Bluefat Archive June 1999

A Most Courageous Coward

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Milos Forman has bruised his ribs. We'd like to say he wiped out on the ski slopes while on the European promotional tour for his new film, Goya's Ghosts. But, he groans, "I fell in the middle of the night going to the Frigidaire for a beer."

That's typical pith from the multiple-Oscar-winning director of so many stylishly scabrous classics of American cinema, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, Valmont, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon. Yet, as an artistic refugee to the U.S. from the Nazi and later Communist regimes in Czechoslovakia (his parents died at Auschwitz), where his early films were eventually banned for crimes against the proletariat, Forman's confident levelheadedness has been rather hard-won 行 though seemingly no establishment or political system could've discouraged the fertile gifts of this determined and often brutally keen-eyed philosopher-craftsman. That motif of system-bucking, deriving in no small part from his own real-life experiences, has played an important role in several of his films, and again figures heavily in the Spanish Inquisition drama Goya's Ghosts.

Whether it be man vs. society or man vs. dimly lit unfamiliar hotel room, the puckish intellectual Milos Forman tackles it with gusto. He discusses these themes from his home in Connecticut.

BLUEFAT: How did you begin as a filmmaker?

MILOS FORMAN: Well, I somehow knew I wanted to do something in show business. I guess it's some kind of exhibitionism, every child has it. [Laughs] I was associated with a theater, and I applied to a drama school in Prague, at the university. I was not accepted. Fortunately I did avoid military service 行 at that time you had to be at university of some sort, and I applied to several schools, and I was accepted at the screenwriting department of the film school. And spending four or five years at the school, discussing till five in the morning in the pubs with other students hundreds of movies you have seen, I developed a passion for movies.

Your first feature was called Black Peter. What was that about?

It's about growing up, a 16-year-old kid in a small town in the country, and he goes to his first job, working at what's now called a supermarket. His duty at the job is to spy on the customers so they don't steal. He's just paid to inform on anybody. He's a good communist, supposed to rat on their neighbors. But he's lost in this society, because he can't rat well.

In your early films such as Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen's Ball, there's a stylistic reaction against the "socialist realism" of the time in Czechoslovakia.

It was called socialist realism, but it was the exact opposite of realism: socialist illusions. The philosophy, of course coming from Moscow, was that art should not portray life as it is, but life as it should be, so it is a good example for the people to follow. And all the movement in Prague in the '60s was rebelling against this kind of culture.

You used non-actors in both of those films, which is remarkable 行 The Firemen's Ball is one of the funniest movies I've ever seen, and it's amazing how such humanity is brought out by the non-actors' representation of what is in fact a true slice of reality.

The first reason for using non-actors was not really any aesthetic or art reason but because the producer didn't give me enough money; if I was a member of the Communist party I would have gotten all the money I needed. So, to do the films, we had to shoot everything on location and out of Prague, in a small town, and to come up with actors. But every good actor in Prague had to work in the theater in Prague, so it was rehearsals in the morning, and you could get them on set for only a couple of hours a day. So rather than use mediocre actors or bad actors, I looked for non-professional people.

You can be successful only if you really get to know these people very well, so for Loves of a Blonde mostly I was looking around for my friends, relatives. Or for The Firemen's Ball, I spent like three months in the mountains in this old town, playing cards in the firehouse with this fireman, the one in the film.

How do you direct non-actors?

Well, that's a good question. The less you tell them, the less you confuse their heads. You can't talk to them very much, you have to write first, then say, Who is the best one for the intelligence of the character? And then, I didn't even let them read the scripts, because I didn't want them to bring the scripts home and then they would be training it front of the mirror and the wives would be screaming at them, "What are you doing, you are so funny, you can't -" So I was bringing the actor on the set, and told him, "Listen, this scene is about this and this, and you go here and you say approximately..." and then I told him the exact dialogue that was written in the script. I repeated it to him maybe once more or twice more, and then let's shoot it! And he remembered the crux of what he has to say, but he couldn't remember every word, so he started to form these thoughts with his own words.

Some of the most authentic and humorous acting ever is by the woman who plays the mother of the pianist in Loves of a Blonde. She was a non-actor, too.

I met her on a streetcar. When I was sitting with [Loves screenwriters] Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papousek, we were talking to each other and telling some jokes, and suddenly I hear this lady next to us laughing. I remember the joke was kind of an intellectual joke, so I look at her and I see this housewife laughing and apologizing that she couldn't help hearing what I said. And I started talking to her 行 What was she doing? She was a housewife, and worked in the supermarket or something like that. And so before we reached our destination, we asked her if she would come with us and read a scene and try to play with us, and she did, and she was wonderful.

The Firemen's Ball got you in hot water in Czechoslovakia.

