Goya’s Ghosts: Milos Forman’s Ghosts

The idea to make a film about the great Spanish painter Francisco de Goya and the Spanish Inquisition first occurred to Milos Forman more than 50 years ago when he was a student in Communist Czechoslovakia.

The Idea

It didnt really start with Goya at all, Forman recalls. It started when I was in film school and read a book about the Spanish Inquisition and an incident in which someone had been falsely accused of a crime. I thought this could be the heart of a wonderful story. There were a great many parallels between the Communist society we lived under and the Spanish Inquisition. I knew, of course, a story like this could never be done in Czechoslovakia because of such similarities. So I forgot about it. For the time being.

But good ideas dont die even if they fade away temporarily. They endure in the recesses of the mind, and this idea was no exception. Thirty years later it resurfaced, not surprisingly in Madrid, where Forman and independent producer Saul Zaentz were promoting “Amadeus,” their second Academy Award winning collaboration that followed nearly ten years after their first triumph, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Goya’s Paintings

Milos and I were staying across the street from the Prado Museum in Madrid, when he remarked to me he had never seen the famous Hieronymus Bosch painting Garden of Earthly Delights, one of the Prados greatest holdings, Zaentz remembers. But the Prado holds many other masterpieces, including the greatest collection of Goya paintings, and we looked at those. Wed seen them, but never live, in person. They were marvelous. One struck us, the painting of a dog. When you see it reproduced in a book you imagine it must be movie-screen size because its so wonderfully done. In person, you discover its not big at all, maybe a meter and a half, but youre not disappointed. The dog is very touching and you carry the image with you.

Goya fascinated Forman. I was overwhelmed by his paintings and couldnt stop thinking about him, he says. I was convinced Goya was the first modern painter. More than ever I wanted to make a picture about him.

During the Prado visit, Forman related to Zaentz the incident about the Inquisition he had read so many years before, and he discussed his idea of making a film that dealt with the Inquisition in combination with Goya. Zaentz understood it could be a wonderful movie. But I told him it was necessary to come up with a story that could support the idea, a story we had both confidence in and were passionate about in order for us to move ahead, the producer said. Forman agreed.

Jean-Claude Carriere

As time went by, producer and director continued to talk over the idea for the film, and even considered a particular writer to draft a screenplay. But, in fact, Forman had a favored collaborator in mind, the renowned screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, with whom both he and Zaentz had worked successfully in the past. Jean-Claude is like a spiritual brother to me, the director says.

Forman and Carriere first met forty years ago in 1966 at a film festival in Sorrento, Italy. By then, Forman had directed several features, including BLACK PETER and LOVES OF A BLONDE, and Carriere had collaborated with the great Spanish director Luis Bunuel on the screenplay for DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID, and with Louis Malle on the script for VIVA MARIA.

Forman and Carriere stayed friends after Forman left Czechoslovakia, and throughout several collaborations (TAKING OFF, VALMONT). Over the years they were always in contact. Yes, I was intrigued by Miloss idea–well I wouldnt call it an idea–it was, rather, a desire to do a film not exactly about Goya, but about Spain during Goyas time, Carriere says. And Goya would enter into the story naturally because it was the time period in which he lived, a turbulent period.

This is a very interesting time frame. The end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th is probably one of the most important periods in European history because of the French Revolution and the advent of Napoleon. France was the center of Europe at the time and its interesting to see all the consequences of what was happening there, and how they affected Spain, especially once Napoleon invaded the country. Spain at the end of the 18th century was probably, despite a certain modernity, the most backwards nation in western Europe. It was Catholic, conservative, ruled by a monarchy whose King belonged to the same family as the French King. The works of the great 18th century philosophers and the Enlightenment had almost no influence there. The Inquisition was still in operation, still capable of inflicting terrible damage on the populace. Milos was fascinated by the era, and the Inquisition.

Historical Paradoxes and Changes

What was so attractive for me about this particular period, Forman says, was, with so many paradoxes and so many changes going on, it reflected the times I had lived through, first a democratic society, then the Nazi society, then the communists, then democratic again, and then the communists again and then democracy once more.

And thats very similar to what the situation was in Spain at the beginning of the 19th century. King Carlos represents the old guard when suddenly Napoleon invades and brings progress, the ideals and values of the French Revolution. But what is that It reminded me of the time in my own life when the Soviets brought liberty to Czechoslovakia. Instead of real liberation in Spain, Napoleon installs his brother on the Spanish throne until the British, under Wellington, invade, chase out the French and restore the repressive Spanish monarchy. Very interesting period.

Goya as Witness

Carriere and Forman were convinced that Goya was the perfect figure though which to tell the story of those times. Goya was born long before the French Revolution and died long after. I dont think Goya was politically involved consciously. He was just an incredible observer, like a journalist, Forman says.

