When Beatle George Met Lady Madonna

Shanghai Surprise should have been a major cash cow for all involved.  On paper it had all of the right ingredients – the newly married Madonna, who was as hot as a new star could be at the time, her husband Sean Penn, who had built his reputation on being both a talented actor and a true bad boy off screen and a Beatle, George Harrison, as the executive producer.  In a way it was a meeting of generations, the ‘60s meets the ‘80s and the hype was magnificent.  However, as with all of the best laid plans, nothing connected with the film went right, or smooth.

Madonna and Penn were, even at this early stage in both their careers and their marriage, extremely media shy.  In fact, media shy does them disserve as they were more anti-media than anyone could remember since Greta Garbo in the 1930s and beyond.  They protected their privacy with a zeal that often exploded into violence and each time that happened the media, as a whole, felt goaded into fighting back in the best way they know how – to intrude upon their privacy.  This was attempted, and often successfully, by sneaking into buildings and locations, snapping photographs against their wishes, theft and outright provoking Penn to attack.  The shots of Penn coming at cameras with his fists clenched while Madonna covered her face in the background became the things of legend.  The more upset the media made Madonna the extreme Penn became and the better the challenge to catch them out became.  The price for candid, non-posed photos went through the roof, and the paparazzi became relentless.  Ultimately Penn and Madonna would divorce in very acrimonious circumstances and it would be reasonable to believe that both blame the media for the bulk of the problems that the couple had.

Shanghai Surprise went into production in 1985 and began shooting in early 1986.  Location work was done in both Asia and London, but sadly the production was dogged by problems, rumours and innuendo, with reports of fights, Penn giving orders to the director, Madonna being petulant, theft of property and more.  The more work that was done, the more intense the media scrutiny and more problems became apparent.  The production was dogged from the beginning when a planned press conference featuring both Madonna and Penn was cancelled at the last minute, resulting in reporters and paparazzi doing their best to try and get exclusives from an otherwise closed set.  By the time production moved to London the pressure, and media contingent, was immense.  Something clearly had to give.

On previous films George Harrisons company HandMade was content to stay in the shadows, quietly funding movies that George wanted to see made, mainly featuring members of the Monty Python team.  Indeed HandMade was formed due to Harrison’s desire to see the Python’s Life Of Brian brought to the screen and film, especially low budget film, was always a safe investment at the time.  In the case of Shanghai Surprise Harrison felt that he needed to take a more hands on approach, and he knew that his presence at any function, or press conference, would be a valuable distraction, especially in the UK.  Madonna clearly felt that she was the star, followed by Penn, but both would soon learn that a Beatle trumped almost anyone, even in the ‘80s, ESPECIALLY in the ‘80s when it came to the normally silent, almost reclusive Beatle George.  Ringo could be found propping up a bar anywhere and Paul McCartney would appear and speak at the opening of a can of Coke, but George, who released his last album five years previous, was living up to his moniker of the Quiet Beatle, choosing to travel the world following the Grand Prix circuit (George would become a familiar sight in Adelaide through the late ’80s and early ’90s), making music when he felt the urge and just hanging out with friends.  Life for George Harrison, in the mid 1980s, was as far removed from Madonna and Sean Penn as it could get, and light years removed from his days as a Beatle.  If there was one thing he neither needed nor desired, it was attention from the media, but he had to protect his investment, so he swung into action.

By all account the first thing Harrison did was to sit both Madonna and Penn down and lay down the law.  Ignoring their complaints of ill treatment he pointed out that, as a Beatle, he had suffered more at the hands of the media than they ever would.  And he was right.  It’s unknown just how much advice Madonna and Penn took to heart, but in an authorised biography of Penn he mentions the conversation as being useful.  The other, more tangible, act that Harrison did was to call for a press conference where he appeared with Madonna.  It was at this press conference that Harrison gave his best, and most lasting, lesson – how to manipulate, deal with, and more, more importantly, how to control the media.  No matter how big Madonna felt she was, Harrison was bigger, and he had more practice.  Whereas Madonna was goaded into response, Harrison deflected the attacks back onto the press contingent.  Where Madonna felt that a sarky response, if any, was required, Harrison side-stepped and gave back as good as he was getting.  Where Madonna would give a terse answer, Harrison gave an explanation and afforded blame elsewhere.  Harrison was knowledgeable and, more importantly, he knew how the system worked, on the other hand there were snickers from the crowd when Madonna mentioned how Harrison wrote Lady Madonna – a song written by Paul McCartney all those years ago. 

