Published at: Sept. 12, 2007, 8:37 p.m. CST by merrick
Hello. Elston Gunn here.
Milos Forman needs no introduction to cineastes, inspiring directors and members of the film community, but he sure as hell deserves one.
Since his first feature in 1963, Forman has combined American motifs with European understanding; art film sensibilities with mainstream appeal; drama in his comedies and comedy in his dramas. He brought us brilliant minds in an insane asylum and some insanity in a brilliant mind, respectively, in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and AMADEUS, both films of which earned him the Academy Award for Best Direction. This Czech-born American citizen has been making unconventional genre films: the romantic comedy (LOVES OF A BLONDE), the farce (THE FIREMEN'S BALL), the musical (HAIR), the biopic (MAN ON THE MOON), the courtroom drama (PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT), the adaptation of a critically acclaimed period novel (RAGTIME, VALMONT). His films are visually and aurally interesting and perhaps contain more truths in their metaphors about human beings and the world than your average movie.
This year, Forman has returned to the screen with GOYA'S GHOSTS, a beautiful story that plays with historical fiction, about seventeenth/eighteenth-century famed painter Francisco Goya and his involvment with the Spanish Inquisition after his muse is arrested and imprisoned for heresy. Brother Lorenzo, whose portrait Goya is painting, is asked to secure her freedom.
The film, which opened to limited release this summer and stars Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgard (the latter as the titular character) was produced by Saul Zaentz and co-written by Jean-Claude Carriere, two long-time Forman collaborators. GOYA'S GHOSTS is one of the best movies I've seen all year, thus far, and is still playing on several screens. Check it out, if you can. Furthermore, the movie is testament to the fact that Milos Forman, at 75, is still out there getting it done, telling substantial dramatic stories about the underdogs, the oppressed, the talented, the ones who hold power. And more power to him.
Forman took time to answer some questions over the phone for AICN.
[Elston Gunn]: Are you relaxed? Are you okay?
[Milos Forman]: Oh yeah, I'm fine.
[EG]: Are you smoking a cigar?
[MF]: No, I just finished.
[EG]: So, GOYA'S GHOSTS. What was the impetus for making it; what initially brought you to the project? Have you been interested in Goya's work for a long time?
[MF]: No, it didn't start with Goya at all. (laughs) As a matter of fact, the impetus, not really for the film, but I started to be fascinated by the subject matter of the Inquisition when I was a teenager. I was a 17, 18-year old kid and I read a book - I lived in Communist country in Czechoslovakia - and I read a book about the Spanish Inquisition and I just was shocked. I was shocked that I was reading something that was happening around me in the middle of the twentieth century. People being arrested, being blamed for crimes they never committed, confessing to these crimes, of course, under torture, being executed, and for a young idealistic man who thought that a world... It was just after World War II and everybody was celebrating, 'we finally killed the monster and now we know we learned the lesson.' And not even five years later we are living in this darkness of Middle Ages where things are happening around us that was happening during the Spanish Inquisition to people.
So, that started to linger in my mind for years and in the 80s when I was in Madrid and for the first time went to [Museo del] Prado - not really even to see Goya because I went there to see Hieronymus Bosch - but I discovered Goya there and I realized, suddenly, here are the illustrations to everything I read. His paintings, his drawings, his etchings, I saw it all there. The torture chambers, the dungeons, the mental institutions, the autos de fe, the executions... everything was there. So, you know, I said, my God, this could be a good dramatic story, just talk about the times and see the parallels, and mix a little bit of the history in it, put a little Napoleon, a little bit of Wellington and you have a good story.
[EG]: I thought it was interesting that Goya and his work served as a kind of Greek chorus to the film, rather than the artist being the central character, which is different than, say, AMADEUS or THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT where the title character is the central focus. Did the lack of information on what Goya, his personality and his life were like - I know there are a few letters here and there, but other than that there is not a lot about him - inform that particular decision?
