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More on Milos Forman [01] [02]

Milos Forman: Defender of the Artist and the Common Man
by Kevin Lewis on

The romance of America was built both on the immigrant who finds success in the USA, and on freedom of speech, the exalted First Amendment. Milos Forman, who left Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion in 1968, made it in America's nirvana, Hollywood. His new film, The People vs. Larry Flynt, explores our reluctant tolerance of pornography. By juxtaposing patriotic icons with its notorious L'il Abner protagonist, it reaffirms in somersault fashion the basically rebellious American character. On the surface, The People vs. Larry Flynt appears to be a departure for Forman but in its celebration of the common man asserting his rights against established forces, it is a Forman film with resonances to his earlier work.

Forman's poignant, funny autobiography, Turnaround, (Villard Books, 1993) reveals that the man is akin to his art. Like his characters, Forman is a Candide tossed about by society but protected by friends and mentors. Born in 1932 in C‡slav, Czechoslovakia, Forman was an orphan by 1943. Both of his parents were killed in Auschwitz and Buchenwald by the Nazis for political reasons. His father, a teacher and intellectual, was in the Underground movement. His mother was arrested by the Gestapo as part of a group accused of distributing anti-Nazi flyers. A disgruntled former employee turned Gestapo brute hated the Forman family and prevented her release.

When the Communists seized control of Czechoslovakia after the war, Milos was trained by the state. What sustained him was a series of friendships with such classmates as V‡clav Havel, such teachers as Milan Kundera and such colleagues as Ivan Passer, who co-wrote those Czech films with Forman. He was lucky, he said, to be taken up by two of the geniuses of early Czech cinema, the brilliant director of comedies Martin Fric and the avant-garde Alfred Radok, director of Distant Journey (1949). Through them all, he realized that he could be a thinker and artist even in a totalitarian state. His three Czech features, Black Peter (1963), Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Fireman's Ball (1967), are comic masterpieces of Eastern European youth (the last two were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film). His first American film, Taking Off (1971), and also Hair (1979), explored American teenagers caught in the generation gap during the Vietnam era.

Forman is well respected by his fellow Guild members, having served on the DGA's National Board as an alternate during 1982-83, as well as the Guild's President's Committee (formed to combat the colorization of black-and-white films, and now fighting to protect all moral rights of filmmakers) from its inception in 1986 to the present. He is also esteemed among his colleagues, having won two Oscars and two DGA Awards in a career filled with prestigious projects, even though his ouevre is one of the smallest of an international director: just ten features, one documentary and two short films in almost 40 years. Even Robert Bresson has made more films.

After winning the two Oscars for two movies which were also named Best Pictures, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984), Forman's career peaked. His follow-up, Valmont (1989), an adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, failed to find a following, and Hell Camp was shelved before shooting.

The enthusiastic welcome accorded The People vs. Larry Flynt, the first Forman movie in seven years, is a vindication for the director. It has garnered him a Golden Globe Award for Best Director and an Academy Award nomination in the same category and won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Flynt is also his first film in 25 years to be written originally for the screen -- although not by Forman but by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. In his suite at The Hampshire House in New York, Forman discussed with the DGA Magazine his career, as well as the Artists Rights Foundation, which recently announced it will be honoring him with its 1997 John Huston Award for Artists Rights in April.

What are your feelings on being named the recipient of the John Huston Award?

I consider the Artists Rights Foundation to be very, very, very important and noble. To get this award is really flattering to me and precious.

Do you think that the timing has anything to do with The People vs. Larry Flynt?

No, no. I was in that first group of American filmmakers who went with the DGA's President's Committee almost ten years ago to Washington to lobby for some very modest legislation in favor of artistic rights. I have been there maybe three or four times since, lobbying. Indirectly, [the award] has something to do with Larry Flynt because, in my opinion, the fact that American law equals ownership with authorship opens the door for censorship because it means the owner has all the artists rights and he can change the film. That equals, basically, a censorship for whatever reasons: economic, political, ideological, ethical...

Are you talking about beyond the final cut and subsequent releases?

