BY ROB FELD
Director Jean-Marc Vallée (Photo: Michael
The first time I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I had no idea I wanted to make films,” says Jean-Marc Vallée, putting his feet up and getting ready to watch it again in a New York screening room. “It didn’t even feel like an influence when I first started making movies, but now, maybe with aging and many viewings, it’s the kind of character-driven, transparently directed storytelling I’m aiming for, where the director is serving the story humbly rather than showing off.”
Miloš Forman’s 1975 DGA Award- and Oscar-winning take on Ken Kesey’s novel sees R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) committed for evaluation to a mental institution under the care of Dr. Spivey (non-actor Dr. Dean R. Brooks) and Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). “As near as I can figure out,” explains McMurphy, “it’s because I fight and fuck too much.” When he is thrown in with the motley crew of patients and confronted with the sadistic, manipulative Ratched, McMurphy’s irreverence and refusal to fall in line inspires all the inmates, but not without tragic consequences.
Though most of the action takes place in the hospital, the film opens with a distant car approaching through a mountainous landscape at dawn, with a haunting score underlain by Native American percussion.
“It’s calm and quiet, and makes you wonder what kind of film you’re watching,” says Vallée, settling into his seat. “What’s the link between the car, this beautiful nature, and this strange score? No idea at this point, but we’ll find out later that it’s connected to the Indian character, Chief Bromden [Will Sampson]—it’s his landscape and he’ll run to it at the end.
“This whole sequence introduces the world objectively until McMurphy arrives and Forman embraces his point of view,” continues Vallée. “The car passes and then he cuts inside to the hospital, dollying past patients in bed, introducing Nurse Ratched with a head-to-toe long shot, walking toward the camera, jangling her keys as she arrives from behind what looks like a prison door. She unlocks it and closes it, Bang! Sounds like a prison door, too. Then three orderlies greet her, ‘Good morning, Miss Ratched,’ pronouncing her name one after the other. So we get it; she’s the boss.”
“Medication time,” a nurse’s voice pipes into the ward, and the shot cuts to a record needle dropping onto a 45. A light waltz now accompanies the patients accepting their pills, one by one from the nurses’ station, as Forman introduces them.
“Such odd and amazing faces,” says Vallée. “What casting. I like that Forman is using source music to introduce a theme and ritual associated with the hospital, and not score. We’ll hear it again and again, with the needle going down, as a leitmotif, from the director’s point of view, as if he wanted to tell us that this is not his choice of music but the institution’s. This music is from their world. The way it’s mixed makes it sound like it’s coming from the room. It would have sounded too judgmental if it was coming from the filmmaker. Miloš is credible from beginning to end. Look at how natural the lighting is. Not once does it attract our attention to where it feels like film lighting. The source feels like it’s always coming from outside of the room or from fluorescents above.”
When McMurphy is led into the rotunda in cuffs, Forman cuts to his POV of the balconies and the patients wandering around. “It’s the first time Miloš is embracing a character’s point of view, telling us it’s going to be McMurphy’s story,” says Vallée, as McMurphy is led through the same door and hall where Ratched was introduced. “He doesn’t embrace Nurse Ratched’s. Forman dollies back with McMurphy, [whereas] he let Ratched walk to camera. It says, he’s our guy.”
Vallée responds again to what he considers the modesty of Forman’s direction, this time with McMurphy sitting across a desk from Dr. Spivey in his office.
“It’s a beautiful introduction to a dialogue scene, reverse angles on Jack and on the doctor. Two talking heads, one representing authority and the clever smartass challenging it. Nicholson’s got star quality on his face. I’m hooked. It looks like Forman shot the scene with one camera, because otherwise you’d see the second one in the over-the-shoulders. I like the simplicity of it and the fact that Spivey’s a non-actor. He is so believable. The challenge as a filmmaker is to create a credible universe, and Forman was walking a thin line between doing a slapstick comedy or a drama. But he made a beautiful drama with humor that isn’t over the top. There’s a lot of humor here between McMurphy and Spivey; the two of them obviously don’t belong to the same world. The contrast is nice.”
When McMurphy joins the patients for group therapy, led by Nurse Ratched, her large key ring jangles on her arm during the opening calisthenics. “Such a nice detail to link a sound to a character,” says Vallée. “He did it when he introduces her, too. Not only did we hear the keys, but we see her opening and latching the door with them: authority.”
As the therapy session continues and McMurphy twice prods Nurse Ratched by shuffling his pornographic playing cards, Vallée continues on Forman’s subtle use of sound. “I like what he did with the sound of the cards. You don’t see McMurphy shuffling; we’re on Billy [Brad Dourif], who turns his head very quickly toward the noise. Then Nurse Ratched does the same. Forman uses the sound to cut quickly between people’s reactions to each other. McMurphy is in Ratched’s point of view a lot here, but I think Miloš did coverage and put it together in the editing room, feeling the thing, getting the right reaction from the right person. That’s looking at your material, at each and every character, and giving more importance to Nicholson, who hasn’t spoken a word; he’s just observing Ratched with looks that say, Are you doing the right thing, Nurse? Forman allows for silence, trusting, and following his characters.”
Later, after another therapy session, McMurphy leads the ward in a vote to watch the World Series on television. Overruled by Ratched, McMurphy does a mock play-by-play commentary on the action, with only his reflection showing in the darkened TV screen. The other patients get raucous, with Ratched trying to shut it down. As the scene reaches a cacophony, Forman cuts abruptly to the silence of Dr. Spivey’s office.
