Movies about alien hermaphrodites who look like Jesus; mutant newborns who slaughter an entire obstetrics team; Aztec bird-gods that nest in the Chrysler Building. Who comes up with this stuff? That would be Larry Cohen, who has been making grade-A B-movies like God Told Me To (1976), It’s Alive! (1974), and Q (1982) for nearly fifty years. He’s 77 now, and while the new documentary King Cohen (out Friday) is something of a summing-up appreciation, Cohen is not slowing down. He’s got two screenplays making the rounds, he’s pitching a new series for streaming outlets, and he still happily took out time on a recent weekday afternoon to talk to the Voice. After all, he says, “They always gave me good reviews!” And, as you’ll see, Larry Cohen doesn’t forget anything.
Below are excerpts from our conversation.
You grew up in Inwood, yet even after you later moved to L.A., you kept coming back to New York to shoot. Why?
Because New York’s still the greatest backlot in the world. All kinds of architecture. All these people on the street. The traffic, the chaos — it’s what you want in a movie. You don’t get that in L.A.… Plus, the New York police are much easier to get along with, as a filmmaker. If the cop comes over, you tell him, “I’m sorry, I’m shooting a movie,” he says “Oh, OK.” In California, he gives you a citation.
Which is important, because you tend not to ask permission. In Q, you had guys hanging onto the Chrysler Building, firing machine guns. In God Told Me To, you dressed up Andy Kaufman as a cop and had him crash the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
You know what it would have cost to do those sequences any other way? Just to stage the shootout in the middle of that parade would have cost millions — you gotta close down Fifth Avenue, hire hundreds of extras, rent hundreds of uniforms. My way, I just stuck Andy in the middle of it and started filming.
Actors talk about being “in the moment,” but that’s kind of how you direct, too. Bette Davis gets sick and quits Wicked Stepmother (1989), you turn her character into a cat. You’re shooting Q and you find out Michael Moriarty plays jazz, you give him a musical number.
Well, I can work like that because on my movies I’m the producer, the director, and the writer. And sometimes the production manager and the prop man, too. Otherwise, I’d have to sit down with producers, and producers are a real pain in the ass, believe me. Except Sam Arkoff. Back when he had AIP [American International Pictures], I’d say, “Sam, can you give me $1 million for this picture?” and he’d say, “Sure.” Then later I’d get a check for $950,000. “Hey, wait, where’s the other $50,000?” “You wanna return the check, Larry?” So Sam, he took a little commission, you know? But he let you make your movie.
He didn’t try to direct it himself.
No! Everyone wants to tell you what he thinks. Who cares what they think? Someone on the crew who went to film school comes up, “Oh, we can’t do it that way.” Well, that’s the way we’re going to do it. I’m only interested in making movies my way. Total freedom. And the actors appreciate it. Michael Moriarty and José Ferrer and James Earl Jones — I’ve worked with some great actors. And they like working with me because if I like what they’re doing, I’ll write them another scene, then and there. They love that. Eric Roberts says making a movie with me was like going to summer camp.
You didn’t have any problems with any of them? With Broderick Crawford, on The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977)?
Well, he drank, sure. But he was on time, he knew his lines. Of course later, when the picture was coming out and Saturday Night Live asked him to host, he was really drinking. They started worrying he wouldn’t make it to the broadcast. They had cast members babysitting him, but he kept going off to this bar downstairs, Hurley’s. They called me up, they said, “We can’t control him!” I said, “You put John Belushi in charge of keeping Broderick Crawford sober? You actually think that’s going to work?”
There’s something in your movies — these wild premises, this tabloid energy — that always reminded me of a friend of yours, Sam Fuller. Like him, you almost always have a political point of view, too. Even going back to your TV days, when you created Branded (1965–66): It looks like a western, but it’s really about McCarthyism.
You know, the blacklist was still around when I started writing for TV. The producer would send off your name, and the director’s, and the actors’, and someone had to approve them — “Yeah, you can hire them, they’re OK.” Such ridiculous bullshit. So when I did Branded, I thought, “OK, here’s a way to talk about that. We’ll have this cavalry officer who’s been accused of being a coward, and we’ll see how that affects his life.” And it worked out great — until Chuck Connors found out what it was really about, and wanted me off the show because I was some kind of dangerous radical.
Bone (1972), your first feature, sort of set the pattern for all the movies that followed. It’s done very cheaply, it hits a lot of hot-button issues, and the distributor didn’t know what to do with it.
Nearly fifty years after we made it, it’s still way ahead of its time. It’s about racism in America, and there’s a sexual side to it, with the white wife falling for the black guy — there’s a lot of stuff in it people did not want to deal with. But you know, the studio should have sold it as what it was, which was a very dark comedy, like Where’s Poppa? Instead they tried to push it as a thriller, and you can’t do that to an audience. If you’re selling people vanilla ice cream, it better be vanilla ice cream. You give them strawberry, they don’t care how delicious it is.
You almost had the same problem with It’s Alive!, where you promised to give the studio a movie about a killer baby — and then when you delivered it, they said, “Ugh, we can’t release a movie about a killer baby!”
The problem there was by the time the picture was finished, the people who’d approved it had all been fired, and now there was a new bunch of executives. I was like the waiter who comes out of the kitchen and finds a whole different crowd of customers at the table. “Why are you bringing us this, we didn’t order this!” So they dumped the picture, and I had to wait three years until those people all got fired, too. And then we re-released it with a first-class campaign, and it was number one on the charts and bought me a 22-room townhouse in Manhattan.
And then you went even further with God Told Me To, which combines science fiction, Roman Catholicism, and hermaphrodites. Where the hell did that come from?
It’s based on a true story! No, seriously, it’s a picture about religion, and the violence people do in the name of religion — which feels really relevant today. Some of the other ideas came during the making of it. Richard Lynch, who plays the alien, was changing costumes and I noticed he had all this scar tissue; the guy had set fire to himself years before in a drugged stupor, and some of the scars, on the side of his torso, actually looked like a vagina. So I said, “Would you mind if we photographed you as you are? I think we can use this,” and he said, “Sure,” so I wrote it in. ’Cause I could. You try to do that in a studio picture, they’re gonna think you’re insane.
You’re still writing scripts for other people, but you haven’t directed in years. Would you, again?
I’d still do it, but I have to do it on my own terms. We’ve got a series ready to go, High Concept: ten one-hour scripts. I might direct some of them. And I’ve got two new screenplays out there…. But honestly, I don’t see a lot of people doing what I did. A lot of the new movies, all the big special effects, that’s not for me. I don’t know. I do like the movies the Coen brothers make, even if they don’t know how to spell Cohen. Did you see The Big Lebowski? There’s a scene when the characters sing the theme song to Branded, and then they go to see this guy who’s supposed to have created the show — except in their picture, they have him in an iron lung. And then they have him die! I tell you, these guys ruined me, as far as the public is concerned. Now everybody thinks I’m dead. No wonder I can’t get work!