Czechoslovakian director Milos Forman was an international success long before he came to America: His earliest features, 1963's Black Peter and 1965's Loves Of A Blonde, made a significant splash on the festival circuit. But his 1967 farce The Firemen's Ball enraged Czech censors, who understandably believed that its scathing depiction of a hapless, disorganized, disaster-prone fire brigade was a veiled criticism of the country's government. The film was banned, and shortly thereafter, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia prompted Forman to emigrate to America. His first American-made film, Taking Off (1971), followed the naturalistic style of his Czech films and was a commercial failure, but he found mainstream success four years later with his incisive adaptation of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, which won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Forman's subsequent filmography is full of rich fictionalized portraits, both of eras (Hair, Ragtime, Valmont) and of real individuals (The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Man On The Moon). To date, his masterwork remains the brilliant Amadeus, a vividly textured, gorgeously realized reinterpretation of the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that swept the Oscars in 1984. In the wake of recent DVD releases of Loves Of A Blonde and The Firemen's Ball, and a new theatrical release of a remastered, extended version of Amadeus, The Onion A.V. Club spoke to Forman about ideological pressure versus commercial pressure, the problems with releasing a classical-music-themed film in the 1980s, and why hippies were boring.
The Onion: Why a director's cut of Amadeus now? What prompted the new version?
Milos Forman: It was not any strategic plan, it was just that now is the revolutionary development in sound, the digital thing. [Amadeus producer] Saul Zaentz decided to re-release the DVD with remastered sound, and I suggested, "Well, once we are re-releasing it on DVD, it doesn't matter if it is two hours and 40 minutes long, or three hours long. So why don't we do the version as it was written in the script?" And he got enthusiastic about it, so we did it. And, to my nice surprise, theaters expressed interest in playing it theatrically before it would be released on DVD in September.
O: Were you at all unsatisfied with the sound in the original version? Had you considered remastering or re-releasing it before it became an issue with the new DVD?
MF: No, because usually you don't think about re-releasing an old movie. I didn't think about it until Saul decided to do a new DVD release.
O: The new version of the film contains 20 minutes that were cut from the original release. Why were those scenes cut? Were you under any studio pressure to make the film shorter?
MF: No, not at all. It was a mutual decision, because when you finish a film, before the first paying audience sees it, you don't have any idea. You don't know if you made a success or a flop, when it comes to the box office. And in the '80s, with MTV on the scene, we are having a three-hour film about classical music, with long names and wigs and costumes. Don't forget that no major studio wanted to finance the film, for these reasons. So we said, "Well, we don't want to be pushing the audience's patience too far." Whatever was not directly connected to the plot, I just cut out. But it was a mutual decision. I wanted the best life for the film myself.
O: Given the factors you've mentioned, were you surprised at the film's success?
MF: I was surprised at the size of the success. I knew we didn't have a film we should be ashamed of, but the response of the audience was overwhelming. It surprised me.
O: How did you originally get involved with the Amadeus film adaptation?
MF: That was sort of funny. I was in London just for three days, casting Ragtime. By sheer coincidence, my representative, Mr. Robert Lantz, was also in London. One day he called me, when I had a room full of people, and asked if I want to see a play with him that night. And, you know, the London stage is well-known for its quality, so I didn't even ask what, and I said, "Of course." Only in the taxi, I learned that it's a new play about composers. [Laughs.] And I thought, "I am going to faint." I was prepared for the most boring evening, because I was used to seeing the Russian and Czech films about composers, and they were the most boring films. Communists love to make films about composers, because composers compose music and don't talk subversive things. But it was the very first public preview [of Amadeus] in London. Nobody saw it before. And I am sitting in the theater waiting to fall asleep, and suddenly I see this wonderful drama, which would be wonderful even if it was not Mozart and Salieri. At the intermission, I told Mr. Lantz, "If this play will continue with this kind of force in the second half, it will be a wonderful movie." And it did: I was glued to the seat to the very end. And right there after the show, I met for the first time [Amadeus playwright] Peter Shaffer, and I told him that if he would ever consider making a movie, I would be very interested.
