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Laughter In The Dark - Courtney Love interviews Milos Forman
Interview, Jan, 2000

Courtney Love, who plays Andy Kaufman's girlfriend in Man on the Moon, asks the movie's director, Milos Forman, just what it was about the late comic that made him ripe the big-screen treatment

COURTNEY LOVE: Hello, maestro.

MILOS FORMAN: Oh, Courtney! I miss seeing your face.

CL: I miss you, too, Milos.

MF: What is that magazine you were on? You looked fabulous.

CL: You know what? I was trying to dress like a studio executive. [MF laughs) There is this one studio executive who is so excellent and I want you to meet her. She works at Universal and her name is Ali. I know you don't like studio executives, but--

MF: Isn't that the daughter of Muhammad Ali?

CL: No, her name is Ali Brecker!

MF: She's not a boxer? The other studio executives are.

CL: Yeah, I know. Ali's helping produce Man on the Moon, but she just stays out of your way. She is four foot eleven and she Is one of quintuplets.

MF: One of quintuplets? That's intimidating. I only have twins.

CL: She had to fight four people in the womb, so she is a real fighter. She should be a sculptress or something, but . . . So, hl.

MF: Hi.

CL: Me and Edward [Norton] have been writing a lot of letters lately.

MF: That's very nice. I think he is directing a good movie [Keeping the Faith].

CL: Yeah, he's a little scared, but the good news is that in our letters we can be as venal and bitchy as we want.

MF: Will I be able to read them one day?

CL: I don't know. He's so private and I'm so public, but it's a good way to make up. Because, you know, we had a . . . I love him, though.

MF: So do I.

CL: And you were In his movie! You were Father Havel, a priest. How was it acting?

MF: I tell you, every director should get in front of the camera just to learn that it's not as easy as we behind the camera always imagine it should be.

CL: What was Edward like as a director? Was he an arrogant little prick?

MF: No, wonderful. He was very good.

CL: Was he sweet and great?

MF: Yes, and he had a nice atmosphere on the set and he had things under control and that's good.

CL: I want to direct now, Milos. How are your new babies?

MF: [laughs] Well, they're better than movies because they don't talk yet.

CL: Did you really name them Jim and Andy?

MF: Yes. Originally, we were going to name the baby Andy, because I was doing a film about Andy Kaufman. Then we learned we were having twins and we said, OK, it will be Andy and Tony, after Andy's famous character, Tony Clifton. But then my son's wife gave birth to a daughter, and they named her Toni. I couldn't have a Tony so we chose Jim. When you choose names for your children, you want to name them after somebody you like very much, so the name will always ring beautifully in your ears. And that was how I felt about Jim Carrey [who plays Kaufman in Man on the Moon].

CL: What drew you to Andy Kaufman?

MF: I don't know, exactly. Are you familiar with the laws of physics?

CL: Yes, sort of.

MF: Do you know how a magnet works? What forces are in play? Because that's how I would describe my fascination with Andy. The first and only time I saw him live was in '75 or '76. Buck Henry took me to the Improv in Los Angeles and this kid came on the stage. In the first five minutes, I was really sweating for him. I felt so sorry for the poor guy. And in the next five minutes, I was on the floor laughing and I swear I didn't know why. From then on, every time I saw him on television or heard about him, I felt a magnetic pull. When I really decided that he wasn't just an interesting character for a movie, but that there was a beautiful story for a drama there, was when I learned that nobody knew that for the last eight years of his life something was very wrong with him, and no doctor could find what it was. My conviction is that Tony Clifton was his fight :for immortality. I think Andy thought, If I am going to die, I will create another character that will live forever; if this body is sick, I will create another body. And that, for me, became the drama.

CL: For me, the genius of him, the Picasso of him, or the Mozart of him, was that he didn't seek approval. He didn't give a shit.

MF: More than Picasso, he is rather like the artist [Chris Ofili, in the Brooklyn Museum of Art's recent Sensation show] who did the painting of the Madonna with the elephant dung. It's like he thought, I want to attract attention to myself, and putting elephant dung on a painting is a much more elegant way to attract attention than throwing dung in people's faces.

CL: I think that's a cute painting.

