Milos Forman divides his time -- a phrase that already connotes the extremely successful -- between a country house in Connecticut and a two-bedroom apartment on Central Park South. He came to this country from Czechoslovakia in 1967 with two successful films ("Loves of a Blond" and "The Fireman's Ball") behind him, so of course his first American film, "Taking Off," had to fail. He has since directed "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" -- for which he received an Academy Award -- "Hair," "Ragtime" and, most recently, "Amadeus."
In matters of work, he is intense. He spent four years on "Amadeus," an adaptation of playwright Peter Schaffer's tale of the rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, a composer who was gifted enough to know that Mozart was a genius and that he, no matter how he struggled, was not. In the past month, playing in only 100 theaters nationwide, the film has grossed over $5 million and received excellent reviews.
He is 52, has an ex-wife, a 29-year-old girlfriend, 20-year-old twin sons and a wife in Czechoslovakia from whom he has been separated for 17 years. He favors large cigars and speaks with a heavy accent, taking his time like a large, thoughtful, slightly melancholic, but witty and exceedingly well-traveled bear. He enters his living room in moccasins, sockless, a T-shirt and jeans.
Q: "Amadeus" . . . If I were to grab you in the middle of the night, and get you nice and close to the unconscious, and ask, "Who are you, Mozart or Salieri?" what would you say?
A: I'm both, and I think everybody is . . . You always recognize accomplishments which somehow deeply, secretly in your heart you envy that you were not the creator of them, and also, you know, I understand the suffering of a man whose desire reaches much higher than his capacity to accomplish can take him.
Q: You recognize the feeling because you experienced it or because you have seen it?
A: I think everybody experiences it, regardless of work . . . Even the guys downstairs riding the carriages in the park have a talent to recognize the other guy has a better horse.
Q: And the point at which you felt it?
A: I don't know . . . every ambition I ever had for which I didn't have a talent, I always felt like Salieri. Like an actor -- I would looove to be an actor, but I just can't do it. I feel like Salieri toward any English writer, because I started as a writer and now I can't even write, because I can't master the language. These bastards without any effort who speak English. You know what kind of effort it cost me of watching Johnny Carson before I understood, 'Here's Johnny'? . . .
Or in every film, even a bad film, because there is always something which surprises me and amazes me . . . This film "Country" I saw last night, there was a moment when this retarded adult son of a farmer, seeing how his father's sheeps are being taken away because his father doesn't own them anymore . . . and he goes to his father and the father just embraces him and that's so -- that's just such a touching moment, my tears, my eyes were like sprinklers. And my next reaction was, "Why him? Why not me? Why I did not make such a scene?"
Q: And the times in your life when you feel like Mozart, that someone is speaking through you and you are blessed?
A: laughing Well, that's the problem. No, usually I feel like Mozart in daydreams, when you are pumping up energy by dreaming who you are . . . Second you feel like Mozart every time you deal with the executives . . .
Q: The town you were born in -- I won't even attempt to pronounce it . . .
A: Chaslov. It had about 10,000 inhabitants. Prague was not far away . . . My father was a teacher, he was teaching the future teachers how to teach. My mother was a housewife, and in the summer she ran a small pension in a resort town. I had two brothers, much older than I. One 12 years older, he was a mountain climber and he fell on the rocks and died . . . when I was 30 . . . One 10 years older, he is in Australia . . .
My memory of my parents, I don't know them because my father was taken by the Nazis in 1941, my mother in 1942, when I was eight or nine years old. So the memories I have are very fond memories, but with the remembrance of quite a discipline in the family. My mother was a very strong woman, both devout Protestants, and the whole household was a very tightly kept household and all.
Q: Why did the Nazis take them, if they were Protestant?
A: Well, my father, he didn't sympathize with the Nazis, which of course nobody did, but he was involved in Boy Scouts, he was involved in the Veterans' Legion, he was involved in all kind of organizations which the Nazis considered subversive . . .
I don't know if he was actually doing some underground activity, but that was not necessary when the Nazis learned they could punish randomly innocent people.
Q: Where were you when he was arrested?
A: I was at school, the same school where my father was, and one day the principal came and called me out of the classroom and my father was there standing next to these two gentlemen wearing long leather raincoats. He kissed me goodbye and told me, "Tell your mother not to worry about it." I didn't understand a thing which was happening . . .
I never saw father again. I saw once my mother, they allowed us once a 15-minute visit in Prague a few months later. No one knows why she was arrested, because she was not involved with these things . . . I was too little, nine or ten, to understand the scope of the thing. The only camps I heard about were Boy Scout Camps -- also nobody told me anything because they were so protective of the poor child.
Q: Did you feel like a poor child?
A: No, not at all. The irony of the situation was that I had a much freer life after they had been arrested, because nobody dared be strict with me . . . Q: What effect do you think this had? A: I don't know, I don't really know. I don't like to analyze myself.
A: It's too depressing.
Q: You wanted to be an actor?
A: Everybody wants to be an actor, at least for a while . . . I was always around theater. My brother, during the war, was a set designer for a touring company in northeast Bohemia, and every time they came through I spent all my time backstage. Once you smell the odor of the stage and the girls' makeup, you are hooked . . .
