“I fell in love making movies. It’s a magical thing.”
In an eclectic and sometimes erratic career spanning five decades, Hungarian-born director Peter Medak has proven to have longevity and has gifted cinemagoers a handful of classic films as well as a number of forgotten yet fascinating gems that deserve to be reevaluated and reintroduced into film culture.
To date, the filmmaker’s resume includes 27 features and 59 TV episodes. And he has now completed his very first documentary, The Ghost of Peter Sellers, currently available on VOD. The film is a testament that hopes to exorcise some long-gestating demons as well as tell the insane saga of a swashbuckling adventure story gone horribly wrong because of poor pre-production prep, a catastrophic shoot, an egomaniacal star and a convoluted script…for starters.
Coming off of a series of acclaimed films, Medak set out to make a 17th century pirate comedy, Ghosts in the Noonday Sun, written by comic Spike Milligan (revered in Britain) and starring Peter Sellers, arguably the greatest comedic actor at that time. Sellers was certainly at the peak of his success, coming off a series of hits such as Dr. Strangelove (Best Actor Oscar nomination), The Pink Panther, What’s New Pussycat? and There’s a Girl in My Soup.
Sellers had clashed with many directors in the past, notably, Billy Wilder on the film Kiss Me, Stupid. Wilder replaced him after Sellers had eight heart attacks and wryly commented, “You have to have a heart before you can have an attack.”
Alas, that was nothing compared to Sellers full mutiny attempt on the set of Ghosts in the Noonday Sun, scheming to turn the cast and crew against Medak in order to either have him replaced or shut the film down completely. Sellers even went to the extreme of faking another heart attack.
In the doc, which goes into painstaking detail about the cataclysmic shoot, Medak speaks with a some of the players who were there, including the indifferent producer John Heyman who can’t seem to regard the film as anything but a commodity, one he insists was doomed from the start. (Heyman died in 2018). Medak, however, still thinks the endeavor had potential and was sabotaged by Sellers, Milligan (to a lesser extent) as well as his own lack of preparation.
The Ghost of Peter Sellers brings to mind Charles Laughton’s I, Claudius, Alejandro Jodoworsky’s Dune and Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. The difference here is that Ghosts was completed but never officially released (save for bootleg copies that have made the rounds since 1983). The epic tale recounted in the doc recalls the oft spoken cliché about how the fact that any film ever actually gets made is a miracle.
Even 47 years later, Medak cannot seem to unburden himself of the Ghosts trauma as he revisits the shooting location in Cyprus and confronts his own ghosts.
Born in Budapest in 1937, Medak, fled to England during that Hungarian Uprising, at the age of 18 and almost immediately embarked on a film career with Associated British Picture Corporation as an assistant on many British films of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. In 1963, he was signed by Universal Studios, where he began directing TV shows.
His first feature film, the critically-acclaimed Negatives (1968), starred Peter McEnery and Glenda Jackson in her first leading role onscreen. The black comedy A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972), adapted from Peter Nichols’ play, followed and featured Alan Bates and Janet Suzman. That same year, Medak made his most lauded (and, arguably, best) film The Ruling Class boasting a towering performance by Peter O’Toole who received a Best Actor Oscar nomination playing an English earl who believes he is Jesus Christ and, later, Jack the Ripper.
It was after The Ruling Class that Medak would begin production on the ill-fated Ghosts in the Noonday Sun, an experience that would forever mark the rest of his life and career.
After Ghosts, Medak did make a few more significant movies – The Changeling with George C. Scott and a trio of cult films that include The Krays, Let Him Have It and Romeo is Bleeding – all in the early ‘90s. His last feature was Species II in 1998.
The indefatigable director has continued to work in television helming episodes of Hart to Hart, Magnum P.I., St. Elsewhere, China Beach, Law and Order, The Wire, Carnivale, Breaking Bad, Cold Case and Hannibal, to name just a few!
And at age 82, he shows no signs of, or desire to, slow down stating he’s hoping to make three more films. “That’s all I can do. I’m useless, otherwise.”
Awards Daily had the privilege of chatting with the artist about his new doc, his career and the two Peters that will forever haunt him.
Awards Daily: Is this a project you have been wanting to do for a while?
