By Patrick McGilligan.
‘Mr. Cohen has mined a career out of one simple question – what’s the worst that could happen? – which he answers with the stinging, compelling heat of the exploitation thriller.’ (Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times, April 27, 2003)
There’s no mistaking a Larry Cohen film. As writer and director he has accumulated a list of singularly offbeat credits over the past forty-plus years, which includes Westerns, science fiction, ‘blaxploitation’, horror, suspense, and social satire. Often, he freely mixes one genre with another. His premises are generally audacious, sometimes bizarre. In God Told Me To (1976), a mysterious series of murders are connected to an alien from outer space that appears to people as God; in Q (1982), similarly ritual killings are linked to a giant flying serpent nesting on top of the Chrysler building. Only in a Larry Cohen film would a new food product pushed by Madison Avenue drive consumers insane and literally devour their insides, as in The Stuff (1985). His stories are often simultaneously visceral horror and quirky comedy. He organizes the weirdest, wonderful casts. The best (and worst) of his films are typically shot on cheap, fast schedules. ‘Manic energy’ keeps the productions going, and might describe the man himself. Especially in the 1970s and 1980s, Cohen was working prolifically and with unusual autonomy, shrewdly trading off his scripts and bargain budgets for minimal interference. For his considerable cult following, in the U.S. and overseas (especially France), ‘un film de Larry Cohen‘ came to mean a genuinely unpredictable alternative to conventional studio fare. Above all, it’s an impressively personal body of work, and Cohen has a fascinating life story, and a highly individual writing regimen, to go along with it. His long, remarkable career started with ‘live’ television in the late 1950s, and reached a new peak, in 2002, with Phone Booth – directed from his script by Joel Schumacher – which was a hit with critics and audiences.
Film International I’m assuming you grew up as a huge film fan.
Larry Cohen Oh yes, indeed. I loved the movies. I had to see every movie that played.
FI Did your family have any connection to show business?
LC My grandfather had been a minstrel in traveling shows back at the turn of the century, and he’d actually been in black face and one of the end men. His brother was the other end man. Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambu. Of course I never saw any of these minstrel shows. His mother on her deathbed made him promise to give up show business. So the banjo went into the closet, and he never once again played it his whole life. I asked him a hundred times to play the banjo for me, but he wouldn’t take it out of the closet; it brought back too many painful memories, I think. But I heard about the minstrel shows and vaudeville from him and other members of the family. He played in vaudeville on a bill with Jimmy Durante, and toured the west and played in a saloon owned by Frank James, Jesse James’s brother. He had quite a few adventures in his early life, but gave it all up by the time he was twenty-one and led a rather conventional life after that, running a gentleman’s furnishings store on 125th Street in what is today the heart of Harlem. In those days it was a fashionable white neighborhood. He liked to go to the track, he saw all the vaudeville shows and plays, but he never dabbled in show business again, and when my mother showed interest in being an actress, she was discouraged from doing so.
FI Did you have any involvement with show business before you got into film?
LC When I was young, still in my teens, I started performing a standup comedy act, and I performed in various venues. This was before comedy clubs existed. I used to play in the resorts in New Jersey and upstate New York in the summertime, and occasionally I did club dates in the city. I also sold jokes to comedians. I would frequent a Manhattan coffee shop, Hansen’s Drugstore, where all the comedians congregated. I used to hurry down there after high school, and hang out on the corner with all the comics and sell them jokes.
FI How much was the going rate?
LC If I got ten dollars for a joke, I guess it was a lot. Sometimes they never paid you. One comedian and his manager, I recall, threatened to throw me out the 11th floor window if I asked for my money again. It was not financially rewarding, but it was great fun.
FI What kind of standup did you do? Were you an angry comedian?
LC Audiences at the resorts I played up north wanted typical comedy routines – traditional, old-fashioned jokes. In college I took my comedy from the news and did more sophisticated, satirical stuff. I performed all during the time I was in college. At CCNY – City College of New York – I was the resident emcee. Thursday afternoons between twelve and two there was a free period where people had clubs and groups that they went to, and I used to put on a show, almost every week, in Townsend Harris auditorium. It was a full hour variety revue with singers, a couple of comedy sketches, and an opening monologue. A brand-new program every week.
FI Were you emceeing as well as producing?
LC I emceed it, and played the lead comic. My two sidekicks were Paul Kagan, who became the head of Paul Kagan Associates, which is probably the leading research company in media in America today; he was like Carl Reiner to my Sid Caesar. And there was another friend named Vic Ziegal, who became a famous sportswriter for The Daily News. He was my third banana.
FI How did your film tastes influence what you were later inclined to write as stories?
LC I don’t know what subconscious effect it had. I just know I really loved the movies and couldn’t wait until next week’s pictures came along. In those days we had double features, and there was a big Loew’s circuit in New York and an RKO circuit. The Loew’s Theatres got all the MGM and Paramount movies, and the RKO circuit got the 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. movies. You knew where you had to go to see pictures from which studio, with which roster of stars. I particularly liked the Warner Bros. pictures, because they were the more hard-boiled, more aggressive movies. The actors all talked quickly, and they had the kind of actors I liked: James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and Bette Davis. I suppose, when I look back, most of my favorite movies were directed by Michael Curtiz. No matter what the genre was, my god it was directed by Curtiz. Whether it was a musical like Yankee Doodle Dandy, or Casablanca, or Captain Blood, whether it was a crime melodrama or gangster movie, whatever I liked, there was Michael Curtiz’s name on the damn thing.
FI How did writing figure into your ambitions? Or was it all writing, one way or another?
LC From the time I was eight or nine years old I was drawing my own comic books. I was a comic book aficionado, I suppose. I wish I still had my collection; my parents threw it out one year when I was away for the summer. I liked to draw my own comics, and they’d be as long as 64 pages, because in those days most comic books ran 64 pages in length. Mine were not silly comics; these were serious stories, sometimes anthological crime-does-not-pay-type stories. Sometimes I’d create a super-hero, but in general they were more realistic. They were like storyboards for movies.
FI Was there a point at which you switched to short stories or plays?
LC I did take a creative writing course at City College. I remember after I turned in my first assignment, the instructor called me in and said, “Where’d you copy this from?” I said, “I didn’t copy it. This is mine. I wrote it.” He said, “Don’t lie to me. I know you copied this from somewhere, and I’m going to allow you to drop the course without penalty, but I’m not going to allow you to steal stuff and bring it in here, and pass it off as your own work.” I said, “Okay, if that’s the way you feel.” In truth, it was something that I alone had written, but it was just too damn good. He couldn’t believe that it came from someone in a freshman writing class. That’s the last writing class I took, ever.
FI Was there a point at which you made a mental decision to film writing – or to orient your career toward film?
LC I guess I know I wanted to do movies. Comic books were really movies. My thoughts were always involving movies. I knew every movie; I sometimes stayed and saw them twice. So I was studying how they were done. Of course when I heard a movie was being filmed somewhere around New York City, I’d get over there and see if I could slip onto the set and watch them shoot. The first one I actually saw shooting, Martin Ritt was directing Edge of the City with Sidney Poitier. Then I heard Sidney Lumet was directing That Kind of Woman with Sophia Loren, and I went on that set. Later on, Hitchcock was doing North by Northwest, and I followed him around New York to various locations and watched him in action.
FI Were you mentally taking notes?
LC I was letting it sink in. But most of my training came from sneaking into the NBC Studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and watching them stage and block out live television programs. There wasn’t much in the way of security, and I was able to sneak into the RCA building, when I was just out of high school. I usually walked past the page boy on duty in the lobby, with a script under my arm, like I was going some place, and if he tried to stop me I’d just say, “That’s okay,” and keep walking into the elevator. Nobody ever asked me what was “okay,” so I got away with it. After a while I went down there every week. I’d ride up to the ninth floor, then go down the fire stairs to the eighth floor to avoid any kind of security check, and then I’d find myself on the stage where they were rehearsing Robert Montgomery Presents or Philco Playhouse, and just spend the whole day hanging with the actors and the director and the floor manager. People saw me every week, so they thought I had belonged there.
I was there when they staged and shot Marty with Rod Steiger, and The Middle of the Night with E.G. Marshall and Eve Marie Saint, and I remember Robert Montgomery doing Appointment in Samarra. There were two programs that would rehearse every Sunday, and then on Wednesday if I could come back I’d see them run through The Kraft Television Playhouse, or sometimes The Hallmark Hall of Fame, with assorted guest stars. One day, I remember, I spent watching Ginger Rogers doing three plays by Noël Coward, and I actually got very chummy with Trevor Howard, who was doing Brief Encounter opposite her. There was always only one guy who was very suspicious of me – he was the floor manager of the Robert Montgomery show – generally sizing me up in a very suspicious way, bird-dogging me around the studio, as if he was going to get me thrown out. He turned out to be Dominick Dunne, and when I run into him in New York nowadays, I always remind him, “You were the guy on Robert Montgomery, who was always eyeing me suspiciously.”
FI Were there any film studies courses at CCNY?
LC I took the only courses they gave in film, which were documentary film courses. They didn’t have creative theatrical film courses, but you still learned how to edit and how to load a camera inside a black bag. I ended up majoring in documentary film. There were some good people teaching at the school, including a famous old surrealist filmmaker named Hans Richter. Most people think his films are kind of awful, but he was an émigré and some kind of celebrity, so they made him chairman of the department, though he had nothing to do with documentary films whatsoever. But they had an excellent teacher for editing, Gene Milford, who’d cut On the Waterfront. As far as the creative input, I didn’t really need much from them, because I already had no problem coming up with scripts or writing stories.
FI Why was that?
LC I could just do it, that’s all. It’s like someone who sits down at the piano and knows how to play, instinctively. I never thought twice about it. It was just something that came to me. Some kids were great playing baseball; other kids were great at playing the piano; some kids were terrific at math. Writing was just something that came naturally.
FI How did you make the leap to writing professionally?
