Chopping Mall writer Steve Mitchell and I sat down for an interview. Not only did we discuss his classic horror films, we also talked about his new documentary King Cohen which examines the life and work of prolific filmmaker Larry Cohen.
Cohen has a tremendous amount of work to his credit, including the classic horror film The Stuff, It’s Alive, Phone Booth, Uncle Sam, Body Snatchers, and Maniac Cop. But I’ll let Mr. Mitchell tell you all about that.
Horror Fuel: “How did Chopping Mall come to be?”
Steve Mitchell: “Jim Wynorski, who was a buddy of mine, was offered an opportunity because Vestron wanted me and Roger to produce a – there’s no way to say this nicely- dead teenager movie (it was the 80’s). Vestron wanted something that took place in a shopping mall. Jim called me up and said, “Hey, you’ve got a chance to get a movie off the ground if you want to try to come up with something.” I said yeah. We went to this local place to get a cup of coffee and a slice of pie and we came up with this idea. We worked out the details and it kind of made sense. He said it could work and then he said that famous line, “What if we do it with robots?”. I think I paused and had to digest the idea. Then I said, “Yeah, why not.” We threw out the original idea and worked up something between a synopsis and a beat sheet and we took it to Julie the next day and then took it to Vestron. We had no script, just this beat sheet of how the movie will play out. We literally wrote the movie after we had the deal, normally you have a script first. We got paid to write this script and Jim and I did the casting for the movie. We just saw it from start to finish.
To this day people still tell me how much they like Chopping Mall. I’m amazed, this is decades later. When we made it we had no idea anyone was going to see it. Apparently, when it came out on home video it was a monster hit. I was told by someone, who I think is in the know, that Vestron sold about a half a million units. I think those units were sold to video stores across America. Home video has been very good to Chopping Mall.”
Horror Fuel: “I’ll be honest, I’m a fan. I’ve got it on VHS. I watched it again earlier today, and even though it came out a while ago, it’s still good.”
Steve Mitchell: “It’s still fun, isn’t it?”
Horror Fuel: “It is. I really love 80’s horror movies. I love the ways you killed the characters off.”
Steve Mitchell: “It was kind of a genre trope at the time. Usually, most of the teens in these movies end up getting killed. When I look at the movie I don’t think of the cast as teens, per say, I think of them more as young adults. Be that as it may, it’s kind of the same genre setup. It was an attractive cast of eight people and you wonder who is going to survive by the end of the movie.
By the way, have you seen the Blu-ray yet that Vestron put out?”
Horror Fuel: “I have not, but now I want to.”
Steve Mitchell: “I highly recommend it for a hundred reasons, but I’ll give you a couple. One, it is a new transfer. It’s a restoration. The movie looks and sounds the way we ultimately made it. When we made the picture, Jim and I, when we shot our stuff, we framed it for 1.25, which is pretty much how most movies are shot, which is a rectangular aspect ratio. Vestron wanted us to do what is called open matte, a 4×3 which is a standard TV ratio, but we composed it when we made it for a more rectangular, theatrical aspect ratio. So, on the Blu-ray what you see is the image that Jim and I intended for when we shot our picture. But that’s not all, number two is, even though the movie was a mono sound mix, it was just around the time when stereo was trying to become the norm – leave it to Roger to try and save a couple of bucks – but the mono mix you hear on the videotapes is really kind of awful. The highs and lows are really crushed. We found the original soundtrack sound and ultimately have the movie sound like the movie we mixed when we mixed it back in the day. So from a picture and sound standpoint, the movie is greatly improved from anything you’ve ever seen.”
Horror Fuel: “I definitely have to see that Blu-ray! A better version of a classic? Yes, please.”
Steve Mitchell: “The other thing is, if you’re a fan of the movie, the Blu-ray has a ton of extras on there. For me, seeing the movie the way the filmmakers intended, Blu-ray is now the definitive version. It’s eye-popping how much better it looks. If you want to see the movie the way we intended it, Vestron’s Blu-ray is the way to go. ”
Horror Fuel: “That sounds fantastic! I need to see it!”
Horror Fuel: “Your latest project is the documentary King Cohen: The Wild World of Larry Cohen. What made you want to document Cohen’s career?”
