Daniel M. Cohen ('Diamond Men')
"A True Jewel of a Caper"
’Diamond Men’ is Dan Cohen’s debut as a Director. The script evolved from his family’s three generations in the diamond business and an intimate knowledge of small town Pennsylvania. Dan previously wrote, produced and played a lead role in ‘93s ’The Whole Truth’ starring alongside Dyan Kane and Jim Willig.
Dividing his time between Los Angeles and Lancaster, Pennsylvania (where he has worked as a journalist and television reporter), writer-producer-director Dan Cohen’s credits also include Executive Producer on ‘85s ’Private Passions’, 2nd Unit on ‘92s ’Blue Ice’, and writer of filmography for the ’95 TV series, ‘Hudson Street.’
Before coming to film, Dan worked part time in the family business for the best part of fifteen years while at the same time pursuing his interests in journalism and film. After his father died in the mid-eighties, he ran the family business for a while. But the call of writing and directing eventually led to the creation of both ’The Whole Truth’ and finally now, ’Diamond Men’.
’Diamond Men’ is a story about how after 30 years on the road a veteran jewelry salesman is forced to show his young replacement the tricks of the trade. Eddie Miller (Robert Forster) has been selling jewelry to small stores in Pennsylvania for 30 years. After suffering a heart attack, he is told that he is no longer “insurable” to carry a line worth over a million dollars. The only way Eddie can continue to work in the business he clings to for support is by breaking in his own replacement, Bobby Walker (Donnie Wahlberg), a brash kid whose every move rubs him the wrong way. But when the kid introduces him to the ladies of the "Altoona Riding Club," the old dog is introduced to a whole new set of "tricks!”
Chatting with Dan over the phone, I first wondered where the subject matter first originated for ‘Diamond Men’ ? ”I’ve been working with an agent and writing scripts for a while and I needed to write a low-budget script because I knew I could get my hands on a little bit of money if I could come up with the right story. I had a background in the jewelry business and my Uncle and I – who plays ‘Tip’ in the movie – were sitting and talking over dinner one night and he said, ‘Why don’t you do something that you know and in a place you know you can shoot? You know, something about an older guy, a younger guy, something like that.’ So, I told him that we’d do a thing about the older guy getting replaced by the younger guy and by the end of the movie he runs off with all the diamonds! And we laughed about it ‘cause it was kind of a joke, but then I went home and wrote it!”
From the moment you laughed about it to the moment you finished the screenplay, how long was that? ”I either write quickly or at such a snail’s pace that it’s disgraceful! This, soup to nuts - one decent draft - was about four weeks. I’ve done a lot of writing. I used to write on deadline as a newspaper reporter for quite a while and if I know what I’m doing I can do it pretty quickly. Now, I modified the script slightly every week for the next year, but basically there were very few changes in it. But, yeah, it was written quickly.”
Carrying $1,000,000 worth of diamonds around in a briefcase in the trunk of a car in broad daylight … does this still actually happen in the world that we live?! ”Oh my God, it certainly does! As we speak there are guys going to downtown Detroit who are carrying lines … and that’s a $1,000,000 in wholesale. It doesn’t take much in the way of diamonds to get up to $1,000,000. It’s more likely now that people are insured for that, but very often – when I did that business – I was insured, and this is a long time ago, at wholesale for about $400,000 to $500,000! Now, with inflation being what it is, I think I would have to have at least a $1,000,000!"
Having done this job for as long as I have, I tend to figure things out halfway through a movie and so I’d already figured out that he was wily enough to have thought about stashing away the real diamonds and leaving only the fake ones in view, but … ”You actually thought that? Well, good for you. You should be a script-writer,” he laughs. ”You know that’s good thinking ‘cause when I was in the business I got robbed once. And none of us ever thought to do that in the three generations that we were in this business, until after that happened. ‘Cause, you know what happens, when they did get in the trunk to get the stuff – when I got robbed - they took everything: My clothes, my typewriter, but I didn’t ever think to cut a hole in the trunk before that!”
Was Donnie (Wahlberg) brought in before ‘Boomtown’ hit NBC ? ”Yes. My Casting Director sent me a lot of tapes of actors and Donnie stood out. In his tape I could see that he was a good dramatic actor, but also that he had humor. Which is unusual and it wasn’t forced. It was a part of his personality.”
Do you think you lucked out that Donnie was hitting it big on ‘Boomtown’ at the same time that this movie hit home video? ”Well, for the video and television is a good thing, but Donnie was offered so many projects, a lot of movies, but he’s turned down a lot of what he’s been offered and you could say we lucked out. And ‘Boomtown’ may well have been cancelled, but Donnie certainly didn’t go away. He’s one of the leads in ‘Dreamcatcher’ which comes out soon.”
And the movie was dedicated to your father ”Yes, it was. He’s who the main character is modeled after. It was a personal note which means nothing really other to those who would know or who would bother to find out. The whole movie in a way I was addressing – not that I’m on the same level – was Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ ('51) In my household as a kid, I remember the impression of that. Every few years they’d remake the movie or it would be on television, and in our household that was a significant issue because my father was anything but Willy Loman. So, when I wrote this character it was to show another whole side to this character. I mean, this character was full, had a rich life and had no regrets about where he’d been or where he was going. So, in my own way I wanted to do that and also acknowledge the influence of my father in helping to creative a foundation from which I later developed these skills.”
