Larry Cohen isn’t the undisputed king of cult cinema, but as the man who wrote, directed, and produced films ranging from Black Caesar and Hell Up In Harlem to It’s Alive and God Told Me To, he’s certainly worthy of consideration. But add in a certain 1982 creature-feature classic into the mix, and Cohen suddenly seems much closer to being a cinch for the crown.
Even those unfamiliar with Q: The Winged Serpent will be less than shocked to discover that the film revolves around a winged serpent, but let’s be more specific: It’s the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, and she’s decided to nest in the spire of the Chrysler Building. As if that weren’t enough, it turns out there’s a surprisingly active Aztec community in New York, and they’re just beside themselves about Q’s arrival, celebrating with all the ritual murders they can manage, which are of particular interest to NYPD detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree). Completely incidental to these events, there’s also a slightly unstable petty criminal (Michael Moriarty) whose latest endeavor takes him into the Chrysler Building. Oops.
With Q finally earning a Blu-ray release, The Dissolve spoke with Cohen and some of the film’s cast members, all of whom dug deep into their memory banks to reflect on the film’s inception, the process of pulling the whole thing together, and the way its cult following has endured over three decades.
Larry Cohen (Director): The Empire State building had their monster, but I thought the Chrysler Building was a better-looking building, so I thought, “Well, they should have their own monster!” [Laughs.] And if you’re going to have a monster that’s a bird, what better place to have it nest than up at the top of the Chrysler Building? It’s kind of designed with a bird-like motif: It’s got gargoyles that look like giant bird-like creatures around the sides of it, and the whole top of it is kind of centered. If I was a giant bird and I was going to pick a nesting place, that’s where I’d go. So then I started looking for a bird that was a monster, and, well, [Quetzalcoatl] is probably the prime bird-monster there is, and the fact that the Aztecs worshipped it as a god and performed human sacrifices to it, that all fit in with the story I was going to do.
Cohen: I only did two days of pre-production on Q. I got fired off the previous picture I was working on, which was I, The Jury, with Armand Assante, Laurene Landon, and Barbara Carrera. After a week of working on that picture, the producers and I, we just couldn’t get along, and they were running out of money, and I just couldn’t handle being involved with a project where we had to lie to people and tell them we could pay them when we couldn’t. And these were people I’d dealt with on my other films, so I didn’t want my reputation to be ruined with the people renting the equipment, the lights, and everything else in New York. I’d worked with them many times, and I thought, “I don’t want them to get stung and think it’s me that’s doing it.” I got very good prices for these producers for the work that needed to be done and for the equipment, and it looked to me like they weren’t going to be able to pay the bills. So I had to call my friends up and say, “Look, you better get paid right now, ’cause you might not get paid at all!” Well, when the producers heard that, they fired me.
“I thought, ‘That sounds really cool!’ But I hadn’t read the script or anything.”
As soon as that happened, I said, “Well, I’m not leaving! I’m starting another movie!” So two days later, we were shooting Q, and we were shooting out of the same hotel as I, The Jury! We’d meet them in the lobby. When they went off to shoot their picture, we’d be down there assembling to go off and shoot our movie. We finished way ahead of them. They went way over budget and the company went bankrupt. They sold the picture at a bankruptcy sale. [Laughs.] And we finished our picture in three weeks!
Lo and behold, six months later, the two pictures opened the same day in New York. We opened at the Rivoli and they opened at the National down the street. Their picture cost seven or eight times as much as ours, but they didn’t do as well as we did. We did three times the business that I, The Jury did. We did triple their box office at one-seventh the cost. I was vindicated! [Laughs.]
Cohen: All the lead actors in the picture were well-known actors. Carradine was. Moriarty was. And Richard Roundtree, of course, was in Shaft. He flew in from the coast. He was the only actor who was brought in. Most of the other people in the film were just good New York actors, some of whom had been in other movies I’d done. Malachy McCourt, he played the commissioner. He’s a very fine actor. And his brother wrote Angela’s Ashes! Malachy wrote a book, too. He was a delightful Irishman, perfect for the role.
