Fantasia 2017 Interview: Steve Mitchell on Fighting to Make KING COHEN
[Photo of King Cohen's world premiere at Fantasia by King-Wei Chu. L-R: Mitch Davis, Larry Cohen, Steve Mitchell, Michael Moriarty]
While attending Fantasia's 2017 season, I was able to catch the hilarious doc King Cohen --- an informative and entertaining look into Larry Cohen's life and work. (Don't forget to check out the trailer below!) There are lots of Cohen's friends and collegues in the doc, such as: Martin Scorcese, John Landis, Fred Williamson, Joe Dante, Mick Garris, and many more.
Directed by Steve Mitchell (yes, the writer of Chopping Mall!), King Cohen's world premiere not only hosted the director, but Larry Cohen himself, as well as his usual onscreen right-hand man, Michael Moriarty. The venerable actor presented Cohen with the festival's Lifetime Achievement award, which is always a treat to see. I was able to chat with Mitchell about the doc in Montreal.
How did this project come about?
I was looking for something to do. I was producing DVD special features and I had to do my own project. I’d been thinking about Larry Cohen; I was a fan of his. I knew about his features and a lot of his television work, but I didn’t know about the breadth of his career. On IMDB, I saw far more credits than I had any idea he had. He went in and out of mainstream television while doing his pictures, and I don’t think anyone had ever really done that. Back in the day, you were a TV guy or a feature guy. TV was considered a poor stepson to features. But Larry didn’t seem to care. He floated back and forth between features and television somewhat effortlessly. He amassed an enormous amount of credentials, which impressed me.
I started looking into rights and costs of clips, playing with the idea of a feature documentary. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for the project was not met with the same enthusiasm from financiers. The project went on the back burner for a little bit, then I tried crowdfunding, which I’m fantastically terrible at. There’s a certain skill set that goes along with crowdfunding, and whatever that skill set is, I don’t have it. That was false start number two.
Socially, I got to know Matt Verboys, the co-owner of La-La Land Records a film soundtrack label. We’re both fans of the genre, and in fact, when we met, he asked: “are you the same Steve Mitchell that wrote Chopping Mall?” We became fast friends. He’d mentioned at one point he was trying to do other projects and expand La-La Land in some way. That was in the back of my head for a few months, and one day I called him up and we had lunch. I said, “I want to do a doc about Larry Cohen.” His response was: “I’m already interested.” By the time lunch was officially done, he’d said the magic words: “I don’t know how we’re gonna do it, but we’re gonna do it.” Here we are a couple of years later. It’s been quite the adventure.
It’s amazing how you can be told “no” for years, but all you need is that one “yes.”
I know. I’d done documentary featurettes, so I knew how to go about it. Strangely enough, you have to have blind faith when you do this sort of thing. Once Larry came aboard, things started rolling. I had access to lots of his personal archives — stills, etc. I knew if I could get all the components — interviews and images to cut away to — somehow I knew we could figure it out. And that’s what we did.
A documentary always has tons of footage. It must have been challenging to whittle it down. How did you chose what to cut and keep?
It’s sort of an impossible question to answer. With Larry alone, we had somewhere between fifteen and twenty hours. Let him start talking and he’s off to the races. The first day we sat down with him and set up the light… we could have left him there talking and gone out to lunch for two or three hours! He’s a raconteur and has lots of opinions.
On average, we had 40 minutes to an hour with everyone else. We talked to Moriarty for about an hour and a half. There were moments where I’d be sitting with my editor and we’d look at each other like we were in a life raft. Which way do we paddle?
With documentaries, there are no scripts. You find the movie in the editing room. I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but there’s a lot of throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. Thankfully we can edit digitally, and if it doesn’t work, it’s no big deal. I think about when people used to cut 16mm using razor blades. My God, how did they do it?
Were there any really wild stories that didn’t make the cut?
Yes. But they were a little too long. Those will be deleted scenes on the blu-ray — there will be at LEAST an hour, maybe two hours’ worth of material. There’s just so much stuff.
