By SHAWN MACOMBER
“I got away with murder here,” Larry Cohen tells RUE MORGUE with a chuckle during a candid interview in the heart of midtown Manhattan, during a retrospective of his work at the Quad Cinema this past May. Cohen, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival this weekend, is describing his early renegade filmmaking years.
The visionary genre director behind such cult classics as IT’S ALIVE, GOD TOLD ME TO, Q and THE STUFF will be honored at Fantasia in tandem with a screening (Sunday night at 9:45 p.m.) of KING COHEN, a documentary by Steve Mitchell that celebrates his maverick spirit. “Today you definitely couldn’t do the things I did back then,” he continues. “Not unless you’re eager to be imprisoned for several years. I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t shoot a gunfight in the middle of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade [as he did for GOD TOLD ME TO] or fire machine guns off of the top of the Chrysler Building [Q] or stage a shooting in front of what is now known as Trump Tower [BLACK CAESAR]. Out on location, nobody knew what was going to happen next. I was making up most of the scenes as I went along. The actors were all on their toes. I was writing dialogue, giving them new lines—usually handwritten—to do. Everybody was activated, everybody was on. They were having a good time.”
Cohen steeples his hands just below a wry smile and pauses, as if allowing himself a few moments to savor the memory of those exploits—as well as the delicious shock value of describing them to a new audience. “When most people make movies, they go to a studio, they go on a soundstage,” he says. “Everybody sits around. They’re waiting for the setups. They’re doing crossword puzzles or reading paperback books or playing cards. A movie set can be the most boring place on the planet. There’s nothing but waiting-around time. But not my movies—all my movies were an adventure.”
Indeed, sometimes Cohen would load the equipment and the cast into a car and drive around, waiting for a particular corner or establishment to strike his fancy, and then just do the scene. “I must say, 90 percent of the time I had never scouted the locations we used until the day we shot,” Cohen says. “If I saw a good location, ‘OK, the scene takes place there. What’s the difference? Write it into the script if you have to. That’s what we did.
“Really, that’s the only way to get it done on my kind of budgets sometimes. Say you go into a diner and tell the owner, ‘I want to shoot here.’ ‘OK, that’s fine. When?’ ‘Next Thursday.’ ‘OK.’ But by next Thursday, the guy’s talked to all his friends and they’re telling him, ‘Well, wait a minute! You ought to get 10 grand for letting them make a movie out of your joint! Those people are going to make a lot of money off of you!’ So you come back to shoot and they don’t want to let you shoot anymore.
“So, me? I go in and say, ‘I want to shoot a movie here.’ ‘When?’ ‘Right now. The actors are out in the car.’ They look out the window, and there’s maybe some actors they recognize. You give them a couple of hundred bucks, we shoot, everybody eats there, we leave and the diner owner has a great story to tell. Also, if you find a great location and don’t use it right away—that’s a gamble. Maybe you come back three days later to shoot, there’s guys outside drilling the sidewalk. You can’t shoot because they’re making all that noise.”
There were more—ahem—organized considerations to take into account as well. “If you told everybody where you were going to shoot ahead of time, somebody would rat you out to the unions, and they’d be there to close you down,” Cohen notes. “If nobody knew where we were going to shoot but me, nobody I didn’t want to be found by could find us. Truth is, I would have loved to be able to hire all the union members, but I couldn’t afford it. I could never make the picture. In those days, the unions did not make any allowances for low-budget movies. There were no special prices or anything. You paid the same money as Paramount or 20th Century Fox did.
“So we would just get the stuff out of the equipment house and ship it over somewhere, usually to a friend’s place, where it would sit in the hall until we then moved the equipment to the actual location where we were going to shoot. It sounds like a strange way to make a movie. You really had to have a lot of guts.”
By way of illustration, Cohen brings up the scene in Tim Burton’s ED WOOD in which the crew spots a policeman while shooting on a busy street and Wood shouts, “We don’t have a permit…run!” “Now, that would never happen on a Larry Cohen picture,” he says. “It would be more like, ‘OK, no permit. Let’s go shoot in the middle of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.’ Why? ’Cause nobody of sane mind would shoot in the middle of the St. Patrick’s Day parade with no permit and 5,000 cops hanging around, right?”
“We’d hide in plain sight,” Cohen says, raising his eyebrows, as if even he can’t believe he pulled it off. “Everybody assumes, ‘If they’re shooting the movie openly, well, then they must have permission from somebody.’ So nobody asks you for anything, you know? It’s just having the guts to do it, that’s all.”
And once he’d girded those celluloid loins, an entire world of opportunity and scale unfolded before him. “I thought of New York City as my backlot—and it was the greatest backlot in the world,” he says. “There’s brand new construction. There’s wrecks and tenements. There’s parks and alleys. Everywhere you look, there’s texture, there’s something of interest. Some of the great skyscrapers, like the Chrysler Building, couldn’t be equaled anywhere. That’s the greatest building in terms of architecture and look. I just love the city.”
Only once can Cohen recall this approach not panning out: He and his crew were shooting a scene on the Staten Island Ferry when the vessel wound up marooned on a sandbar in the middle of the harbor. “It was the day after Christmas, one degree out, and it took us 12 hours to get off the sandbar,” he says. “They had the harbor patrol and the Coast Guard trying to get us off the goddamn thing. What’s crazy is it actually probably would have worked out, but I had producers on the movie for a change. I called the producers up and said, ‘We’re out on this sandbar and we’ve got helicopters overhead and all these boats circling us. If you have insurance for something like this, we should close down and collect it. But if you don’t, then let me make up a new scene and we’ll shoot it out here with all this production value.’ They said, ‘We’ll get back to you in 15 minutes.’ Half an hour later, I called the office back. ‘Oh, they’ve left for the day.’ They wouldn’t make a decision. They wouldn’t tell me what to do. So whatever I did would be wrong. That’s what happens when you have producers. That sequence never got made, of course. It was one of the only times that I couldn’t finish what I started.”
TO BE CONTINUED