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Low Budget Legends

Larry Cohen Interview Part 3

We were lucky enough to speak with Larry Cohen recently for Low Budget Legends. Larry is not just a low budget legend. He is just a legend — period. He is the director is such moveis as Bone, Black Caesar, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, Full Moon High, and A Return To Salem’s Lot.

Enjoy!

13BIT:

Yeah, definitely yeah– Who are some of you favorite low-budget filmmakers– from the past or the present? Do you have any inspirations?

LARRY C.:

Oh, I– I mean, I like Don Siegel and– who made a lot of low-budget pictures early in his career and– and Sam Fuller– who made–

13BIT:

13Bit loves Sam Fuller.

LARRY C.:

Yeah. He made a lot of low-budget films. He was a very good friend of mine, and I actually directed him in an acting part in my movie, Return to Salem’s Lot. So we spent a lot of time together. And– and he was a delightful fella. And I like those kind of pictures when I was a kid growing up. And– so I– you know, I gravitated towards making those kind of pictures, which is– genre films, they call ’em.

13BIT:

Do you have any favorites among your movies, favorite children?

LARRY C.:

Oh, that’s like asking me, “What’s your favorite child is,” you know, (LAUGHTER) you– it’s something about every picture that you like, whether it was– whether it’s the picture or whether it’s the experience you had making the film. Sometimes the worst pictures were the ones you had the most fun making or that you made– relationships with people– on. And– you know, it might have been– the picture may not have worked out to be the best one but has a place in your heart because of the people that were involved.

And– so, you know, it’s– I can’t pick– that– of all of them I suppose The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover would be my favorite because everybody said, “Oh, you can’t make a movie about the FBI. You’ll get into terrible trouble and– you’ll get blacklisted or something. And– you can’t do it.” So as soon as I heard, “You can’t do it,” then I wanted to do it of course.

13BIT:

Yeah. That– that– that’s alwaysthe biggest– impetus to making something– people saying, “You can’t do it.” Oh—one more question, how much do you think it should cost to make a film?

LARRY C.:

Oh– that’s– that’s a very odd question. It has– depends on what kind of picture you’re making. I mean, if you’re making a picture with costumes and horses and battle scenes and stuff, you know, of course it’s a whole different story than if you’re making– a film about– a robbery or you’re making a film about a romance, or you’re making a film about family. I mean, there’s– there’s no comparison– of– in– in what’s required. So–

13BIT:

So, like, a big-action flick–

LARRY C.:

Yeah. I– I mean, there’s all kinds of– fantastic films with tremendous production values. Sometimes they’re not very good pictures. But the production values are– are– are fantastic, and the CGI effects are fantastic. And you– you go to see these films and you say, “Gee, they spent so much effort– production wise on the picture, it’s too bad they didn’t have a better script– and– and better characters, and better dialogue.”

And– the– the cheapest– the cheaper things are the script and the concept of the picture, everything that’s done on paper before you start the shoot. If the basic blueprint of the film isn’t good, if you haven’t got a good script and a good– and good characters, and good dialogue, then all the production values in the world is not gonna make the picture good– a success. You can’t sell a picture only on special effects and– without having– a strong underpinning of– of story and– and– and– and screenplay. So– a screenplay is like– the architectural designs for a building. You can’t build the building unless you have the designs. If you just try to put the building together haphazardly– it may look good for a while. But then it’ll collapse.

13BIT:

I was curious. Before you– you said– $50 million for midrange films these days–

LARRY C.:

Yeah. That’s what they say it is.

13BIT:

Yeah. Why do you think it’s– what– what– why do you think it costs so much? If it’s not an action–

LARRY C.:

Even– even an average picture ends up costing $50 million, probably the actors get inflated salaries and– and the studio overhead is very high. And– and– in general the– you know– people– people are just used to spending that kind of money. Once they get used to spending that kind of money that’s what it is. The water reaches its own levels.

You– and pretty soon everybody wants to spend $50 million to make a picture, and $100 million to make– a spectacle or– or now $200 million to make a spectacle. So it’s– you know, it’s an immense of investment and a tremendous responsibility. And– as I say– they spend the money somehow on the on the wrong end of the of the picture.

You know? The the basic material, the basic story and characters are– are the most important thing. And if you don’t have ’em all the special effects and CGI in the world doesn’t turn it into a good film. So there are a lot of these pictures you see that are very, very, very spectacular and well photographed. But you say, “Why did they go to all this trouble to make this terrible story?”

