Following in the Big Apple footsteps of his Citizen Jane: Battle for the City from 2016 and last year’s Studio 54, the latest slice of New York history from the documentary filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer is Where’s My Roy Cohn?, about the late, notorious Manhattan lawyer and political lever-puller. Or is the film about Donald Trump, Cohn’s protege, who once asked the titular question? The American director has answers.
Given that the Donald Trump quote that inspired the film’s title is not actually mentioned in the film, might the title be confusing to some people?
I assumed that everyone in the world knew that quote. But I’m willing to be proven wrong on any assumption that I make. A part of my style of filmmaking is to be slightly oblique. I don’t like to hit things on the head. The question ‘Where’s my Roy Cohn?’ is a literal quotation from Trump, probably the first time a sitting president has named a movie. It doesn’t bother me if people don’t quite know what it is. It would, in fact, please me if they found out about the title when they went to read or researched further on what they just saw.
About being oblique, were you wary of not hammering the point that Cohn begat Trump?
I think Trump’s greatest desire is for everything to be about Trump. This movie does not give him that satisfaction on the surface level. However, I would argue that even though the section of the film in which Trump appears is two-thirds of the way in, every minute of the film is really about him. Because he is the most powerful man in the world, and this movie’s raison d’etre is to show the world where this monster comes from.
Was the mentor-student relationship of Cohn and Trump well defined as it was happening?
People who knew both men at the time say that Cohn saw Trump as a protégé and a kind of final project. It seems to me that Trump is actually unteachable, except maybe for this period of his life when he absorbed all of Cohn’s nefarious techniques. Whether it was purposeful or just by osmosis, I can’t say.
Even though he’s called all sorts of awful names in it, do you think Cohn would have enjoyed this film?
I found myself wondering the same thing, and generally concluding that he would like the movie. It would probably be like a porno movie for him, he being a narcissist. I mean, 97 minutes, all about you. He loved his scoundrel persona. Also, what a great honour to be talked about more than 30 years after your demise. But the film’s no tribute film to him. My opinion of him, I think, is quite clear.
I was struck by your interview subjects. They seemed to be upbeat even as they called Cohn evil. Did they like him?
I was struck as well of how smilingly the people speaking against him did so. Part of his persona was the lovable monster. And people who knew him used those exact words to describe him. I think it was part of the technique he used to get away with things. In the gangster movies, he would have seen as a young man, the gangsters were frequently charismatic. They had a certain élan. They killed with a smile on their face on occasion. That was evidence of sociopathic behaviour, which I think Cohn is also guilty of. There are people with great liberal credentials who were appalled by his politics and all the things that he did, who just couldn’t help but like him. They said he was charming and gossipy and fun to be around. In fact, the former editorial director at Random House, Jason Epstein, who is brilliant and left-wing, was also a friend of Cohen. He kept saying to me, ‘You would have liked him.’ I found it hard to believe, but it was a common theme.
Trump declined to be interviewed for the film, but if he wasn’t a politician do you think he would have spoken about Cohn with you?
I have no doubt in my mind that he would have been first in line to speak about Cohn. I think he would have enjoyed it immensely and had a smile on his face. It clearly would have been a happy experience for him to recall the life and times of his hero. I don’t think that speaks well of him, but I’m very confident that would have been the case.
Where’s My Roy Cohn? opens Oct. 4.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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