[MF]: Well, it certainly played a part because I didn't find anything intriguing for a film - for a plot - in his private life. We knew nothing about Goya. Even the letters you mentioned, mainly the letters he wrote to his childhood friend, Zapater in Zaragoza, are trivial. He's writing only about trivia - how much money this nobleman owes him, what a new wonderful English leather he bought for his boots, how many pheasants he shot during the hunt, how he had breakfast with the queen and things like that. And otherwise, nothing.
Look, you know, I think he was smart enough to keep his inner life for himself because in those times you can see where he stood in his paintings. Of course, he stood on the side of the oppressed, the destitute, the poor, the victims... but as he went out and started to talk about it and became involved politically, we would not have his paintings because the Inquistion would have [gotten rid of] Goya. That's for sure. So, he just lived a totally private life to be on good terms with everybody, not to get anybody irritated so that they can attack him in any way. That was his, I guess, daily life.
[EG]: Can you relate to that?
[MF]: Well, not only me. I lived long enough in a similar society under the Nazis and under the Communists and I knew that this was the only way to survive. But in his work he was... Goya was the most incredibly courageous coward because his work is so courageous. For example, The Disasters of War, what he really depicted like anybody else in the art world, the horrors of war, they were not published until many years after his death. So, they were all in the cupboard. He wouldn't show it. Even The Black Paintings, they were not painted to be shown to public. They were painted on the walls inside his house. You can paint on the walls what you want, [and not] bring to the gallery and show it to people. So, he was very, very private but in his work he's incredibly courageous. Nobody dared to depict the horrors of the times as he did.
[EG]: How much research did you undertake for the film? Did you draw any from [TIME magazine art critic] Robert Hughes' book on Goya?
[MF]: I loved the book. He is a brilliant writer, he is. But he doesn't write about Goya, he writes about his paintings. And the paintings... it's better to see them in reproductions or the originals, otherwise... No, I didn't do too much research. First of all, I relied very much on Jean-Claude Carriere because he knows Spanish history, he speaks Spanish, he worked for years on many films with Luis Bunuel, so he brought all the necessary facts for the screenplay from his own knowledge. Of course, the research was done when we wanted to be accurate and not to be attacked like in little ways like things didn't look like that, this was not happening there, or this was done differently. So, we always researched that, so that we are not giving anybody reason to attack us that we were lazy.
[EG]: You mentioned Carriere. This is the first time you've written together in seventeen years, since VALMONT. In fact, he's been your co-writer on several films. Tell me more about your collaboration and how your writing process works. For example, does he do a draft, hand it to you and you say 'Change this, change that?' How does it work?
[MF]: No, we usually... we meet, and either I or he presented the subject what to do and what about, and then we sit down and we start with the question 'Who opens the door and what he or she says?' And then, we start writing together. And with Jean Claude I feel very comfortable to work because, first of all, I guess we have a lot of similar opinions - how we feel about people and things, which we are describing. But, also, he is a good act. And that's very good because every time we write a scene, which is full of dialogue, then we act it, so that we can hear it. Because it happens that you write a scene and on paper it looks good, it looks intelligent and good, and then you hear it from the director's mouth spoken and it's not so good. It's something artificial about it. It's something contrived. It's something is wrong there. So, then, you go back and you start to correct it, and until when we act it, it works well in our mouth and for our ears.
[EG]: That sounds like such a simple practice, but I wonder how many writers don't do that.
[MF]: Well, I like this kind of collaboration and it's inspiring because we provoke each other. We are friends, we know each other very well, so nobody has to be ashamed of his own stupidities. Because, very often, first you have to say ten stupid things before you come with one which is worth it.
[EG]: I thought the film's structure was refreshing because you can look at the story as being told in two halves rather than the typical three-act structure. And through those halves you were also able to see the different kinds of work Goya produced and the phases that he went through as an artist. What were the reasons behind that particular structure of this film with the break in the middle?
