Meeting with Barney Cohen, Hollywood Writer/Producer
Recently, I had the good fortune to attend a Networking event hosted by Rock Riddle of Hollywood Success in Studio City, CA (hollywoodsuccess.com). The featured guest, was long-time Screen writer and Television producer, Barney Cohen, (With credits such as“Sabrina The Teenage Witch”, “Forever Knight”,”Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter”).
I was so inspired by what Barney spoke about, I felt the compulsion to write about it, and share a few nuggets with you, especially my fellow actors and writers. Barney was very gracious to agree to an interview. For your convenience as reader, here is Barney's IMDB link.
Interview with Barney
Hi Barney, Good to talk to you again. Let's talk about Sabrina The Teenage Witch. I see on IMDB that you were a writer on the original Sabrina television pilot, along with multiple writer credits on following episodes, as well as the “executive consultant” on ALL the “Sabrina” episodes. In day to day terms, what was your involvement and contributions?
I wrote and produced the Sabrina the Teenage Witch movie for Showtime and it was the movie that launched the series.
In my life, I have read over 400 Archie Comic Digests., thus was already a huge fan of “Sabrina The Teenage Witch”. So a personal Thank you for creating this show!...... Where do you hail from originally?
I’m a New York boy, born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens, lived most of my adult life on Manhattan’s “Upper West Side” until I decided to come to California.
What is a short summary of your career path? Was it typical? or did you take unusual turns?
Unless you’re a film school kid, the roads to filmmaking vary. I was a college poet, became a Madison Avenue copywriter and then a creative director, gave it all up in a fit a passion to become a journalist so I could add something to world more meaningful than movie posters, and then, when somebody wanted to make a movie out of one of my articles, I became a screenwriter. I’m a lucky man. I Never waited tables or drove a cab (although I did drive a dump truck for a while, and then an M-60 tank, but that’s another story).
How did your work as a writer come to include working as a producer?
When you get successful enough at the screenwriting game, they give you a producer credit, and extra money, mainly just to keep you writing for them. One day I found myself on a set, the movie was “Next Door,” which starred James Woods and Randy Quaid and Kate Capshaw directed by Tony Bill, and the producer was a no-show. So there I was, sitting in a director’s chair that said “Executive Producer” on the back. People started asking me what to do about this or that thing as if I was actually the producer. I played along and by the end of the shoot, guess what? I was actually a producer.
I never considered another career. In fact, I never considered this career. I knew I was going to be “a man of letters” and I let the words take me wherever they wanted to take me. In a sense, I am a character in my own life, buffeted this way and that by where the life has taken me.
What were a few of the most critical steps you made, crediting your success in Los Angeles?
Los Angeles took me by surprise. I had come out West because my kids wanted to be there and my plan was to retire after a relatively successful “fly over” career where my writing was done in my New York City apartment and “lunches” were held in “Hollywood.” However, when I got to LA, I found that a lot of people still wanted to have lunch. The movie chase is way more fun than chasing golf balls into the woods so I retired from retirement. I think the most critical step to success in Hollywood, or anywhere, is to have lunch. Always have lunch. And never have lunch alone.
Can you identify and share one of your first big breaks in the industry? How did that break come about?
The magazine article of mine that the producer wanted to make into a movie never saw the light of day, but the guy who wanted to direct it, liked the script and so he hired me to write a CBS “After School Special.” Another director liked the kid characters in that TV show and wanted me to write a horror feature that would have “realistic kids” like in the special. That movie was “Friday the 13th: the Final Chapter.” The one where little Corey Feldman “kills” Jason.
I know you might prefer to be humble, but let me be direct with my question. What unique talent, or degree of hard work, within yourself can you claim as a major credit for your success so far? What are your true strengths?
Writing is the sum total of your experience on your planet, expressed back to that planet and other planets. I’ve been a lot of places, done a lot of things, and I’m still doing it. Problem is, you can’t start out with experience. I guess that’s why they invented “film school.”
Advice for Writers
What kind of advice do you have for writers just starting out?
Write your ass off. Build up a body of work. Throw most of it out. Figure out how to get people to read the rest.
Can you comment on special skills? special training? Networking? Mentorship?