Malachy McCourt (“Comissioner”): It was great fun. I always loved those sorts of films, with their deadly seriousness of the threat of mythological creatures, or the world coming to an end. Or when the creature’s going to attack, and the person says, “Well, we’re covered on the right here, and we’re covered on the left,” and then someone else asks, “Well, what if it comes from overhead?” And then, of course, the first person says, “Well, then, it’s all up to God,” and casts his eyes upward. [Laughs.] So I was totally enjoying it. You had to keep the twinkle out of your eye. You couldn’t go winking at people as if to say, “I don’t believe this!” But it was a delightful film to do. I always smile when I think of it.
Cohen: Candy Clark, she was an Academy Award nominee for American Graffiti, and she’d also been in The Man Who Fell To Earth with David Bowie, if you remember. She was the female lead in that picture, and then she’d been in many others, too, so she was a well-known actress. She was appearing in a play off Broadway at the time, so I grabbed her.
Candy Clark (“Joan”): Larry just offered me the role. I don’t remember [how he contacted me]. When did that thing come out? ’82? Would you remember how someone contacted you back in 1981? [Laughs.] But he was someone I’d known for a long time. His sister was my PR lady. Ronni Chasen, that was his sister. But I thought it would be fun. And the people working in the movie were excellent actors—Michael Moriarty and also Carradine—so I thought that’d be great.
David Carradine (“Shepard,” in a 2008 interview with the author): I was in the Army with Larry Cohen, and he was a real close buddy of mine.
Cohen: We were in Fort Eustis, Virginia. We were supposed to be stevedores, but it didn’t work out that way. We both ended up working for the chaplain. I wrote the chaplain’s radio program every week—this was the Protestant chaplain—and David painted the murals. [Laughs.] And then we did a play together called Once Upon A Mattress, which was a famous Broadway musical. We did a touring company of it with military personnel playing the parts, and we toured a certain number of the bases of the United States with that, and had a lot of fun. So we had a very enjoyable time together in the Army, all in all, and we cemented our friendship for the rest of our lifetime.
Carradine: We always wanted to make a movie together, and one time, I was at the Cannes Film Festival, and I got a telegram that said, “Show up on June 14 in New York with clothes for a New York detective.”
Cohen: That’s what happened, yes. David was over in Cannes for a picture that he had directed [Americana] and was showing there, and I needed him, so I cabled him and told him I needed him to come back. And he did! He didn’t read the material or anything, he had no idea what he was getting into, but he came back.
Carradine: I thought, “That sounds really cool!” [But] I hadn’t read the script or anything.
Cohen: It wouldn’t have mattered to him. The fact that it was a monster film wouldn’t have affected his willingness to do it.
Carradine: So I showed up, and they gave me the script, and they said, “You’re not working tomorrow,” and I said, “Okay, then I’m not going to read it tonight.” And then the next morning I read it, and I said, “Oh my God, it’s a monster movie. I don’t do these things!” But I thought, y’know, “I’ve made the commitment, so I have to do it.”
Cohen: I think he knew that if I was doing it, it’d have a certain degree of quality, and the writing would be upscale. He came and walked right into his first scene, sat down at the bar, and played it. And I think he did one of his best performances, both there and all throughout the picture.
“I remember being on the Chrysler Building, firing bullets, and the casings were falling down onto the street, so the cops came.”
Carradine: I thought if [Larry] had left the monster out of it, between me and Michael Moriarty, there was a real great story there between the detectives and the sleazebag heroin addict/petty-thief character. That’s where the power in the movie is. That’s where the heart of it is… and not in the chicken that ate New York! [Laughs.] But that’s Larry.
Cohen: “The Chicken That Ate New York”? That could’ve been the title! [Laughs.] Actually, my ad campaign had a picture of this bird carrying a girl away in his claws, and it said, “New York is famous for good eating.” I thought that was pretty good. Plus, it also showed you that there was going to be some humor in it, too.
