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411 Talks w/Director Steve Mitchell About New Documentary King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen

June 8, 2017 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz

The 411 Interview: Steve Mitchell, director of King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen

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Steve Mitchell is a writer and director who started his Hollywood career with the screenplay to the great low budget sci-fi action horror flick Chopping Mall, which came out in 1986. Since then Mitchell has worked in animation, writing episodes of G.I. Joe and Jem, and on TV shows like Pacific Blue and Viper. Mitchell has also dabbled in directing, producing DVD documentary extras for movies like Chopping Mall, Never Say Never Again, and Casino Royale. Mitchell’s first feature length effort, King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen, is a documentary on the legendary maverick writer-director Larry Cohen, the man who wrote the screenplays to, among others, the Maniac Cop trilogy, I, the Jury, and Phone Booth, and directed The Stuff, Q: The Winged Serpent, the It’s Alive trilogy, and many more. Mitchell recently took time out of his busy schedule to speak with this writer about the making of King Cohen, its subject, documentaries, and more.

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Bryan Kristopowitz: How long did it take to get King Cohen made?

Steve Mitchell: In terms of the actual filmmaking, it took us around two years. When you make a documentary like ours, you ask for interviews and sometimes we had to wait for weeks, and sometimes, months to get a subject to sit and be interviewed, which stretches things out. There was no script so the interviews create the narrative, which takes time, especially when you cut a sequence, then trash it and start over again. Trial and error…squared. Then comes the festival process which adds a lot of time to the experience. Making a documentary is more of a marathon than a sprint.

BK: How was King Cohen funded?

SM: My partners, Matt Verboys and Dan McKeon, started the ball rolling, and then they found individual investors. Bless them all for taking a leap of faith on me and the project. I would not be talking with you now without their tremendous support.

BK: How did Larry Cohen react when you told him you wanted to make a documentary about him?

SM: It all started with a phone call. I got his number from a friend, and my initial plan was to finance the picture through crowd funding which was a huge failure. There is a special skill set to crowd funding which I do not possess. Before I could start that process I needed to know if Larry was even interested in my telling his story. I called, and he answered the phone. I explained what I wanted to do, and he invited me up to his house – which is seen in all his LARCO productions in one way or another – and he gave me a cup of coffee and a couple of cookies. I told him I wanted to celebrate his career, and he was all for it. He told us he would help in any way, once we got financed. He did and then some. Thank the movie gods he never threw anything away… his “archives” were invaluable!

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BK: King Cohen features interviews with people who have worked with Cohen on his movies and some of his admirers, like Martin Scorsese. Who was the hardest interview to get? Who was the easiest?

SM: None of the folks we ultimately connected with and interviewed were “tough” gets. It just takes time to marry schedules and locations. For example, we travelled to Vancouver to interview Michael Moriarty, and that worked like a charm once we were able to figure a time and best place to shoot the interview. As an aside, we had spent a delightful day with Michael and his wife. They were charming and gracious people and we can’t thank them enough for their time.

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BK: Was there anyone you wanted to interview for the documentary but, for whatever reason, you just couldn’t?

SM: To name a few…Tony LoBianco, Sharon Farrell, Bill Lustig, and sadly, David Carradine, who passed before we got started. He and Larry were old friends. When you make a film like this there is always someone else you want to talk to, but the movie ultimately needs to get made. I’m very pleased with the “cast.” They were all generous with their time, and we can’t thank them enough.

BK: How difficult was it to get the rights to the various film clips that are shown in the movie?

SM: Not that difficult because we took advantage of the fair use laws that exist, which helped us enormously. Our picture could not have been made otherwise. We had one of the top fair use law firms in town guide us through the process.

BK: What’s the difference, if any, between making a short documentary for a DVD, like you did for Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall, as opposed to making a feature length documentary like King Cohen ?

SM: TIME! When I produced and directed DVD/Blu Ray special features I had a certain budget and deadline. It is work for hire, and the work needs to be finished to meet the schedule of the folks who write the checks. With King Cohen, we had no formal deadline, and the mandate was to make the best version of Larry’s story. You only get one chance to make a first impression with a feature, so we all put in the days, weeks, and months, to tell Larry’s story the best movie we could. We had hours and hours – especially with Larry — of interview footage to choose from. Way more than I had on my various BD and DVD projects from the past. Also, there was a lot of throwing stuff against the wall to see if it worked…sometimes it didn’t, which made the editing process take as long as it did.

BK: What kind of release is King Cohen expected to get?

SM: Simple answer is we don’t know…yet. Streaming, cable, Blu Ray release are most likely with some possible theatrical, but all of this will be determined by the reception we get at the festivals. No distribution or acquisition deals are in place yet, which is not a bad thing. Right now we have interest brewing and lots of potential options.

BK: Why is it hard for documentaries to get major theatrical releases? It seems like most documentaries get small theatrical releases, if any, and then head exclusively to home video or television, unless they’re headed by someone like Michael Moore who has a strong, built in following. Do you think audiences are just used to documentaries at home or is Hollywood just clueless about marketing documentaries to the masses?

SM: Boy, that is hard to answer, but I’ll put in my two cents. Documentaries are not big business and don’t merit the big marketing bucks. The good news is that audiences are finding documentary storytelling to be interesting, which is making “docs” more viable than ever. There are a ton of “docs” being seen because of streaming, and production companies are now financing, acquiring, and supporting more docs than ever before. I hear HULU is creating, or has created a documentary channel…a good thing especially for guys like me. I do agree with you that most documentaries are watched at home on big screen TV’s, and that is probably how most films will be seen, but at least they are being watched. Hollywood isn’t clueless. They just want to make the bucks and even great documentary films do not usually do boffo at the B.O. This could, I hope, change over the next few years. Good storytelling and great characters, even in a non-fiction context, seem to be finding an audience these days.

BK: Do you think Larry Cohen gets the respect he deserves in Hollywood, both as a director and as a screenwriter?

SM: Well, he does at my house. I think any one in or out of the business, who knows most of his credits, have to respect his tenacity, creativity, and just the sheer out-put over the years…hell, decades! I was surprised by all the projects I did not know, quite frankly, and I’m a credits junkie. I can’t speak for the rest of Hollywood, but I hope they do. He has carved out a career for himself which is impressive, especially these days. Just getting in to the biz does not guarantee a career. Also, anyone who knows Larry’s films and scripts, knows that he has a unique voice, and he really earns that single card credit… “A Larry Cohen film.”

BK: What do you hope viewers take away from King Cohen after they’ve watched it?

SM: First and foremost that Larry is just an incredible character. There is no one like him, and I wanted to celebrate that. The other take-away is that movies are not as original, and as spontaneous as they used to be. So much is riding on every movie today. It really is life and death, no matter what the budget is, whether you spend two hundred thousand or two hundred million, careers and lives are at high risk. When Larry and his contemporaries made movies they were a combination of audacious ideas, and confidant bluster which yielded some classic films, and more often than not…worthy misfires. I miss those times. I wish movies were allowed to be movies and not corporate decisions made by marketing execs.

BK: What is your favorite Larry Cohen movie?

SM: Has to be “Q: The Winged Serpent. Everything clicked for me on that one, BUT…I am a big fan of The Ambulance. A great idea, and just nutty fun from frame one to frame last.

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Once again, I want to thank Steve Mitchell for participating in this interview and david j. moore for helping set it up.

You can check out the King Cohen website here

King Cohen’s Twitter page

All images courtesy of Steve Mitchell