What was the deal with the tattooed ‘blinking’ eye? ”Yeah, but the whole eye – by the way – is digitized, because we really couldn’t get it right! I took it to a very good effects house and gave them some miserable pictures that I’d drawn and they came up with some treatments and then literally created the whole thing digitally.”
Why have it blink though? ”Well, it was something that I wrote and always wondered about. It’s the idea that it’s in Robert’s mind what’s going on. And the eye is one thing, but in his minds-eye it’s a sorta scary, funny thing. And it’s a joke really, you know. Some people they see it right away and some people don’t. It’s like any other decision, but my view is that a lot of independent films are kinda tame. They don’t step over the line and they stick to certain boundaries and I just think that the material dictates what you do and what you don’t do. I wasn’t interested in making an art film, I was just interested in making the film as good as I could make it.”
It also seems that Robert (Forster) was 'busy' as his name pops up three different times in the credits! ”Oh yeah, well the third time it’s his son. That was his son that worked on the technical crew. Robert was, and boy, you are observant, named as Executive Producer due to a negotiation between myself and his management because he came on for a very little salary. And, really he was coming off so many other things that his name brought a huge contribution to the films credibility. Which I was glad to do.”
And you yourself also claim to be the ‘Errand Boy’ in the credits! ”Oh yeah, that was a joke,” he laughs. ”I did a lot of running around. Too much for two years and change, you know.”
What was the hardest part of making this film? ”The hardest part is getting it distributed. The hardest thing is when you’re done with it; even if it’s really strong, critics have to discover it and then re-discover it because the industry was just saying no. And the way that they say no is they take it and you never hear from people. Then it comes out and our first review; a rave review is in the Washington Post and the picture plays for sixteen weeks. That’s the only way the picture stays alive or gets validated because the industry has no interest in it.”
So how long did it take you? ”Well, we were in theatres for over a year and toward the end of that time distributors became interested in it for video and television because the film was making an impression.”
What was the most satisfying part of the final product? "The fact that it edited together and that it was a coherent movie,” he laughs. ”That was a very satisfying and very calming. Basically, I think there are two stages to this: One is seeing what critics said, and two is sitting in an audience full of people and seeing people enjoying the movie. I think that meant more to me than anything else.”
Is there anything in reflection you would change in this movie now? ”Well, you know, I consider myself so lucky on this project because it’s 93% of what I ever thought it would be. I honestly want to walk away from this as lucky as I’ve been and hope that I’m half as lucky on the next one,” he laughs again.
And, what is the next project? ”Well, I’ve written a number of scripts, but I think there’s one that has a possibility of getting done. I’ve written a thriller and it’s a complicated story with a simple premise: It’s about a collision between two women who should never meet. A rural woman from the middle of nowhere who thinks that she has reason enough to believe that her dead son impregnated this career woman in a big city. And so she goes to the city to find this woman, ‘cause this is the only legacy, and ends up kidnapping her and dragging her back to the middle of nowhere and chaining her to the bed so she can get the baby! So, that’s what I’m onto right now. The script is right now with a couple of producers and Im trying to see who was very serious about getting it made.”
Have you seen any recent movies that have stood out to you as ambitiously creative and such? ”Well, there’s been so many good ones lately, that it’s been amazing to me how many good films that I’ve seen. I missed one that I really wanted to see which was this Scottish film called ‘Morvern Callar’ (Lynn Ramsey – ‘Ratcatcher’
). I really wanted to see that, but it only played in LA for two weeks, but I loved ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.’ I thought it was just an amazing piece of work. I listened to George Clooney talk about it and now I think George Clooney is a movie God! I mean, he directed the thing and acted in it and was great on both levels.”
If you could remake any movie, which one would you love to have a crack at? ”You know, that’s so tough. I used to be a movie critic and there are so many I like. You know, I wish I had the skill to make ‘Confessions …,’ because if I’d seen the script it might have scared the living daylights out of me. I would have wondered how to handle this! But, yeah, if I could suddenly get onto a set and redo something for the studios I’d like to remake ‘Peyton Place’ (’57) for 2003. In addition to being a great movie about growing up it’s about all these issues that all these people are concerned about right now. It’s about a murder, and an abortion in a small town, and hypocrisy, and people’s attitudes towards sex. You’ve got to see it widescreen as it’s one of the most beautiful shot widescreen movies of that period. I’ve been pleasantly surprised the past few months that there have been number of really good big movies and a number of good small ones, and I’m hoping that since people have seemed to respond that more good ones are on the way. Whether it’s the Polanski film; which was subtle and yet complicated (‘The Pianist’), or ‘Chicago’ which is big and brassy and noisy, they’re pretty high quality stuff, you know.”
I agree, as there seems to be more of these movies than there ever used to be ”And here’s the reason, I think and they keep on writing about this and yet the studios are the last ones to seem to get this. There’s an aging audience that grew up on movies like ‘Five Easy Pieces’ (‘70) in the seventies and that audience now are forty-five to sixty, but they still wanna go to the movies, but they don’t wanna see the same thing that the teenagers see. They won’t put up with it.”
Finally, do you have any cinematic so-called ‘guilty pleasures?!’ ”Well, the other night I missed it because I took somebody to a movie, but I would love to have seen ‘La Dolce vita’ on the big screen again. I love Fellini, among all the great filmmakers because he went from doing the great dramas like ‘La Strada’ (’54) to doing these incredible films like ‘8 ½’ (’63) and ‘La Dolce vita.’ (’60)”
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
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