Martina Forman: “Miloš was a great, great man – great company”

Martina Forman, photo: Ian Willoughby

Novelist and screenwriter Martina Forman settled in the United States in the 1990s after meeting her husband, the great film director Miloš Forman. When we spoke at her apartment overlooking Central Park, the conversation took in her life between New York and Connecticut, her twin sons’ connection to all things Czech, and her husband, who passed away in April at the age of 86. But I first asked Martina Forman about her early days in America.

Martina Forman,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“I had actually finished university and I had one year to write my thesis. I decided to come here and learn English, because it was really quite embarrassing at that time [laughs].

“That’s how I came. I went to a course in Vermont for a month and was surprised when I came back and wasn’t fluent – nowhere close.

“I started to live here I guess. I didn’t know what I was doing. But eventually I ran out of money and started to take some jobs.

“I was babysitting and cleaning and all of that. And then I met Miloš [laughs].”

I was reading that you worked as a cleaner. But I guess around the same time you were also working as a model in the Czech Republic – that’s quite a contrast.

“I was, like, 27 at this point and as regards modelling I wasn’t even thinking of looking for work or anything like that.

“Frankly I think I was quite an accidental model. I’m not exactly that skinny, boyish body type.

“I was working on my thesis here and I just wanted to support myself.

“And I got to love cleaning, because most of the houses I was cleaning belonged to people who lived in New York and would only come for the weekend.

“So I more or less had the whole week for myself in all these beautiful houses, and I could kind of pretend that maybe one of them was mine.

“I think what has influenced my writing is definitely the fact that in Connecticut we live in such a remote part of the state and it’s kind of isolated.”

“I don’t know, it was quite satisfying – to suddenly see that your work is done; it’s visible.

“But maybe now I romanticise it too much.”

You live half the time in New York and half the time in Connecticut, in the country. I can understand what it means to live in New York – you live in a fantastic place on Central Park. But what’s life like in Connecticut?

“Well, very, very different, I must say [laughs]. Actually our house is a former farm.

“The former owner, a painter named Eric Sloane, turned his barn into a studio and there was a little bedroom upstairs. His wife lived right next door – there is a house which we now use as a guesthouse.

“When they were selling the place and Miloš was looking for a country house he just loved it, because the nature reminded him of the nature where he grew up in Czechoslovakia.

“He used to only go there for weekends or in the summer, but then when we had our sons and had to choose whether to live here in New York or in Connecticut it just seemed much easier for two boys to grow up in the country.”

I understand also you have occasionally had bears coming to your house in Connecticut?

“Oh yes. He lives nearby and now visits regularly.

Miloš Forman | Photo: Alinoe,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“I think a lot of people think it’s a little bit exaggerated – until they sit in our kitchen and the bear shows up!”

You have two sons. They obviously grew up here. What is there relationship to all things Czech?

“I think first it was so natural that we spoke only Czech at home.

“And also my mom was living with us at the time, so it was like a little Czech Republic inside this small town in Connecticut.

“Then of course they started school and had their own friends and realised that we were different.

“We speak a different language and of course we all have accents and all kinds of weird traditions.

“So there was a period of, I don’t want to say resistance, but it was more like they really wanted to blend in with their friends.

“And as they have got older I think they are actually really discovering the country for themselves now.

“They love the food, they have their own friends now. Also, one of Miloš’s sons, Petr, has three daughters who are more or less at the age as our boys.

“So they have become really good friends. It’s just nice.

“And they definitely now speak better Czech and are working on improving it. That warms my heart.”

How has living here in the States influenced your work as a writer?

“I don’t know if I would say living in the States.

“I think what has influenced my writing is definitely the fact that in Connecticut we live in such a remote part of the state and it’s kind of isolated.

“It’s always hectic. I’m looking forward to coming to Prague one time and just taking it easy.”

“That’s how I think I started to write really, to the extent of writing a book.

“I was never very patient and I’m very easily distracted and I’m sure that if we lived in New York there would always be something to do, somebody to see, some gallery opening, you name it.

“And actually my first book I didn’t even start to write as a book.

“My life had changed so dramatically at that point that I just thought, Oh my gosh, I used to be so different, I was a risk-taker, I was so bold and so on.

“I thought, Maybe I should write down some stuff, just so I don’t lose it completely.

“And that’s how it started. Suddenly those little memories started to create a story and the story became a book and that was my first autobiographical novel.”

Your husband Miloš Forman sadly died earlier this year. Your boys I guess are getting a bit older. Have you ever considered moving back to the Czech Republic?

“I was actually recently there and this was a question a lot of people asked me. And to be honest I haven’t really thought about it that much.

“I’ve always known that I want to spend more time there.

“But frankly I already have two places – here in New York and in Connecticut.

“And yes the boys are out of the house but I have three dogs and four cats and, you know, a whole life here.

