Milos Forman is something of a paradox. Though he endeared himself to the counterculture with films like Taking Off (1971) and Hair (1979), he also supported the Vietnam War and American anti-Communism in general. (The Czech director had suffered for years under Communist rule.) So it almost goes without saying that Forman feels some affinity with the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya, whose life inspired the director's latest, Goya's Ghosts, opening this Friday. The film portrays Goya (Stellan Skarsgard), who managed to live through both the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition and the nightmare of Napoleon's invasion of Spain, as a sharp observer who depicts the dark truths of the world around him but elects to shy away from direct political confrontation. Also starring Natalie Portman and Javier Bardem, the resulting film veers between high tragedy and dark satire – the kind of tonal balancing act that by now must come as second nature to the Academy Award–winning director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The People vs. Larry Flynt. Forman spoke to Bilge Ebiri about Goya, Iraq, and Courtney Love.
With Goya's Ghosts, you've made another film featuring real-life characters, as with Man in the Moon, Amadeus, and others. What is it that drives you toward historical figures?
They're interesting characters. You can't invent Larry Flynt. You can't invent a guy like Mozart. You can't invent Andy Kaufman. And you can't invent Goya. Although I should add that, as a person, Goya was very secretive. We know very little about him. But there are two sides to him: As a painter, he was incredibly courageous. He had to hide the Disasters of War — it was only published after his death. But he never revealed his political or philosophical ideas. You can guess them from his work, to some extent. But he never gave anybody any pretext to go after him. He wanted to be on good terms with everybody.
Can we draw broader conclusions here about the artist's role in a turbulent world?
Yes, although I always emphasize that the characters are real. They're not symbols. That said, artists are always in some kind of opposition to the status quo. They are always talking about things that people in power aren't. Because to create anything is a very individual act – and that doesn't always conform with the philosophy of institutions.
You yourself have always had an interesting relationship to the status quo. When you came to the U.S., you made Hair, a film that was dear to the counterculture. But you were not a counterculture kind of guy.
I was the exact opposite! I lived so long under Communism, that for me anybody who fought Communism was a hero. America was a hero for fighting the Communists in Vietnam. But Hair the musical was to me an act of freedom as well. Freedom trumped everything. I was amazed at how free this country was, that it could look at itself in the mirror and see its own dark side.
It's hard not to see resonances with the Iraq war while watching Goya's Ghosts.
The script was finished months before the Iraq war. There's a line in the film about how the French think they will be greeted with flowers as liberators that was in the script! Napoleon said it to his generals. And then they said it to their troops. It's difficult to explain to people that the line was there before our vice-president said it.
When did you realize that your film had these parallels with the Iraq war?
Too late to stop it. But of course this is not surprising that history repeats itself. After every disaster, every war, we scream, "We learned a lesson. Never again." And then it happens again. And we scream again. And then it happens again.
The film has taken a while to be released in the U.S., after opening in much of Europe late last year and early this year. Why did it take so long?
It was not easy to find a good distributor. It's not a "feel-good" movie. I do hope it's a "think-good" movie. [Laughs.] It's disturbing for a lot of people, so distributors worried that they would have a hard time selling it.
But the film also has quite a bit of humor in it. It plays at times like a satire.
That was intentional, but to be honest with you, I wish it had more. Because comedy really is the other side of tragedy. Unless you can laugh, you can't survive.
You've spent many years teaching filmmaking at Columbia. Can filmmaking be taught?
Filmmaking can't be taught. But it can be inspired. I myself owe a lot to my teachers and professors who inspired me, who provoked my curiosity. That's what I hoped to do with my students.
I heard a rumor that you're working on a Kurt Cobain–Courtney Love biopic. Is there any truth to that?
No, not at all. I heard it for the first time today. I am great friends with Courtney Love. But I am not planning on doing anything.