Fall 2008

A Storied Life

Since coming to America after the Czech Spring in 1968, Milos Forman has been committed to movies about people and their turbulent times. In films like Amadeus, Hair and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, he celebrated an artist's freedom of speech.

Photographed by Jessica Antola

Milos Forman - DGA InterviewMilos Forman tells stories. Some of them he tells on film. Many more he tells in person, one-on-one, as he recently did on a muggy New York summer day, sitting in the Central Park South apartment he has owned for more than 30 years, puffing a cigar, occasionally glancing out the window at the spectacular park view he enjoys from his high floor, and trying to explain to me in his fluent but strongly Czech-accented English why and how he makes movies the way he does.

Forman, now 76, has made just twelve features, three in his native Czechoslovakia in the '60s (Black Peter, The Loves of a Blonde, and The Firemen's Ball) and nine in the nearly four decades he has lived in the United States. Despite that relatively slim output, he is among the most honored filmmakers of his time. His second English-language picture, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), won Oscars for best picture and best director; and he repeated that feat nine years later, with Amadeus. He received the DGA Award for outstanding directorial achievement for both those films, too.

And this fall he will be the recipient of the Guild's DGA Honor, in recognition of his lifelong commitment to telling strong, interesting, complex stories about human beings and their times. I found him an affable and plainspoken man who, unlike almost every other director I've met, was reluctant to speak about either the business or the technique of moviemaking. Whatever I asked him, he always seemed to bring the conversation back to a story about people—actors, collaborators, friends, teachers. And it struck me afterward that the story of Milos Forman and his unique career would have to be called The Last Humanist.

Terrence Rafferty: You must feel pretty good about getting the DGA Honor.

Milos Forman: It's always especially flattering to receive this kind of award from your peers. When I joined the Guild in 1971 while making Taking Off, I was so proud to be a member. I wish I'd used it more in those days.

Q: It's been an unusual career, though, in that you've made only nine movies in your almost forty years here, after having made three in a fairly short time in Czechoslovakia. Why is that, do you think?

A: It's a little bit because I'm just too lazy to work on something that really doesn't excite me. And it's funny, you know, when I was making Cuckoo's Nest, friends came to me before I started and said, "Don't touch it, you'll kill your career because it's such an American subject, you can't do it well. You'll hurt yourself." And I said, "What are you talking about? It's a Czech movie. For you it's a piece of American literature; for me it's real life. I lived it. The Communist Party was my Big Nurse. I know exactly what this is about."

Q: So you felt that you were bringing a specifically Czech sensibility to your work in the United States?

A: Well, I realized very quickly that there's not too much difference in the human spirit, between there and there, one place and another.

NEW YORK STORY: After his small-scale Czech films, making a
complex period piece like Ragtime was like playing with
a new toy for Forman. (Photo Credit: Photofest)

Q: Another thing that's not typical of an American director's career is that you spent a fair amount of time in the academic world here, teaching and running the film studies program at Columbia.

A: They asked me, sometime in the late '70s, to take over the film division and so I went there and I realized that yeah, a lot of things had to be done, because the school was then concentrating mainly on the technical aspects of filmmaking. Technically, you can learn everything on the set as an assistant director, and rather quickly. What you need is time to see a lot of movies, to discuss them endlessly until the wee hours of the morning with your colleagues. And that's the only real value of film school, the thing it can do better than anything else—to inspire, to lift the spirits. Because if you start in the business right away, as an assistant, you immediately start out serving somebody else's vision. But at the school you're allowed to do whatever foolish thing you want to do and you have the time to find yourself, to figure out where your own head is at.

Q: So you saw your mission as making film education less technical?

A: Yes, because when I saw the films the kids were doing, it was like they were all trying to do too much, to be Picasso right away. And I said, "No, you first have to show me that you can tell a story—I don't care if it's one minute, ten minutes, half an hour—a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And when you master that, you can do anything you want."

Q: What was your own film education like?

