Peter Sellers (left), Peter Medak and Spike Milligan on the set of “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,”
The Hungarian-born filmmaker Peter Medak survived Nazi occupation during World War II and communism under the Soviet umbrella. But Peter Sellers was a force of nature all his own.
By many accounts, the British comic genius severely damaged Medak’s career when in 1973 he enticed the director to make a pirate comedy concocted by friend and cohort Spike Milligan, then decided on the second day of filming he didn’t want to be a part of it. That was the beginning of a nightmarish shoot that would end with the disastrous “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” being shelved and the blame heaped on Medak, who was one of the hottest directors in the world going into the shoot, but afterward wouldn’t make another film for five years.
But Medak’s new documentary “The Ghost of Peter Sellers,” while intending to set the record straight, isn’t a hit piece on Sellers, but a nuanced portrait of a troubled, often self-destructive talent. And it is an introspective piece from a filmmaker who still, nearly a half-century later, lives with the guilt and psychological wounds from the experience that need addressing.
It is quite simply one of the great “making of” documentaries of all time — a short list that includes the George Hickenlooper/Eleanor Coppola documentary “Hearts of Darkness.” It is available for streaming through the virtual cinemas of the Roxie Theater and the Smith Rafael Film Center beginning Friday, May 22.
It’s also one of the sunniest movies ever made, or it seems like it. Medak revisits the exotic Greek seaside locations of the shoot and weaves in plenty of behind-the-scenes archival footage. They might have made a terrible movie, but at least everyone got a tan.
Sellers, who died in 1980 at age 54, can’t speak for himself, obviously. But there is some wonderful home movie footage, and Sellers’ former personal assistant Susan Wood and his daughter Victoria are among those who agreed to talk to Medak.
What a wild shoot it was. Sellers, whose bouts with depression have been well-chronicled, arrived in Greece despondent over his breakup with actress Liza Minnelli. And although he enthusiastically agreed to do the film and got Medak hired, it turns out he hadn’t actually read his buddy Spike’s script.
When he did, he tried everything to get off the picture, including faking a heart attack. Given his history of heart issues, it was instantly believable, but two days after being rushed to a Greek hospital the British tabloids showed him partying in London with Princess Margaret. Irate, Medak and his producers ordered Sellers back to the set.
Sellers then alienated leading man Anthony Franciosa, then tried to get Medak fired. Producer John Heyman intervened and told Medak that if he couldn’t deliver the film, he would get fired.
One of the great touches of “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” is that shortly before his death in 2017, Heyman sat down with Medak to explain why he almost fired him — and why he didn’t.
Medak was always a solid filmmaker, but was he really heading for greatness before being shipwrecked by this movie? Hard to say. Before “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” he made one certifiable masterpiece with Peter O’Toole, “The Ruling Class,” and one eccentric black comedy with Alan Bates, “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg,” which is greatly admired in some circles.
Afterward came some high points as well: the George C. Scott horror movie “The Changeling,” the British gangster movie “The Krays” and the neo-noir “Romeo Is Bleeding.”
Perhaps Medak feels he has to exaggerate the effect the disaster had on his career, and if so, that’s OK; it’s clear that the wreckage is still floating ashore, and “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” is his own way of putting it behind him once and for all.
Leave it to the money man — Heyman, truly a treasure in this movie, who functions at once as therapist and confessor priest — to put things in proper perspective:
“It’s only a movie.”