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Ghost of peter sellers post
The Ghost of Peter Sellers
First run Screening room

Peter Sellers was unquestionably a comic genius and one of the funniest men to grace the silver screen. He was also maddeningly difficult—just ask nearly anyone who directed him in a picture, most who acted with him, and any of the four women who married him. A depressed alcoholic with physical and mental issues, Sellers was nonetheless a fascinating, beloved, one-of-a-kind individual. How much of his genius was fueled by the very factors that made him so difficult and that wreaked havoc on nearly all his personal and professional relationships is the question several books and documentaries have attempted to get to the bottom of. The gifted comedian and actor has always remained enigmatic, with many people (including the man himself) often claiming that he had no personal identity outside the roles that he played. 

The latest film to ostensibly explore Sellers’s erratic but lovable persona comes from director Peter Medak (The Ruling Class, The Changeling, The Krays) whose fourth feature was an ill-advised pirate comedy starring Sellers called Ghost in the Noonday Sun. According to Medak, the unreleased 1974 film was the biggest disaster of the director’s life and forever altered the course of his career, removing him from the successful A-list track he was on and setting him on a more journeyman path directing TV and features in the UK and America. 

Medak is clearly still haunted by Sellers’s ghost, but his personal revisiting of the production of Ghost in the Noonday Sun forty-five years later results in a mostly tedious series of “interviews” with the few still-living folks who were part of that fiasco. In these conversations, the survivors mostly reassure Medak and confirm his views that the film would have been a disaster no matter what and that Medak would be much more successful and well-known today had he not signed on to direct it.

The documentary’s title, The Ghost of Peter Sellers, is a clever play on the title of the doomed 1974 pirate comedy. It also implies that we may glean some insight into Sellers from those who worked with him and knew him. Unfortunately, the aims of the film lie elsewhere. Perhaps a more fitting title would be The Grudge of Peter Medak, as this film is more about the director himself and the scars that this long-ago experience left him with. That subject could perhaps make an absorbing, even fascinating documentary were it undertaken by an outsider. In Medak’s hands, however, this supposed mea culpa results in a frustratingly opaque picture.

We’re made aware that this is a movie about the director from the first sequence in which Medak descends a grand staircase and walks over to meet with one of his interview subjects who is ready and waiting for him in a nicely lit sitting room with chilled champagne. After they hug and sit down, we see Medak wanting to get more coverage of this greeting and instructing the interviewee to re-do the arrival from another angle. I guess the point of including this sequence is to say: once an obsessive director, always an obsessive director—even when that director is making a documentary. I can see no other reason for starting the film this way. After all, the interview subject is a stunt man who contributes nothing of interest in this documentary and who could easily have been cut from the picture entirely without it making the slightest difference. 

The opening scene firmly establishes that Peter Medak is the main character of this movie and that everything we see and learn will be limited to what he wants us to see and learn. Thus, when we reach the end of the film and Medak breaks down on camera as he recalls his last interactions with Sellers near the end of Sellers’s life, this climax can’t help but feel contrived. I’m sure Medak didn’t interview himself, and the emotions he experiences in this moment may be quite genuine, but you can’t be Barbara Walters and Barbara Walters’s weeping interviewee at the same time without hitting false notes.

There are few things less interesting than listening to a filmmaker talk about one of their failures unless they are also a great raconteur, embellishing the stories with a healthy dose of humor and humility. But the bigger problem with this documentary is that the production of Ghost of the Noonday Sun is not so exceptional that it merits a feature-length examination. There are countless terrible '70s comedies that were made for dubious reasons that are difficult to sit through. Many were released but even more went unfinished. All the critics who heap praise on the 1970s as the greatest era for cinema, and condemn the 1980s as a decade full of corporate garbage, conveniently seem to forget that studios and independent filmmakers churned out piles of rubbish pictures in the '70s for reasons having little to do with the creation of great cinematic art.

The stories about the making of these bad movies are almost always less interesting than we want them to be. The finest examples of films about filmmaking gone horribly wrong are Burden of Dreams (1982), Hearts of Darkness (1991), and Lost in La Mancha (2002). But these are all films made by outside documentarians. The film The Ghost of Peter Sellers most resembles is Werner Herzog’s My Best Fiend (1999), in which the maverick director revisits locations and people who knew about his tumultuous yet productive five-film collaboration with Klaus Kinski (and actor even more notoriously difficult to work with than Sellers).

