The Major Motion Picture Professor
Remembering Miloš Forman’s literary transformation of Columbia Film.
By Anouk Jouffret
Earlier this fall, the Columbia film community came together to honor the life of Miloš Forman, who—in addition to crafting many of cinema’s most memorable moments—left an indelible mark on the University’s film program. The memorial, which commemorated the 90th anniversary of his birth, was held on Sept. 9 at the Lenfest Center for the Arts in coordination with Film Forum’s 16-film retrospective of the Czech-born master. Forman’s introduction to Columbia Film runs through one of the night’s attendees, Grafton Nunes.
In 1974, Nunes—an administrator at Columbia Film—found himself at the pre-release screening of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Following the showing, Forman, accompanied by lead actor Jack Nicholson, made his way to the front of the room for questions. Nunes recalled that Forman had expressed to the crowd the importance of his education at The Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU). He emphasized his hope to one day pay this forward.
A day after the screening, the chair of Columbia’s film department resigned, leaving Schuyler Chapin, the dean of the program, to find a replacement. Nunes, with Forman’s masterpiece and teaching aspirations fresh in mind, proposed that Columbia offer the position to the filmmaker. Despite his success in Czechoslovakia, Forman was still a year away from releasing the movie that would send him into Oscar-winning stardom. Chapin was unfamiliar with the director, but Nunes was convincing.
“If you can get to Miloš Forman, you have my permission to offer him the job.”
“Well, let me work on that.”
Within a week, Nunes was knocking on the door of an Essex House apartment, in order to be received by an enthusiastic, pajama-clad Forman. For the next three hours, Nunes explained the state of the film program and the work he felt needed to be done to better it.
Columbia Film was a young program in the 1970s, having only been founded in the decade prior. The curriculum was designed to train “a total filmmaker,” someone who would write, direct, shoot, and edit all on their own—an impossible task, according to Nunes. Consequently, the films that came out of the program were mostly shorts and lacked sophistication. Nunes had originally attended Columbia Film as a history, theory, and criticism student. “I was in love with narrative features. I was in love with classic cinema,” he told me over the phone. It was clear to him that script scholarship was missing from the film school.
The project was compelling to Forman. He agreed to accept the position as chair on the condition that Frantšiek Daniel, who had been the dean at the FAMU and a producer on The Shop on Main Street, co-chair the department. The filmmaker and the University struck a deal that would soon transform the lives of thousands of individuals and paradigms of film pedagogy alike.
Forman, the professor, structured his teaching in the form of masterclasses in which no more than ten students would select projects they wished to workshop for a year. Tobias Meinecke, SOA ’91, and his cohort spent the year working on four shorts as well as a documentary that chronicled their production. For Meinecke, the workshop resulted in his own feature, The Contenders, and a short film, Dreams of Love (featuring an 11-year-old Claire Danes), which he produced. The documentary never ended up getting made, but now, three decades later, Meinecke is seeing it to completion.
Over coffee and the inevitable racket of the city soundscape, Meinecke told me that Forman was more than a world-class filmmaker and teacher. “To put it in one sentence: He treated our work as though it was his own, so when we worked on our pieces with him, we got him as if he was making it himself.” In footage from the unfinished documentary (which he was kind enough to share with me), one can see the energy and dedication that Meinecke lauds. A humorous yet intense Forman in black thick-rimmed glasses workshops scripts with students, schools them in directing, and agonizes over a casting choice. At one point, Forman and a few students look through reels of film in an editing booth. The student whose work is under scrutiny has implemented a piece of advice from Forman—unconvincingly, in the eyes of the professor. There is palpable tension in the exchange; the student concedes to Forman’s critique and classmates squirm uncomfortably. What strikes me is how invested Forman is in the student’s film. To teach art means to dig into the work that someone has poured their heart and soul into, and to do so authentically requires a level of trust and mutual respect. When I ask Meinecke about the exchange, he laughs and tells me that Forman was absolutely right.
