From Iceland — Milos Forman's Masterclass

Milos Forman’s Masterclass

Published October 6, 2009

Milos Forman’s Masterclass

Milos Forman is sitting at café Hressó, just about the only bar in Reykjavík where one can still sit and smoke. In his hand he has a very large cigar, and in front of him is a bottle of malt. No, he’s not boozing in the middle of the day. This is the local version, Maltöl, much beloved by Icelandic children.

Milos looks up as I sit down in front of him. Old and wizened eyes gaze at me. They have seen the end of World War II, Nazi occupation and communist takeover, the legendary Prague Spring of 1968. They have also directed some of the greatest films ever made, brought Mozart to life and turned Jack Nicholson into a madman. Large parts of 20th century Czech history can be told through the life of Milos Forman. So can a sizeable part of cinema history. He is not bad company. There is so much I want to ask him. Therefore, I am somewhat surprised when, like any average Icelandic journalist, I find myself asking not about him or his work, but about Iceland.

So you first heard about Iceland when Bobby Fischer played here?
“My friend Lubomir Kavalek was Bobby Fischer’s second in Reykjavik.”

Did Kavalek also emigrate from Czechoslovakia after 1968? [The Fischer-Spassky match took place only four years after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and Forman’s emigration to the West]
“Yes he did. Kavalek later became the US chess champion.”

Do you think it was a chance for him to get back at the Russians through Bobby Fischer, after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, as the famous water polo match against the Soviet Union was for the Hungarians in 1956?
“Yes, it was very similar. The Hungarians hoped that the Western democracies would come and help. They didn’t, and the same happened in Czechoslovakia. They didn’t want to start World War III.”

I understand that there was a sense in Czechoslovakia at the time that they were betrayed by Western intellectuals, who at the time were busy protesting against capitalism.
“I went to France at the time and I met some of my heroes, such as Truffaut. I couldn’t understand that these people were trying to drag the red flag up while we were trying to pull it down. For them, the pendulum had swung too far to the right, while for us at the same time, it had swung too far to the left.”

Forman’s countryman Milan Kundera wrote The Unbearable Lightness of Being about the Prague Spring. Forman, however, is more interested in going farther back in Czech history. He is currently trying to make a movie about the Munich conference in 1938 when Hitler met with Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini and was given permission to march into the Czech borderlands.

How is your film on the Munich conference going?
“We have the screenplay, and locations have been found and some of the cast. But they can’t find the finances. They are still trying. There’s little chance that the film will be made, but we’ll see.”

In Czechoslovakia, you couldn’t make the films that you wanted, which is presumably why you left, but in Hollywood, you now can’t make the film that you want to, because it doesn’t appeal to the studios?
“Look, under communism, there was this ideological pressure. In America, that doesn’t exist at all. But there is a commercial pressure. Whoever puts money in the film wants money back. I prefer commercial pressure, it is up to the audience whether they like it or not. With ideological pressure, you are at the mercy of some ideologue.”

But Hollywood is always trying to replicate last year’s success. As they say, nobody knows anything.
“If something has success, they want to repeat it. That’s normal.”

Surely, this must be restraining for a filmmaker such as yourself that appeals to more discerning audiences?
“That’s life,” he says nonchalantly.

It’s obvious that Forman is rather fond of free speech. When he made The People vs. Larry Flynt in 1996, about the Hustler editor and his lawsuits, he was criticized by both Christian organisations and feminists for glorifying pornography.

In The People vs. Larry Flynt, you defend free speech, even if it takes the form of pornography.
“They sued him and he won. The Supreme Court decided that free speech should be protected, even if it’s uncomfortable speech. Comfortable speech doesn’t need protection. Uncomfortable speech does. It was a very important decision by the Supreme Court to ensure that even uncomfortable speech should be protected.”

Noam Chomsky said much the same thing, when he even defended neo-Nazis’ right to free speech.
“It’s true. It’s ridiculous to say, ‘Yes, we want democracy, but we want to control what is said.’ It doesn’t work that way. Democracy is either for everybody or for nobody. It’s as simple as that.”

