New York — "I enjoy the suspense of creating a frightening story out of nothing," says filmmaker Peter Medak. "But not in a gruesome way -- rather, in an imaginative way. You wonder what's around the corner or upstairs. This subtle way of doing it is much more effective. . . ."
Originally, the screenplay for "The Changeling," starring George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, and Melvyn Douglas, had a lot of shock effects. "It wasn't bloody," says Medak, "but it was gimmicky. The only way I could make the movie was to change it -- to make it very clean and classical."
The hero of "The Changeling" is a famous composer who moves into an old house and finds it is "haunted" by a boy who was murdered there long ago. Tracing the history of this crime, he becomes involved with an elderly senator who has sinister secrets of his own.
The tale is told with unusual restraint, involving virtually no on-screen violence. Yet it builds a surprisingly menacing atmosphere, recalling the days of such Val Lewton fantasies as "The Seventh Victim" and "The Cat People," where the frights were generated almost entirely off the screen, in the imagination of the viewer.
With his yen for such stories, Medak sought a filmable one for about four years before stumbling on "The Changeling." He pored over fantasy classics at the library, but found that the best ones ran on for hundreds of pages, relying on a cumulative effect to build a frightening feeling. "There was no way to compress these stories," he recalls.
The "Changeling" script had the old-fashioned tone that he wanted. But even then, he insisted that a haunted house be built to order for the film. "Most of all," he says with a smile, "I wanted that spooky staircase. You must have one of those in a ghost story. It's part of the form -- like every western must have a western town. Nowadays, ghost movies are always done for shocks, to do a quick business and make a fortune. But I wouldn't do the film under those circumstances. I wanted to film very carefully in that house and on that staircase. It had to be very stylized and classical."
It also had to be elegant. Medak likes movies to have a luxurious look. "Maybe it's snobbishness," he admits, "but I'd rather make films about well-off people. I like to put the audience in an environment where they feel good, no matter what the story is, or take the audience to parts of the world where they would never go. I like to show nice cars, and I loved showing Melvyn Douglas getting into a private Lear jet. I like to make the audience feel good. That makes me feel good."
Summing it up, Medak says, "I like stuff that's larger than life. This may be ridiculous. But if you look at it that way, the whole thing is ridiculous. So we might as well watch it in a beautiful old house where I can get great shots. . . ."
Medak left his native Hungary during the 1956 uprising. He began his film career as a trainee in England, working at such lower-echelon jobs as assistant editor and second-unit director. After a few years in Hollywood doing TV work, he returned to England and started moving up the professional ladder.
He directed his first feature, "Negatives" with Glenda Jackson, in 1967. His most famous film is "The Ruling Class" with Peter O'Toole. He has also directed movies and episodes for American television, and staged a theatrical production of Strindberg's "Miss Julie" with Richard Dreyfuss. He now lives in Los Angeles with his actress wife and four children. His next film will be a love story called "Evening Flight," based on his own story idea.
Medak feels that directing is a special and demanding art. He is vastly skeptical of the feeling that writers and actors and producers can become directors at the drop of a Hollywood hat.
"You can't just walk in and pick it up," he says about his art. "I've been in the business for 24 years. I didn't start directing until 12 of those years had passed. And even after all that training, you must do several films before you really know what you're doing."
The most important thing is "learning to cope with yourself under difficult circumstances. You must know how to behave when everything goes wrong and 100 people are staring at you, inlcuding Georde C. Scott. In a situation like that, it's easy to look for an easy solution to the problem, and sell youself out. But even the smallest shot can count later on. It can even mess up the whole movie. It's a cliche, but it's true: Each shot is as important as the whole film. That's all a movie is -- bits and pieces that add up to something big."
Thus the director's character and personality are crucial to his success. "You can learn about life only from growing up and growing older, and doing the same thing many times, and discovering what you want to make films about -- what you're obsessed with. Few directors have vision. And few directors know how to express their vision."
Medak grants that "The Changeling" is not exactly a "personal" film for him. It's a commercial project, with a pre-existing script and big movie stars in the leading roles. But a director can't be toom choosy about his projects. In a period of five years, Medak walked away from four films that were almost ready to begin shooting, because circumstances weren't exactly the way he wanted. In the meantime, cherished "personal" projects proved difficult to finance. After a while, "talk" started in the industry -- "talk" about Medak being all washed up. He felt he must start working again to show that he was still very much around.
Even now, however, Medak insists on a certain rapport with a project, however "commercial" it may be. "The Changeling" contains key scenes that enabled Medak to "sympathize" with the hero. Even more important, there are "tiny places where I could pour myself into the film. Maybe you can't tell from the outside, but those tiny touches -- the way he listens to his tape recorder, or the way the chairs are arranged -- add up to make the film better than it would have been. "Once I say yes to a project, I must lay down my own laws and have the details the way I want them. There must be things in the film I can dream of at night so I know what I want to do in the morning. You must occupy your fantasy, or you're dead."
The final goal -- conventional as it may sound -- is "to please the public and the critics." When a movie is completed, says Medak, "you hope that whatever you made it about is applicable to the outside world. You hope the film will be liked and embraced. There's no point in making movies that nobody sees. You'd be very unhappy to make a marvelous picture that is only shown in your bedroom. The final kick of filmmaking is to see the movie playing in theaters, and people going crazy for it. . . ."