Subsequent releases after the theatrical release. Release on television, laserdisc, videotape, syndicated television, all the auxiliary markets. The owner of the copyright can do whatever he wants with the film. He can cut it, he can colorize it, he can change the format, he can electronically change the sound, music, dialogue, whatever he or she wishes and for whatever reasons. Economic reasons to make it more sellable. Ideological reasons if he doesn't agree with or is not in favor of some ideas that the film tries to convey. Or for reasons of different taste, he can change the film, which, according to American law, is all right because he is the author. But according to common sense, it's censorship because it's changing the movie without the approval or permission of the artistic authors.

You've made films under a totalitarian regime and under a studio regime. When you talk about artists rights, were you less fearful of your Czech films being tampered with than your American films?

The funny thing is that, theoretically speaking, ideological censorship is much more devastating than the economic censorship because ideological censorship is usually performed by one person who represents government, or whatever, while economic censorship is dictated by the audience. It's much better to conform to the taste of the audience than to one ideological botched-up idiot. On the other hand, I must say that when the Communists didn't like anything about the film, they somehow respected the Berne Treaty. They didn't dare change things in the film; they just banned the whole film. But, 20 years later, the film is released in its original form and seen as it was created. So, it's just a question of how long the film will be banned. No totalitarian regime lasts forever. When you release tapes and laserdiscs, these tapes and laserdiscs will live forever and will be watched for generations.

When I saw Larry Flynt, I thought it was good to see a non-period film from Milos Forman again, even though I liked Amadeus, Valmont and Ragtime. Then I realized this is a period film because what it reveals is that the free-speechers of the 1960s have now become the censors of the 1990s. We have become a censorious nation again. Do you consider it a period film?

Well, in a funny way I don't consider any of my films period films but, in a practical way, this film isn't a period piece. I was not concerned very much about trying to analyze the history, just the story and the characters. They are timeless.

Do you want to continue making films with contemporary themes rather than historical ones?

It really depends on the story and how it grabs me emotionally. It's not important if it takes place today or yesterday or ten years ago or ten years from now. It's the story and the characters and their emotional impact on me which makes me decide.

You don't glorify your characters, you show them in their milieu and acting out of their character, rather than out of any ideology. That's the beauty of your films. The vision you want to put on the screen is unique to you and you don't want to have that tampered with. You don't eulogize Larry Flynt, you don't put him in stone. You present him as an ordinary man trying to make a living in America and the bogus moral influences who want to stifle him.

All of these characters you mention, more or less, have to do something. Larry Flynt fighting for the First Amendment and Mozart fighting his Emperor when the Emperor says, "Too many notes, cut a few and it will be perfect" -- that's censorship too.

And McMurphy [in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest] fighting for humane treatment of people who can't help themselves.

That's right. McMurphy who is suddenly telling his mates in the institution what their doctors would not tell them.

When you made The Fireman's Ball, you were criticized by the Communist Party and by Carlo Ponti [the producer] for mocking the common man, which you didn't. You said that they sentimentalized the worker to enoble him. There is almost an identical line in The People vs. Larry Flynt when Flynt holds up Playboy and criticizes the magazine for promoting luxury items which the average person can't afford. He tells his friends that they're buying the magazine but being mocked by Playboy. It reminds me of your earliest films and your concerns for the common man.

This connection is not conscious. It's always wonderful when people make connections that I'm not even aware of. That means that something works.

But why do political leaders and producers want films which are sentimental?

They don't want life. They want fairy tales. They think that people don't need the truth, that they, the people, need leaders. So, they want to portray life not the way it is, but the way they think it should be, and give the audience some role models to follow. This film is being criticized for, in some way, glorifying Flynt. I had this from the other end. When I did Amadeus, I was criticized for vilifying Mozart. I didn't buy Hustler ever in my life. Pornography of this kind makes me feel sort of funny, which has to do with my upbringing. I was not really excited to do this film when I got the script and saw the title. The only association with the name Flynt is sleaze and porn, and things like that. Then, when I read it and discovered that was only half of this man, it became much more intriguing and interesting... When you discover there is another part to this man, which is much more admirable then what he produces on the pages of Hustler, then suddenly he becomes human and interesting to watch... In the same way, I was very reluctant to go to see the play Amadeus in London. I was prepared for a very boring evening because all that was associated with Mozart was music. But a movie can't live on the music alone, there has to be a story. All I knew from school about Mozart was excruciatatingly boring. You know, the young man who does nothing but dreams these beautiful notes. He's a role model for all of us, all you have to do from the age of six is something noble. When I saw the play, I saw that there is another half to this personality of Mozart. It's the same thing: suddenly it's how easily you can make hasty judgments based on limited knowledge.