So, do you see Larry Flynt as a hero of free speech?
“I don’t know whether he really did it to protect free speech or just to sell more pornography. I don’t know, and to be honest, I don’t care. When the communists took over, they made laws that we have to protect the system. They said: ‘We don’t want to curb free speech, just the extremes.’ So they cut off the extreme voices. But then, something else that was not extreme before now becomes extreme. So you cut off those voices. Again, something has become extreme that wasn’t before and they cut them off too. After a while, everything is censored and controlled. So it’s a slippery slope.”

After Iceland’s economic collapse, we seem to be hearing a lot of voices we didn’t hear before. The market seemed to be very efficient in cutting off those voices earlier…
“Well, ‘whoever criticises the president or this or that minister is seen as attacking the whole country, so we have to stop that.’ Well, that’s ridiculous.”

Forman  returned to his homeland in the early ‘80s to make a film where Cold War Prague was used as a stand-in for Rococo Vienna.

When you were making Amadeus in Prague, American flags were rolled out on the set on the 4th of July. Did you plan that?
“No, I didn’t even know about it. It was prepared by the technicians. On the 4th of July, suddenly, instead of Mozart’s music, the American national anthem was played in the theatre and the flag was rolled out. Six hundred extras were there and when the anthem started to play, they didn’t know what was happening. When they realised it, they all stood up, except for the members of the secret police. It was a funny situation.”

At that point, America still represented freedom to the Czechs. Do you think it still does?
“It’s a very complicated situation still today. A lot of economic and political power is still in the hands of former communists and secret police people who are now big capitalists. It’s like a mafia and they all help each other. It will take another generation or two.”

Amadeus, set in late 18th Century Vienna, is probably Forman’s most famous film and often counted among the greatest films of all time. It was based on Peter Schaffer’s play, which suggested that Mozart’s rival, Salieri, was partially responsible for his death. In fact, Salieri later taught Mozart’s son.

Did you ever feel guilty about implicating Salieri in Mozart’s death, which is probably untrue?
“No, I don’t feel guilty towards Salieri. After the movie came out, suddenly everybody started listening to his music. It was everywhere.”

Forman’s latest film, Goya’s Ghosts, deals with the Spanish inquisition in the late 18th Century, a period Forman seems to go back to a lot.
“There is an interesting parallel between events in the early 19th Century and now. Napoleon liberated Spain from the inquisition. But he didn’t realise that the changes have to come from with society, not from outside. Suddenly, he became the occupier and not the liberator of Spain. It’s the same with Iraq. The Americans thought they would be welcomed as liberators, but that didn’t happen. Any change has to come within.”

What possessed you to make a film based on Dangerous Liasons, set in late 18th Century Paris, after they had just made a major film after Laclos’ novel?
“We started first, but they were faster. I’ve loved the book since I was in school. It’s all written in letters where one person is competing with the other about who is the worse human being. So they take pride in being bad. In the letters, they describe to each other what they want the other person to read. But if Marquise de Merteuil is so bad, why did Madame de Volanges give her the daughter to take care of? Why was she loved in society? The same with Valmont. Why did everyone fall in love with him? So that’s what interested me. What’s not in the letters?”

So the story itself is a fabrication by the characters in it, you seem to suggest?

Hair came out in ’79 but it was about events in ’68. How was it to relive the changes, coming from communist Prague to hippie California?
“The timing is one of the reasons the film did not become a big success. In the late ‘70s, it was not recent and not yet nostalgia. I wanted to do it when I came to the US in ’69, for non-political reasons, but the rights to the film were so complicated that I wasn’t able to make it until the late ‘70s. Now the film is playing repeatedly on American television. It’s nostalgia now, it’s not dangerous anymore.”

Forman didn’t get to make a film with Bobby Fischer, sadly, but he has worked with some of the biggest names in cinema. However, for Amadeus, he decided on largely unknown actors.