O: The two of you worked together on the screenplay?
MF: Of course, but I consider my work on the screenplay as half of directing. We were working for four or five months, five days a week, to reshape the play into the screenplay.
O: Are you typically that involved with your scripts?
MF: I usually am, because I have to know about every word, what it means and how it goes. There must be nothing against my sensibilities, my feelings of how the structure of a scene should go, so I usually get involved very much in the development of a screenplay. I consider it half of the directing.
O: Many of your American films center on unappreciated iconoclasts. Is that something you look for in a protagonist?
MF: Well, individuals fighting or rebelling against the status quo, the establishment, is good for drama. And also I feel admiration for rebels, because I lived twice in my life in totalitarian society, where most of the people feel like rebelling but don't dare to. And I am a coward, because I didn't dare to rebel there and go to prison for that. That's, I guess, why I admire the rebels and make films about them.
O: Most pieces written about you take note of your flight from Czechoslovakia—that, and your parents' death in the Nazi concentration camps—and often, they explain your work strictly in terms of those events. That seems a bit simplistic.
MF: I think these are the most visible things in my life that you can talk about. It's not a lighthearted decision to change your language, your country, your citizenship, and come to a world where you don't know anybody, to leave a place where you've had opportunities to build friendships from childhood. That's quite a big decision to make. But I don't like to analyze myself, how it affected me.
O: Do you think your personal life is irrelevant to your work?
MF: I guess it is, but my Czech films—when I speak the language and can function as a writer myself; I studied screenwriting, you know—are different than the films made here, where I know I can't rely on my knowledge of the English language. For me, speaking is work. It's not like when you breathe. I guess it affected me in some way, but I don't even want to speculate how. Definitely it would be foolish to try and make my Czech films here in America, as foolish as it is when some Czech filmmakers try to make movies of America in Czechoslovakia. It was always abysmal stuff.
O: Did you ever consider returning to Czechoslovakia once the political situation there changed?
MF: Well… [Laughs.] It was not easy to switch homes once. After 20 years, and at my age, I didn't want to do the same switch again.
O: What do you see as the primary difference between Czech cinema and American cinema?
MF: I guess the scale, and there's more sort of irony involved in the Czech movies. It's very difficult to generalize, because there are so many different movies. But the Czech movies, the quality movies, are trying to show the life in the country as it is, in an entertaining way, while in America, the majority of movies are wonderful fairy tales.
O: Do you think that speaks to any difference between Czech and American moviegoers?
MF: I think it was the seeds you can find at the beginning of the last century, when the first filmmakers came from Europe. They didn't know the life here, but they settled in Hollywood and made films about their fantasies of America.
O: But your own filmmaking style changed radically after you came here.
MF: The difference is, I can't rely… My first film in America, Taking Off, I tried to make the same way I was making my Czech films, and it just didn't work. I didn't feel comfortable, although I am proud of that film, for whatever reasons. Then I decided to concentrate on material already written by English-speaking writers. That is the basic difference.
O: So the mentality of American screenwriters was responsible for the changes in your style?
MF: I really don't know. You are asking me questions which critics are so good to analyze… I really don't analyze myself in this area. I follow my instincts, and sometimes it's difficult to explain.
O: When you see critics' analyses of your movies, addressing questions like this, do you ever think they've gotten it right, or would you rather they didn't ask in the first place?
MF: They have a right to ask these questions and analyze them, but I don't want to speculate on to what extent they've pinned me down.
O: On the DVD commentary to The Firemen's Ball, you mentioned preferring the commercial pressure of the American film system to the ideological pressure you faced in Czechoslovakia.
MF: Oh, yes, because I know that ideological pressure is much more crippling than commercial pressure. Crippling to your own freedom of thinking and creating, crippling the final results. If you wanted to succeed during the really hard-line totalitarian regime, you have to make so many compromises to please the censors that you don't recognize the original idea from the final result.