The legal issue of pornography only arose when the common man had access to pornography. There is a long tradition of pornography in aristocratic circles.

Noble people believe they can handle it, and they can. But they don't believe that common people can handle it, but they can. They believe, "This can't hurt me," but for some poor guy, it will lead to moral destruction of society. This is nonsense. It's just trying to blame anybody else for their own failure to educate their own children.

Or it's used as a social control. You lived under two totalitarian cultures, Nazism and Communism in your native Czechoslovakia, and they went after the fringe elements of taste to get the approval of the middle class. They appealed to their morals as a political issue when it really had nothing to do with politics per se.

Yeah, but it is the best theme [of political movements] to go on a crusade against pornography, smut and perverts because everybody agrees with them. The first thing that the Nazis and the Communists attacked was pornography and perverts... Attack smut and pornography and nobody will go in the streets and demonstrate. Everyone will applaud. Usually, that's just the first step or pretext to get more and more control of society and to consolidate power.

In Larry Flynt, one doesn't come away with the idea that pornography is right or wrong, but that it has a right not to be attacked under legal means.

The only hero is the Supreme Court of the United States, but of course, you can't make a movie about the United States Supreme Court.

Do you think we're forgetting what free speech is about in America? Are we mixing morals and politics?

Listen, it's not that we are forgetting, it's that fanatical conservatives, as well as fanatical leftists, always call for domination, for censorship, [and] that the world should be the way their philosophy is aiming. The problem is that they are very vocal, and we in the middle will never win over these fanatical people. But, if we will stop resisting them, they will win over us. That's what happened in Germany in the '30s, in Czechoslovakia after the Communists in the '40s. Suddenly, the resistance was relaxed and they won. They won and started to control the whole society, which ends up in the hands of the totalitarian regime.

The Czech cinema, more than the Hungarian or Polish cinema, has humor and buoyancy. Your films, along with those of Jir’ Menzel, J‡n Kad‡ar, Jan Nemec, Ivan Passer and Vera Chytilov‡, never descended into sentimentality or melodramatics. The horrors were depicted in a bittersweet or sweetly ironic sense. Is that a significant aspect of Czech culture?

Very much so. We are all sucking the same milk for centuries. Czechoslovakia is a tiny country in the middle of Europe, always subject to efforts to control by its powerful neighbors [Hungary, Germany, Austria]. We just learned the way to survive; otherwise the Czech Republic wouldn't exist today. The Nazi Reinhardt Heydrich [Reichs Protector of Bohemia] in his first secret speech to the Gestapo after the occupation of Czechoslovakia, said, "You have to be careful. If you put pressure on the Russians or Poles, really hard, you will break them. Czechs you will never break because they bend. They bend and they wait, and if you release the pressure, they swing back." [Franz] Kafka, [Jaroslav] Hasek , [Karl and Josef] Capek, I could go on... This sad humor is very much part of Czech culture for centuries.

Czechs didn't have the ego of the Poles and Hungarians...

I wouldn't say that. I think the Czechs have the same ego as anybody else, but Czechs were always scared shit to be pompous, to be pretentious. Mainly because all of the big neighbors who sought to occupy the country were so pompous and so pretentious in everything, that this fear of being the same is inherited in the nature of the Czech mentality.

Your father was an early detainee of the Nazis. Was it because he was an intellectual and a teacher, or was it because they knew he was part of the Underground?

We don't know exactly. He was in the Underground but one of the reasons they accused him was that he was distributing to his students -- after the country was occupied -- literature which the Nazis considered subversive: Shakespeare, Capek, Hemingway.

