A decade or so after we first met, director Rob Cohen is as passionate about filmmaking as he was, even when the industry turns against him. With the failure of his big-budget Stealth, Cohen remains circumspect about his life and career.
Now the father of triplets, he has been able to inject his personal passion about Chinese culture into the latest Mummy film, which catapults the audience into Ancient and post-World War 2 China. It was a typically honest Cohen that sat down with Paul Fischer.
Question: When you go through an experience like Stealth, does it give you a sense of disillusionment in this industry? Or do you kind of try and take it on the chin?
Cohen: Well, Stealth was my 29th movie, and this is my 30th, obviously. I had very few illusions about Hollywood, but it knocked me to my knees because of the bad behavior of people that claim to be my close personal friends. It also made me go into an introspective period of going, “What did I do wrong?” Because in Buddhism, you really are responsible for yourself and you cannot blame external forces. It’s either your karma or something you didn’t learn. You play your part in what happens.
And I looked at the movie again, after many months of wound-licking, and I said, “You know, I can see.” I got unlucky in some ways, in the sense that when I started the movie America wasn’t at war. And it was like a fantasy war film. And by the time we made it, we were at war and war is not a fantasy. War is a miserable, horrible reality. So, I went in thinking I was doing Top Gun but I came out with perhaps a very unpleasantly echoing realistic movie about a campaign of technological assassination that America was totally involved in.
Question: Is there a dichotomy between you being a Buddhist and a Hollywood film director? It seems a very interesting conflict between two different extremes.
Cohen: Well, I was in Hollywood long before I got interested in Buddhism. Buddhism came in the early 1990s and I had been here since 1971 doing this. And on the surface, it is. But on the practice, it really isn’t, because control of the ego and understanding the pain that comes from that aspect has, I think, really helped me be a better director and be a better person. Even on the set, the level of openness and non-paranoia–the, in a sense, detachment from a lot of the stuff I once was very attached to — really, I can thank the Buddhist teachings for that. I am not anywhere near the frantic, hyperactive, very anxiety-ridden person I was, like even when we first–
Question: When you were working with Vin Diesel on the first XXX, were you already into Buddhism at that point?
Question: Without which, you would have probably lost it, I suppose.
Cohen: I think, yes. I think that I could have been easily pushed beyond the breaking point by various factors on that movie. On my responsibility in the failure of Stealth I analyzed it this way. Number one, I became totally obsessed with the technology. I only was interested in doing a film in which ultimate Mach 3 speed and the creation of these jets and these dog fights and these sequences of action were all I really cared about. I really gave short shrift to the characters, I gave short shrift to the story, because I felt as long as I was doing aerial stuff that had never been done before, and I was making a video game–
Question: The rest would take care of itself.
Cohen: Yeah. And that was a mistake. On this one, I really anchored down on the characters, on getting the story right, on having humor– of which Stealth had none. So, I was trying to learn from mistakes and I accept that I made a movie of some technological sophistication that was very unsatisfying as a viewer experience.
Question: Were you embittered by the fact that Sony blamed you for that failure and thereby cancelled Sinbad as a result of that failure?
Cohen: Well, here are two very beautiful things that happened out of that. By them publicly blaming me, my career went very cold. I had had two massive hits in a row, one for Sony. It was very bitter and very painful to have people turn on me that had just recently benefited from me and didn’t have the faith to go, “Hey, you know, we win some, we lose some, let’s get on with our next movie.”
However, because my life slowed down dramatically, I really had a chance to analyze my life and meditate and get myself together again and focused on the better angels in my nature. And, as Lincoln said, I realized that I had broken up with the best woman I had ever been with and would ever find. And so I called her and begged forgiveness and we got married. And now we have triplets. So, I’m pretty sure that if that movie had been my third big summer hit in a row, I would have been off on cloud nine, I’d have had another movie right away. We’d be making Sinbad, I would have been off in China and I would have lost her.
Now maybe I would have awakened some time later and gone, “Oh God, what did I do?” You know, lying there with some bimbo and you go, “This is what my life is. I’m getting older and this is all I’m going to have now is this. And pretty soon I’m going to have to pay for it.” You know?
That was one, and the other one was that all of my thought work on Sinbad, all of my thinking about China and mythology and fantasy and Joseph Campbell and the whole thing, was thwarted, and through The Mummy it was released again. So, in the end, I got to make a better movie. Because I think the Mummy was always going to be a better story than Sinbad. And I got to do ultimately what I wanted in taking this franchise to this next stage.
Question: And if you do another XXX movie, you’ll be back with Vin again. Do you wanna do that?
Cohen: They don’t own the rights.
Question: Roth owns the rights.