Peter Medak: I talked about it all the time to…actors and friends I was working with in the past because it was such a crazy story…so it’s something I was constantly talking about. But, mind you, it was no different than my experience with Peter O’Toole and some of the other movies. All those things stay with you forever…But it’s something that really started soon after I did Romeo is Bleeding with Gary Oldman. Gary said to me, ‘We are crazy because we should make a movie about your movie with Peter Sellers. Not a documentary but a proper film. I don’t want to play Peter Sellers, I want to play you’. And we had a script written. That was 20-25 years ago. Then, as usual, nothing happened. So it was something that was always in the back of my mind. Then Paul, my producer, called from Cyprus and suggested doing a documentary. I said to him, it’s the last thing I really want to do because I don’t want to go back into that whole experience and go back to Cyprus. I never want to go in the water ever again! Then he kept on… And I thought I might as well do it…try to explain what happened on the film. Because it was an incredible period of the ‘70s. I’d never done a documentary in my life.
AD: How long did the doc take to make?
PM: I think four years to make from my first conversation with Paul on Skype to find out what he knew about what happened and then I told him what really happened. And he miraculously raised the money. Then I flew back to my beloved London and started shooting on Kings Road where the whole story with Peter began, 47 years ago. It’s crazy.
AD: In the doc, you speak about your golden period with your first three films, Negatives, Joe Egg and Ruling Class. Do you think that back then you were a bit arrogant and felt you could achieve anything you wanted when you started Ghosts?
PM: Well, yes of course, I did think that. Every project you take on, you have to go in with that feeling that you can pull it off. I didn’t know what I was actually walking into. The complications of shooting on the sea. I was very naïve about that. And about Peter and Spike. They were friends. You just walk into these things. And you’re suddenly caught in it and you have to fight your way through it somehow, there’s no other way. You can’t walk away from it.
AD: Peter Sellers was an arguably brilliant comic actor but a complex person. Right now there are many conversations going on about the artist and his/her art and whether they can and/or should be separated. Should we separate the artist from the art?
PM: Well, I think it’s impossible. How do you do that? It’s impossible because it’s not that meticulously figured out…Once you take on the project and you have someone like Peter–It’s very difficult to separate the two things. It takes such an overwhelming energy to make a movie, but in particular with people who are very erratic and difficult and constantly changing. You never know what you’re going to get. But I really and truly believe that with every brilliant actor, and there are some pretty great ones around, it’s kind of a necessary ingredient to be slightly insane. (Laughs)
Because without that you don’t get that brilliance. It’s not an accusation. Look at Pacino. And look at Alan Rickman. Gary Oldman! Geniuses because they can take a character or take a speech and give you an interpretation that is so from left field and so surprising and wonderful. You can’t manufacture that. It has to be born inside you.…the art of directing is not so much telling the actor, stand here, sit there, cry, it’s about how to create an environment which allows them to function and release all this incredible machinery, what’s inside them…If you ask them, what made you do that incredible speech? They can’t tell you because it’s instinctual and not manufactured.
AD: You started you career working with two titanic actors: Glenda Jackson, in one of her first major roles in Negatives and Peter O’Toole in The Ruling Class. Can you speak about working with those extraordinary actors?
PM: Yes, absolutely…With Glenda, and particularly when it’s your first movie, because you have all the stuff inside you of what it needs to be a director…to have such a brilliant, wonderful actress in my hands was an incredible blessing and gift. Glenda is just the most simple, most straightforward, honest actress I had ever come across in my life. And to start with that gives you a kind of incredible reference and a setting for the future of what you require in your movies. We’ve stayed friends. It was 1968 and we’ve stayed in touch ever since then. Every year, whether she was in the heart of parliament and not acting for 30 years (we) have dinner or lunch, when I’m in London. It’s a wonderful gift to have because it makes you incredibly rich in your relationships. Those things you can’t buy. You have to experience. It was magic and she’s magic, even now at 84 years old. I so would love to, once more, work with her…I just love her so much.
AD: Negatives is a film that screams to be reintroduced to people.
PM: I’m incredibly proud of that movie…It was a magical time making it. I remember a wonderful moment when we were shooting at Shepperton Studios. It was a lovely sunny afternoon and we were waiting for something and Glenda and I were sitting next to each other (outside) this old house, where lots of very famous director’s offices used to be. And we were watching the crew laying down this long tracking shot. And I just looked at Glenda and said, ‘isn’t this just wonderful? It’s absolute magic, making movies.’ It’s a moment I never forget.
