Q AND A THE WINGED SERPENT? A SHORT INTERVIEW WITH GENRE MASTER LARRY COHEN
In the world of independent filmmaking a lot of people get their break only to discover they have no followup game. Then there are people like Larry Cohen. He's made his name and stayed in the game as a writer director and producer for decades. Known mainly for his work on films like It's Alive (1974), and The Stuff (1985) Cohen has also worked the mainstream side of cinema serving as screenwriter on such hi-profile projects as Phone Booth (2002), and Cellular (2004). And in the early part of his career he worked extensively in television creating such hugely popular shows as The Defenders, Branded and The Invaders. Talking to him, however briefly , was a true thrill. Finding him to be articulate, funny, gracious and deeply thought out about his career was even better.
DAVE: I found out about your work primarily through TV. Do you find that's the case with a lot of folks?
LC: So many people find out about my work from TV. You discover that once you've made something it as a life of it's own you never know where it will end up or how long it will be around. Tens of thousands of movies get made around the world every year I'm grateful people remember and enjoy so much of my stuff.
DAVE: You were always known for being in controversial territory with your films. Is it surprising to see them on such a public mass medium?
LC: Of course until recently my stuff was always pretty heavily edited for TV but not so much anymore. I will say that I always cared about what my movies said. I wanted them to be more than just a monster jumping out of a closet and saying, "Boo!" I found you could get away with dealing with some very serious subjects just because a project was a science fiction or a fantasy vehicle. It's Alive had a lot of commentary about the AIDS epidemic when that was very hard to do in a movie.
And of course the movie had a lot of relevance to abortion as well. It's about a couple who have a child that is not a normal child and everyone wants to kill it. It was very relevant at the time and if you ask me it's even more relevant now. These days we talk about testing the unborn to determine if something is wrong with them. There's even talk about being able to test the unborn for genes that have criminals tendencies so that we can prevent the child from being born.
It's Alive also touched very heavily on the idea of father's rights.
DAVE: The Stuff was a dense mix of concerns as well. It seems the more serious the subject the funnier your films often were.
LC: Every time I see a commercial on TV where they spend more time talking about the side effects than the medicine I giggle and think about The Stuff. It used to be that all the commercials on TV were cigarette commercials. We took those off the TV and replaced them with commercials about medicine that will kill you! It's one addiction, one bad thing after another. Of course that doesn't even touch on the government stuff and whether or not we should put our trust in institutions.
My early work for TV was always social political stuff, look at The Defenders, but people who don't understand show business always use this term exploitation about it. Look, I get the difference between responsibility and irresponsibility but people pay money for a ticket because they want to see the picture. At the circus you put a banner out with a picture of the fat lady because it makes people come into the tent. Same thing with the movies. And my movies have lasted. Look at Bone (1972). That's probably the most controversial film I ever made. At the time it was unheard of to make a movie about racism. But making a movie, a comedy mind you, about it? That was a hard sell.
DAVE Even God Told Me To (1976) is pretty satirical though most viewers might not get it 'til a couple of viewings later. .
LC: Well it's great that you recognize that about that film. We get more requests for that than almost any movie I've done. The idea was that if an alien came down to earth what would be the easiest way to take us over? And of course the answer is that linking itself to the Christian faith would sway the largest number of people the quickest. It's not a dig at religion, it's a dig at the way people abuse power and blindly follow their leaders or believe whatever their told by other people.
DAVE: Any parting thoughts?
LC: You know I really love meeting my fans. I've been getting invited to so many retrospective screenings and it always amazes me the way the material has taken on a life of it's own and continues to spark dialogue. That's what I always wanted. That and to entertain people. So many people have stories about having the hell scared out of them, that sort of thing. They're so happy to meet me. It's a two way street.