A: I've been so lucky in my career, at all the different steps. When I entered the film school at the Prague Academy in the '50s, it was the hardest time in the Communist countries. The ideological control of the society was almost absolute. And what happened was that many wonderful writers and directors were suddenly in disfavor with the authorities because they didn't conform to the ideology, and they were forbidden to publish or make movies. The state couldn't kill them, so what could it do with them to keep them out of the public eye? Let them teach. So we had the best teachers—wonderful, inspiring intellectuals, liberal thinkers—all because they weren't allowed to practice their art. Milan Kundera was my literature professor. He's a Francophile, so he made us read French novels like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which I made a version of many years later as Valmont.

Q: What made you want to go to film school in the first place?

A: I don't know why. One is born, I suppose, with some defective gene. Ever since I was a child I was fascinated by show business, the theater. My first experience as a theatergoer was totally surreal. I was 6 years old, it was right before World War II, and one Sunday afternoon my parents took me to the movie house, which was playing a silent version of the most popular Czech opera, The Bartered Bride by Smetana. I'd never seen a movie and I was very excited, seeing the curtain going up and the big screen and these images flickering on it, and then I see this company of dancers and singers opening their mouths like fishes, with no sound coming out. It was right before the Nazi tanks rolled in. And because this was the most popular opera, very Czech, for the people in the theater The Bartered Bride was a manifestation of patriotism. Everybody in the country knows the first song, and suddenly the whole audience started to sing to this silent movie. It was magic. It was surreal, but it was magic. I was hooked.

Q: Did you go to movies a lot after that?

A: No, because during the war nobody would give me money to go see a Nazi propaganda movie, and those stupidities were all you could see. I didn't see another film until I was 13. Sometime after the war I applied to drama school, and unfortunately—or fortunately—I was rejected, so I tried the film school and got in. And spending four years there, seeing hundreds of movies and talking every day to my friends, it became a passion.

Q: Do you remember the films that really impressed you then?

A: It was such a funny period. The biggest influence on all of us at the school at that time was Italian neorealism, because it put real people on the screen. We were able to see those films, and some of them were even allowed to be distributed for the public because they're critical of capitalist society and sympathetic to the working classes. But then one day we were shown at the school a film by Vittorio De Sica which we were told was not approved for distribution—Miracle in Milan, do you know it?

Q: A great movie.

A: One of the greatest films I ever saw; it's still in my top 10. Even today, I can remember faces of extras in that movie better than I can remember the stars of hundreds of films I've seen since then. It's so real, so true, so alive, and yet it's a fairy tale. Why was it banned for the public? Because at the end, the poor homeless people are on their brooms flying to a world that is more just than this one, and some of the Czech censors noticed that they were flying west. That's a no-no, because the salvation of mankind can only come from the east, from the Soviet Union.

HOMECOMING: The Firemen's Ball was Forman's last film
before coming to America.

Forman returned to Prague to make Amadeus with Tom Hulce (right).
(Photo Credits: (top) AMPAS; Warner Bros./Everett)

Q: It makes sense that this is one of your favorite films because your early movies have some of that poetic comic realism. I watched your first film, Black Peter, last night...

A: Oh, God.

Q: No, it's charming. A little like a Czech Billy Liar.

A: What you see in that movie, and in Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen's Ball, too, is the reaction of my whole generation in Czechoslovakia to the stupidity and artificiality of the so-called socialist reality we were living in. Everything was so fake; everything was propaganda. So our reaction was to put real people on the screen, real faces.

Q: Most of the actors in those movies were nonprofessionals, right?

A: One of the actors in Black Peter, the boy who played the tall stonemason, was a drama student. But the majority of the actors in my Czech films were my relatives and my friends. The star of Loves of a Blonde was the sister of my first wife, the father of the boy was the cameraman's uncle, one of the three soldiers was my dentist.

Q: Casting must have been tougher when you came to the United States.