If nothing else, the press conference showed Madonna how a professional handled the media and clearly she learnt from the experience, eventually.  In the conference the question was asked, naturally, if Madonna would be featured on the soundtrack – she wasn’t.  That was a shame as a true musical collaboration between Madonna and Beatle George could have been more than interesting – after all, as George pointed out, one of Madonna’s biggest hits to that point was also the name of one of George’s albums.  However the closest George got to working with a contemporary female artist like Madonna was playing guitar on a couple of Belinda Carlise songs, notably lending an achingly haunting slide guitar solo on the song Leave A Light On, a song that is still played on radio.  When asked why he worked with Carlise, George’s widow, Olivia, simply said that he had agreed to work on her album because he loved her voice.  As for Madonna, well, there are those rumours that George, a noted womanizer, actually had an affair with her during the filming of the movie...did they or didn’t they?  We may never know for sure, but we do know that George liked women and women loved bedding Beatles.

Sadly, for all of Harrison’s attempts Shanghai Surprise, a success on paper, was a box office bomb, losing millions for Harrison and ultimately beginning the end of his involvement with film producing.  The press conference remains though, now a historic witness, to a time when icons from two eras came together to fight a common foe.

George Harrison with Madonna
Press Conference for Shanghai Surprise, London, 6 March 1986

