There ought to be a law: once you’ve won two Best Director Oscars (or once you’ve called action on a movie as front-to-back brilliant as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), there will always be an industry average budget available for your next film – so long as it’s not a three-hour Alexander the Great epic that works best as an LSD-laced David Lean spoof. But while we’re muddling through the wording of the "Oliver Stone Clause", let’s assume this: if Milos Forman wants to make a film, it’s a film worth making.
And yet it took seven years for the much heralded director to find financing for his follow-up to Man on the Moon. After several false starts (including an Amarillo Slim biopic starring Nicolas Cage), Forman finally teamed with longtime collaborator and friend, Jean-Claude Carriere, on a screenplay addressing the Spanish Inquisition via the life and art of Francisco Goya. The resulting film, Goya’s Ghosts, is not a straight-ahead biopic like Forman’s last two features (The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon); it is instead a politically charged tale that parallels rather uncomfortably with today’s morally muddled climate in which torture is popularly viewed as an acceptable means to an ambiguously beneficial end.
Forman’s lived through times as turbulent and troubling as these; he lost his parents to the Holocaust and fled communist Czechoslovakia in 1968. It is, as he says, "the puzzling repetition of history" that makes films such as Goya’s Ghosts an unfortunate necessity. In the following interview, we discuss the genesis of his latest film, his working relationship with Jean-Claude Carriere and his infrequent forays in front of the camera.
Q: Why so long in between movies? This is your longest layoff since the Valmont/The People vs. Larry Flynt period.
Milos Forman: Between the Man on the Moon and now, three projects I had and worked on – each for a year-and-a-half, maybe two – collapsed! I was not idle. I was busy, but no fruit.
Q: Even for a filmmaker of your stature, these films are that hard to pull together?
Forman: Well, you are only as good as your latest film. And if the latest film doesn’t do commercially as expected, they think you lost it, and you have to prove them again and again.
Q: That’s kind of absurd, no?
Forman: Well, that’s life.
Q: A common element running throughout your movies is the protagonist railing against stupid authority and mediocre minds. I’d like to get your thoughts on why it is we so often allow ourselves to be governed by fools.
Forman: You know, I wouldn’t call these people fools. I think it’s a conflict between an individual and an institution. And an institution is a very interesting animal. It can be composed out of very intelligent people, but if you put them together and force them to make a collective decision, sometimes they become very stupid.
Q: Going into Goya’s Ghosts, I was not expecting Goya to recede as he does. How did Brother Lorenzo emerge as the protagonist in your story?
Forman: It was always meant to be. The title shouldn’t mislead the audience. It’s called Goya’s Ghosts. It’s about Goya’s ghosts. It’s not a biography at all. It’s about the ghosts of… real people, or the ghosts imagined in his head. The ones he’s putting on his etchings and drawings and canvases were the ghosts of live people around him, and they came to haunt him as ghosts: Lorenzo, Ines… all these people. It’s basically a story between this high positioned priest who is very active in the inquisition and the young beautiful girl, and Goya and the girl’s father; these four characters are the main characters of the story.
Q: It’s a story that you’ve been developing for some time. And it’s a subject that’s interested you for decades.
Forman: The puzzling repetition of history when it comes to certain human activity: "What can man do to each other?". That started when I was an idealistic young student in a communist country and read a book about the Spanish Inquisition, and suddenly realized exactly the same things, the same horrors are happening right around me as a young idealistic man in communist Czechoslovakia. People being arrested, nobody knew why, then they were accused of crimes they never committed, and then they confessed to the crimes, of course; they confessed after being tortured, and then they were executed. This was all happening in the middle of the twentieth century.
Q: This movie is, in many ways, very appropriate to our times, what with the United States engaging in the rendition and torture of terrorist suspects.
Forman: I must say one thing: the screenplay to the film was finished months before the events in Iraq. The line,"You will be welcomed with flowers as liberators" was in the script many months before the events in Iraq. It’s a line Napoleon allegedly said to his generals before invading Spain to liberate it. And I’m not being facetious! Napoleon really liberated Spain from the grip of the monarchy and of the church. He opposed the royals, he abolished the inquisition, he immediately ordered all of the political prisoners to be released. He really planted the seed of Democracy into the Spanish soil. The problem was that he planted the right seed in the wrong soil, and that finally caused his retreat from Spain.
Q: But that line about being greeted as liberators was a direct quote from history?
Forman: Yes, that’s actually Napoleon’s line, which Jean-Claude Carriere discovered during his research.
Q: I’m glad you mentioned Jean-Claude Carriere. This is your first time working with him in quite a while. Was it easy to get back in a rhythm with him?
Forman: Oh, yes. Jean-Claude is like my soul brother. He’s a wonderful writer and a good friend. We’ve known each other since the mid-1960s.
Q: He’s collaborated with so many great filmmakers. Yourself, Luis Bunel…
Forman: Bunel, Volker Schlondorff, Louis Malle, Philip Kaufman… many, many directors.
Q: What is it about your relationship that’s yielded such fascinating work?
Forman: We have the same ideas about the world and about human nature.
