What is worse? Having all pieces you need to make a movie to fall into place at the right time and never see it get made? Or, having everything you need, top to bottom, including two giants of British and international comedy lead your cast, only to make your film, have a disastrous time doing it, and see the studio shelve it for a dozen years.
What Lost Soul The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau is to the horror community, The Ghost of Peter Sellers will be to the comedy community. A sobering, emotional and often humorous account of creative differences leading to utter cinematic disaster and the near ruination of one director’s career.
In 1973 Medak was hired to direct a pirate-action spoof called Ghost in the Noonday Sun. The script was written by comedy legend Spike Milligan of the Goon Squad and Evan Jones. The real coup came when the studio hired another comedy legend Pink Panther and The Party's Peter Sellers to star in the film, Though none of his recent films leading up to production did well compared to his earlier works Sellers was still considered to be one of the most bankable comedy talents in film.
It was an irresistible combination of comedic giants. Peter Sellers acting in a film co-written by another Goon Squad member Spike Milligan? How could you not want to be a part of any project? But from day one the production was fraught with catastrophe, the simplest of these incidents was the Greek captain running the pirate ship to ground when delivering it to the island of Cyprus on the first day. No one could predict that a literal sinking ship would be the dark omen of things to come. Thus began what Medak called the ‘Sixty seven days of nightmare’.
The real problem that Medak faced was the conflict of personalities between himself and Sellers. Here we have a comedic genius emerging from a very public breakup days before shooting was to begin, presumably looking to regain some sense of control in his life and the only place that he can find it for the moment is with Peter Medak’s film. When it became evident that Sellers may not have even read the script before arriving on set there was ongoing trouble with the comedy genius.
This led to a rapid deterioration of moral on set and uprisings led by Sellers himself to get Medak fired. Other members of the production team back home in England were fired at Sellers’ bequest, with no substantial reasons or evidence given as to why they should have been. Sellers would arrive on set late, or not at all. There was the heart attack he suffered mid way through production that halted filming, only for Madek to see Sellers making headlines two days later for another reason. As production wore on Madek had to separate his talent because of growing animosity and tension, and film them individually. Were these were just the mad acts of a comic genius flexing his star power and muscle for dominance and control over the production, seemingly because he could?
And it was not just Medak who would have this trouble with Sellers. Other directors he interviewed also cited Sellers as extremely difficult to work with, 'Even on a good film, it was never fun'. Another saying that it was 'never dull', using the joke to downplay it all. Then Medak digs a little deeper, just a little, into the psyche of Sellers for a moment. As one of his interviewees said, 'None of knew how nuts Sellers was'. Another, 'No one really took care of him'.
In all of these moments it is disheartening to see and hear of a comedic icon doing such things. Yet it is a story as old as film itself where power struggles happen between a director and the talent in front of the camera. Clips from Ghost in the Noonday Sun are scattered throughout this documentary and they are equally fascinating and terrifying. If they stand as any indication as to what kind of film it was going to be it is understandable why it did not get a theatrical release and floundered in storage until a VHS release in 1985.
The reality is, actors like Sellers and Milligan could walk away from such a trainwreck and Medak would be left behind, still entangled in the wreckage and we see Medak become very emotional at the end of the film as he recount the struggle and the pain. Viewers can see how much grief Medak still harbors all these years later. Talking about the experiences we see him break down at one point.
Hearing Medak talk about his film afterwards I do not know if all is forgiven for what he went through for those sixty seven days but perhaps making this documentary was therapeutic in the way that Medak needed to clean those old skulls and bones from his closet. One of the closing shots is of Medak visiting the Spike Milligan statue in Stephens House & Gardens in FInchley, England. With reverence Medak appears to be cleaning the statue and striking the same pose. At the very least Medak appears to harbor no ill will towards Milligan.
To most Sellers will always be that comedic genius. What we discover is that to those that worked with him, and it appears that many share the same opinion, even on his good films it was never fun to work with him.
Towards the end though Medak says, ‘In spite of it all I absolutely love him. Because he was a genius’.
(The Ghost of Peter Sellers was a super last minute secret addition to the festival. We are indebted to Morbido's Padre de Terror, Pablo, for bringing us along)
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