I haven’t seen that, and I’ve seen most of his films
Yeah, Eric Roberts is in it back when he was kind of hot. I saw it recently at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles as part of a double feature with a movie called Special Effects, which is also kind of underrated. It was an early Eric Bogosian sighting, and then Zoe Tamerlis, who played in Ms. 45, she was the female lead. It’s kind of a…it’s Larry doing New York underground cinema. Completely non-union, I think the cast was non-SAG. It’s an interesting picture. So I saw Ambulance and Special Effects with an audience at the Cinematheque, and both movies played like gang-busters for the audience. Special Effects is a small picture, it’s a small eighties New York underground genre type thriller, but very effective. Ambulance was an independent production that I think had been released by MGM…again, it was an acquisition. But that picture had some money behind it and a cast. They’re fun, interesting, good movies with the Larry Cohen fingerprints all over them in the best way.
Nice. I will have to track those two down! My last question for you is, what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
Find and get to know people who have money to invest. It’s what makes the world go ‘round, and it certainly is what makes the film business go ‘round. You can’t do anything without money. They very first sentence I ever heard in a film class was “WIth money, you can do anything,” and this was decades ago. Nothing has changed. That’s an important thing. Getting a film financed is very, very difficult. The other thing I would suggest for any young filmmaker is know what you know, and know what you care about, and know what you’re passionate about. The Larry Cohen project was a project that met a couple of my criteria. One was, I thought it had a shot at perhaps getting made and being successful, but more importantly it was something I wanted to do. His story is a story I wanted to tell. You can’t waste time telling stories and turning them into movies that you don’t want to tell, you don’t want to want to tell those stories, or you don’t want to see those movies. It’s just too damn hard to do anything in the film business to bring any sort of jaundice to it. You really have to care about what you are doing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, because if you care about it then other people will care about it. If you don’t really care about it, then other people will be like “Well, you don’t give a shit about the movie, then why should we give a shit about the movie?” And I think that that’s important right now. Passion, which is a word that is overused in the movie business, is still a legitimate word that…you spend a long time making a movie. Sydney Pollack, who is one of my favorite directors, towards the end of his career when he wasn’t directing as much, he would say “If I’m gonna do this movie, I’m gonna have to eat dinner with all these people for the next year. Do I really want to do that?” And that’s what I’m saying. It’s not only hard to just physically work on a picture every day, whether you’re making a movie for $200,000 or 200 million dollars, it’s hard. With 200 million you probably have a nice trailer, you can take a nap, you can probably have an on-set masseuse or something like that, but it’s still very hard work, and it’s still a big commitment of your time, so my advice is care about what you are going to do. I think that’s the most important thing, is care about the project. Doing the Larry Cohen project for me was fun, from start to finish. Sure we were out to sea, we were adrift, we weren’t entirely sure which way to go with a lot of things, but we never didn’t care about it and it was always fun. Also, the other thing is, if you’re going to get involved with people, find great partners, because my partners Matt Verboys and Dan McKeon were unbelievably supportive, and they had my back and they still have my back to this day. The people that you get involved with, that’s very important. If you look at people like Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, anybody who’s had a long career, they tend to work with the same people. Relationships are important. Forming those relationships is a big deal. At the end of the day the simple answer is: care about what you are doing.
Thank you for that, and thank you for your time. I really appreciate this. You’re doing God’s work man! I’m so glad you’re putting this out, and the timing of it is perfect. You still have a lot of people around who Larry worked with, and I see you’ve got some really big names that you’ve interviewed. I’m excited to see the final cut of this.
It was my great pleasure.