Veteran writer discusses adapting King classics like CARRIE, IT and THE TOMMYKNOCKERS as well as Peter Straub’s GHOST STORY.
There’s an unmistakable passion in Lawrence D. Cohen’s voice in spite of the fact he’s talking about a project he began working on four decades ago. It’s a passion that resonates through the phone as the screenwriter talks to SHOCK from his New York state home and recalls how he became involved in turning a novel with “the unprepossessing title of Carrie” into a hit screenplay for one of Hollywood’s hottest directors.
“Back in 1973, it was a few years out of college for me, I was living in New York and working as a theater and film reviewer, including being the New York stringer for The Hollywood Reporter trade paper out in LA,” Cohen recalls. “They were all great jobs and I was writing up a storm but it really wasn’t enough to pay the rent so I ended up taking a job as a reader for a New York producer name David Susskind.”
While employed by Susskind, Cohen read upwards of 40 pieces of material each week. As he made his way through scripts, books and manuscripts he fell upon a novel that had been sold to Doubleday by an English teacher in Maine. Though the book wouldn’t be making its way into the hands of the public until April of 1974, Cohen read it before the masses.
His reaction to the book was immediate.
“I went insane for it,” he says. “In spite of my jumping up and down ecstatically that the book represented the birth of a great, American storyteller I couldn’t persuade Mr. Susskind to do it as a project and, for that matter, any of the other places I was reading for and nobody bought the rights to the book for awhile, as a movie. It didn’t make much of a ripple as a hardbound. It didn’t sell a lot of copies. There were mixed reviews but the thing that sort of put it on the map, I think, was when the paperback rights for this little book went for $400,000 and that stirred up some activity.”
Fast forward one year and Cohen had packed up and headed west to Los Angeles and had gained a production executive credit for the Martin Scorsese 1974 drama ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE. Again finding himself in need of a job, he was referred to another producer by a mutual friend. The producer, Paul Monash, had a development deal with 20th Century Fox and needed a story editor. The meeting, Cohen says, wasn’t showing much prospect as he wasn’t interested in any of Monash’s projects.
“I was actually on my way out the door down the hall when he called out to me to say he had acquired the rights to this little book that he thought I had probably never heard of and it was none other than CARRIE,” recalls Cohen. “I could feel the light bulb going on above me and, just like that, I took the job working for him. The screenplay he’d commissioned didn’t turn out to his liking and the option on the material was about to run out and there was nothing to turn in to the studio. He was frantic and some deranged inner voice possessed me and prompted me to pipe up and say that I could write the script. I think, with not having too much to lose, he decided to take a chance and gamble on me and, six weeks or so later, I turned in a first draft.”
That first draft didn’t vary too far from Stephen King’s novel. Cohen says he left a lot of King’s material in his treatment because he was in love with the material and “there were pieces that just burned off the page when I read it the very first time.”
Three years after Cohen first discovered CARRIE he found himself on set with director Brian DePalma as United Artists had allocated a budget of $1.8 million for the film. Meticulously plotted by DePalma when principal photography began, Cohen says the young director knew exactly what he wanted to capture on celluloid.
“In terms of being on set, it was a chance to see – and I’ve come to appreciate it over the years – that the movie that was in my mind and was in Brian’s mind were one in the same in what got on the screen.
The particular treat of being on set, I would say, was two fold. One, to be able to sit and watch Sissy (Spacek) and Piper (Laurie) do their set pieces together…. and the other half of the experience was seeing the incredible technical mastery that Brian had for very elongated sequences like the prom sequence with the bucket of blood and that long, long take that he did. That was just an amazing experience to witness somebody that could plan it and then successfully execute that sort of tour de force in film narrative.”
CARRIE opened in November of 1976 and easily became a profitable film raking in more than $33 million. It marked Cohen’s first horror production but not his last.
Five years later Cohen would be tasked with taking another bestselling book and converting it for the screen. Peter Straub’s GHOST STORY landed in book stores in 1979 and Universal acquired the rights to the film. The studio, in need of a proven screenwriter, approached Cohen.