LC I had to get a job to earn enough money to pay the rent, because I didn’t want to live at home anymore. So I took a job at NBC as a page boy, figuring maybe I’d make some contacts. At least I would be hanging around the same building that I used to sneak into. I just started writing sample scripts, and going around to all the production companies in New York, trying to find out exactly what they were looking for. Then I went home and wrote scripts on spec, and brought them back in. If they didn’t like them, I wouldn’t get upset about it; I’d just go write another one, and then another and come back again. Eventually I wore people down. They saw this poor kid working his ass off for free. I figured if I did it enough that somebody would feel guilty about it and give me a job.
FI What was your first sale?
LC Talent Associates asked me to write a half-hour sitcom for a series that was going to star Don Ameche and Tuesday Weld, but they never went on the air with the show. It was a $500 teleplay, never produced, but at least I had a sizable check that I could go home with and show my mother and father, and say, “Look, people are paying me to do this.”
FI How did you teach yourself the television script format? Same as the comic books? Looking at samples and figuring out what was selling?
LC I studied scripts – that’s all. It doesn’t take any real genius to master the form of writing a live television script. All that mattered was the content.
FI Did you end up doing much live television?
LC I did maybe a half dozen live shows before videotape was introduced, and that was the end of live television. Nobody wanted to risk doing anything live if they could do it on tape, and perfect it. Live television was always peppered with errors. Actors made mistakes that went out over the air. You couldn’t do anything about it, because there was no going back for a second try.
FI But there was a purity and excitement about live television, right?
LC It was like a live performance on Broadway. The first thing I wrote that was actually aired was a Kraft Playhouse, which was odd, since I used to be a page boy on the Kraft program. We page boys used to look forward to Kraft, because we’d get to go into the studio and eat all the food that was used in the commercials after the show went off the air. In those days, every meal counted.
I wrote this particular show, which was done in color from the Brooklyn Studio. It was actually an original, but based on the characters that Ed McBain had created in his books about The 87th Precinct. He’s since written forty or more 87th Precinct books, but at that time there was only one or two, and Kraft was interested in dramatizing one of them. They didn’t buy any existing book, they only bought the rights to use the characters, so I wrote a completely original teleplay about those characters, and NBC immediately put it on the air. I got $1500 for that. This was my debut, and of course I quit the NBC page staff, and the local New York newspapers printed articles: “Page Boy Writes Teleplay,” and I got my picture in the papers.
The second one I did was kind of a free adaptation of a book called Night Cry by William L. Stuart. This book had previously been adapted into an Otto Preminger movie called Where the Sidewalk Ends with Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, but apparently the producing company didn’t know that, and wouldn’t believe me when I told them; it also had been done as a radio play on Suspense with Ray Milland. But my version was unlike any of the others. It starred Jack Klugman, and there was a small part in it, about a five-minute cameo role, that of a little blackmailing weasel who tries to shake a cop down – and the unknown actor who came in and played it was so astonishing that everybody was taken with him. He was fabulous and stole the whole damn show. That was Peter Falk, making his television debut.
After the telecast went off the air, we got phone calls from reporters and columnists who wanted to know who this actor was. Jack O’Brien in the Journal-American wrote a full column about Peter Falk. He was immediately signed to play a role in Murder, Inc., a movie in which he wore the same clothes and basically played the same character from my television show – and he got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His career was off and running. That was my second show, so already I was making a little noise in the business.
The live shows could always run long or short. The writer would have to be around for rehearsals, because there were always changes after the run-through – either to lengthen or shorten the script. You’d have to make adjustments, and that was good in a way, because it meant the writer had interplay with the actors and the director. I had a good time doing those shows.
FI Was there anything you could do in live television, at this early stage of your career that was personal or individual?
LC I wrote more or less what I wanted to write.
FI Did your move to the West Coast come after live television?
LC After I did my first couple of shows, suddenly nothing was happening, and I was just not getting work. People asked me, “When is your next show coming on?” and I didn’t know what to tell them. I couldn’t go back to being a page boy again. It was embarrassing that I had had my shot and was now back on unemployment insurance. I decided to try California, thinking I’d be able to get into filmed television, which was already booming out there. I went out to Hollywood in late 1959 or early ‘60, with a business card from this company called Talent Associates, for whom I’d done my Kraft Playhouse. I’d also gotten into developing specials for them. My job was to take old movies and transform them into live television remakes. We did things like Meet Me in St. Louis with Jane Powell, Walter Pidgeon, Tab Hunter, Ed Wynn, and Patty Duke in the Margaret O’Brien role. It was a poor imitation of the Judy Garland movie that wasn’t one-tenth as good, but they got it on the air, which was the whole idea.
This was not what I wanted to do; I wanted to write my own stuff – another reason why I went out to the coast. When I got there, however, the agent who represented me at William Morris told me, “Oh, you’ve come at a very bad time. All the assignments are already gone.” I checked into the Montecito Hotel, in the heart of Hollywood, which housed all the actors, writers, and directors visiting from New York. It was a wonderful place to be, and the rent, believe it or not, was $150 a month, including maid service every day. Everybody there was from back East, and many of them were out in Hollywood for the first time. You’d meet them all at the pool. Brendan Behan, the famous Irish playwright, was there, and we became friends. Sidney Pollack was an assistant director working for John Frankenheimer. Martin Balsam was out there doing a movie called Psycho, and he went ahead and told me the ending at the pool one day, and ruined the picture for me. Paul Lukas, the famous Academy Award winning actor from Watch on the Rhine, was an old man, but he’d go out to the swimming pool, put on a bathing cap, and swim fifty laps, much to our amazement. Percy Kilbride from Ma and Pa Kettle was living in the hotel. Mel Brooks always seemed to be having a fight with someone at the front desk – perennially unhappy. Even Peter Falk turned up there, and of course there were a lot of beautiful girls around.
FI Had you ever been to Hollywood before?
LC No, and going to the studios was marvelous. The first Hollywood set I was ever on was a movie called The Sins of Rachel Cade starring Angie Dickinson and Peter Finch, at Warner Bros. Boy, was I thrilled when I walked out on that soundstage! Gordon Douglas was the director, and Peverell Marley was the director of photography. In my usual manner, as I had at NBC, I just wandered right into their midst, walked alongside the director, and butted my nose into all their business. Nobody knew who the hell I was, but they figured I must be associated with the studio. I remember Gordon Douglas walked over to the D.P. at one point, and they started discussing how they were going to block a scene. I edged in beside them; and when they were finished chatting Gordon Douglas turned to me, and asked, “Is that okay with you?” He knew I was a gatecrasher, but he was kind.
I had a good time at the studios, but I was in Hollywood for months, and no work materialized. After a while I moved into a place even cheaper than the Montecito Hotel, up the block – for $85 a month. I never did work. Finally, I left and flew back to New York and immediately got a call from the agency. Now that I was gone, Four Star wanted to buy a story of mine, but they didn’t want me to write the teleplay – I wasn’t experienced enough – they just wanted to buy the story for $350. So I took the $350, figuring it was better than nothing, and that was all I had to show for my first six or eight months in Hollywood.
Returning to New York in abject defeat, I then was fortunate enough to sell a U.S. Steel Hour and a segment for a science fiction show balled Way Out, which was hosted by Roald Dahl. My episode was called “False Face,” and Dick Smith did the makeup on it. It was a classic, which is remembered by a lot of people – particularly all the young makeup artists in the business today, who all started out buying Dick Smith Monster Makeup Kits, which featured the makeup he did on this “False Face” segment of mine. Teenagers bought the kit, and practiced doing monster makeup at home. Everybody from Rick Baker on down started their career with that kit.
I only did one episode, and the show rather quickly went off the air. But it was fun to have Roald Dahl appear and mention my name at the beginning. It was much like an Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Roald introduced each show. “Tonight’s show is by Larry Cohen …” he intoned in his British accent, and I was ecstatic.
The U.S. Steel Hour was an autobiographical show about a boy who wants to be a comedian, and I was played in that one by no less than Keir Dullea – certainly not good casting, but he was a very nice guy. Henny Youngman played the comedian who steals my jokes. So I was working again, but as fate would have it, President Kennedy activated the reserves after the Berlin Wall was put up. I was in a reserve unit, so I was called to active duty and shipped down to Virginia, to a base near Williamsburg. Fortunately, I arrived around Christmastime, and they were preparing a Christmas pageant, so the chaplain got me to write the Christmas show and then kept me on to write his radio program. So I ended up with an office in the chaplain’s section, and naturally I had a typewriter and free access to do whatever I wanted to do. Technically I was supposed to be a stevedore, but there was nothing for the recruits to do when they were called to service, so they just had them loading and unloading the very same ship every day. I figured, “That’s a bit monotonous,” and I’d rather be in the chaplain’s office writing a radio program.
Eventually I started writing scripts for television programs. I sold one treatment to a series called The Defenders, which was the Emmy Award-winning, number-one show with E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed, produced by Herbert Brodkin and supervised by Reginald Rose, who created the concept. The producers took a liking to me and allowed me to write, even though I was in the Army, and they knew I could only get into New York on Fridays by going A.W.O.L. I got on a plane early in the morning and flew into Manhattan from Virginia, had my meetings, spent the weekend in New York, and flew back to Virginia on Sunday night.
FI And you didn’t get caught?
LC I never did.
FI So you wrote your first filmed television while in the Army?
LC Yes, and I kept doing it for the whole eight months. By the time I got out I had a firm position as a writer on The Defenders.
LC The same company, Herb Brodkin’s company, had The Nurses and Espionage, and other programs which I could also write for, and all these shows were getting tremendous attention. So by the time I finally went back to Hollywood I was a hot New York writer.
FI When did you go back to Hollywood?
LC Probably the following year – about ‘63. By then I wanted to get a series of my own on the air. Which I soon did. Meanwhile I wrote the first episode of Arrest and Trial – which was a ninety-minute series, 45 minutes of the arrest and 45 minutes of the trial – the prototype, really, for Law and Order. It was produced by Universal. My episode had James Whitmore as the guest star; Ben Gazzara played the lead in the show.
