The road to the Oscars was far from easy for director Milos Forman. Sitting down for a One on One interview with NY1's Budd Mishkin, Forman talks about his parents' deaths in Nazi concentration camps, and growing up in communist Czechoslovakia.
Long before he won Academy Awards and his movies were seen around the world, Milos Forman was a young film student in Czechoslovakia, living in an oppressed society, but falling in love with cinema's most irrepressible character.
"Humor is something on which a small country has to live on to survive. So, you know, when you see this kind of stuff, it's just the best,” says Forman of Charlie Chaplin’s movies.
Forman was already an accomplished filmmaker when Soviet tanks rolled through Czechoslovakia in 1968, ending a brief period of reform called "Prague Spring."
“Right after the Russian invasion, you know — the new puppet government — people banned three films forever — officially forever. Among those was ÎFireman's Ball,’ one of my films, so I knew that I would not be able to work there."
Forman was actually working on a film in Paris at the time. In the aftermath, he came to New York City.
From 1979 to 1994, Forman was a professor and co-chair of the film school at Columbia.
He also shot on location in the city, most notably for the 1979 film "Hair.”
"There are very professional people here,” says Forman. “The crews, you know, New York crews are absolutely professional. Teamsters are sometimes a pain in the ass, you know, but otherwise, I must say, cooperation of the police is brilliant."
His latest film is “Goya's Ghosts,” the story of painter Francisco Goya at the time of the Spanish Inquisition.
It's his ninth film in English, but when Forman first started working here, he didn't even speak the language.
“My first experience was pathetic,” says Forman. “But somehow for some reason, I don't know if it’s arrogance, some kind of a youthful arrogance or whatever, I never panicked.”
A wise move, because his second American film, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,” earned Forman an Academy Award for Best Director.
"I was, like, believing in a fairy tale. Anything, if somebody told me a few years before, that I would be living in New York, making movies in Hollywood, and working with these actors, my God!” says Forman.
Forman won his second Oscar for directing the 1984 film “Amadeus.”
It was filmed in Czechoslovakia, Forman's first time back in his old country.
On a shoot on the Fourth of July, suddenly an American flag was unfurled and the national anthem played.
"Of course, every American among us stood up and were (puts his hand on his chest) and it’s like that,” says Forman. “Then the Czechs understood what was going on, so they all stood up, except for about 40 people dispersed here and there, who were sitting there looking [confused]. Immediately we knew who are the secret police."
The theme of the individual versus the institution runs throughout most of Forman's movies, perhaps stemming from his early years in Czechoslovakia. That's when he first read about the Spanish Inquisition, when people were accused of, confessed to and executed for crimes they didn't commit.
For the young Forman, it sounded familiar.
“It was happening right there in Czechoslovakia while I was reading the book,” says Forman. “The same thing and this was for idealistic young kid, you know, man doesn't learn anything?”
When Milos Forman left Czechoslovakia in the 60s because of the Soviet invasion, he left more than his homeland.
His wife, a Czech actress, spoke no English and returned to Prague along with their two young children.
"From the outside point of view, people are looking at you, and your private life, yes. They see that you sacrifice your family life. A lot,” says Forman.
When asked whether he ever wonders what might have been had he stayed in Czechoslovakia, Forman has this to say:
“I don't need to think about it. I'll kill myself here, right here,” he says. “No. Only because I know what happened to my colleagues.”
Their films were banned as well.
“I didn't see my children for seven years,” says Forman. “I sacrificed that for my career here in America. From my point of view, no, it’s not a sacrifice. I love what I'm doing, why should I be suffering, you know complexed, doing something else?”
Forman says he was allowed to see his family again in 1976 only because he was nominated for an Oscar.
“The communists, as much as they were spitting on this Western decadent culture, nothing they admired more than the success with the Western decadent culture,” says Forman.
It was hardly Forman's first experience with a totalitarian regime. When he was seven, the Nazis arrested his father for disseminating forbidden literature to students.
Forman recalls his father's last words to him, almost 70 years ago.
“Tell your mother that I’ll be home soon. Everything will be all right. And just do your homework and prosper nicely, and help your mom. And tell her that everything will be all right,” he recalls. “So I was running happily to home, and I gave mom the letter. And I thought I don't have to go back to school and suddenly, I see my mother crying.”
A few years later, his mother was wrongfully denounced by a local grocer and arrested. Ten-year-old Forman and his older brother were allowed to visit her one last time in a bank that the Gestapo was using as a prison.
"Mother wanted to know if there was a good harvest of plums, and that we should contact this and this lady because she would help us make a plum jam out of it,” says Forman. “If it was not in this vault, it would be like a normal conversation anywhere, you know, the park.”
Both died in concentration camps.
Besides his two middle-aged children born in Czechoslovakia, Forman has two young children from his third marriage.
Occasionally, the Oscar winning director has gone in front of the camera to try his hand at acting. But Forman will be remembered for his career behind the camera — a career that has gone beyond anything he could dream of as a young director in Czechoslovakia.
“All you want when you are starting is the chance to impress a few friends, with the stories, not the world, no,” says Forman. “It comes later, with years that you are trying to impress more and more friends, more and more people, with your way of telling stories."
Consider us impressed.
— Budd Mishkin