“Let’s face it. Anybody will put up with anything if they think a movie’s being shot.” So says writer, producer, director and all-around cinematic legend Larry Cohen in the new documentary dedicated to his life and work, the appropriately titled King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen.
Screened downstairs at the Glasgow Film Theatre on the evening of Saturday 24th February while upstairs a major red carpet premiere took place, the crowd may have been smaller than that filling the main auditorium but they were no less devoted or entertained, with both Cohen and documentary director Steve Mitchell taking part in a post-screening Skype session with the audience.
Growing up in New York where the cinema became his second home, his tickets paid for with the money he earned carrying groceries, Cohen wanted to be a stand-up comedian before breaking into television as a writer with a 1958 adaptation of one of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels broadcast in the Kraft Theatre strand which led to further episodic commissions on such series as thriller The Fugitive and legal drama The Defenders.
Comfortably shifting between genres, in 1965 he created the Western series Branded which would run for two seasons starring Chuck Connors and in 1968 the science fiction drama The Invaders, the format substantially reworked by producer Quinn Martin before broadcast, one of the reasons Cohen began producing and directing himself in order to protect his work as a writer.
As well as featuring interviews with Cohen himself, relaxing at his home which has served as a location for several of his films and as his production offices, there are contributions from many of his peers, including The ‘Burbs‘ Joe Dante who comments on his “raw, realistic style” and Traci Lords relishing the “childish naughtiness” of his own films, while The Force Awakens‘ J J Abrams recalls a chance meeting with the director when he was fifteen years old.
Breaking into features in 1972 with the self-financed Bone, also known as Dial Rat, it was a commentary on race and gender which no distributor wanted and which struggled with audiences and critics but which star Yaphet Kotto says “kicked the door completely off the hinges” in terms of racial casting, and Cohen would continue to work in what became known as the “blaxploitation” genre with Black Caesar and its sequel Hell Up in Harlem, both starring Fred Williamson and Gloria Hendry.
His films deeply tied to his home city of New York, capturing the vibrancy of that metropolis in a way only a native can, Williamson laughs as he describes “the best guerrilla filmmaker in the business,” stealing footage with hidden cameras and filming the streets without permission, capturing the genuine reactions of passersby during staged shootings, and the recollections of his collaborators are both fond and illuminating.
Beyond his brash approach to subject and presentation, Cohen is a caring and supportive filmmaker, often casting veteran performers and crew who struggled to find work elsewhere, tiding them over when they needed cash; among those whom he worked with late in their careers were the composer Bernard Hermann, who scored 1974’s It’s Alive and with whom Cohen remained friends until his death, and Bette Davis, whose withdrawal from 1989’s Wicked Stepmother remains a disappointment for Cohen, as was the poor reception for 1976’s bizarre religious science fiction horror God Told Me To.
The enthusiasm displayed throughout King Cohen imparting a desire to track down these diverse works, the eighties brought what are likely his two biggest productions, Q – The Winged Serpent and The Stuff, the former featuring stop-motion animation to create the Mexican god Quetzalcoatl and the latter with extensive design work going into the titular product, both starring Michael Moriarty, an actor who appreciates the leeway he is given by Cohen when creating characters.
Despite not having directed in over a decade Cohen still writes every day, joking that a storyline he sold to NYPD Blue was turned down by Naked City decades before, and King Cohen is a joyful celebration of what Martin Scorsese calls “the renegade spirit” not only of the man and his work, but of the whole age of independent cinema which he embodies.