Forman on art, cultural identity

There’s nothing like surviving a Fascist onslaught and later fleeing a repressive police state to sharpen your appreciation for the civil liberties most Americans blithely assume to be unassailable.

Director Milos Forman has been celebrating individuality and freedom of expression since the beginning of his career, with his classic Czech films of the early ’60s such as “Black Peter,” “Loves of a Blonde” and “Fireman’s Ball.” Unfortunately, he was eliciting laughs while dissecting hypocrisy under the watchful eyes of a Czechoslovak political system that had temporarily misplaced its funny bone. By the late ’60s he had fled Prague and relocated in New York.

Since 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” his Stateside success has been certified with Oscars and box office receipts, but his disdain for authority and enthusiasm for iconoclasts and freethinkers has remained paramount in his oeuvre. Last year’s Golden Globe-winning “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” is a remarkable display of Forman’s continuing commitment to the rights of the outsider, as well as his wry appreciation for human foibles at both ends of the social spectrum and all points in between.

Over a cappuccino at his favorite Los Angeles haunt, the Bel Air Hotel, we talked about his creative roots and his native land, his work on behalf of the Artists Rights Foundation, and the fragility of freedoms too many take for granted too often in his adopted homeland.

VARIETY: On the artists rights agenda there’s a term — “cultural identity” — that you should be especially well-suited to discuss. How do you propose to grapple with that concept?

MILOS FORMAN: We’ll look at the problems behind that noble-sounding phrase. For me, people are the same when you get to the deep-down nitty-gritty, everywhere. All of the differences based upon the history of a place, language, I don’t see as uncrossable barriers, because, believe me, the nature of human existence is identical all over the planet.

Variety: I don’t know if you still consider yourself a Czech filmmaker, but the Czechs certainly still claim you.

Forman: That would be for a psychiatrist to determine, not for me. But there is a very important advantage for people who cross borders to work. You can compare. For instance, you know how fragile civil liberties are, when the people in a foreign country might take them for granted. You know that little nonsenses here and there can lead to severe damage to the network of rights.

Variety: You’re picking up an award named after the legendary director, John Huston. Did you ever get the opportunity to meet him?

Forman: I met him once and I spent four hours with him, not exchanging one word. I was mesmerized because I was watching him play poker with Paddy Chayefsky, Nicholas Ray and another fellow. As for this award, it’s secondary to the efforts being made for this cause.

Variety: Are you hopeful or cynical about the prospects for progress on artists rights?

Forman: It depends on my mood. When I am in a serious mood, I’m not cynical. That’s something I can only afford when I’m in a positive mood. To be specific, though, I am optimistic about the bill we are now trying to push through in Washington, D.C. It’s a very compromised, very simple proposal to inform the audience if they are seeing the original work, or if it has been edited, panned and scanned, speeded up or colorized.

Variety: Do you think that people inside the industry, let alone the general public, have any sense of the importance of artists rights?

Forman: I don’t know. All this legislation is very important. American law doesn’t conform with the Berne Treaty, like almost every civilized country. The principle of Berne is simple: The author of a work must be a physical person. Here, the copyright holder is the owner and can do as they like. All of this is provoking pressure from European filmmakers also, because the distributor here owns the copyright, so they’re finding that they have no legal protection for the rights granted them by the Berne Treaty.

Variety: One last question regarding your “old” cultural identity. As a Czech, how do you assess the creative health of the film community in the Czech Republic?

Forman: I’m very encouraged by young filmmakers like Jan Sverak, who just won the Oscar for “Kolya.” But there is one area for concern. Twenty years ago, when the country lived behind bars and barbed wire, they were like people living in a zoo, not allowed to move, to eat what they wanted. But they dreamed of the beauty of the jungle, to one day enjoy that freedom. Then the bars fell and they found that the jungle can be dangerous, so they began dreaming of the safety of the zoo.

Variety: Do you have a nostalgia for your early filmmaking days in Czechoslovakia, when you took a small crew and shot a film in a few weeks?

Forman: Not really. I remember how ridiculous it was when Czechs were trying to make films in the American style, in the same way it would be ridiculous for me to try and make a film in the Czech style. What distinguishes American films from European films are their plot orientation and pace. People think I had to compromise to work in this system. It was just the opposite! This was what I wanted, and I immediately embraced it. I felt liberated by it!

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