Miloš Forman's older son Matěj,  photo: Vilém Faltýnek
“So I don’t think I necessarily want to get another place in Prague. I don’t know – this is enough for me.

“But I love going there. There are hotels I love and I also try to rent apartments, just to feel like I live there.

“I can totally picture that and hopefully being there enough once that I get bored and, like, spend the whole day being in the apartment and sipping coffee and whatever.

“Because usually when I come I’m there too short a time, I want to see everybody, I want to see as much as possible.

“So it’s always hectic. I’m looking forward to coming one time and just taking it easy.”

You mentioned earlier that you started living here after you met your husband Miloš Forman. How did you guys meet?

“Well, I was working on my thesis and it wasn’t going that well.

“A lot of people told me, Hey, why don’t you call him up? And I was like, I don’t know his number and I wouldn’t even ask anybody. It just sounded weird.

“But then with all the anxiety about my thesis I thought maybe it would be great to look him up – he could tell me a few sentences and that would really add value to my work.

“So as I was going to the library and looking for all kinds of materials I found in Who’s Who the address of his agent.

“I cleverly thought that if I write it in Czech… first of all I was too ashamed of my English, but also I thought if I write in Czech the agent won’t be able to read it and eventually, hopefully, it will get into Miloš’s hands.

“I remember when I started living with him our friends would be like, How can you talk to him about movies?”

“And that really happened – he called me back right away.

“I must say we met once before. He came to talk to us as students when I was in film school.

“He later claimed that he remembered me and that he was very pleased to see that it was me coming.

“I don’t know if I believe him. I know he met really a lot of people. But it was very sweet of him to say that.”

You studied at film school but of course he was one of the greatest movie directors of the second half of the last century. We’re sitting here in your room in front of a huge TV. When you were watching movies together, what was he like as a viewer? Was he critical, analytical?

“He was actually so direct.

“I remember when I started living with him our friends would be like, How can you talk to him about movies?

“But he was like, Oh, that’s pretty stupid, if he felt it. But he always said, I want to finish it, I want to see how it goes.

“He wasn’t that kind of analytical person that would, like, exercise his intellectual qualities to show off or whatever [laughs].

“I think he went with the overall feeling. He definitely wouldn’t be like, Oh, I think in the second half they should have used this character to, you know, whatever.”

From the US, did you pay close attention to Czech culture, to Czech cinema?

“Oh, absolutely.

“First of all, Miloš was a great Czech patriot. I must say it always amazed me how good his Czech was and that he wasn’t doing this thing, which… my sister now lives in California and we talk every day and sometimes it’s so easy to slip in English words. It’s just pure laziness.

Miloš Forman's older son Petr,  photo: Anne-Claire Veluire
“It was amazing that Miloš always kept his Czech so clean and rich. He had really great rich language, in both Czech and English.

“So we were very, very in touch.

“The great thing was that I knew his generation and those were the people we looked up to.

“And on the other hand I introduced him to my generation of people: Honza [Jan] Hřebejk and [Petr] Jarchovský and many others, who were actually my friends but were now doing projects which were interesting.

“So it was a mutual interest to bring our friends together. That was very cool.”

Towards the end of his life he had health problems. He always seemed to me such a kind of vital, energetic man. How did he take being ill and having health problems?

“He was really a very strong man, I must say, till the end. He would never complain.

“At some point he wasn’t interested in going out and that was fine with me too – I had also reached a point that I felt I had been to enough parties.

“I really enjoyed that time. As I said, we always watched movies. We also now, with the technology, watched almost Czech news almost every day, as well.

“We saw a lot of movies, television – so there were a lot of ways to entertain ourselves.

“He was never that kind of whining type and he never acted miserable.

“That was maybe also his charm – that people really wanted to be around him.

“He still drew so many people, coming to see him in Connecticut and enjoying the time with him.

“Ah, he was a great, great man – great company.”

When he died in April this year there was a huge outpouring of love around the world for his movies, obviously, and for him as a person. How did that help you at what must have been a very tough time?

“It was, and still is to some degree, but… of course it was so nice to feel that people really cared about him.

“It was amazing that Miloš always kept his Czech so clean and rich. He had really great rich language, in both Czech and English.”

“I think that was most demonstrated now when at the end of August his older sons, Petr and Matěj, prepared some kind of event on Žofín [in Prague].

“I must say, seeing all those people… unfortunately our son Andy couldn’t be there, but Jim was there with me and I really feel like it overwhelmed him too.

“Of course I was more in touch with how people felt about Miloš.

“But I think for Jim it was the first time he really saw that all these people came to pay tribute to and pay respect to his father.

“And the atmosphere there was really great, because it was sombre to some degree but at the same time there was really a lot of joy and really celebration of his life.

“So that was very touching and I was very glad that we could experience that.”