Producer Arthur Cohn was first mentioned in Variety on Feb. 20, 1962, when the documentary he produced, “Sky Above, Mud Beneath,” was nominated for an Oscar. The doc, “Le Ciel et la boue,” directed by Pierre-Dominique Gaisseau, underwent a few title changes over the years, and ended up winning the prize for 1961. Cohn has continued to flourish, winning Oscars for two more documentaries — “One Day in September” and “American Dream” — and producing numerous other films, including “The Etruscan Smile,” released this year in the U.S. by Lightyear Entertainment. Cohn also produced three films that won the foreign-language Academy Award: “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” “Black and White in Color” and “Dangerous Moves.” The Swiss-born Cohn worked as a journalist, saying that career taught him how to spot original and special stories unfolding in everyday life. He says his films were inspired by current events and his Jewish heritage.
What attracted you to the subject matter of “Sky Above, Mud Beneath”?
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I came across Pierre Gaisseau, who was a guy from France. He was not very well-known, but he had excellent ideas.
It was his idea to make a film in New Guinea. I wanted to make the film to show the people of my world that
luxury is not necessary for success. Luxury can help in certain particular instances, but luxury is not a reason to be happy.
What was the reaction?
The subject matter was very exotic, especially for American audiences. Joseph Levine, the legendary distributor, approached me after I won the Oscar and showed interest in distributing my movie in the U.S., but he had no funds to invest in the advertisement. He offered me a generous percentage of the potential income. The film was successful, and it laid the foundation for my film career.
What did “Sky Above, Mud Beneath” teach you?
It taught me how right I was, that everything depends on the quality of the script. The rest can come, but if the subject matter is not original, and special, and outstanding, you can forget about the whole thing. I spend at least two years until I have a script that is ready to go, and then I make the film.
When you lived abroad, how did you stay abreast of the American film market?
I came to Los Angeles three times a year to get the feeling of what is of interest. It was very important because America is the main market. In Europe, they listen to America. Especially when it is an unusual film. If you have a film with [Martin] Scorsese and he has two top stars, that is already a giant film. But I’m talking about smaller films.
You started as a journalist. How did it influence you?
After I finished high school in Basel, Switzerland, I became a sports reporter. Slowly but surely I expanded my field of interest. As a journalist, I regularly wrote analyses of the political situation in the Middle East. This interest shaped me as a documentarian. Documentary filmmaking demanded one quality that I learned as a sports reporter and political analyst: an inquisitive eye for observing reality.