You didn’t want to have famous actors in the roles?
“No, if you had Tom Cruise playing Mozart, people wouldn’t see Mozart, just a famous face.”

Is it different to work with big stars rather than unknown actors?
“Good actors who become stars are usually very nice people to work with. Ed Norton is a wonderful guy to work with. So’s Jack Nicholson. Carrey, the same. Annette Bening is wonderful, perfect.”

Why did you cast Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman?
“Every comedian wanted to play the part. Andy Kaufman is an idol to them. But I couldn’t ask Jim Carrey or some other people to do a screen test. So what I did was that I sent the word out that whoever was interested in playing Andy Kaufman should tape themselves at home as they would see themselves playing Andy Kaufman. They all did. Jim Carrey sent me a tape, Kevin Spacey, Ed Norton. Ten to twelve big names sent a tape. The final decision was between Jim Carrey and Ed Norton. Ed Norton was wonderful, but Jim Carrey was more experienced in stand up comedy. For People vs. Larry Flynt, I did screen tests with various actors for the role of Larry’s lawyer, and Ed Norton was the best.”

The next film you made about an artist after Amadeus was Man on the Moon. It seems to suggest that Andy Kaufman sacrificed a part of his personality, his humanity even, to become a great comedian. There is a movie called The Life and Death of Peter Sellers which seems to suggest the same about its subject matter.
“I never met Peter Sellers, but there is a similarity. I talked to a lot of people who knew Peter Sellers and nobody could say who the real Peter Sellers was. Andy Kaufman was exactly the same. I talked to his parents, his brother and sister and his girlfriend, and I asked them who the real Andy Kaufman was, and his parents tell me they don’t know. It’s not easy.”


Do you think that to become really good at something, you have to concentrate on that exclusively and don’t manage to become a full rounded person? Bobby Fischer could be another example.
“Absolutely. But Bobby Fischer was certifiably…his genius as a chess player affected something else in his brain. I met him many times. I wanted to make a film about the match. He lived then with some nuns in some kind of a cult. I talked to a nun about making a film with Bobby Fisher. The nun said ‘alright, Mr. Fischer will meet you at three o clock in the afternoon.’ I said ‘where?’ and she said: ‘We will call you half an hour before and tell you where.’ She called at 14.30 and told me to come to a motel at the outskirts of Los Angeles. I drove to be there at three o’ clock and came to this little, dingy hotel. Bobby Fischer came in the room. I tried to say hello and he put a transistor radio on the table and put it on full blast. Then he started talking. He was paranoid and thought they might be listening on hidden microphones somewhere. Very strange character. This was before he went to Belgrade to have the match with Spassky during the embargo.”

So was it after Bobby Fischer came to the set that you decided not to make a movie with him?
“No, I was shooting and invited him to come to see the dailies in Los Angeles. He would only come after dark. Afterward, I met him in his hotel room and the only thing he said was: ‘That actress is fat.’”

It seems that Bobby Fischer sacrificed a part of his humanity to become a great chess player. Andy Kaufman may have done the same. So did Salieri in the film, but then he can’t even make music.
“I was not aware of these connections, but there they are. Being a genius, they have to pay something for it. Bobby was a genius. I think it’s wonderful that Iceland took care of him and gave him the citizenship. I’ve heard he’s buried here. Is it far? I want to see his grave.”

“We can arrange that,” interjects his handler.

“Is there any other special Icelandic drink?” Forman asks, pointing to his empty bottle of Maltöl.  I suggest Appelsín, but he’s not interested and praises the virtues of Czech beer instead. Milos Forman heads off, perhaps in search of Bobby Fischer. Despite his portrayals of other artists, he seems a contented man who enjoys his cigars, his Maltöl and the movies. Whatever sacrifices he has made for his art, he made them long ago. He once said that “in my relatively short life I have lived through six or seven different social and cultural systems. First the Democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia, then the limited democracy before World War II, then the Nazi regime. After the Nazi regime there was a kind of democracy again for three years, then came the Stalinist regime, then the reformed Communist regime, and now I am living in a free country.”