[MF]: It was not preconceived. It was really dictated by the story. Because it's a story about Ines, Brother Lorenzo and Goya and then, suddenly, it's at moment in the story they all go their own way and they are not in the same place at the same time. Lorenzo is in France, Ines is in the dungeon, Goya is working quietly in his studio. And only after fifteen years, suddenly, these three characters meet again. So, here, the story restarts and goes to its dramatic conclusion.
[EG]: Not to give too much away, but in the second half when we return to Goya, he's deaf. After watching the film I thought his deafness could be used as an analogy for the philosophy of filmmaking of "show, don't tell." Goya didn't need to hear anything, it was all right there before his eyes, yet he could completely understand what was going on and it showed in his work.
[MF]: Yeah, there's a lot of truth to it. Because I am sure that being deaf that Goya was not going out into the streets or in the parks to chat with the people - even there always with his schedule in the pocket - and that was all what he was comfortable doing, rather than striving to read lips or relying on his sign language.
[EG]: So, again, you return to the themes of personal freedom, the exchange of power and the underdog paying hefty prices for standing up to oppressors. You have said before that you don't choose these themes, they choose you. Why do you feel that these particular themes make their way back to 'a Milos Forman film?' Was it because of your upbringing? Was it subconscious?
[MF]: Oh yeah, definitely. Anybody who lived under the Nazis and under the Communists would understand that freedom and tolerance and magnanimity means to a man more than you live comfortably in a free society.
[EG]: It just occurred to me that this film is also the third you've made that takes place in the late eighteenth century, along with AMADEUS and VALMONT. Is that a coincidence, or are you fascinated with this period in history?
[MF]: I believe it's a coincidence, but what do I know? It's usually a story which grabs you, it doesn't matter when, what time and where it is happening. It's the characters and some story, which excites you intellectually and emotionally.
[EG]: One of the film's critics called the film 'pessimistic.' Do you agree with that?
[MF]: Well, it depends. Not for me. I think the film has a happy end. I think it's a... Look, you know, Ines, this poor soul, finally, she got her man, she got him. Yes, it's true he's dead, but she got him. She got her child. Yes, it's true it's not her child, but she got her child. And you know that Goya will take care of her, that he will not let her sink deeper and deeper into her illness and, you know, lunacy. So, for me it is a happy end, but I understand that for some people it's disturbing.
[EG]: One of my favorite sequences is the one where we actually get to see how Goya worked with the chemicals, etching backwards and in great detail. Was that something you wanted to do from the beginning?
[MF]: Yes, yes. After my experience how I was myself fascinated when Neville Marriner, who was the conducting the music for the film about Mozart, how he made me understand the composing of music, which is so abstract and yet, suddenly, I feel like I understand. I understand the process and how it was exciting for me. So, I thought for the sake of authenticity of the movie - because it gives the authenticity and credibility to the character and to the story - when we see him actually work and it's not just that, you know, he pretends to touch canvas with some brush. That it will be interesting to see how things were being done in those times. And we were very meticulous. Everything is exactly reconstructed from the sources we had, how things were done, even all the props are exact replicas of period props for this kind of work.
[EG]: Speaking of the artist's process, let's talk about yours. One of your former film students at Columbia University told me you used to say that casting was one of the most, if not the most important of the aspects in filmmaking. Do you still feel that way? And do you still try not to lock your actors into a preconceived notion before shooting a scene?
[MF]: Oh yes, definitely. I think it is the most important thing because, finally, actors... that's who the audience sees on the screen and whom I want the audience to believe that they are these characters. You can have a wonderful screenplay, you can make a somersault as a director, and if the audience is not touched and seduced by the people they see on the screen, which are actors [that you know], then the film is fucked. It will not work.