The remark that Forman gave to the student in the editing booth was one I had seen him give in previous footage: “Unless somebody suggests something which really hits you absolutely as the right thing for your film … it’s better to make your own mistakes than to do somebody else’s good suggestions.” Forman was an instructor who prioritized integrity, a philosophical throughline in his work. In his autobiography, he writes of a desire to emulate reality in his films: “The paradox is that it was this very idea that steered me away from making pure documentaries. The camera’s presence alters most situations that it trails. People become stilted, put on airs, wear masks, show off, get intimidated, so you cannot simply capture the everyday life by documenting it. You have to recreate it.” From the “semi documentaries” which constitute The Audition to the mixing of actors and non-professionals in Loves of Blondes, Forman made a conscious effort to keep reality in the foreground. Such a devotion permeates his instruction in Meinecke’s footage.
Forman’s method is exhibited in 1967’s The Firemen’s Ball, a comedy based on a real ball hosted by the Vrchalbí Fire Department. After attending the event with colleagues Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papoušek in an attempt to get his mind off another script, he found the night’s events compelling enough to be the basis of a film. Most of the cast consisting of the local firemen themselves, the film’s comedic genius is a product of its unflinching realism. From within the darkness of Film Forum’s retrospective screening, I nor anyone else, it seemed, could keep from erupting with laughter as one catastrophe after another befalls the drunken firemen.
Forman’s humorous sensibility penetrated all of his work—from The Firemen’s Ball to the biographical period drama Amadeus to his teaching. Nunes explains that Forman’s humor allowed him to be both delicate and critical when dealing with students’ work. With Forman, students received the “respect of a master teacher’s honesty,” and yet it was delivered with tact and good humor. When I probed Annette Insdorf, who co-chaired Columbia Film with Forman from 1990–1995, for an anecdote that would be telling of his character, she replied: “I remember moderating a panel at Symphony Space about 40 years ago; it was part of our celebration of MFA film student work and included his alumna Kathryn Bigelow. After I asked her what it was like to study with him—and she eloquently praised him—he opened his wallet, took out a $20 bill, and comically passed it to her onstage.”
But what most impacted Forman’s approach to both filmmaking and teaching was his literary education. Forman’s time in FAMU’s dramaturgical department centered on the creation of the script. “The Prague Film Academy ran on old-fashioned ideas,” he writes in his autobiography. In the four years he spent there, he never touched a camera or learned to match strips of film; instead, he meticulously studied dialogue, narrative, character, and expositional methods. He wrote screenplays, short stories, and adaptations. He watched countless films which he would discuss with peers “in heated arguments with grandiose claims and cigarette butts spilling out of ashtrays.” It was in a class taught by Milan Kundera that Forman first read Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons, which, some 30 years later, he would adapt for the screen with Jean-Claude Carrière.
Indeed, it was primarily this writerly emphasis that drew Meinecke to Columbia from Munich, where he was already attending a prestigious film school that provided full production equipment and studio access. “I was lacking in working with actors and in script construction,” Meinecke explained to me. In the form of Miloš Forman’s instructional method, he found this missing piece.
Nunes recounts that Forman would say, “If you get the best script and then you get the best cast for that script, your directing is halfway home.” This insistence on the importance of script development completely altered Columbia’s film program.” After Forman’s arrival, all students “started with taking acting classes and screenwriting” before choosing a path in directing, editing, or even screenwriting itself. And so—with courses taught by the likes of David Mamet, Nicholas T. Proferes, and Ralph Rosenblum—Forman helped to birth the MFA in screenwriting. Nunes believes that “the model for the teaching of film that they introduced at Columbia really became the model for most of the first-rate film programs in this country.”
Prior to Forman’s time as chair, the arts were often overlooked by the University. Nunes explains to me that it was considered acceptable to study the arts but less so to make art. Yet when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest went on to be one of the biggest Oscar wins in history, taking home all of the “Big Five” Academy Awards, Columbia was quite content to be associated with such success. Forman brought credibility to the program, and eventually the University altered its attitude to one of appreciation for the film program.
The instructor—reconstituted to me through conversations with those who knew him—was humorous and resilient, critical and expressive; a person of great humility who rewrote the script for Columbia Film.