A comedy genius, a new hot director and a 17th century pirate comedy filmed in idyllic Cyprus. What could possibly go wrong? You’d be surprised!
Award-winning documentary ‘The Ghost of Peter Sellers’ directed by Peter Medak and produced by Paul Iacovou is about the behind the scenes reality of Medak’s unreleased film ‘Ghost in the Noonday Sun,’ starring Peter Sellers back in 1973.
At the time, Seller’s was experiencing a busy but turbulent period creatively and personal life-wise. His films were not selling and his reviews were bad, however no-one could dispute his calibre when it came to comedy which held him at the top of the most sought-after Hollywood stars of his era. ‘Ghost in the Noonday Sun’, set to be directed by the then up-and-coming and awarded director Peter Medak and co-written by Seller’s bestie Spike Milligan sounded ideal! A pirate-film, with a story-line evolving in Algiers but in reality filmed in Cyprus seemed like a solid plan only to be sabotaged by the leading actor himself.
In the documentary, Medak reveals the excruciating ordeal him, his crew and the cast were put through by Sellers’ antics, which eventually led to the cancellation of the film’s theatre release.
Forty-five years later, Medak revisits the film, sharing his own testimonial as well as the stories of other participants who are still alive; from the weaknesses of the script, to the hurdles of shooting on a ship and to Sellers’ faked heart-attack!
Neos Kosmos spoke to Greek Cypriot director Paul Iacovou about the challenges and the great success of the documentary. For Iacovou, it all started in Nicosia, Cyprus in 2014.
“I was in a photographer friend’s office and I spotted a photograph on his wall of Peter Sellers,” he said.
“I asked him where it came from. He responded ‘My father took it in Kyrenia in 1972 when Sellers was shooting a movie here’.”
At the time, Iacovou had no idea of the film’s existence and it quickly grabbed his attention. Initial research revealed what a nightmare it had become for all involved.
“The movie spiralled out of control and although filming concluded, Columbia Pictures refused to release it. Sellers was unaffected and moved on to other projects but Peter Medak, the director who was the new ‘darling’ of British cinema at the time, was drastically affected by it all. This was his fourth movie and in the film business, if a film doesn’t come out, everyone always presumes it was the director’s fault. After I spoke to him, I realised that was where the strongest story lay – a man coming to terms with a dark event some 40 years later.”
In terms of challenges, financing was the biggest obstacle, as with most films.
“We weren’t successful in getting any financial support, so the challenge was to finance the film independently,” Iacovou explains, adding that by some miracle they eventually did manage to find investors and complete the film in a first class manner.
“If we put financing aside,” he goes on, “the second biggest challenge was agreeing for Peter Medak to direct.
“Originally I was the director but when Peter offered to direct, I thought, how believable can a documentary be where the story, the main face in the film and the director are one and the same?”
Iacovou says that he took a while to come to terms with it, but once he did, it was clear it was a great opportunity to create something different.
“I believe from the audience reaction that we’ve achieved something different. And to work with Peter was an incredible experience on so many levels,” he enthuses whilst admitting he did not expect the documentary to have this much success.
“I knew it was a fantastic story but never imagined for a moment that we’d be able to create something that connected in such a strong way with audiences. The film had its world premiere in Venice which was a dream you don’t ever dare to dream. The US premiere was the next day at a festival called Telluride which in some way is the US equivalent to Venice or Cannes. A couple of months ago we won two awards at The Beverly Hills Festival, ‘The Golden Palm’ which was the top award (best film across all categories) and also Best Documentary.”
One must wonder how hard it could have been for Peter Medak to revisit moments that had caused so much stress and pain; an experience he himself said nearly cost him his career.
“It was incredibly emotional for him,” says the producer. “He had been waiting over 40 years to tell the story and finally try to put it to rest. In some ways, I think he has, but it runs very deep and I don’t think he’ll ever quite shake it. He had made three highly acclaimed films before making ‘Ghost in the Noonday Sun’ and he was widely considered to be the Tarantino of his day, the non-release of the film knocked him off that trajectory for a while and despite making over 20 further feature films, that precise moment where he felt the world at his feet, never returned.
“After we did the first interview with him, I realised very quickly that he would be as impressive in front of the camera as behind it. When we captured a tearful moment that was full of raw feeling, I knew this was going to be one hell of an emotional journey.”
For Medak, this documentary also serves the purpose of setting the record straight in terms of what really went wrong with the original film, but more than that, the film wants to show what happens during the production of a film.
“Our film shows the precarious balance about what it means to actually put a movie together and is perhaps a great example of what can go wrong. There’s a lesson for everyone in the film, particularly filmmakers.
“I think the proof of that came when we were asked to screen the film for the UK Directors guild,” he muses.
“There were over 200 directors in the audience and their response was phenomenal. Many had experienced in some way similar situations and for those who hadn’t it was a cautionary tale.”
Even though Sellers’ fake heart-attack created insane tension and blew everyone’s morale once exposed, Iacovou argues that it wasn’t just Sellers’ antics, the film was set up badly from the beginning.
Sellers was very obviously not enjoying being on set and was having arguments with literally everyone. Meanwhile, everyone knew the star had recently suffered a heart attack. What did he do to escape the filming? He had another one.
According to Medak and other ‘survivors’ the actor gave his best performance on the picture and dropped to the floor, screaming. Instead of being in intensive care at a hospital, two days later his photos escorting former Princess Margaret out to dinner in London were leaked in a British paper. Sellers was forced to return to Cyprus, but even after that crazy stint, “on some level everyone felt that Sellers and his genius would somehow fix everything,” Iacovou says.
“Allowing Spike Milligan to write his Goon type humour into the script didn’t help things. The film was under budgeted and the single biggest factor was the insane decision that somehow they could just build a pirate ship… add 100 crew on board, sail out to sea and expect everything to go well.”
Apart from the torture Sellers and poor organisation might have caused, this film had another unsung anti-hero. A Greek captain.
“True. The Greek captain was drunk and did crash the ship onto the rocks in Kyrenia,” Iacovou says.
“He was rather a dubious type character and would often allegedly sabotage the ship so he could fix it and charge extra money. Many of the locals did the same, much to the amusement of the crew.”
If you are not already convinced, we are sold! ‘Ghost in the Noonday Sun’ may only be a movie, but ‘The Ghost of Peter Sellers’ is much more than that!