In 1965, I was a twentynothing English major, hitchhiking to film festivals in Venice and Berlin, eventually holing up in a dreary London garret, playing a 45 rpm of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" until I understood exactly how it felt to be on my own with no direction home.
I managed to stumble into a movie house playing one of Milos Forman's early films, called "Cerny Petr" ("Black Peter"). It went straight to my heart. I felt as if I were making the film, not just watching it. A week later, the London Film Festival screened Forman's follow-up: "Lasky jedne plavovlasky" ("The Loves of a Blonde"). Forman himself appeared onstage. His only words were, "Would it not have been great if we had had cameras when Jesus Christ walked the earth. I hope you enjoy the next two hours."
Did I ever. I knew, that night, what I was supposed to do with my life.
Cut to 1968 on the Lower East Side. My thesis film was one scene shy of a wrap. I just needed a fire escape and some rain. Thunderclouds burst. Somebody yelled, "Try 228 St. Marks--6B."
I grabbed my actress, my shooting script-on-a-napkin, all my gear, trudged four blocks through a downpour and up six flights of stairs. Of all the gin joints in Manhattan, I knocked on 6B's door.
"Mind if I shoot some film on your fire escape?"
6B cracked open the door.
"Sorry, caught me at a bad time."
My ingenue batted an eyelash. Voila. He let us in.
Life went into Peckinpah slow-mo. The door exploded into a million pieces revealing Milos Forman, sitting on a stool, looking like the unmasked Wizard of Prague. 6B muttered, "Make it quick. I'm in a meeting with a film director from behind the Iron Curtain."
Forman was in New York to present "The Firemen's Ball" at the film festival. And he was in apartment 6B researching American runaways for Claude Berri. He fixated on the ingenue turned street urchin.
I grabbed his hand.
"Howdy. Can't talk now. Gotta get this shot." I unpacked the Arriflex, screwed on a lens and focused on the teardrops, disguised as raindrops, dripping off the fire escape. The sopping urchin sat on the iron landing, sulking about having to return home to Long Island. I, too, had been hovering above busy streets, floating on those celluloid bubbles from Forman, Passer, Pucholt and Papousek for the past three years.
Forman asked if he could see my film.
I showed him what I had. All he said was, "We're so sim-pa-teh-tik."
I was thinking: "Maybe that's because I've been pretending to be you, assuming no one would ever know that I've been taking all of my cues from your obscure little films that are now getting Oscar nominations."
All I said was, "Sympathetic it is. Good word."
He invited me to work on a script, which eventually became "Taking Off," along with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (playwright John Guare came in later). Collaborating was the last thing on my mind. Picking up Milos' dry-cleaning would have been epic. The film came out in 1971 and won the special jury prize at Cannes and was nominated for best original screenplay (comedy) of 1971 by the Writers Guild of America.
I'm foolishly partial to dumb luck, but its prevalence in this business suggests a deeper mystery at work. Films have the capacity to move people. They can set in motion a precise logic all their own. Milos' films had inspired me to make my film, which had landed both of us in the same room at the same time, struggling with the same story. Luck is surprising, enviable, crucial, even--but not dumb.