I don’t believe that you can teach writing, or learn it. You have what you have, and the best you can do is hone it. Yes, there’s craft, there are books that can teach that, and teachers who can teach it. But craft isn’t writing. Remember lunch? Lunch is for mentors, and other people who can help you along the way. And don’t just be “eating up.” Have lunch with people who you feel are below you on the ladder. “Eat down” too, because in their zeal to make you their mentor the conversation can help organize and concentrate your thinking about things, and they just may happen to know someone that they’re too shy to contact directly but who can help you along. Yes, a cut throat business sometimes.
Any special surprises they should be ready for within the industry?
The first rejection doesn’t hurt any more or less than the 100th.
Can you share any interesting writing room anecdotes? Feel free to keep it anonymous, of course.
I once found myself in a story meeting with producers and a director who was defending a typo in the script. He didn’t realize it was a typo, of course, and it didn’t change the meaning of the dialogue all that much, but the producers were adamant and he was just as adamant. When we met outside in the hallway later, I mentioned to him that it was a typo. He said he realized that about halfway into the discussion but he’d lost too many fights in a row and he was determined not to lose this one.
Generally, as a writer, how often does a request for writing come to you, and how often are you pitching original product?
I prefer to pitch stories and concepts I’m comfortable with. Picasso said, “Art is stronger than the mind.” I’m no Picasso, but I feel the same way. It’s much easier for me to write what I want to write than to write what someone else wants me to write. That said, when the check is good, I do take assignments.
Let's talk about "Forever Knight". How did that show come about?
I wanted to do a Spock like character, half this and half that. I fumbled around for a while before I came up with a vampire detective. When I pitched it, the exec asked. “Is he a detective who hunts vampires or a vampire who works as a regular detective?” I could have gone either way but I sensed that a yes depended on my answer so guessed the latter. I was right.
What was it like having a partner in James D. Parriott?
Never met the man. I created the show, it got rewritten, I got a story credit on the original movie (Rick Springfield played “Nick Knight”) and then surfed the show all the way to the series finale.
How do you explain it's phenomenal success over 70 episodes and three seasons?
I’m very character-driven, and I like dualities. Geraint Wyn-Davies did an excellent job with this duality, but so did Rick Springfield. I often think that the key element in the success of the series was Geraint’s blonde hair. It was such a departure from the slicked down “Bela Lugosi” look that he seemed more real than prior vampires. Also, we’ve all got our problems. Nick’s was vampirism. He didn’t revel in it. He suffered with it the we all suffer from whatever it is we think we’re suffering from. Pain sometimes tells us who we are. Joy too, but while its day in the sun is more powerful than pain, it is briefer. Wait a minute, did I say that out loud?
Barney, you were speaking to a group of actors and producers last month about the various degrees how a writer is involved, or not involved with production phase of Film, TV and Theater, can you elaborate on that perspective?
- In theater, writer is King.
- In Film, the writer is rarely involved.
- In Television, the writer's (Executive Producer, or Writer EP) position is some where in between Film and TV, and is more like theater.
Let's talk about actors
I know you have dealt with many actors over the years. What have you seen in actors that stood out to you as successful traits, that made them really succeed in television? - that made you want to hire them?
The great John Huston once said, “I don’t direct actors. I hire actors who like to do a certain thing and I let them do that thing.” I always “cast” actors while I’m writing because they do a thing I want my characters to do. It’s not realistic to expect them to actually be in the production, the late Cary Grant could be cast opposite Jennifer Lawrence (who is probably just as ungettable for me). I do it so I can watch them play the characters I’ve assigned them, much easier to spot mistakes that way. If I’m not comfortable the way my fantasy actor plays the scene, there’s something wrong with scene because nothing’s ever wrong with Cary Grant or Jennifer Lawrence. Obviously, when I’m looking to cast an actual production, the elements of fantasy cast come into play. Everyone should have a niche. A thing that they do. Makes it easier for writers and producers to slot you into whatever they’ve got that fits your niche.
Have you, or your production team ever written with a certain actor in mind, BEFORE the show was cast? If so, was that actor eventually cast in the role?
At what points and under what conditions have actors been able to work with the writers, in terms of changing a line or having input on their own characters unique style of speaking for the show?
I am always open to actor input. I can confidently say that in more than most of my movies, the best line of dialog was an ad lib or something otherwise added by an actor. Good actors are really writers, directors and film editors, they’re just too lazy to take on those jobs.
Have you ever hired or recommended an actor for a project who was still starting out,
or who did not have a lot of credits? If so, can you offer an example? How did you find them?
