Larry Cohen is that rare breed of filmmaker, a writer, producer and director whose mantra was to make it on the cheap, on the sly, and on the steal, while always staying true to the vision and the story.
This hugely enjoyable documentary from writer/director Steve Mitchell picks through the American auteur’s 50 year output, which includes such cult fare as Black Caesar, God Told Me To and Q: The Winged Serpent, to highlight Cohen’s maverick approach to film-making – which was mostly borne out of necessity as he detested the interference of major studios (having been stung quite a few times).
Now, I’m a fan of Cohen’s more quirky offerings like It’s Alive and The Stuff, two leftfield projects laced with his unique brand of satire and weirdness, and featuring the mad delights of Michael Moriarty, and I had seen his name attached to thing like the cult 1960s Cold War with aliens drama The Invaders, but I never realised just how truly prolific a screenwriter the native New Yorker has been ever since he started out doing live TV dramas in the 1960s. Even now, in his mid-70s, he writes daily and was responsible for big screen hits like Phone Booth (2002) and Cellular (2004).
After seeing the European Premiere of Mitchell’s documentary at FrightFest, I really ‘need’ to track down Cohen’s more obscure earlier features, like his 1972 directorial debut Bone (also known as Dial RAT for Terror to cash in on the Blaxploitation craze) with Yaphet (Alien) Kotto, and 1977’s The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, his fast and loose biopic with an ageing Broderick Crawford – one of the many Hollywood veterans that Cohen respected and admired and gave work to when no one else did. The others he helped in their dotage included director Sam Fuller, actor Red Buttons (whom he befriended until the day he died) and stroke survivor Bette Davis (who quit Wicked Stepmother, the project he had especially created for her).
A born entertainer (and frustrated stand-up), Cohen is brilliant at self-promotion and self-parody, and this comes through Mitchell’s candid interviews at his LA home (which featured in all of his movies) and on the convention circuit; and also through the anecdotes told by the likes of Martin Scorsese (who reflects on the how Cohen got Robert De Niro and Brian DePalma to pretend to be Jewish for Bernard Herrmann’s funeral), Robert Forster, Eric Roberts, Joe Dante, John Landis and Mick Garris (who gave Cohen his last directing gig on the 2006 Masters of Horror episode Pick Me Up); while a cigar-wielding Fred Williamson got the biggest laughs at the screening when he countered some of Cohen’s wilder claims.
But what really impressed me (that I did not know before) was Cohen’s sly approach to the filmmaking process which was all about the ‘steal’ (and ended up marking his style as a result). This mainly involved shooting without permits on the streets of cities like New York and Washington. One example was when he got to film inside the iconic Chrysler Building for Q: the Winged Serpent using real off-duty police officers and construction workers as extras, and ended up causing total mayhem when he rained fake bullet catridges down on the pedestrians below (impossible today, post 911).
Mitchell – who is best known for penning Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall back in 1988 – is currently screening his doco at festivals around the globe, and hopefully this will create enough buzz to attract a distributor for an eventual release. I, for one, will be looking forward to that – as well as the many hours of extra material (well, as the director remarked, Cohen does likes to talk).
For more on the film, and a look at Cohen’s unfilmed screenplays check out: http://www.larrycohenfilmmaker.com/.