Peter Medak: Exorcising the Ghost of Peter Sellers

July 17, 2019
The director of The Ruling Class, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, The Changeling, The Krays, Let Him Have It, Romeo is Bleeding and various episodes of your favourite TV shows, opens up about his unreleased film starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, and the documentary that he has made about the traumatic experience.

It was the early ‘70s in Swinging London, and Hungarian born filmmaker Peter Medak was on a hot streak. His second feature film, The Ruling Class was nominated for a Palme d’Or and a Golden Globe, with the film’s star Peter O’Toole nominated for an Oscar. In the same year, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, based on Peter Nichols’ play is released, starring Janet Suzman and Alan Bates. Medak was the toast of the town, so, when two of the era’s greatest comedic performers, Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan wanted him to direct their next project, a pirate movie called Ghost in the Noonday Sun, how could he resist?

It all seemed to good to be true, and it turned out that way when the famously temperamental Sellers had an about turn during production, setting the film off its rails to the degree that it was never released to the public. Ghost in the Noonday Sun was buried, and in the process, so was Medak’s glittering career as an A-list director.

When we chat to Peter Medak today via Skype from Los Angeles, the 81-year-old filmmaker is particularly morose. “Yeah, my first son, my oldest son, who’s 55, Christopher had a terrible bodysurfing accident a year and a half ago, and is completely paralyzed from it. He’s in and out of hospitals. He had five operations since. It’s absolutely devastating. There’s nothing you can do. You just deal with it, if you can. I’m with him every day, more or less. Very difficult when you leave, because at the moment, he’s just laying in one position. This accident took two minutes. He was at the beach in Venice, and broke his neck. Died in the water, actually. I keep thinking about trying to make a movie, but it’s so difficult to make movies.”

Peter Medak has lived through his fair share of joy and tragedy. And although, watching your eldest son paralyzed eclipses the disappointment of helming a film production disaster, it is the latter which is the subject of his latest movie, the documentary The Ghost of Peter Sellers, which he has directed and stars in, and which explores his bitterness over the Ghost in the Noonday Sun formative experience as a filmmaker.

“Probably ever since I did the movie with Peter originally, since 1973,” says Medak when we ask him how long he has been thinking about making the documentary. “It was a terrible experience, because he was a great friend, and it’s like your friend completely fucking you up. Nothing you can do about it. The dreadful thing was that it was after my first three movies, that were very successful critically, not financially, but they were great movies.”

You were on the way, we tell him. “Absolutely. Originally, I was going to do Death Wish. It was when I finished The Ruling Class, Artie Krim, who was the head of United Artists, said, ‘We love you, and we love you to make this movie. It would be great for you to now make something completely different than The Ruling Class. And you could do it with Henry Fonda.’ I sent him the script, and I told him that if he liked it, I would only do it with him. I wouldn’t make it with anybody else, which is a terrible mistake any director can make, to promise a wonderful, wonderful actor like Fonda. So, at the eleventh hour, United Artists decided not to make the movie with him, that he wasn’t commercial enough. I got so angry and pissed off, I quit the film.”

Medak left the US and headed back to London, where he had found his initial success. “I bumped into Peter [Sellers] at Kings Road a couple of days later,” he tells us. “He said, ‘I hear you walked out of your movie in New York. It’s terrible for you, but it’s great for me. Let’s make this movie together.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And then the film began, and that’s how the documentary begins.”

The filmmaker acknowledges how crazy he was to take on the project. “To shoot the entire film in water is completely insane,” he tells us. “I knew very little about filming in water, except the dinghies in the Thames. I said, ‘Why not?’ I have Peter and Spike, and it was a wonderful cast, and it’s an incredible boat, which never worked… It was instantly a disaster. And then to have Peter on the top of it… It was his project, but I realised very early on that he didn’t ever read the script…”

The resulting documentary is a complete original, a confessional, almost, featuring Medak analysing his own trauma over the failed film through conversations with the people that were there, and who are still alive to corroborate his story.

“It’s a very informal, kind of liquid manner of movie making. I think that is why the film has incredible vitality. I was very nervous when we finished shooting, and I had this wonderful editor [Joby Gee]. When we started cutting it together, I said, ‘We can’t make a movie like this. It doesn’t work.’ I had a very early cut I showed to Stanley Tucci, who’s a lovely friend, and Walter Murch, who is a legendary editor, who cut Romeo is Bleeding for me. I wasn’t sure, is it too emotional? Am I crying too much? Is it too sappy? Am I cursing too much? And both Stanley and Walter said, ‘We beg you not to cut any of the emotions out of the movie, because that’s where it makes it work.’”

The documentary was selected to screen at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, bringing with it some of the greatest acclaim of Medak’s 50+ year career. Terry Gilliam – an obsessive filmmaker if ever there was one – reached out after seeing it. “He said, ‘I never realised, Peter, you’ve gone through so much pain.’”

The obvious question begs to be asked, of course. Throughout Ghost of Peter Sellers we get glimpses of footage from Ghost in the Noonday Sun. Will we ever get to see that film?

“I hope so. John Heyman owned the movie. He made a pristine, clean print of it for us to use, and gave us 17 minutes of it for nothing. And the poor darling passed away, and he never had the chance to see the film. However, David Heyman, his son, inherited his estate, and David is an incredibly wonderful producer [Gravity, Harry Potter]. I hope that maybe, if the documentary has some success, they might release the film itself.”

Either way, Peter Medak is just ecstatic that he has exorcised this story out of his system. “It’s not a business, it’s an obsession,” he says about filmmaker and showbiz. “It’s wonderful that there is 92 minutes of it. It’s worth to me more than millions of dollars in the bank.

“I just wanted to paint that incredible period, the seventies of London, which I grew up in and adored; and Peter and Spike,” he trails off. “They were both with me while I was shooting this documentary. I know. They were laughing in heaven, saying, ‘Look at that idiot. He’s still talking about the same thing…’”

The Ghost of Peter Sellers is screening at Cinema Nova as part of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival on July 19, 2019

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