Steve Mitchell: “It got started because I was looking one day at Larry Cohen’s IMDb page. I thought that I knew most of Larry’s work, his features and quite a bit of his TV work. What surprised me is the volume of screenplays he wrote that were produced for other projects, mostly television. When you look at Larry’s IMDb page, the amount of credits is enormous. There is a profound amount of work and this is just the stuff that got produced. I found out that Larry has written so much other material that never got produced. Looking at the length of his career as I did that day, I was very surprised.
I was producing DVD extras and commentaries at Image Entertainment. I was kind of looking for my own project. I went to the guys in the front office and I said I have this project. They say that it was kind of interesting and “When you finish it, bring it by and maybe we’ll acquire it.” Which is not exactly what I wanted to hear. The project kind of went on the back burner for a while. But it never went out of my head. It was always rattling around in there. Some years later, when crowdfunding came up, I thought well, I need to get Larry on board. Why make a movie about someone that is alive and who may not have wanted it done in the first place. I knew someone who knew Maurine Landon, Maurine got me Larry’s number.
One day I had a couple of cups of coffee, took a deep breath and I dialed Larry’s number. After a few rings, he answered and said: “Hi, this is Larry Cohen.” I knew his voice. I said ‘Hi, I’m Steve Mitchell and I want to make a movie about you.’ He told me to come up to the house. So I went up to this famous house. If you know Larry’s movie you know that his house is in everything he directs. I told him what I wanted to do and he said that he was very flattered. He let me go through his photo archives, which are basically a couple of big boxes filled with stills. I picked out a bunch of stuff to use for the trailer that I was going to have to put together for crowdfunding.
I did all of that and launched the project and I was a spectacular failure. I was not getting any support. People seemed not to care. I was a bit crushed by it. I was very disappointed. This movie was kind of now inside of me and trying to push itself out. But you can’t do anything without financing. Maybe a couple of years later (time has a way of compressing) I met Matt Verboys and he asked if I was the Steve Mitchell who wrote Chopping Mall, and said he loved Chopping Mall. Again, Chopping Mall has been a very positive thing for me. We got to know each other socially and because of our movie passions, and then one day I began to wonder if he might be interested in this project because Matt is the owner of La La Records, a film soundtrack label. My guess is if you like any film soundtrack you probably have a few of theirs on your shelf. I called Matt up and I mentioned something about me trying to d0 this project and I told him I had this idea. He said ‘let’s have lunch’ and I said ‘great.” We had lunch. When I finished he said that he was already interested. By the time we were done with lunch, he said ‘I don’t know how we are going to do it, but we’re going to do it.
Along with Dan McKeon, my other producing partner, we put the movie together and got this thing started. Larry was onboard early on, so everything started with Larry. We did hours on hours of interviews with Larry. Sometimes you have to be like a dog on a bone and not let go.”
Horror Fuel: “It sounds like a real labor of love.”
Horror Fuel: “What’s your favorite Cohen film?”
Steve Mitchell: “My favorite is still Q: The Winged Serpent. I saw it back when it opened back in the day. I’m from New York so I always go see New York City movies. At that time I knew who Larry was and I’d go see his movies. And of course, you’ve seen that great key art done by the amazing Boris Vallejo. I saw that serpent on top of the Chrysler building and I go, ‘I don’t know know what this is, but I’ve got to see this.’ I was rewarded with this really cool, crazy, nutty, New York City crime movie about this loser criminal with this flying monster going around town. It’s this really weird, triple genre type of picture. That’s what Larry does, he does these genre mashups. Q was a great mashup. It was then and still is my favorite, but The Ambulance is a very close second. I wound up seeing that on cable. It is nuts. It’s another kind of genre mashup of a movie that I find wildly entertaining. I’ve had the opportunity to see that a couple of times with audiences, and it plays like a gangbuster. It’s very entertaining and outrageous.”
Horror Fuel: “Great choices.”
Steve Mitchell: “Thank you. I know a lot of people are fond of The Stuff. I’m amazed. I like The Stuff, but I don’t like it as much as my two choices.
Horror Fuel: “I really like The Stuff.”
Horror Fuel: “Who are some of the people interviewed in the documentary?”
Steve Mitchell: “We have a pretty good cast. In no order of importance, we have Martin Scorsese, Michael Moriarty, who was an important person for us to find seeing he starred in five of Larry’s films, Fred Williamson, John Landis, J.J. Abrams does our intro, we’ve got Robert Forester, Tara Reid, Tracy Lawrence, production people who worked with Larry, both of his wives. I think I talked to twenty-five to thirty people. I wanted to get Joel Schumacher, but he was going through a difficult personal stretch. I’m very pleased with the number of people that we got. We’ve got historians, we’ve got The Great, I always say The Great because he’s great to work with, John Burlingame. We have a pretty balanced amount of people in the picture. Frankly, I could still be interviewing people if I wanted to.