Carradine: That bird… it wasn’t even CGI. It was Claymation! [Laughs.] I do love the guy, though. And it turned out that Q became a cult classic. Not on the level of Death Race 2000, but in that direction.
Cohen: As far as Michael Moriarty goes, I was a big fan of his work on Broadway, and I’d seen him on television and films, but I was in a café near Lincoln Center in New York with a friend, and I was describing to her who Michael Moriarty was, ’cause he was sitting at a nearby table. I was telling her that he’d won, like, three Emmy Awards, a Tony Award for Best Actor on Broadway, and a couple of Golden Globe awards. And then when I turned around again, he was smiling at me, because he’d overheard it. So I walked over to him and said, “Listen, I’m trying to put together a movie, and I’d sure like you to be in it.” So he said, “Send me the script!” He didn’t live that far away—near Carnegie Hall—so I dropped the script off there, and he called me the next day and said, “I love this part, and I want to do this! My agent will probably try and talk me out of it, but I’m gonna do it!” And he was as good as his word, and he did it.
Moriarty followed the script, [but] we had improvisations. The first day we shot, I noticed he was listening to a recording he had brought along, but I couldn’t hear it ’cause he had headphones on. I said, “What are you listening to?” He said, “Some of my piano music.” So I listened, too. Turned out he wrote songs, and he occasionally appeared in clubs playing piano and singing his own songs. So I said, “Well, wait a minute: This character in the movie, let’s turn him into a wannabe performer. Let’s do a scene where he auditions for a job and doesn’t get it, and then because he doesn’t get the job as a performer in a club, he has no choice but to take the opportunity to participate in a robbery he’s been offered.”
So that’s what we did. I said to my people, “Go find me a club that’s open during the day that we can rent, and it has to have a piano in it.” I think it was The Bitter End, in [Greenwich] Village, and we went in there and shot the next day. It was not on the schedule, the scene was completely written the day before, when Michael was sitting next to me, watching me write it— which is always magic time, when an actor sees you write a scene and then he plays it. After that, you more or less own the actor. He’s yours for the rest of the shoot. Michael did everything I asked him to do. He had a marvelous power of concentration, and you could throw lines to him during the scene from off-camera and he would incorporate them right into the scene without a blink. Other actors can’t do that, but Michael, you could just keep feeding him lines from off-camera. He loved it.
Clark: I’d only really seen Michael Moriarty in that one movie, Bang The Drum Slowly, so I didn’t really know what to expect, but I knew he had a big star name. But I thought he was fantastic [in Q]… and really quite the distraction, because he was so good! That was quite the challenge, because I was so amazed at how well he did that character. I’d never been so distracted, even when I worked with David Bowie, who was distracting because he’s very handsome and—well, because he’s David Bowie! [Laughs.]
But Moriarty was just superb. I’d get caught up in watching him doing his acting right in front of me, and it seemed so real that I would kind of forget I was supposed to be doing dialogue. I’d just be staring at him, thinking, “Wow, this guy is really excellent! Boy, is he good! Wow!” That’s what I’d be thinking instead of, “Oh, my line!” [Laughs.] So, yeah, he was so good, he was distracting, that’s for sure. It was a really super performance. And I didn’t realize he played the piano so well, either! He was excellent. He was just such a surprise.
McCourt: Michael Moriarty was an absolute delight. Someone told me he was very difficult. He was quirky, but he was such a considerate actor. Carradine was a very nice guy as well.
Eddie Jones (“The Watchman”): I thought Moriarty did a great job. He was really quite a fine actor. I remember watching him doing a scene, and I was amazed at how good he was, especially in that kind of a crazy situation. He was terrific. I didn’t have a big part in the film, so I didn’t have that much to do with [Larry] directly. I just came in, did the scene, and there wasn’t any particular direction or anything. But he seemed to be…high-strung is a good word, I think. [Laughs.] But he was trying to get everything done, y’know? And he ended up getting it done in three weeks, from what I remember, so that’s pretty good.
