William Hurt on producer Arthur Cohn

Actor William Hurt and producer Arthur Cohn of “The Yellow Handkerchief” are both Academy Award winners who are utterly dedicated to their craft.  Hurt won an Oscar for his mesmerizing performance in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and received his fourth Oscar nomination for playing a gangster in “A History of Violence” (2005).  Cohn (“The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” “One Day in September”) has won six Academy Awards, more than any other producer, and has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  The two artists have collaborated for the first time in Cohn’s new film, “The Yellow Handkerchief, in which Hurt plays an ex-con who joins two troubled teenagers (Kristen Stewart and Eddie Redmayne) for a road trip through Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Louisiana.

Hurt has spoken to other publications about the research he undertook for the role, including spending a night in a maximum security prison in Angola, Louisiana.  The Journal wanted to know how the veteran actor perceived Cohn, who is as known for his ardent Zionism as he is for his illustrious career.  Here are excerpts from Hurt’s emailed response to our questions:

JJ:  What did you find unique about working with Arthur Cohn as a producer?

WH:  I really have never met a producer like him. It is impossible to describe him in any complete way.  Yes, he does have [a] contentious side and can be brutally (wonderfully, refreshingly)… direct, but in the simplest way I can now muster, my condensation of his inestimable value is that he “stands his ground.”  And he stands it right in front of you, unlike many producers who are somehow never there when they might be taken to task. Many of that job description have an astonishing knack for disappearing just exactly at the moment when frustration ripens into the courage to confront them about anything that might smack of lack on their part. But this man literally stands on the film set, quietly, attentively, in his light gray suit and yellow tie, a Swiss patrician, if you will, hour after sweltering hour in the endless, thick Louisiana heat… committing himself to a spiritual and physical loyalty to the work at hand.

JJ:  Arthur Cohn’s attention to detail on a film is legendary.  Can you give me an example that impressed you on the set?

WH:  The number of instances is innumerable. His stamina is as deservedly legendary as his concentration. There was one night, for example, when we were filming very, very late on a back road in Louisiana not far from the outer parameters of Angola Prison. The scene involved a car accident when a deer leaps in front of the headlights and Eddie Redmayne’s character, slightly distracted, cannot react in time to avoid hitting it.  [Hurt describes extreme technical difficulties with the scene]…We had finally decided to try to go for it all in a wide, detail-masking “master” and forget the close-ups, a real abdication per the script as written.

Arthur steps forward and in his exotic thick Swiss-German accent, says, “but this is not the scene, no?” And he furrows his brow at me and Eddie and [director of photography] Chris [Menges], with a face only he can make, a kind of intense, innocent yearning, a quest-full face, [that] says, “is it?” We had been stymied for an hour, already, and every one of us was upset. “No,” Chris said, “but we can’t think of anything else.” Now, Chris Menges is simply one of the greatest cinematographers in the world, a master, and also another wonderfully honest, immensely considerate man. For him to say what he did was equivalent to Samson with his beard in full bloom saying, “These pillars are too much to handle.” For my personal buck, if Chris says it, it’s true. But Arthur said, with all that famous, bona fide yearning earnestness (and the accent, and the suit, and the tie), “but then, don’t we have to keep trying?”

He didn’t yell and he didn’t get upset (though he can, on occasion), and we just stood there, together, in a short but seemingly long, excruciating moment of loving, humiliated togetherness, all hanging our heads in silent communion against the challenge. Then, after that, we got started with the “what ifs this and what ifs that,” and we found a solution.  He didn’t barge in and he didn’t meddle in our territory as artists; he just kept at it when we thought we couldn’t.