'The Ghost of Peter Sellers': Film Review | Telluride 2018

The Ghost of Peter Sellers_Il fantasma di Peter Sellers Still 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
A ghost that still haunts its director 45 years later.

This documentary directed by Peter Medak focuses on his unreleased film 'Ghost in the Noonday Sun,' starring Peter Sellers and filmed in 1973.

The excruciating experience of making a film that never should have been put before the cameras is revisited in ghastly, jaw-dropping detail in The Ghost of Peter Sellers. While viewers will inwardly gasp and cringe at the unseaworthiness of the comic pirate saga that was produced only because the then-red hot Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan were involved, for Peter Medak, the director of the unreleased 1973 farce and of this unvarnished look at its production 45 years later, this can't-take-your-eyes-off-it documentary feels like both a mea culpa and a purge of lingering ghosts. Film-wise viewers and Sellers fans will provide the bulk of the audience for this very detailed curio which will be welcomed on home screens after festival and specialized venue exposure.

A mini-Heaven's Gate of its time, Ghost in the Noonday Sun was made during a busy but creatively fallow stretch in Sellers' career; between 1969-1975, he didn't make a single film worth seeing or talking about. But he was still a big star and already a comic legend, so if he decided he wanted to commit to given project, it got made. Noonday Sun tickled his fancy because it was co-written by his old partner in crime Milligan, who would also act in it. What fun they would have cavorting around Cyprus for a couple of months in pirate outfits.

Except that they wouldn't. Medak, a 35-year-old refugee from communist Hungary who had scored three art film successes in a row with Negatives (which featured Glenda Jackson in her first starring role), A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and, especially, The Ruling Class, signed on because he couldn't resist the opportunity to work with Sellers, even though he found the script “weak.” Right at the outset, Medak laments that, even though he's made 24 films (and lots more television shows), “My career was nearly completely destroyed by this movie. It's so upsetting even today.”

So perhaps as much to cleanse his system of the experience once and for all as to create a vivid visual memorandum, Medak revisits the scenes of the crime with the help of as many other survivors of the experience as he could muster. He also makes good use of clips from the finished film, which was for the first time seen by the public, such as it was, on VHS in North America in 1983. The excerpts decidedly do not make you want to see the complete film, which comes off as painfully labored and unfunny.

Given Sellers' star power, financing was not a problem for the $2.6 million production, and longtime British production titan John Heyman speaks the concise truth: “Peter Sellers was a genius but very difficult.” An array of clips shows Sellers with a parade of girlfriends from the period, the last of which being Liza Minnelli. The couple broke up the day before Sellers left for Cyprus, which caused him to begin production “totally depressed.” The first edict that issued from the star's enormous villa was that the two main producers were to be fired.

As Minnelli was to discover for herself on Lucky Lady two years later, shooting on boats is often a fiasco; the initial omen here was that when the beautiful three-master they intended to use sailed into harbor, the captain was drunk and the boat promptly sank. Medak himself admits he was “totally unprepared” for the challenge of shooting on water. Even though the director realized from the outset that the situation was hopeless, he needed the money and “I had to continue.” Even worse than the script was Sellers' hideously fake wig that made him look like a member of Motley Crue on a bad day.

The brief clips on display reveal dialogue consistent in its witlessness. Tension was high and moral was low from the outset. Financier Heyman admits that he should have gone down to inspect for himself, but Sellers was the one who finally took decisive action: He had a heart attack. Or so he claimed. (He had suffered a real one that nearly killed him during the shoot of Kiss Me, Stupid nearly a decade earlier.) Under the impression that Sellers was in intensive care at a hospital after having been rushed back to London, Medak's jaw dropped to the ground two days later when he saw a picture in a British paper of his star all smiles while escorting former flame Princess Margaret out to dinner.

When it became clear Sellers had faked his heart attack (his best performance on the picture), he was obliged to return to Cyprus. But first he called a press conference to declare he had no confidence in his director. Later, he didn't show up to work for 14 days. Tony Franciosa, who had gotten along well with Sellers on a previous shoot, became so fed up with his co-star that in one scene he brought a sword down so hard on Sellers' neck that the comic thought he was going to kill him. From then on, Sellers refused to appear in the same frame with Franciosa, which made some of the climactic action very difficult indeed to shoot.

And so it went, for “67 days of nightmare,” as Medak puts it; that word is the one that keeps recurring in everyone's description of the experience. Even old mates Sellers and Milligan had a falling out on the picture. The director admits that, although he desperately wanted to quit, he realized he'd be blamed either way and felt compelled to soldier on. At the end, they gave a wrap party and nobody came.

When it was all over, everyone knew it was a disaster. Columbia initially refused to accept the film, claiming it was incomplete as some scenes hadn't been shot. Sellers expressed an interest in buying the pic himself and redoing it. Heyman, who in those days was busy producing and financing tony films such as The Go-Between and The Hireling, admits he should have gone down to the location to sort things out: “We all were to blame. None of us should have made this picture.”

But Medak seems like the one who never got over it. Both the material and the circumstances look to have prevented Ghost in the Noonday Sun from ever having had a chance to be good, and other participants' career survived it. Like Heyman, they moved on. Without ever quite explicitly saying so, however, Medak conveys the impression that he thinks his whole career went off the track because of the film. Indeed, despite consistent work in television on both sides of the Atlantic for decades, the director thereafter only made the occasional feature film of note: The Changeling, The Krays and Romeo Is Bleeding are the best known.

“It's only a movie,” someone says, but for Medak it feel like much more than that, a major turn in the road, maybe even a life-changer. The emotionalism of the end feels both true and slightly self-indulgent, but the director has made a documentary that's both a mea culpa for his role in a botched enterprise that left no one looking good and an affecting attempt to define a life's turning point.

Production company: Vegas Media
Cast: Peter Medak, 
Simon van der Borgh, Norma Farnes, Deke Heyward, Susan Wood, John Heyman, John Goldstone, David Korda, Ruth Myers, Piers Haggard, Joe McGrath, Joe Dunne, Costas Evagorou, Murray Melvin, Clive Revill, Costas Demetriou, Tony Greenburch, Robert Wagner, Victoria Sellers, Sanford Lieberson, Maggie Abbott, Rita Franciosa, Antony Rufus Isaacs, Danton Rissner, Denis Fraser, Michael Stevenson, Rita Thiel, Kostas Dimitriou, Robin Dalton, Tony Christodoulou, Lorenzo Berni, Rene Borisewitz, Tony Greenberg, Susan Wood
Director: Peter Medak
Producer: Paul Iacovou
Director of photography: Christopher Sharman
Editor: Joby Gee, David Hands
Music: Jack Ketch
Venue: Telluride Film Festival

93 minutes