George Harrison:  Good afternoon. On behalf of us both and HandMade Films, welcome. I'd like to ask for maybe a bit of order. Whoever wants to ask a question, maybe you could say your name, what newspaper you're from, and also your intentions at the next general election.
Question:  Madonna, what kind of boss is George Harrison and were you a Beatlemaniac?
Madonna:  I wasn't a Beatlemaniac. I don't think I really appreciated their songs until I was much older. I was too young to really get caught up in the craze. But he's a great boss, very understanding and sympathetic.
Question:  What sort of advice has he given you?
Madonna:  I think he's given me more advice on how to deal with the press than how to work in the movie.
Question:  Is it fun working with your husband, Sean Penn?
Madonna:  Of course it is. He's a pro. He's worked on several films and his experience has helped me.
Question:  Has it caused any personal problems off set, do you argue at all?
George:  Do you row with your wife?
Question:  George, is it true you are playing a cameo role in the film?
George:  Well, yes and no, really. There is one scene in a nightclub with a band playing in the background, and because I'm writing the music to the film I decided it would be easier if I was the singer in the band.
Question:  Mr Harrison, are you confident that this film is going to be as successful?
George:  I think so, yeah.
Question:  It seems as though it's a more ambitious film than A Private Function.
George:  Well, it is certainly a larger budget film than A Private Function, but it's totally different to any of the previous films we've made. It's a sort of adventure film, slightly humorous. I think it's actually a very good-looking film. This will be the thing in the end because there has been so much written in the papers that has absolutely nothing to do with what the film is about, and these two people have spent the last couple of months working on this thing.
Question:  George, when you hired Mr Penn, did you think that there would be…let's face it; this film is surrounded by a lot of hype…
George:  Well, you're the people who create the hype, let's not get that wrong.
Question:  What I'm saying is; did you expect the sort of coverage you're getting?
George:  I did expect a certain amount of commotion from the press, but I must admit I overestimated your intelligence.
Question:  George, there's been a lot of reports that you've had to personally separate the warring factions on the set. Do you think this will affect the film adversely, and would you work with Sean Penn again?
George:  Sure. I happen to like Sean very much because I don't see him like you. I see him as an actor who we hired and the role that he plays, and has played in the past - which is one of the reasons we chose him - is of a feisty young guy. That said, he's actually a human being who's very nice, and he's a talented actor. You just have to separate the two things, his job and his ability to do it and the sensationalism because he happened to marry Madonna.
Question:  Why isn't Mr Penn here at this conference?
George:  Because he's busy working.
Madonna:  He's in more scenes than I am.
Question:  Would some of the commotion have been cut down a bit if the original press conference hadn't been cancelled? Isn't this just one of the old Hollywood ways of getting publicity?
George:  The press conference was postponed because after we returned from Hong Kong the schedule had to be reorganised and, let's face it, we're here to make a film, not hold press conferences.
Question:  One of the people from HandMade told me that the reason they cancelled it was that after the scene at the airport they didn't feel like giving the press an even break. Is that true?
George:  Well, maybe that's true as well. I can't speak for whoever said that, you'll have to ask them. The purpose of this is to try and clarify some situation. I can see the attitude written all over your face. There's no actual point in you asking anything because you've already predetermined what it is you're going to say. I'd like to ask if there's anybody who is actually honest. That's what we want, a bit of honesty. Because if you want the truth, you'll get it. But I don't suppose that some people here are actually capable of recognising it when they see it. Question:  George, what do you think of the so-called British film revival? Did you see Letter to Brezhnev and do you have any plans to film in Liverpool?
George:  Well, actually, Letter to Brezhnev resurrected my original belief in the character of the Liverpool people. It's a fantastic example of how someone with no money and no hope can actually get through that. I think it's fabulous. I've not spent a great deal of time in Liverpool over the years, but I'm happy to say the film has revitalised my image of Liverpool people. I think the British Film Year was a good idea, just to try and stimulate more interest from the public. I think to a degree it helped a lot.
Question:  Madonna, will you be singing on the soundtrack at all?
Madonna:  I'm not really thinking about the musical aspects of the movie, I'm just trying to concentrate on the acting.
George:  At this point I'm doing the music. If she wants to she's welcome, but she wasn't hired as a musician.
Question:  Madonna, I wonder if either you or your husband would like to apologise for incidents which have involved bad behaviour on your behalf?
Madonna:  I have nothing to apologise for.
George:  I would add to that. Everything that's been written in the papers has been started by someone in the press, either the photographer that sat on the hood of the car or the woman from the radio station who broke in and also the appalling behaviour of the journalist who actually stole photographs from the continuity woman. So there's nothing to apologise for. I think certain elements of the press should apologise and at the same time I hope that all of them who do have intelligence will recognise that they're not the ones who have made us angry.
Question:  Do you think that situation has been antagonised by the enormous amount of security that's being used?
Madonna:  We don't have an enormous amount of security.
Question:  There is today.
George:  Yes, today. If you had been with us in the car trying to get in here, you'd realise it's like a bunch of animals. Absolute animals. Do you just want us to get torn apart and beaten up? Because that's really what those people are like.
Question:  You must have realised what the British press are like. Do you regret shooting the last few weeks here rather than in the States?
George:  It's a British film. You know, if you like we'll all go to Australia and make our movies there in the future. We'd like to make them in England. We'd like to be reasonable and we'd like you to be reasonable because it doesn't do anyone…I think in a way certain of the press have actually got in the way. You would have achieved more if you had a different attitude.
Question:  But big stars come over here and make films perfectly well.
George:  You know it's you, the press, who decide how big you want the stars to be. Let's face it, stars are actually people, human beings who have become famous for one thing or another and that is usually encouraged by the press to the point where the only thing left to do is to knock them. It's a historical fact and it's unfortunate that she [Madonna] happens to be going through that at this time.