O: Which gets back to the theme of rebellion in your work. The People Vs. Larry Flynt, for instance. Were you interested in Larry Flynt personally because he dared to rebel, or was the film more about the general importance of freedom of speech?
MF: Oh, that's about the freedom of speech. I think the hero of that film is the Supreme Court of the United States at that time. I lived long enough in a society where freedom of speech was nonexistent, and I know what kind of misery that creates—starting with the fact that life becomes very boring for people who just try to survive, and are quiet, and try not to buck the system. And, of course, it can be devastating for people who try to speak against it.
O: A common criticism of that film was that it portrayed Flynt too positively. You've run up against similar criticisms with your portrayals of other historical figures.
MF: Well, I'm not making documentaries. People who make documentaries have to be faithful to the facts. But when you are making a drama, a fiction based on the life, all you have to be faithful to is the spirit of the facts, which I think I was in every case. As long as you don't violate their spirit, you can play with the facts.
O: Then why begin with the lives of real people?
MF: It doesn't matter to me, really. But the fact is, I ran into more interesting stories based on real lives than I met in fiction.
O: Do you think audiences find fictionalized biographies more inspiring than straight fiction?
MF: I wouldn't use the word "inspiring," but they're certainly interested in the stories of other people they know about. I don't think People Vs. Larry Flynt inspired any young men to become porno publishers. To accuse the film of glorifying pornography is as futile and silly as to accuse Romeo And Juliet of glorifying teenage suicide. Of course, there's teenage suicide there, but that's not what Romeo And Juliet is actually about. And pornography is not what People Vs. Larry Flynt is about. Basically. It's basically about the importance of the freedom of speech. I personally believe that if by some miracle, Hitler or Stalin didn't succeed to muzzle the press, there would not be the Holocaust, and there would not be gulags.
O: How did you choose One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest as a potential project?
MF: In 1966, Kirk Douglas came to Prague on a goodwill mission, with a small party. He saw some films, and he saw Loves Of A Blonde in a small party of American cultural attachés. He asked me if he could send me a book, if I would read it and tell him if I would be interested to make a movie. I said, "My god, of course." I was a young filmmaker, and my head was turning miles an hour after he said that. And the book never came. When I met Kirk 10 years later, I said, "You know, you turn a young filmmaker's head around, and then you forget about it immediately when you leave the room." And he said, "You son of a gun, I thought the same about you, because I sent you the book and you didn't have the courtesy to tell me to shove it." What had happened was, he really sent the book, but the censors at customs confiscated it, didn't tell him, and didn't tell me. Ten years later, I get the same book from Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz, and Michael Douglas didn't know that his father was talking to me about it. So it was like some kind of an omen that I was destined to make this movie. So I met with Saul and Michael, and we agreed that we had the same approach to the material, and that's why it happened.
O: Did either of them ever explain why they felt the book was so suited to your direction?
MF: I think they both felt that the film shouldn't be this crazy, schizophrenic vision of an Indian, that it should be a very real story where the Indian was very important, but just another patient on the floor. They liked the realism of my Czech films, and of my first American film, Taking Off. I was so happy to get the job that I didn't ask them why they gave it to me.
O: What initially interested you in the naturalist film style?
MF: It was my reaction to the totally stupid socialist rallies and movies which were made in those times in Czechoslovakia—artificial movies where nothing was true, nothing was real, everything was exaggerated, showing life as it should be in an ideal socialist society, and not life as it is. I was fascinated just to see real faces on the screen.
O: Did you learn anything from your vérité work that you carried over into your more recent films?
MF: Oh, I think the attention to detail, to the faces in the crowd. You really see life around the principals to be as important as the main, principal actors. That's what cinéma vérité taught me—that it's not a question of having a main character, a great actor, and the rest is unimportant. Every detail, every face in the crowd is important.
O: You've mentioned in interviews that French directors like Truffaut and Godard were big influences on your vérité style. Were there other filmmakers who influenced your American style?