When you were making your films in Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s, why didn't you have trouble with the Communists? Did the humor in the films mask the message?

First of all, I was lucky because I started to make my films when the impact of Khruschev's relaxation [was felt]. I was lucky that I started in that period when a little more was possible. Whoever wanted to fight for me or my movies among the executives in the film industry always had the good argument, you know, "This is just a comedy, it's not serious." That made my life a little easier. Comedy was considered something not very serious and not very important.

The improvisation in your films is wonderful, especially the way you mix professional actors and non-actors. The People vs. Larry Flynt is particularly rich in cameo roles: Larry Flynt plays the judge who sentenced him, James Carville is a prosecutor, and Donna Hanover portrays Ruth Carter Stapleton. How did you get the knack to do this? Did you see the neorealism films when you were growing up?

Well, yes, I saw them before they were banned by the Communists. They were, more or less, ideologically identical to the socialist philosophy. They were banned because they represented too much freedom and talking about life. I guess [the improvisation] is from my attitude... I know this sounds so little, and not serious enough, but I believe that I have to have fun. We all have to have fun -- me, the actors, the cameraman, everybody should feel as if we are making a home movie, because that is the only way to open the film to a certain kind of lightness. If everybody involved feels the seriousness, the heavy weight of money being stamped on movies, it somehow influences the result in a way which is anesthizing to life.

Some directors would feel uncertain about mixing actors with non-actors because of the unpredictability of the result. You obviously respect people and know they will give you what you need. You must not have rigid ideas, know that an actor fits the type, and feel comfortable about what you elicit from the actor.

Exactly. Life is so much more contradictory, interesting and intriguing than what one could really learn sitting at the table. I think it's wonderful when finally you have real life people in front of the camera in a real setting. Whatever life brings to the screen is more exciting and better than what you could figure out from the script. I think one has to be open to that and put it on the screen.

Do you concentrate then more closely on casting for the right type and face?

Oh yes. For example, you can't really improvise when you are doing films like Amadeus because of the language. Today, when people start to improvise, they can't stop to think, "Yes, I'm improvising, but I have to talk the way eighteenth-century people talk." You can't improvise there, but in a contemporary film like [Larry Flynt], when I do screen tests, I always encourage the candidates for all the parts to show me their capacity to improvise, to improvise as the character in the film.

In this film and others, especially with your longtime character actor Vincent Schiavelli, the faces are memorable even though they may have few or no lines, just responses. The irregular faces fill out a tableau. Your films resemble paintings.

I didn't study painting, but what drives me crazy when I go to see a movie is that suddenly I wonder, "Is that the brother or is that the brother-in-law? Because they look alike." [The actor] disappears from the screen, and it's a small part, but then he reappears, and because they all look alike, it takes me a while to figure out who he is. That's why I think it's very important to pay great attention to the casting of small parts. It's even more important for the credibility of the whole movie. I went to the Prague Film School. One of the courses we had to have was the history of painting. We had a wonderful professor who took us into galleries, churches and private collections.

That's one of the reasons why many American films today are so unmemorable. Many American film directors don't seem to have that sense of composition in painting.

I think that's why European cameramen and cinematographers are so popular in this country [Mirek Ondr’cek has been the cinematographer of many of Forman's films, although Philippe Rousselot shot Larry Flynt] because they usually have much richer education in the history of art than the cinematographers here. When I was at the Film School, I didn't think it was so important. I'm beginning to believe that it is important.

There is also an "in the moment" aspect to your films, almost like a documentary. How much is improvisation, calculation or accident? What is your shooting ratio? Do you re-shoot and re-take scenes?

Only when the actor or actress is too nervous or is not giving me what he or she is capable of giving me. Then I begin pushing for more and more and more until I get it. Otherwise, no, I'm very happy with two takes, three takes, four takes maximum.

Do you rehearse extensively with the actor beforehand?

No, I like to consider the screen test as the rehearsal period for the film because when you overrehearse during the shooting, you might get wonderful acting but somehow the life, the unpredictibility of life, disappears. You just feel that these people are not talking, they're just saying the lines.

