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Milos Forman

Milos Forman

With Amadeus, director Milos Forman rejoins producer Saul Zaentz in an alliance that achieved the critical and commercial triumph with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest that swept the Academy Awards of 1976, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Filmed almost entirely on location in Forman's native Czechoslovakia, Amadeus is his first film in Czechoslovakia since his emigration in 1968 to the United States where the director became a United States citizen and made eight American films that have won thirteen Oscars.

The youngest of three sons, Forman was born in 1932 in Caslav, a small Bohemian town 45 miles from Prague. When he was nine, both parents were arrested by the Gestapo and perished in the death camps. "I was raised by two uncles and one family of friends of my parents, Forman recalls. Adjustment wasn't all that difficult because both my parents were strict disciplinarians. Suddenly they were gone, and I'm raised by people who tend to be lenient with a small child whose parents were taken away. It was a paradoxical situation; I missed my parents, but my foster parents gave me a heady taste of freedom."

The war left his native town remarkably unscathed, with little hunger, fighting or bombing. Forman got the theater bug in 1945 while attending a boarding school founded mostly for children like him who were left parentless by the war. It was the time of a relaxed Coalition government when citizens were allowed to read any books and see any movies they wished. Forman took to American films, especially the westerns of John Ford and the comedies of Chaplin and Keaton. I also saw all the great French classics, like Les Enfants du Paradise" and the Soviet films of Eisenstein and Pudovkin. There were none of the severe restrictions imposed later."

Forman enrolled in the University of Prague's Film Institute, funded by the State just after the war. "The best people in the Czech film industry were teaching there; it was a very stimulating environment." Graduates of the Film Institute like Forman, Jiri Menzel, Ivan Passer and Jan Kadar became leading figures in what is now regarded as the Golden Age of Czech cinema before the Soviet invasion in 1968. Forman cut his teeth on 40-minute semi-documentaries before launching his first feature film in 1963, Black Peter, an autobiographical account of a teenager in a small Czech town. It became a hit at many prestigious film festivals -- Cannes, Montreal, New York -- and led to Forman's first visit to America. His international repute soared with his next two films, the satirical Loves of a Blonde in 1965, and the controversial Fireman's Ball in 1967, a good-natured lampoon of his nation's fire-fighting bureaucracy. Fireman's Ball so unsettled State functionaries that Czech President Antonin Novotny banned its release. When asked why his government objected to such a gentle and apparently harmless spoof, Forman said: "All the Czech films of this period were claiming a freedom of expression that ran counter to the State film industry's ideology. This was a forewarning of the Russian invasion soon to come. Suddenly these State officials realized there was a strong potential for creativity among people, producing offbeat films that people want to see, and that are saleable to foreign markets. This inspired people working in other fields to demand similar freedom, which was upsetting to the State."

When the Soviet tanks rumbled into Prague to stay in August of 1968, Forman was fortunately in Paris negotiating to make his first American film, Taking Off. For the sake of my twin sons, he says, "I went back to Prague for a brief visit before moving to New York in 1969 to finish my script. So according to the Czech government, I was illegally out of the country. Then they sent me a letter from the studio firing me, so I had no choice but to remain in the United States."

At first, Forman was forbidden to work in America by the Immigration Board acting on a complaint from the Screen Director's Guild that there wasn't enough work for American directors. But Forman had vocal and powerful friends who admired his films -- Mike Nichols, Buck Henry, Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet. They badgered the Immigration Board until it reversed its decision. "This was my single most encouraging experience in America, he says. I realized my colleagues were not just out to get rid of another rival director, but that professional integrity works here on a much more human level than I had been led to believe. Forman's idea for Taking Off" (1971) came from the then-active protest movement among the young, with its proliferation of marijuana, folk-singing, psychedelic happenings and adolescent runaways in revolt against their square, uptight parents. The film was a critical triumph and a box office disaster: "I wound up owing Universal five hundred dollars. I didn't want to go back to Prague as a loser, so I wrote the government for an extension of my exit visa so I can make another film in America. They said, 'come back and we'll talk about it,' but of course I wouldn't do that because once I was back, I wouldn't be allowed out."

