One of the leading lights of the Czech New Wave of the 1960s, Miloš Forman faced an uncertain future in 1968, when the creative and social freedoms of the Prague Spring were crushed under Soviet tanks. Rather than submit to censorship, Forman moved to the United States, began his career anew, and flourished.
His Hollywood movies, sympathetic to iconoclasts and outsiders, earned him two Best Director Oscars (for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Amadeus”). Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center is presenting a retrospective of his films through April 22. In an interview from his home in Connecticut, the 76-year-old filmmaker discussed his artistic choices, his struggles with English and the changing landscape of cinema.
The title of the Walker tribute is “Miloš Forman: Cinema of Resistance.” Does that feel right to you?
I never heard it before. I have to think about it. Resistance to what? I hope it’s resistance to aging.
When you came to America, did you have to change the way you worked?
Yeah, very much so, because of the language. I started to be a screenwriter and I co-wrote all my films in Czechoslovakia myself. I realized coming to the United States that my English will never be good enough to work in the same way. So I turned to adapting material that was done by English-writing writers.
My first movie here, I made the same way I made films in Czechoslovakia, and I realized that’s not good enough. Little structure, space for improvisation, endings like my Czech films, which don’t end. They stop. And it’s up to the audience to decide who is the good guy, who is the bad guy, what it all means and all that. When I did this with my first American film, “Taking Off” (a 1971 counterculture comedy), it didn’t play well with the audience.
Did you find that American audiences prefer a different sort of storytelling?
You know, American movies are a little more like fairy tales than slices of life. Clear ending, what it all means, clear lesson, a little more structure for the development of suspense. I was excited by this new challenge and I was young. You are not aware of your limitations yet when you are young.
When you adapt a novel such as “Ragtime” or a play such as “Amadeus,” what kind of adjustments are needed?
First of all, I don’t mean to be derogatory, but you have to lose respect. You have to treat the material as a springboard to a new vision. A film vision. “Amadeus,” well, it’s historical characters and historical facts. But when you are making a fiction, you don’t have to be faithful to the facts as long as you are faithful to the spirit of the facts.
Which picture did you most enjoy filming?
It’s true I enjoyed them all because I never had to make pictures I didn’t want to make myself. And I was able to make them the way I wanted. The most puzzling, how could we make it, was “Hair.” When I see it today after years, I think, “My God, how did we manage to make it?” The complexity of all the different demands we had in the production, to work with such majestic music!
Is the reason you’ve taken long sabbaticals that you didn’t want to work on projects you didn’t feel personally invested in?
I feel like I was working every day all my life. To make a movie I have to be involved from the very first day, I start to think about developing the screenplay, to the last day of the mix. And that’s usually two years of your life. Plus I had three films I developed and prepared and was ready to shoot, and then they collapsed. So right there I wasted six years of my life.
You seem to work in two distinct modes, period costume dramas and contemporary films. What appeals to you about each type of movie?
It’s not really the period which interests me, it’s always the story or characters in the story which will get my excitement to make a movie about them. “Cuckoo’s Nest” was a film which people were telling me. “My God, how can you make such typical Americana?” I said, “What are you talking about? This is a much more Czech film than American film because for you it’s a book, literature. For me it was life. For me, the Communist Party was my Nurse Ratched, who was telling me what to do, what to say, what to think, what not to think. You read it. I lived it.”
Many of your films are about rebels, and you’ve lived under so many political regimes. Do you think rebellion accomplishes anything?
Visibly, directly, no. We must not overestimate the power of the movies or art on our behavior or well-being. But subconsciously, yes. Every movie or book which touches you in some way is influencing you subconsciously. I admire rebels because I am personally a coward. The most interesting and important conflict in society since its beginning is the conflict between individual and institution. And, of course, rebels don’t want to be enslaved by these institutions, so they are very inspiring characters.
Are there any films that have stimulated you in the last few years?
It’s not the same as when I started. That’s when I felt influences the most, and it was American silent comedy. It was Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy and all this. Then later I fell in love with people like William Wyler, Billy Wilder, John Ford, (Francis Ford) Coppola, (Martin) Scorsese, (Michael) Cimino, Jonathan Demme.
What would you consider to be your biggest mistake?
Either all my life was a mistake or it was a success. Nothing in between.
Is there a Miloš Forman style?
That’s not for me to decide. I leave it up to you and the audience.