When they asked me what I wanted to be, I was always a little shy to admit it -- like what is that Biblical saying, you don't use God's name in vain? Don't reveal a desire to be an artist. So I usually said soldier or president or fireman . . . I went to writing because it was the only branch in any art school open when I applied . . .
Q: And moving from screenwriter to director?
A: I wrote scripts for other directors, and slowly developed a desire to direct scripts myself when I saw what was being done by the other directors. Not that it was better or worse than what I had in mind, but it was different. I started in 1962 when I was 30, with a part of a film which was a series of short pieces called "The Competition," then in 1963 directed my first film, "Black Beauty," which is about a kid growing up in a newly established Communist country, being forced to enter jobs which he is not qualified for emotionally or psychologically . . .
Q: How did that go down politically?
A: It was saved, because before it was even released it won the Grand Prix at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland -- so it was sort of saved from those who didn't like it . . .
Q: And the decision to come here?
A: It was a slow process. I was always dreaming about making it in Hollywood -- at film school it was a running joke. "Hollywood called you." "Yeah?" "Yeah, and they want you to stay at home" . . . It was the mecca of film, all those wonderful American films -- "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Stagecoach," "The Great Dictator" . . . I just loooved that film "Stagecoach." It impressed me very much.
Q: How did you see yourself in these fantasies? What kind of car did you drive? What girls did you go out with?
A: Oh, you know you have much more noble dreams than that -- to be a good filmmaker even if you die in poverty. Preferably of syphillis.
Q: Your personal life at that point?
A: I was married. I was married twice, for the first time when I was 22. Three years later I divorced and in 1964 I was married again. I am still married, but separated, with two children, 20 . . .
Q: The move here?
A: It was not at all dramatic. One day in Paris I met the chairman of the board of Gulf and Western and also a big boss at Paramount, and he invites me, in '67, to come make a film for Paramount . . .
Czechoslovakia gives me official permission to come here and make one film. Paramount turned it down, Universal picked it up, but because the film "Taking Off" didn't make any money I was easy prey. The major studios made me defer my salary from the profits, so I never saw a penny of my salary and I already had some debts, so I had to return to Czechoslovakia poorer than when I came. So I asked Prague to extend my visa. They answered, "Okay, come back to Prague," and I knew that would be it, so I decided to stay . . .
I was staying at the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street, and Stanley Barr, the manager, was kind enough that when I didn't have money he would wait with the rent, but then I was owing him 10 months' rent . . .
Q: This must have been rough, with infant sons . . .
A: They were in Czechoslovakia living with their mother. In 1976 they were allowed to visit me for the first time . . .
Q: You have a way of skipping over these emotional things in your life.
A: Oh, really?
Q: Yes, really. Why is that?
A: Ee-mo-tion-al dryness.
Q: You sort of leap over the fact that you didn't see them.
A: Again, it was not a very big drama . . . After a few years being here and being away from the family and suddenly the career is here and you bury your career by going back, or continue your career but you lose your family -- so because you don't see your family for two years it is not such a painful decision to make . . .
Q: Did you attempt to get them out, your family?
A: No, because I would have been frustrated in the attempt anyway . . .
Q: But you remained married.
A: I left that up to my wife. I said, "Whatever you want to do is fine with me. If you want a divorce that is fine with me, if you don't want that is fine with me." She didn't want the divorce . . .
Q: What if you had wanted to remarry?
A: It never occurred to me as a very good idea after two marriages.
Q: There is something confusing to me -- you make such passionate films, such tender films --
A: -- such as me, that I am sour . . .
Q: "Amadeus." The attraction?
A: I went to see the play in London and I didn't even know what I'm going to see. Only in the taxi I learned I was going to see a play called "Amadeus," and I looked forward to a very boring evening because plays about composers are usually so boring, and I was stunned -- what kind of wonderful and witty and powerful drama I am seeing . . .
It worked for me on so many levels. On the low level of murder mystery, on the highest level of metaphors about human relationships, with ourselves and with God . . . I was also intrigued watching it with the discovery that I am identifying with both characters, which are antagonists, and that was quite a haunting discovery for me . . .
I went to author Peter Schaffer, asked if he would work on it for the screen, to take the whole thing apart and start from scratch, and he agreed, which was very courageous. Playwrights are very protective usually, every word, every line.
Q: You lived with Schaffer for four months at your house in Connecticut . . . Is it odd for you, this sort of intense collaboration?
A: No, I did the same thing with "Ragtime" and "Cuckoo's Nest" and "Hair." It helps to keep the concentration on the work . . .
He lived in my house, I lived in the barn. Every morning he would be typing the work from the day before, from 11 to 4 we would discuss together, around 6 we would argue half an hour over who cooked dinner. I didn't like his cooking, he didn't like mine . . .
Q: This intensity about work -- has it cost you a relationship?
A: My second marriage suffered from this, especially because children were involved. My wife wanted time not only for herself, but for the children . . . Q: If someone were to look at the films you have made and say this director is attracted by certain things, what would those things be? A: I really don't analyze either myself or my films.