Looking back on a filmmaking career filled with critical acclaim and Academy awards, Czech-born director Milos Forman has a simple explanation for his Hollywood success: He had no choice.
Unlike other foreign directors who returned home when Hollywood didn’t pan out, Forman had to stay in the United States after the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 and a hard-line Communist government took control.
Authorities had already banned the release of his 1967 film “The Fireman’s Ball,” which poked fun at Communist bureaucracy, and his studio fired him after Russian tanks rolled into Prague while Forman was out of the country.
So the only way for him to continue his career was to forge a new one in the United States, Forman told Reuters at the recent 47th San Francisco International Film Festival, where he received a lifetime achievement award for directing.
“There were some wonderful directors who came here and there was nothing happening their way so they went back to their countries,” Forman said. “But for people like (Poland’s) Roman Polanski and me, we couldn’t go back. We had to adapt and swim.”
And this meant changing his approach to filmmaking, said the 72-year-old director, who began his career studying screenwriting at film school in Prague and became part of a remarkable group of “New Wave” filmmakers who revolutionized Czech filmmaking in the 1960s — a period when Czech Communist leader Alexander Dubcek was trying to bring ’communism with a human face” to the country.
But the “Prague Spring” ended with Soviet tanks rolling through the country in 1968. Forman knew he would have to leave Czechoslovakia to continue his career.
No longer could he draw on his native language and intimate knowledge of his small country as he had done in making personal films like 1965’s “Loves of a Blonde.” Instead, the filmmaker turned to scripts written in English.
A failure to communicateThis became clear after his first American film “Taking Off” failed to connect with an audience. Forman said this stemmed from the fact he made the movie the way he had always done.
“The films I made in Czechoslovakia were the kinds you could only make in your mother tongue,” said Forman, who peppers his answers with humorous anecdotes from his career. “So I consciously turned to material which was originally written in the English language.”
His next film, however, catapulted him to the top of the Hollywood heap when 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” won five Academy Awards, including Oscars for best director and best picture.
Forman explained that the story of a group of mental patients struggling under a repressive system and the harsh care of Big Nurse Ratched rang familiar to him.
In fact, he sounds incredulous when describing his reaction to people who at the time wondered whether he could relate to such an “American” story.
“What do you mean an American story, I thought,” said Forman, who lives in New York. “This is a Czech story. The Communist party was my Big Nurse.”
Forman, who also directed other acclaimed films such as “Amadeus” and “The People Vs. Larry Flynt,” also said good writing and whether the story is worth talking about are what attracts him to a script.
These days Forman, whose parents were killed in Nazi death camps, is working on a project about the Spanish Inquisition during the time of the painter Goya and another based on a Hungarian novel.
Yet when asked if he would ever consider making another film in his native Czech language, Forman said he was too far removed from his roots to make that kind of a return.
“The kind of Czech films I was making you have to be so intimate with the life in that country and all spheres of all society, which I now would be missing,” Forman said. “I wouldn’t be comfortable shooting the same kind of film.”