Then I was asked by Walter Mirisch to come up with a way to make The Magnificent Seven into a weekly television series. I said, “Why don’t you just make another movie? It would be a terrific sequel, and a lot of people liked the picture.” Nobody remembered that the first one had been a flop. Nobody went to see the original Magnificent Seven. It actually never even got a downtown opening in New York; it opened in the Brooklyn Metropolitan Theater, then moved over to the Loew’s circuit and played for exactly four days, and then it was gone. It had gathered attention over the years, on television, because the actors who were in it eventually became stars. It was perceived as a hit movie, even though the critics had called it a second-rate imitation of the Kurosawa classic.
Eventually I talked Walter Mirisch into calling Yul Brynner and seeing if he would do such a sequel. Yul Brynner said yes. Then Walter told me, “We can’t use the music because it’s been bought and used as the background for a Chevrolet commercial.” I said, “If you don’t use that music, Walter, then don’t make the picture, because there is no picture without the Magnificent Seven music.” Well, he again listened to me, and he got the music back, and oddly enough, Elmer Bernstein was nominated for an Academy Award for the sequel, not the original. Same exact music, though.
FI Was that your first film sale?
LC That was my first feature.
FI How much control did you have over that script? Were you able to do what you wanted to do?
LC No control. It took them years to get it made. We had a lot of directors come and go, though Yul Brynner stayed committed. At one time Irvin Kershner was eager to do it. In our meetings he was very rabbinical in his manner, and examined everything – every detail he could question, he did. One time, we were sitting in the office with Walter Mirisch, discussing the picture, and he was nitpicking everything. Finally he looked over at me and said, “Why do there have to be seven?” That was it. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Walter looked at me, and we knew we had the wrong director for this picture. So they got rid of him, and eventually Burt Kennedy directed it – but not well.
I never had any control on any picture until I started directing them myself. That’s the reason I started directing the pictures. To be perfectly honest, if I could have retained control of the pictures without having to direct them, I think I would have just written them and let somebody else direct. Directing is like factory labor. If people would simply do what you tell them to do, you wouldn’t have to be there every minute yourself. When a crew constructs a building, they follow the architect’s plans; the builders don’t go ahead and suddenly change the plans to suit themselves. In movies, you plan for months, but once they take it out on the sound stage actors and directors decide to make changes without any thought of the consequences, or what the over-all theme of the picture might be.
Maybe it’s just on a whim. Maybe it’s the star, who is having a bad moment. Actors often have bad moments. They’re usually testing you, to see how much they can get away with, and if you don’t let them have their way they may walk off the set – but generally they’re back within a few hours, or even a few minutes, and they do the scene your way. One picture I wrote – called El Condor – was an odd job, because the studio had decided not to make a picture, and they had canceled the film, but the sets had already been built over in Almeria, Spain. Some genius thought, “Maybe we can make another picture using those same sets,” so they hired me to go to Spain and look at the scenery that had been built to see if I could come up with a story that would be filmable on those sets. If I could, then everybody’s job would be saved. I had an entire crew standing around waiting for me to come up with something. I did concoct a good story, and I quickly wrote it; everybody was happy. They put the picture into production, hiring Jim Brown and Lee Van Cleef.
As soon as I got back to Los Angeles, the studio execs phoned me and said, “Lee Van Cleef won’t get on the plane.” I asked why. They said, “Because he doesn’t like the part.” Alberto Grimaldi, who was the producer of many of Van Cleef’s spaghetti Westerns in Italy, had read the script, and told Lee this would run his career. “People will laugh at you,” he was warned. I said, “Could you arrange for me to meet Van Cleef?” They arranged for us to meet in a restaurant, and when I got there Lee was very hostile. I calmed him down. We exchanged a few jokes. And then he said the part was ludicrous, and that he was going to be ridiculed for playing it. I said, “But Lee, it was written that way. It’s supposed to be funny. It’s a comedy role.” He said, “You mean it’s supposed to be that way?” I said, “Sure. This is a role like Humphrey Bogart played in The African Queen – a beaten-up old drunk.” He said, “Well, I didn’t realize that.” I said, “You’re going to get big laughs with his part.” He replied, “That’s great. How about if I play it without my toupee?” I said, “A fabulous idea!” The next thing you know, he was raring to get on that airplane.
I realized early on that if you don’t give in to these actors, and if you resist them – explaining what’s right and what’s wrong – very often they will understand, and go along with you. If you capitulate every time a star finds fault, then you’re not doing them a service either. You’ve got to stand up for what you believe in, and reason with them. If you have strong enough convictions, you may be able to sway them and save the movie from being destroyed. I soon realized, “Hey, you can actually work with actors and convince actors to play things your way. You should be directing movies!”
FI In that period of time, between The Return of the Seven and Bone, the first picture you directed, a period of time which is only six or seven years, were you experiencing a lot of frustration with what happened to your scripts?
LC Well, I did a picture with Mark Robson called Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, which I co-wrote with my friend Lorenzo Semple Jr. Lorenzo has had some big credits – like Papillon and Three Days of the Condor. I had first told this story to Alfred Hitchcock, when Universal set up a meeting between us at the St. Regis in New York, and Hitchcock was very taken with it. He swore he wanted to do it, but when I got back to California the story department and executives at Universal talked him out of it. Lorenzo said, “Let’s write it together. We can do it in a week, and then we can bring it back to Hitchcock.” It turned out great, but when we took it back to Hitchcock, he said, “It’s marvelous, but you haven’t left anything for me to do.” Which meant we had worked out the whole picture without him, and he liked to be involved closely in developing a story.
Hitch’s longtime associate Joan Harrison called me about wanting to produce the picture. She loved the script, and she was a wonderful woman, but she just didn’t have any financing, and then Mark Robson emerged. He had just directed Valley of the Dolls, and made millions. He had some fine credits: He directed Champion with Kirk Douglas, The Harder They Fall with Humphrey Bogart, The Bridges at Toko-Ri with William Holden and Grace Kelly, Ryan’s Express with Sinatra. I thought, “Wow. He’ll do a good job.” But that’s not how it was. Mark Robson was a major disappointment.
He didn’t change the script, hardly at all, but the picture was simply tepid, because the direction was so flat and the actors were poorly cast. It needed stars, and some directors need stars. Let’s face it: Even Hitchcock was much better when he utilized stars. If you look at his pictures that don’t have stars, they lack the same sparkle. Look at Frenzy, and think how much better it would have been if he had Michael Caine or Sean Connery in that picture, instead of the dull guy who played the lead [Jon Finch]. After that, I said to myself, “I’ve got to direct my own movies, because it’s a shame to see a great script go to waste.”
In the meantime, I’d sold some television series’. I’d been fortunate enough to cook up ideas that the networks bought, and put on the air – some of them without even shooting a pilot. I started to get a reputation around Hollywood as a guy who could create television series that the networks would buy, based on the script alone. The first one was Branded – everyone remembers its theme song. I’d cooked up this idea of a cavalry officer who’d been court-martialed for cowardice, who’s got to try and redeem himself. My agent rushed me over to Goodson-Todman, who was a television producing company with a relationship with Procter & Gamble, who owned the 8:30 time period on NBC. In those days the sponsor controlled time periods. Procter & Gamble wanted a half hour show, and promised if we could get Chuck Conners, they’d buy the show based on a six-page treatment I’d written. We were scheduled to go on the air in about three months. It knocked everybody for a loop in Hollywood, because this doesn’t happen very often.
I got that show on, and then I got a show on with Brodkin in New York called Coronet Blue, about a guy with amnesia – pretty much like the story of The Bourne Identity, which came much later – and then I got another show on called The Invaders at ABC, starring Roy Thinnes as a fellow who’s seen aliens land on earth and begins hunting them. So I had three television shows on the air. I was rolling.
FI On the basis of the television shows and your filmed scripts, you must have achieved some financial independence by this point in your career.
LC At that time I bought a great big mansion up in Coldwater Canyon, that had been built in 1929 by the Hearst family and formerly owned by director Sam Fuller. I’d gotten married and had a couple of kids, and one day, after the Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting disaster, my wife bought me a director’s finder [viewfinder], and said, “I think you should go do what you really want to do, which is make your own movies.”
FI How did you talk someone into letting you direct?
LC Fortunately I used my writing ability. I had the script for Bone, and I went to various producers and said, “Look, if you let me make the movie, I only need $85,000 to get started. If you don’t want to put up the rest of the money, you don’t have to, and if you don’t get your $85,000 back I’ll write you a free screenplay.” Based on that assurance I got some money from Nick Vanoff, who was a television mogul – he had The Hollywood Palace and Hee-Haw. Nick never got his $85,000 back, but he never asked me to write the free script either, god bless him.
FI A shrewd ploy.
LC I hoped someone would take me up on that.
FI How was your first directing experience?
LC I didn’t have anyone supervising me. I didn’t have anyone looking over my shoulder. I could do anything I wanted to do. I was fortunate, on my first effort as a director, that I didn’t have to answer to anyone.
FI The lower the budget, the less likely they are to watch you closely.
LC Of course. In this particular case, the guy gave me the $85,000 and went away and that was it. The producer was making so much money from The Hollywood Palace and Hee-Haw that he didn’t care. Most of my pictures have been low-budgets. The fact is, if I could get more money, I suppose I would take it, but I always took what was offered. We needed more money when we finished shooting Bone to complete the picture. I probably spent about $225,000 on the picture by the time we finished, but I found a distributor to pick up the back-end costs – the lab bill and the sound bill and pay off the equipment house. All along I was taking that risk, that someone would eventually buy the picture.
FI When you directed for the first time, what worried you? Did you discover weaknesses as well as strengths, anything you hadn’t anticipated?
