He may not be a regular name to come up in academic film studies, but devotees of psychotronic cinema are more than aware of Larry Cohen. Few filmmakers were able to bob and weave between genres, such as horror and Blaxploitation with notable classics like Q: The Winged Serpent and Black Caesar. Now the legendary filmmaker whose oddball movies have captivated fans of the bizarre for so long is the subject of the documentary King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen from director Steve Mitchell. I recently had a chance to talk with the maverick filmmaker who served as writer, producer, and director on most of his unique films.
“It was totally unexpected,” Cohen said of being made the subject of a documentary. “They came to me and said they wanted to make a documentary about me. Who am I to refuse?”
Having had a certain level of control over his projects in his working career, Cohen stepped aside and made not attempts to guide Mitchell’s portrait of his life and career. “I didn’t want to influence them. I didn’t want to tell them what to do,” he explained. “I’m a filmmaker who writes, directs, and produces his own movies and I have a tendency to tell everybody what to do and in this case I wanted to keep out of it and let them do whatever they wanted, and when it’s finished I’ll see and I’ll either like it or I won’t.”
One of Cohen’s most famous works is Black Caesar, which starred Fred Williamson as a crime boss on the rise in a film that closely mirrored the gangster pictures that were coming out of Hollywood in the 1930s. Adding to the mystique of Black Caesar is the incredible soundtrack written and performed by the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown.
“We first tried Stevie Wonder,” Cohen said, dropping a nugget of information that I’d never heard before. “He came to the screening. He’s blind, of course, and couldn’t see the picture but he could hear it. He thought it was a little too violent for him. The next one on the list was James Brown. He liked it and he wanted to do it, so we were in business.”
When it came time for the sequel to Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem, Cohen was unable to get Brown to return for the soundtrack. The reasons, however, weren’t because Cohen and Brown had no interest in working together again. “I wanted him to do the sequel, Hell Up in Harlem, but he got into some difficulties with American International [Pictures] (AIP) and they wouldn’t let me use him again,” the filmmaker said. “So James went out and wrote the entire score on spec with his own orchestra and backup singers and delivered the tapes to me for the picture and American International still wouldn’t let me hire him because they were having a lawsuit with him on something else.”
Though it never wound up in Cohen’s movie, James Brown did release the songs that he recorded for Hell Up in Harlem. “He put the album out and it was The Payback, and it was James’ most successful album of all time. And that music he wrote for me for Hell Up in Harlem ended up being used in notable other movies, such as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and other films. So I hear my music in other people’s pictures,” Cohen told me with a bit frustration noticeable in his voice.
And yet the conflict that prevent James Brown from scoring Hell Up in Harlem was the only time that Cohen had any problems with Samuel Z. Arkoff and AIP. “That was the only one I ever had,” he explained. “And it wasn’t between me and them, it was between James and them. Because when James wrote music for movies, if it was a three-minute scene he’d write six minutes of music. So the studio went nuts when he delivered the music. With me, I didn’t tell them. I just cut the music down myself and put it on Black Caesar and it worked fine. But when he did that for another picture, Slaughter’s Big Rip Off with Jim Brown, AIP went nuts. And they said they weren’t going to pay him, they were going to sue him, and all that stuff. I got caught in the middle of it when I came up with Hell Up in Harlem, they were involved in litigation with James so I couldn’t use him even though he did the music for me entirely on spec.”
Black Caesar concludes with Fred Williamson’s character being shot, and the former football star stumbles around a crowded street in New York City with a pedestrians unaware that it was all for a movie. “Try and shoot that same scene today with Fred Williamson being shot, it’s right in front of Trump Tower. You wouldn’t be able to get within five blocks of the place. That’s right in front of Tiffany’s and Tiffany’s is in Trump Tower. It’s a whole different ballgame. Today with all the terrorism and restrictions, you wouldn’t be running around New York City with guns in your hand. You would if you wanted to get shot, of course, but I would rather not get shot or my actors get shot,” Cohen said of the final scene.
Another madcap classic of Cohen’s was The Stuff, about a mysterious substance that is highly addictive and delicious. However, lurking within the foamy goodness of The Stuff is a creature that will kill all who consume it.
