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Milos Forman

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 06 May 2001

A monthly series in which John Tusa, managing director of the Barbican Centre, talks to leading creative figures about their work. His guest this week is Milos Forman.

  • Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Milos Forman

    America has been a refuge for artists throughout the 20th century, refugees from political, ideological and racial persecution. And my guest today is one who settled there after the Russian invasion of his homeland Czechoslovakia in 1968.Then Milos Forman was just starting work on his first American film, following the international success of his Czech films Black Peter, Loves of a Blonde and Fireman's Ball. The last two received Oscar nominations. All of them were made under the eyes of, and played games with communist censors and bureaucrats. Taking Off, that first American feature, failed to create such a stir. Holed up in New York 's Chelsea Hotel , Forman waited for the chance to create that success. It came with his screen version of Ken Kesey 's novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest which starred Jack Nicholson and won 5 Oscars . Success of that kind eluded Forman for almost another decade until Amadeus - adapted by Peter Schaffer from his hit play and partly filmed back in Forman's native country. That garnered more Academy Awards. Since then Forman has worked at his own pace. He's not prolific - just 11 movies in all. He's consistently attracted to projects about characters who refuse to conform as America would like them to - such as the real-life pornographer Larry Flynt in The People versus Larry Flynt and the comedian Andy Kaufmann , the subject of Forman's last film, Man on the Moon.

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    Milos Forman when did you first get your hand on a camera of any kind?Silent, sound?

    Silent. A 16 mm silent camera, I got a rather noisy East German camera with excellent lenses...Zeiss lenses. And I asked my friend Ivan Passer if he knows somebody how to put a film in it, I didn't know. And he brought me Miroslav Ondricek , and since that moment I didn't see the camera because he wouldn't let it go.

    And Ondricek has shot most of your films, hasn't he?

    Yes, yes, yes. In that time he was only a focus assistant a very young kid you know. And I offered friends of mine who were running a very small musical theatre in Prague to do some kind of a home movie about them so that they can look at themselves when they will be old, for the kind of, you know, crazy things that they were doing when they were young, and I started to shoot, you know, in a very amateur way this film called Konkurs - Competition.

    Which was about a singing competition?

    Yes, about a singing competition, girls were trying to be accepted on the stage in this small theatre which was a very funny thing, I had my own tape recorder, but it was not synchronised with the camera. So yes I had a sound and we had a picture.

    So how did you synchronise it?

    Well a brilliant editor, just put it together and then two frames cut out here, one frame here, one frame there, just put it a little bit, you know, approximately in the sync.

    This was the one where you have about what, 20 or 30 girls all singing the same song, and you cut from one to the other as the song goes on.

    Well you know why? Because we asked the girls, okay, sing something, and this was as I said, at that time the most popular song, so everybody knew that song so everybody was singing that song.

    But it's a long way from that particular first movie which in a way anybody can do, we've all had 16 mm cameras of our own. When did you think that you were going to become a serious film director or, never mind the serious, that you were going to become a film director?

    Well, you know, I was already you know, I graduated from a film school as a screenwriter and I wrote a screenplay...a couple of screenplays as a matter of fact which were done by different directors. And I realised that...I'm not saying that these films were better or worse, but they were different. I wrote the screenplay and the film was different, although I, you know, my imagination was, it would be, or it should be. So I just decided that I'll try, you know, if I will get a chance to direct my own screenplays myself.

    What really appealed to you about the business of directing, getting things on the screen?

    Oh I guess it's something, you know, which grows with you since the childhood, it's just a desire to tell stories, to attract attention of some audience. Even if it's one person or 100 people, you know, listening to you telling a story. And the film was the wonderful media to tell the story.

    Of course even before then, before you started making your first films, I suppose the most important experience for you had been the murder of your parents in concentration camps. What effect did that have, because to the ordinary viewer you are not a person who is replaying that personal family tragedy, you're not replaying that out in your films, so what effect did it have on you?