We talk about how Larry works, what really constitutes a Larry Cohen movie. We talk about how Larry earns that credit. We talk about his writing process, his sometimes insane way of shooting movies, especially in the 70’s, when he just went out and stole everything. It was some pretty dangerous stuff. At the end of the day what we are doing is making a portrait of this guy. We talked out how he could make things on the cheap that other directors couldn’t do. We talk about how determined he was, he’s relentless, how he doesn’t take no for an answer. Mostly we are celebrating a career that’s lasted over five decades. We are creating a portrait of a creative artist.
Also, the byproduct is that we are painting a picture of how movies used to be done. Movies were often very spontaneous. Look at Chopping Mall and how that came together. A client wanted to finance a certain kind of story and we made it. That’s how Larry made movies. As Martin Scorsese says in the film, there was kind of a renegade spirit. Now, every movie is a big deal for people. It’s life or death, almost literally. I have to say, I kind of miss those days. I was watching a movie last night with my two partners and it was a movie called Shakedown, made in the 80’s. In many ways, it’s not a good movie, but in many ways, it’s a great movie, but it’s a very 80s movie in every sort of way. I was thinking ‘Man, I miss the 80’s. I miss that kind of filmmaking. This movie is about a time of filmmaking as well as the person who made those movies. ”
Horror Fuel: “You can’t get much better than an old 80’s horror movie.”
Steve Mitchell: “A lot of good stuff was done in the 80’s. That was also pre-digital for the most part. Everything had to be in front of the lens, and I like that. I like movies in general. That was still a time when it was a bit like the wild west, and what I mean by that, movies got made maybe even if they weren’t supposed to be made. They got made because of enthusiasm, look at the Cannon movies that got made. They were crazy, nutty. But movies got made. They were shown in theaters and it was a crazy time, a great time. Then in the 90’s, we transitioned to the Digital Era.
There are great movies being made today, but stuff from back in the day feels a little more genuine. A lot of movie being made today are being made by people at workstations. When we did Chopping Mall those robots were actually at the mall. When we blew up that robot at the end, we blew it up. ”
Horror Fuel: “Did you know that Chopping Mall has been in the news recently? There are actually robots in China at railway stations. They’re like five feet tall and they are freaking people out. News stations are comparing them to the robots in Chopping Mall.”
Steve Mitchell: “Wow, really? I have to say when we did Chopping Mall, we had no idea what the hell we were doing on a certain level. We just made a movie that we wanted to see.
Horror Fuel: “Is there any advice you can give future and current filmmakers?”
Steve Mitchell: “I have one tip for anyone who reads this if you are ever going to do a project of any kind, write it, direct it, produce it, always do something that you want to see. I have never done anything that I haven’t wanted to see. I have a number of screenplays and if I’m lucky I’ll get one or two made. But when I wrote scripts on spec I was getting paid. What got me through those scripts is that I wanted to see how they turned out, even though I was writing them. I think that’s a great lesson for anyone in show business. Always write something that you want to see. It has always served me well. And marketing means so much. It has become the determining factor.”
Horror Fuel: “That’s great advice.”
Horror Fuel: “Are you working on a project now?”
Steve Mitchell: ” I’ve got about half a dozen of them, but I’m very superstitious, so I don’t like to talk about them. The trick is to see which one can I get financed. My partner is talking to someone of financial standing and that’s what really determines how you get started on anything. I have one documentary that I am favoring, but I have a dozen other ideas. You always have to have a whole bunch of stuff at the ready because someone is always going to ask what else you got. Once you make it, you have to sell it and create awareness. That’s what we’ve done for the past year with King Cohen. I think we went to fifteen festivals around the world. It’s going to get theatrical runs in New York and Los Angeles and a number of other theaters. It’s nice to know that people will get to see it in theaters. I’m excited to share the movie.”
Mr. Mitchell’s gave us fantastic advice on filmmaking. His passion and determination are simply amazing. We can’t wait to see what he does next.
King Cohen, which got serious love from Horror Fuel’s DanXIII in his review, will open in theaters on July 7, 2018, followed by its arrival on VOD on August 14th. Be sure to follow the film on Facebook.
You can pick up your copy of Vestron’s Special Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of Chopping Mall here.