Most of us have one. That huge, tragic mistake that changed the course of our life for the worse and left us psychologically crippled. Memories of that moment are etched into our brains and triggered by the smallest reminder. It screams we’re imperfect and reminds us we’re just one step away from failure. As they say, “time heals all wounds.” But those scars never go away.
For famed director Peter Medak, he rips at those scars 45 years later in his documentary, The Ghost of Peter Sellers. It’s 1972 and coming off 3 back-to-back box office successes ending with hit film The Ruling Class with Peter O’Toole, Medak runs into Sellers at a local diner. Sellers immediately asks Medak to direct his next project The Ghost in the Noonday Sun, a big-budget high-seas pirate adventure, written by Sellers and Spike Milligan. Needing the film’s salary and the opportunity to work with Sellers, Medak says yes to the film that would radically change the course of his career.
The Ghost in the Noonday Sun was a film that never should have been made. Calling the film a disaster is too kind. With an unfinished script and Sellers as its star, the film quickly found financing, distribution, and the fateful green light. No one could anticipate the problems associated with filming on a working ship and in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. The constant movement of the ship made camera placement difficult and made the cast and crew seasick. Bad weather delayed the filming schedule. Finishing the film would require guerilla filmmaking tactics and a great deal of luck that never came.
“…Sellers immediately asks Medak to direct his next project…a big-budget high-seas pirate adventure.”
The real problem of the production was Peter Sellers, himself. The day before filming began, he broke up with then-girlfriend Liza Minelli. Catatonically depressed Sellers fires both his long-time producing partners after the second week. His friendship with co-lead actor Anthony Franciosa deteriorated due to Sellers poor work habits and led to the point where Sellers and Franciosa refused to appear in the same frame together, especially during a pivotal sword fighting scene. Sellers soon lost all enthusiasm for the project leading Sellers to fake a heart attack and then undermine director Medak at every turn.
Forty-five years later, Medak comes across the photo album for The Ghost in the Noonday Sun filled with photos and news clippings resurrecting the worst memories of Medak’s career. He decides to revisit the scenes of the crime from the diner where he met Sellers to the Cyprus seaport location. Medak comes to grips with each painful experience and confronts his demons.
Medak is presented with the daily production logs required for the insurance company, which documented the slowly-growing disaster this film would become. He speaks with Seller’s agent and his personal assistant getting a better picture of the troubled Sellers. He also engages in a roundtable conversation with other directors who worked with Peter Sellers (Piers Haggard and Joe McGrath), sharing similar stories of butting heads with the brilliant actor.
“…tragic moments in our lives, we have to re-live it and confront it in order to move on with life.”
The most poignant moment was when the film’s financier, John Heyman reads to Medak, a letter he received from the fired producers explaining why they were fired. The letter blamed Medak for the failure of the entire project. It detailed his incompetence and his failure to control Sellers. We see Medak reading this letter for the first time. You can see him putting the pieces together and how this affected his standing with Columbia Pictures. The end result was that it ruined his career and reputation.
Watching The Ghost of Peter Sellers is like watching a 15-vehicle car crash in slow motion. Things start bad and get worse. But like the car crash that is Medak’s career, we have to slow down and watch it. While Sellers is painted as the center of the problems, Medak never turns his documentary into a hit piece on Sellers. He carefully creates sympathy for the haunted actor. He interviews his daughter, Victoria, about growing up with a distant, yet famous, father. Medak also goes through great lengths discussing Sellers’ bi-polar condition with people who knew the socially-secluded artist the best.
Many times throughout the documentary, Medak’s friends and associated ask him why he’s making this film. Like those tragic moments in our lives, we have to re-live it and confront it in order to move on with life. That is the heart of The Ghost of Peter Sellers. The film should also serve as a warning “never meet your heroes.”
The Ghost of Peter Sellers (2018) Directed by Peter Medak. Featuring Peter Medak, Robert Wagner, Victoria Sellers, John Heyman, Joe Dunne, The Ghost of Peter Sellers screened at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival.
8 out of 10 stars