“In '70s Czechoslovakia I saw scenes from Forman’s films everywhere – I didn’t feel that with other directors”

Miloš Forman, photo: Tomáš Adamec, ČRo

The great Czech film director Miloš Forman – who turned 85 today – is perhaps best-known around the world for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, massive movies that won him Best Director Academy Awards in 1976 and 1985. Prior to his Hollywood career Forman had been a prime mover in the groundbreaking 1960s Czechoslovak New Wave. With movies like Black Peter, Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball, he developed a remarkably fresh, vérité style, frequently casting non-professional actors.

Miloš Forman | Photo: Tomáš Adamec,  Czech Radio
To discuss the outstanding career of Miloš Forman I contacted Peter Hames, British author of The Czechoslovak New Wave, the definitive guide to the scene from which the filmmaker emerged. I first asked Mr. Hames how he would characterise Forman as a director.

“Particularly if you take his American career, where he pretty much decided to adapt to the American system and to use American themes, I think the fact was that he still maintained a great deal of originality.

“Those themes were highly original, highly unorthodox, within the commercial system.

“Also as regards his use of actors, on the whole he was looking for actors who were not readily recognisable, people who hadn’t had a great deal of exposure.

“And I think he preserved a lot of those elements of the unexpected and the improvisational quality that came from some of his Czech films.”

Very often if you see a list of Czechoslovak New Wave directors Forman’s name comes first on that list. Does he deserve that prominence, do you think?

“If you’re looking at the Czech and Slovak New Waves, it was an important phenomenon in film history – and I couldn’t count the number of directors who contributed to it.

“I think it emerged from a particular sort of social and political context.

“From my point of view, the Czech work is unique and sort of irreplaceable.”

“And I think the reason Forman is a significant figure in that is he was one of the first directors to emerge in the early 1960s and to attract international attention.

“I think nonetheless that his work is incredibly important.

“I didn’t visit Czechoslovakia until the early 1970s, which was not a good time. But the one thing that struck me was that everywhere I looked I could see scenes from Miloš Forman’s films, I could see characters from his films.

“And I didn’t feel that about any of the other directors, really. They were in some ways perhaps a little less responsive to the immediate environment, to the immediate reality.”

What would you say were his main influences, especially on his early work?

“I think people often forget that he didn’t just suddenly emerge in the film industry.

“He actually graduated in the mid 1950s, so he had had some experience in theatre, working for the Magic Lantern, and had also scripted a major feature film before he began to work himself.

'Loves of a Blonde',  photo: Czech Television
“He once said in an interview that his major influences were Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney, but I think that was probably a provocative comment.

“I think he must have been aware of in the 1950s, and would have been taught and exposed to at FAMU, neo-realism and Italian cinema.

“The two films that struck me as being very like his early work were works by Ermanno Olmi, who’s sort of a later exponent of neo-realism with films like Il Posto, which is the story of a boy’s first job.

“It’s very much like Black Peter, where you have the boy going to the supermarket and experiencing his first realities of employment.”

If we look back over his really rich filmography, what for you is his greatest film or his greatest period as a director?

“I think you have to separate his Czech work from the American work.

“From my point of view, the Czech work is unique and sort of irreplaceable.

“And I guess my favourite film from all of his work would be Loves of a Blonde. Really because it has such a close identification with his characters and produces a resonance which I don’t think is there in the other films to the same degree.

“It has also had significant influence internationally.

“If we’re looking at his American films then it’s very difficult to choose. I think the two Oscar winners have obviously had enormous influence.

“Taking Off won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was highly regarded by critics, including American critics.”

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest provoked debate throughout the world and Amadeus popularised Mozart in a way he hadn’t been popular before in recent years – suddenly people were listening to Mozart and interested in a subject which people would probably regard as high art.

“So the commercial success of those films was I think highly significant.”

