Filmmaker Milos Forman talks about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

The film took 13 years to develop. Filming finally began in January 1975 and lasted three months and was the second to win all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Director, and Screenplay) following It Happened One Night in 1934. It won six Golden Globe and six BAFTA Awards. In 1993, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

The film is based on the novel by Ken Kesey published in 1962. Set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, the narrative serves as a study of institutional processes and the human mind, including a critique of psychiatry and a tribute to individualistic principles. It was adapted into the Broadway (and later off-Broadway) play One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Dale Wasserman in 1963. Bo Goldman adapted the novel into the film directed by Miloš Forman.

Kesey started writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1959, and it was published in 1962 amid the Civil Rights Movement and deep changes to the way psychology and psychiatry were being approached in America. The 1960s began the controversial movement towards deinstitutionalization, an act that would have affected the characters in Kesey’s novel. The novel is a direct product of Kesey’s time working the graveyard shift as an orderly at a mental health facility in Menlo Park, California. Not only did he speak to the patients and witness the workings of the institution, he also voluntarily took psychoactive drugs, including mescaline and LSD, as part of Project MKUltra. In addition to his work with Project MKUltra, Kesey took LSD recreationally; advocating for drug use as a path to individual freedom

In 1962, Kirk Douglas’s company Joel Productions announced that it had acquired the rights to make Broadway stage and film adaptations of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Douglas starring as McMurphy in both the play and the film, Dale Wasserman writing the stageplay, and George Roy Hill directing the film based on Wasserman’s play. Jack Nicholson had also tried to buy the film rights to the novel but was outbid by Douglas. Wasserman’s 1963–1964 Broadway stage adaptation successfully opened, but Douglas was unable to find a studio willing to make it with him.

Kirk Douglas hired Miloš Forman to direct after meeting him in Prague during a tour of the Eastern Bloc. Avco-Embassy Pictures optioned the film in 1969, but Forman was prevented from directing the film by the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and the beginning of the “normalization” period in which the Soviet Union forced Czechoslovakia to reverse most of its Prague Spring liberalization reforms. Forman and Douglas fell completely out of contact after the Czechoslovak StB put Forman under strict surveillance. It also intercepted a copy of the novel Douglas sent to his home in Prague, which meant he was unable to read the book.

Wasserman subsequently sold his film rights to Douglas in 1970, but then delayed the film for several more years with lawsuits. In 1971, Kirk Douglas’s son Michael Douglas convinced his father to allow him to produce the film, as he was drawn to the novel’s “one man against the system” plot due to his involvement with student activism at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Douglas optioned the film to director Richard Rush, but he was unable to secure financing from major studios. In March 1973, Douglas announced a new deal in which he would co-produce the film with Saul Zaentz as the first project of Fantasy Records’ new film division.

Zaentz, a voracious reader, felt an affinity with Kesey, and so after Hauben’s first attempt he asked Kesey to write the screenplay. Kesey participated in the early stages of script development, but withdrew after creative differences with the producers over casting and narrative point of view; ultimately he filed suit against the production and won a settlement. Although Kesey was paid for his work, his screenplay from the first-person point of view of Chief Bromden was not used. Instead, Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman wrote a new screenplay from a third-person perspective.

Although Forman was suffering from a mental health crisis and refused to leave his Hotel Chelsea room in New York City for months, Douglas and Zaentz sent him a copy of the novel. Although Forman was not aware that the novel was the one which Douglas’s father had hired him to direct in the 1960s, he quickly decided that it was “the best material I’d come across in America” and flew to California to discuss the film with Douglas and Zaentz further. They quickly hired Forman because, in Douglas’s words, “Unlike the other directors we saw, who kept their cards close to their chest, he went through the script page by page and told us what he would do.”

After a short illness, he died at Danbury Hospital near his home in Warren, Connecticut on 13 April 2018 at age 86.