In those times, in all our films, we'll write a script that has a chance it will not be stopped by censors invading into it. And then you show them the film, and in the case of The Firemen's Ball, they found the film absolutely offensive because they thought it was criticizing the government and the political situation and everything like that. But I thought that I was very clever because I arranged that Carlo Ponti invested about 85,000 dollars, which was peanuts, into the film, from which we could buy Kodak raw stock. But unfortunately Carlo disliked the film [laughs] even more than the Communists, for that same reason 行 it's making fun of working-class man.

Was that really a personal reaction of Ponti's, or did his withdrawal of funding have more to do with business pressures?

He felt that this is making fun of people, and if people don't like it I will lose all the money. I gave him a pretext, unfortunately, to ask for the money back, and in that time, I got an official letter from the studio that they will give this to the courts, and I will be accused of sabotaging socialist economy 行 for which in those times the penalty was 10 years in prison.

But fortunately Francois Truffaut and Claude Berri saw the film, and I don't know if they liked the film or they were just charitable to me [laughs], but they bought it, repaid Ponti and I was off the hook. Then they presented it at the New York Film Festival and that saved the film. In Czechoslovakia, the film was banned officially forever.

What was your reaction to that? Did you then depart shortly thereafter for America?

What was happening to me in the Czech Republic, I didn't take it seriously. I was young, I was arrogant, but the moment in '68 when the Russians occupied Czechoslovakia, then I knew it's serious. Nobody knew at the time 行 we knew what Stalin did decades before, transporting whole nations to Siberia. I knew that I would not be able to work, because if the communists ban your film forever, that means that you are considered their enemy, you are a traitor, you are not a communist patriot. And I knew that I would not be able to work, and then that's when I decided to stay here.

In the Dubcek era, had there been a sense that there was going to be substantial artistic freedom in Czechoslovakia?

There was a little time, from '62 till '68, where it looked like the Czech communists would get a new generation into the lead and will try to start reforms and loosen the grip on culture and everything. But of course with the occupation by the Soviets all hopes ended.

For Goya's Ghosts, did the topicality of the Inquisition enter into your decision to make a film about it?

Look, I'll tell you, this film is not a feel-good movie. I will be happy if people will consider it a think-good movie. It's really about everything which I witnessed in my lifetime happening around me. During the Nazis, during the communists, now living here. And it's almost triggered even before my first film in Czechoslovakia, because when I was still a film student I read a book about the Spanish Inquisition, which was probably the most vicious, the most brutal, and it was exactly at the same time that in Prague were going on the Communist show-trials where people were accused of unspeakable crimes and were sentenced to death and executed.

And this parallel was, for a young person studying the beauty of the world, such a shock, that that could be happening just exactly the same way as in Nazi times. And then living through the same thing during the communists, I wouldn't even dare to mention this subject for a movie, because [laughs] I would be immediately considered a dissident.

And it was many, many years later I was with Saul Zaentz promoting Amadeus in Madrid and I saw the Prado for the first time, and I saw Goya's paintings, and all the images I saw 30 years ago came back, they are there in his etchings, his paintings. But I discovered what an incredibly strange character Goya is, because on one wall there would be these magnificent portraits of nobility and kings and Inquisitors, and on the other wall the paintings showing the desperation and misery of the common man in a style that 行 while the portraits are the top of the art of the 18th century, the black paintings are like the top of the beginning of 20th century.

That makes you curious to know the painter. And the more I learned about him the less I knew him, and found out that he's probably the most courageous coward. He was so courageous in his work and so cowardly in his life, so that he can continue working in the times of political upheaval.

Are you saying that the character of Goya, because he is an artist, is by definition incapable of effecting political change in his society?

He wants to not adhere to any authority, politically. He wants to be on good terms with everybody. He paints the Spanish royal family; the Spanish royal family is kicked out by Napoleon, who puts his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne; he paints Joseph, Joseph is kicked out by Wellington; he paints Wellington. If he for political reasons refused to paint the Spanish royal family or the Inquisitors who ask him to be painted, we might not have Goya at all, they might put him in jail for political reasons. But his political and social feelings you understand perfectly from the etchings and the black paintings. So yes, he was a coward, but thank God he was a coward, because we have such an incredible body of work.

I knew so many people like this during the Nazis, who were very courageous, but when it came to their own attitude and their own private thinking, they were very cowardly, because speaking of it would destroy themselves and their families.

The inquisitor Brother Lorenzo played by Javier Bardem is perhaps the central character in the film, for the way he represents both rabid idealism and corrupt opportunism. Obviously you see parallels in modern political life.

Goya is a pragmatist, and Lorenzo is a believer 行 as an Inquisitor, he's a fanatic who really believes in doing something for mankind. He learns later the hard way that liberty, equality, fraternity are infinitely more powerful for the betterment of mankind, so he's a fanatic about that too. And of course he's a man, and there's this very young, innocent girl who he would love to help but he's not in the power to do so. That shows you how fragile our power is, how fragile. Make a mistake, and power will punish you badly.

You're well known for bringing out the best in actors. What's your secret?

