Friday evening, July 31, the Egyptian Theater featured a very special appearance by Hungarian-born director Peter Medak. Following a special screening of his cult thriller The Changeling, part of the American Cinematheque’s “80’s New Wave Horror” week, Medak took some time to sit down and chat with a near-full house of movie goers.
Medak’s best known film, The Changeling stars George C. Scott as an emotionally scarred man who moves into a historic Seattle mansion after witnessing the death of his wife and daughter in a car accident. Uncertain if he is dealing with anxiety and grief or paranormal activity (following some strange events), Scott’s character starts to piece together a grisly storyline of his new home’s dark past.
The discussion commenced with Medak thanking the audience for their attendance, followed by a unprompted statement that he personally is a strong believer in ghosts and spiritual presences. Stating that he actually had first-hand experiences in his lifetime, he quickly transitioned into the first question, regarding how the film had come to be. “I was approached about the project while living in England,” he began, “I read the script and was absolutely petrified.” He further explained “It’s great to make movies about ghosts - who doesn’t love a good ghost story or psychological thriller?” He noted that Scott had a unusual idea for the film's aesthetic: “George C. Scott originally wanted this thriller to be in black and white,” he recalls, “but that idea ended up being scratched by the producers during a dinner we had at George's house in Connecticut.”
When asked about his directorial influences in making such an eerie film, Peter was quick to explain that many of his concepts were inspired by legendary director Alfred Hitchcock. He pinpoints the Hitchcock influence when “planning the camera angles and staircase scenes. They were shot in 40mm to show the size and depth of the house.” In referring to Hitchcock’s style, Peter also explained how “planning shocks in a film is a very difficult task; it’s like measuring poison - it has to be done very carefully.” Explaining further about the house itself, “both the interior and exterior of the house were actually built for the film—they weren’t in any actual location. The interior was so tall; it barely fit on a soundstage. There was probably less than 5 inches from the end of the set to the roof of the stage,” he recalls. Another theme Medak referenced for inspiration were his fears as a child. “You bring your own life into every movie you make, and The Changeling is no exception.”
In a later question regarding his work with actor George C. Scott, Peter recalled how fond of the actor he has become over the years. “Sometimes some of the best scenes with George were him simply turning off a light.” Peter also made further reference to his enjoyment of a particular scene in the film where “George’s cigarette perfectly loses a piece of ash in unison of the sound recording that is being replayed of the séance.” Reflecting back on the filming of that particular scene, he continues, “Something about it was just perfect.”
When asked by an audience member about the chilling concept behind the rubber ball continually returning to haunt the protagonist (even after being thrown off a bridge in one scene), Peter explains, “When a good script comes to you, it just happens naturally. You don’t plan on certain scenes being a ‘special scene.'” However, he expressed the collaborative effort in working with George C. Scott to “put every emotion of the entire movie into this one scene of a ball being thrown into a river.”
Upon being asked by a viewer about any upcoming horror productions, Peter revealed that “while I do have one horror project in the works, I will not making something I do not love. Ninety percent of my projects die.” The director is not limited to horror; he has plenty of experience with other genres as well. “I didn’t want to be categorized into one slot,” he says, when discussing the typecasting that even happens to directors. He explains that “before The Changeling, I was approached by Metro-Goldywn-Mayer to do a film called Demon Seed [later directed by Donald Cammell], but I walked out after reading the script because I simply didn’t want to do it.”
Wrapping up the discussion, Peter once again expressed his sincerest gratitude to his fans, in stating that “even 35 years later, I am so thrilled to see and meet fans of my film. It is something I am very proud of.” Referencing a previous trip to the historic Egyptian Theater, he recalls sitting next to long-time friend Tony Curtis for a special screening of Some Like It Hot (in which Curtis stars). Following a small chuckle, he remembers an elderly Curtis frequently tapping his arm during the film and whispering “this next scene is really funny.” Undoubtedly, the appreciation between director and viewer was very mutual in this week’s guest appearance.
- Jared Thompson