He was commenting, recording what he witnessed. As he says in the film, I paint what I see. Carriere says, Goya painted the kings and queens of Spain, their children, the whole family, and was admitted inside the Royal Palace, also painting the people at court. But at the same time he knew about ordinary life. He walked the streets, went to the taverns and he did sketches and engravings, many of which, Los Caprichios and the Disasters of War are so famous, and rightly so. He even did a portrait of one of the Inquisitors, and also the brother of Napoleon who was installed on the Spanish throne, as well as ordinary citizens and soldiers. He understood the heart of everyone.

In terms of the film they wanted to make, Forman, Zaentz and Carriere understood that a simple Goya bio-pic or a didactic depiction of the Inquisition would not work. What was wanted was a fresh approach, and the filmmakers continued to mull over the project, steeping themselves in the history of Spain, concentrating on the period, reading everything they could find on Goya and the Inquisition. Forman and Carriere, who speaks Spanish and knows the country, even spent several weeks driving around the Spanish countryside, making a second trip with Saul Zaentz, trying to deepen their understanding of the country and its culture.

The Screenplay

In 2003, nearly 20 years since Forman and Zaentz first discussed their idea in the Prado, the filmmakers got down to work on the Goya project in earnest. Forman and Carriere retreated to Formans home in Connecticut which provided the proper solitude and discipline for writing and, working ten hours a day, were able to come up with a first draft of a script.

One characteristic of Goya which Milos and I felt fit our purpose was his commitment to his art, Carriere says. Hed paint anyone, an inquisition minister, or the Duke of Wellington who freed the Spanish from the French. He was basically apolitical. He didnt want to be involved in politics, in action, in social improvement. He just wanted to paint.

Brother Lorenzo

We thought it would be interesting in the film to oppose this character of Goya with another man who is his acquaintance, his opposite in temperament and philosophy, an intelligent man who is devoted to changing the world and very much involved in the political movements of his time. And this man, Brother Lorenzo, became the main character of the film, a priest of the Inquisition, an Inquisitor himself who fanatically believes in building a better and more human world based on the teachings of Jesus.

He believes that the moral decline of Spain is due to the fact that the Inquisition has lost its severity in the guarding of those teachings. He wants to revive the power of the Inquisition and restore it to its original force and influence. At the same time, hes learning about tendencies making their way into Spain from revolutionary France which contradict prevailing religious doctrine because they are trying to establish the principle of man as the creator of his own destiny based on the philosophy–liberty, equality, fraternity.

Inez Bilbatua

The third principal character in the story is a woman acquainted with both men, Ines Bilbatua. She starts out in the story as Goyas teenage muse but later becomes involved with Brother Lorenzo when the Inquisitor becomes her only hope of fighting the accusation of heresy against her.

Ines is a young Spanish girl from a well-known family. Her father is a wealthy merchant, and the Bilbatuas are good Christians, Carriere says. But because one night when shes out with her brothers and friends in a public tavern, shes spotted by Familiares who spy for the church and suspect her of hiding Jewish practices. This sets the story going because the innocent young woman is called up before the Inquisition and questioned. And then the horrors begin.


Forman and Carriere, with Zaentzs guidance and encouragement, worked intensely on several drafts of a screenplay before they completed a script that met everyones approval. Once this was accomplished, Zaentz arranged the financing and gave the go-ahead to make the film. Pre-production began with the filmmakers moving forward on two fronts: they began the process of choosing locations, and also started to assemble a cast.

Director, producer and writer were of one mind on each of these issues. As for locations, each man believed it was essential for the spirit of the film and for its authenticity that “Goya’s Ghosts” be made on location in Spain, with as many Spanish actors and crew members as possible. Forman and Zaentzs previous collaborations were all made on location. This film would be no exception.

With this in mind, long-time Milos Forman collaborator, production designer
Patrizia Von Brandenstein, Oscar winner for her work on “Amadeus,” was brought in to discuss Spanish locations. Von Brandenstein had worked with a local production company in Spain several years earlier that she believed could help find the proper places to shoot and to set up facilities for making the film there.

Producer Zaentz was acquainted with the very same organization, having produced his animated version of “Lord of the Rings” with them in Spain in 1978. The head of the company, now called KanZaman, was an English-born production executive who had been living and working in Spain for many years, Denise ODell. Zaentz traveled to Spain to meet ODell and discuss the Goya project with her and KanZaman co-director Mark Albela.

I was thrilled when I heard from Saul about the project, ODell says. Here were two legends of cinema planning to come to Spain to make a film, Zaentz and Forman. I was so eager to become involved. And then when we met and they told me that they werent interested in bringing a big crew from abroad but were interested in using Spanish talent, well that for me was just wonderful because its been what weve been trying to do for years.

Javier Bardem

With KanZaman on board, and location scouts being arranged and organized, Forman and Zaentz addressed the crucial task of casting. From the start Forman and Zaentz were eager to have Javier Bardem appear in the film, convinced he would be perfect for the role of Goya. Bardem, who was nominated for an Oscar in 2002 for his role as the Cuban poet, novelist and dissident Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabels “Before Night Falls,” is one of Spains most popular, charismatic and accomplished young actors.