LC I was just so happy to have the opportunity to do what I wanted to do. I found out that I enjoyed the actors and got a kick out of working with them and coming up with new things to keep them interested. I got a veteran cameraman named George Folsey, who had sixteen Academy Award nominations in his career, for pictures like Meet Me in St. Louis, Green Dolphin Street, and Ziegfield Follies. He had been one of the big cameramen at MGM, and he brought with him a lot of his old cronies – elderly gentlemen who were now retired but still wanted to work. His son George Folsey Jr. was the camera operator and editor of the picture, and he went on to be producer of most of John Landis’s movies over the years. I had top-quality Hollywood talent supporting me.
FI How did you then get into – I don’t know if it’s considered a pejorative outside of Hollywood, and I don’t mean it that way – the “blaxploitation” trend?
LC There was a black actor in Bone, Yaphet Kotto, and one of the people I showed the picture to was Sam Arkoff over at American International, who didn’t want to buy the film but who admired the performances. He called me up one day and said, “We’re looking to make some black movies, and you really know how to direct those black actors.” I said, “Well, I directed one black actor, and he was just like everybody else… but if you say so, Sam.” I happened to have an idea for a movie with a black cast, because Sammy Davis Jr.’s manager had hired me to come up with a movie in which Sammy could star, where he wouldn’t be a mere flunky to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. I thought Sammy could play a smalltime gangster in Harlem who rises to the top of the underworld and then crashes, very much like in the classics Little Caesar or Public Enemy. I called it Black Caesar.
When it came time to get paid the $10,000 I was promised, Sammy Davis never came up with the money. He was having trouble with the Internal Revenue Service, and couldn’t pay me. That’s how I wound up with the material, so when Sam Arkoff asked me for a black exploitation movie, I had a treatment in the trunk of the car and could make the deal with him on the spot.
FI How many treatments do you have in the trunk of your car?
LC Plenty! That one happened to be the right one at the right time.
FI Did you feel any tension in this era, of being a white man in a black man’s genre?
LC As I told you, I went to the college of CCNY, which is in the middle of Harlem. During breaks in college, I collected rents for my father in Harlem, because he owned and managed some buildings there. So I was familiar with Harlem, and after all, being the grandson of a minstrel, what could be more apropos than to suddenly find yourself doing black movies? But during this period there was so much black protest and general political tension in the U.S. – at least outside the film industry. And in Hollywood, a lot of the early blaxploitation stars rose up to take complete control – acting as the writers and directors and producers, as well as stars, of their pictures.
FI Like Fred Williamson, you mean, who starred in Black Caesar?
LC Later, Fred went on to produce and direct a lot of his own movies. He used to tell people he learned all his techniques from me, and I would ask him not to repeat that. He didn’t shoot at all the way I did. He used three cameras going at once, doing the close-ups, medium shots, and reverses all at the same time. I always set up each individual coverage and spent a lot of time lighting each setup and working closely with the performers. Yet Fred must have made a dozen movies.
Jim Brown, who ended up producing but not directing some of his movies, was another big fan of mine. I only directed him in one picture, but Jim’s a good, natural actor, who took direction well. The only problem I ever had with him was in regard to his teeth. In between words he could click his teeth somehow. It would be picked up on the soundtrack, and so we ended up having to go in and cut all those little clicks out of the track in order to make it useable. Jim Brown told me It’s Alive was the scariest movie he ever saw, so I enjoy being the guy that scared Jim Brown.
A lot of people who have worked for me have gone on to make their own movies. I suppose I make it look so easy that they think they can do it, too. I don’t mean to harp on this, but there wasn’t the slightest black-white tension on the set? Nobody ever said a word. Even years later, when Orion did a reunion movie of all the black exploitation actors, called Original Gangstas, they asked me to direct it. I said, “Well, you’ve got plenty of black directors now. You should get yourself one. It’s more appropriate.” But they insisted they wanted me, so I did it. And once again, nobody said a word about me being white. Nary a hint of criticism.
FI Starting with Bone, and then continuing on through the 1970s and 1980s, once you’ve been liberated from television and contract scripts, your originality shines through in offbeat edgy, black-comedy films that are different from what you had done before. Were you feeling liberated?
LC Absolutely. I was doing what few people can do, and that is have total control over a movie. I could come up with a crazy idea, as offbeat as it might be, and then I was allowed to execute the pictures without having to answer to anybody. That’s the most liberating and enjoyable part of the business. If I came up with an idea for a new scene, or wanted to change dialogue or a location, I could just do it. I didn’t have to call a meeting and have a bunch of people walk in and second-guess me. And the actors knew I had that power, and they were in awe of me.
FI Was this quirkiness bottled-up inside of you? God Told Me To, for example, is light years from anything else you had done – not only different from other films in your own career but different from the rest of the American cinema. Was there always this genie inside of you, waiting to jump out?
LC Yeah, I think so. Even when I was writing comic books as a kid, I was writing very eccentric stories – not the usual comic book stuff. When I got a chance to make my own movies, I figured, if you’re going to do your own film don’t just copy somebody else’s movie, or make something in a traditional form that you’ve seen everyone else do.
FI Was it more of an evolution, than a leap?
LC Maybe. I don’t know. I credit my subconscious for most of my work. I don’t think too much about what I write. An idea comes to me, and then I feel like I should write it, so I sit down and just let it go. I don’t work it out in advance. I don’t make a step outline of what’s going to happen. I like to let evolve. I’m always looking forward to the next day’s work, so I can find out what happens to the characters.
FI Do you have any philosophical framework that you use to guide you along – like, if you’re writing something horrifying, you have to be sure to add in some comedy.
As I say, I don’t plan anything, and when we’re shooting the picture, things change automatically. You get to a location, and you find something in the location you hadn’t expected to see, and you make use of it. As the writer and director I have the freedom to alter whatever I choose. If I want to write a little connective scene to move things from point A to point B, I can do it. I don’t have to call a writer to figure out how to make it work. I grab a pencil and paper and scribble a whole new scene and give it to the actors. Actors love it when you give them a scene written by hand, which they’ve seen you write in front of their eyes. Once you write a new scene for an actor, while he’s watching you do it, you more or less own that actor afterwards.
Often I find out something about an actor, personally, in the first couple of days of shooting the movie, and I say, “Oh, we’ve got to put this into the picture. We’ve got to add this to the script, because it’s something that could give a whole new depth to the character.” Like the first day I worked with Michael Moriarty on Q, I found out that he was listening to a tape recording of his own songs on a break. I learned that he played scat piano and wrote scat music. I said, “Okay, let’s change the character and make him a guy who dreams of playing in piano bars, and we’ll get an empty club and shoot a scene where he auditions for a job, and you can play one of your songs.” We canceled the next day’s shoot, and I got a club with a piano, and we shot that new scene. It gave a whole different aspect to the character he was playing, and it gave him a chance to do something he loved.
FI And then you owned him! (laughs)
LC After that, he’d do anything I asked, yeah.
FI Are there pictures of yours – of the ones you wrote and directed in the 70s and 80s, in particular – that are more unadulterated accomplishments from your point of view, more-Larry-Cohen-type pictures, as opposed to others that might have been compromised in various ways?
LC The ones I did myself were pure Larry Cohen, and the ones I worked on for other people were compromises – like I, The Jury, which I worked on, but didn’t direct, or finish directing, for one reason or another. Those certainly were compromises. There were occasional scripts that I sold over the years, like Best Seller and Guilty As Sin, that were made into pretty decent movies, but they could have been a lot better.
FI Let me ask you about a few specific titles – where the ideas came from, or your reflections on the films – how you feel about them today. It’s Alive?
LC That’s one of my biggest hits, so it has a warm spot in my heart. I don’t know why I wrote that particular piece. It just came to me. I just thought, “Hey, what would happen if …?” It was really an intense, painful, human drama about the disintegration of a family, and I kept the monster out of the picture most of the time, and dealt with the characters. It was a monster movie where the people were more important than the monster.
FI Were you writing it totally on spec?
LC Totally on spec. I usually write on spec. Spec writing is my best writing, there’s no question about that, because whenever you’re writing for a studio you have to tell them the story before you write it, so you know before you start what is going to happen. It’s never as good as when it all just occurs as part of the process, and you’re so immersed in it you don’t have to think about it. I don’t like telling the story beforehand. I don’t like following an outline. To me, it’s like painting a picture by numbers.
Nowadays some people think they absolutely must work from an outline. Certain schools will tell you that you should always work out an outline. But as I said, I never went to writing school. I just let it ooze out of my subconscious. I enjoy the experience of letting it happen. It’s like going to the movies.
FI Tell me about God Told me To.
LC Same thing. Suddenly I was writing the damn thing. I don’t know what gave me the idea in the first place, but I found myself writing it. Once I got started, I wanted to see what would happen next. Certain things that were in the picture were not in the original script – like the St. Patrick’s Day parade. I would never write that into a script, because I could not guarantee that I’d actually be able to capture a scene like that on film. I shot the parade first, before we actually started the picture, way ahead of getting the financing; I spent money of my own to shoot that sequence, because I knew the parade was happening then and wouldn’t be repeated for another year. If I was going to capture that parade I had to do it immediately. I got Andy Kaufman, who played the psycho-cop, and I shot the scene with four camera crews on the run. Afterwards I went out and raised the money, and because I knew I already had the scene, I added it to the script.
FI Wasn’t it hard to raise money for a picture like that?
LC I finally got the money from a couple of television producers, who gave me a minimal amount of money. Generally, I’ve found the best way to get money is to allow people to take tremendous advantage of you. If they give you short money, and can get a lot in return for it, they have a tendency to do the deal. You’re being screwed, but you get to make the movie.
I saw God Told Me To in Paris, where it was being advertised in big letters on the marquees as “un film de Larry Cohen,” and, even though the version I saw was dubbed in French, I was blown away. Judging by the crowds, it was a big hit overseas. But my understanding is that it didn’t do well in America, perhaps because of poor distribution. It was picked up by Roger Corman’s company, New World, and it played in most major markets. But they never came up with a good ad campaign or TV spots in order to sell it. They didn’t know how to market the picture. Over the years it acquired its own following. It has a tremendous number of fans, and I get more requests for that movie from film festivals, than anything else. That’s the one they’re always asking for, all over the world.
