With the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival underway, filmmaker Steve Mitchell recently celebrated the world premiere of his documentary King Cohen, which explores maverick storyteller Larry Cohen's career that has now spanned over five decades.
Daily Dead had the chance to speak with Mitchell about King Cohen, and he chatted with us about his decision to embark on this project, what led him to picking Larry as the subject of his documentary, how he managed to pull off the documentary, what surprised him most about the whole experience, and how it felt to have Larry, as well as some other special guests, in the crowd for the inaugural viewing of King Cohen.
Congrats on the premiere, Steve. I really do hope the premiere went well. I’m sure you had a fantastic crowd up there at Fantasia.
Steve Mitchell: Yeah, we premiered this past weekend. Larry was there, of course, and then Michael Moriarty showed up as well, so it was kind of a poignant reunion for the two of them. They both really enjoyed the picture and the audience enjoyed it, too, and it was very gratifying for me and my partners. Overall, it was all we could have hoped for, and I think interesting things lie ahead. We're now getting ready to go do another festival, which is going to be in London towards the tail end of August.
I'm so excited to see this because I love Larry's work, and I love that he's being celebrated in a documentary. Was there a reason in particular that you chose to make this documentary about his career? I wasn’t sure if you two had known each other prior to this endeavor.
Steve Mitchell: Basically, I was producing DVD special features and commentaries and things like that, and I think at some point I knew I needed to do my own picture. One day I was looking at Larry's IMDb page ,and what struck me was that there were so many credits of his I didn't know. I was a fan of his work, I knew his TV work, I knew all of his films, but what struck me was he had done so much shuffling between his Larco movies and mainstream projects, primarily as a writer, and he had done all of this mainstream television and feature work while he was continuing to work as an independent director.
All I knew is after I looked at that IMDb page and got into it a little bit more, that he started very, very young and had a career that lasted half a century. That just doesn't happen. You look at directors today, and I'm not knocking directors today, but if you don't make money right away, you're dead. Your career is over. I grew up in a time where if you were a good director, and you made a movie that didn't make a lot of money, your career wasn't over. Larry's lasted a long, long time, and so I thought that this guy deserves a documentary. And it took a while for it to happen, I have to say. We had some false starts. But eventually it did, and here we are now.
When you first started out, did you start with Larry himself or did you start with other folks and then come back to Larry, in terms of the interview process?
Steve Mitchell: If you're going to do a documentary about somebody, and they're alive, you should at least find out if they're interested first [laughs]. If they don't want it to happen, they can make life very difficult. I knew someone who had Larry's phone number, and he gave it to me and I called Larry up one day and I told him what I wanted to do. He probably said something witty like, "I do deserve to be immortalized," or something like that. And then he said, "Come on up to the house." So I went to the famous house. If you know Larry's movies, his house is in virtually all of his movies, in one way, shape, or form.
He made me a cup of coffee, we sat down, I told him what I wanted to do, he says, "Well, if you can get it financed I'll help you any way I can." Then he let me go through a box of stills, because Larry didn't throw anything away, so he had a tremendous archive of stuff which I was able to cherry pick and get into, which was great. So I cut a trailer, and I tried to do this Indiegogo campaign, and it was a tremendous flop. Now, there are tricks to crowdfunding, but I don’t really know what they are. I just thought you put it up, and you talked about it every day on Facebook to get the word out, and people would come flocking. Well, people stayed home. They didn't flock to anything [laughs].
So some time went by, and then I met Matt Verboys, who's one of my producing partners, and he's also the co owner of La-La Land records. He had known a movie that I'd written called Chopping Mall, and he's a film nut, plus I'm a film nut, and so we bonded almost immediately. He'd said at some point, he and his partner were thinking about expanding the company and trying to do different things, like they were thinking they would maybe do films, too. Because I have a head that's as thick as a block of cement, rather, that didn't land for me for a few months and I eventually realized he might be interested in doing the Larry thing, so we had lunch. By the time we were officially done with lunch, he said to me, and I'll never forget these words, "I don't know how we're going to do it, but we're going to do it."
So he and my other principal partner, Dan McKeon, they set out to raise the money, which they did, and the movie got started because of them, really.
What were the biggest surprises for you in terms of the interview process itself; maybe things that you learned from folks that you spoke to that you weren't expecting, maybe it was something that Larry shared?
Steve Mitchell: Boy, that is a Cinemascope-wide question [laughs]. I’ve done a lot of interviewing, I did print work in my far distant youth, I've done a lot of DVD stuff, I've done a lot of commentary tracks with people, so I'm always surprised when I learn something I didn't know. I think maybe the one thing with Larry that surprised me was that he didn't prep at all, especially in his early days. That surprised me quite a bit because when you work low-budget filmmaking—and I've worked in low-budget film—you really need to prep just so you can get what you need to get on the day that you're shooting.
But Larry didn't believe in preparation. He thought too much preparation would get in the way if, for some reason, something came up and spoiled that preparation. So, basically, I think the thing that I learned about Larry was, and it goes more to his own character, is that he's very strong-willed and determined to get what he needs to get, and he created the ability to roll with punches or go with locations, or deal with weather, or deal with schedules. His early movies have a raw quality that are reflective of that. Larry's ability to improvise was maybe the biggest takeaway that I had.
It's interesting, and this is sort of a little bit of a byproduct of the film, but I’ve noticed how the middle is gone from the movie business. It's either very low budget or very high budget. I grew up and I worked in the movies when mid-range movies got made on a regular basis, and interesting things happened in mid-range movies. They're good pictures. They're interesting pictures. But they're not blockbusters.
I'm going to be a broken record until I die about this, but I miss those days when you could have those kinds of pictures come out and get into the marketplace. I miss the way it used to be. Larry made movies for the theater, and all of his movies were made to ultimately be seen in a theater.
Keep an eye on Daily Dead for more coverage of the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival, and check here for our previous news, reviews, and interviews for the festival.