The B-movie legend explains why special effects aren’t enough
Larry Cohen started out writing crime TV shows in the 1960s, but became famous as the writer/director of some of most memorable cult films of the '70s and '80s: the fiend-baby horror It’s Alive, cryptic thriller God Told Me To, Aztec-inspired monster movie Q, and satirical sci-fi The Stuff – the latter of which is screening at Monster Fest. He’s also written subversive screenplays for films like 1988’s Maniac Cop and 2002’s Phone Booth. We chatted to Cohen about what he’s learned over decades of working with low budgets and big concepts.
Larry, your films have three of our favourite titles in cinema history: It’s Alive, God Told Me To, and The Stuff.
I hope the pictures live up to the titles!
Do you come up with names early or late in your creative process?
They all came to me before I started writing. It’s Alive is from the famous phrase in Frankenstein. And The Stuff was the name of the product [in the film], so I had to know that before I started. God Told Me To was a movie of many titles. Roger Corman – who distributed the picture in the United States, but had nothing to do with the making of it – decided he didn’t like the name. He wanted to change it. So we had a meeting and I suggested we call it Alien. He said “You can’t call a picture Alien, because everyone will think it’s about illegal immigrants trying to cross the border!” I said “But Alien is a fantastic title for a movie, and someday someone will use it.” We ended up calling it Demon, which is kind of alien spelled sideways, and somebody else came along with Alien not long after that...
You once said a movie has to have “some kind of personal statement”, otherwise there’s no point making it. How do you balance that need with the commercial expectations on your films?
All my films have some kind of statement about something – but I have to coat it with entertainment to make it palatable. Otherwise it becomes a polemic, and people don’t want to see it. If you’re trying to get a message out to people, you’ve got to entertain them at the same time. In the case of The Stuff, I tried to make it funny as well as scary. God Told Me To and It’s Alive are more traditionally scary movies. There’s very little humour in them. A little bit in It’s Alive, but mostly straight suspense.
And character, too. Most of my films have a lot of character development and exploration, whereas in most horror movies the characters are just cardboard. Usually a bunch of teenagers getting slaughtered. It used to be, in the old ones, it was some gorgeous dame with big breasts who came out and said she was a nuclear physicist, and you were supposed to believe this, of course. I couldn’t make pictures like that. I like movies where the characters are as important as the monsters – as in Q, where the leading man is really the star and the monster’s a supporting player.
Do you think your focus on character might come from the fact you started out in TV?
That may be true. I think even today the most interesting writing is being done for cable. Movies, particularly the big hit movies, are all just special effects. But on television, the writers are in control of the shows, and they control the scripts. In movies, the director controls the script. In most cases – myself excepted, of course – it’s directors who screw the pictures up. When they come in, they’ve got to change the script to prove it’s ‘their movie’ and not anybody else’s. They bring another writer in, monkey around with the material, just to prove it. It’s because of the possessive credit. You know: ‘A Sam Jones Film’. So Sam Jones has to be in control of every aspect of it. That’s why the movies are usually all screwed up. But, you know, they do business, because there’s a whole audience that just likes to see explosions and people flying around.
It’s interesting you say that – because since the '90s you’ve mostly focused on screenwriting for others, rather than directing your own work.
Well, I did plenty of them, but I got to a point where I could write more than I could possibly direct. I didn’t have the time, so I sold them. And I certainly enjoyed the money and the productivity. In some cases, like Phone Booth and Cellular, I thought the pictures turned out pretty good. And some, like Captivity, were disasters. Really awful. You get lucky sometimes, and sometimes you don’t.
Can you easily divorce yourself from a script once you’ve sold it? Or do you worry about how it’ll turn out?
By the time they’re being made I’ve usually written two or three more scripts, and I’m too busy writing another one to second-guess anybody else. I go on set once in a while. On Phone Booth, I went on set and made some suggestions. I asked them to change the actor who was playing the sniper. [Director] Joel Schumacher got rid of him and brought in Kiefer Sutherland – who really made the picture work. The other actor, unfortunately, was not good. I was so unhappy at first that my wife said "You've got to get off the set. You're making faces."
If there was one lesson you could impart to a young filmmaker who wanted to follow in your footsteps, what would it be?
Don’t start unless you have a really good script. And make sure it’s completed. You’ve got to know where the picture’s going. You can’t leave it up to providence that you’ll think of something to make it work. You’ve got to have it all down before you start.
But is any script truly ‘completed’ before you begin?
You discover things as you’re going along, but you’ve got to have the foundation. You can’t start building until you have the architectural plan. You can’t change the plans halfway through because the building will collapse. That’s what people don’t realise. When everybody monkeys around with something, they really weaken the structure – and then whole thing is in danger of falling apart. And I would always advise young filmmakers to shoot the ending of the picture very early on, in the first week or so. Shoot it while you’ve got the money and the time. Usually they’ll leave the ending until last, and by the time they get to it, they’ll have to scramble and make compromises.
The ending is really the most important part of the movie. If the first hour and 20 minutes is terrific and the last ten minutes stinks, everybody walks out of the theatre and says: “That was a lousy movie!” You only get credit for how people feel when the picture’s over. You’ve got to save your money and your time for the ending, and shoot it early when everyone’s still got a lot of energy. Then you know you’ve got your ending. It’s a great thing to know it’s in the can. Finished. The end of the voyage has been accomplished, and now you can just move along towards it.
Monster Fest presents The Stuff and Maniac Cop on November 2.