This week, Arrow Video released Larry Cohen’s The Stuff on Blu Ray. To mark the occasion, here’s an excerpt from the zine Physical Impossibility #1: The Films of Larry Cohen, featuring my exclusive interview with the man himself.
“The big studio films are like concert orchestras, philharmonics, and my movies are like jazz combos.” Larry Cohen
Upstate New Jersey, 1985. A refinery worker finds an odd white substance bubbling out of the ground. Inexplicably, he paws some into his mouth…and finds it delicious. Packaged and sold as a dessert, The Stuff is soon taking the nation by storm and the fat cats of Big Confectionary don’t like the new competition one bit. They hire oddball industrial saboteur David ‘Mo’ Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) to uncover The Stuff’s secret formula and protect their profits. Meanwhile, young Jason (Scott Bloom) is repulsed by his family’s addiction to the Stuff. After all, he’s seen it moving.
After Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), Larry Cohen directed two films back-to-back, Special Effects (1984) and Perfect Strangers (1984). Cohen, aware of the second life DVD has afforded some of his lesser-known works says, “I recommend anybody who’s interested to see those pictures.” Anyone could be forgiven, however, for first skipping on to arguably his finest film and a genuine absurdist masterpiece, The Stuff.
A satire on commercialism, The Stuff is also an unpredictable, free-wheeling fever dream of a movie which takes so many left turns it’s dizzying. “I don’t follow any rules and regulations about placement of scenes or arcs or anything else,” Cohen offers. “All the stuff that they teach you in writing class and all the stuff in screenwriting books, I don’t pay any attention to any of that. The people teaching writing classes have never sold a script.”
The kind of sparkling, strange moments of performance (Michael Moriarty acts less like he’s ‘in on the joke’ than he’s wondered with casual agency into someone else’s dream), staging and sheer filmmaking audacity that make curate’s eggs of many a B-movie are pretty much the substance of the entire film. Cohen here was firing on all cylinders doing what he does best – giving free reign to his imagination with an intriguing premise then supporting and encouraging his star performer to improvise freely, and all the while wringing his budget for all its worth. It’s jazz filmmaking, as Cohen explains. “We improvise as we go along, we change based on what happens to us while we’re making the movie, we incorporate things into the movie that happen to us.”
“At the beginning of The Stuff, we got to our location to shoot and a terrible snowstorm came. It was unseasonable but this huge blizzard came and everybody said, ‘Oh, now you have to go home,’ and I said, ‘Oh, no, we’ll shoot the scene in this snowstorm and I’ll write the snowstorm into it.’ And so that’s what I did. And it made a beautiful scene, beautiful production value. Of course, all the lights weren’t rigged for a snowstorm so they were exploding all over the place. But fortunately, nobody got electrocuted and we got the scene.”
The Stuff is also one of those strange films you stumble across 25 years after the fact and marvel at the audacity of what you’re watching. Pre-CGI, the low-budget practical effects are surprisingly effective – ambitious, charming and tactile – everything that modern horror or sci-fi generally isn’t. When it works best (the motel room sequence when Mo is attacked by his Stuff-filled pillow – seriously – which then engulfs the entire room, scaling the walls, before being killed with fire), the impact of the technical wizardry is enhanced by the growing sense that filming it couldn’t possibly have been safe.
“Oh, the flaming room?” Cohen recalls, “We did the same thing there that Fred Astaire did in Royal Wedding, where he danced on the ceiling.” The set was built in a room that could be rotated from the outside, with the camera locked in place inside. Therefore, when the set was spun, the camera turned with the room, capturing the seemingly gravity-defying effect of the Stuff emerging from under the bed, climbing the walls and carrying Moriarty with it. “And we wanted it to catch fire too, so that’s something Fred Astaire didn’t have to worry about, was fire.”
“The guys that built it, they had guys on both sides of it, clinging to the outside of the room and they would jump up and down and jump up and down and jump up and try to keep hold of the goddamn thing because it was turned on its side and then the force of their weight and the gravity of it turned the thing upside down. There were people clinging to the outside of it and on the inside, it was on fire! Nobody got hurt, thank god, and we got the scene, but it was quite a show to watch it in progress.”
Physical Impossibility #1: The Films of Larry Cohen is sold out at the source, although copies may be available from our international stockists (check details here).