“I saw over the years all the products that were put out on the market and advertised on television that ended up killing people and how the companies all denied their culpability in putting all these drugs and cigarettes on the market that they knew were detrimental to people’s health yet they denied it and ended up killing a lot of people. I thought, you know, one of the biggest enemies is the marketing and the corporations who care nothing about the public health and just do anything to make money. I thought, I’ll make something about a product that eats people up from the inside. What better than ice cream?” he rhetorically asked when thinking back on his cult classic about consumerism gone wrong.
When asked which of his films would be considered the quintessential Larry Cohen film, the director didn’t hesitate. “I guess Q: The Winged Serpent,” he said assuredly. “It was the first picture I made with Michael Moriarty, and we did five pictures together. That was the essence of the whole relationship between the actor and the director, and I thought the picture came out very well. It’s a very entertaining movie. Just a perfect movie in my estimation.”
During the filming of Q, there was a bit of a stir caused in New York City when the shoot at the Chrysler Building caused a bit of a media stir. “It didn’t freak out the entire city, but it probably did scare a few people down the street. People though were firing machine guns at the United Nations building, which is a few blocks away from the Chrysler Building,” Cohen said of the confusion that arose during filming. ”So a television station, channel 11, put a story out there that we were firing machine guns at the U.N. Building and that caused the police to come running and a lot of erroneous reports. Nothing was true. We were firing machine guns off, but the people firing them were off duty New York policemen who we hired. There was no nonsense about anybody doing anything illegal, but they made it appear that way in the newspapers.”
What Larry Cohen brought to the screen in his heyday probably would never get far in the development stage these days. I asked him if he thought any of his classics could get made in the modern system. “Most of them wouldn’t get made, probably,” he said with a bit of pride. “But you never can tell. My favorite is The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, which is very apropos today because of all this stuff about the FBI and investigating the president and all that.”
Larry Cohen hasn’t directed a feature film since 2006’s Original Gangsters, which reunited him with Fred Williamson alongside other Blaxploitation stars such as Pam Grier and Jim Brown. That doesn’t mean that Larry Cohen has been resting on his laurels. “I’ve been preferring in recent years just selling my screenplays, and I’ve been getting more money for my scripts that I used to for the whole picture,” he told me.
“It’s not making the movies, it’s getting them distributed properly. I mean, today it’s very hard to get your picture played in theaters. You turn around and find that it’s on Netflix or Amazon or they put out the DVD and you don’t get theatrical distribution, and I love to see my movies played in theaters. So it’s one of the reasons I don’t bother with it anymore,” the independent filmmaking legend said of the modern industry. “I want the pleasure of going to the movie theater and seeing the film and there are precious few theaters that will carry lower budget features. There are six theaters in the multiplex and five of them are playing Star Wars. You don’t have a chance really. And the advertising costs are so expensive. If they make a pictures for $250 million, they spend $40 million advertising it. If you make a little picture for $5 million, well, you just don’t have much of an advertising budget and you just get swallowed up. It’s like a poker game where the stakes have become so high that you can’t afford to sit down at the table.”
Maybe on the horizon, though, is a television series which is set to be produced by J.J. Abrams. “I’ve got a project J.J. Abrams to do ten one-hour thrillers for cable. I’m hoping that’ll come to pass. I’ve already wrote all ten of them, too. Just waiting for the go ahead with one of the cable companies and we’ll see how soon it happens. If anybody can get it on it’ll be J.J. Abrams,” the director said with a tinge of optimism in a discussing a cynical business.
There’s another reason that Larry Cohen hasn’t directed a movie in a long time – piracy. “I’m not doing these pictures where I used to be the production company where I’m the writer, producer, and director,” he explained. “There’s another reason, too. We did a picture up in Canada called Messages Deleted. I wrote it. They paid me $3 million for the script. They made the picture up in Canada. And before they could get it distributed it appeared on the internet. Someone had pirated the picture, so the company in Canada went into bankruptcy and the picture didn’t get distributed, and it was out for free on the internet and the company lost all their money. If you’re in a situation today where you work for months and come up with millions of dollars and then find the entire thing destroyed in one night when the thing appears for free on the internet because somebody pirated it. It’s not a very good thing to be involved with anymore. I haven’t got the time to take a chance like that.”
The films of Larry Cohen are available to legally rent on most streaming services and King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen will be landing in select theaters and VOD platforms in the near future. For more information this renegade filmmaker, go to his website at LarryCohenFilmmaker.com.