Obviously he’s known, with his early films in particular, for his very fresh style and casting of some non-professional actors. But do you know if he allowed or expected his actors to improvise? Or did they have to stick closely to a script?

“I understand his films were pretty closely scripted. I think he was interested in allowing space for improvisation.

“I think he once said that 90 percent of improvisation was not usable. But the improvised work that was usable was unique.

“I think what he did was to have very carefully scripted films, but to allow space for improvisation to take place – and sometimes using a professional actor with non-professional actors and getting a kind of resonance from the interaction between the two. Which I think he does very well in his early films in particular.”

'Taking Off'
From your time here in Prague or elsewhere in former Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic, did you ever get a sense that his humour was very much Czech humour? Or was it more specific to him?

“His humour is Czech humour. But I think it’s universal humour, as well. It’s no accident that Loves of a Blonde had a resonance outside of Czechoslovakia. People found it funny there.

“I certainly know that when I was teaching film studies to my students in the past if I showed them the Firemen’s Ball I was off to a good start.

“Because the recognition of the characters and the situations was universal.”

I guess after the release of The Firemen’s Ball, when it was banned the following year after the Soviet invasion he simply had no choice but to leave Czechoslovakia, if he was to continue as a filmmaker. Am I right in thinking that?

“Well, I think it’s unlikely. He had already been commissioned to make Taking Off before the Russian invasion, so this was not an immediate result of that.

“But if he’d gone back to Czechoslovakia he would certainly have had to recant on his views, probably disown his previous work and knuckle down and do what he was told. Which is what a number of filmmakers did.

“So I don’t think his situation would have been different from that of other filmmakers of the New Wave.”

“Very few European filmmakers were able to follow a consistent career in the US. He managed to do that, but I think at the same time he remained very much a European director.”

His first US film was Taking Off, which you mentioned, and that was a commercial failure. Did that lead him to change course and adopt a different attitude to directing? Of course, in Czechoslovakia he hadn’t had any real commercial pressures.

“I think that’s true. Taking Off was filmed pretty much in the style of his Czech films, which is slightly relaxed, apparently improvised work using actors who were not familiar, but lacking a strong narrative.

“I think he came to the conclusion that Americans needed a strong narrative and that was the reason for his adaptation.

“I have to say that Taking Off won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was highly regarded by critics, including American critics. But it wasn’t successful commercially.”

He must also have been quite unusual in being a very European director who then had major success in Hollywood?

“Yes, I think Forman’s success in Hollywood as a European director was quite unusual, certainly in the post-WWII period.

'One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest',  photo: United Artists
“Very few European filmmakers were able to follow a consistent career in the US.

“He managed to do that, but I think at the same time he remained very much a European director, despite that.”

But do you think in any sense his filmmaking paid a price for his move to the US?

“Yes, I think he had to give up the style that he developed in Czechoslovakia, which was unique and influential, and he had to become a more orthodox filmmaker.

“But I think that was in many ways quite a logical decision. He had to decide whether he was going to make films in the USA or not make films in the USA.

“Because you don’t make on the whole what they would regard as art films with a great deal of ease. Unless you’re John Cassavetes or somebody like that.”

Generally speaking, what would you say is Miloš Forman’s place in the history of Czechoslovak or Czech cinema?

“His place is assured. I think he’s probably regarded as the leading Czech filmmaker. Partly because of his international success. but also because he’s represented Czech culture to the wider world.

'The Firemen’s Ball' | Photo: Jaromír Komárek,  © Barrandov Studio a.s.
“Apart from Jiří Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains, he’s probably the best known Czech filmmaker, internationally. So I think his place is very secure in that sense.

“I think his films, certainly his Czech films, will last. And many of his American films will last

“I don’t think he’s ever really made a bad film. I think he’s made films that are sort of unorthodox and maybe unsuccessful for a variety of reasons, commercially.

“But his films have always had a great deal of sense and logic and indeed a sense of dissidence to them.”