“These quick edits that he does with a violent sound change are a great way to establish a time cut,” Vallée points out. “I like to do that too—smash cut from one world to another. It creates rhythm. Loud, then whoops! Quiet. Pay attention. The contrast gets the audience asking questions.”
Tensions escalate in the ward until McMurphy, coming to the aid of another patient, gets into a fight with an orderly. The physically imposing Chief steps in to defend McMurphy and, after another abrupt cut to silence, they find themselves on a bench beside each other, awaiting electroshock treatment in a wide frontal two-shot. McMurphy hands Chief a stick of gum in an insert shot, after which Forman goes to a tighter two. Chief, who everyone had assumed could neither hear nor speak, now reveals that he actually can.
“Again, the director is using a lot of coverage,” observes Vallée, as Forman employs reverse angle single shots because McMurphy and Chief have pivoted to speak to each other. “He’s cutting for performance and was absolutely right to go angle, reverse angle at the end. At the top of the scene they’re not looking at each other. Then Chief says, ‘Thank you.’ Forman stays frontal, McMurphy starts to laugh at the fact that Chief fooled everybody. Cut to an angled shot of McMurphy speaking quietly to Chief about escaping. We need to see the emotion on his face, and if Forman had stayed on the frontal shot, we would have only seen McMurphy’s profile, which isn’t as emotional. Miloš lets the story be character- and emotion-driven rather than style-driven, letting performance lead.”
Committed to an escape plan, McMurphy throws a clandestine, boozy going-away party for the ward. The patients trash the place and, before taking his leave through the window with Chief, McMurphy arranges a “date” between his girlfriend, who’s there to meet him, and the innocent Billy. After things in the ward settle down and the patients have all passed out, Forman holds McMurphy in a quiet, extended close-up as he observes his comrades strewn about.
“That’s a lot of things going on in this one close-up,” says Vallée, excited by the shot. “McMurphy sits and laughs about Billy, then becomes serious. [He’s thinking] What the hell am I doing? We haven’t sat this long on him before and now we have the time to analyze this guy. We hear a train and he looks out the window toward freedom. He smiles again, looks inside, and then the scene cuts to the next morning as he falls asleep. It’s a full minute, putting us in an almost uncomfortable position, looking at McMurphy so closely. At the same time, everything going on in his head makes the transition work so well as time passes on him. It’s up to the audience to interpret the close-up.”
Pausing for a moment, Vallée reflects on how Cuckoo’s Nest has influenced his own work. “I referred to this film when I was making Dallas Buyers Club (2013),” he says. “The story of an underdog like McMurphy, this character you’re not supposed to care about. He’s a hustler, streetwise, irreverent, with all the flaws in the world, treating people like shit, almost abusing them. And then suddenly you realize this guy has some humanity and is doing the right thing. I used it as a specific reference for Matthew McConaughey [who won an Oscar for his performance]. I was telling him, ‘McMurphy, man. We’ve got to care for you like we cared for him.’”
Back at the hospital, Forman next orchestrates a series of ebbs and flows building toward the inevitable collision between McMurphy and Ratched. After finding the ward destroyed, her uniform cap trampled and Billy and Candy in flagrante delicto, she has the patients congregate and reduces Billy to a hysterical mess, threatening to tell his mother what he’s done.
“Forman shows his strong storytelling sense here, with a pacing that builds emotion and rests before it goes again. She’s there with her keys again, and there’s so much tension between Billy and Nurse Ratched that when he cuts to a close-up of McMurphy, we feel exactly what he’s feeling starting to build up. Then Forman returns to close-ups between Billy and Ratched, reaction shots from the others, and back to close-ups of Billy. After he’s dragged away, Forman cuts between McMurphy and Ratched’s glare, See what you did, McMurphy? Then we have time to move away before Billy is found dead, a suicide, and McMurphy attacks Ratched. Forman did a lot of coverage again and worked in the cutting room to build the perfect tension, rhythm, and feeling when to cut to McMurphy. This story is being told through feeling; we care about him even though he’s not the nicest guy. But if he can be believable and credible, we buy in.”
Things seem to have returned to normal in the ward until McMurphy is led in and put to bed, apparently lobotomized and now a vegetable. Chief sneaks over to him and tries to talk about the escape until he realizes what’s been done. He embraces McMurphy, and soft strains of the opening score return as he smothers him with a pillow.
“Forman has switched to Chief’s point of view now,” observes Vallée. “A murder with music? In this film? We wanted McMurphy to escape, but we accept Chief’s decision and want this now. We know we’re at the end with this music, connected to the beginning. It’s beautiful, in a way. There is humanity behind the murder, releasing McMurphy from a place he didn’t belong.
“Miloš is an amazing storyteller and a clever manipulator of the audience,” says Vallée, stretching as the lights come up. “You can tell that he enjoys the process of telling a story with every aspect of it. With Cuckoo’s Nest, he played with the audience almost like Hitchcock did: creating anticipation, a strong villain (although we’re never quite sure who’s wearing that hat), outwitting expectations. But instead of playing with suspense and fear, instead of exploring a genre film, Miloš played with the language of film to touch our humanity and compassion. He made us care for the misfits, made us want to fight for what’s right, to fight against the establishment if need be, and maybe dare to be crazy sometimes. As a director, man, do I relate to this one!”