A few weeks ago, Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with director Steve Mitchell about his new documentary, King Cohen, which profiles maverick filmmaker Larry Cohen and his wild journey throughout his decades-spanning career (you can read that interview HERE). And now that this writer finally had the opportunity to see King Cohen as part of the 2017 Fantastic Fest lineup, I had a few more questions for Mitchell, who managed to craft an entertaining, informative, and heartfelt celebration of a truly one-of-a-kind talent in Cohen.
Great to catch up with you again, Steve. You did a great job with this project, and I loved how it balanced out all these things I’ve enjoyed about Larry’s career so far, and also dove into a lot of things I had no idea about. Is there an art to balancing out the stuff that fans are going to expect versus what you want to bring to light as the shepherd of this retrospective?
Steve Mitchell: Oh yeah. That's sort of in essence a simple question with a complicated answer. There's no script for a documentary. It's a lot of hunting and gathering, and you create the narrative in the editing room. Luckily, Larry gave us a ton of stuff to start with, and then we talked to I think 30 people, maybe. I got at least 30 to 40 minutes with everybody, if not more. I had a huge wealth of material to work with, and then tried to make some sense and a narrative out of it.
My initial idea was to use his professional life as the spine, but each chapter was me trying to make it about a facet of Larry's creative zeitgeist, or about his personal nature. There’s the character of this guy Larry, too, because when you're doing a movie like this, it's still a movie. Whether it's fiction or nonfiction, you're telling a story. It has to have kind of a beginning, a middle, and an end. My movie doesn't end because Larry's still with us, thankfully. That was kind of what we were doing.
The TV stuff was important because when I sold it, I sold the idea to Matt (at La La Land Records), I didn't have to sell it very hard, but my mindset was always, “Well, look, we're going to have the horror people, we're going to have old TV fans, we're going to have Larry fans, cinema fans, and indie movie fans, too.” So it was important to try and cover all of that stuff.
But, trust me, there was no master plan. I mean, at one point I said to my editor, "What the fu** are we doing?" There was so much material. I felt like I was in the middle of the Pacific and I didn't know which way to paddle. My editor, who I've worked with since my DVD days, he always says, "We'll be okay. We'll be all right. We'll get there. We'll figure it out." The mantra for the movie is "we'll figure it out" in so many ways, but getting back to the question is I felt that each aspect of Larry's career represented an aspect of who Larry was.
The TV stuff was as important as the movie stuff because he was extraordinarily successful as a TV creator. I mean, in the ’60s, if you look at most of his credits, his credits are TV credits. He was making a ton of money. The house, the famous house, he bought I think with his TV money. He bought this big-ass house in Beverly Hills that he still lives in. He loves that house. Robert De Niro wanted to buy the house, by the way.
Steve Mitchell: Oh, yeah. I think when they had the ceremony for Bernard Herrmann when he passed, Robert asked him about selling it to him. But anyway, I just felt that Larry dipped his toes in a lot of different areas in terms of the creative process, so I wanted to show as much of that as possible. And that’s a simple answer to a complicated, but still simple, question [laughs].
Is there stuff that you had really wanted to get into this doc, and it just didn't fit the narrative?
Steve Mitchell: Absolutely. There was a lot of stuff just because, listen, Larry's been around for a long time. He had a lot to say about a lot of things. Some of his stories are longish, which if you're doing an interview or having a conversation, that's great, but when you're cutting, it can be tough. My responsibility is to tell a story in a way that people aren't going to get bored. So there was just so much of it. I keep saying, and I hope that this will be the case, that when we put it out on Blu-ray we'll have at least an hour's worth of deleted stuff. At least. I probably could put together two hours easily between Larry's stories and other people's stories.
No one's really quite asked me about this, but Larry's sister was the publicist Ronni Chasen. She was murdered in Beverly Hills in 2010, and it was just awful. I thought, "Do I want to talk to him about this?" Because it's obviously something very painful for him. His wife talked about it a little bit, but I decided, "This is not a movie about that. It's a movie about his work and his career."
There are very few creative forces like Larry, then or now. And the biggest thing for me is the fact that he is a triple hyphenate. In the history of film, or English language film, how many are triple hyphenates are there? Maybe five. Larry is a unique person. He's got a unique career. That was the story I wanted to tell. I just wanted to stay away from the dark stuff. I was watching the movie the other day, and was happy that by the end, it feels really inspiring where you just admire his will and his passion that has kept him going.
I have to admit that I teared up during the Bernard Herrmann stuff because I didn't know about their relationship. I knew they had collaborated together, but I didn't realize how strong that relationship was. It was a beautiful tribute to Bernard and to Larry’s loyalties.
Steve Mitchell: Yeah, it was important to me for a couple of reasons. One, I'm a film music fan. I remember when I saw It's Alive, I don't even know if I saw it in the theater, but I saw it after the second release. The first release barely played in New York. But I remember when I saw it I said, "Well, wait a second. This is a low-budget movie. Bernard Herrmann's scoring it. What in the what?"
Then, as we were making this film, we got into the behind the scenes of how this relationship worked. They were very close for the time that they spent together, which was not an enormous amount of time, but they were very, very close. Larry moved to London because Herrmann said, "Yeah, why don't you move to London?" Larry said, "Okay." He literally took his family and I think relatives over to London. They lived in London so that they could be close to one another. They had a very close relationship.
Herrmann as we know is notoriously cranky and he alienates all kinds of people. That was important to me because I thought it was a great story, but also it gave me an opportunity to celebrate the music a little bit, too. I had cut a sequence with Miklos Rozsa, a longer sequence, and I think it was important to show that there was a contrast between him and Herrmann, and then how Larry worked with Rozsa on The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover.
I wanted that as contrast, but, yeah, I could've spent much more time talking about the music side of things because I'm interested in that. What's it they say? When you're editing, you have to cut your darlings? Larry makes jokes about the fact that this could've been a miniseries. I'm not entirely sure about that, but it could've been a two-parter for sure [laughs].
In case you missed it, check here to read more of our Fantastic Fest 2017 reviews and interviews, and stay tuned to Daily Dead for more of our coverage of the festival.