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Larry Cohen Interview

Taking Strange Courses with Q’s Brilliant Larry Cohen. By Brian Kirst

(Director-writer Larry Cohen will be appearing live at Movieside Film Festival’s Sci Fi Spectacular 4 at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago on April 10th from 12pm – 2 am. His film Q will be shown along with other modern classics such as Planet of the Vampires and They Live. Pre-sale tickets can be purchased at Laurie’s Planet of Sound in Lincoln Square and at brownpapertickets.com.)

“I need a reason to make a film. Ideas come to me – a political or social statement and instead of making it a polemic, I make it with suspense and menace and humor,” film auteur Larry Cohen states. Indeed, this simple clear cut proclamation is backed up by Cohen’s marvelous output – a series of wildly divergent cult-like films that have earned countless fans and critical pundits. In fact, it is a glorious reality that everything from “It’s Alive”, “God Told Me To”, “Q”, “The Stuff” and the more recent “Phone Booth” have emerged from Cohen’s blistering consciousness.

“The picture that is showing this weekend, “Q”, shows how a small time nobody can blackmail a system- how easy it is to turn a ‘nobody’ into a celebrity. This is especially telling today. We were also very clever and daring with that one. We were able to fire off all those guns from the Chrysler Building. With all the security issues that wouldn’t be possible today.”

“With “The Stuff”, I told how cigarettes and alcohol were damaging but I took it to an extreme. Did you know in World War 2 that the cigarette companies gave the soldiers free cigarettes? They addicted a young generation of men-they’ve probably killed more people than all the wars combined. But the corporations don’t care who they kill. They just want to make a buck. That’s “The Stuff”!”

“In “It’s Alive”, I had a message about birth control and the various products that can affect the infants as they grow in the mother’s body. Today we’re reaching an age where DNA can be detected before a child is born. Parents will be able to be told if a child has criminal tendencies and it can be terminated. That day isn’t far away and I explored that in “It Lives Again” in 1978.”

The one film that Cohen is justifiably proud of that has received little attention is “The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover”.  We shot it in house – in the offices of the F.B.I and in Hoover’s home. It was the first film where the F.B.I. didn’t read the script and we still got to shoot on their premises. It’s got a wonderful cast. Broderick Crawford looked just like J. Edgar Hoover. The F.B.I. said it was a perfect casting job.” Cohen, who hopes that Clint Eastwood’s upcoming biopic on Hoover will bring his ahead of its time production a little latter day loving, also encourages people to email MGM Home Entertainment and tell them they want to see this timely juggernaut as well.

Cohen does have one bittersweet memory about “The Private Files”, though. “James Wainwright, a wonderful young actor, who played the young Hoover wound up being arrested on drug charges and was eventually murdered in prison. Can you imagine? -To go from playing young Hoover to dying in jail? Life takes strange courses.  You just never know.”

“In “Special Effects”, I cast a wonderful young actress, Zoe Tamerlis, who had been in “Ms. 45”. She was always came about with a big bag. That’s my screenplay, she’d say, I can’t leave it home because someone is going to steal it. She was paranoid about it. I asked her if she had copies, why she didn’t make copies. But no – she didn’t want anyone to have a chance to see it, take it. That script turned out to be the original “Bad Lieutenant” that Abel Ferrera made with Harvey Keitel. I guess she was addicted to drugs, though, because she died in Paris from an overdose in ’99. Another tragedy.”

“Another odd circumstance was with Bette Davis. She was well loved and well honored in the industry, but no one would give her a job. I took it upon myself to write a script for her, “Wicked Stepmother”. It didn’t turn out, but I tried. I had a great deal of fun with her while planning the project, though. My furniture still has scars and burn marks from her cigarettes. She’d just flick her ashes out anywhere, but I point them out proudly to people- proof that she was there. But, she eventually couldn’t complete the picture. She couldn’t get through her lines. She was having troubles with her bridge. She kept having to push her bridge back in before she spoke. At first, I couldn’t understand why she was speaking her lines so hesitantly. We then found out it would take 6 weeks to repair-teeth would have to be removed. Since Bette was a witch I rewrote it so she turned into Barbara Carrera, who was much easier on the eyes for sure. Still, I’m glad I did the picture with her though.  It had a great cast- Tom Bosley, Evelyn Keyes. Lionel Stander was terrific in it.”

“But it’s always hard when you’re making your own pictures. You never have enough money, you’re always struggling. But because of that, though, the studios pretty much stay out of my way. They aren’t big budgets, so there’s no interference.”

That Cohen’s clear cut, adventurous take on filmmaking continues to thrive– “I have 2 pictures coming up, “Surveillance” and “Tremble”, a ghost story set in Pittsburgh”- , though, is worth more than the all the James Cameron style budgets in the world to his faithful and intelligent fans.

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