MF: I do, too. I don't know what all the fuss is about. I remember growing up in Czechoslovakia, and the Nazis used to call Chagall and Picasso degenerate. Same as the Communists did with the Beatles and Elvis Presley. To use these words about art--

CL: One thing I know from my other job, my rock-star job, is that there is a fine line between aggravating the audience to get energy from them and just being indulgent. It can take a kind of genius to say, "Fuck you, I'm not going to deliver a punch line, I'm not going to play the hit." But when I piss an audience off, well, then I always try to make them happy. Maybe because there Is a part of me that wants people to like me--although I've done some Kaufmanesque things in my time. What kind of satisfaction did Andy find In driving his audience away?

MF: I don't think he cared. If after reading The Great Gatsby for two hours on stage, there was only one guy left who applauded at the end, that was enough satisfaction for him.

CL: The thing I think we need to learn from this movie--and I don't mean eat-your-spinach learn; it's more like, "Here, have some tiramisu," because the movie is like a wonderful dessert--is that it really doesn't matter if the audience laughs. Sometimes you have to do things for yourself and ignore the people that boss you around. Sometimes you have to fire them all.

MF: Well, I hope the audience will laugh anyway.

CL: Andy wanted attention and wanted celebrity. At the same time, It seems like he resented his stardom. He even took a night job at a deli while he was doing Taxl. What do you think that all was about?

MF: He probably had a very strong fear of failing. And I think he was a genius in that he conquered this fear by incorporating failing into his act. By doing that, it meant that in the end it didn't matter. Whether they applauded or booed, it was the same success.

CL: Can I confront you with something I've been thinking about your canon of movies? With all the hardships you went through in your life, growing up under the Nazis and the Communists, there is still no bitterness in your movies. There is no hate. But there is the subtext that if you buck the system, you get a little fucked. In Valmont, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Man on the Moon, there is the idea that if you buck the system you get a lobotomy or you die of consumption or of cancer, or you become a quadriplegic. If you fall in love when you are not supposed to, you die. Tell me about this.

MF: Listen, I didn't really experience the fist of authority in my life because I left Czechoslovakia pretty early. And while I was there I was just an observer. But I knew artists who committed suicide after being attacked by authorities.

CL: But do you see my point about the similarities between the subjects you pick, these magnets that pull you?

MF: You don't choose them; they choose you. And suddenly you feel the pull.

CL.: I think it's so interesting that some of the best men in my life ever--you and Michael [Stipe]-- are fascinated with Andy Kaufman. And I'll admit it, I wasn't. My late husband, Kurt, was also very fascinated with Andy; his favorite R.E.M. song was "Man on the Moon." I just think it's so crazy and karmic. I mean here's this man I loved who died, and this other man-Michael--who saved me from such misery, and this man-you--who saved me from another misery, and it all sort of circles around Andy. I don't know if that makes sense to anybody, but it is so intense.

MF: It doesn't make much sense to me.

CL: It doesn't?

MF: What's important is that it makes sense to you.

CL: I believe in the psychic network of life and the karmic wheel, and I think you do, too.

MF: You have a right to do that. Courtney, did you ever see Andy Kaufman perform live?

CL: No. I saw him on Fridays and he freaked me out. I was in fifth grade and I was in my bedroom and 1 shouldn't have had the TV on. But I was so embarrassed for him and it bothered me for days. And then out of my peripheral pop vision, I saw some of the wrestling stuff and that really freaked me out.

MF: Maybe to appreciate Andy, one had to see him live.

CL: With everyone in the audience looking at each other uncomfortably?

MF: Yes. Because then you are not only watching the performance, you are part of the performance. You are included in a way that you didn't expect. Whoever saw him live can't forget him. We all loved him as Latka, but besides that he was not a people's comedian. He was a comedian's comedian. I still have yet to meet a comedian who doesn't talk in awe about Andy. And that's a very strong legacy.

CL: There's a line I say to Andy in the movie, "There is no real you." It was my first day of shooting and I trusted you and I went with it and meant it when I said it, but I didn't really understand it. What did I mean? How is there no real somebody?

MF: From what I know about Andy, he was always performing. Unless he was performing, he was not alive. Not only on stage, but also in real life. It was a constant performance. And who was the man behind the performer? Nobody knows. Lynne Margulies, who was the person closest to him for a while, told me, "I don't know who Andy was."