“I was approached by a woman, an executive at Universal who I had known, who sent me the manuscript and, like CARRIE, I freaked out over it when I read it and thought it was fantastic,” he recalls. “Unlike CARRIE, which was very clear in terms of what the narrative challenges were, GHOST STORY was far more complicated and, I think, in fact, it was really before the advent of TV miniseries and, personally, I think GHOST STORY probably lent itself to a TV miniseries more than being within the conventional strictures of a two hour movie.”
The film, directed by John Irvin, is memorable for its cast of Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and John Houseman.
Cohen, though, doesn’t rank the film among his favorites.
“I think the disappointments for me was that it was a hard piece to make into two hours so lots of fantastic material had to be jettisoned and I think that’s what made up the texture of why it’s such a great book. I think it was also on the sort of Henry James light-side as far as horror movies go. We got a very, very talented British director but I don’t think his feel particularly was for scary. He successfully made it work under the skin, in some ways, and shot it with a great cinematographer in Jack Cardiff but I think when all was said and done it wasn’t, in its way, what CARRIE was.”
Mixed feelings would accompany his next horror project, as well. Returning to the King universe, Cohen was hired to adapt King’s massive tome IT for an ABC miniseries. Like GHOST STORY, the complexity of King’s novel would prove too diverse to be condensed in a four-hour time frame. Originally a project that was to stretch over 10 hours and be directed by horror maestro George Romero, IT ultimately became a victim of the network.
“The network, as networks will do, tended to get nervous about the commitment of the money and the length of time so we went from 10 hours to eight hours to six hours to, finally, four hours at which point George had a movie to do and he left,” says Cohen. “The parts of IT I like I like because they resemble the parts of the book. It’s the most successful to me where it’s much the same, particularly the first two hours, the part with the kids. The adult part is more difficult because they’re trying so hard to condense what was 500 pages in the book.”
Just three years later, in 1993, found himself against television constraints again as he adapted King’s science-fiction novel THE TOMMYKNOCKERS for another miniseries. Cohen says it was a troubled production from the beginning with original director Lewis (CUJO) Teague being fired just two days into photography and replaced by John Power.
“It’s not my favorite. There are parts I like but, again, it was one of those experiences where some come out better than you had hoped and some come out, for all sorts of reasons beyond your control, not so well. THE TOMMYKNOCKERS falls more into the latter category,” he says.
“I thought we’d gone in with a script that was pretty good and pretty much like what Steve had written and I thought four hours was plenty of time to do the piece justice. I like certain things about it a lot. I think the whole notion of the effect of the spaceship and excavating it was a remarkable metaphor for addiction and the effects of it got interesting. There are things in it I take pleasure in and are fond of but, no, I’d say it’s not at the top of my King adaptations.”
Sitting much higher up on that list is his script for the TNT series NIGHTMARES AND DREAMSCAPES episode “End of The Whole Mess”. King’s short story was first published in Omni before appearing in the author’s collection from which the TV series took its name.
Cohen’s script was nominated for a Writers Guild of America award for episodic drama in 2007.
“It was brought to me by Bill Haber who used to be head of television for CAA and he’s made this deal with TNT to do this anthology of Steve’s stories,” explains Cohen. ” He brought the particular one to me, it was not one that I chose, and I read it and had a very strong and visceral emotional response to the story. It was a very uncharacteristic King in many respects because it wasn’t the typical horror or scare King, it was much more STAND BY ME. I thought the ability of being able to tell the story of these two remarkable brothers who set out to sort of save the world with this typical King twist was great.”
Cohen may not be done with adaptations of King’s work. He tells SHOCK he’s been actively involved in turning the Maine author’s novella “The Sun Dog” into an independent film. While the project has “got very close” it’s yet to make it out of the gate.
“I realized, with astonishment, that it’s been 40 years since I was this fresh kid out of college who sat down and read the manuscript of CARRIE and in those four decades there’s been a really interesting relationship with Steve’s material and Steve,” says Cohen, adding he’s currently writing a book about that relationship.