    Well I was, you know I don't know if I should say lucky, because it's sort of ironic to say that, but I was lucky that it happened when I was a child, because you don't really realise what's happening. First of all it was during the war when they were arrested by the Nazis, I was 8 years old, and so I was told, yes your parents are taken to the concentration camp, but nobody, you know, would tell me what...how they are suffering horrors and everything. The opposite is true, they said, oh they will be back, don't worry, everything will be all right. The only camps I knew were scout camps, so I didn't have any imagination of what was happening. And they would be back, fine, fine, one year goes by, two years go by, and they are not there, and suddenly somebody comes and says " Milos your mother died." Well nothing changed in my life, she was not there already for two years, you know, probably if she died at home I would feel something very strongly, but this way, nothing changes and... I'll tell you, the child doesn't really comprehend the death, finality of life, it's something abstract. So it really hit me only... really after the war when I ...an age of puberty when you would suddenly start to think about...a little more philosophically about your doings and the life around you.

    But it's not something which played itself out, or has played itself out in any of your films?

    No, no, no. You know, I was offered subjects, and for some reasons, I don't know what it is, I don't want to touch the subjects from this period of my life.

    But you don't feel that you are repressing it?

    No, no, no. I don't feel [over-talking] I'm in peace with it, you know, and I feel a great respect for the legacy of my parents, and, no I'm not repressing it.

    Are you in peace with the people who murdered them?

    Yes, yes, because in those times I, you know, didn't understand why it happened, and now these people are gone already and the fact that my parents are just two people out of millions and millions, tells you, well it wasn't their fault, it was the fault of some ideology running amok and... I guess it influenced my look at certain aspects of life, sort of quasi- philosophical way you know, then I asked myself, yes freedom of expression is very important.

    Are you a more accepting person because of this experience? You had no choice but to accept that your parents were murdered, and therefore you've learned the lesson of how important it is to accept when you can do nothing about a particular event?

    Oh yes, you learn one thing, that you take very seriously things which you can influence, but you can't and you must not take too seriously things where you don't have any influence on.

    So you had the experience of living under Nazism, and then from 1948 onwards the experience of living under Communism. There are quite a lot of people, and I think of course as time goes by people forget what the experience of living under Communism was, how would you convey the essence of living in that sort of regime to somebody who doesn't know about it and didn't live in that way?

    Simply said it's living in fear, which is boring. Because you are afraid to lose the chance to go to school, to have a job, to do things so you have to censor yourself what you say, what you do, you know, how you behave. But it's not an exciting kind of rebellion against the regime ...it's a very boring rebellion because...I guess any totalitarian system is basically very, very boring.

    What about the people who actually ran the party, the bureaucrats, what sort of people were they?

    Well I guess they are people who their only pleasure in life is power, nothing spiritual, just power, and they... I don't even know if they believed in it or not, they just did it to keep themselves in power and keep everybody away who could disturb their power.

    So how did you deal with this when you started making movies which were going to be mainstream movies?

    Well my situation was sort of lucky because we started right at the moment when there was a certain kind of a relaxation of this strict ideological.........

    Late 67, early 68.

    Early '67 after Khruschev, you know, denouncing Stalin and telling "comrades we have to give a little more confidence to young people and like that, that was a little more relaxed period and we started. Fortunately for us because as much as the communists denounced the decadent West you know, which is falling apart and very soon will disappear from the planet, nothing they like more than the success in the West and hard currency of course, which usually comes with some success, you know. So because our first films were fortunately, you know, were successful and brought some hard currency, so they started to tolerate us, you know.

    But always looking very carefully at what you were saying so that you didn't overstep the boundaries of what they would regard as politically acceptable?

    Oh of course, of course. With this little relaxation of course everybody who had a little freer way of thinking was trying, trying pushing the boundaries, right, and they became very sensitive ... but it was the time when it was not very popular to ban like films in an administrative way. So what they were doing is that they...usually when they saw a film and they didn't like it and they thought that it should be, you know, banned, so they arranged a screening for working people, for people, and they always planted it, you know, one or two people there who, you know, "okay comrades let's have a discussion about the film" and here they are, you know, yes, yes, I would like to say, and now they attack the film and finally, you know, the result was, well the people rejected the film. [laughter] And this has supposed to happen to my film which I was told, the film, the name is Fireman's Ball and it's kind of a comedy, you know. And I was told that when the President and the First Secretary of the Party and his, you know, cohorts saw the film, that he climbed the walls, you know, and...

    So he wasn't that stupid, Novotny that he could see exactly what was going on in that film, he wasn't so stupid?

