George Harrison hated the material world, but Madonna, the material girl, loved it. Yet, somehow, the two vastly different artists worked on a project together in 1986. George’s production company, HandMade Films, decided to produce Shanghai Surprise. They almost scrapped it until Madonna and her then-husband Sean Penn signed on.
HandMade Films proceeded to make the flop but shouldn’t have.
‘Shanghai Surprise’ was doomed from the start
In a 1988 interview, Film Comment asked George why he and HandMade Films agreed to make Shanghai Surprise. The film had a $15 million budget and a “temperamental, high-profile husband-and-wife team.”
The then-newlyweds played love interests, Glendon Wasey and Gloria Tatlock. Set in 1938, Shanghai Surprise follows a failed salesman (Penn) as he helps a missionary nurse (Madonna) obtain opium to ease her patient’s pain.
“I was dubious from the first,” George replied. “I get afraid by things like that. And a lot of others at HandMade didn’t want to make that film. Denis himself was just a couple of days away from just shelving the whole thing when suddenly the producer informed us that Madonna and Sean had agreed to be in it.
“At that time, it sounded like a good idea. But when we went ahead with it, it proved to be very painful for most of the people involved—the technicians as much as anyone, because of the attitudes of the actors.
“It was like ‘Springtime for Hitler’ in The Producers: we got the wrong actors, the wrong producer, the wrong director. Where… did… we… go… right??? It wasn’t easy, but I was determined not to let it get me depressed.”
George once said that Shanghai Surprise was “doomed” from the start. For George, working with Penn and Madonna was a headache.
“The stars’ behaviour, particularly Penn who hated the press intrusion and perhaps felt he had been convinced to appear in the film as a favour to his new wife, grew ever more tempestuous,” Yahoo! News wrote. During filming, Penn punched a photographer, bashed a window in, and made the director fire and replace Bernard Hill.
George tried straightening things out, but it didn’t help. Then, George had to defend Penn and Madonna at a press conference for the film.
George Harrison said Madonna needed ‘500 milligrams of LSD’
In an interview with Creem Magazine, George joked that Penn and Madonna “were really helpful on that movie.”
However, George said he liked Penn and his work, but getting a performance out of him was hard when he was pissed off. Meanwhile, he said he thought Madonna was nice, but she didn’t have a sense of humor.
Creem said it was ironic that George had to defend the volatile couple against the press. George had experienced the media for years with The Beatles. It was a hundred times worse than what Penn and Madonna had experienced on the set of Shanghai Surprise.
George explained that The Beatles should’ve been an example to all pop stars. Whenever someone in the group “would start getting snooty or big ‘eaded we’d just broadside him,” George said. The Beatles looked after one another and remained humble.
However, pop stars like Madonna didn’t look at what happened to the group and learn from it. They “suddenly start thinking they’re God’s gift to man kind, when really all they are is silly pop stars. There’s much more to life than just being a famous pop star. Unfortunately, a lot them fall into the trap,” George said.
“They get surrounded by people saying how great they are, all these sycophants who surround them. And unfortunately, she has got all that going and she’s fallen for it. But I think she has the ability to be a really nice person–you have to see it from the other side, which I can see too, which is that the pressure you’re under when you are fab is tremendous.
“It sometimes does get you crazy when you can’t write and can’t do this when everybody’s bugging you and shooting cameras in your face. So I sympathize from that point of view, too. But what she needs is just 500 milligrams of LSD (laughs).”
George gave Madonna advice on how to deal with paparazzi
The former Beatle might have suggested the pop singer take some LSD because of his own experiences with the hallucinogen. The first time George took LSD, he said it opened his mind. He was in love with everything around him. It scrambled his mind but opened a door for him where suddenly nothing about being a pop star sated his soul.
“I can’t imagine, if I hadn’t had it, how many years of normal life it would have taken to get me to the realizations: I might’ve never got them in this life,” George explained. “It just opened the door and I experienced really good things. I mean, I never doubted God after that. Before, I was a cynic. I didn’t even say the word God; I thought ‘bullshit to all that stuff.’ But after that, I knew.
“It was not even a question of ‘Is there possibly a God?’ I knew absolutely. It’s just that big light that goes off in your head.”
Maybe George thought that if Madonna took LSD, she might have a similar experience and realization. Then, she wouldn’t have cared about her ego or pop star status. She would have embarked on a journey for answers like George did.
One piece of advice George could give to Madonna, though, was how to deal with the press. During that press conference, Madonna said George had given her “more advice about how to deal with the press than how to make the film.”
It’s clear that George wanted to help Madonna, but whether she took his advice is another issue.