And, no, I don't. When I meet with the actors and I decide on the cast, I don't tell the actors how I would like them to portray the character. Because I want first to show them how they would do it. And, you know, I'll tell you, more often than less, they are not even right but sometimes even better idea how the character should develop than I do. Because good actors... they do their homework, they work. And if in the first meeting tell them 'and I want you to play this character so-and-so and so-and-so, okay,' then he just tries to second-guess you and try to please you with something, which no... I first want to see what they would do themselves about the character, how they would portray, and if it's there are differences, then you start to form it a little bit.
[EG]: Javier Bardem and Natalie Portman gave compelling performances. Bardem's character and beliefs took a very dramatic turn, while Portman had to play two separate roles. How was that challenging for you compared to what you have done in the past?
[MF]: Well, it was more challenging for them than for me. They were a good example. They came on the set so prepared, so prepared, so well-thought of the characters, that anybody could play the Stradivarius.
[EG]: I also think it's interesting that the actors' accents were different. A lot of people are sticklers about that sort of thing when it comes to historical films, but isn't a Swedish accent just as historically accurate as speaking English? Is that something that concerns you, the accents they use?
[MF]: No, it doesn't concern me at all because in reality Madrid in that times was a melting pot. There were so many, not only accents, but different languages, different dialects, you know. It was a city where you know they are mingled with the Spaniards, with the Moors, with the Arabs, with the Jews, with the Italians. Then, the Spanish language itself has so many different forms, you know, Catalonians and from other parts of Spain speaking differently. So, as long as I understand - and the film is in English. So, I don't care what kind of accent because even if they were speaking Spanish, there would be many accents.
[EG]: You didn't have Mozart speaking in a -
[MF]: In a German accent or anything like that. That would be ridiculous, you know.
[EG]: I also thought the editing felt unique. I can't really put my finger on it - the choices of where you cut the film and the transitions seemed original. You wasted no time leaving a scene and getting into the next scene. What is your approach to editing?
[MF]: Well, you know, the only approach I have is to push story forward without boring the audience, you know. To make it interesting without being boring. Editing is like playing chess with the audience, to whet their appetite for this, to make them guess what will be the next development of the story and surprise them with something which they didn't expect, and they must admit that it is more true than what they expected or wanted. Editing is the most fascinating process in the filmmaking for me because it's really like a chess game with the audience.
[EG]: Did you have final cut?
[MF]: I... yeah, I guess so. You know, with Saul Zaentz we don't even discuss this, but he's a producer with whom I which we have a mutual understanding and trust in each other decisions. I trust him and he trusts me. We never really discuss this and put it in the contract.
[EG]: So, you saw Javier Bardem in BEFORE NIGHT FALLS and then again in THE SEA INSIDE.
[EG]: And your director of photography, Javier Aguirresarobe, shot THE SEA INSIDE.
[EG]: So, you saw that film and thought 'I want to work with these people.' Is that how you got together?
[MF]: Yes. No, I wanted to work with Javier because I really admired him in those two pictures you mentioned. And the other Javier, Javier Aguirresarobe, the cameraman... it was wonderful, it was wonderful. First of all, he's such a pleasant character to work with, who brings, first of all, he brings wonderful people - the focus puller, and camera operator, and gaffer, and grips, and all these people. And, secondly, he brings such a nice atmosphere on the set, always in a good mood, and everything is easy, and everything is fine, and he's fast
[EG]: It seems like the colors and the visual tone of the film matched some of Goya's paintings.
[MF]: Yes, yes. That was his intention and I think he succeeded.
[EG]: What do you think of Prague now being a popular tourist city and location for many mainstream Hollywood films years after you emigrated from there?
[MF]: Well, first of all, Prague is very hospitable for movies because not only it has beautifully preserved seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth-century waters, which are spectacular for the movies, but the filmmaking history is long. You know, the first Czech films were made in 1897, or something like a couple of years after the Brothers Lumiere invented the camera. So, there is an army of very professional technicians, artists... so, it's a very place which has been sought out by filmmakers and it's relatively cheaper than some other places in the world.
[EG]: This is your first film in seven years, just as there was a seven-year break between VALMONT and PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT. Are these breaks by design, does it take that long to find a project you want to do, or is it more due to the search for financing?