The Stuff Blu Ray, which I can heartily recommend, is in shops now, or you can buy direct from Arrow here.
Hello! Just a quick update with the full run-down of my contributions to the Glasgow Film Festival website, in my fourth year as official GFF blogger. First, the picks of the programme which, while a little out-of-date by now, are still incredibly readable and fascinating in themselves:
Then there are the short questionnaires I gave to some key GFF staff members, asking about how they came to GFF, their favourite GFF memories and what the future might hold:
Then interviews with two directors whose work featured in the Crossing The Line strand, “where visual art and cinema combine,” programmed by the wonderful Carolyn Mills:
And finally, the main feature – eight diaries covering 11 days of film watching, event attending, frantic writing and a reasonable amount of standing in queues. There are reviews, recounting of Q&As and blow-by-blows of special events and performances:
During the festival, I launched the second issue of my movie zine, Physical Impossibility, at Saramago. (I also managed to stuff one into the hands of Mark Cousins at the festival closing party.) Read more about the zine here, and find out how to pick up a copy here. These photos of the launch were taken quite early on in the evening:
Thanks again to GFF for having me, to all the venue staff and volunteers, the Sunday Herald for having me on their Everyone’s A Critic panel and to Tommy McCormick for being a pacemaker par excellence and for generally keeping GFT in business.
p.s. I’d also like to recommend you check out the contributions of my fellow GFF blogger, the extraordinary Chris Buckle:
“I enjoyed writing it because I knew on every level that it was never going to get made… It’s what’s called a popcorn dropper.”
Nick Cave on his script for Gladiator 2
There’s a Hollywood adage that “no-one sets out to make a bad movie,” and while Uwe Boll has done his best to turn the balance of probability in favour of all other filmmakers, all-too-often that’s the end result. For every truly great film there are approximately 15 million that don’t quite measure up. And for every 15 million that don’t measure up, there are roughly 60 bazillion scripts that don’t make it past the first draft. In a seemingly endless sea of sequels, prequels, reboots and reimaginings, we should probably be glad some never make it to second draft, let alone cinemas. Others, though, seem to be tragic missed opportunities, just too weird to live, and in their unrealised states they’re the Schrödinger’s cats of cinema.
The stories of these projects, and in some cases the wide availability of their scripts, generate a level of interest in direct proportion to their unlikeliness. Sometimes too weird to live is simply too good to be true, as with the story of Orson Welles’ Batman, which teased an abandoned script and pre-production photographs but turned out to be just a persuasive hoax by Kick Ass creator Mark Millar. That’s not to say there’s any shortage of vaguely unbelievable but true stories out there. In order of likelihood, we could have had David Lynch’s Revenge of the Jedi (he was offered, didn’t want to do it), Quentin Tarantino’s Casino Royale (he offered, they didn’t want him to do it) or Terry Gilliam’s Watchmen (he thought it unfilmable, funding fell through). Add to that list Rob Zombie’s The Crow 2037, Oliver Stone’s Planet of the Apes, James Cameron’s Spider-Man, Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One, George Romero’s Resident Evil and, perhaps most heartbreakingly, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, all projects for which abandoned scripts actually exist.
For every well-known writer-director, in fact, there’s an ever-growing list of unrealised projects, cherished by fandom. David Lynch, for example, has Ronnie Rocket and One Saliva Bubble, Terry Gilliam has The Detective Defective, Tarantino has Kill Bill Vol 3, Killer Crow and most recently The Hateful Eight, The Coen Brothers have To The White Sea and George Romero has Diamond Dead. Some of those still have a chance of being made – Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote famously refuses to die and his Good Omens adaptation may find a home on television, while production of his latest feature, The Zero Theorem (2013) had been twice stalled and twice recast before cameras rolled. Spielberg’s plundering of Kubrick’s pile of unmade scripts has already given us AI Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001) and might soon see his infamous Napoleon project realised as a television series. Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice 2: Beetlejuice Goes Halloween is apparently still a going concern, and might even not be terrible. Unlike, for example, Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, Prometheus (2012) – which itself reportedly put paid to Guillermo del Toro’s At The Mountains of Madness project – and Scott’s threatened Blade Runner sequel, which presumably will be awful. All of which teaches us that hit film plus name writer-director adds up to “never say never”. The future remains relatively bleak for most, though.