But, in the case of 
The Ghost of Peter Sellers, the fateful production narrative is as slim as the movie’s nonsensical plot. Most significantly, the producers and director knew the screenplay (co-written by Spike Milligan, Sellers’s old pal from The Goon Show) was a mess, but they decided to move forward with it anyway. Sellers assumed he’d have fun working in sunny Cypress with Milligan, but he quickly discovered that was not the case. And Medak had had good experiences working with temperamental actors like Peter O’Toole and therefore was not worried about Sellers’s difficult reputation. Then there's the fact that much of the picture was set on the ocean and shooting a film on the open sea is notoriously disastrous. (Noonday Sun was made long before Jaws or Waterworld, but it’s not like there wasn’t precedent for this difficulty from Mutiny on the Bounty, Moby Dick, and others).

But with hubris, and the belief that any comedy starring Sellers—then riding high off the success of The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark—would be financially successful, the production went ahead. That’s really all there is to this story. Medak (and, I’m sure, many who write about this movie) may want to elevate the story of Ghost in the Noonday Sun to the proportions of Michael Cimino’s legendary 1980 studio-ending disaster Heaven’s Gate. But the stories included in The Ghost of Peter Sellers do not back up this comparison. Mostly, we hear typical tales of actors not getting along and unforeseen external factors causing the production to fall behind. The fact that the inconsistent Sellers wielded so much power was, of course, a major cause of the film's downward spiral, but star-power overriding a director's control is also a fairly common occurrence in movies that spin out of control.

As for Sellers himself, only two episodes in the picture shed any real light on the comedian's uniquely destructive qualities. One is the fascinating story of how he convinced Medak, late into the troubled production, to direct a commercial for Benson and Hedges cigarettes that would star him and Milligan, for which they would be paid handsomely but somewhat under the table to avoid high British taxes. Near the end of the day shooting the commercial, Sellers and Milligan informed Medak that they would not touch the box of cigarettes because they were the heads of Britain’s Anti-Smoking League. That Sellers was able to go so deep into denial and magical thinking that he could actually set-up and appear in a commercial for a product he was the official spokesmen against is both intriguing and insightful.

In another great story told in the film, Sellers convinced a doctor to write a note claiming the star had suffered a heart attack and had to be rushed to intensive care in London, shutting down the production for a couple of days. Medak discovered this health crisis was a ruse days later when he opened a newspaper to find photos of Sellers out on the town with Princess Margret. If only there were more tales like these two.

All these forty-five years later, Medak tracks down the doctor who made the heart attack claim and interviews him for this film. On camera, the doc admits that he probably did falsify the note because that’s just the type of thing he used to do for his friends, and Sellers was a good friend. Does the doctor offer any insights into his good friend Peter Sellers? No. At least, not in Medak’s film because Medak is clearly only interested in the aspects of this tale that feature himself. Once he’s gotten someone to corroborate or verify one of his own stories, that person has served their function, and there is no need to hear anything more from them.

The Ghost of Peter Sellers touches on a few other potentially illuminating revelations, only to abandon them. Medak includes, for example, a five-second mention of the fact that his first wife killed herself during the production of the film he made prior to Noonday Sun, the much-acclaimed The Ruling Class with Peter O’Toole. Wait, what? His wife took her own life while he was making one film, but he’s haunted because Peter Sellers was hard to work with on this other film? It is astonishing that the fact of his wife’s suicide is so briefly and casually alluded to without any comment or follow up. And this detail is not the only potentially interesting or substantive thread hinted at by this film that goes uninvestigated.

Instead, we get countless clips of Medak stating the same thoughts in slightly different ways over and over again: how much he loved Sellers despite how much trouble the man caused him; how different Medak’s career might have been had it not been for this doomed motion picture; and everything he had to deal with and take the fall for, during the production. Boo Hoo. Directors usually get about 98 percent of the credit on the most collaborative art form ever created, so forgive me if I can’t find sympathy for a director getting 98 percent of the blame for a film’s failure as well. 

Twitter Capsule:
Medak's frustratingly opaque examination of the doomed Peter Sellers pirate comedy that forever changed the course of the director's career, consists of a few good stories expanded into a tedious, repetitive collection of interviews with the surviving participants confirming Medak's recollections but adding nothing of their own.

Directed by Peter Medak
Produced by Paul Iacovou

With: Peter Medak, Joe Dunne, Simon van der Borgh, Norma Farnes, Susan Wood, John Heyman, John Goldstone, David Korda, Ruth Myers, Robin Dalton, Costas Evagorou, Murray Melvin, Kostas Dimitriou, Tony Greenberg, Dennis Fraser, Piers Haggard, Joseph McGrath, Robert Wagner, Victoria Sellers, Sanford Lieberson, Maggie Abbott, and Rita Thiel

Cinematography: Christopher Sharman
Editing: Joby Gee and David Hands

Runtime: 93 min
Release Date: 30 August 2018
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1