Throughout the course of his filmmaking career, writer/director Larry Cohen has always bucked the Hollywood system to deliver ingenious stories that subvert genre expectations and challenge societal norms. With over 20 directorial credits and more than 80 writing credits to his name, Cohen’s influence in the realms of horror, sci-fi, and exploitation cinema have been felt far and wide for the last 60 years.
This weekend, the Quad Cinema in New York is honoring a variety of Cohen’s films set in the Big Apple, making for the ultimate celebration of one of the most prolific indie filmmakers of all time. On Saturday, they will be screening Special Effects (2:15pm), Perfect Strangers (4:30pm), Black Caesar (6:30pm), and God Told Me To: The Whisper Cut (8:30pm), and on Sunday, the Quad’s Cohen-centric lineup features The Ambulance (3:30pm), The Stuff (6:00pm), and Q (8:30pm)—all with Cohen in person.
To mark the occasion, Daily Dead recently had the opportunity to speak with Cohen about his decades-spanning career, and he discussed what inspired him to pursue filmmaking as a profession, why genre films have always been the perfect playground in which to tell his imaginative stories, and more.
Thank you for taking the time to chat today, Larry. Let’s start all the way at the beginning, because I'm always really fascinated to find out what it is that inspires people to get into filmmaking or follow a creative path in their lives.
Larry Cohen: Well, I grew up in a time when you went to the movies all the time, because there was no television. The movies changed every week, sometimes twice a week, and so I was at the movies all the time. I just loved going to the movies and watching movies and sometimes, I’d even sit through them twice and sit there all day until the manager threw me out. There was no choice but to go to the movies or go home, and I liked being at the movies more than I liked being at home. The movies were my home, and I guess I always wanted to do movies. When I was a kid, I was drawing my own comic books, which were essentially storyboards of movies, but that's what I was doing when I was eight, nine, or ten years old. It was my hobby.
I was doing 62-page comic books, things like that, that were pretty good stories, and I wasn't a bad artist, either. I made these comic books, but nobody wanted to read them—I even had to bribe kids to read them. I liked doing them, so I always knew that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I started off writing for television, and then I started writing for movies after that, but I was not happy with the movies that they were making with my scripts, so I decided that I had to direct my own films.
Then, when I got the opportunity to start making my own films, I just fell in love with the whole process, particularly since I wrote, produced, directed, and edited all my movies. Because I did all the jobs, that meant I didn't have to deal with anybody. I was completely independent of any interference, and that's how I made my movies—it's the only way I could make them, really. A couple of times I stepped outside that and tried to work in the studio system, but it didn't work out, and I walked off a couple of pictures because of interference from studio people and producers. I wanted to go and make my films by myself, and I didn't want to deal with arguments and compromises and the constant aggravations that people go through to make a picture.
As a matter of fact, the only people I had to deal with were the actors, and actors usually loved me because I had total control of the picture, and they weren't accustomed to anybody that had total control. Every detail was under my supervision, and any problems that came up, I took care of even the most minuscule things. If an actor wasn't happy with their trailer, or they wanted their mother picked up at the airport or something, I took care of everything.
People said to me, "Well, don't you think you'd do better if you have somebody as a sounding board?" I didn't want any sounding boards. If someone's painting a painting, they don't have people come in and give them notes on the painting. Most movies are like symphony orchestras with huge amounts of coordinated people. My movies are more like a jazz quartet, where there is always somebody riffing and changing everything around their mood, and the songs are always subject to innovation, and that's what I'm doing as a filmmaker.
That's a beautiful description for it, and I think we'd be having a much different conversation had you gone the studio route all those decades ago, so I'm glad you didn't.
Larry Cohen: Well, I couldn't have done it the other way, anyhow, because I wouldn't have been happy. I would've been just a miserable bastard. So the way it worked out was that I got to enjoy going to work every day. I enjoyed working with the actors, and they seemed to have a good time with me. I worked with a lot of people who are considered to be difficult actors, but they weren't difficult when they worked with me. They were having fun and doing good work and we were always coming up with the craziest things.
Every day was something new, so I used to love the fact that some of the actors would show up on days when they weren't on call, and I'd say, "What are you doing here?" And they'd say, "Oh, we just wanted to see what was going on." They were so involved that they just wanted to come in and see what was happening when they weren't working that day. I would say that the biggest compliment you could get as a director is when an actor shows up when he doesn't have to, just because he wants to have a good time.
In regards to the films that are being highlighted at the Quad this upcoming weekend, they were all filmed in New York, which I know is where you're from originally. What was it about New York as a landscape at that time, throughout the '70s and '80s, where you recognized that the city had this rich tapestry where you could tell all these really unique and different stories?
Larry Cohen: Well, New York's an exciting city because there's always something going on, so there are all these vibrations the city gives off. It's a great mixture of the old and the brand new, even though it is a dirty city. But to me, dirty is always more interesting than clean. It's full of people and it's full of life, and if you want to see people, walk down the street of New York for an hour and you’ll see more people than you would see in most other cities in a month. The city is just full of vitality.
Of course, I couldn't shoot the same way today as I shot then. I couldn't have a gun fight in front of Trump Tower on 57th Street and 5th Avenue like I did back then. I couldn't have a big chase and gun fight during the St. Patrick's Day parade, and I don't think they'd let me shoot the machine guns off the top of the Chrysler building today.
From a storytelling perspective, was there something in particular about the horror and sci-fi genres that gave you a better way to reach audiences with the different ideas that you present in your films?
Larry Cohen: Well, I had a common thread in all of the movies I made. I would take something that was usually considered benevolent and harmless, and make it into an object of terror, like a baby. Nothing could be sweeter and gentler than a baby, but we made It's Alive with a monster baby.
We had ice cream, because everybody loves ice cream, and turned that into something bad for The Stuff. We did God Told Me To, where everybody loves God, and worships God, and we made God into a villain. Even with Maniac Cop, because back then you could run to a police officer for help, but what happens when you try to get help, but all they do is slit your throat? That certainly was a twist for that time. We even made a little-known movie called Uncle Sam, which I didn't direct, either, but we made this symbol of America as a demon killer in that one.
You just mentioned God Told Me To, and I think it is really interesting that you guys have the original cut that's going to be playing during this series at Quad Cinema. I’m insanely jealous that I’m on the other side of the country, so I can’t experience it for myself.
Larry Cohen: Yeah, this is a rough cut version from before we put the musical score on, and it has many scenes which were eventually eliminated from the final picture. It doesn't have the special effects that we shot over at Pinewood Studios, and I think it's a better movie without it. It didn't need the special effects, and I just put them in, I suppose, to dress the picture up. But the picture plays better without them, and the scenes that were cut were good scenes, and the picture benefits from those scenes. We have music from Bernard Hermann in this, who was supposed to score the movie, but he died before he could finish, so we used his temporary track with his permission. The picture was never exhibited anywhere in that form, it was only used to show internally for distribution purposes to studios, so it's never been seen in public before.
It's only going to be shown once, and I don’t think it’s something I’m going to show on a regular basis, either. It's only an internal work print, and I think it's probably the only print of that version that exists. So the people who come out to see it this weekend will be seeing something that they won't ever see again, and they've never been able to see before.
To learn more about Quad Cinema's Larry Cohen retrospective screenings, visit:Next: Deadly Dialogue: A Conversation on Cinema with Filmmaker Greg McLean