[MF]: It's not by design, no, and it's not always that I couldn't find another subject. For example, in the last seven years three projects collapsed, one of them a few days before the shooting was supposed to start, the other two a few weeks before the shooting was supposed to start. You work from the development - from the beginning of the work on the script - 'til the first day of shooting. Usually, that's a year and a half, two years. And, so, you know, time goes fast.
[EG]: What else are you working on now?
[MF]: Right now, nothing. Right now, I just came back from Prague where I was directing the stage in the National Theatre in Prague, an opera. And I'm now enjoying, because I was out of home for several months, so I'm enjoying family.
[EG]: Which opera?
[MF]: It's a Czech jazz opera.
[EG]: Well, it's been forty years since THE FIREMEN'S BALL and I think it still holds up. I believe you've said before it's one of your favorites of your own films. What makes it one of your favorites, and do you think a film like that could be made today?
[MF]: Well, I guess it could be, because why not? But I wouldn't put... you know, favorite films... this is such a cliche, but you know, I don't want to say 'this film is my favorite because of...' It's like with children you don't say to your child, 'you are not my favorite, the other kid is my favorite.' But it's true that I feel certain more affection to films which were somehow hurt or molested. THE FIREMEN'S BALL was in 1969 banned officially forever and the film was twenty years in the vault. I feel great affection for my American film PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT because the film was so unfairly attacked - viciously attacked - because for glorifying pornography, which is... that's ridiculous to attack ROMEO AND JULIET that it glorifies teenage suicide.
[EG]: But now PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT is shown in film schools and First Amendment courses; AMADEUS is used in music appreciation classes. How does that make you feel to know that some of your films are shown in the classroom?
[MF]: Oh, that makes me feel good. That makes me feel very good. I love that.
[EG]: What was your reaction to the end sequence of THE 40 YEAR-OLD VIRGIN – an homage to HAIR, featuring "Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In?"
[MF]: I didn't see the film.
[EG]: Well, it's another film about personal freedom.
[MF]: You know, I am now going to rent it and see it.
[EG]: I gave the ending away.
[MF]: That's all right.
[EG]: You've said before that Fellini's AMARCORD was one of your favorite films, if not your absolute favorite.
[EG]: Do you think you'll ever make your AMARCORD, or a film about your childhood life and neighborhood?
[MF]: I don't know, I really don't know. I never thought about it, really. And I am afraid that I am just... that I wouldn't do myself justice, which sounds awful, but you know what I mean. That I... usually, when i'm telling somebody else's story I know what to say, when I am supposed to start. What happened to me... I don't know where to start.
[EG]: Speaking of AMARCORD, Nino Rota's theme song, the instrumental main theme...
[EG]: That and the theme song to RAGTIME are two of my absolute favorite pieces of movie music.
[MF]: Oh, that's nice to hear.
[EG]: I think what Randy Newman did with RAGTIME was up there with what Rota did for AMARCORD. I'm curious what direction you gave Newman.
[MF]: None! None. It was so funny because I send him the black and white dupe, you know, when I was editing the film, so that he knows to what he's composing the music, and that was it. And the producer, Dino De Laurentiis, from time to time, 'Well, did you hear any music? What is the music like? I want to know.'
So, (laughs) I called Randy and I asked him, 'Can I hear something?'
'Sure,' said Randy (laughs) and he flew to New York. We rented a place with a piano and he sat at the piano, started to play the piano, and started to howl. He was not singing, he was howling the melodies. And I started to laugh, and he knew that I can't judge anything. Music before you hear it really recorded as it should be... you can't judge it if you are not a musician yourself, and I am not. So, we laughed and he flew back, and then he brought the music, and I just was touched by the quality of the music.
[EG]: That's a great story. Now, I'm going to let you get egotistical for a second. What do you want people to say about your films a hundred years from now?
[MF]: Hundred years from now… (laughs)