There followed a bleak, desperate period in New York of deals that fell through and a play directed by Forman that failed on Broadway, which added to the difficulties of learning a new language and adjusting to a new country.

"I holed up in the Chelsea Hotel in Greenwich Village, he recalls, sleeping 23 hours a day. My close friend Ivan Passer, another Czech filmmaker, would visit a psychiatrist, tell him my symptoms, and then come back to my hotel to relate what the doctor had said." Forman was close to a nervous collapse in 1973 when he got a package from Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz containing a copy of Ken Kesey's hit novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. This apparently jinxed project had been turned down by all major Hollywood studios: "Who wants to go see a film about a bunch of loonies?" Douglas and Zaentz asked Forman if he would be interested in making a film of the book. "Of course I said yes. I loved the novel from the start and thought it would make a wonderful movie. This showed me that it's much more comfortable to slip into a state of acute depression here than back home. In Prague, if the government says, 'no-you can't make this film,' that's it. But in America, if one studio tells you 'no,' the next day comes along Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz who say, 'yes-we want you to make this film.' I think one reason they wanted me to film Cuckoo's Nest was because they originally conceived of it as a low-budget movie, and wanted a director they could afford. And because Taking Off flopped at the box office, I seemed to be within their price range. But also, they both had liked all my movies. What impressed me about Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas, Forman continued, was that they were in no way typical of Hollywood producers, the kind that come to you and say, 'Here's my idea of what this film should be, and we have this and that star in mind. Also it should have an up rather than a down ending.' Saul and Michael didn't do this - -they listened to me, in a way that Hollywood producers never do, and asked me a lot of questions. We got my friend Jack Nicholson to play the lead, McMurphy, and the rest, as you know, is movie history.

Forman followed the triumph of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1979 with a film version of Hair," the historic rock-hippie Broadway musical of a decade ago. Once more, the reviews raved, but the box office fizzled. Then came Forman's much-acclaimed direction of Ragtime in 1981, adapted from E.L. Doctorow's complex and panoramic novel of America in the 1900's. Once again, Forman demonstrated his sure touch and empathy for American themes. While Forman was still editing Ragtime, (I don't allow anyone to touch my films,) he phoned producer Saul Zaentz, urging him to see the Broadway stage version of Amadeus.

Knowing that Forman does not make idle chit-chat or casual phone calls, Zaentz rushed to see the play and talked it over with Forman at dinner that same night.

Forman's agent also represented Amadeus' author, Sir Peter Shaffer, and arranged a meeting. Shaffer, who actively disliked all movies based on his successful dramas, overcame his initial reluctance and agreed to write the screenplay.

In casting Amadeus, especially the much-coveted roles of Salieri and Mozart, Forman chose to pass over big name box office insurance in favor of actors who look right and feel right in the part. This was decided with the joint approval of Zaentz and Shaffer. I must tell you, says Forman, "that I felt very funny about seeing Mozart played by, let's say, Dustin Hoffman, because audiences will not believe this is Mozart. They will say, 'oh - that's Dustin Hoffman playing Mozart. It was the same with Salieri, which is really the major role. I didn't want someone familiar like Jack Nicholson or Donald Sutherland that audiences would recognize.

If there was a creative problem or a disagreement, said Forman, whether it was casting, writing or any other major area, it was decided by a two-out-of-three vote among Saul Zaentz, Peter Shaffer and myself; hardly the usual Hollywood method of making a movie."


Note: This profile was written in or before 2002.

Milos Forman Facts

Birth NameJan Tomas Forman
OccupationDirector
BirthdayFebruary 18, 1932 (85)
SignAquarius
BirthplaceCáslav, Czech Republic
Awards1997 Golden Globe Awards: Best Director - Motion Picture (for The People vs. Larry Flynt)
1985 Academy Awards: Best Director (for Amadeus)
1985 Golden Globe Awards: Best Director - Motion Picture (for Amadeus)
1976 Academy Awards: Best Director (for One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest)
1976 Golden Globe Awards: Best Director - Motion Picture (for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)

Selected Filmography

Goya's Ghosts
Amadeus
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
The People vs. Larry Flynt
Amadeus: Director's Cut
Hair
Hair Blu-ray
Man on the Moon
Ragtime
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