To celebrate the life of Larry Cohen (1936-2019), Film International will excerpt portions of Tony Williams’s interviews with the filmmaker from Larry Cohen: Radical Allegories of an Independent Filmmaker, rev ed. (© 2015 Tony Williams by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640. www.mcfarlandbooks.com).
Larry Cohen (LC): With a little bit of encouragement I wrote a script called The Cutting Room, which later became Special Effects. I took that around and had a bunch of “almosts.” It didn’t quite happen. Then I wrote Bone. It was originally called Unreal. I wrote it about the same time I wrote my first stage play, The Nature of the Crime. Unreal was also based on a story I’d written when I was thirteen called Three Hours to Kill. But instead of doing it straight, I thought I’d make it as a black comedy. Since Bone only had four leading actors I figured I could handle it as my first picture. One day I happened upon a group of people who were making a low-budget independent picture. There was a director named Jack Starrett who was a great big, gruff kind of a guy.
He played the brutal sheriff in the original Rambo picture, First Blood. He was a heavy drinker but he was a goodhearted guy, a good actor who also directed a number of pictures such as Cleopatra Jones and Race with the Devil. He was making a horror picture in an old Hollywood house. I went over, spending the day watching him and his crew. Then all of a sudden it became evident that eight or ten crew people could actually make a picture. They were all really nice guys, too, helping each other out. There was a camaraderie about it. So I asked several of these guys whether they would be interested in helping me make a picture. They agreed.
So I grabbed this crew after Jack was finished with them and started making Bone on 16mm. I shot for two or three days.Then I looked at it and didn’t think it was good enough. I had cast Andrew Duggan, Yaphet Kotto, and Pippa Scott. Neva Patterson had the part later played by Brett Somers (the woman with the X-rays). She was James Lee’s wife. James Lee introduced me to Andrew Duggan and also to my agent, Peter Sabiston. So James Lee did me a lot of good over the years. I figured I had to make the picture over in 35mm with a larger crew. For that I needed money. So I happened upon someone who had, at least, part of the necessary money to shoot the picture. This was Nick Vanoff. He had produced “The Hollywood Palace,” and “The Steve Allen Show.” Vanoff was then in what we used to call variety television. He’d just begun doing a syndicated show, “Hee-Haw,” which eventually made him so much money that he ended up buying the old Columbia Studios on Gower Street, the entire lot, which he turned into a video producing facility. “Hee-Haw” was in syndication for ten years and made him hundreds of millions of dollars. (He died after open-heart surgery in 1991.) Nick put up the seed money to make the picture. About that time I went to a screening of a film called Glass Houses, a low- budget picture made with an independent crew. George Folsey, Jr., was one of the producers. It looked like a professional Hollywood movie. So I spoke to George. His father was a great cameraman from the old MGM days who had shot Meet Me in St. Louis, The Great Ziegfeld, Green Dolphin Street, and many Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies. George Folsey, Sr., had sixteen Oscar nominations but never got the award.
He’d been retired for a number of years after he left MGM but was tired of playing golf every day. He wanted to go back to work. So George, Jr., said to me, “My Dad will shoot the movie and I’ll operate and edit the picture because I’m a cutter, and I’ll find you the crew.” So thanks to George Folsey, Jr., I got the picture going. George later became a partner with John Landis and produced pictures like Animal House, The Three Amigos and the tragic Twilight Zone. He was indicted along with Landis over the three deaths on that film. He was acquitted but I think the stress broke up the partnership. George was a fine technician. Maybe he thought I was a little crazy. I think the father thought so, too. But they all came to work and did a good job for me. We shot the picture in three weeks in my house.