    Oh no he knew exactly, right away, right away.

    So did he say ban it, or what did they do?

    They immediately ordered this kind of screening and they decided, now listen he is making fun of these fireman because... the whole film was shot in a small town ...there was not one professional actor, all the people are from the town and mostly they are the real firemen from that town. So he said, we'll show that film there, and then these people will see how this film is mocking them, making fun of them, making them look ridiculous, they will tell the film makers what kind of a dirty job they did. So they arranged the screening in that little town, everybody was there, everybody who was in the film was there...

    Except you?

    I was advised not to go there because I might be attacked, the enraged mob of very angry firemen, could beat me up. I didn't go, but I was told what happened. That the film ended and of course immediately the planted man, you know, got up and said, "well comrades, I think this film is a disgrace, full of lies about our heroic firemen who are fighting to keep our lives and our properties intact from fires. And here look what they did and they are making fun of them, with these lies." Like that. So he'd finished and then one of the firemen, a local fireman, you know, his hand went out and said, "well, comrades, I don't know why are you saying it's a lie, do you remember when the shack of, you know, this old man was burning and we couldn't get there because I was drunk and we couldn't get the car out of the garage, you know, my God." And people started to applaud and laugh, because what they didn't realise, the communist organisers of this screening, that they are not showing this to local people, they are showing it to the actors, to people who were immortalised on the screen, they were proud to see themselves on the screen. And I think that they understood that the film is a comedy, is a satire, that they didn't take it personally. So it was total fiasco, but they banned the film anyway.

    Can you just, .....can you remember what you felt and what you thought when the Red Army marched into Czechoslovakia in the Autumn of 1968?

    Well I was, at that moment I was in Paris working with Jean Claude on the script for Taking Off, and well, I'll tell you. For me the biggest shock was my brother, who was, who is a home boy, he lived in a small, tiny little place...a village, you know, far from Prague . And to travel to Prague , for him, that was a big undertaking, you know. And now the Russians came to occupy Czechoslovakia , I'm in Paris I don't know what to do, I am trying to find my brother, I find out he's on his way to Australia . And I reach him and said, what are you doing, and he said, he said, look, you know, I remember when in 38 a friend of our parents came to our father and said listen, I am leaving, I am leaving for England, as a matter of fact, and if you want I can arrange for you to leave too. And I remember our father who said, No, no, no, no, I have a clean conscience here, nothing will happen to us, and they both paid for this decision of our father with their lives, the father and the mother. And who knows what will happen now with the Russians, and I will not take the responsibility if something bad would happen. That for me, was okay, this must be serious.

    Did you even consider going back and saying, there will be some kind of resistance or political resistance and I will be part of that political resistance?

    No, I was in a very particular situation because I was outside legally, so I didn't really have to consider defection yet, because the contract to let me... let me make a film in the United States which was Taking Off, was signed by the previous Dubcek communist regime, you know, during the liberalisation. If the new communist regime wouldn't honour the contract they could be sued for a lot of money by Universal, right, who they've got the contract with. So I finished the film outside of Czechoslovakia legally, but then I was asked to come back and I knew that the moment I come back because meanwhile I learned that the Fireman's Ball was banned forever, that I would not be able to work in the...in the cinema, so I asked for extending my exit visa and they fired me, and that's how.

    From that point of view it was a comparatively easy decision?

    Right, they made the decision for me.

    Now your extraordinary career where in 1968 you left Czechoslovakia as it then was, you went to Hollywood , and in a very short time you found yourself facing commercial pressures. So you had the ideological pressures in Czechoslovakia , and then in Hollywood you ran into the commercial pressures, or shall we say the subjective pressures of the studio. Tell me about that.

    Well, if you asked me to choose between ideological censorship or commercial censorship, I prefer commercial censorship, because ideological censorship you are at the mercy of an idiot like Zhdanov or whatever who was the ideology. And commercial pressure you are at the mercy of the audience, and I prefer that. But the problem was that I was trying to make my first film in the United States the same way I did in Czechoslovakia . I tried to make a Czech film in the United States , and I found out that that doesn't work. It doesn't work the same as if the Czechs are trying...and they are trying to make American movies in Czechoslovakia , you know. It's probably a little snobbish also that the... today I see it as a little sort of European snobbism, you know, it's the style of the narrative, you know, with the open endings and you leave the audience to guess what you really meant and...