A: Yes. I didn't know anybody.

Q: You came to live here in...

A: 1969. I had left Prague in 1968.

Q: Were you there when the tanks rolled in?

A: No, I was in Paris working with Jean-Claude Carriére on the script that finally became Taking Off. It was a shock, actually. No Czech believed that the Russians would dare to do it, that they would be so stupid.

Q: What was the biggest adjustment you had to make to American filmmaking?

A: There's really no difference in the process, all over the world. Language was the biggest problem for me. That's why for Taking Off, I wanted to bring my own cameraman, Miroslav Ondrícek, so I'd be able to communicate very clearly with my closest collaborator. The union resisted, but the DGA helped convince them that it was necessary. On the set, I like to let the actors improvise, but when I was making Taking Off I didn't understand a word they were saying. Fortunately, Buck Henry, who is a writer, was in the cast, and I could rely on him to tell me if something sounded wrong.

Q: Why did you settle in New York?

A: It's so banal. The first time I came was for the New York Film Festival in 1964, when Black Peter was selected. I'm being driven from Kennedy Airport and you go up a little rise and suddenly you see Manhattan. I tell you, this and a big black bear outside my window in Connecticut are the most powerful images I've ever experienced in my life. When I saw Manhattan appear like that, I thought, here is where I want to live. And then my next film, Loves of a Blonde, was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film, so I went to Los Angeles for the first time. I was very excited, but, you know, for somebody who was born in Central Europe, Los Angeles is psychologically not a place to work, it's a place to go on vacation—ocean, palm trees, golf courses, swimming pools, tennis courts. You feel guilty sitting in a room and working. So I knew I'd be more comfortable in New York.

STARTING OVER: Taking Off, with Buck Henry (left), about hippies and
their parents, was Forman's first American film. (Credit: Everett Collection)

Q: But wasn't it more difficult at that time to be a filmmaker on the East Coast rather than Southern California?

A: Not really. Again, I was lucky. When I arrived, there was the phenomenon of Easy Rider, a film that was made for peanuts and made millions. The studios decided that if suspicious characters like Dennis Hopper could make a successful film for under a million dollars, then they didn't even want to see the script. So when I came in with Taking Off, I asked for a peanut, they gave me a peanut. I didn't make millions, but I was able to make the film.

Q: Taking Off was your own original idea?

A: Yes. Originally I wanted to make a movie about hippies—I was fascinated with them but I didn't dare to become one. But when I was doing the research, talking to a lot of these kids and also with their parents, I realized that the kids were boring while their parents were going through dramas. So I shifted the emphasis. I was working with Jean-Claude Carriére, but my English was nonexistent at the time, and he's French, of course, so we brought in Jon Klein and John Guare.

Q: The movie wasn't a box-office success, but after that you were offered a pretty high-profile project, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. How did that come about?

A: Once again, luck. The producers, Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas, couldn't find any studio that would put up the money, so Zaentz decided to finance it himself, on a very, very small budget. Which meant—I'm sure they don't like to hear this—they couldn't afford an established great director. They were looking for somebody they could respect and who was cheap. That was me. The funny thing is that I had discussed Cuckoo's Nest with Kirk Douglas years before in Prague, when he was on a goodwill tour of the Iron Curtain countries. He'd seen Loves of a Blonde, and he asked if he could send me this book he had optioned but nobody wanted to make. I was in seventh heaven. Book never came. Kirk really sent it, but the censors and the customs officials confiscated it, and they didn't tell him and they didn't tell me. So I began to think he was just a guy who spins a young filmmaker's head around and then forgets about him the moment he leaves the room. And when we met again years later, he said to me, "You son of a gun, I sent you that book and you didn't even have the courtesy to answer me."

Q: One of the most striking things about that movie is the vitality of the ensemble scenes. Did you use multiple cameras for those?