Q: There is one moment in particular that I wanted to single out: the rough transition from Ines asking how she can prover her innocence to being brutally tortured. Where did that come from?
Forman: Well, god, it came from what I saw happening around me living under the Nazis and under the Communists. If the ruling power needs confirmation of its policies, the easiest way to make people tell them what they want to hear is to torture them. But the value of it is obviously zero because under torture ninety-nine percent of the people will confess to anything you ask them to confess to.
Q: But the economy of that cut is breathtaking. So many other filmmakers might do this as a slow build to her dawning realization that she’s about to be tortured. You just skip right to the act.
Forman: This is what I learned in film school. You have to follow the story. Whatever doesn’t push the story forward doesn’t belong there, and this is a direct answer to a very nice question. How can you prove that you do not like something? How do you prove that? They make you prove that. They make you confess to that.
Q: And what was it about Natalie Portman that made you feel she was ready for such a physically and psychologically rigorous role?
Forman: Intelligence, talent and versatility. She’s brilliant. She has in a perfect balance her intellectual preparation for the role and instinct. If the intellect prevails or the instinct prevails, you don’t get the best. But when it’s in perfect harmony, as it is in Natalie Portman, then I am thrilled.
Q: Meanwhile Javier Bardem must’ve been easy casting. "Who’s the best Spanish actor in this age range working today?"
Forman: I had Javier in my mind from the very beginning. I had wanted to work with him since Before Night Falls, Julian Schnabel’s film, which is brilliant. Then I saw The Sea Inside. That impressed me enormously, and I wanted to work with him. And because the film is in Spain, I asked to meet with him. I was very impressed by the meeting, so it was not a question for me.
Q: Your last two films prior to Goya’s Ghosts were very American, and very much about American concerns. There’s such value in that because you bring an outsider’s view to America. I know there was an Amarillo Slim project rumored a while back, but I’m wondering if you have any specific plans to further explore our country’s pop culture.
Forman: I don’t know what I’m going to do next. Amarillo Slim is a typical Hollywood story. Several years ago, I got a call if I would be interested to make this film about Amarillo Slim with Nicolas Cage. Because Amarillo Slim is such an interesting character, and because I love Nicolas Cage as an actor, I said, "Yes, I would be interested; just send me the script, and I will tell you." But I didn’t get the script! They put it in the press, but I never got the script!
Q: Is that how you get attached to these films? Larry Flynt, Andy Kaufman… these guys are such enigmas. Is that what you’re looking for now?
Forman: Deciding what character you want to make a film about, it’s sort of irrational. It’s a combination of how intellectually and emotionally this kind of personality excites you. The fact is, these kinds of people are very intriguing and, therefore, exciting to think about and try to make a film about them.
Q: What’s interesting about Goya’s Ghosts is that you got away from the biopic structure of your last two films. But that biopic structure has endured; every year we have so many films employing that formula. And it’s a crushing bore.
Forman: It is. I agree with you absolutely. That’s what was so wonderful about Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus; it was not a biography of Mozart, but a drama by itself. Goya’s Ghosts is the same for me; the main drama between Ines and Father Lorenzo and Ines’s father and the church and the monarchs and the whole political and military situation at that moment in Europe – which I think is the most important moment in human history, the time around the French Revolution. That was what excited me.
Q: You’ve been very memorable as an actor. I’ve always enjoyed watching you act, particularly in Heartburn. Why don’t you act more? You should.
Forman: (Laughs) I don’t feel comfortable in front of the camera! I did Heartburn only because Mike Nichols gave me his two children to be in Ragtime. So when he asked me to be in his film, I couldn’t say no. But on the other hand, I would recommend to anyone who has ambition to become a film director that they should go, from time to time, in front of the camera – just to learn how it feels to stand in front of the camera. If you are never in front of the camera, you’ll go crazy? "What I want them to do is so simple! How can they not do it!?!?" Well, go in front of the camera, and you’ll see. It’s not that easy.
Q: After Heartburn, did that change the way you directed actors?
Forman: Yes, I became more patient and a little more humble.
Q: And more sympathetic, of course.
Forman: Of course. But I admired actors before that. I think it’s a glorious talent.
Q: One of my favorite films of yours is Taking Off. I saw it at, I think, MOMA many years ago, but it’s been out of print for years. In fact, I don’t think it’s ever been on DVD. Do you know the status of it? Might it reach DVD soon?
Forman: I was told that it will not be on DVD because all of those little songs that the girls are singing are their own compositions, and no one knows where these girls are today, so they can’t get the rights for a non-theatrical release.
Q: I’m sure, with a studio’s backing, they could track these people down.
Forman: I would hope so, but obviously they don’t have the will to do that. I heard that they made a new print that will be played at the Film Forum in New York City sometime in the future, but that’s all I know.
Q: The Criterion Collection would seem to be an ideal home for it.
Forman: I would think so, yes.
Q: Hopefully, they’ll take care of that. It’s a fantastic film.
Forman: (Laughing) Thank you! I like to hear that!
Goya’s Ghosts is currently in limited release. It will likely be expanding throughout the month of August.