Supernatural simplified

Making sense of fantastical things

Published: Dec 23 2018, 01:01:am

Thursday, April 17, 1980

PETER MEDAK WAS LOOKING for a good ghost story. When producer Joel Michaels sent him the script of an occult thriller called Chessman Park, the Hungarian-born director knew that he had found one.
    He also knew that before the picture, currently on view [1980] as The Changeling, could be filmed, there would have to be some changes made.
    “There were many fantastical things in it that just didn't make sense,” Medak told me Tuesday afternoon. In an early draft, the script featured such outlandish items as nails shooting from the floorboards of a haunted house, blood oozing from its keyholes and a final scene in which the building, having just burned down, seems to rise from its own ashes in an act of supernatural regeneration.
    "Just ridiculous.'' he says. The movie that he made, a supernatural detective story starring George C. Scott as a reluctant ghost hunter, eliminated obvious sensationalism in favour of slow-building psychological terror.
    It’s not that Medak (pronounced “MEH-dack”) is afraid of fantasy. Indeed, all of his previous theatrical features have been concerned in one way or another with realities-beyond-reality.
    Negatives, made in 1967, examined an erotic triangle in which the participants have to slip into elaborate alternate personalities before they can slip into bed. Glenda Jackson played a lady involved with men who make love emotionally disguised as the killer Crippen and the flying ace Baron Manfred von Richthofen.
    Alan Bates and Janet Suzman starred in Medak's most powerful film, 1970's A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. They are seen as the parents of a spastic child coping with an unbearable reality with poignant, personal fantasies.
    The Ruling Class (1972), perhaps his best known picture, is a brash social satire that features Peter O'Toole as an unhinged English nobleman. Not satisfied with being the 14th Earl of Gurney, O'Toole’s character convinces himself that he is Jesus Christ.
    Common to all of these Medak projects are characters responsible for the creation of their own fantasies. Deliberately manufactured, their illusions spring from either the heart or the mind. None is the result of a special effects crew working up a cheap shock.
    Confronted with The Changeling, “I simplified it to make it more believable for me. It was a logic thing. One irons out things for one's own sake.”
    Pure physical practicality dictated another set of changes. In its original form, the story was set in Boston.
    A Canadian project, it would have been shot in Toronto, except for the fact that in December and January “Toronto is covered in snow. Shooting this picture there would have been out of the question.”
    Because the film was shot in Vancouver, the setting of the story was switched to Seattle. One local feature that is particularly attractive to professional filmmakers is our movie studio.
    Panorama Studios are “similar to Twickenham in London,” Medak says. “They are both small and very personal. A nice place to make a film on your own stages.”
    Medak, 42, the son of a Budapest textile manufacturer, left Hungary during the 1956 revolution. "I did not partake in the revolution,” he says, because he was convinced that "nothing would come of it.”
    Medak fled Hungary because "for as long as I could remember, I always wanted to leave.” He knew that advancement for the son of a “so-called capitalist'' would be impossible.
    “My father had had a small factory. In 1948, he was convicted of being an American spy and sentenced to death. “
    In 1953, the elder Medak was released. His case had come before a senior secret-police official, a man who had once worked for him. The official examined Medak Sr.'s papers and was moved to repay a remembered kindness with a kindness of his own.
    “My father once told me that the people who had interrogated him when they were Nazis were the same people who now interrogated him as Communists.”
    Medak recalls that "I always wanted to make movies.” In England, he became involved in film and TV series production.
    “One daydreams an awful lot,” he says. "If I  had not been able to do that,” I couldn't face day-to-day life in Hungary.”
    Currently [1980], he has an interest in two different scripts, and hopes to develop a project for each of them. One, called Dolls, "is a total fantasy, a rock musical happening about the world of high fashion.”
    The other, a more personal project, is called Night Flight. Based on an idea by Medak, it is ''a love story'' about a couple who meet on a transatlantic airliner four years after breaking up.
    “They are still desperately in love,” Medak says. "The film tells their story in flashback.”
    From his Bayshore Inn suite, Medak looks across the inlet towards Hollyburn Mountain and Panorama Studios. "Vancouver is like Lake Como in Italy, the Greek Islands, America and a bit of England all mixed together.
      “I love the little studio on top of that hill,” he says. "I'd like to make my love story here. ''

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1980. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: In the career summary of most successful filmmakers there remain a number of “unrealized projects.” As far as I can tell, neither Night Flight nor Dolls, the scripts Peter Medak was considering in 1980, ever reached the screen. Nor did he ever return to "the little studio on top of that hill.” By the time of his next visit to Vancouver — in 2006 to direct an episode of the TV series Masters of Horror called The Washingtonians — Panorama Studios were long gone, torn down in the mid-1980s to make way for a residential development.   
    During more than 50 years behind the camera, Medak regularly moved between Britain and the U.S., working on both television and theatrical films. Particularly memorable were 1990’s The Krays and Let Him Have It (1991), two London-based crime dramas based on true stories. Interestingly, his most recent film, a 2018 feature documentary called The Ghost of Peter Sellers, recalls an unreleased Medak project from 1973, a comedy called Ghost in the Noonday Sun. Still working at 81, he is currently developing a film noir-style drama called Fallen Moon.