‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’: Miloš Forman’s Mosaic of Brilliance With a Lesson Still As Important As Ever

Miloš Forman directs Jack Nicholson on the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Production still photographer: Peter Sorel © Archive of Miloš Forman, The Saul Zaentz Company


By Sven Mikulec

If you open any book on the history of film, you are bound to find a plethora of historically significant movies that marked certain periods, moved audiences, captured the zeitgeist and initiated changes in the society and the way people felt about both their surroundings and the way the world functions. There were not, however, all that many films like Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the absolute king of the 1976 Academy Awards and, far more importantly, a work of art whose faultless execution, perfect timing and a resounding, bitter message echoed throughout the United States like an uncompromising alarm clock, utterly shaking the post-Vietnam America. It’s not that easy to adequately describe the impact Forman’s film had not only on the American society, openly criticizing the hypocrisy of the institutions and conformity of the people they were designed to protect, but also on us, as filmmakers, film lovers, people with hopes, dreams, aspirations. The story of Randle Patrick McMurphy, a sentenced criminal who tries to get the easy way out by committing to a mental institution, is a story of an independent, free spirit caged, shackled and paralyzed by the inflexibility and brute oppression of the society and its structures. McMurphy’s small rebellions against Nurse Ratched, one of the most memorable film villains of all time and a well-designed symbol of a sick system in desperate need of healing, are with every right considered one of a handful of unforgettable moments in the entire history of American cinematography.

With superbly devious Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched and a series of perfect smaller appearances by Danny DeVito, Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd and Will Sampson, the living legend Jack Nicholson truly got his chance to shine. In the course of his career spanning over half a century, Nicholson has constantly shown tremendous depth and range through the characters he breathed life into, but his performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, produced by the great Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz, is arguably among his most compelling and powerful work. This has a lot to do with Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben’s screenplay, ranked among the finest literary adaptations of all time and a piece of writing that should make Ken Kesey, the author of the original novel of the same name published in 1962, proud and satisfied. Shot by master cinematographer Haskell Wexler and, upon his dismissal from the project over artistic differences, Bill Butler, Forman’s film blew the Academy away and turned into a genuine box office hit. Its powerful symbolism and honest, moving message thus found their audience back in 1975, but have continued to do so to this day. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest comes down to a mosaic of inspired and accomplished acting performances, a compelling story and a warning that hasn’t stopped resonating, urging us never to forget McMurphy’s lesson that has, perhaps, now become more essential than ever.

More than four decades upon the film’s release, we’re giving you a rare copy of Hauben and Goldman’s screenplay, accompanied by Forman’s precious LaserDisc commentary, several priceless interviews with the crew and a bucket-load of behind-the-scenes photo gems. Likewise, we’re happy to offer you Miloš Forman’s Filmmakers Newsletter interview from December, 1975, in which he talks about the origins of the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest project, the complicated process of casting and why Nicholson was chosen for the lead role and, perhaps most interestingly, discusses his filmmaking preferences and technique in depth. Since we’re talking about the living legend of the Czechoslovak New Wave and an artist whom the world got to know through a series of distinguished American films upon leaving his homeland, don’t hesitate to delve into his world and study his craft in detail.

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Lawrence Hauben & Bo Goldman’s screenplay for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Miloš Forman’s solo commentary was on the Pioneer Limited Collector’s Edition LaserDisc, and his comments were edited into the group commentary on the Special Edition DVD. If you haven’t seen this amazing film or not for a while, don’t hesitate and get the double disk release. Apart from the commentary it includes a 48-minute documentary featuring the actors, the moviemakers, and writer Ken Kesey recounting the history of the original novel to its stage and movie adaptations plus 8 additional scenes. Gold. Blu-ray recommendation: 35th Anniversary Collector’s Edition.


“One day, I got a package from California. There was a book inside I’d never heard of written by an author I’d never heard of but when I started to read I saw right away that this was the best material I’d come across in America. ‘Hell, Milos, I tried to get the rights to the fucking book, if you know what I mean, but that old boy Douglas beat me to the punch,’ said Jack Nicholson when I offered him the part. All the scenes stood or fell with Jack Nicholson, who was a dream to work with. He had none of the vanity, egomania, or obsessions of a star. He insisted on receiving the same treatment as everyone else. He was always prepared for his scenes and had a clear idea of what he wanted. His sense of humour put everyone at ease, which is always a great asset on a set. He helped the people around him because he knew that the better their performances were, the better he would look in the end.

Discovering Nurse Ratched in the prim, angelic Louise Fletcher surprised me, but the more I thought about it, the more it made me sense. I’d learned long before that it’s better to cast against type in the leading roles and with it in the minor roles. For reasons of economy and clarity, I prefer to give the audience a quick read of secondary characters by casting obvious physical types, but with the principal roles, it’s more engaging to uncover a different personality under the obvious type, to peel away the erroneous expectations, to be surprised by a deeper knowledge of the character.” —Miloš Forman about the movie


Miloš Forman’s Filmmakers Newsletter interview from December, 1975, in which he talks about the origins of the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest project, the complicated process of casting and why Nicholson was chosen for the lead role and, perhaps most interestingly, discusses his filmmaking preferences and technique in depth. You can download the PDF version here.


