Milos Forman: From a bug bite in war-torn Czechoslovakia to the Cuckoo’s Nest

There is one thing every single actor, director, and movie person have in common; they were all bitten by this certain “bug.” This results in an insatiable itch to do whatever it takes to make it in the movie business.

As a researcher for Movies on My Mind, I spend many hours reading about movie makers and never fail to learn when and how they get bitten by this peculiar “bug.”

Milos Forman, bitten by the bug

This month’s movie is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and its director, Milos Forman, is my assignment. I knew I was making progress when I came across the very moment Forman knew he was going to dedicate his working life to the film industry.

It was 1942 and Milos Forman was a 10-year-old boy in Czechoslovakia. He had two brothers, the older of which was a set designer in a small theatrical company. This gave young Milos exposure to backstage happenings. The small boy idealized the actresses, for they entranced him so with their glittering costumes, fragrances of cosmetics and perfume.

The curious boy observed his beloved actresses revering a man who walked around as if he were a supergod. Milos asked his older brother, “Who is the man?” He then learned about what directors do for shows. This was the “aha” moment for Milos Forman. At that very moment, he knew what he was going to be when he grew up. It is interesting to note that this story is very similar to that of another director that I recently studied, Steven Soderbergh. Both Forman and Soderbergh were bitten at the moment they learned about the movie director’s role.

Forman’s family

However, this was 1942, and Czechoslovakia was not a good place to be. The Gestapo, concentration camps, and other horrors of World War II came bearing down on Milos’ parents, who were members of the resistance. The Forman family scattered in different directions and never reunited. It was fortunate that young Milos was mercifully spared the unimaginable trauma of knowing about his parents’ fate, living a rather sheltered life with his relatives and with friends of his parents.

As the boy grew into his teen years, even though he was told that his parents had gone to a camp, the only camp he knew about was a boy scout camp. Blissfully unaware of the evils of concentration camps until the war was long over, an adult Forman reflected that,

“It’s much easier to lose parents when you are a child than when you are an adult. Because when you are a child, you don’t really understand what is happening. The finality of life – you don’t comprehend it. (Smith, 2012).

He learned much later that his parents had died in a concentration camp.

Trouble at post-war boarding school

After the war, Forman spent the next four years at a beautiful 15th century castle that served as a government boarding school for war orphans. He received a superior education that was the envy of parents of non-orphaned children. Thus, it was not long before these parents insisted that their children also attend the school, so that the student body became a volatile mixture of children of powerful capitalists, children of influential communists, along with orphans like Milos Forman.

Boys will be boys, and boys play pranks. A boy from a prominent communist family attended the school and was particularly lazy with his school work, among other areas. While his slovenly habits did not earn him friends, the fact that his highly influential communist father talked the school out of instilling consequences earned him enemies. Forman was among the boys who circled around the unfortunate lad in the showers to urinate on him.

With his back to the locker room door, young Forman did not see the newly-established communist watchdog appear. The other boys skedaddled, but it was too late for Forman to escape.

The next morning he was summoned to the office of the head of the school, who told him to get his things and leave immediately. “Don’t tell me where you are going. Just leave. Now.” With no highly influential father to smooth things over, Forman did as he was told.

Life in Prague

The next chapter of Forman’s life was in Prague, where he furthered his education and started an amateur theater company. He also began to expand his movie repertoire by watching silent movies that starred, among others, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy. Prior to this, the only movies Forman had seen were Snow White and a silent movie version of a popular Czech opera, where audience members could sing along to create a magical experience.

However, Milos was still itching from that bug’s bite, so he applied to drama school with a goal of becoming a stage director. He was not accepted but fortunately he possessed the attitude of “when one door closes, another one opens.” The next step was to send an application to a film school’s screenwriting department. Doors opened when that application was accepted.

The following years were spent honing his passion by watching hundreds upon hundreds of films, writing screenplays, and directing them. His second full-length feature film was Loves of Blond in 1965.

Loves of Blond was life changing for Milos Forman because it caught the eye of Michael Douglas. But, before we get to that pivotal moment, it is important to note that Forman was part of a movement known as the “Czech New Wave”—a group of courageous filmmakers who made films depicting real life as it was in communist Czechoslovakia.

These gritty films displayed genuine emotion from the actors as they experienced the harsh realities of their lives at that time. The filmmakers bonded though the dangerous experience of making movies that were not aligned with socialist realism, a directive of their communist government that was similar to Wajda’s experience in Poland. Yet these films were successful in foreign film festivals, and most importantly, they brought money to Czechoslovakia. For the filmmakers, this was their saving grace.

However, Forman went too far with the movie, Fireman’s Ball, which was banned forever by the Czech government—or, Russia who had invaded in 1968. (According to Forman, “forever” in communist lingo means 20 years). To complicate his circumstance, by this point, he had two sons to raise. He had to either conform to the ways of the government or get out to make movies elsewhere. Conformity and creativity being mutually exclusive, it was inevitable that Forman chose to leave. Sadly, his sons stayed behind to be with their mother which caused him much guilt.

Coming to America in the ’60s and Michael Douglas

The 1960’s was an interesting time to come to America; Forman took notice of hippies and the concept of free love and incorporated the concepts into his movie, Taking Off. However, he made it the Czech way, in that the movie abruptly ends without conclusion. That did not go over well in America and Forman had to adjust to making movies with an established story frame.

Now we go back to Michael Douglas. Well, not just yet. Coincidentally, Kirk Douglas, Michael’s father, had bought the rights to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1963. After unsuccessful attempts to put Ken Kesey’s work on a Broadway stage, Kirk Douglas, who had performed in the stage version, continued his efforts by adapting the novel for a motion picture. On a tour of eastern Europe, Kirk Douglas crossed paths with Forman. Getting to know each other, Kirk asked him if he would read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and perhaps make a movie of it. Forman responded positively and Douglas agreed to mail him the book.

Forman checked his mailbox every single day, but the book never arrived. Disappointed, he had to put it out of his mind to pursue other projects. Eight years later, Michael Douglas approached Forman without knowing that his father had the same idea years before. It turns out that Kirk Douglas had followed through on his word, but communist authorities had confiscated the book without his knowledge. It took the mythological fates eight years to come up with a backup plan through Kirk’s son Michael. They must have been pulling heavily for Forman to direct One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Milos Forman threw himself wholeheartedly into directing the story that the Douglas father and son duo had entrusted to him; and he created what became the signature movie of his life. This meant overcoming significant creative differences with its star, Jack Nicholson. It was a proud moment when Forman’s sons were allowed by the Czechoslovakian government to travel to the U.S. to see their father win the Oscar for best director, and to see the film win all major categories of the Academy Awards in 1976, only the second movie to do so.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest changed Forman’s life forever. It established him in the movie industry, and he never had to worry about money again. However, the bug bite from when he was a boy kept itching. Milos Forman went on to direct Amadeus, “an acclaimed venture that won eight Oscars, including another directing prize” (Biography.com Editors, 2015), and other successful movies after that.

REFERENCES

Biography.com Editors. (2015, July 22). Miloš Forman Biography. A&E Television Networks. Retrieved from Bio., https://www.biography.com/people/milo%C5%A1-forman-212167

Smith, P. (2012, November 02). Miloš Forman talks about his life and career. Retrieved from Radio Prague, https://www.radio.cz/en/section/screen-czech/screen-czech-2012-02-11

Zaentz, S., & Douglas, M. (Producers), & Forman, M. (Director). (1975). One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest [Motion picture]. USA: United Artists.

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