A: We had maximum two cameras on the set, and even then it was a struggle, because I was working with Haskell Wexler—one of the greatest cameramen of all time, but a perfectionist. I would have scenes in which I would want one camera to concentrate on the actor who was the focus of the scene and another to just wander around among all the other faces, without telling the actors when they were on. That was very difficult for Haskell. He'd say, "I can't light everybody perfectly." But on the set you can only have one perfectionist, either the director or the cameraman, not both. Because, you know, the ideal shot for a cameraman is without actors. When there's nothing moving, the shot can be lit perfectly.

MAD MEN: Forman (center) captured the spontaneous, repressed
energy of a mental hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's
starring Jack Nicholson (right). (Credit: Saul Zaentz Co.)

Q: It seems that Cuckoo's Nest, with Jack Nicholson, and Man on the Moon, with Jim Carrey, are the only films you've made with really huge box-office stars.

A: I guess that's a remnant of the film culture in Czechoslovakia, which wasn't star-driven. The Communists, of course, hate stars, because they're afraid stars might become more popular with the public than politicians.

Q: The Communists wanted the cult of personality all to themselves...

A: And actors were just hirelings. I don't look at it that way at all, but I've always made my films on the principle that whoever can play the part best should get the part. If it's a star, fine. If it's a nonprofessional, that's fine, too.

Q: Using a non-star, or even a nonprofessional, would make the budgeting easier, I'm sure, but it might make financing harder.

A: That's not my concern. I've never worried about things like that.

Q: How do you not worry about it?

A: It's funny, but once you start making a movie you just follow your instincts and you don't deal with these outside pressures and speculations very much. You're just concentrating on whatever you think is good for the movie you're making.

Q: You need the protection of a good producer.

A: It's important to open the right door at the right time. Because Hollywood doesn't exist. Behind every door in Hollywood is a different Hollywood. It always depends on which door you open and at which time.

Q: Your most recent movie, Goya's Ghosts, must have been a tough sell.

A: It was a tough sell. I was fortunate to have Saul Zaentz, who is a collaborator, not a boss. He understood what I wanted to do and he let me do it. I'm sure he knew that it wasn't going to be a blockbuster.

Q: What was it that made you want to make that film?

A: Sometimes it's a sort of confusing process, how you come to a decision to make this film and not another one. Fifty years ago, when I was a student in Prague, I read a book about the Spanish Inquisition, and I couldn't believe what I was reading. I was reading about what was happening in my own country. The same horrors—making people confess to crimes they hadn't committed. At that time and in that place, I couldn't even think about making a film about a subject like that. But the seed was planted. And then in the '80s I was in Madrid with Zaentz, promoting Amadeus, and I went to the Prado Museum for the first time. And everything I had read about the Inquisition when I was a student in Prague was there, illustrated by Goya! And I began to think that putting Goya and the Inquisition together would make a movie.

Q: You've shown a lot of interest in artists and their problems in your movies, and in the importance of free expression.

A: Artists by nature are rebels. By nature. The conflict of individuals rebelling against institutions—that's McMurphy in Cuckoo's Nest. And it's a timeless conflict, a basic conflict. That's good for drama, good for story. We need institutions. We create them, we pay for them with our taxes, to serve us. So why do we always seem to wind up serving them? I think this was, is, and always will be the most substantial conflict of mankind.

Q: Rebellion against institutions is certainly a big theme in Hair, which was your next movie after Cuckoo's Nest.

A: I saw Hair in one of its first performances in New York back in the '60s, and even talked with [the playwrights] Jimmy Rado and Gerry Ragni about making the film. I didn't understand a word of the play at the time, but I loved the songs; they were so uplifting.

Q: Were you at all nervous about tackling a musical?

A: No, what made me feel schizophrenic when I started making Hair was its strong anti-war message. For me, anyone who fought Communists was a hero, so Americans were heroes in Vietnam. But I wanted to make this anyway. Because the freedom of being able to say that you were against the war was a stronger attraction for me.

Q: How did you hook up with Twyla Tharp to do the choreography?