MF: My first big love of cinema was American silent comedy. It was right after the war. I was 13 years old when I saw my first movies, really. During the war, I didn't see anything, because nobody would let me see German Nazi propaganda films. After the war I discovered Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Ben Turpin—that was my first big love in cinema. And then I was fascinated by the films of Billy Wilder, John Ford, you know. I developed my desire to come to this country based on American movies.
O: Valmont was an unusual project for you. Why make an adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons just a year after another high-profile American version?
MF: When I was in the film school in Prague, my professor of literature was a Francophile, and he was always suggesting that we read and study French literature. And he suggested Les Liaisons Dangereuses. I was 18 or 19 years old. Oh my god, how much I loved that book. I wouldn't dare, of course, to say to anybody, but I thought it would be a wonderful, erotic movie. And then many, many years later, I was asked to see Les Liaisons Dangereuses on the stage, and to make the film with the Christopher Hampton adaptation. I went to see it, and I was sort of surprised how what I saw differs from my memory of the book. I thought my memory of the book was what was interesting, at least for me. So I said, "Yeah, I would like to make the film, but not based on the play. I would like to work with Mr. Hampton, but I would like to base it on what I remember, what the book meant to me." They didn't like that idea. Then I discovered, to my surprise, that the play was very faithful to the book. But my memory was different from the book. My memory played these funny games on me, and in some kind of arrogant way, I thought, "My memory's interesting. My memory's better." And I got so involved and excited about making that movie.
O: What about Hair? Did something particular draw you to the play?
MF: Songs. I saw the very first public preview on Broadway of Hair, when I was here in 1967 for some sort of festival or something. I just loved every song. It's one of the three musicals in history in which every song is a gem.
O: What are the other two?
MF: West Side Story and Cats. For me, this is my opinion. Usually a musical has one or two great tunes, and the rest is just a film. This musical, every song was a gem. When I was offered by Paramount to come to America and make a movie—that was in 1968, during the Dubcek era in communist Czechoslovakia, which was much more relaxed—I said, "Yeah, I would like to make Hair." The rights to the stage play were so complicated and convoluted that nobody could untangle them. It was impossible. But after that, every few months, somebody called to ask if I was still interested in doing Hair. And I always panicked and ran quickly back to the record player to play the record again and find out if I was still crazy about the music and the songs. And I'd say, "Yes, yes I am." But then this was happening very often. I stopped going to the record player, and routinely I said "Yes." And one day, I routinely said "Yes," and they said, "Okay, let's start." And then I panicked. But I am very fond of that film. That was a film about the dreams of every young person in the totalitarian system: not to change the system, but just to be allowed to express yourself.
O: You explored that theme much earlier, in Taking Off, but that film took an almost opposite approach, by coming in from the point of view of the parents. Following that metaphor, they'd be part of the totalitarian society itself. Why concern yourself with their point of view?
MF: It was a strange discovery for me—probably because the Hair project collapsed, and I was asked to make a different film in the U.S. I considered a portrait of these young kids, called hippies in those times. But what I discovered… I spent a lot of time in the Lower East Side, seeing these crash pads, and I found them very, very boring. On the other hand, when I talked to the parents of runaway kids, I found them much more interesting, because they were in panic. They were doing things, they were trying to find their children, they were trying to understand their children. The children just spent their time lying in the crash pad, smoking pot and looking at the ceiling. It was very boring. That's why I turned the focus of Taking Off on the parents.
O: Music is a key point to several of your films besides Hair—Amadeus, obviously, among them. Do you have any kind of formal musical background?
MF: Yes and no. When I was 6 years old, I started to learn the piano, but when I was 7, we had to change homes. So that was one year of piano training, when I was 6 years old. And then I didn't have any musical training at all until after the war, when a friend of mine discovered that I could be an opera singer. So I studied for one year as a basso profundo. But that's when I discovered I would never be a good singer, because my pitch is not perfect, my ear is not perfect. I always loved to listen to music, because that transports you to different spheres of feelings and thinking. It helps you think, helps you feel.