I’ve never had the situation where I’m sitting in a café and I look at someone and think, “perfect!” Well, I have, of course, but not for movie-making. I know that a lot of film people put a lot of emphasis on interview. I prefer to look at tape. Interviewing can reveal the real person inside the actor but I’m simply not talented enough to translate that to film so I’m looking for the “reel” person inside the actor.
Barney, you were speaking to the group last month, addressing actors especially,
about "Having a deep appreciation for what you do". Can you elaborate on that?
Yes, “We are suffering for our art”. Maintain a real sense of appreciation for what you do.”
Barney's Advice on Networking
As you continue to network in the industry, how and where do you meet most of your future production partners, and actors?
When I first came to LA I told myself that I’m not going to “work” the parties. I Didn’t want to be a “Hollywood Asshole.” That reticence lasted about a year, which may be a show business record. Parties are important. Have a way to “niche” yourself in an elbow pitch.
While speaking to the group last month, you offered us some great advice on Networking
I also noticed that at your speaking engagement, you wore a Masonic Ring, and a military Tanker Pin on your lapel. Please tell us more about why.
I suggest that you wear something on your person that might spark a conversation.” That might include a tattoo on your skin, or a flag on your lapel. It's so simple a thing, when others notice these small items, they often start a conversation with me. They might ask, “Are you a Mason? Were you in the military?” It makes socializing easier for everyone involved.
When my daughter came to LA she asked me questions like, how do I stand out. Off the top of my head I said, order a Coke at the bar and ask for a slice of orange. It tells people you have your own unique sensibilities, about which they might want to know more. It also tells them that you’re not a drunk.
You also gave actors some good advice on how to present themselves. Can you repeat that here?
Actors should always be acting. Always acting as the character they wish to be on screen. Make up some shtick. If not doesn’t work, make up some other shtick. I knew an actor who had an absolutely un-placeable accent. We got drunk once and he admitted to me that he had made it up. He was from Baltimore but had done two years at Oxford. The accent was an Oxonian take on Baltimore “street.” He’s having a long career as an episodic actor. Think of one line that describes who you are, for example, 'I am voice actor who works every week.' You need to define what your thing is. Make your own character.
I agree with you on this. Of course later, as a more established actor, you can play broader roles, but in the beginning of your career, you need to be type cast just a bit, so people know how to cast you.
What projects are coming up next for you?
My feature film, GERNIKA, a war & romance story set against the bombing of Guernica in Spain debuted at the Malaga Film Festival in Spain and is making the rounds of the film festival. I’m still doing the pop-culture stuff though. I have a “supernatural cop” hour drama at Sony Pictures Television and I’ve acquired all rights to re-boot the iconic Western hero, Hopalong Cassidy.
If a writer or actor is interested in connecting with you. Can you spell out exactly how you like to be approached?
With a smile. I hate sullen artists. Actually, I hate being approached by actors because, although they’re the most important part of a movie or TV series (James Woods once told me, “Writers are just lures for talent”) they are the last thing added to the mix. The exception of course is that you’re bringing something that can start the mix, a splendid concept for instance, or you’re sleeping with Jennifer Lawrence.
Barney's Invitation to Serious Screenwriters
Barney, you told us all in the room that you likes and accepts pitches. When you said that, I had to check my ears, and yes, I heard you correctly. Writers - Do you realize what an opportunity this is, what a gift that Barney is offering us? Sitting in front of us, is a majorly accomplished screenwriter and producer offering us his time and attention. Up and coming writers can pay large sums for those opportunities in Cash, at ticketed Networking events, and wait in long lines to meet this level of producer. Many writers spend years carefully networking, and building their reputations to get the audience of a major, successful writer or producer.
I especially like to be pitched a script with enough room for me to write. I am in a position to pitch it to the studios, and I know primarily people in television.
Can you offer some examples of people who have approached you with as little as just a concept?
Sure, some of those concepts are now in development, or even completed projects. “Demon Squad” is a pilot, a supernatural cop story, set in New York, with some people form “Blacklist” attached to it.
“Golden Arrows” is a feature, like a “300” for females. Also, “Lurid Tales LA.” is another example. I tend to be known for kids and horror.
Thank you for your valuable time! See you for a lunch, perhaps.
About Barney Cohen
Creator of the USA Networks vampire-detective series "Forever Knight" (one of the TV Guide "25 Top Cult Shows Ever!") and writer/producer of the even longer-running "Sabrina the Teenage Witch." Also, the writer/producer of the feature film "Gernika". He is currently in active development on three additional feature films.