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Milos Forman and a life living out of a suitcase

Posted at 10:49 AM on April 13, 2008 by Euan Kerr

Milos Forman told a story last night about the time when he was a boy when his parents took him to a screening of a silent film of a popular Czech opera.

He says it was 1938, so sound films were a reality, but such was the pre-war nationalistic feeling that the silent film was hugely popular. He said the opera was so well known that shortly after the film began the audience began singing, and provided the music for the entire movie.

This was just one of many stories Forman told during his Regis Dialog at the Walker with LA Weekly film critic Scott Foundas. Forman has created a spectacular body of work including "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Amadeus," "Ragtime," and a host of others including most recently "Goya's Ghosts."

He talked about his early life, after he lost his entire immediate family to Nazi concentration camps. He says he began living out of a suitcase when he was 10 and didn't stop until he was 45.

When Foundas asked him how he knew he wanted to be a director, he related a story of how his older brother who worked as a stage manager had taken him backstage for a day when the traveling theater where he worked came back to their hometown. The 10 year old Milos set himself up in the ladies dressing room, and as he was so young no-one seemed to mind that he spent the entire day watching women who he described as goddesses, changing costumes and applying make-up. He saw how they all paid special attention to one man who came into the dressing room, an 'uber-god' as Forman called him. When he asked his brother who this man was he learned it was the director, and that's when young Milos decided what he wanted to do with his life.

Forman points out that during his life he has lived under many different social systems: the Nazis, communism, democracy in the US - and as Foundas put it - "whatever it is we have now."

His films often explore the lot of an individual struggling against an oppressive system or situation. He says he made his early films in Czechoslovakia in part just to show real people on the screen because he was so tired of the stage depictions he saw in socialist realism films. He often used non-actors in his films. After seeing a clip from his early film "Loves of a Blonde" he listed the actors in the clip as being the sister of his first wife, the uncle of the cameraman, and a woman he met on the streetcar in Prague.

"It was more of a home movie we made," he laughed.

He said the way he worked was to take his script and rather than make them learn lines, he would just tell them what they were meant to say. He says as they tried to remember their lines they would in a way process them and make them their own, resulting in a natural sounding exchange.

"Blonde" and his second movie "The Fireman's Ball" were both nominated for the best foreign language Oscar. However shortly after "Fireman" came out the Russians occupied Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring, and the movie which pokes fun at the pettiness of a small communist town was banned for life.

Forman says that under communism banned for life meant for 20 years, and quietly the authorities were happy it was being shown overseas because it mean hard currency for the Czech economy.

Forman was in the US when the invasion came, and he decided to stay. He talked about how some early projects didn't come off, but then the success of "Easy Rider" which has cost little and made millions, convinced the studios to let him make a film. As Forman put it Easy Rider "cost peanuts and the studio executives said 'We have peanuts.'"

Soon after he arrived in the US Forman had by chance stumbled across the first public performance of "Hair." He wanted to do a film adaptation of that show, but it had already become a Broadway hit, and it was going to be some years before he had the chance.

Instead he researched doing another story about the hippy culture. He said he soon discovered the hippies themselves were quite boring, as most of the people he met just sat around sleeping, smokng dope and occasionally looking for something to eat.

The people who were much more interesting were the parents who were desperately trying to find what had happened to their children. That's how he made "Taking Off" a film now which is stuck in rights limbo because when they had some youngster perform songs they wrote the producers only got them to sign for the film rights, not dreaming about things like DVDs in the future.

Forman also told the story of how Kirk Douglas had the rights to "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" and wanted to play the lead, but couldn't get financing. He commissioned a stage play and it flopped. It then happened that he visited Czechoslovakia and met Forman by chance, and asked him if he would have any interest in working on the project. Forman said he was, and Douglas promised to send a book. However it never arrived.

Eight years later Douglas's son Michael approached Forman, now in America, with the same project, and again Forman said he was interested. When Forman finally met the older Douglas again Kirk asked him why he hadn't responded to his sending the book the first time. Forman said he's been cursing him for not sending it. It was only then they realized the Czech censors had confiscated the book and told neither of them.

Cuckoo was the first film that Forman made which won all five major Oscars. Amadeus did the same a few years later.

During the question and answer session a woman asked Forman what words he had to inspire courage. He looked surprised for a moment then leaned forward to look at Scott Foundas.

"Just learn how to forgive film critics," he said, smiling broadly. The he straightened up and looked out across the crowd.

"Don't just learn from your idols," he said. "Learn from the things you despise."

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