For every successful film, there’s a mooted sequel, if not a franchise. Proposed sequels are, for various reasons, particularly prone to obsolescence. They fail to manifest, variously, because the film(s) preceding them underperform and they’re subsequently cancelled, agreement can’t be reached on a fitting follow-up, the creative team and/or the money men go cold on the idea or because key cast members age out of their roles and/or simply die waiting for the green light. Some scripts are replaced by all-new drafts that make them obsolete (sometimes even cannibalising elements of the original script) or they simply miss their shot (a draft of Forrest Gump 2: Gump and Co, for example, was apparently delivered on September 10th, 2001 and quickly deemed anachronistic, a fate which also befell Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis project). For all those reasons, say hello and goodbye to Casablanca 2: Brazzaville, ET The Extra Terrestrial 2: Nocturnal Fears, Roger Rabbit 2: The Toon Platoon, William Gibson’s Alien 3 (the one with no Ripley), Eric Red’s Lost Boys 2, Se7en 2: Ei8ht, Eric Red’s Alien 3 (the one in a bio-dome), Tom Mankiewicz’s pre-Burton Batman, David Twohy’s Alien 3 (the one on a prison planet, but no Ripley), Joel Schumacher’s Batman Triumphant and Batman: DarKnight, Quentin Tarantino’s Double V Vega, Vincent Ward’s Alien 3 (the one with Ripley, but on a wooden planet).
There are also some projects that have begun to be considered simply unfilmable, from originals like Lem Dobb’s legendary 1979 script, Edward Ford, to literary adaptations like James Joyce’s Ulysses (Sergei Eisenstein fancied a crack at one point) or John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (Stephen Soderbergh’s script for Will Ferrell got as far as a staged read-through). Zeppelin vs Pterodactyls was the original Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus; these days Hammer Films would probably have the means to take it beyond a tentative promotional poster. In the midst of all these, you find films so strange, so misguided or just so fundamentally unlikely that you wish they had been made, even though, to paraphrase Nick Cave, they simply had no fucking chance. Those, my friends, are the Popcorn Droppers.
This article is taken from Physical Impossibility #2: Popcorn Droppers, which is on sale now from selected stockists. The zine features original writing by Sean Welsh, Ryan Balmer, Matt Carman, Craig McClure, Paul McGarvey and Harriet Warman with original illustrations from Laura Aitchison, Ciara Dunne, Stephen Kelly, Jon Paul Milne, Jack Somerville, ID Stewart and Kseniya Yarosh.
You can also buy a copy directly, here. It costs £4 + 90p postage within the UK (1st class Royal Mail). NB If you are an international customer, please contact email@example.com prior to ordering, and I’ll get back to you with a postage quote.
I’ve just begun my fourth year as official blogger for Glasgow Film Festival. I’ve got myself a 20-ticket Early Bird Pass, a ticket for Goblin and an armful of screeners and press tickets. I’ll be contributing picks from the programme, interviews and daily diaries to the GFF Blog, here. Check the byline, because there will also be contributions from the CineSkinny, festival staff and my fellow blogger Chris Buckle. Catch up on what I’ve posted so far:
I’m also very excited to be launching issue two of my Physical Impossibility cult movie zine during the festival. The launch is going to be at Saramago @ CCA on Tuesday 25/02, 18:00-20:00. Up-to-date details can be found at the Facebook event page here. Physical Impossibility is also a featured zine at the Central Station website – read their preview here. The launch is the same evening as two other GFF events at CCA – the free but first-come-first-served Film/TV Locations: Scotland on Your Screen at 18:30 and the Andy Diggle and Jock in Conversation event at 20:00 – so if you’re in the area, feel free to drop in for a wee whisky and maybe pick up a zine!
Physical Impossibility #2: Popcorn Droppers explores the wonderful world of the too-weird-to-live movie, including Tim Burton’s Superman Lives, Russ Meyers’ Sex Pistols movie, Who Killed Bambi?, Salvador Dali’s script for the Marx Brothers, Giraffes on Horseback Salad, Michael Jackson’s Doctor Who, Mac and Me 2 and Nick Cave’s Gladiator 2 (“I enjoyed writing it because I knew on every level that it was never going to get made… It’s what’s called a popcorn dropper.”).