After that, I had to get completion money from somebody else in order to add music, make an answer print, and pay for the costs of editing and the lab bill. I’d gotten credit from MGM’s lab and sound department, but I had to pay the bills. A man named Jack H. Harris finally came to my rescue. A lot of people had liked the picture. I’d been around the circuit for months, showing it. I had to carry ten cans of film and ten cans of sound on a push wagon—you know, the kind of wagon you push the refuse out in—into the office of every major studio distributor. At the entrance, guards would tell me, “You can’t bring that in here. You have to go around to the service entrance.” So Janelle and I would go up the service elevator with all those cans of film, dragging it up and down the halls and thinking, “We’ve got a big house in Beverly Hills and suddenly we’re like delivery men. We’re not even allowed in the front of the building!” If an executive said, “Leave the picture. We’ll look at it sometime,” we’d say, “No! You can’t see the picture unless we’re present in the room. We can’t leave the picture. It’s the only copy we have, except for a black and white dupe and we won’t leave it.” When they replied that their policy was “We don’t look at the picture while the director is in the room,” we answered, “Well in that case, don’t look at it!” Invariably, they looked at it with us there. One day we showed it to Columbia Pictures in New York. The man in charge of screening the pictures was Bosley Crowther. It was a thrill for me. Crowther was the noted critic whose reviews I’d always read in the New York Times. He was the definitive motion picture critic of his generation. He kind of liked my picture, but Columbia didn’t buy it. At Warner Bros. I ran it for David Brown. He said to me, “I have a meeting and I may not be able to stay for the whole picture.” That means if they don’t like it they’re free to walk out. There’s one scene in the beginning when Yaphet Kotto is terrorizing the family. He’s dumping a lot of books off their shelves and he happens to pick up one book and glance at it. It’s The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron. It’s a little inside joke almost nobody gets. But Brown said, “I bought the rights to that book when I was over at Fox. I’m staying for the whole picture.” So he stayed, but he felt the movie was good but problematic and didn’t buy it. Then I dragged the twenty reels back to New York and showed it to Joseph E. Levine. He said, “Come back tomorrow. I want to see it again.” We did so. He’s the only guy who sat through it twice. After seeing it again, he said, “You know, you’re another Mike Nichols. If you’d come in a year ago, I’d have tied you to the chair. But right now I’m having problems with financing. So I don’t have the money to buy the picture, let alone the prints and the advertising. But you’re a very talented man.” I said, “Why didn’t you tell us this yesterday?”
By this time it was about seven or eight in the evening and we had to get out of the building with the film. The security guards in the lobby said, “Hey! You can’t take this film out of here.” I replied, “What are you talking about? I brought it in.” The guard countered, “You can’t leave with that film without a pass.” So I replied, “Where am I going to get a pass from? Everybody’s gone home!” Anyway, it was a nightmarish experience to finally get the film out of Joseph E. Levine’s building. So we had all these showings with heavy hitters about buying it, coming close each time, but “no cigars” as they say. Finally, we ran it for Jack Harris who, as soon as the lights came up, said, “I’ll buy this picture.” This was Jack (The Blob) Harris. I thought to myself, “Well, I’ve really run through the whole gamut of the business, from David Brown, Bosley Crowther and now Jack (The Blob) Harris. But who am I to turn down his money?” So he gave me funds to complete the picture and make a small profit on it, and I gave him the picture. Harris arranged a preview of the film at the World Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. It was one of the worst schlock houses, a third-run double feature theater. It’s not there anymore, but it was below Vine Street. The picture regularly playing there was The Legend of Nigger Charley. I said, “Jack. That’s not the audience for this picture. There’s only one black man in our picture!” But he replied, “Let’s have the preview and see what happens.” So we went down to the preview and it was almost an all black audience. But, to my surprise, they ate it up. They laughed at every joke and understood every nuance. They had a great time. The picture played beautifully. I couldn’t believe it. Then Jack arranged another preview at the Pickwood Theater in trendy Westwood and sent out fancy invitations. The place was packed. Every seat in the balcony and auditorium was filled. The picture again went over well, this time with a totally white audience. So I thought we had something going. Then we had still another preview at the AVCO Theater in Westwood. Michael Douglas came up to me after the screening and complimented me. “You write like John Guare,” he said. Then Jack presented the ad copy to me. It was like an ad for a black action thriller like Shaft or Superfly. I said, “But Jack, this is the wrong kind of advertising for this picture. It’s not a crime movie. It’s a comedy. A black comedy. You can’t advertise it like this!” He replied, “Well, nobody wants to see a black comedy.” I replied, “Well, that’s what it is!” He countered, “They want action adventure pictures.” I said, “That may be what they want. But this is not an action adventure picture. If you advertise it that way people won’t know what they’re looking at. They won’t realize it’s a comedy. They’ll be confused.” Jack replied, “Am I going to stand there and tell them not to laugh?” I said, “You’re not dealing with reality. If you tell people they’re going to see a certain kind of movie and they don’t get the movie they paid for, they’re going to be unhappy. You can make the best chocolate ice cream in the world. But if people order vanilla and you give them chocolate, they’re going to be unhappy because they didn’t want chocolate.” Jack responded, “Well, let’s see what happens.”