Ken Kesey had worked in a mental hospital, but his first novel was really a parable of what happens when you stand up to the Man—a counterculture fable that doesn’t end well. Despite his far-reaching influence, Kesey was shut out by filmmakers who turned the story into an Oscar-sweeping phenomenon. Cuckoo’s Nest changed how many people thought about mental illness and institutions. Sherman Alexie debunks the myth of the silent Indian; Studio 360 visit Oregon State Hospital, where the director played himself on screen; a psychiatrist explains how the movie gave mental hospitals a bad name, with tragic consequences; and actress Louise Fletcher takes us into the mind of one of the most fearsome movie villains, the sweet-faced Nurse Ratched. “She doesn’t see her behavior as it really is. Who does? Who sees that they’re really evil?”


Hear Kurt Andersen’s entire conversation with Louise Fletcher, including why “no studio in town would touch this movie,” and how she was cast in the role for which she won an Oscar. Courtesy of Studio 360.



Veteran film editor (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ali, A River Runs Through It) Lynzee Klingman answered Ask Me Anything questions on Reddit as part of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ ongoing Q&A series. See all of Lyndzee’s answers on the full Reddit post here.

How did you get involved with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest?
At that time I was only working on documentaries, commercials, industrials. I hadn’t cut any fiction film, but after Hearts and Minds I wanted to. On Hearts and Minds, the producer Bert Schneider insisted on hiring a sound editor—which scandalized me. I couldn’t believe anyone would care about the film as much as I did. So, I didn’t trust him. I had always done my own sound. So, I cut my own sound for the mix and I went in with my 16 mm soundtracks and he had like 40-50 of 35mm magnetic sound that would combine and make the sound of B52s flying—while I had the real sound. Within 10 minutes I realized that he knew what he was doing. That was that. I surrendered. His next door neighbor was Michael Douglas (who was a producer on Cuckoo’s Nest), who called and asked him for a good and cheap editor. I was so excited. Milos Forman was my favorite director. I loved the book. I loved everything about it. So, I worked cheap. BTW: I practically paid to work on the film!

How do you best handle the relationship between Director and Editor when disagreements arise? I’m sure there have been times where a director feels one edit is best whilst you think a different option would be more approrpiate.
I can be very nudgey, but ultimately it is the director’s choice.

Do you think editing has changed for the better?
What’s happened over the years is that more people have come to be involved in the editing of a film. There are dailly more producers on a film, studio executives multiply geometrically, and they each want to be heard. And, sometimes battles begin and often the final cut becomes the product of whoever has the most power, often not the best version of the film. Studio executives used to love making movies and knew how to do it and there weren’t very many. We worked hard and often, of course, long hours, but that was usually from passion not pressure. Everything changed when corporations took over and also when the interest rates went way up. I think that was in the early ’80s. They figured that it would be more economical to pay overtime and get the film out sooner. And, that’s when the ridiculous schedules started happening. Also, a lot of MBAs became “Creative Vice Presidents” and suddenly became experts on aesthetics. I’m not saying everybody, of course.

What’s the one scene that was the hardest to edit in your career?
One thing that’s hard to cut and, I would think to direct, are meals with lots of people around the table or group therapies—very tricky for everyone—maybe, especially for the script supervisor. I would rather not think about the scenes that were hard to cut because sometimes they were very simple scenes and they all looked ok—so who cares?

What tricks, thoughts or rules do you have for yourself when you edit? And, how does that interact with your process?
The important thing is to remember that it is a process, and that I certainly don’t feel satisfed until I feel it’s the best film that could possibly be made from that footage. There’s that famous quote about editing never being finished but merely interrupted, but the best feeling is to feel good about what you’re letting go of. Maybe that’s why we work such long hours.

When you’re looking for, say, an alternate line reading, make sure really look at your dailies. Don’t just look for that particular line. You will be seeing things with new eyes each time, and will discover new and wondrous moments you hadn’t notice before because you weren’t looking for them. Know why you’re cutting when you’re making a cut. They should never be arbitrary: to safeguard performance, to move the story along, because the camera wobbled, because there’s a magic moment on the other actor, stuff like that; there should be a reason.

Never let the sound drop out.


German poster for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1976.


Michael Douglas explains how he became the young producer of the film.


Jack Nicholson reflects on his experiences making One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.


Legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.


Nearly 50 cinematic luminaries, visionaries, and dignitaries have come to the Walker via its Regis Dialogue and Film Retrospective. Miloš Forman, the subject of the Regis spotlight in April 2008, is typically associated with the celebrated and award-winning films he has made in the United States over the past 30 years. A lesser-known fact is that he kick-started the Czech New Wave with his affecting and humorous satires of daily life. These films illustrate a thread that appears throughout Formans work—that of rigid political and social systems begging for rebellion. “When I lived in totalitarian regimes, I saw more clearly than you do here how we create institutions to help us—to serve us,” Forman has said. “Why do we always end up being dictated to by these institutions? Like they own us… are paying us to serve them. And thats always the case of rebellions, when people who see this dare to do something about it, from McMurphy to Mozart.”


“BAFTA is the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and every year there is a BAFTA award ceremony held in London, which is kind of the British equivalent of the Oscars. For the 1974 awards, hosted by the always suave David Niven at the Royal Albert Hall, a few of the important winners had to pre-record their acceptance speeches due to filming commitments. One of the deserving winners that night was Jack Nicholson, who won the BAFTA for Best Actor for Chinatown and The Last Detail. As Nicholson was on a set in Salem, Oregon filming Miloš Forman celebrated adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, he sent over what is probably the best ever in absentia acceptance speech in BAFTA history with a little help from Danny DeVito, Louise Fletcher and some of the other inmates.” —Paul Gallagher


Shooting One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Photographed by: Peter Sorel © Archive of Miloš Forman, The Saul Zaentz Company. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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