Popcorn Droppers features original writing by Sean Welsh, Ryan Balmer, Matt Carman, Craig McClure, Paul McGarvey and Harriet Warman with original illustrations from Laura Aitchison, Ciara Veronica Dunne, Stephen Kelly, Paul Jon Milne, Jack Somerville, ID Stewart and Kseniya Yarosh.
Zines and prints will be available for the first time at the launch, which is sponsored by AnCnoc Whisky.
Up-to-date details on Facebook.
My new zine, Physical Impossibility #1: The Films of Larry Cohen, incorporates an exclusive interview with the legendary writer-director of Black Caesar, God Told Me To, It’s Alive, Q, The Stuff and Wicked Stepmother. The following is excerpted from the same interview, during which we also discussed Cohen’s association with Alfred Hitchcock, how he feels about his legacy, the unproduced scripts he’s posted on his website and what he’s up to these days.
SW: It’s been suggested that your Phone Booth script was originally mooted as an Alfred Hitchcock picture. Is that true?
LC: Well, it wasn’t a script when I talked to Hitchcock about it. It was just an idea. And I mentioned it and he had the same idea, more or less, and how could we go about doing it? I was never able to figure it out when he was alive. But I figured it out years later and oddly enough it was just by taking a character from another one of my movies, which was the sniper in God Told Me To, and putting the sniper into the Phone Booth movie and suddenly it all made sense. It was staring me right in the face all that time and it never occurred to me to combine the two characters – the guy in the phone booth and the sniper. So once I had the sniper in the story, it just about wrote itself. I think I wrote it in a week. But by that time Mr Hitchcock was gone.
If Hitchcock had been around and taken these scripts, I don’t think that it would have worked out as well for me because he was not very generous with writers and, in terms of sharing credit with anybody, he didn’t treat his writers too well. So it might have been an unhappy result but it would’ve been a good thrill for me to have worked with Hitchcock and to have him do a picture of mine and probably would have done me immeasurable good in terms of other jobs, people hiring somebody who had done a Hitchcock movie. But Hitch was not adverse to just firing a writer and putting other writers on the script so it might not have gotten a clear account of your own material because many of these directors try to camouflage any writing credit by having a bunch of writers on the picture, figuring if there’s a bunch of writers, then there’s no writer at all and they can have all the credit. And too often people are interested in gathering up the credit for things they didn’t do. Which is another reason why I do everything on my pictures, so there can be no question about who made the picture.
Do you think of yourself as an auteur?
Well, if anybody is an author, it’s me, because I do everything. Many people get credit for being authors when they didn’t write the script. You know, they try to obliterate the writer and say, “Well, I made the picture, I’m the author of the picture,” but very few of these people are truly authors of their pictures. I mean, they’ll certainly have created a style of picture that they make, so whether it’s Hitchcock or any of the other guys… But there were writers involved in everything. I mean, most of Hitchcock’s material is based on a book, whether it’s Strangers On A Train, which is based on a book and Vertigo, which is based on a book. I mean, everything is based on something else – they didn’t come up with the initial idea. They made the picture, so they consider themselves the auteur of the picture, but there was somebody else in there before them who really came up with the basic story and they just embellished upon it.
You’ve not directed a film since 2006′s Masters of Horror episode ‘Pick Me Up’. Was it a conscious decision to move away from that and focus on writing?
I only want to direct pictures if I have absolute, 100% control. I’m not looking to take jobs directing for other people. So I don’t want to get into a situation where somebody’s telling you what to do, or what I can’t do. It’s sad when certain directors, late in their career, find suddenly that they’ve lost their power of authority. Like Frank Capra, for example. He quit the business because after the last couple of pictures he did, he wasn’t in charge of the entire production and he had to keep making compromises and he was unhappy with the situation. So he decided he was not going to make any more movies. And he withdrew to Palm Springs and never worked again. And 25 years of idleness, you know? I mean, the best directors in the business – Billy Wilder spent the last 20 years of his life sitting around doing nothing because he couldn’t make any pictures any more because he’d lost his power of authority and he just couldn’t bear to make pictures that he couldn’t control. He was so used to being the boss of the production and he didn’t want to be an employee. Many other directors have the same problem and if you can’t run the show, you just don’t want to do it.