FI Do you work hard, especially on a grim, horrifying subject like that, to come up with a hopeful or meaningful thematic statement at the end?
LC Most of my pictures do have that. There’s something more than the basic A-B-C’s of a story. There’s an over-all resonance. But I start with the characters and the situation. I put the characters in a gripping situation, and learn where the story is going through self-discovery of the characters. And I wasn’t sure where the leading character in God Told Me To was going to go, when I started writing, that he would discover who he was, and that he was not going to be entirely human.
I don’t consciously provide a theme or moral at the end. If that happens, then it happens. I don’t go out of my way to set that up. I allow the story to tell itself. The subconscious takes over. It’s automatic writing. The characters start to say their own lines and start to do what they want to do. I just let them go. Even if they don’t want to do what you originally thought they might do, let them alone and see where they take you. It’s amazing how little rewriting I do, after it’s all done. Sure, I have to clean it up a little, but, generally, in terms of the major beats of the story, it’s done.
FI Tell me about The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover.
LC That was an entirely different process, because I did do a lot of research for that. For some reason, I just wanted to do that movie, because I liked FBI movies when I was a kid – pictures like The House on 92nd Street.
FI Although yours is the ultimate anti-FBI movie.
LC Yeah, right – the FBI movie to end all FBI movies. The reason I made that picture, probably more than any other reason, is that everybody told me I couldn’t do it. Every place I went, people said, “Oh, you can never make that picture; the FBI will never let you. Nobody will release the picture, nobody will finance the picture, and if you make it you’ll be setting yourself up for trouble, because look what the FBI did to people in Hollywood during the period of the blacklist” – which hadn’t been over for that long when I started out to make this picture, in ‘76. Mr. Hoover died in ‘74. His own people were still basically running and managing the bureau. So it was a foolhardy adventure.
FI It must have worked like an aphrodisiac on you, telling you what you couldn’t do.
LC I had to put in a year of research. I went down to Washington, D.C., hired a guy from the New York Times’s Washington bureau to be an advisor, to get me into places and introduce me to people and take me in to interview former FBI executives who ordinarily wouldn’t talk to anyone. I was surprised by how many people did open up. We went up to William Sullivan’s house in New Hampshire – he was like the number three man in the bureau – and spent the night there at his house, sleeping in his son’s room; his wife fed us dinner, and he spent all night and all day giving us info he’d never told anybody before. The New York Times guy managed to get a couple of front page stories out of it as well.
I felt like we were doing investigative reporting, coming up with new information, although the most interesting revelation of the picture was pretty well ignored by everybody. Which was that Deep Throat, who was the informant for Woodward and Bernstein on Watergate, was really a top FBI executive, probably Clyde Tolson. We stated that at the end of the movie, but nobody picked up on it, or nobody wanted to. Certainly the press and The Washington Post didn’t. How could they acknowledge that their wonderful Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Woodward and Bernstein were simply conduits for the FBI, dutifully leaking information to the public? They’d rather they be thought of as crusading journalists, rather than as conduits of information purposely intended to damage the tottering Nixon administration. Twenty years later, Dan Rather on CBS, identified Deep Throat as L. Patrick Gray, who was the successor to J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, and nobody made any comment; there was no ripple. But it wasn’t L. Patrick Gray at all. It was Clyde Tolson. I think that’s why Woodward and Bernstein used the appellation Deep Throat; they were making an inside joke – an allusion to Tolson’s alleged homosexuality. So they called him Deep Throat, obviously, instead of Cocksucker.
FI A pretty funny joke for one ever to have got.
LC Nobody came close to getting it.
FI And you were also writing that script on spec?
FI Financing your own researches?
LC Sure, and paying the Times guy a salary.
FI Without any idea whether you could sell it?
LC I always had that constant belief that I was going to get this picture made, one way or the other. Eventually I gave the script to Frank Yablans, who’d formerly been head of Paramount Pictures. He told me he loved the material. A month later I read in The Hollywood Reporter that Frank Yablans was producing a movie called The Secret American, based on a forthcoming book by Ladislas Farago, who wrote Patton, and that it was going to star Marlon Brando as J. Edgar Hoover. I found out the book hadn’t even been written – not page one. It was an idea submission that had been given to a publisher, but now Yablans was announcing a feature movie on the same subject my script covered.
He had access to all the information that I had researched so thoroughly. I was determined, then, that I wasn’t going to let this guy make this picture before me. All the more reason I had to go forward. I started my picture immediately – and as it turned out, Ladislas Farago never wrote his book on Hoover.
I actually started The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover without the money to make the picture. I took the actors – Broderick Crawford, Dan Dailey and a few others – down to Washington, D.C., with only enough cash to shoot for a week; and it was all my own money. We got the cast down there and started shooting. I was on the phone constantly, trying to raise some money, and fortunately, my old pal Sam Arkoff came up with a little. But he misunderstood, or I misled him into believing that Rod Steiger was playing J. Edgar Hoover. I’d told him that it was an Academy Award winning actor – and he assumed it was Steiger. I was trying to get Steiger; he was going to do it, and then all of a sudden he changed his mind and opted to do The Life of W.C. Fields for Universal.
That left me without a star, so I got Broderick Crawford, who looked just like J. Edgar Hoover, and who had won his Oscar for playing a political demagogue before, in All the King’s Men – in which he played a prototype of Huey Long. Later, when I told Sam it was Broderick Crawford, he moaned, “Oh my god, is he still alive?”
FI It was a pretty amazing cast of veteran actors.
LC Yes, we dressed the film up with an all-star cast. They were all mainly older actors whose greater days had passed. Jose Ferrer is a wonderful actor, and also an Oscar-winner, but he was for hire. I loved the idea of all these actors, from Lloyd Nolan to Celeste Holm to Howard Da Silva, whom I had loved in movies for years, being in my picture. I loved the fact that I had good enough roles to attract them.
FI I assume they shared the same political attitude towards J. Edgar Hoover.
LC Well, Rip Torn, for one, was obsessed; he thought the FBI had been following him for years, and that they had a file on him. All he wanted me to do was to get him his file. But it turned out they didn’t have much on him – he found that out years later through the Freedom of Information Act. I’m sure he was broken up by the fact that the FBI never had any real interest in him at all.
FI In general, do you exist outside the major studios?
LC No, I take my scripts to the studios, and sometimes the studios make them. Warner Bros. made a bunch of them – six or seven. American-International made five or six. I made one for MGM. We got distributed by New World for one. Those are all what I would call regular studio pictures. I made a few pictures that were outside the regular studio system, but they were for Hemdale, and John Daley is a major supplier. I wasn’t really part of the independent film realm, where little companies that hardly existed distributed the pictures. Mine were mostly funneled by major distributors into the theaters.
FI Tell me about Q. Where did that idea come from?
LC I kept staring at the Chrysler Building, and saying to myself, “Well, the Chrysler Building should have a movie about it. Why should King Kong and the Empire State Building get all the attention, when the Chrysler Building is so much better-looking? The Chrysler Building definitely needed its own movie …” I saw all those birdlike gargoyles on the sides of the towers at the Chrysler Building, I told myself, “If a giant bird flew over New York City looking for a nest, it would certainly head directly for that feathered pinnacle that shines so brightly over the city in the reflection of the sun. Wait, wow, great! A giant bird living on top of the Chrysler Building – that sounds like fun …”
The next thing was to figure out who the lead character would be: The smalltime crook who knows the location of the nest and blackmails the city. I decided to create somebody from the lowest depths of the city, who finds himself at its highest pinnacle, at the top of the Chrysler Building below the needle.
FI It seems like that might have been your highest-budgeted picture.
LC No, it wasn’t. It was maybe a million-one. Possibly the Original Gangsters was the highest, at $3.6 million.
FI Doesn’t the budget greatly influence the amount of time you are allowed to rehearse and shoot, or reshoot?
LC I was always shooting long hours, but I preferred to shoot late anyway. I suppose if I had more luxury time I would have done twelve hours instead of 18-20, and I would have shot for a few more weeks’ time, but I found shooting the exhausting hours and creating that kind of hysteria makes for a better movie. Everybody is so hyped up and crazed that the manic energy comes through on the screen. I like to create a momentum. Once I got people on a roll, and we got some excitement going, I just didn’t like stopping. I hated to stop for meals, and I hated to wrap for the day and to have to pick up the next morning in the same location. I wanted to shoot the day’s location out, and not have to come back there again.
FI You seem incredibly prolific – you seem to write and produce films much faster than most screen writers.
LC One of the reasons is that when I’m writing I don’t know what’s going to happen next in the script, so I’m anxious to find out; I can’t wait to get back to work and start writing again. I’m anxious to see the rest of the story unfold. I’m the stenographer, the court reporter, who’s taking down what all the actors and characters are saying, and I’m enjoying it.
FI And you’re always anxious to be on to the next one?
LC I suppose when I finish one, then I want to get on to the next one because it’s always such a pleasurable experience. The best part of the whole process is the writing. That’s the joy.
FI I think The Stuff must be your most bizarre, hilarious premise.
LC It came my realization that if you hype any fast food on television often enough people will come and pay for it and eat it, no matter how awful it may be. American consumers are just being barraged with junk food that is doing them damage, shortening their lives, and, in the case of cigarettes, killing them. So I thought, “Let’s make a movie and deal with a real situation in terms of a monster spoof.” I think the company that made the picture really wanted more of a pure horror movie. I gave them a satire, so they were never too happy with the film; they wanted a scary picture that would make the audience scream and run out of the theater. But I thought the basic idea of The Stuff was so absurd that it could never really be sold as a pure horror movie – that it had to be sold as a horror movie with a sense of humor.
FI Wasn’t that becoming increasingly true of almost everything you wrote?
LC Yes, it became that way as time progressed. My films became more satirical in the second phase of my career. I don’t think that was true of Gold Told Me To, or It’s Alive – which were more serious films. But then I got to the point of doing Q, and I enjoyed Q so much, because of Michael Moriarty – then we made three more movies together – and in every one of them we managed to maintain the humorous undertone. Even in the It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive remake, there was a humor in the picture that we hadn’t attempted in the first two It’s Alive pictures. Maybe I’d become a happier person, or maybe it was the combination of me working with that particular actor.