When you directed James Cagney, who was an instinctive actor, in Ragtime (1981), did you let him find his character, or did you discuss it with him?

When we were shooting, he was 80 years old. He couldn't walk, he had diabetes, sciatica, he couldn't hear, his memory was gone. The only part of Cagney which was absolutely untouched by age was his talent. It was just amazing. The moment the camera was rolling, that man was there and I was just mesmerized.

Your films have very erotic undertones. Few directors have portrayed women with the natural eroticism that one associates with women but sees so little on the screen. There is nudity in your films, both male and female, but there is nothing prurient or exploitive about the nudity, especially Beverly D'Angelo in Hair, Hana Brejchov‡ in Loves of a Blonde, Elizabeth McGovern in Ragtime and even Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt. They have a painterly quality. How do you get these actresses to realize that about themselves and project that?

It has to be in the script, because a woman's naked body is not dirty. What kind of situation and circumstances you put the naked body in can be dirty, so you have to take care of this in the script. I put on the screen what I would like to see on the screen as an audience member. I cringe, for example, at a needle going into a body. You don't see the needle penetrating the skin [in Larry Flynt] because it makes me close my eyes. The same thing with overly erotic scenes, I don't feel comfortable watching it so why should I feel comfortable filming it? When you made Hair (1979), it was already part of another era. You freshened it up and made it almost like a coda to another period. You didn't try to do a stage version. How did you approach the film after wanting to do it for ten years? Did you have to alter the material much? The funny thing is that I did some homework on Hair when it originally played. The rights were so tangled that nothing happened then. Ten years later, when I made the film, I went back to that concept I had when I saw the musical in the late '60s. The main thing is not to take it from the stage and put it somewhere in the street. The theatre is different from the movies, which is very right for the theatre, because you know when the curtain goes up, that nothing is real, that everything is stylized. The tree is not a real tree, it's stylized. The language is stylized and must be stylized because you don't have editing. You have to write lines so that you can communicate to the audience everything so they will understand. It's stylized for that purpose. But film is very different because you see that everything is real. The trees are real, the buildings are real, the sky is real, so people better be real too and not stylized like on the stage.

When you directed Woody Harrelson and Courtney Love, who studied Larry Flynt, did their personalities dictate their performances or did you let them bring their research to the part?

All I tend to give myself credit for is to cast them, because if you cast right, the people will be better than whatever you can tell them to do. That was the case with Woody, Courtney and Edward Norton.

What was your working relationship with Oliver Stone as one of the producers [with Janet Yang and Michael Hausman] of Larry Flynt?

Oliver is a wonderful producer because he was always there to help and never tried to impose his ego. He was always for the film, and he was really supportive all the way through.

You praise Michael Hausman, your longtime unit production manager and producer, in your autobiography for helping you set up productions throughout your career in America.

Michael Hausman is a miracle. We have worked whenever we could since 1970. After 26 years, if a director and producer still talk to each other, it's a miracle. And I love him.

The protagonists in your films, with few exceptions, are people who are on the fringe, underdogs. Do you have a sympathy for the underdog?

Who doesn't have a sympathy for the underdog? Of course, I do. We create institutions, governments and schools to help us live, but every institution has a tendency, after a while, to behave not as if they should be serving you, but that you should be serving them. That's when the individual gets in conflict, because we are paying these institutions with our taxes, we are paying them to serve us and help us live, and not to tell us how to live and dominate us. I wouldn't say it's the underdog but it's always the conflict within the individual and the institutions. Instead of underdogs, let's talk about dogs. If you corner a dog, he's ready to bite you. That's the reality. Otherwise he's a loveable, wonderful creature. If you corner him, he can behave abominably. And so does a human being. When an individual is cornered by society or an institution, well, he can behave abominably and I can't really hide it or glorify it. Neither. It's just a fact of life.

You are one of the few successful European emigre directors in American films.

I was very lucky because right after I came to this country and before I made any films, people like Paddy Chayevsky, Sidney Lumet, Mike Nichols, Buck Henry and others, accepted me as a colleague and it was wonderful. l Kevin Lewis is associate editor of Dance Pages in New York and writes for several periodicals on film and theatre.