Interview: Miloš Forman

Getting the Great Ten Percent

In memory of Miloš Forman (1932–2018), we reprint an excerpt from Harriet Polt’s interview with the filmmaker from the Fall 1970 issue of Film Comment. This interview was done at the 1969 San Francisco Film Festival, as Forman was preparing to make Taking Off, his first American film. The Firemen’s Ball had been the closing night film of the 1968 New York Film Festival.

What current American films do you admire?

I like films like Medium Cool, Putney Swope, Easy Rider. I prefer much more the independent American productions over the Hollywood ones. I think the people in Hollywood are just not ready for what’s going on in the cinema. You know, the whole system is still as it was. I went through the script-writing period at Paramount, and the trouble is that before I make my films I have no proof that I am right. But, the discussions I had about the script were discussions in which we were talking different languages. In English.

Were you in Hollywood for this?

Once I had a meeting in New York, and once in Hollywood. The first was when I brought the first treatment, and the second one was when I was starting to work on the definitive version of the script.

You must have liked that scene in Agnès Varda’s Lions Love (. . . and Lies) then, the producers’ conference.

It’s very perfect. That’s it, that’s what I’m talking about. For example, they are now starting to understand in Hollywood that, for the good result of a film, the director today is much more important than many, many stars. But they don’t understand that the director must do what he likes to do, so you know, they want you, they want me, but they want me to do their things, and they think that I, me as a person, guarantee the quality, of things that I don’t like to do but that they like me to do. And they don’t want what I like to do, because they don’t like the script or they don’t trust the script, and it’s still not enough for them that I trust the script.

What do you think of smooth Hollywood productions like The Graduate?

That’s the best of Hollywood.

Do you think it’s good, though? Or do you just think it’s good for Hollywood?

No, it’s good, I think it’s good. But it’s Hollywood. If there’s something that bothers me in this film, it’s the Hollywood in it, but as a film, it’s good. I also like very much Bonnie and Clyde, which also has a Hollywood-type image.

What do you think of modern movies in general?

Very few really excite me that way that 400 Blows, for instance, did, or the neo-realist Italian films just after the war.

And those hold up well, too, don’t you think?

Yes, some do. Recently I saw 400 Blows on a double bill with Wild Strawberries. Wild Strawberries disappointed me very much, but 400 Blows was just as good as I remembered.

When you finish your film, do you plan to go back to Czechoslovakia?

I don’t know, I never make very distant plans, but I do plan to go back.

What’s happening over there now in the film industry?

I just read that the director general of cinematography, Alois Poledňák, has been replaced. What this will mean practically speaking, we’ll have to wait and see. I still think that some interesting films will come out of Czechoslovakia that were started last year. What this year’s production or next year’s production will be, we must wait and see.

But haven’t a lot of the film people left?

I don’t think that a lot of people have emigrated. Most of the people who are working outside are working with our passport—Czechoslovakian citizens, like [Ján] Kadár, Ivan Passer, me.

Have you seen any of the recent films from there?

Just the one at the festival here, Juro Jakubisko’s The Deserters and the Nomads. When I was there in January [of 1969], there were not many films finished. Věra Chytilová was working on her new film, which is now finished, and I think it will be interesting, and Jaroslav Papoušek, with whom I wrote my scripts, has finished his second film, which I hear is good.

What was your feeling about the general atmosphere there in January?

Waiting. Waiting in what direction the whole interior situation will develop. People are afraid already; they don’t trust each other again.

Do you feel that filmmaking in Czechoslovakia is very different than it is here?

Filmmaking is the same throughout the world, the same in Czechoslovakia as here. Eighty-five percent of Czech films are really commercial; what you see here is just the top 15 percent. We made our films within the system, but they were “different” nonetheless. This is theoretically possible here too. There, production is divided into six groups. Each group produces four to six features per year. Each group has a certain pride in making one or two “artistic” films, so you have on the average of six to twelve attempts to make a good film per year. So some of these have to turn out good.

Then no one production group specializes in, say, “good” films, or “commercial” films?

No, there is no specialization to make trash.

Had you considered making a film in any other country, that is, besides Czechoslovakia or the United States?

When I thought of making a film in any country but mine, I found I could only do it in the United States. In any other country you are always a foreigner. Here, after one week you are an American. But the film bureaucracy here is different; here filmmaking is more ceremony than fun.

To read the entire interview, please purchase the Fall 1970 issue.