Going Home to Prague to Film Amadeus Evokes Bittersweet Memories for Milos Forman
For most directors, making Amadeus, an $18-million-period-costume drama about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, would be challenge enough. But Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) decided he had to shoot this ambitious film version of Peter Shaffer’s Tony award-winning play in Soviet-controlled Prague. Although Amadeus takes place in Vienna, Forman insisted on Prague “because you can turn a camera 360 degrees and not have to change anything. You still find streets out of the mid-18th century.”
There were more personal reasons: Prague was Forman’s home town. And his father, a Jewish professor of education, and his Protestant mother were killed during World War II in Nazi concentration camps (Milos went to live with his uncle. He and his brother Pavel, now 62, are the only survivors of the immediate family). In Prague, Forman married twice, fathered two sons and made his reputation as a filmmaker. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he decided to remain in America, where he was directing his first Hollywood film, a comedy ironically titled Taking Off. “I tell you,” says Forman, 52, who retains a thick Slavic accent, “I was almost certain I’d never see Czechoslovakia again.”
Exile also meant giving up his family. Of his second wife, the mother of his twin boys, singer-actress Vera Kresadlova, Forman says: “When I decided to stay in America the marriage was sort of a question mark.” But the enforced separation from his sons, Peter and Matej, now 20, was “terribly depressing.” In 1976 he scored a breakthrough with the government by winning permission for his sons to come to Hollywood to attend the Academy Award ceremonies. Proud papa Milos brought the boys onstage when he accepted his Oscar for Cuckoo’s Nest. Since then the boys have been allowed to visit him every summer. “Peter has been accepted to study at the University of Prague’s drama school,” For-man says. “I’m trying to get permission for Matej to come here to attend the Columbia Arts School to study painting.” But even award-winning directors encounter roadblocks. “It doesn’t go so well yet,” Forman admits.
Getting Amadeus into Prague was easier—in part for practical reasons (the infusion of American dollars), in part for subtler reasons. “There was a big rivalry in the Austro-Hungarian empire between Vienna and Prague,” he explains. “Both were cultural centers. Mozart was one of many in Vienna. But in Prague he was a god. He wrote Don Giovanni for the citizens there, thanking them for their acceptance of The Marriage of Figaro. We in Prague feel that Mozart is ours, so filming in Prague was a zinger to Vienna. I’m sure this subconsciously helped us to get approval to film there.”
The Czech government gave expatriate Forman, who had become a full-fledged American citizen in 1977, special permission to shoot inside the neoclassic Tyl Theater, where 200 years ago Mozart conducted the world premiere of Don Giovanni. “It was humbling standing right where Mozart stood and conducted,” says Forman. “Everybody was in tears when they realized where they were.”
Many of the cast and crew were less impressed by the food (mostly potatoes and paprika) and suspected that their hotel rooms were bugged during their six wintry months on location. There were also nettlesome government restrictions to contend with. “We made a deal,” says Forman. “They were concerned that I would provoke dissidence, so I explained how silly that was. I was making a film that I’d spent three years preparing. I was not going to jeopardize that. On the other hand, if some of my dissident friends were to seek me out, the government would not cause any trouble for me. They kept their word and I kept mine.”
Knowing his family and friends would continue to live in Prague kept Forman clear of political ferment, but it didn’t keep him from seeing Vera and the boys. Peter and Matej visited the Amadeus set twice, and their dad cajoled them into working as extras (they’re in the audience during The Magic Flute scene). But Milos fears the boys were bored. “Too much waiting around,” he says with a laugh.
Forman was also reunited with his first wife, Czech film actress Jana Brejchova. They were wed from 1950 to 1954, the years Forman spent on the faculty at the Prague Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. (After graduating he became a screenwriter, then made documentaries for the nationalized film industry.) “We have remained friends,” he says. “Look, after the passion calms down, the good things remain. You’re not in each other’s hair.”
Forman is the first to admit that his passion for his work has always taken precedence over his personal life. His sons and their mother, to whom he is still legally married, are used to it. As for his wives, Milos says, “Both of my marriages sort of collapsed through the process of work. Making a film is a 24-hour occupation for so many months. You look for relationships that are slightly on the superficial side, not so demanding or destructive to what you’re doing.” For Forman the business of getting Amadeus done meant “I’d have to consciously cut myself off from the past. Any distraction would be damaging to the film.”
Forman’s biggest gamble on Amadeus was not using stars. Such British theater royalty as Ben Kingsley and Jeremy Irons wanted the role of Antonio Salieri, the Austrian court composer who encourages Mozart’s ruination, but character actor F. Murray Abraham got it. And the coveted role of Mozart, pursued by the likes of Bowie and Baryshnikov, fell to the relatively unknown Tom Hulce. “I have nothing against using stars,” says Forman. “I just felt it would be uncomfortable to see a known face as Mozart. I want to believe this person is Mozart. I don’t want people admiring how great some star is playing him.” Those who saw Animal House may remember Hulce as a dorky fraternity brother. Forman didn’t. “Thank God I didn’t,” says Forman. His voice holds no rancor, but he has been known to yell at his actors. Hulce, 29, prefers to see those outbursts as a sign that Forman is paying attention: “If Milos didn’t make movies, he could brilliantly wage war.”
Right now Forman is deflecting fire from some critics who think Amadeus, with its immoral imp of a Mozart, distorts history. “We didn’t do a biography. This is not a scholarly account for high school students,” says Forman. “What does matter is that the film excites people about Mozart’s music.”
Before making Amadeus Forman says he was not a Mozart fanatic and did not have much knowledge of classical music. On a recent motor trip to Europe, Forman forgot to bring along his Mozart tapes. What did he listen to? “It’s very funny,” he says. “I carried cassettes of the Eurythmics and Cyndi Lauper. But I missed Mozart and I had to buy new tapes.”
Away from the cameras and his memories of Prague, Forman lives in a restored barn on 39 pastoral acres in Connecticut. His Oscar stands on a bookshelf, surrounded by photos of famous friends, including Jack Nicholson and neighbor James Cagney. The rustic, cavernous living room is filled with enormous paintings by such artists as Eric Sloane and Norris Church. Under the glass top of a coffee table are snapshots of visitors. “Look this way,” says Forman, holding a Polaroid. “I photograph everyone who comes here.” He shares his barn with Debra McDermott, 29, an associate editor on Amadeus. “We met a year ago in San Francisco,” he says. “It’s nice. We keep each other company.” And what about a Hollywood happy ending? His answer is typical Forman on wry. “Whether or not we get married depends on so many people,” he says. “Like Debra, me and my wife.”