FI Did your rapport with Moriarty on Q, lead directly to his casting in, The Stuff, Return to Salem’s Lot, and It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive?
LC Yes. After Q I knew I wanted him in The Stuff. I met with some resistance from New World, which was financing it, and which was looking for a more traditional, good-looking, leading man. I finally convinced them to go with Moriarty. I got him a hairpiece – which he hated having to wear – but in the three pictures we did after Q he wore a different hairpiece, or a toupee of some kind, in every one of them. He would never wear the same hairpiece twice, and always made me spend the money to buy him another one to punish me for making him wear it.
FI Why was he the perfect lead for you?
LC We were kindred spirits. He was into improvising on the set. Nothing intimidated him. He was perfectly in control, and knew every line in the script – even everybody else’s lines. He was able to improvise new material, because in order to really improvise you have to know the written material cold, and be able to go off on riffs, and then segue back into the main line of the dialogue and not lose continuity. I could talk to Michael while we were actually shooting, yelling things to him on the set in the middle of a scene between his lines, he’d hear me and wouldn’t even flicker an eyelash; instead he’d pick up on what I was saying and start weaving that into the dialogue. Then we’d just excise my words from the soundtrack. You don’t hear me, but I’m goading him on – constantly feeding him ideas. He is a jazz pianist and very much a jazz actor. With him you can make every take different.
FI Was it always a battle to get him as your lead?
LC Producers always wanted a conventional lead, and I’d end up making a few offers around, but luckily would get turned down, and then I’d go back and say, “Moriarty is the best one I can get, and he’s the one I really wanted.”
FI I’d love to hear about The Wicked Stepmother. Was that written for Bette Davis?
LC Absolutely. I’d seen Bette Davis on some talk shows, and I felt compassion for her because everybody was willing to give her testimonial dinners and honors, but few were willing to offer her a job. It seemed to me she was on all these interview shows, hoping that if she exposed herself enough on television, that someone would see her and know that she was still alive and offer her a film. She was a great star in her day, probably the number one female star in the history of talking pictures, and I loved Bette Davis movies.
So I said to myself, “Why doesn’t someone just write her a script?” Well, I was in Hawaii at the time; I’d gone back to Hawaii to run my movie Island of the Alive for the people on the island of Kauai, that cooperated and helped make the picture – I had promised to bring the film back there and screen it for them. I rented a theater and showed the film to all of our friends who’d been so cooperative. While I was there I had a week in Hawaii with nothing to do, really, me and my tape recorder. I started walking up and down the beach, dictating, and suddenly Bette Davis was talking, and so was The Wicked Stepmother.
The conceit of the movie was what would you do if you came home one day and found out that your elderly father had married Bette Davis; she had moved into your house and insisted on being called “Mom.” It was like The Man Who Came to Dinner, only with Bette Davis as a witch. It was a takeoff on all the parts Bette Davis had played in her career. By the time I came back from Hawaii I had a script. I had it typed up and made some corrections and sent it out to Bette Davis. It was promptly rejected – of course she never got to see it – it was dismissed by some agent she had, who probably never read the script. As a matter of fact, Bette later told me that the second time she rejected the script she did so because she had been told it was a horror movie. She just didn’t want to do a horror movie, so she didn’t read it. We made a third attempt to get her, never giving up, because after all if I didn’t have Bette Davis who was going to play the part? We finally got to Robert Osborne, who is now the host of Turner Classic Movies and is a columnist. He lived in the same building as Bette Davis, and was an intimate friend of hers. He gave her the script as a favor. This time she read it. My phone rang – this very phone in the kitchen of my house – and a voice crackled over the line:
“Is this Mr. Cohen?” I knew right away who it was.
“Well,” she said, “you certainly gave me some laughs last night. I suppose you wrote this especially for me.“
“Yes,” I said, “You can certainly see that.”
Anyway she invited me over to her apartment on Havenhurst in Hollywood, to meet her, and it all began. When I went to see her, I realized she was in terrible physical condition. She looked awful and was still recovering from several strokes and cancer operations. There had been tremendous weight loss. She walked with a limp. My agent, who accompanied me to the meeting, took me outside and grabbed me and said, “Are you out of your mind, even thinking of making a movie with this woman?” I said, “I guess so. If I was crazy enough to make a movie about J. Edgar Hoover, I’m crazy enough to make a movie with Bette Davis – even in this sad shape she’s in.” It was apparent to me that there weren’t many movies left in this poor woman’s life. This would probably be it.
I’d written the script, and she wanted to do it, and damned if I wasn’t going ahead. I took a full-page ad in Variety and got some artwork done and a poster that said, “Bette is Bad Again!” with a picture of her puffing away on one of the many cigarettes she would smoke in the movie. This woman smoked ten packs a day – two hundred Vantage cigarettes a day, I’m not kidding. We’d break open ten packs in the morning and put them in cups, so she wouldn’t have to reach into a pack with her hands and struggle to get a cigarette out; she didn’t like fumbling for them. When one cigarette was extinguished, the next was immediately in her mouth being lit – and that was it. I said to her one day, “Bette, you know how bad it is for you – why do you insist on smoking?” She said, “Larry, if I didn’t have a cigarette in my hand I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.” Smoking was just part of her being.
Anyway we took the ad and waited for some response. Finally Robert Littman – agent and sometime producer – was able to talk his friends over at MGM into letting us make the movie for $2.5 million. Bette was to get $250,000, for her performance – and then we cast a lot of people that Bette suggested: She recommended Lionel Stander, who I thought was a wonderful suggestion, and approved of Barbara Carrera.
I never had any problems with her during preproduction. We got along very well. She was always up at my house, hanging out, and I have cigarette burns on the furniture to prove it. I never repaired anything, because I like to point out, “That little burn there was caused by Bette Davis.” She loved the script and thought it was very funny, and naturally so, as it was written for her and was in her cadences. I captured her rhythms. There wasn’t much revision to the script, though she would come up with wardrobe ideas and constantly call me up on the phone. She wouldn’t say, “Hello Larry,” or any salutation; I’d just pick up the phone, and she’d start talking. “I think I should have red hair in this movie” – and bang, that was it, she’d hang up. She wouldn’t even say goodbye. She would just state her views and hang the phone up.
I let her pick the person to design her clothes, and eventually we had an elaborate fashion show at Western Costume. I went over to see the clothes she was wearing. She modeled all seven or eight outfits for me, parading around a runway, doing pirouettes and turns. She was getting a great kick out of showing off for me with the $25,000 worth of clothes I’d bought her. Unfortunately everything was black and looked the same. When it was all over, she asked, “Well, what do you think?” I said, “I think it all looks exactly the same. One outfit looks just like another. It’s so drab. Can’t we put a colored handkerchief here, a belt there, or a sash to brighten things up?” “Well!” Her eyes flashed, and that was the first time I saw it, that look of Jezebel, or the Virgin Queen. “Then we’ll just scrap everything and start all over again!”
I said, “Oh no, we don’t. Bette, we’ve already got this stuff and paid for it, so we’re going to use it – we’ll put handkerchiefs with it, sashes, a belt here, a pocket design there …” Bette just stood there and glared at me. I said, “Bette, you invited me here because you wanted my opinion, didn’t you?” “Yes,” she said. “Well, I’ve just given it to you.”
That was it; she never said another word, and that was the end of it. After that, we got along much better. I bought her a beautiful little charm bracelet at Ralph Lauren for her birthday, and she wore it on the set regularly, and every time she showed up wearing the bracelet she’d raise her arm and jiggle it, making sure that I saw she had it on. And she’d never leave the set during the rehearsal or the production without giving me my kiss goodnight. Even if she was wrapped, she’d wait around fifteen or twenty minutes until I was finished with what I was doing, and they’d tell me, “Miss Davis is still here. She wants to say goodnight.” I’d find her and she’d give me that kiss, and only then she’d go home.
I went out of my way to choreograph the film to her advantage. I directed her very specifically, trying to move her around the set in such a way that she wouldn’t look so disabled. I tried to walk her from one position to the other and move the camera at the same time, so you wouldn’t see the limp, and so she would seem more mobile. I even wanted to use a double a couple of times, which I eventually did, to make it appear as if she was walking very briskly across the room. That wasn’t her – but then when she turned around, of course we’d cut in and that would be Bette.
But unfortunately she only worked a week, because she got sick. As it turned out, her problem had begun well before we started production, and it wasn’t anything involving her previous illnesses. She had a bad bridge in her mouth, and the denture cracked about four or five days before the production began. She and her assistant tried to glue it together, but it wouldn’t stay in place, so her bridge kept dislodging. But she would never tell me what was the matter. She would always try to push the bridge back into place with her tongue. I noticed that her line readings were very odd, because she’d take pauses in strange places while she tried to readjust her teeth. After the first week she looked at the dailies and saw what she was doing; then she announced that she had to rush off to New York City to see her dentist – the only one she trusted. So I shot around her for a week, waiting for her to come back; then her lawyer told me, well, she can’t come back, because they have to pull out four more teeth, rebuild the entire bridge, and now she’s lost eight or ten pounds and she’s down to 72 pounds…
Anyway I went to MGM, and they said, “We’re going to have to close the picture down, and the insurance company will pay everybody off” – the entire production costs – which means everybody would have been paid their salary, including me, but the picture would be scrapped. But I said, “It’s a shame to throw away 15-20 minutes of Bette Davis. She probably will never work again. This could be the last picture” – as it actually was – “maybe we could salvage the 15-20 minutes. I could rewrite the story, so that instead of Bette Davis, who plays a witch, turning her cat into Barbara Carrera, Bette Davis could turn herself into Barbara Carrera, and Miss Carrera can finish the picture.” I convinced MGM that the picture was not going to make money in theaters, but it would probably sell a couple of units to every video store in the country, because all the video stores had Bette Davis sections. They’d all take a couple of videos, and that alone would make the picture profitable for MGM. Whatever rights they sold to television or unto perpetuity would just be money in the bank. The completion bond company and the insurance company agreed to kick in some money, so that MGM didn’t have the full exposure anymore, rather than take the total loss of paying off on the closure.
