Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Beverly Hills ’19: The Ghost of Peter Sellers

In the 1970s and early 1980s, before there was “elevated horror” or “post-horror,” studios used to release ambitious, big budget horror movies, such as The Exorcist, The Omen, and The Shining. Peter Medak’s The Changeling was also of that era and caliber, but he lived through his greatest horror story. It involved filming the evil genius of Peter Sellers on the high seas. Medak revisits the disastrous production that nearly short-circuited his promising career in his cathartic documentary, The Ghost of Peter Sellers, which screens during the 2019 Beverly Hills Film Festival.

Medak, who escaped Communist Hungary after the Soviet invasion of 1956, was a hot new indie director thanks to his 1972 sleeper hit The Ruling Class. He only agreed to helm Ghost in the Noonday Sun as his follow-up project to work with the already legendary Sellers, despite his reservations regarding the weak script. In retrospect, he dearly wishes he had run the other way. As the late great producer John Heyman explains, Sellers was the only reason the shticky pirate farce received financing, but the eccentric star was determined to get himself fired from the film as soon as he arrived in Cyprus. Unfortunately, that forced Medak to go to elaborate lengths to cajole Sellers unto the set or shoot around him. That was the early going—it quickly got worse, much worse.

Still carrying mental and emotional baggage from the fiasco, Medak thoroughly documents each stage of the dumpster fire production with the surviving cast and crew members. Sellers and his old crony Spike Milligan, Noonday Sun’s alleged screenwriter, might be legends, but clearly everyone sympathizes Medak, especially the widow of co-star Anthony Franciosa (who emerges as one of the movie’s good guys, who supported Medak and wouldn’t take guff off Sellers).

Alas, what was going on behind-the-scenes was much funnier than anything that ended up on-screen. Indeed, there are anecdotes in Ghost of Peter Sellers that make the head spin and the mind reel, but it is important to keep in mind, each one was almost a nail in the coffin of Medak’s career.

Clearly, this is an attempt by Medak to set the record straight, to some extent, but more importantly to exorcise the Noonday ghosts that still haunt him. Yet, as our host, guide, and confessional confidant, Medak comes across as a charming, sophisticated, and rather witty raconteur. He is also a survivor. Medak went on to direct some great films, like The Krays, Let Him Have It, and Romeo is Bleeding. In fact, Ghost of Peter Sellers is an unusually auteuristic documentary. It is cleverly directed by Medak—and we often see him doing it on-camera.

It is also a very funny film—although maybe not for Medak. There is no question fans of Sellers or anyone else associated with the film should watch Medak’s documentary and not the cobbled together cut of Ghost in the Noonday Sun that eventually escaped out into the world without fanfare in the early 80s. In many ways, it is a terrific love letter to the filmmaking experience. Very highly recommended, The Ghost of Peter Sellers screens this Thursday (4/4), during this year’s Beverly Hills Film Festival.