    Hollywood likes an ending?

    And Hollywood want to know well who is good guy, who is the bad guy, and who won. And that's it.

    And in the case of Taking Off, which was your film about the 60's generation and the panic of American parents, the reaction from the studio was a very...very subjective and personal one, wasn't it?

    Well that was because of one scene or two scenes in the film which were offensive to the wife of the president of the studio. [laughter]

    That's a very personal kind of censorship isn't it?

    Well yes, yes, yes, yes.

    Anyway both Fireman's Ball and Taking Off are still there and classics of their kind. You said something about Czech films and American films. Is it possible to say, and maybe there is no difference, between how you worked as a Czech director and then, when you get to Hollywood and everybody said, yes, in Hollywood, Milos Forman suddenly became an American director. Now is there actually any difference in the way you make the films?

    Well I want to believe that there is not, I am sure there is for certain because just knowledge of the language is different. In Czech language I can...I understand every word I overhear in the pub, you know, which is here today I don't, in the United States especially when you go to Harlem for example. But otherwise I realised one thing, that I can't function any more as a screenwriter, my knowledge of language and the way people talk and, you know, characterisation of people by the way they talk, these nuances I don't have. So the only change I am aware of is that I stopped, after Taking Off, working on my own screenplays and I turned to adapt materials which were written originally by English speaking writers.

    Just sticking with the Czech language for a moment, do you still hear the Czech language in your ears, do you still dream in Czech?

    I'll tell you the most...the important distinction which is you're really mother language is in which language you appreciate poetry, that's the big difference. I can really appreciate poetry in Czech language. I really can't fully appreciate poetry in the English language.

    Now, as a director, you were a screenwriter, you're very sensitive about scripts and about the verbal content of...of your films, you've always had very strong cameramen to work with, no doubt editors to edit, where do you as the director really have your impact?

    Well I'll tell you. Director is little bit of everything, little bit of the writer, little bit of an actor, little bit of an editor, little bit of a costume designer. Good director is the director who chooses for this profession, people who are better than he is. Yes, I can write, but I have to have a writer who is a better writer than I am, I have to have actors who are better actors than I am, I have to have sound engineers who are better sound engineer than I am, you know. It's a strange profession, ... visually it's your vision.

    Even working through a cameraman, when you have a cameraman like Ondricek, what do you have to say to him? In a way you don't have to say anything to him do you about the way he composes?

    No, you are the only person who really has the whole film in your mind, and how to pace the film and how to...what kind of a rhythm you give it, the speed of actions and things like that. That influences everything, even decisions about the camera angles and lenses and camera movements and motion, so the camera...yes you have to influence that if you want to see on the screen what you dreamed about at the table, you know.

    Which is the critical action, is it shooting, or can you recover things that go wrong when you edit?

    Well the critical... most important, although I must say, it's a little bit...you know, it's not entirely true, is editing, because there is no other instance to do the film. When you work on the script and you know that it's not still right here, well during the shooting we'll improve it, right. When you are shooting you feel that, you know, this is, you know, not still entirely right, well we'll fix it in the editing. But now you are editing, and that's it, there is no other step when you can fix it, you know. So that's when you start to panic. [laughter]

    Have you ever panicked?

    Well I wouldn't call it panic in, you know, a threatening way, but you always panic, because you never know what you are doing will work. You never know even when it's finished because the curse of a film maker is the film maker never sees his own film, never. For one simple reason, that every moment I know what's coming next....because you know the moment of surprise, discovering, you know, suspense, it's so important for the perception of the movie by the audience, which a film maker never has, because they know what's coming next. So I don't know if it works or not. I know if it rings true or not, yes, that I know.

    But the question of truth, how do you get this truth out of actors? You have this reputation for allowing actors to improvise, but how much do you allow them to improvise.

    Well it depends on the scene. Some scenes have to be done exactly as they are written in the scripts because otherwise the pace would suffer, like that. But then there are scenes which allow a space for improvisation and then ...I like to encourage improvisation, but you have to always have exact script because 90% of improvisation is usually very boring, unusable. But the 10% or even less, even if you have 1%, you can get such a gem of unrepeatable moments of films that it's worth it to try to improvise. But if improvisation doesn't work you have to have a solid script to go back to.