McCourt: I never saw anyone use the camera the way Cohen used it. I never saw how he could coordinate the shots. It was amazing, technically. I thought, “He isn’t going to be able to do this!” But close-ups, overheads, and so on, he did it. But he never seemed to be plotting or planning like other directors do. It was really amazing.
Cohen: I drew the monster, and then the guys who did the stop-motion animation, Randy Cook and his partner, David Allen, they brought it into existence. It was a clay model, of course, at one time, and then they cast it and made various variations on it, which they could animate in the Ray Harryhausen style. They did a very nice job, [but] it was very slow going. We’d go all the way out to their studio in the valley, and they’d have maybe two shots at the end of the week. And then the following week, they’d have two more shots. It went on a long time. Longer than I had hoped. [Laughs.] But they did a decent job, and I was happy with the final result. Of course, Randy has gone on to do [Peter Jackson’] King Kong over there in New Zealand. He actually appeared in the picture! He’s firing the machine guns from the biplane that kills King Kong on the Empire State Building. That’s Randy. David Allen, unfortunately, has passed away.
They were rather upset when I first approached them, though. They said, “You’ve already shot the whole movie in New York without consulting us! That’s not how it’s supposed to be done! What you’re supposed to do is work out the shots with us before you shoot, and then we tell you where to put the monster and where to put the actors, and then we go to work on our end of it.” I said, “Well, it’s not gonna be that way this time, ’cause the picture’s all completed! But I know where the monster’s supposed to go. I’ve already made arrangements for where to place the creature in every shot, and I’m gonna tell you where to put it, and you just do it.” “Well, we don’t usually do that…” I said, “Well, I guess this is the way you’re gonna do it this time!” [Laughs.] So they did it!
They also told me, “Oh, you can’t have the camera moving if the monster’s gonna be in the picture. The shot has to be frozen. You have to have a lockdown shot.” I said, “Well, you can’t have a lockdown shot when it’s taken from a helicopter flying around the Chrysler Building, so you’re gonna have to learn how to do it.” So they learned how to do it, and they did it. A lot of this was a matter of reeducation. I guess I did it all wrong, but I made it come out right!
Clark: I never was in any room when we had to deal with the special effects, because my character dealt basically with Michael Moriarty and his drug addiction. But there was one scene we shot in Central Park where we’re kind of looking up and pretending we’re seeing the winged serpent. That was fun: me, Michael Moriarty, and David Carradine, running around Central Park, looking up in the sky, going, “AAAAAAAH!” [Laughs.]
Cohen: They turned me down the first six or seven times we approached them [about filming at the Chrysler Building], but we kept going back, and finally we offered them enough money that they said yes. But they didn’t know we were gonna go all the way up to the needle of the building. They didn’t realize how high up I had intended to go. They thought I was just gonna stay on the top floor. They didn’t think I was gonna get on this little rickety ladder and go all the way up four or five more levels, into the very pinnacle of the building. And I don’t think they believed anybody would go up there, let alone that the crew would go up there with cameras and equipments and lights. But we did.
I led the way, and I was surprised: They all followed. [Laughs.] I didn’t argue with them, I just said, “C’mon, let’s go!” And there they went! I guess they thought if I had the guts to do it, they could do it, too, because everybody was up there. And it was very dangerous. Seventy-seven stories above the street, no guardrails, no windows, completely exposed on all sides. It was like a platform, really. A platform in space. And if you stepped off the platform, that was the end of you. You’d go flying down into the street. So it was a hairy place to shoot a movie. But we couldn’t afford to build the top of the Chrysler Building, so we had to do it at the real place!
McCourt: I was racking my brain for any sort of unusual incidents, but the only ones I know of are the consternation caused by the folks in the film being on top of the Chrysler Building and shooting machine guns at the nonexistent monster.