So whatever the flaws of democracy, Milos Forman seems to be enjoying it.

A Brief History of…
The Czech Republic

As part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Czechs go to war with Russia, Britain, France and Serbia in 1914. The Czech experience is brilliantly satirized in Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk. A group of Czech POWs in Russia take over the Trans-Siberian Express in one of the more surreal chapters of the Russian Revolution. For a while, they control a large part of Russia, before marching back home through Siberia and Canada. Edvard Benes forms an independence movement in Paris in 1915 called The Maffia. Czechoslovakia becomes an independent country after World War I. Benes is the first foreign minister of the new country.
Unbeknownst to virtually everyone, Franz Kafka is buried in Prague in 1924. He is later acclaimed as one of the greatest writers of Western Civilisation. Skoda, formerly the largest arms manufacturer in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, starts making civilian products such as cars and trains.
Benes becomes President in 1935. He opposes German claims to the Sudetenland border areas. At a meeting in Munich in 1938 between Hitler, Mussolini, Daladier of France and Chamberlain of Great Britain, Hitler is allowed to annex the Sudetenland in return of guarantees for Czech independence. Benes is forced to resign under German pressure and Slovakia becomes a German puppet state. In March 1939, the Nazis march in and take over the rest of the Czech lands in spite of the Munich treaty. Benes goes into exile for the second time.
The Prague rising against the occupying Germans starts on May 5th. Obergruppenfuhrer Karl Frank makes good on his promise to drown any rebellion in a sea of blood. Around 2000 Czechs are killed before the resistance surrenders on May 8th. The day after, the Red Army enters the city. The area of Ruthenia is annexed by the Soviet Union. Benes becomes President again after independence is restored. Remaining Germans are deported from the Sudetenland. The communists take over after a coup in 1948 and join Comecon the following year. Benes resigns and dies six months later. Gottwald becomes President.
Stalin purges many, including members of the communist party. Czechoslovakia, though rich compared to other Eastern bloc countries, falls farther behind Western Europe. The country becomes a founding member of the Warsaw Pact in 1955. Novotny becomes President in 1957.
In early 1968, Alexander Dubcek becomes head of the Communist Party. He attempts to introduce freedom of speech, economic reforms and limited elections. In August, Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops enter Prague. Student Jan Palach sets himself on fire in protest. The reforms are brought to an end. Dubcek is forced to resign in April 1969 after Czechoslovakia beats the Soviet Union in The World Ice Hockey Championships. Gustav Husak becomes head of the communist party. Many artists emigrate, Milos Forman in 1968 and Milan Kundera in 1975.
Living standards briefly increase but stagnate after the 1973 oil crisis. Playwright Václav Havel become leader of the opposition in 1977 and is frequently imprisoned. Czechoslovak cartoons become popular in Iceland.
In 1985, Gorbachev becomes the new Premier of the Soviet Union. The Czech communists reluctantly follow his lead in reforms. The country does not suffer the same economic problems as the USSR. Nevertheless, the first mass protest, the “Candle Demonstration,” is held in 1988. This escalates into full-blown revolution, the Velvet Revolution, in November 1989. Half a million people protest in Prague and a two-hour general strike is called. By the end of the month, the communists have relinquished power and dismantled barbed wire at the German and Austrian border. Dubcek become speaker of Parliament and Havel becomes President.
In 1993, Slovakia and the Czech Republic become separate countries. Prague becomes a World Heritage site and is called “The Coolest Capital in the World,” with up to 40.000 American expats living there. Most claim to be working on a novel. The country joins NATO in 1999. Few novels materialise
In 2000, 15.000 anti-globalisation protesters take to the streets in Prague. In 2002, the city is ravaged by floods. In 2003, Havel leaves office as his second term ends. Concurrently, he is occasionally spotted around Reykjavik. Meanwhile, two young Icelanders spend a few months in Prague, pick up a copy of the street paper The Prague Pill, think that’s rather a good idea and head back home to found The Reykjavik Grapevine. In 2004, the Czech Republic joins the European Union.