For a while we’d contemplated getting a replacement for Bette – like Lucille Ball, for example, but poor Lucy was in the hospital at the time, and soon died. They also talked about Carol Burnett. But I thought the best gamble was to use the Bette Davis footage because the video value of it was strong, even if the theatrical value wasn’t. And so we finished the picture.
FI Did you ever see her again?
LC Not directly. I spoke to her on the phone, but never saw her in person again. When she heard we were shooting again without her, naturally the Jezebel side of her came out again, and she had to go on the attack. She wouldn’t admit that she had left because of the dental work; now she was telling everybody that she quit because of a disagreement with the director, and that I was ruining her performance. When the picture got close to opening, she went on Entertainment Tonight and attacked me on ET, and in The New York Times and the Post.
FI Oh, dear.
LC But it was all right, because most of the reporters who looked into uncovered the true facts; they printed her version of it, and then they also printed the real story. I never said any words in my own defense. I never counterattacked. I never criticized Bette Davis. I thought she was a wonderfully courageous person, and I still do. She was fighting for her career; she was afraid that if people thought she’d left a movie for medical reasons, that no one would ever employ her again. Here she was virtually unemployable anyway, but she was afraid that a bad mark on her insurance record would mean that no one would ever hire her, and working was her life’s blood. If it meant attacking Larry Cohen, who’d been a good friend, so what? She knew I could take it, and I did.
You know, the fact that she looked terrible wasn’t such a detriment to the film, because she was supposed to be a terrible old witch. If she could only have said the lines it would have been a fairly good picture. But even the fifteen minutes that she did is marred by her inability to get the dialogue out. I would have preferred to give her a better farewell movie. It was unfortunate, but what we have, at least, is a testament to Bette Davis’s last performance, in that she was in there trying I think the picture actually fares better when she’s not in it, because the other actors played their parts very well, and there’s some amusing stuff in the movie.
FI It seems that after The Wicked Stepmother you took a step back from directing all your projects – that you directed less, and were more content to simply sell your scripts in the 1990s? Was that a conscious decision?
LC I know I did The Ambulance after The Wicked Stepmother, and I did a cable movie for the USA channel called As Good as Dead. And then I did Original Gangstas for Orion..
FI That’s still a bit of a slowdown, isn’t it?
LC You know what happened? I got remarried, and I spent of lot of time with my wife, traveling, and having a good time, and enjoying my new marriage. When you go into making movies, of course that means long separations and tremendous hours of working on the set. I guess I just wasn’t in the mood to change my lifestyle and go back to that crazy, 20-hours-a-day madness that I’d loved before.
FI You said before that if they directed your scripts right you wouldn’t have to direct them yourself; were they being directed better?
LC No, they still didn’t direct my scripts right. I had Sidney Lumet direct Guilty as Sin, and he was one of my great heroes. I thought, “Oh, wow! Sidney Lumet!” I’d been on the set watching him direct Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Katharine Hepburn. I’d been a huge fan. I was just overjoyed that he was doing Guilty As Sin. I thought we’d get a terrific cast and make a superb movie. I think he got discouraged, too, because they got basically a second-level cast – Rebecca DeMornay and Don Johnson were perfectly okay, but they were like the B team. We tried to get Paul Newman, who liked the script but thought himself too old for the part.
Disney even sent it to Sean Connery. But Lumet ended up with Rebecca DeMornay and Don Johnson – and he didn’t have much enthusiasm for the picture after that. It wasn’t one of his better directing jobs. Strangely enough, it’s Lumet’s most successful film theatrically in the last 17 or 18 years. It was a pretty decent thriller, and it did tremendous business in the video stores.
Best Seller I finally got made after seven or eight years of selling it to one company after another, and having it not made. Eventually it got produced by Orion with Brian Dennehy and James Woods, who were good in the picture, but once again I felt that I was getting the B team. If Gene Hackman had played the lead, we might have done much more at the box-office. Brian’s a wonderful actor, but he was never a movie star. A picture like that needed movie stars. I wrote it originally for Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster – that kind of combination.
FI Were you originally hoping to direct it?
LC Not with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster – my chances of getting to direct those two guys were pretty slim. But that’s the kind of casting I originally wanted, and actually I wasn’t too heartbroken when somebody else directed it. I’d had it for so long that I was delighted to finally see the picture going in front of the cameras, and delighted that it was being made at all.
FI Were you intentionally writing more scripts on specs, accepting that you wouldn’t be directing as much?
LC I always had plenty of scripts circulating that I hoped might lead to a directorial assignment, but I wasn’t going out like I had before, with J. Edgar Hoover and Q and so many of the others, where I just started making the picture without having any financing, throwing myself into the middle of chaos.
FI You weren’t putting yourself so much out on a limb?
LC I was married again, and starting a different life. I was enjoying the fruits of marriage and travel and companionship. To be perfectly honest, one of the great attractions of making movies during the middle period of my life was the accessibility of women when you are directing a picture. You met a lot of girls, and you were the director, and everybody was all over you, and you were hyped up and crazed and fearless, and nobody ever said no. Everybody always agreed to anything you wanted on the set, as far as directing goes, and it seemed to carry over in your relationship with women. They were always there for you, and it was that period in our lifetime where the relationship between the sexes was so amicable; everybody seemed to get along so well in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was before AIDS came along. People were having great times with each other. It was before women became quite as adversarial. So I’m happy that I’m out of that now, but I certainly enjoyed that particular period of making movies and making love and having a great time of it.
FI A few questions about your writing habits: How do you write? Longhand? Typewriter? I heard you say that you sometimes dictate into a tape recorder.
LC I started out my career writing on a typewriter for years. I wrote all my Defenders and early television and early features on the typewriter. When I was doing my World War II spy series Blue Light at Fox, I hurt my hand; I had to have a skin graft, and so I couldn’t use the typewriter for a while. I began dictating to secretaries.
I had one secretary in the morning, and another secretary in the afternoon, and I’d rotate two more secretaries the next day, and just dictate the scripts. I found I was turning out a tremendous number of pages and getting to act all the parts and having a good time. I liked having an audience to perform for, and I knew if I had somebody in my office I’d have to come up with material – I couldn’t just stare at the secretary, poised there with a pen. I was going so fast in those days that they couldn’t keep up with the pace. Sometimes they’d break down and cry – and I’d feel terrible.
Then I switched over to a tape recorder and for years I dictated into a tape recorder, usually walking around Central Park in New York, or walking around my house out here in California, keeping on my feet and dictating while moving around. I get so internalized with the writing that I forget how much time I’m putting in. I’m just caught up in the characters and the moment of the story. The time rushes by. Sometimes I can turn out 20-25 pages a day, dictating like crazy.
FI That’s a pretty unusual technique.
LC I enjoy it, and I still got to act the parts. I never got into a computer. In the last couple of years, just prior to Phone Booth, I started writing in longhand. I’d take a pad – usually one of those composition books like you had when you were in public school – and I’d fill up those books, writing very rapidly in longhand. I felt the work was changing a bit; there was much less description – almost everything was being told in dialogue form. When I first started writing on a typewriter, the scripts were much longer; there was a lot of scene description, and a lot of background. Now I tend to let everything tell itself through the dialogue, which is much better, since many people don’t read anything but the dialogue anyhow, when they’re rushing through a script.
FI Did your output slow down a little at the notebook stage?
LC No. You’re limited a little bit by the speed at which you can write. Fortunately, I have a secretary now who can read my gibberish – and can transform it. With the writing in longhand, I can also go out to a public place; I can write in a coffee shop, or in a park – anywhere I can find a place to sit down or have a table to lean on. I know people who take computers to Starbucks, to do their work. I understand: People like to see human life out of the corner of their eye and escape from the isolation of working at home all by themselves all the time. I don’t care. I can work at home. I can work outside. All I have to do is get started, and after a couple of minutes I’m hooked up to what I’m doing, and everything around me blurs out.
FI When do you write? Regular hours?
LC I write in my spare time, really. I don’t have any delegated period. I try to make myself available to my wife and my family – whatever they’re doing – and I always seem to find a few hours every day when I can get off to myself and do the writing. Unless I have a terrible deadline, or some schedule that I have to meet.
Years ago, when I was first married and had a bunch of kids, I never wanted to be the kind of father who was chasing the kids out of the office – and I didn’t want my wife saying, “Can’t you see your Dad’s working?” and all that nonsense. So I didn’t work at all when the kids were home. I tried to spend the time with them. Then I’d wait until everybody went to bed at night, and I’d slip out around midnight or one o’clock in the morning and come downstairs and write until four or five in the morning, when no one was around. It was just great. No phone calls; no distractions; nothing, but fighting the urge to go to sleep.
FI What percentage of the time do you write on spec nowadays? Three out of four scripts?
LC Easily more than that, even. Occasionally I get a good idea and go into the studios and pitch it a couple of times. Chances are if nobody buys it, I’ll still do it on spec. I go in with great hopes that I’ll get somebody to jump right in on the deal, but a project like Phone Booth, for example, could never be sold on a pitch – no one would believe it would work. How can you tell someone you’re going to set a movie in a phone booth and sustain it for a full-length picture? You may as well give them the finished script.
FI Let’s talk about Phone Booth. I gather this picture started, a long time ago, with Alfred Hitchcock, with whom I take it you have a lengthy personal and professional relationship. You are a fan of his films, you watched him direct, and you tried to sell scripts to him.
LC The first time I met with him I only talked to him about Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, and the second time I had lunch with him at the bungalow that he had at the Universal lot out here in Studio City – Universal City, they call it now. We had a three and a half hour lunch. Of course any kind of meeting with him was always very lengthy. He liked to talk. He was very generous with his anecdotes, very expressive with those great big hands moving around, gesturing – he talked with his hands. I remember he had this very strong handshake, and these big thumbs, – good hands for a strangler. If those hands wrapped around your throat, boy! But he’d also get up and move around the room as he got into telling a story; he was surprisingly graceful, once he started talking about an idea.