A: When I was looking for a choreographer, I went to see maybe 20 dance groups. And then I saw Twyla's Push Comes to Shove, and it blew me away. When I told her I wanted her to work with me on Hair, she said, "That shit! Me? Never! Why would you want to do this? Why?" And I got angry and started telling her all the reasons I wanted to make the movie, and she said, "Okay, I'll do it." She was testing me, seeing if I had enough enthusiasm, making sure that I wasn't just doing a job. She was auditioning me. She was wonderful.

HUSTLER: Forman saw The People vs. Larry Flynt as a film defending
the First Amendment, starring Woody Harrelson as the porn publisher.
(Photo Credit: Columbia/Everett)

Q: And you used her again for the dance sequences in your next picture, Ragtime.

A: Yes, and to stage the operas in Amadeus.

Q: Ragtime must have been one of your most challenging films from a technical point of view.

A: It was. To give it the atmosphere of the period. You know, Ragtime is one of only two films I've made that wasn't exactly the way I wanted it. When I showed the producer, Dino De Laurentiis, my cut, which was, I think, two hours and forty minutes long, he said, "Twenty minutes have to come out." And what he wanted me to cut were sequences about the radical Emma Goldman, which I didn't want to do because they were the only scenes where I hoped to get some belly laughs. I thought in this long drama it was important to give the audience some relief. Finally I said to Dino, "Let's show this to the author of the novel." I thought I was being clever. But I was stupid. E.L. Doctorow sided with Dino. I later learned that the day before the screening Dino had bought an option on another one of his books. [Laughs] So I have to forgive him.

Q: What was the other movie you weren't satisfied with?

A: Man on the Moon. Because I had the idea that Andy Kaufman had created the persona of Tony Clifton to fight death, someone who was completely unlike him who would somehow survive him. The studio and the producers said, "Nah, that's too depressing, and it's not true." So I had to eliminate that aspect. Yeah, it probably isn't true, but who cares? It's fiction, it's a story. I later found out that while all the arguing was going on, the studio had decided to replace me and the only reason I wasn't fired was that Jim Carrey said he wouldn't do the film without me.

Q: He's very convincing as Andy Kaufman.

A: He's a great actor, a great actor. I think in some ways he's cursed by his popularity; people just wanting him to make faces.

Q: After you've won an Oscar, as you did for Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, do you feel any extra pressure, some feeling that you have to top what you've done before?

A: Not really. You don't think differently, you don't start to ignore your instincts. You still just want to tell the story the best you can, and that's it.

Q: Tell me about your thinking in casting Amadeus.

A: A lot of big stars wanted those parts, but from the beginning I felt that I wanted to see Mozart and Salieri and not known faces playing them.

FREE SPEECH: Man on the Moon, starring Jim Carrey as comic Andy
Kaufman, and Goya's Ghosts (above), with Javier Bardem, dealt with
artists' freedom of expression. (Photo Credits: Everett)

Q: F. Murray Abraham certainly wasn't a known face.

A: He was very obscure. He had been in some films, but I think if I had seen him in them I might not have cast him. He came in to read for a smaller part, the opera director, Rosenberg, and when he was finished I asked him to stay and read Salieri with a young actor I was auditioning for Mozart. And because nothing seemed to be at stake, he was so relaxed, so natural, so real.

Q: When you were making these huge, complex costume pictures—Ragtime and Amadeus—were you struck by the contrast with the very small-scale, intimate movies you started out with in Czechoslovakia?

A: Oh, it's like a child suddenly getting a very elaborate, expensive toy. I wasn't scared of it, I enjoyed it. It was just a wonderful toy I had to learn how to play with.

Q: And what did you learn?

A: Well, you have to do more in preproduction, of course. And it's very important that you surround yourself with people with whom you have an understanding—your set designer, your costume designer—so you don't have to worry about every little detail.

Q: What's the most enjoyable part of filmmaking for you—preproduction, shooting, or postproduction?