Milos Forman

Born on 18th February, 1932 in Cáslav in Czechoslovakia. His father, Rudolf, is a professor and his mother runs a summer hotel. Both are Protestants.

Rudolf is arrested for distributing banned books during the Nazi occupation and dies in Buchenwald in 1944. His mother dies in Auschwitz in 1943. Milos goes into hiding with relatives. He later discovers that his biological father is a Jewish architect who escaped the Holocaust. At age 13, Forman is expelled from school for making fun of a party official. Vaclav Havel is one of his schoolmates.

Because of his expulsion, the only university that will admit Forman is the Prague film academy. In 1953, former school mates the Masín Brothers escape to West Germany after being chased by 20.000 policemen, becoming Czech folk heroes.

Makes his first film, Audition, in 1963 and Black Peter a year later. Along with classmates Passer and Ondricek, Forman becomes one of the major Czech directors, but his critical style is seen as troublesome by the regime. In 1965, he makes Loves of a Blonde, which is nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film. His last Czech movie is The Fireman’s Ball in 1967, written by Ivan Passer. When the Soviets enter Prague in 1968, Forman is in France. While there, he is fired from the Czech studio he works for and decides to emigrate to the US. He becomes a professor of film at Columbia University.

Makes his first American film, Taking Off, in 1971. Partly set at a Tina Turner concert, it wins the Grand Prix at Cannes. In 1975, he makes One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which became the first movie in 40 years to win all five major Academy Awards. The movie is produced by Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz, who later produces Amadeus and Goya’s Ghosts. Kirk Douglas is supposedly pissed at his son for giving the leading role to Jack Nicholson rather than himself.

In 1977, Forman becomes a naturalised American citizen. In 1979, he makes a film version of the 1968 musical Hair. The movie gathers largely positive reviews, but is disowned by the original writers of the musical. Ondricek does the cinematography, as he will continue to do on Forman’s next films.

In 1981, Forman makes Ragtime about racism in early 20th Century America. He takes over the project after Robert Altman leaves. It is the last film to star James Cagney, and is nominated for eight Academy Awards, but does not win.

Forman returns to Prague to make Amadeus, which comes out in 1984. It wins eight Academy Awards, including best picture. Both Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham are nominated as best actor, with Murray winning. Forman wins his second Oscar as director.

In 1989, Forman makes Valmont, based on the novel Dangerous Liaisons. Meg Tilly stars along with Annette Bening and Colin Firth. It is nominated for an Oscar for best production design. The year before, Stephen Frears had made a version of the novel starring John Malkovich, Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer that was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won three.

The now Czech Republic abandons communism in favour of capitalism after the Velvet Revolution. The phrase zhasnout, from Firemen’s Ball, meaning “lights out” and used there to describe petty theft, is often invoked to describe the privatisation process.

Forman abandons at least two projects, sumo film Hell Camp and Disclosure, later directed by Barry Levinson.

In 1994, Forman publishes his autobiography, Turnaround. In 1996, he gets his own asteroid, 11333 Forman. That same year, he makes People vs. Larry Flynt with Ed Norton and Woody Harrelson. The film received rave reviews and won Forman his third Oscar nomination, although this time he does not win.

In 1999, Forman makes Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon starring Jim Carrey. The film receives mixed reviews but is hailed by some, as is Carrey’s performance. Forman’s two sons, Andrew and James, are named after Andy Kaufman and Jim Carrey.

Milos Forman plays a priest in Ed Norton’s directorial debut, Keeping the Faith.

In 2006, he makes Goya’s Ghosts with Natalie Portman, Javier Bardem and Stellan Skarsgård. The film is a Spanish production but shot in English. The film receives mixed to negative reviews.

In 2009, Forman attends the Reykjavik film festival in 2009, while still trying to finance his next film, Ghosts of Munich.

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