Jones: Yeah, I remember being on the Chrysler Building, firing bullets, and the casings were falling down onto the street, so the cops came. But by that time, thankfully, most of the shooting had been done.
McCourt: I don’t think they even had permits to do the shooting!
Cohen: We had permits. We even had off-duty police officers doing the shooting. But we, uh, still caused kind of a panic. [Laughs.] People thought someone was shooting at the United Nations building. We made the papers!
Jones: I thought Q was a lot of fun. For a horror film, it’s very good. And it’s become kind of a cult classic, I guess. I enjoyed it. And I enjoyed doing it, too.
Clark: I always say it’s got a cult following, but I don’t know if it’s a great movie. I thought the special effects were okay. You know, it was a low-budget film. Compared to today’s special effects, they’re a little old-timey. But, you know, that was then and this is now, so it’s not really fair to compare them.
McCourt: Do you know about the discovery of the egg? I didn’t actually witness it myself, but I read about it. It was some time later, well after the film, and in the attic of a place down on Elizabeth Street, I think it was. They had this big egg that was in the film, and somehow or another, the props people left it behind. And someone else discovered it a few years later, and the people who found it just kind of said, “What the fuck is this?” [Laughs.] Because not only had they abandoned the egg, but they’d left it in a nest of sorts!
Cohen: For me, the only surprising thing [about the cult following] is how people forget it was a pretty big hit when it first played. It was the No. 1 picture everywhere it played in New York or Los Angeles or anywhere else. But the problem was, they didn’t make enough prints to play everywhere in the country at once, so they played regionally. So it played one part of the country, then another part of the country a few weeks later, and then another part of the country a few weeks after that. So we didn’t get all that big blockbuster income coming in at the box office all in one week. It came in over a period of weeks. Otherwise, we would’ve been the No. 1 picture in the country for several weeks. But as it was, we were the No. 1 picture in every city we played in.
Cohen: Bruce Willis came up for auditions for I, The Jury when he was working as a bartender, and I had him read the Mike Hammer part, just for fun. Armand Assante had already been cast, but I said, “Just for fun, read this part. Let me hear you do it.” He read it, and he did a terrific job. I said, “You’re gonna be a star! I can’t give you the part of Mike Hammer, ’cause it’s already cast, but I know you’re gonna make it.” So he went off, and then when I started to make Q, I thought, “Hey, maybe I should hire that young actor.” But the people with the money said, “We need a box-office name, somebody who can sell tickets and get us some money in pre-sales from foreign markets.” And David Carradine certainly fit the bill, so I pitched David Carradine and didn’t take Bruce Willis. So there you are.
“A lot of this was a matter of re-education. I guess I did it all wrong, but I made it come out right!”
And like I said, I was very much in love with Moriarty’s work, but just before we started, I saw another actor at the Improv comedy club in New York, a young black comedian, and I said, “Oh, geez, this guy would’ve been really great in the part I just gave to Moriarty. But I can’t hire him!” So I didn’t hire him, and you know who he was? Eddie Murphy. So we came within a hairsbreadth of having Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy in Q. I’m sure it’d be a bigger picture today if they’d been in it. There’s no question about it. But that’s the way it is.
By the way, years later, at the Golden Globes in Hollywood, Bruce Willis came over to me and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Do you remember me?” And I didn’t remember him. I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t see that TV series, Moonlighting. He said, “Boy, you gave me more encouragement than anybody in New York ever did, and I wanted to say thank you.” And I said, “Well, you’re sure welcome. Everything going all right?” And he said, “Sure is!” And after he left, somebody said, “Don’t you know who that is? He’s got this hot TV series called Moonlighting.” There you are. But unfortunately, years later, I ran into him again, and I said to him, “Remember when you came over to me and thanked me for being so encouraging to you?” And he looked at me and said, “Yeah, I remember.” And he walked away. I wish I’d never run into him the second time. It ruined the whole story! [Laughs.] But there you go. That’s Hollywood.