Javier is definitely without question one of the major screen actors working today, Zaentz says. In the beginning, we pictured him as Goya, and we made plans to meet in the Ritz Hotel across from the Prado. We were thrilled to see him in the lobby, even happier when he walked up and said, I want to make a movie with you guys! I put my hand out quickly and said, We want to make a picture with you. Bardem recalls the incident with pleasure.

When my agent called and said Milos Forman and Saul Zaentz wanted to meet me I thought it was a joke at first. But when I met them I understood it was real, and I was thrilled. And of course, because Im Spanish, I assumed Id be playing the role of Goya. It seemed the natural thing. Unknown to Bardem, the conception of the character of Goya was changing in the script. The fictional character Lorenzo, not Goya, had emerged now as the films protagonist.

We all understood after many discussions that our story wouldnt work with Goya as the main character, Zaentz says. He was all important and crucial to the story. But he wasnt the main protagonist. Father Lorenzo was the role he and Forman wanted Javier Bardem to play.

When several days later Javier asked us how the film was going, we told him something had come up that was going to affect his part but not do anything at all to the impact he would make in the film, Zaentz says. He was intrigued. But instead of overexplaining what we wanted, we said we would send him the completed script so he could see for himself the changes and understand the logic of why we thought he should play Father Lorenzo.

Within hours of reading the script, Bardem phoned Forman and Zaentz with his reaction. Lorenzo has my heart, he said, and he agreed to play the role. The role of Lorenzo fascinated the actor. I understand its a challenge not to be playing the character people expect. Its an even greater challenge playing Lorenzo. Hes a man of hard and strong beliefs. I would call him a fanatic. But hes not a villain, not a mad guy, just a man of passion, sometimes uncontrollable.

Casting the role of Goya came next and presented the filmmakers with a particular challenge: Forman believed that the actor who was going to play Goya needed one attribute above all. I didnt want the actor playing Goya to be someone recognizable, the director says. For the fictitious characters, Lorenzo, Ines, it didnt matter to me if a famous face fills the role. But Goya, Goya will come out of nowhere. Unexpected. We shouldnt recognize him from anywhere else.

Stellan Skarsgaard

I remember that Milos and I were returning from Europe to America by plane, Zaentz says. Milos was watching a movie, not a good one, one of the Exorcist installments, when he turned to me and said, Theres our Goya. And I said, Where Milos pointed to the screen and to Stellan Skarsgard who was a lead in the film. I know him, I told Milos. He had a role in THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING which I produced. I thought it was a great idea. A Swede, Stellan Skarsgard is best known to US audiences for his roles in GOOD WILL HUNTING and BREAKING THE WAVES, but he is definitely not a household name.

Skarsgard is the kind of actor you remember not as Stellan Skarsgard but as the character he plays in each particular film, Zaentz says. Hes a marvelous actor. Skarsgard was delighted to be approached for the part. Im physically different from Goya, Skarsgard says. But of course its not Goya as he was in real life that were depicting. This is fiction film.

Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman, Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee for Mike Nichols CLOSER, was cast in the role of Ines Bilbatua, Goyas youthful muse. Strange to say, Forman wanted the young star for the role without knowing exactly who she was.

I didnt know Natalie Portman at all, Forman says. I had bought a copy of Vogue or a similar fashion magazine and was reading it to relax when I was struck by the photo of the young woman on the cover who turned out to be Natalie. And as Im looking at it, I open a book about Goyas last painting in Bordeaux called A Milkmaid in Bordeaux, and I see they are the same face.

So I started to make inquiries about the qualities of this actress and I saw how
much people like her. And then I saw the film CLOSER and saw how good she is and knew that I wanted her. Her range is amazing, big, surprising, and that was very important here. Basically she plays three different characters in the film.

When I went to Paris to meet with Milos and Jean-Claude, I was surprised to discover that they wanted me in the film at first not because theyd seen my work but because the saw a photo of me and decided I looked like a young woman in some of the paintings, Portman says.

I was interested and intrigued to meet them, and a little intimated, too, because I love Miloss films. I was ready to read or test for the role, whatever they wanted. When they offered the part I was very excited. Ines figures in a part of history I never knew about. It was something terribly different from what Id done before.

Rest of Cast

Randy Quaid, who recently appeared in Ang Lees Academy Award winning “Brokeback Mountain,” co-stars as King Carlos IV of Spain.

The distinguished French/English actor Michael Lonsdale was signed to play the role of the Grand Inquisitor. Lonsdales notable career includes films by Fred Zinnemann (“Day of the Jackal”), Francois Truffaut (“Stolen Kisses”), Louis Malle (“Murmer of the Heart”), and most recently Steven Spielberg (“Munich”.

Other key roles were filled by some of Spains most gifted actors, including Jose Luis Gomez (THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY), Mabel Rivera (“Sea Inside”), Raymond Guerra, Blanca Portilla (“Volver”), Unax Ugalde, and many others.