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He makes movies with a 'luxurious look'

By David Sterrit / April 9, 1980

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. . . ."

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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.