The guiding principle that I had was that Larry is an artist, a comedian, a writer, and dare I say, a rebel. I didn’t want to put together just a bunch of anecdotes, I wanted to create a story around each movie, which sort of represented an aspect of Larry’s character that ultimately adds up to a portrait of him as a creative bull in a china shop. It wasn’t just about the good stories, but about him as a filmmaker and human being. As for good stories, I got plenty of stuff, trust me.
I imagine you got to know Larry well; what would you like people to know about him that might not be in the documentary?
I think the answer is yes, but I can’t think of anything specific. Larry is very outgoing — a storyteller and entertainer. The most interesting thing to me is that he originally wanted to be a stand-up comedian, and there’s still a LOT of that in him today.
There are other things about him that I don’t know; I think he plays some things very close to the vest. He’s a complex character. If I did my job right as a filmmaker, that comes across. Complex characters are always very interesting to the audience — they’re the most special effects of all. I was lucky. I had NO IDEA that he was going to be this interesting! He’s blunt, determined, and relentless. I didn’t know he was the Energizer Bunny! He just keeps going and doesn’t have to — he could have retired ten years ago, and I admire that.
How did you feel about the crowd reaction at Fantasia? I imagine you’ll come back with more projects if you can!
The Cohens, Michael Moriarty, and I were all very happy. It’s the beginning of our festival run. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, that’s for sure. I was sort of terrified, I don’t know if that came across in my onstage introduction. It was a weekend of firsts for me; first time in Montreal, at Fantasia, and my first real film festival. This was our first audience.
I was confidence that the audience would like it, and my confidence was rewarded when the audience laughed in all the right spots. It was almost an out-of-body experience. I couldn’t quite believe we were there; it was a big deal for me and my partners, for Larry and his wife. I sat behind Michael Moriarty, and about thirty minutes into the film, he turned to me and said, “it’s wonderful.” That was very gratifying. The whole experience was great and I’ll never forget it. I’d love to come back to Fantasia.
Although you’ve just had your world premiere of King Cohen, you probably have other projects on the horizon. Is there anything you can discuss?
There is, but I can’t discuss it yet. I’m also superstitious; until it’s a “go,” it’s not a go. I’m having a meeting soon about another potential entertainment biography documentary. I want to start the next one, but I can’t until this one has been out and about.
You know, nobody wants to take a leap of faith in a project, and I will always be eternally grateful to my partners for taking that leap. They knew some of my DVD stuff, but that didn’t mean I could make a feature. I knew I could do it. But getting to a position where you have your work speak for yourself is a great place to be. Prior to that, I believed I could do it, but nobody else did.
Being a filmmaker is always an uphill battle. You’re always trying to convince people you can do what you say you can do. One of my best friends, a film journalist, asked me if I thought anybody really cared about a Larry Cohen documentary. I said, “I couldn’t speak for that, but I think it would make a good movie.” Now of course he thinks it’s fantastic and that he always knew I could do it. (laughs) You’re always trying to validate yourself and navigating the nightmare of getting financed.
On the bright side today with Netflix, there’s a marketplace for documentaries. They’re becoming a sort of business. The timing was good for me, as I stepped backwards into this.
Perhaps docs on other filmmakers? Or Fred Williamson, who’s hilarious in the doc?
Fred is a hilarious guy in general. The simple answer is yes, and at some point, we may have talked about that. I have ideas for five or six people or topics, and I enjoyed doing King Cohen a lot. It was a great experience. My partner is incredibly enthusiastic and positive. That kind of support doesn’t grow on trees, especially in Hollywood these days. It’s all about the money.
But I really enjoyed doing this, even though it took much longer than I wanted it to. Independent movies like ours have to go through the whole festival process — applying, waiting, acceptance, then going. It adds a tremendous amount of time to the life of the movie, but it’s very gratifying.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about or share?
To anyone reading this, remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Tell a story with interesting characters. You never know where your project is going to go, or what kind of staying power your project will have. I had no idea when writing Chopping Mall that it was going to be a cult classic. Don’t give up. Keep fighting.