A: Editing is the most fun for me. In preproduction you're constantly worried that you're making the right decisions, and during shooting you're on a timetable—you have to go like clockwork. When you're editing, you have time to examine all the variations, and you can see the film finally come alive.

Q: And your next film, Valmont, was a costume drama, too.

A: Yes. That was interesting for me because, as I told you, I read Les Liaisons Dangereuses as a student, and when I saw the play Christopher Hampton had done from it, it wasn't at all the way I remembered the book—I didn't remember the characters as so evil. I went back to the novel and discovered that the play was very faithful; my memory was playing games with me. And then I said to myself, "My memory is better than the book. I want to do this, but I'm going to do it the way I remember it." You know, when you do an adaptation, you have to have your own vision. It's better or it's worse, but it's different. When I met Peter Shaffer, who wrote Amadeus and who had been unhappy with all the other film versions of his plays, I said to him, "Look, you didn't write this out of thin air. You used biographies and Mozart's letters as springboards for your vision. And now you have to allow us to use your play as a springboard for another vision."

Q: After Valmont, The People vs. Larry Flynt, was kind of a costume drama, too, except that the costumes—when the characters were actually wearing them—were some pretty funky outfits from the 1970s.

A: When I got that script, by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, and I saw 'Larry Flynt' on the cover, I didn't read it for weeks. I wasn't interested in pornography. But when I did read it, I found it was a wonderful story, not about pornography at all, but about the most important law of the land—the First Amendment. For somebody who lived under the Nazis and Communists, as I did, nothing is more important. But I was attacked for glorifying pornography anyway. It generated three op-ed pieces in the New York Times.

Q: Did you show Larry Flynt the script?

A: I did, because I wanted to use his building, his office. So with great trepidation I went to see him. He went through the script page by page, saying, "Well, this didn't happen in March, it was in the fall, and my mother wasn't really in this scene, just my father, and this scene actually happened in Cincinnati," details like that. And I looked at him and I said, "Larry, there are a lot of unflattering things about you in the script. I hope you don't mind, because I want your collaboration." He said, "Of course I mind. But it's true, so what can I do?" That's a great attitude. On one side, he's a very creepy guy, but on the other side he's a completely straightforward, honest guy.

Q: Finally, Milos, I'd like to ask you what aspect of moviemaking you find most challenging from a technical standpoint.

A: Well, the biggest challenge for me is to learn what actors need, how to work with them. I don't know if you'd call it technical. Because all the rest is more or less static—the sets, the costumes, everything we call "technique.' All that is cool, it's fine, but acting, that's an element of life. Every actor has a different mentality and temperament.

Q: Acting is hard to talk about.

A: It is, because it's mysterious. The first important thing for me is the moment I see the person come through the door, the physicality of the actor: Is it good for this part, or this part? After that, there's a big difference reading professional actors and nonprofessionals. I never show nonprofessionals the script, I don't want them to take it home and practice in front of the mirror or perform for their husbands or their wives.

Q: You don't want them to act.

A: That's right. With professionals, of course I do want them to read the script. Even then, though, sometimes when I'm filming there are scenes where I want to allow for some improvisation, and in those cases I don't even let the professionals read the script. When they don't have the chance to memorize, they have to fill in what they don't remember with their own way of saying things, and sometimes this can give you something extraordinary. In Cuckoo's Nest, for example, the superintendent of the hospital was a real superintendent of a mental hospital, a nonprofessional actor, and for his scene with Jack Nicholson I told him, "Just do your job with Jack, as a psychiatrist." And I told Jack, "Just react to what you hear from the doctor. Okay, let's shoot it." We did maybe four takes, and cut the scene from the best moments. When you do it that way, you can get gems, unrepeatable moments. It gives so much real life to the scene. That's what you want to get on film, unrepeatable moments.

DGA Interviews

Prominent directors reflecting on their body of
work through an extended and in-depth Q&A.

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