13BIT:

Yeah. (LAUGHTER) Right! A lot of times in spectacles you see a lot of things blowing up and you’re like– you know, it’s like eating– like cotton candy or something.

LARRY C.:

Yeah. I mean, you know, kids– the truth of the matter is kids like to see it and they do– better in foreign markets– in Asia and in– Europe, and all the– the– I guess, the story doesn’t mean that much to ’em. They just wanna see all the special effects (LAUGHTER) and all these comic book movies– are just one after the other. Every– every time you pick up the trade paper somebody else is doing another comic character. So, I mean, it’s– it’s– it’s getting to be quite tiresome. There’s been enough superheroes already.

13BIT:

You know, you bring up an interesting point. You talk about genre movies and Sam Fuller, who’s one of our heroes. And it– it’s– it seems like there’s no equivalent to the old days when there used to be all these B films, and Hollywood, you know, had– you know– a lot going on with, lower-level films. But they were still good films. I mean, I used to love what they could– you know, film noir. It just seems like that’s not done anymore.

LARRY C.:

Well, there are– you know– Tarantino-esque movies that are similar to what Sam Fuller did. They are people imitating Quentin Tarantino and doing crime movie, and robbery movies, and caper movies and stuff like that. But, you don’t. You don’t see that many of these low-budget cine-noir-type pictures.

Because, in all honesty, when– when Sam Fuller and– and– and Don Siegel and people were making their pictures originally, they were double features, played as double features in theatres and– there was always the main feature, which was a big-budget film, and then there was a low-budget feature that played as the second film. And that was the place where Sam Fuller’s pictures played. They were– they were on the lower half of the double bill.

And then later on– you know, he as he got a bit of a reputation his– his pictures became the top picture on the double bill, but not really important releases. They didn’t– they didn’t spend a lot of money advertising and promotin’ those pictures. They– they came out. They– they had their– their little audience that took ’em to heart. And– became a kind of a cult success. I don’t think those filmmakers made a lot of money in their day. Don Siegel went on later on to direct a lot of Clint Eastwood pictures. So, he moved on to the A quality films.

13BIT:

Right. I was thinking of the old days with RKO, where they had sort of, like, a back lot and they just always had little groups making, you know, lower level– but I guess– LARRY C.:

There was– a second– a B unit–

13BIT:

A B unit–

LARRY C.:

–which made nothing but B pictures, and those pictures were designed to be in the lower half of a double bill. So when they played the double feature– that was the second feature. And usually they ran about an hour. They were very short. So– I mean, a lot of people got their training making those kind of pictures, people like Robert Wise, they got their start in the B units and then they moved on to A pictures. But, that isn’t done anymore. What you have today is you have television. So a lot of directors develop their talents in television and then move on to features.

13BIT:

Well, I guess that’s it. Any thoughts on the future of low-budget filmmaking? I guess, now with video and YouTube and whatever–

LARRY C.:

Well, people who wanna make movies would still make movies, that’s the way it is, like– like people who wanna write books, they will write books. They– you know, people who want to play the piano, they’ll play the piano. If you have something that you have a passion to do, whether it’s ballet, or music, or screenwriting, or filmmaking, you’ll do it.

If the compulsion is strong enough and if your desires are– you know, are– are focused and strong enough you’re gonna do what you wanna do. There’ll always be people who will be on– who have an artistic goal and an artistic dream that they’ll pursue. Most people will abandon their– their– their hopes and dreams. But that’s the way it’s always been. You have to have a resilience and immunity to disappointment because for all the successes you may have in the business there are gonna be a lot of setbacks and a lot of disappointments, a lot of projects that are gonna get turned down. And then years pass and then somebody finally goes ahead and makes the picture for you.

You know? So I’ve had many, many experiences for scripts that were around for six, seven years. And finally we finally sold them and got them produced and got them made, despite the fact that they’ve been rejected for a long time. And so– and never give up on a project. Just keep going and keep having faith. And– that’s the way you have to be. And I’ve been doing this for a long time. So I know that– you just have to persevere.

13BIT:

And I– well, that’s what– that’s what we’re doing here, I I think that’s– what a lot of people are doing hopefully.

Well, we can’t thank you enough. We really appreciate it.

LARRY C.:

Okay, and thanks for the call. And– enjoy it, and I hope I’ve been helpful in some way.

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