    Everybody quotes the scene in The People Versus Larry Flynt, where Woody Harrelson and Courtney Love are in the sauna and they discuss love and marriage, and that is largely improvised, I think, that one really worked.

    Yes, they had a, you know, they had a point, you know, to touch, you know, they knew that exactly, but I encouraged them, listen, you don't have to slavishly set to every word, but say the same thoughts, say the same things, but you can use your own words and go on it, go at it, you know, and they did and it was just a wonderful firework to watch.

    What made you choose Courtney Love , although I gather you didn't even realise what her reputation was when you cast her. You cast her as Larry Flynt 's wife on the basis of the screen test.

    Of the meeting, and then subsequently of the readings and the screen test, yes. I think she's a brilliant, brilliant lady, actress, wonderful, raw, vulnerable, fragile, but she can't say a lie. She can't tell a lie. Even in her own life she's always [laughter] putting herself in trouble, you know, when she opens her mouth. But she was, you know, she had a big problem when I met her...I didn't know that she was such a big diva in Rock and Roll , you know, but from the first moment I saw her I knew that, you know, she is on something, you know.

    And then people say Milos , do you realise what you're taking on?

    And then studio said, no way, Courtney Love, no way, we can't insure her, and that's very serious because if you can't insure a main protagonist you can't use that person because if something happens it costs enormous amount of money.

    So how did you get her insured?

    Well then I - through a friend of mine here in London - you know, I found insurance company, but it was very, very expensive, it cost a lost of money and the studio said no, we are not going to pay this money for insurance. And then, you know, I realised that I was right, betting on Courtney, because everybody was so impressed, Woody Harrelson, Oliver Stone who was the producer, Michael Hausman who was co-producer, myself and Courtney, we put up $1 million to pay for her insurance...

    That she would complete the film, that was the insurance?

    The insurance was that, you know, if something happens she's insured, that if suddenly in the middle of the shooting she overdoses or whatever, insurance would pay, so it cost a lot of money. And I told her, I went to Courtney and I said, Courtney, I'll fight for you if you give me your word that you will not betray me, and she looked me in the eye and said that she would not betray me in such a way that I trusted her. And she kept her word.

    But did she find it difficult?

    It was...at the first three weeks, nightmare for her, because she was shooting the scenes when Althea is still normal girl, you know, nice girl, you know, together girl, and I found her several times, you know, shivering in the bathroom because of the withdrawal, she was, you know, in the withdrawal, and that was tough for her, but she did it and she's clean as a whistle till today.

    This film still pursues you in a sense and I'm putting the questions about it anyway, they said, there is Forman who seems a pretty decent sort of chap, making a film, glorifying Larry Flynt , publisher of the most raunchy pornographic magazine, The Hustler, and Forman raises it to be a matter of freedom of speech. Now just how do you reconcile what others see as a contradiction?

    Would you consider Romeo and Juliet glorifying teenage suicide? And you know how many young people die with Romeo and Juliet in their hands, committing suicide? But that's not what the play is about. It happens, yes, you can't blame art for extreme cases of imitation. The same way The People Versus Larry Flynt is not about pornography, it's about freedom of the speech, it's about freedom of expression, it's about much more important things.

    Even freedom of expression of things which, you, me, none of us actually value as expression?

    No that's why it's important to show how important the freedom of speech is, because if I made a film about that somebody is free to tell you, "you scumbag," so what, who cares about that. The most important freedom is not for those, you know, who are saying agreeable things to us, freedom is important for those...that you are free to say things which nobody likes.

    You have this record, and I wonder whether it has been overt in your mind, of heroes who are active counter-heroes. Larry Flynt is certainly one, McMurphy in Cuckoo's Nest is certainly another - were you aware that you were producing this extraordinary canon of heroes who stand up to oppressive society, or was it just instinctive and it emerged?

    Well I would like...I would like to say that, you know, yes I am showing the world the conflict between an individual and an institution, but in fact, you know, I think I just glorify this rebel because I am myself a coward, you now, and I would like to be a hero but I, you know, I don't have courage to do that. But on the other hand, this is the eternal conflict between individual and institution, because we create institution to help us live. We pay them with our taxes, and we end up very often being dictated by them, how to live, you know.

