American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
It was a director's nightmare. Two film versions of the same story were being made at the same time. Both came from Les Liaisons Dangereuses, an 18th century novel of sexual intrigue. This was not good news for Milos Forman, whose version was not based on the modern theatrical success, did not have a screenplay written by the playwright of the stage hit and did not star such big names as Glenn Close and Michele Pfeiffer.
The Warner Bros./Lorimar version, directed by Stephen Frears and named "Dangerous Liaisons," would be the first one into theaters, in December, 1988. Despite its star cast, it was made for the relatively modest budget of about $15 million. Forman's Orion Pictures version, named "Valmont," would cost $35 million - with the extra money mostly going for elaborate sets, costumes and location shooting. It would not be ready for another year. Would it be canceled?
"We were in the middle of our script already when they announced their version, based on the play," Milos Forman was remembering the other day. "Of course we immediately learned they were rushing into it very fast. With the concept I had, we all knew I couldn't be faster. We couldn't beat them. So, I was expecting a call from the producers saying, 'Sorry, Milos, we can't take the risk.' The call came. They asked me, 'Does it really bother you that another film is going to be made?' I said of course not. And I felt like, god, Hollywood is still crazy. That's good."
So Forman went ahead with his version of the story, filming on location in France and on elaborate interior and exterior sets that could not be rushed. Perhaps his producers were not taking that big a gamble: Forman, a director from Czechoslovakia who has been making films in the West for 20 years, has one of the best track records in the film business. His credits include "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus," both winners of the Academy Award as the year's best picture.