Milos Forman will forever be the guy who makes movies about eccentrics and outsiders, the Czech émigré who loves American costume dramas, the filmmaker who gave Courtney Love her detox wakeup call. He has a slew of awards (including two Best Picture and Best Director Oscars) and is a magnet for A-list actors, yet he isn’t a name brand in this country like Scorsese or Coppola. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have a visual aesthetic that screams, nor a well-funded enough publicist. Maybe it’s because his films aren’t as easily categorized.
The Walker Art Center is giving Forman his long overdue props this month with a retrospective that spans his remarkable artistic evolution. It follows him from the pitch-perfect, low-budget, slice-of-life comedies he shot in Communist Czechoslovakia at the crest of the Czech New Wave to his eclectic ensemble of American adaptations and biographies that include Hair, Ragtime, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, and The People vs. Larry Flynt.
Screenings of Forman’s films will continue at the Walker through April 22, but last night the seventy-six-year-old director was in-house for a freewheeling Regis Dialogue with LA Weekly film critic Scott Foundas that focused largely on the director’s early work. If Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr (the Walker’s last Regis Dialogue subject) was interviewee as enemy combatant (repeatedly scolding critic Howard Feinstein, grabbing his notes and, at one point, exiting for a smoke break from which it wasn’t so certain he’d return), Forman was the well-mannered, gregarious houseguest.
Of course, Forman is as practiced in the art of the non-interview interview as any showbiz lifer, but he’s also a born raconteur whose colorful, peripatetic biography includes thirty-six years living under the Nazis and the Communists, followed by another forty in what is arguably the equally Kafkaesque world of Hollywood. He has plenty of stories to tell, and the enthusiasm and good humor to tell them well after all these years.
Orphaned by the age of ten after losing both parents to the Holocaust, Forman recalled shuttling between relatives before a short stint at a boarding school for war orphans. The school was so remarkably well funded, it became the school of choice for the progeny of Czechoslovakia’s new Communist Party poobahs and its old capitalist elite. “The school became the envy of kids who weren’t even orphans,” Forman joked in one of the evening’s many great one-liners.
After studying screenwriting at the Prague Film Academy, Forman directed (and co-wrote) his first features, Black Peter and Loves of a Blonde (both, blessedly, available on DVD). Curiously, the films would find much of their humor in familial and generational dynamics, something Forman admits he could only observe as an outsider looking in. “People were nice to me because I was the poor orphan. With their own children, they didn’t feel they needed to be so nice.’”
Those first films were shot mostly with non-actors to whom Forman would talk through [but not give] the script and encourage to add their own words if they forgot their lines. Though these are some of the funniest of Forman’s films, there’s an endearing, sweet, unmistakably melancholic edge to them as well. “The reaction of all of us making films [in Czechoslovakia] in the sixties was not to [the movies of] our idols but to the stupidity and superficiality of social realism. I wanted to show real people doing real things, experiencing real emotions.”
As Forman and his New Wave contemporaries attracted attention in the West, the hardliners at home took note. “Suddenly, we were hard to ignore. These were the only movies that brought hard currency to the country.”
Though hardly the work of a subversive, Forman’s third feature, The Firemen’s Ball, attracted a little too much attention. It was deemed mocking of the common man and banned in Czechoslovakia for twenty years. Forman began courting Hollywood and making plans to live in the States permanently, an idea that seemed even wiser after the Russian tanks rolled into Prague in 1968.
His first U.S. film, Taking Off, would share the low-fi satire of his Czech work, this time with a very American subject—middle class parents searching for their daughter in the hippie jungle of New York’s East Village. From hereafter he’d find a new voice. “At the time, I thought it was very cool if a film didn’t have any ending, if it just stopped,” he said. “That’s not very well accepted in America.”
Remarkably, he would follow four years later with an adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a novel even a friend deemed too “Americana” for Forman. “I told him, ‘For you it’s fiction; for me it’s my life. The Communist Party was my [Nurse Ratched].”
The film would pick up five Oscars and establish Forman’s Hollywood credentials, but it never had the support of author Ken Kesey, who campaigned hard to commandeer the project despite the objections of the producers. “Always, I’m on the side of creative people versus money people; I guess it’s self-preservation,” Forman said. “But I have to say in this case that Ken Kesey went a little askew. The screenplay he wrote was not a screenplay but another version of the book. He also insisted he play McMurphy and that he direct the film.”
Over the next thirty-three years, Forman would make only seven films, but for each, he expresses great affection for the serendipity that brought them into his life. During one early visit to New York, he saw the first public preview of Hair; ten years later he would finally get the rights (and the financing) to make it a movie. Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, which he saw on a London stage in 1980, would become his ticket back to Prague after ten years in exile and also his return ticket to the Oscars. Most recently, there’s Goya’s Ghosts, a historical melodrama whose backdrop is the Spanish Inquisition and the Napoleonic Wars. It was written a year before the Iraq War, but Forman sees some eerie parallels.
There was an eight-year gap between Goya’s Ghosts and the release of Forman’s previous film, the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. One gets the sense that Forman may take another eight for the next one.
“Every film is two years of your life and when you get older you start thinking harder about what you want to spend two years on.” Besides, he needs time to recover after a film is in the can. “It’s like my love just left me, he said. “Sometimes you’re not ready emotionally to start a new relationship.”