    And the last scene in Cuckoo's Nest, though there you are, this most American of films, overtly, but I believe that you see the end when McMurphy's friend, the Indian, picks up this huge safe, throws it through the windows of the mental institutions and suddenly they are all out in the countryside, free. That's not, as far as you're concerned, just about America ?

    No, no, no, no. That was the dream of, I would say, 99% of the young people in Communist countries, you know. Because we were not allowed to travel, you know, we were in a cage like in the zoo, you know, and we all dreamt about, one day to take that thing and throw it through the barbed wire fences and go and run to see the world.

    So that was a universal gesture both about the oppressions of capitalist societies and Communist societies as well?

    Any kind of oppressive society, yes.

    You said just a few minutes ago that you make these films about heroes are people who rebel against society because you're not heroic yourself. Now the question which is almost always asked of a Czech sooner or later, and so I apologise for asking it to you, but because our national archetype is Schweyk who is the ultimate evasive hero...anti-hero, do you feel there is something of Schweyk inside you?

    Oh very much so, this kind of humour, that's what, I think, made the Czech nation survive centuries. Because, you know, Bohemia , or Moravia , you know, small entity in the middle of Europe surrounded by very powerful neighbours, who are always, you know, through the last 2000 years trying to dominate this part of Europe . And this small entity can't protect itself through power, well it's survived through humour, otherwise we would be dead.

    Is that how you deal with studios as well, do you use Schweykian tactics to get your own way when it comes to making films?

    Well I was sort of lucky, I made only one film or two films through the studio, otherwise I was working always with the Independents. Not really, you know, it's not sort of a...it depends who you are dealing with, you know, in the studio, because behind every door is a different type of person, you know, and if you open the right door and meet the right person you need to play Schweyk.

    But you have fought for principles, you won the John Huston Award for standing up of the...for the moral rights of film makers against studios, now what was behind that?

    What was behind that was that one day I had in my contract that when the studio wants to sell Hair - the musical Hair - to the Network but they have to have my, you know, consent or how would they...what they do with it. But I didn't have this, so what they did, they didn't sell it to the network, the sold it to a syndicated television where I didn't have that right. What happened, the film played on 115 syndicated stations practically all over the United States , and it's a musical. Out of 22 musical numbers, 11 musical numbers were cut out from the film, and yet it was still presented as a Milos Forman film, Hair. It was totally incomprehensible, jibberish, butchered beyond belief, and I, thought, can we do something, no, because - this is such an irony - ...let me ask you a question, what do you think, who is, according to American law, the author, legally the author of Larry Olivier 's Hamlet?

    The director, the studio?

    MF: Well it's neither Shakespeare , nor Larry Olivier , it's MGM. MGM is legally the author. According to American law, who owns the copyright is the author, legally, and can do with the work whatever he or she wants, which I think is such absurdity, you know.

    But you fought that and you won it?

    Well no, we are fighting it, we are fighting it already you know involved, every couple of years I go to the congress together with other...once I was there for example with Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers, you know, and George Lucas for ten years already, but it will take another twenty years the way that the studios lobby...it's powerful, you know, American Congress.

    Follow the money.

    Oh yes, follow the money.

    Do you think that film, as such, film matters to society?

    Not as much as we would like to think, but not as little as they would like to think.

    Sorry, who is the they?

    Who is the they? Whoever, whoever. The culture policemen. Look, the most powerful anti-war film was shot in the 30's you know, La Grande Illusion it didn't stop the war.

    Jean Renoir ?

    Yes, yes. And I think we have a little bit have a tendency to overestimate importance, I think it's... I think every film is very powerful, very powerful over an individual during this two hours you are sitting in the cinema, but once the film is over and you go out, the film becomes just one little part of all your life experiences, you know. It enriches you if, you know, in the case of the film, but let's not overestimate it's power.

    But with a really strong film, and certainly One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is that, and last night when you were doing a screen talk, and the cinema was filled with people mainly under 30, so they were there of course because of the film, and when we had an American production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest at the Barbican last year - a theatrical production - the place was filled with young people, again who'd clearly seen the film and for them the film was an experience which has lasted them for over 20 years. This is quite something.

