DESPITE HIS CZECH ROOTS, Milos Forman’s distinctly accessible and emotional style of filmmaking has made him one of America’s favorite directors. His popular and critically well-received films include One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Man in the Moon, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and of course the 1984 Oscar smash Amadeus, the full director’s cut of which screened Sunday at the Lucas Theatre.
His latest film is the critical success Goya’s Ghost, about the tribulations of the famous (and famously melancholic) artist during the Spanish Inquisition.
Connect got a chance to speak to Forman in a one-on-one interview Sunday afternoon.
You’ve made so many movies about brilliant rebels and dissidents who are misunderstood in their time: Mozart, Andy Kaufman, Larry Flynt, and now Francisco Goya. What about this scenario fascinates you so much?
Milos Forman: First of all, they are very interesting characters. Yes, there’s usually a nice story that’s behind them. But mainly, they represent one part of the conflict as ancient as mankind, which is the conflict between the individual and the institution. We create institutions and always did, because we want them to help us, to serve us. We pay them with our taxes!
And the problem starts because after awhile every institution has a tendency to dictate to us, to behave as if they are paying us to help them and support them and be faithful to them and be loyal to them. That’s a conflict which is always dramatic and good for stories.
You make political points, yet it’s always part of a larger story. Conscious decision on your part?
Milos Forman: Yes, because I am aware of one thing: If you are honest in how you see the story and the characters, it will always be political, so you don’t have to think about it. If you tell the truth on the screen, you are political even if you don’t want to be.
So many good directors have become disappointed with the U.S. distribution system. As European cinema continues to become more important, do you see a day when they specifically avoid the U.S. and concentrate on other markets instead?
Milos Forman: Well, there are European production companies and artists whose goal is to enter the American movie market, and only they are disappointed. And rightly, because as history shows, it’s not only the French or Italians for example, but the Japanese, who are really, essentially true to their culture. They’ve really conquered the world. It’s not speculation that, “we must break into the American market from Paris or Prague or Tokyo,” it doesn’t work that way. Look, Kurosawa didn’t make his films for the American market, and he’s known all over the world.
What types of films and filmmakers do you most enjoy for personal gratification?
Milos Forman: For me the essential thing was the American cinema. That’s what I was a big fan of since I was a child, and still today. It started as silent comedy. That was for me the beginning of the greatness of moviemaking — you know, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd.
You say that you panicked when you realized Amadeus was coming out at the same time as MTV, thinking the timing couldn’t be worse for a three-hour movie about classical music. Yet the film immediately became a pop culture phenomenon. Did that surprise you?
Milos Forman: Yeah, yeah, it surprised me. Of course I was very happy about that. But I tell you, Mozart was in his time what the Beatles were. He was a pop culture figure in his times. He was the guy who was rocking the establishment, not only with his private life but with his musicmaking.
When you see music biopics like Ray and Walk the Line and all the rest, do you ever think, “Hey, I invented that genre?”
Milos Forman: No, no, I don’t feel that way. There were music biopics made before. And a lot of them were made about classical composers in communist countries. The censors loved films that involved composers, because they don’t talk! They make music. They don’t say anything subversive (laughs).