CL: But the thing about Lynne, who I played, is that she is so charming and so sexy and so funny that, in some ways, I didn't expect she would have been his girlfriend. I remember seeing the wrestling stuff and being really turned off by it, as was all of America. Everyone hated him for the wrestling. And Lynne, this sane, smart, beautiful woman, looked at me and said, "Well, we thought it was funny." And to me, this is the nexus of the whole thing. He didn't give a shit! Jesus Christ, here's everybody in America hating you...which, believe me, I know about because it happened to me. But I went and reformed because I couldn't take it. I didn't like it. Actually, you went and reformed it for me. I'd like to thank you for that, Milos. But Andy didn't care. He loved that everybody hated him. He thought it was funny. The choice not to keep playing cute characters like Taxi's Latka and instead make people hate you is such a profound and frightening choice.

MF: Obviously he was not the only one who was enjoying the wrestling. He provoked some sort of emotions in the girls who became involved in his game. I am sure they must have enjoyed it too--otherwise, why wrestle him?

CL: Because they hated him.

MF: But that's an emotion.

CL: Do you think he ever went too far?

MF: Well, from a standard point of view, of course. But not from his hierarchy of what was proper or Improper.

CL: When Jim was doing Andy as Tony Clifton and came in with the Limburger cheese, what did you make of that?

MF: It drove me nuts at the beginning, but I enjoyed the game Jim was playing very much.

CL: He stunk so bad. But a lot of the stuff that Jim did, I never rolled my eyes at him. I thought it was playful and fun and interesting, but I didn't know how it was going to read. Since you were in charge, though, I knew we'd see the depth in Jim's performance. I was so shocked by his lack of narcissism. Sometimes when I was acting with him, his eyes would give and other times his eyes would glaze, so I wasn't sure what I was getting, because I was giving him a lot of psychic energy. I thought, Is he being a movie star? What's he doing? And then when I saw it, it's so deep.

MF: You just said a very exact word here, and that's narcissism. And it's really interesting when you think about it. Narcissism is always connected with the worst! The worst! Did you realize that Andy Kaufman never smoked and never ate anything but health food? But when he became Tony Clifton, his narcissism became so distracting. He smoked, he ate porterhouse steaks, he drank. But not as Andy Kaufman, only as Tony Clifton. It was like this narcissism was a death wish.

CL: Do you think that all of Andy's anger and the anger directed at him might have manifested itself into the cancer that killed him?

MF: It's possible. There is a funny parallel--and I am not saying this to prove anything--but the feverish way Andy was trying anything to climb to the point where he would get all this recognition is very similar to another man who died at the same age. Like Andy, Mozart didn't know he was going to die at thirty-five, but he was working as if he were going to die the next day. So there might be something there that works subconsciously for me.

CL: Can I tell the funny story about your little talk with me? I don't even think you remember it. I was flirting with the camera operator throughout Larry Flynt, so I knew I would get well-lit. I said to him "Can you bring in a certain light, because there's a little wrinkle on my nasal-labial fold?" And you took me aside and said, "Girl! Now comes the time in your life when you have your first wrinkle! And you must not complain about your first wrinkle! Love your wrinkle and grow with it!" Did you say this to me because you can't stand diva girls?

MF: Did I say that?

CL: Yeah, you said that. It was this huge moment in my life, and you don't even remember it.

MF: Did you take it hard?

CL: Yes!

MF: Good!

CL: But the next movie I did, I was a terror about the lighting.

MF: Courtney, you have enough beauty inside. You don't have to worry.

CL: I took it to heart, because I hate being vain. I'm really glad you told me that my wrinkle doesn't matter. Anyway, I just want to say that I think the new movie is stunning and incredible.

MF: But you are part of this film! Let other people say these words! This is one thing that I am idiosyncratic about. Because when I was living in a Communist country, there were huge posters saying LONG LIVE THE COMMUNIST PARTY! on every corner. And I thought, It's wonderful if somebody else is telling you this, but if you are posting this yourself, well, then it stinks.

CL: OK, OK. I'll stop with the propaganda, but I still think it's great.