    Oh yes. Film or literature or theatre can be very, very inspiring for...especially for, you know, young people, but, if you say how important it is then you will have to admit that, no it can't, or you must censor a lot of films because then young people imitate them, you know, and you start to blame these shootouts at the schools in the United States on culture, on movies, and you start to call for censorship and then this and then that, and then this, and that's wrong.

    Do you believe that there is a copycat element in people watching violence on the screen and then doing something violent?

    Yes, yes but that shouldn't matter at all, that shouldn't be the reason because you always find one person, crazy person, who can copycat anything, but that's not the reason to ban that thing for the tens of millions who saw the same thing .

    But you wouldn't want film just to be written off as - well it's entertainment, it's something which fills up the videos, it's something which fills up the digital channels?

    Oh I think that it's primarily entertainment, and should be primarily entertainment, but if it gives you some nourishment to your brain and your heart and mind, that's even better, it's the icing on the cake. But you know if you want to make a respected film, and also commercially successful film, you have to tell the truth without being boring. And I'll tell you something, that's very difficult, very difficult because truth is usually very boring, because it's the truth.

    Do you have a favourite film of your own?

    I don't really have a favourite film, I must say it's sort of artificial or superficial kind of attitude. I favour or I feel tender towards the film which were molested by critics or feminists or people that is Larry Flynt , like that because I've some kind of a protective instinct. Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, you know, they can survive by themselves, they don't need my protection.

    Fireman's Ball, that was attacked, now that can look after itself?

    Oh that's a very...you know, film I can feel very tender about.

    And what is your favourite film made by somebody else?

    I like a lot of films, but for me the heroes is American silent comedy, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Ben Turpin, you name them all.

    Why?

    Because they made me laugh and moved me at the same time when I started seeing films, which was only when I was 13 years old after the war. Because before the war I saw only two films as a child, I saw Snow White, my parents took me once, and then I saw - this is totally absurd - it was in 1937 or 38, the sound was already there, but I saw a silent version of the most popular Czech opera. [laughter]

    Bartered Bride which is the most popular Czech opera, and it was an experience I will never forget in my life and the weirdest experience ever because of course you know, in those times, to go on the small town where we lived, my father took a tie and a white shirt, you know, and I'd go to in best suit and went to the movies in the afternoon on Sunday, right. And now it's the darkness and the curtain on the screen and the silence of the curtain. In front of the curtain the orchestra starts to play, you don't hear anything of course and then the curtain goes up and then the opera starts with some choirs singing a song, and suddenly the whole theatre started to sing the songs, because everybody in Czechoslovakia knew these songs, you know, knew the opera, so you had the sound better than you have the sound today because it was live, it was so strange and weird. I thought it was normal, next time I went to the movies and people didn't sing oh I thought this was wrong. Then during the war of course nobody would give you money to see the Nazi films, you know, so the next films I saw was after the war, that's when I discovered, you know, the American silent comedy.

    Have you ever wanted to direct an opera, because it seemed to me the scenes in Amadeus of the Magic Flute are so brilliant that I thought, why can't we have a production of Magic Flute like this.

    I'll tell you , practically every major opera house in the world after Amadeus, invited me to direct an opera, and I can't do that because - this is terrible to say but it's true - most of the operas except for two or three arias, I find very artificial and boring...but in the film, for the film when you can pick only the plums, the gems of the opera, the most beautiful arias, the most dramatic moment, that's something else, but to do the whole Don Giovanni, I wouldn't do that, I wouldn't be able to do that. I am not very good musically, I don't play any instrument, my ear is not perfect, so I wouldn't do it for the love for music because I was not born with this talent.

    And given how you direct actors and how you love working with actors, why haven't you directed on the stage?

    I did, once, first time in my life I directed on Broadway, only in America right? I enjoyed doing it, but I realise theatre needs different imagination than film. How many people I know, one or two, Bergman , Ingmar Bergman , Mike Nichols , who can do as great work on the stage and on the screen, otherwise, I don't know. It's a different kind of imagination.

    Do you count yourself lucky that having started life under two dictatorships, you've then ended up with most of your life in a free society, however peculiar, however imperfect?

    Oh no, I consider my life not as boring as my movies.

    [laughter] Milos Forman, thank you very much.

    You are very welcome.

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