The story behind George Harrison’s disastrous attempt to make a movie with Madonna

In 1978, former Beatle George Harrison set up his own movie production company, HandMade Films. He used the company to distribute, finance and produce cult classics such as Time Bandits, Monty Python’s Life of Brain, Mona Lisa and Withnail and I. Yet, the company wasn’t without a few flops – most notably, Shanghai Surprise.

The 1986 film starred Madonna and her husband, Sean Penn. It was one of the singer’s earliest movie roles, coming one year after her successful part in Desperately Seeking Susan. However, Shanghai Surprise threatened to derail Madonna’s attempts to establish herself as an actor – she ended up winning a Golden Raspberry for ‘Worst Actress’.

The movie went wrong at every possible turn, with Harrison calling his experience of working with Madonna “a pain in the ass”. Filming was constantly interrupted by the presence of the paparazzi, trying to capture shots of the most talked about celebrity couple. There were many other production issues, such as filming taking place under a flight path and generally unprepared cast and crew members, making Shanghai Surprise a massive disaster.

Elsewhere, many people who worked on the film, specifically the director Jim Goddard, complained that the lead actors were difficult to get on with, particularly Penn. Actor Clyde Kusatsu told Yahoo, “I think what was overwhelming was he had to deal with personalities that one in England doesn’t have to deal with to some extent.”

He added: “He was a sweetheart, a teddy bear of a director and he was in that unfortunate position where you have two celebrities well-known at the time.”

The actor reminisced on his time filming Shanghai Surprise, revealing that Harrison’s presence on set brought the tensions down. The ‘My Sweet Lord’ singer was brought in “to be the emissary,” Kusatsu explained, although he wasn’t capable of saving the movie from being an utter box-office flop. Despite featuring one of the biggest pop stars of the decade and being backed by a member of the most successful band in the world, Shanghai Surprise earned just $2million at the box office, making a loss of $15m.

In an interview, Madonna discussed how there was “a lot of tension on set between the director and all the actors; it was just endless”.

She also added: “I really felt that George Harrison didn’t give me the chance to speak, I felt that he kept putting his foot in my mouth. I felt like he was very provocative in his statements. I felt like he was saying all the wrong things to calm people down.”

Harrison provided the music for the film, and he stated that, overall, he “had a laugh” behind the scenes, yet the finished result just wasn’t a hit.

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