Milos Forman greets you at the door of his Manhattan apartment, eager to ply you with his unique brand of Czech hospitality. ”What can I get you to drink?” the two-time Oscar-winning director asks in his Bela Lugosi voice. You’re parched, so you politely request a glass of water. ”Good,” he replies. ”I have this Czech beer that you will just love.” At 9:30 in the morning? No, no, water would be fine. ”Great,” he says. ”I’ll get you that beer.”
Beer before breakfast? Well, when you think about it, Forman, 67, has never been a stickler for strict adherence to social conventions. This is a man whose lofty cinema is filled with some of the most memorable counterculture rogues in movie history. See Jack Nicholson’s loony-bin insurrectionist in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or Tom Hulce’s giggly, flatulent Mozart in Amadeus, or Woody Harrelson’s porn-purveying First Amendment hero in The People vs. Larry Flynt. Of the eight actors who have earned Oscar nominations under Forman, five have played characters who risked their lives bucking the system. His newest film, Man on the Moon, due Dec. 22, may yield a sixth: Jim Carrey’s uncanny channeling of the late, great, and exceedingly grating comedian Andy Kaufman.
Forman was turned on to Moon by Danny DeVito, who costarred with Kaufman in Taxi. The film covers all of Kaufman’s infamous bits, including his abrasive alter ego, lounge lizard Tony Clifton; his controversial stint as a misogynist wrestler; and the mysterious circumstances of his death at age 35 of cancer. But don’t expect a film that reveals what made Kaufman tick. ”He was impossible to explain,” says the director. ”I talked to the people very close to him, and they couldn’t tell me who Andy really was.”
Yet that riddle provided Forman and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who both worked with the director on Flynt) with their angle. Moon is a playfully suspect biopic, the kind Kaufman might have made about himself. On the set, Carrey contributed to this head trip by never breaking character—or is that characters? ”Every day I was dealing with a different person,” says Forman. ”It took me a few days to get used to it, but then I really had fun and enjoyed playing the game with him.” So much so that when Forman’s second wife, Martina Zborilova, gave birth to twins during the shoot, he named them Jim and Andy.
Ironically, Carrey’s dead-on performance created a dilemma: Test audiences wanted less of the abusive Clifton. It’s the first time Forman—who has directed 11 features, including this one—has used the test screenings to inform a final cut. ”It was helpful,” he admits, ”but the dangerous thing is that it can lead to a film that’s a one-size-fits-all.”
This hesitancy to play by the rules may stem from Forman’s upbringing in Czechoslovakia, which went from democracy to Nazi occupation (his parents were killed in concentration camps) to Communist regime all before he turned 18. ”I guess my films are a subconscious response to the society I grew up in,” says Forman, ”where the abuse of the individual was just devastating.”
If you’ve seen a Forman flick, though, you know that he leavens such heaviness with a hearty dose of hilarity. Hanging out with Forman, you experience far more of the latter. “He’s a gregarious, friendly guy,” says Alexander. “He’s made all of these serious, important movies, but he’s totally unpretentious. A real man of the people.”
Ah, so that explains the beer.