The whole secret is to cast right, and the fact that I had something for the character inside him which he doesn't even know about. And really, the same thing with non-professional actors I discovered is the same with professional actors: The more you talk to them theoretically, the more you confuse their heads. The only measurement that I watch in the rehearsal is, do I believe or do I not? And if I don't believe, then I don't feel ashamed to show the actor what I would believe. But the moment I see an actor and I believe him for that scene from this character, from that moment I'm happy I don't have to talk to him, I don't have to explain.

I found out that good actors, they do a lot of homework, more than I would be able to do. Javier Bardem came prepared, and Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgard the same thing; the first day they came I realized they really build their own vision of the character.

Are you very personally involved in the selection of your casts?

I rely absolutely on good casting directors. I remember for example on Cuckoo's Nest, for all the parts I interviewed over 1,000 actors or actresses. The same for Amadeus, I interviewed like 100 guys for Mozart. And then usually you got it down to people where from first meeting you judged physicalities 行 it's not that you are looking for just one physical type, but could this type play this part? And suddenly you find that you want to call back 40 people, and you read with them, and you realize how well they respond to the character, and then you do screen tests with five or six or seven of them.

On what did you base your decision to cast Natalie Portman for her role in Goya's Ghosts?

Natalie Portman, I probably saw her but I didn't remember her from earlier films she made. I saw her face on the cover of one of the fashion magazines, Vogue or Madamoiselle, Elle, something like that. It was an amazing resemblance with the last of Goya's paintings which he painted in Bordeaux when he was 82 years old, called Milkmaid of Bordeaux. It was absolutely amazing, it was as if she had been his model.

So then I said, who is Natalie Portman? And I was told, she's an actress, she was not just a model, she was in the film Closer. I saw the film, I was very impressed by her performance, so I asked for a meeting. And the meeting was as impressive as to meet her on the screen. So there was no other choice.

One of your best casting decisions was to choose Courtney Love for The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon.

She is an intuitive actress of the highest caliber. I loved her acting. And she was unjustly dismissed by some film critics because they said "She's a drug addict, she's just playing herself," and that stuff. Well, what happened was, the studio didn't want her because she's a big risk, and they wouldn't even pay for insurance for her through Lloyds of London. So Woody Harrelson, Oliver Stone, [producer] Michael Houseman, Courtney herself and myself, we put together one million dollars to insure her. I did it after I had a talk with her, giving me her word not to betray me, and stay clean from the next day. I told her she had got the part, and she gave me her word in such a way that I trusted her. And she really kept it.

I like to shoot in sequence, so we started with the first scenes of the story, when Althea Flynt is an innocent, moral lass, healthy girl, no problems, no drugs. Courtney shot these scenes in her withdrawal, which was incredible. I found her two or three times vomiting in the bathroom, shaking like a leaf. And every day she had to give a urine test to an insurance agent. In these scenes, there's such an energy. It's just the concentration; it was brilliant acting.

Then, later, when she was shooting the scenes where Althea is under the influence of drugs [laughs] and can't walk straight and speak straight, she was clean. Oh, it's wonderful. I have a soft spot for her. But she's like a sensitive snail, you just touch the wrong way and she could hide in her shell.

Buñuel's great screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere was your collaborator on Goya's Ghosts.

For me it was ideal, because we are friends since 1965. Secondly, he speaks perfect Spanish, he worked with Bu杣el, he knows people in Spain, and he is very interested in history. [Laughs] The screenplay for Goya's Ghosts was finished several months before the Iraq war, and Jean-Claude one day came and he found a wonderful line in the archives, when Napoleon is talking to his generals before invading Spain, telling them, "You will be welcomed with flowers and kisses as liberators." So we put it in the film.

Several months later, I am panicking 行 No! Our vice-president is using the same line. And I can't believe that nobody will believe that we didn't put it there as a kind of parody of our vice-president. So I said, "Jean-Claude, I can't bear it, we have to take out the line." And Jean-Claude looked at me and said, "It's terrible, you are still living under the threat of Communists." [Laughs] So I said, all right, I'll be courageous, we'll put it in. But I was a little nervous.

You have called Cuckoo's Nest a Czech film. Are you referring to the theme of the individual vs. the institution?

I was asked, How can you make this film, this is such Americana. And I said, What do you mean, Americana? I know about this story more than any American can. I lived in it. The communist party was my Big Nurse. And in my generation, when we were 18-, 19-year-old kids, we all wanted to pick up the sink and throw it through the wire on the borders to go and see the world. It's my movie, my life, and I lived it in Czechoslovakia.

You know all about breaking the shackles...

Living under the Nazis and the Communists, you realize that this is probably the most important dilemma of mankind 行 that we need institutions to help us live. We pay them with our own money to help us live. And after a while, with every institution, we have to wonder if she is paying you to do what institutions are for. That you are owned by institutions, and dictated by institutions, this is a subject as old as mankind and will never be solved. You can't win over this kind of condition in society, but if you stop fighting it, it will win over you.