Cohen: Roth owns the rights. And I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not. You know, it’s a possibility, but if I can find something new, you know, that is like not a repeat or an evolution of something I already explored, then of course I’m going to go with the new.
Question: When we talked on the XXX junket, I remember asking you if you would ever go back and do a small movie like Dragon, for example. And at the time, you said absolutely no way. Would you change your mind now that you’ve made these big movies, you’re now a father, you’ve experienced that kind of huge, cinematic world. Would you go back and do a smaller film again?
Cohen: Not right now. I wouldn’t say no, because I learned– I think I said this to you earlier today– when you say never, “I’m never having children again. I’m never getting married again. I’m never going to do a sequel.” Bam! There it comes! Right up your backside! [LAUGHTER] So, I wrote the biopic on Russ Meyer and I love the script and I love the story. And you know, that is one I wrote in my year in the wilderness of movie jail.
I wrote a small science fiction, very PG film about a boy in a mining colony on another planet and his robot dog that his uncle makes for him. And what happens when the boy starts to program the robot dog to be more and more doglike. And then the dog runs away out into beyond the colony and the boy goes after the dog. It’s a beautiful movie and it actually played a great role in my comeback, because Phil Tippett and I designed the dog, built the dog, and I took the script and the dog and the creature designs to each studio and made a full, in person presentation. To Stacy Snyder, to Mark Schmache, to Sherry Lansing, to this one and that one, all over everywhere but Sony. And everybody toyed with it. No one passed on it in the room. Everyone was totally intrigued. But they either felt it was too expensive for the genre, or whatever. But I could leave those meetings and I could feel, it was like, “Yeah, Stealth was the aberration. Stealth was not who this guy is. This guy is basically the guy who made Dragon, the Rat Pack, The Skulls, The Fast and Furious and XXX almost in a row. And yeah, he’s a smart guy, he’s not a stupid guy. But maybe the critics wanted you to believe that after Stealth.”
Question: Do you feel like you got back to your boyish enthusiasm for filmmaking doing Mummy?
Cohen: Oh yeah. My God, I was alive and alight with the joy of filmmaking. I mean it’s so much amazement when you’re shooting in a parking lot, a set built in a parking lot, that’s the Himalayas in 90 degree weather. I’m in shorts and T-shirts and flip-flops. And the actors are in their parkas. And you know in your head exactly how one day this illusion is going to be complete. You’re going to believe they’re in snow and ice. That it’s cold as hell. The wind is howling and the mountains extend all around you. You gotta love it.
Question: It makes you realize why you became a filmmaker in the first place.
Cohen: Yes, because the storytelling is so supported by an army of technical people and the power to evolve a narrative is so dynamic that it always re-energizes me. Because I begin to realize just how powerful a medium it is. And when you do a movie like this, which basically is the ultimate thing that the medium can do at this time.
Where you have an international production shot on four different continents, you have an international cast, you have the costumes of two different entire periods, 200 BC and 1947. You have a thousand visual effects, you’re creating armies of the undead, you’re reanimating the terra cotta army of Zion. You’re drawing from history, you’re drawing from fantasy, you’ve got creatures, you’ve got Yeti and three-headed dragons. Got all this stuff that you’re making up, and this one medium can actually do it. It can do it so that you can see it, you can hear it, you can feel it.
You can create a seismic event like an avalanche or the earth ripping apart. And it’s not like there are words and you’re counting on the audience’s imagination. You’re giving the audience your imagination and letting them really experience it. That’s a very, very, very powerful feeling. And my joy in making this movie was beyond anything I really had probably–
Question: Since the triplets. [LAUGHTER]
Cohen: [LAUGHTER] No, probably, the two films before that. Like The Rat Pack and Dragon, I had the same, absolute, total, 100 percent–
Question: This concludes your Dragon Trilogy.
Cohen: I hope so.
Question: Do you think you won’t break your cardinal rule and do another one if they come to you? If the studio comes to you and says, “We’d like to do another one with you at the helm?”
Cohen: It would be very tempting, but I’m not entirely sure. I love this cast. I love Maria, Brendan, John, Luke, and Isabella, Jet and Michelle. I mean I think we’d have to move the franchise again. And I think that’s what I have contributed is that you can take the Mummy out of Egypt and you can let it travel and breathe and grow and change cast and mix it up. And come up with something that has its homage to the originals, but strikes off.
Question: But you don’t know what you’re doing next, do you?
Cohen: I do not know. I’m getting to know my kids. They’re four months old and any moment that I’ve not been involved with The Mummy, I’ve been involved with the Mommy and the kids.
Question: The Mummy and the Mommy.
Cohen: This is the year of the Mommy and the Mummy. Mummy 3 and three kids. The synchronicity works. And the fact that my oldest son, who is 21, decided to take his junior year in Shanghai at Fudan University to learn Mandarin.