Milos Forman’s Amadeus has eclipsed all the other movies I’ve seen in seven decades of sitting in the dark eating popcorn.
I have been going to the movies for almost 75 years, going all the back to Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger. (You know, I even remember their horses . . . Champion, Trigger and Silver respectively . . . who they sang to). My brother and I would argue – coming out of the Rio cinema in Camden, NJ in the late 1940s – about who would be the Lone Ranger and who would be Tonto – his Redskin sidekick – on the journey back home. So, I have some perspective discussing a favourite film.
In recent years, I have been impressed with the films of certain directors like Mike Nichols (The Graduate), Sydney Pollack (Our of Africa) and Barry Levinson (Diner). Yet, none reached the level of enjoyment for me like that I experienced when I saw Amadeus, the work of the Czech auteur Milos Forman. He also created the wonderful One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest almost ten years before. Both of these films won Hollywood’s coveted Academy Award.
Naturally, when the announcement was made a few years ago that Forman was to host a retrospective of his own film work at The Barbican Theatre in London, I immediately applied for tickets. But it needs to be said, I had an secret agenda.
Here’s the story.
Regular readers of this blog will perhaps know that I have been educated as a physicist and became very interested in the history of physics after I left research some years ago. During my many forays into the subject, I discovered the amazing work of the German astronomer and cosmologist Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). True, many other scholars have praised Kepler’s scientific insights in the early 17th century whilst he lived in Prague during the Golden Age of Rudolf II as Holy Roman Emperor. Yet, when I delved into his many accomplishments, I was struck by the fact that many aspects of his life and work were very much under appreciated. Consequently, I decided to write about him.
Though I started to prepare a scholarly type treatise on the man, his contemporaries and his times, I soon found myself attracted to the cinematic aspect of his story, particularly whilst in the court of Rudolf II in Prague. Now to make a long story short, I ended up with a three-hour film script which included as principal characters, Kepler’s sponsor Rudolf II and his mentor, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. Though I did add certain fictional elements to the tale, nothing in the script contradicted the historical record . . . just embellished it. I titled the film, The Stargazers.
I had decided that the film – if ever it would be made from my script – would be a rich, period piece set in Prague and would be directed by the Czech/American magician, Forman.
So, there I was with a ticket to see and hear the great director in person talking about the making of his past films. Knowing there would be a Q & A at the end of his presentation, I would perhaps have an opportunity to interest him with my idea of the film. So, on the given night I went to the Barbican and took with me the two-page treatment of The Stargazers tucked into my briefcase.
Forman gave an interesting presentation of his film career, interspersed with clips from films, including his experiences with Jack Nicholson. He made the confession that he had posted an insurance bond of a million dollars on behalf of the scandalous Courtney Love so she could appear in one of his films. (The People vs Larry Flint).
Finally at the end, it was time for questions from the audience and I nervously raised my hand. After two or three others, I was recognised and said the following . . .
Me: Mr Forman. If I were to meet you somewhere – like tonight – and explain that I had written a screenplay about a scientist living and working in Prague . . . and furthermore that I had a two page treatment of it in my briefcase which I would like to give you to read, would you take it ?
There was suddenly a hushed silence in the audience as the great man rubbed his chin. Thirty, maybe forty seconds went by. Finally, he answered.
Forman: No, I would not.
Well, that was it. Apparently I had clumsily blew my chances to engage my dream director on the film script which I had spent months and months preparing.
But wait, the story is not over yet. The organisers of the soiree had graciously arranged for Mr. Forman to have coffee and mix with the attendees in a room at the back of the cinema. How sensible. Sure enough, as we all mingled, balancing cups and pastry, Forman appeared – ebullient and sociable – playing the room full of his fans. As time passed, I realised that I could not repeat my question which surely have been a faux pas of massive proportions. But suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I saw him walking towards me !
I soon realised that he wished to speak and stopped in front of me. He leaned forward and whispered . . .
Forman: It’s Kepler, isn’t it ?
Me: (flabbergasted) . . . Well, yes.
We proceeded to have a conversation about the discoveries of Kepler and the interesting milieu which existed during the period when Rudolf II was Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in Prague. Then, believe it or not, he told me to contact his agent Dennis Aspland in New York City.
Of course, I did that a few days later and spoke to Aspland at length about the possibility of Forman working on the film of my script. I was, needless to say, elated. However, I was soon to find out what big-time film making was all about. His agent told me that Forman was about to start work on a new film and could not be contacted for eleven weeks . . . eleven weeks . . .I was stunned. Aspland explained that when he said . . . could not be contacted, he meant just that ! Forman was soon was off to Los Angeles to shoot ‘Man On The Moon’ with Jim Carey, Danny DeVito and, you guessed it, Courtney Love. It was the winter of 1998.
The new film was based on the antics of madcap Andy Kaufman of Saturday Night Live and was not one of Forman’s masterpieces. Though I later tried to revive interest in my film, The Stargazers, the project fell by the wayside and became part of the fodder of history. Forman moved forward with other ideas including a film about the Spanish painter, Francisco Goya and we never spoke again.
In 2018, his agent Dennis Aspland announced that Forman had passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 86. RIP, Milos.
Below, I have listed a synopsis of The Stargazers for those of you who wish to read the text I tried to give Milos Forman that night in 1998 at The Barbican Theatre.