Director Peter Medak (“The Ruling Class”) feels guilty. One of the primary things he feels guilty about is the film “Ghost of the Noonday Sun.” The director was impassioned and forthright wanting to make an iconic comedy but events were stacked against him, seemingly with supernatural import. It was 1973. Cinema was rife with groundbreaking films of note, including “Easy Rider” and “Dr. Strangelove.” One Saturday on King’s Road in London, Medak meets the great Peter Sellers who wants to make a pirate film with him. Medak agrees without hesitation. After Medak’s initial euphoria, it seems the director may have made a deal with the devil.
The new film “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” is a filmed study of this undertaking.
At first Medak is thrilled. Sellers wants his longtime collaborator Spike Milligan to write the screenplay. The director is over the moon but then he ponders the financial costs and the complex dependency on nature, the weather and the open sea.
It is not feasible.
To make matters worse, the crew has no working script. There is only a smattering of dialogue and a situation involving treasure and a silly double-cross.
Medak manages to have a pirate ship constructed but after a fine first shoot, the ship smashes against the rocks. The ship is salvaged but after a scene, the principal actors become seasick.
When Sellers arrives on location he is deeply depressed as his romance with Liza Minnelli has just come to an end. When Sellers does commit to work, he is taciturn, rote and frequently ill, either because of depression or otherwise. At one point, Sellers attempts to take over the production by reciting his lines from his past role as Fred Kite and saying that filming conditions are unacceptable. The director, disgusted, takes off in a dune-buggy.
Afterward, Sellers is offended by his co-star Tony Franciosa, saying he refuses to be in a scene with him. After things are reconciled with Medak, Sellers asks him to please direct a cigarette commercial as a favor, along with Milligan. The commercial goes off without a hitch except for one strange thing: Sellers refuses to physically touch the pack of cigarettes. After all, he belongs to the anti-smoking council. Milligan cannot be seen touching the pack either. He is also a member.
Medak throws his hands in the air and manages the film but the final result is shelved.
During the documentary, Medak’s friend asks him why revisit a place of pain. Medak replies that he did it to accept the situation and stop punishing himself. Medak is no stranger to misfortune. His brother died at 14. His father had a heart attack in Medak’s arms, just released from a Russian prison. His first wife committed suicide during his feature “The Ruling Class.”
As a Hungarian World War II survivor, he saw his pirate film as a way to cement himself as a great director and to assuage his guilt over his brother, father and wife. The creative process didn’t work out. This documentary is Medak’s exorcism. As he says, he feels responsible for “everything.” This personal moment is the best in film.
Also touching is Medak’s love for Spike Milligan. When the director sees Milligan’s memorial, he chats with his old friend as if nothing has changed and this is as it should be.
One might wish for more footage from Sellers. But in this film, he is a ringleader, a dark magician, a kind of Svengali working in the shadows. The most meaningful ghosts here are those of memory, conjured and lived with by Peter Medak. Calmness remains.
“The Ghost of Peter Sellers” is a thoughtful, touching film that will work on you gradually. It is in fine company with the other “making of” film docs like “Hearts of Darkness” and “Lost in La Mancha.”
This film is part of the Tropic’s Virtual Cinematheque Series. Get tickets here and support the Tropic!
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org