And I must say that I don’t have the same spirit of adventure that I had when I was climbing the Chrysler Building [for Q The Winged Serpent]… I took some foolhardy chances – shooting a chase through the St Patrick’s Day Parade [for God Told Me To] was probably an act of madness – but I did it. But I don’t think I would do it today, I just think it’s too reckless. I mean, I’ve got too much to lose. Back in those days, I didn’t have so much to lose, but now I’ve got affluence and I’ve got a lot of homes and real estate and I just don’t want to put myself in jeopardy. I never thought of that when I was doing this stuff before, but now the whole world is so litigious – you don’t want to get in the middle of lawsuits and stuff like that. So I’m much more careful than I would have been, in terms of going out and stealing scenes on the streets. And also you can’t go doing that kind of crazy stuff today, with all the terrorism and the security that’s going on.
How do you feel watching your own movies these days?
A lot of people don’t ever look at their own movies ever again. I don’t understand that. I always enjoy seeing the movies because they bring back movies of some good times and some nice relationships with people and sometimes nostalgia, since so many of the people who are in the movies are now dead and, you know, you see them again and they’re back alive and you remember the nice times you had working with them and how grateful you were for their performances.
All I know is the pictures are still being seen and enjoyed after 35-40 years, so that’s something of a compliment. A lot of pictures have been forgotten and a lot of important, so-called important films or big-budget films have been forgotten but these little pictures seem to have sustained an audience all these years. And people call up and, like yourself, they want to do interviews and they want to ask questions and you have film festivals around the world where people show up, sometimes huge numbers. When we were in Vienna, we were filling up an 800-seat theatre every day. We ran 15 movies and everybody turned out for these movies. I just came back from Switzerland and another film festival. There was one in Australia that I wasn’t able to attend. They keep requesting the films and thanks to the DVDs, these films have become somewhat immortal. God bless DVDs.*
You’ve posted a selection of your unproduced scripts on your website [find them here], what was the thinking behind that?
Well, I have all these wonderful screenplays that haven’t been made and some of them have been optioned and a number have come back to me and haven’t been shot and I felt terrible about all this wonderful material being in the closet, just stored away so I thought, “Well, you know, if you’re a painter and even if nobody buys your painting, you would like to exhibit it in a gallery for people to see it, and so why not exhibit your screenplays?” And my screenplays are very readable and I thought, “Well, people might enjoy them, they’d get a kick out of reading them and they could imagine the movie and put their favourite stars in there and you know, play their favourite movie music while they’re reading it, or else have friends come over and read them out loud. Why not give people the chance to see the picture instead of keeping it just buried, waiting for somebody to buy it?” And I’m sure many of these scripts will get bought eventually. The industry has gone through a very slow period, economically, in the past few years. They buy many fewer scripts and they produce many fewer scripts. So I put these out, there’s 10 of them, I believe. I think I’m going to put 10 more out. Because I write a lot of scripts. I sell a lot of scripts, but I also write a lot of scripts that don’t get picked up right away.
And you’re still writing today.
Yeah, and things are happening, things are occurring. We’re doing a play over in England of Phone Booth. They did a stage play of Phone Booth in Japan, it was very successful. It toured in Japan and there’s a British adaptation being made for the British theatre. And I’ve got a lot of scripts that I’m writing. I just turned out two or three scripts this year and I wait to see what happens, we’ll try and get ‘em produced. If not, we’ll put them on the internet for people to read.
With such an interesting career and so many stories, have you ever considered writing an autobiography?
I wrote a biography, it’s about 700 pages. I haven’t put it out to publication yet, because I think that there’s more to write, there’s more to tell. So, I haven’t finished yet.
Interview by Sean Welsh
Read much more in Physical Impossibility #1: The Films of Larry Cohen, featuring illustrations by Ryan Bharaj, Russell Elder, Victoria Firth, Sarah Amy Fishlock, Stephen Kelly and Claudia Nova. Order your copy here!
*Many of Cohen’s films, though not all, are available on DVD or Blu-ray. Particularly, US distributors Blue Underground have released extras-packed DVDs of Bone, God Told Me To, Q The Winged Serpent as well as the Cohen-scribed Uncle Sam. In Australia, Monster Pictures have given The Stuff similar treatment. In the UK, Arrow have released a typically well-appointed Blu-ray of Maniac Cop and are releasing The Stuff next year. Alternatively, a small selection of his films are available on iTunes and LoveFilm, and The Stuff is on Netflix.