Suddenly this big man would get up and start moving with the grace of a ballet dancer. He was lost in himself, telling his story. It was something wonderful to see. During the course of the lunch we talked about many ideas. He quizzed me on a couple of things, asking, for example, “How would you handle a scene where someone is in a store where they sell antique china, and he’s being followed by spies, and he wants to get the attention of the police? What would you do in the scene that would be entertaining?” My suggestion was that he begin blatantly shoplifting in front of the staff and other customers; I could just see Cary Grant stuffing things into his pockets, doing double takes at people and smiling at them – knowing that someone is going to call the police because he’s a shoplifter. I thought that would be a perfect Hitchcock scene. That wasn’t Hitch’s solution. His solution was that the would-be victim should just start dropping pieces of china on the floor and breaking them, accidentally on purpose, until finally the shopkeeper calls the police. He used a variation of that in Topaz, but unfortunately, the way he staged it in Topaz, it lacked any humor whatsoever; neither did the film have any humor. It was a terrible picture, and he was miserable making both Torn Curtain and Topaz; Joan Harrison told me that.
I was trying to get him to do a story called “Frenzy,” which was not the Frenzy eventually made into the movie we all saw, but another “Frenzy” which had an entirely different story, about a famous Broadway actress whose son is a psychopathic killer of young women. He had told me the whole story of it in New York City at the St. Regis, in great detail – including the chase on the mothball fleet, which was in upstate New York, where they had anchored a bunch of old ships that had been left over from the war. That’s where he had planned one of the climactic chase scenes: a girl who has been taken on board one of those ships and stripped naked in preparation for being murdered by the psychopathic son, manages to escape. The psychopath pursues her across the ship and up the smokestack; a naked woman climbing the smokestack of this old ship – very phallic obviously. Anyway, he told me this whole scenario and acted it out for me at the St. Regis. I had the impression that he really hoped to get Ingrid Bergman to play the mother, because he had such a great relationship with her on films before – and he knew, probably subconsciously, that he desperately needed a star.
I was trying to get him to resuscitate this “Frenzy” project, but he kept saying that the studio, Universal, didn’t want him to do it. He seemed very, very intimidated by Lew Wasserman and the Universal executives, who had more or less undermined his confidence in himself. While making him a very rich man, they’d also destroyed him as an artist. Hitch had severed his ties with Bernard Herrmann, for example, who had been a close friend and a great collaborator, and mainly it was the Universal executives who had poisoned his mind against Herrmann, and convinced him he needed somebody like Henry Mancini to write songs and a hipper musical score. Which he never got, by the way.
But I couldn’t get him to revive “Frenzy,” and so we went on to talk about other movie ideas. I said, “How about a film that all happens inside a phone booth?” He thought that was a marvelous idea, but how would we make it work? How could we keep a movie going for a feature-length time inside a telephone booth? I came up with some variations, but I never thought of a sniper, which I should have, because I’d already used one in God Told Me To. As a matter of fact, there’s a parallel relationship between God Told Me To and Phone Booth in that both have a figure who’s basically playing God, who’s totally dominating the existence of another human being – acting out a God complex – and using a sniper’s rifle to invoke fear. God Told Me is clearly the antecedent of Phone Booth.
I’d run into Hitch subsequent to our second meeting at premieres, including the opening of the actual Frenzy picture. They had a screening and party at the Century Plaza Hotel, he brought his wife Alma over, and introduced her to me, and told her that I was the young man who wanted to make a movie in a telephone booth. I think I saw him one more time, after the opening of Family Plot, and again he asked me, “How are you coming with our telephone booth picture?” – though I think he’d pretty well given up on me by that time.
FI Had you written any of it?
LC I was never able to work out who the guy was in the phone booth, and why he couldn’t leave the booth.
FI When did it finally break for you?
LC Many years later it somehow dawned on me: that the guy should be the victim of a sniper. As soon as I put those two elements together, then right away I had to decide who the guy was going to be. I said to myself, “Let’s take the character from Sweet Smell of Success, and update him to 2000, and see what would have become of Sidney Falco in today’s world.” A publicist seemed like the perfect guy to put into the telephone booth, because, after all, he’s trying unsuccessfully to make his clients famous and get them on television, and here, in a few moments, he will find himself to be the most famous man in New York and on every television station, as the news remote broadcasts capture him as the man the police have trapped in a phone booth and accused of murder. It was an ironic progression, that a guy who desperately wants to make other people famous inadvertently becomes famous himself. And of course, with publicists the telephone is the tool of the trade.
FI How long was the script around before it was sold?
LC That was sold almost immediately, but it took over three years to get the picture made after 20th Century-Fox bought the script. They took it off the market and paid for it very handsomely, and then set out to try and get a star. We went from Mel Gibson to Jim Carrey to Will Smith. There were many, many actors who were interested in doing it. There were many actors who wanted to play in it who the studio was not interested in – like Nicholas Cage, Robin Williams, even Dustin Hoffman – they were considered “too old.” The studio wanted a young guy, and eventually they got Colin Farrell. Many stars, including Jim Carrey, announced they were going to do the picture and then backed out when they got scared, especially when the director Joel Schumacher decided he wanted to shoot the picture in about two weeks time, instead of a normal production schedule of eight weeks. That terrified most actors.
Joel eventually shot a day or two in New York, and about ten days out here. Personally I’ve never shot a picture in less than eighteen days! Of course Schumacher was spending a great deal more money than I was ever able to afford. He had five camera crews going at once and was able to close down Fifth Street in downtown L.A. and redress it to be New York.
FI Did the script have all those wonderful split-screen scenes?
LC Some of it, but not as many as Schumacher put in. Split-screen rarely works for me, but it really worked for that film. In that one it did.
FI Otherwise, was he faithful to the script?
LC He followed the script, almost to the letter. We didn’t have Kiefer Sutherland in the picture when it was originally shot, you know. The part was played by Ron Eldard, a very good actor, who was perched up in a window across the street from the phone booth every minute of the time, doing all of Colin Farrell’s dialogue with him. But when I went to the set to see the picture shooting, I just was not happy with Ron’s voice. I was in fact very upset. I told my wife, “Let’s get out of here. I can’t stand it. I can’t be on the set anymore. I’m making faces, and I don’t want the director to see me, so let me get out of here. I have to recover from this, because this whole picture is going right down the drain.” Finally, I went to the Fox executives and told them that Eldard’s voice was wrong. They were afraid to do anything about it, because they thought Schumacher would become outraged if we challenged his decision on casting. I said, “Well, it has to be done, because otherwise the results will be disastrous in the long run, so I’ll take it upon myself to approach Schumacher.” I went to Joel and told him what I felt, and he simply said, “You really think so?” I said, “Absolutely.”
The next day he went out and hired Kiefer Sutherland. They had finished shooting the picture by that time, but he brought Kiefer in and they did all the voice of the sniper over again in a recording studio, and then married it all to the dialogue Colin Farrell had already recorded opposite Ron Eldard. So actually, Colin never got to work with Kiefer in any of those scenes in the phone booth; he lamented the fact that he never got to act opposite Kiefer, and Kiefer said it was the first time he’d ever acted in a movie where he got to see the entire movie before he came to work. They fixed it up, then they shot the one scene together at the end – where Kiefer actually appears on the screen – that was the extent of his performance. Kiefer worked two or three days, and added immeasurably to the film. His voice made a tremendous difference.
FI Was it a rare circumstance for you, of selling one of your scripts and seeing it filmed right?
LC I was happy with the job that they did. I would have done it differently if I directed. I would have actually shot it in New York City, and I would have put the phone booth on a street corner in a very, very busy intersection, and I probably would have shot a great portion of it with hidden cameras. My original intention was to shoot it with hidden cameras during the day, and to make the movie appear to start around five o’clock in the afternoon – so that a portion would be shot in daylight, and then it would gradually segue into night as the picture progressed. When the police get there – pretty soon it would be night with spotlights and searchlights – we’d have an entirely different shadowed look for the whole street. We’d be able to close down the street and control it from midnight until five in the morning, when there’s no traffic, and then in the morning we could release the street back to the city. Then we could come back again the next night for more shooting and keep doing that, so we could get real locations and have a variety of looks to the movie.
FI Still, the picture was a huge success.
LC Close to $50 million domestically so far – and it will probably do much more than that in DVD. As I speak it’s now the number one DVD rental in America. I would think your own phone in Hollywood would be ringing off the hook. The phone’s ringing – not necessarily off the hook, but it’s ringing. I’ve sold another script called Cellular, which is being done at New Line, and Kim Basinger’s going to be in it with William H. Macey. It’s a movie about a young guy who gets a phone call from a woman who’s a complete stranger. She’s been kidnapped and is calling him on his cell phone; but she doesn’t know where she’s being held, and he has to try and find her before she’s murdered and before they get disconnected.
I had a rush of very good ideas around the same time I wrote Phone Booth. One after another, I turned out maybe six or seven spec scripts, and I’m only now beginning to release some of them into the marketplace.
FI Six or seven? In what length of time?
LC In a year or so; maybe fourteen months. I was writing a tremendous amount of material around the time I did Phone Booth. But I put them aside; I sold Cellular, and the rest I held back, waiting for Phone Booth to come out.
FI Six or seven: That sounds incredibly fast and prolific from a standard screen writer’s point of view.
LC If you sit around and think about it for months, if you outline it, you don’t get anything done With me, I don’t work it out, I just start in writing it. I allow myself to be completely immersed in the process of writing, and then it just kind of emerges from the fog.
Patrick McGilligan‘s recent books are Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane (HarperCollins, 2015) and his new biography of comedian Mel Brooks, Funny Man (HarperCollins). His interview with Clancy Sigal appeared in issue 15.1 of Film International.