Some audiences understood what the film was about. But in most cases, we got reviews like “The Most Unintentionally Funny Movie of the Year”—unintentionally! I couldn’t believe it. To compound this, a British company bought the rights to show it in England. I went over to meet them and explain what had happened with Jack. The British executive was a perfectly intelligent man. I thought, “This man is a bright man. He sympathizes with everything I’m telling him.” I emphasized, “This picture is a comedy and it should be sold as a comedy emphasizing its satire of American racial conflicts.” He agreed wholeheartedly. A month later I get a package in the mail, opened it up, and saw the poster for something called Dial Rat for Terror! I was mystified. It was the worst, most embarrassing art work I’d ever seen. They’d done what Jack Harris did, only ten times worse! I guess because the man seemed so cultured and intelligent I felt the film was finally in the right hands. Maybe the British accent fooled me.
Tony Williams (TW): You’ve got to see beyond all that.
LC: I thought I was dealing with Alexander Korda. When Dial Rat for Terror appeared, I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to hide t the posters or bury them somewhere. To this day I can’t understand how any intelligent person could do such a thing. Then Jack came around and told me he’d changed the title of the picture to Housewife. I said, “It sounds like a porno movie! What has this got to do with my film?” He replied, “Well, there is a housewife in it.” I said, “Jack, you’re still not selling the picture. Now you’re trying to promote it as a sex film. You’re going to have the same disaster as you had before.” I started to believe I was in better shape when I was just writing and taking the studio money, because I had my heart and soul in this picture. Janelle and I were killing ourselves carrying this film around and look what happens when it finally gets released!
Actually, I think Bone is a very good movie twenty years ahead of its time. I’ve often thought of adding a little prologue saying, “In 1970, the United States was engaged in a war against one of the smallest nations in the world and, in America, there was once a little village called Beverly Hills…” then reissuing it as if it was made today. They’ll think, “Gee! Look how they re- created the ’70s. Look at the old cars and clothes!” They’ll think it is a new picture about the seventies. Nobody ever saw the picture. I think the film really does address the racial issue in America as well as anything that’s ever been made on the subject. It also deals with white fantasies. For example, Yaphet Kotto never identifies himself as “Bone.” Joyce Van Patten names him that. In the script, she says, “Oh Bone! You’re just the way I imagined you’d be.” He could be something she conjured up. Her version of a black man.
TW: Many critics have commented on the opening scene’s similarity to Weekend. Having seen your television work with commercials I now believe it is modeled on old ’60s car insurance ads.
LC: I’ve never had the opportunity to see Weekend, so any similarity is purely coincidental. I’m not even aware of the plot of Weekend.
TW: Did you consciously aim for an off-Broadway theatrical, satirical style in directing Bone?
LC: I basically think of Bone as a filmed stageplay because it is an intimate performance piece involving three major characters. I directed Bone as it was written. My initial creative thrust emerged from writing it, then casting it. It then came to life. All that’s left to do is take pictures and edit the print. If the script and casting are faulty, there’s nothing more you can do to save the movie. I did shoot too many close ups on this picture. I wanted to control the performances in the cutting room and I did. But there’s too much cutting.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film studies in the Department of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a Contributing Editor to Film International.