Me, Mike, and Milos
by Marc Fratello
I arrived at Mike Hausman's office early and bit jittery. He had given me a single instruction prior to that morning - "don't eat anything." I obeyed, but unfortunately compensated with an insane amount of coffee. A few months before, I had come out of the CU Film Festival, awarded the astonishing opportunity to meet with legendary filmmaker Milos Forman. As a friend and producer of Mr. Forman's for over forty years, Professor Hausman became the point person to facilitate an introduction. After a few failed attempts to coordinate a date however, a one-hour lunch morphed into a day trip to Mr. Forman's home in Connecticut. I’d hitch a ride with Professor Hausman and his wife, then dine with everyone at Mr. Forman’s favorite restaurant. It was a proposition as intimidating as it was exciting.
Settling into the Hausman's car, it occurred to me that I'd be spending the day with two legends. Mike Hausman is a gladiator. As a producer, and assistant director, he's clocked in over four decades of feature films. His classes in the Columbia Film Program are legendary, and notoriously difficult to get into. As a student, I had only taken one large lecture class with him, so I was honored to score some one on one time. Hausman's wife Pam insisted on sitting in the back. She informed me that her husband was a terrible driver, and that she feared for her life. I sank into the death seat, and fastened myself in. I liked Pam immediately.
Actually, I can't recollect much about Mike Hausman's driving skills. I was much too consumed by his treasure trove of stories. As we pulled up to Mr. Forman's home, I was already drunk on tails from some of the greatest sets in history - Gangs Of New York, Places in the Heart, Brokeback Mountain. I especially enjoyed the story of his son's birth in Prague, while shooting Amadeus. I was really grateful to have the Hausmans alongside on this adventure. As we walked towards the home, Mrs. Hausman grabbed my arm gently, "You didn't eat did you?" "No," I replied. "Good. I haven't eaten since lunch yesterday."
We entered a home bustling with family and friends. The whole environment couldn't have been more welcoming. Suddenly there he was - the man himself. Milos Forman stood before me wearing a Speedo. I recalled Professor Hausman mentioning a running joke involving bathing suits, but I can't say I felt prepared for that handshake. It was however, a moment so illustrative of the man himself - funny, disarming, and entirely humble. He is known to have a fondness for the Polaroid, and the walls are covered with the evidence - a snapshot journal of his most colorful collaborators. One room in particular is lined floor to ceiling with the likenesses of Woody Harrelson, Annette Bening, and Jack Nicholson among others. Each photo holds a story of a particular moment on a particular film. I could have examined the walls for hours, but suddenly we were alone. The party graciously moved outside so we could chat privately.
The 1956 noir "Crime in the Streets" played on a large screen in Mr. Forman's den. "This is amazing." he said, "it's like Scorsese." We chatted about the scene for a bit - a kind of West Side Story gang war with John Cassavetes and Sal Mineo. I tried to avoid gawking at the two Oscars just chilling on a shelf above his desk (but curiously One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a bit darker than Amadeus). The idea of mentioning my short film felt ridiculous in such a context, but Mr. Forman had watched Babyland and kindly engaged the dialogue. He seemed particularly interested in the performances, and my process in respect to the actors. I couldn't have asked for a higher compliment. We share a common background in theater, and his incredible skill with the actor is something I've always aspired to. As we discussed the film, I felt so grateful and indebted to the path he forged long ago. I mentioned my fondness for "Loves of a Blonde" and it's particular influence on Babyland. Truthfully, I find that familiar connection with much of his filmography. Forman's work embraces character in all its dimensions. He does not glorify humanity, but rather celebrates its complexity and contradictions. His characters mirror the dark and light within all of us, and the eternal conflict between the two. He has thus nurtured some of the most indelible performances in the history cinema. I remember feeling the Gods were on my side that day. I did not conceive of this master class with Milos Forman, but I couldn't think of a more relevant mentor.
The boys eventually decided to swim. Professor Hausman matched Mr. Forman's Speedo with a 20's era one piece. I'm still in the dark about the bathing suit gag, but they were dead serious about it. I opted out of the pool round and hung with Mr. Forman's wife Martina, flattered to hear she had watched my short twice. We talked about her documentary work, and the Forman’s hometown of Prague. The newly adopted dog ran happily between the pool, and Mrs. Forman, and their children. I was struck at how familial the whole day had been. I might have forgotten I was standing in the home of a Hollywood icon.
At some point, I was handed Mr. Forman's new Polaroid camera (a gift from the Hausmans). The honor of loading the first role had been bestowed on me, and I absolutely stood a 50/50 chance of breaking the thing. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief as the first shot rolled out. Mr. Forman seemed genuinely thrilled with the gift, and eagerly snapped away. Mrs. Forman turned to me, suddenly very serious, "I hope you didn't eat anything." "No,” I said, "but I'm starting to worry." "He goes there every Sunday," she explained. "You must eat everything they put on the table. No exceptions."
The tiny unmarked restaurant, nestled deep in the mountains of Connecticut, certainly doesn't hint at the madness waiting inside. One could write a tiny novella about that meal actually. It unfolded something like this ... salad, French Onion soup, lobster, pasta stuffed with foie gras, duck, salmon, steak, and two desserts. The chef, who served each course personally, laid the ground rules out pretty clearly. Refusing a course would be taken as an insult. I think I was delirious by the duck round, no doubt helped along by the mysterious Eastern European potion Mr. Forman kept pouring into my glass. I recall hearing myself ask, "So I hear you like opera?" and immediately sensing total meltdown. Mr. Forman smiled and nodded politely. I grabbed a glass of water.
A collective pain hovered over the table as the coffee rolled around. Still, I could only think of my great fortune at having been a part of such an evening. I am most honored to have witnessed the kinship between two great partners in crime, and their recollections of years of making films together. That is a quality of Mr. Forman's that made the deepest impression, his fierce loyalty to his team, and the strong sense of family he cultivates on all of his sets.
As we said our goodbyes Mr. Forman snapped a few Polaroids of me. I stewed over the hundreds of questions I forgot to ask (not involving opera). Perhaps he sensed my frustration. "The only advice I can really give you," he said, "is that I want to believe what's happening on screen. I believed every frame of your film."
As I approached the car, I saw that Mrs. Hausman had slid into the back once again. “Are you sure you don’t want the front seat? “ I asked. “It’s all you,” she replied. I jumped in next to Professor Hausman, happy to have a couple more hours, and a few more stories.