Documenting A King-Sized Career: An Interview With Director Steve Mitchell

I recently reviewed the new documentary about cult hero Larry Cohen and had a lot of fun with it. The director of this film, Steve Mitchell, was kind enough to take some questions from us about how this film came to be and his process making it. What follows is our conversation:

 

Crushed Celluloid: First of all, I'm a huge fan of Chopping Mall and was blown away that you were a writer on that film. How did you first discover Larry Cohen and what brought you to make this documentary?

Steve Mitchell: Thirty years later and I keep meeting fans of “Chopping Mall,” which is a very cool thing. When I had the original idea to make a fim about Larry, I was producing and directing DVD special features, and felt it might be time to do a documentary feature on my own. I knew Larry’s work, was a fan, and I felt that Roger Corman wasn’t the only “B” movie director that deserved some attention, so I set out to make the picture. Having an idea is easy, but making it happen is like climbing a mountain…an uphill struggle with every step. Especially getting the film financed, which is a struggle for most directors these days.
 

CC: How involved was Cohen in creating this film and how did you go about getting your interview subjects?

SM: I asked Larry if he was cool with my making a documentary about him, and he came on board. Simple as that.  The rest of our cast was assembled over a fair amount of time, and lots of requests. Larry was helpful with contact info. He persuaded Yaphet Kotto to talk with us, and he got J.J. Abrams to do our intro. Moriarty was tough to find, but when we did he was a delight and was happy to talk about Larry, who he adores. Other than this kind of help Larry left us alone to make our movie.

 

CC: What is your personal favorite Cohen film and what do you believe his favorite is?

SM: My fave is “Q the winged serpent.” Crazy nutty fun from start to finish, and it contains, I think, career best work, by Michael Moriarty. It is also one of the great New York movies, which is a thing for me, because NYC is my hometown. Larry’s favorite is “The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover.” At least, that is what he told me when filmed our interviews. I also know he likes “The Ambulance,”quite a bit.
 

CC: One of my favorite things about the film is that even though you do go into the production of his work, it seems to be just as much about Cohen as a person. Was this a conscious choice or something that formed organically though the interviews?

SM: It ultimately worked out to be “a conscious choice.” There was no script, per se, when my editor, Kai Thomasian, and I started to cut. I knew we were going to use Larry’s filmography as our spine.  I wrote a ton of questions for Larry to answer in our sessions, then on the spot came up with follow ups, so I had hours and hours of raw material to work with. As we started to cut it became obvious to us that what we were creating was a feature length portrait of a creative artist, not just a collection of anecdotes. So, each film, became a chapter of sorts. Every chapter tries to reveal something about who Larry is as a storyteller and filmmaker, which is fine, but we also wanted to show who Larry was/is as a person. There was a lot of trial and error along the way, but for me everything needed to “feel” right, and if that is “organic” as you say, then…okay, that works for me.
 

CC: Are there any great bits or stories that you had to cut for time or narrative flow that you wish had stayed in or anything you wish you could have dived deeper into/didn't get to mention?

SM: That is a tough question to answer, because there are so many more stories we did not use, mostly for time and pacing. When you cut a doc feature together, time, pace and rhythm determine what is chosen for the final cut. I have hours of unused footage, and a lot of great stories, some of which will appear on the Blu Ray release. Not sure what clips will be included at the moment. The movie could have run three hours…easily, or as Larry has suggested we should have made “King Cohen” a mini-series. He was only half kidding, by the way.

 

CC: My favorite guest you had in the film was Fred Williamson, who just seemed to refute anything Cohen said about working with him and had the air of, "Why aren't you making a doc about me?" What are some of your favorite moments from these interviews and who was your favorite to talk to?

SM: Fred is a real character. He and Larry have a lot in common, because he is a multi-hyphenate as well. He has opinions, and they are very entertaining. Fred deserves his own doc, and I would love to make it. Picking favorite moments at this point is impossible considering I had over thirty, maybe forty hours of interview footage.  A favorite interview…? That’s like asking a father who his favorite kid is, which is a bit unfair to the rest of the kids, so I’ll pass on that. Larry, of course, was a revelation. I don’t think I was quite prepared for how funny he was and is.
 

CC: If Cohen had the opportunity to write/direct/produce another movie in his way in 2018, what sort of film do you think he would want to make or would you like to see him do and how do you think his style of filmmaking would work/play today?

SM: In some ways, Blumhouse is making Larry Cohen movies. “Get Out” in almost every way could have been a Larry Cohen movie. It is original, funny, and has something to say, all served up with genre ideas and flavors. In terms of Larry’s style, his more recent style, with films like “Pick Me Up,” and “The Ambulance,” I think Larry would fit right in. I suspect he would lean towards a thriller, but all of his films have multiple genre elements, so, maybe, a thrilling horror film? I truly hope KING COHEN helps to put Larry back in the director’s chair. I know he has many unproduced scripts to pick from, so who knows.
 

CC: The film ends with Cohen stating there's too much for just one film and I have to agree. Was that just a cute way to end the picture of do you think there's a possibility of a follow-up?

SM: Well, first and foremost it is a funny way to end the fim. Giving the audience a laugh to finish up any film is always a good thing. Also, it is always better to leave an audience wanting more I think. One of our producers said to me, that she…”didn’t want it to end,”which is a very gratifying compliment, and it tells me we made the right choices with our film. Okay, that said…who knows?

 

CC: Thank you so much for taking the time to field some questions for us. Best of luck to you with the documentary!

 

 

June 16th, 2018