Question:  Surely it was worse in the sixties?
George:  It was worse because it was a new experience to me. But now I don't give a damn what you say about me, because I know who I am and I know what I feel and I know you can't get me any more. The press can't get me. You can write your snide little things about me, but ultimately I'm all right. I know I'm all right. I don't care about those kind of snide remarks. I care about the truth.
Question:  You depend on the media for publicity. Without the publicity no one would go to your films. So what are you standing there saying we're wrong to be here for?
George:  I didn't say you were wrong to be here. I was just making a point: he asked, 'Is it any different from the sixties?' and I said, 'Well, in the sixties it was a new experience for me, but now I've been through so much I've learnt how to deal with it.' I didn't say anything about what you said.
Question:  We have had loads of film stars over here, but have never had these sorts of fights.
Madonna:  When Robert De Niro comes to the airport, are there twenty photographers that sit on his limousine and don't allow him to leave the airport?
George:  Those people, let's face it, are big stars but they're not news.
Question:  But I've never seen scenes like this.
George:  Yes, but it's been created by the press. All those photographers are out there to get as many pictures as they can because they sell them to everybody. They make money out of it and because she's hot they're trying to make as much money as they can.
Question:  But that's why you hired her.
George:  Yes, but we expected non-animals. You're all quite nice now, aren't you?
Question:  Talking of animals, is it true that Sean Penn has been on the set giving orders…
George:  What kind of introduction is that? That doesn’t even deserve an answer.
Question:  What about the incident at the airport?
George:  That was the press jumping all over the car.
Question:  It wasn't the press that were at fault, there were two other people who got involved who were plain clothes detectives and they shouldn't have been involved.
George:  But nevertheless he was trying to jump on the front of the car as it drove away. What do you expect? Whatever the facts, it is still something which doesn't really justify the amount of attention it's been given.
Question:  How do the naked scenes fit into the film?
George:  It's not that kind of movie.
Madonna:  There are no naked women in the movie.
George:  Lots of naked men, though!
Question:  Madonna, do you care what's said about you in the press?
Madonna:  I think what George meant was he doesn't feel it any more when bad things are written about him.
George:  I don't particularly want you to say more nasty things, but I've learnt not to read them. It's just water off a duck's back. Otherwise we would all be ulcerated, wouldn't we? The sad thing is that people have got brains in their heads and maybe we should just try and use some of the other cells in our brains rather than the ones that are just to do with all this sensational stuff.
Question:  What's your favourite scene in the movie?
George:  I like it when she kills the monster from outer space!
Question:  What state of production are the other current HandMade titles in?
George:  We've got a number of films in the making, because we've been able to break even, or have been able to come up with the funding for certain films. Some of them are scripts that are being worked on. Others are in the casting stage. For instance, there's a film called Travelling Men, which has been in pre-production for a number of years.
Question:  When did you first become aware of Madonna?
George:  I don't know. A couple of years ago…
Madonna:  When he wrote 'Lady Madonna'.
Question:  Were you aware of her records?
George:  Sure, I was aware of her with all the TV, videos and stuff. The first time I heard her was on the radio when I heard her singing something about 'Living in the Material World'.
Question:  Madonna, I hear your management contract is up for sale. And George, would you like to buy it?
Madonna:  You're a little troublemaker, aren't you!
Question:  Was this film written for Madonna and Sean Penn?
George:  It wasn't. It was taken from a book called Farraday's Flowers and the producer wrote the screenplay. We talked about various possibilities for casting and someone suggested Madonna. Apart from the fact that everyone knew she was a famous singer, if you saw Desperately Seeking Susan you know even Barry Norman agrees that there was some potential there. She got the screenplay, and Sean Penn, who had also worked with John Combs, the producer, on a couple of other films, read the screenplay and said that he would do it too. It was quite a coincidental thing. It wasn't any sort of huge plot to get these newlywed people; I don't think they had even got married then. In a commercial sense, it was obviously good to have her in it because it's better than having someone nobody has ever heard of. But the rest of it was just luck. But I mean; lots of our films do have people no one's ever heard of. It's not any policy.
Question:  How many actresses had you seen for the part?
George:  I'm not too sure of that. I wasn't in the country at the time. There were obviously other considerations; I know there were for Sean's part. But there's no point in me giving you a list of people who I thought would play the part well.
Question:  What are your responsibilities as Executive Producer?
George:  Well, really, the part I've played in the past was to provide the film unit with the money, and apart from that, if there's any comment I would like to make on the screenplay or the casting. It varies from film to film. Some films I have very little to do with and others, like this one, I have a lot to do with. But there's no other way around it on this one because originally I was just going to do the music, but I got dragged in much more than I would have normally. Usually I tend to like a low-profile existence and it's been years since I got involved in the newspapers like this.
Question:  George, are you happy with the progress of the film despite any difficulties you've had?
George:  Whatever difficulties there have been are all behind us. I hope this press conference will help us to calm things down a little. I'm very pleased with what I'm seeing on the screen, which is the main thing. That's all I want, to get them to be able to complete shooting with the least problems.
Question:  Is it true that there have been problems between director Jim Godard and Sean Penn?
Madonna:  No, it's not true.
George:  No more than in any other film, you know. Every film has discussions and debates as to how it should proceed.
Question:  Do you tell the director to change camera angles?
Madonna:  I don't tell anyone anything and neither does Sean.
George:  I think most people look through the camera, because when you're on the other side it's handy to know what is actually in and out of shot.
Question:  Did you say it's been a great many years since you held a press conference?
George:  Me personally, yeah. I think 1974 was the last time I did anything like this. I just do gardening, you know. I like a nice quiet life.
Question:  Despite it all, Madonna, are you happy?
Madonna:  I am.
George:  That's about it, thank you.
Madonna:  We're not such a bad bunch of people, are we? Bye.


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