(I love) all the actors. That’s why I keep saying, throughout the documentary on Peter Sellers, that I still love him. And if tomorrow, the phone would ring, I would go back again and do it all over…it wasn’t easy but you love those challenges. And the complications. How do you face it when he jumps off the boat into the motorboat to try to get away from the shoot because something had gone wrong? All you can do is run after him and jump in the same boat with him. (Laughs) And yell, where the fuck are you going? Are you crazy?
AD: In the doc, you say, “I want to kill people, but they’re all dead.” How do you move on from such an upset? Or can you ever move on?
PM: Well, it was very upsetting at the time but always my first thought was, ‘How do I carry on?’ We’ve got to carry on. We’ve got to keep shooting. Because while you’re shooting you can always try to correct things. It becomes a black spot among the other movies, where I didn’t have the same problems and the movies became very successful…which Ruling Class was, but it wasn’t less easy to make because Peter (O’Toole) was just very difficult, [just as] difficult as Peter Sellers.
Peter Medak: Absolutely. Thank God it doesn’t show in the film. You don’t notice it. It was easy to do and it was very difficult to do at the same time because of certain things Peter just wouldn’t do. How you make an actor like Peter do something they don’t want to do? You somehow manipulate the shooting [with] cranes and whatever you do to arrive at the same result you wanted originally. In a way, it’s (the) psychology of directing…You know David Lean, who I think is one of the most brilliant English-speaking directors, barely ever said anything to the actors. He just sat, puffing on his cigarette and holding his cigarette holder, and just kept saying, ‘Do it again, do it again.’
If you really know each other, the actor and the director, you can actually direct and get exactly what you want without really saying anything…so often I used to stand behind the camera, which I always did and still do today, because the actors need that person, the two eyes watching them– and I used to say to myself, God, I just wish Peter would just take one more step to the left or enunciate something in the text in a certain way. And it happens! It just happens!…it’s the magic of directing and the magic of making movies.
AD: Regarding the two Peters, Sellers and O’Toole, Sellers did try to sabotage you and the film, did O’Toole do the same thing?
PM: Well, yeah, he did sabotage himself. Yes he did. [He was] incredibly competitive. And I’m not trying to paint a bad picture but it’s part of their talent. They get very protective, unconsciously, of what another actor is doing, who is also brilliant. On Ruling Class, Peter very seriously a couple of times in the middle of shooting, said to me, ‘You’ve got to stop Arthur Lowe (who played a butler). You’ve got to stop him [from] doing what he’s doing. He’s just destroying the scene.’ I said to Peter, ‘You’re completely wrong. You’re crazy. He’s brilliant.’ And he was brilliant in the film.
Those are incredible challenges and wonderful battles. Fortunately, Peter didn’t see a foot of dailies while we were shooting, once we settled his makeup. The first time he saw the movie he was sitting in front of me in this small theater, Cubby Broccoli’s theater in London, and there was this terrible moment when the film was over –it was a long film, the original cut was two and a half hours—and the lights went up and Peter turned around to me and didn’t say a word—and he could do this very easily–he winked at me with one eye and from the other eye a tear was falling down his face. And he said to me, “It’s fucking brilliant,” and he walked out! That was Peter. If you think that this was this actor who [did] Lawrence of Arabia and gave that incredible performance in Becket…If you are a friend of his, you know the inside/outside of that person, which I did. But it cost my friendship with Peter O’Toole to get that performance out of him.
He would do certain things and didn’t want to do other things. How do you persuade someone like him…? But you can, and you can get away with murder and I did on Ruling Class. And I didn’t with Peter (Sellers) because I should have made a brilliant film. That is my own guilty insanity, that I had failed Peter Sellers, the film and myself. Because I didn’t pull it off. Because I allowed his insanity to [get] in the way. And when I dealt with O’Toole’s insanity, I got away with it.
AD: Ghost In the Noonday Sun is available on DVD in Europe—and a VHS version was released in 1983. Is it a version that you are in any way happy with?
PM: No. Not at all. That is the finished version of the film, which has been sitting in a vault…and John Heyman, who was the financier and the exec producer together with Columbia Pictures—it was sitting in his vault in Pinewood, completely finished, but unreleased. He decided, or somebody in his huge company decided to put it out on video. That’s what it is, but it wasn’t a proper release…the film is no good. It’s got some wonderful things in it but it just wasn’t good enough…At the same time, it would be an incredible thing to be able to put the original film and the documentary together, either on Criterion or on something because it’s a typical English kind of ‘goon’ humor, a kind of nonsensical British comedy which was all the Monty Pythons…Some people think (Ghosts) is quite wonderful. I’ve said, you’re crazy to think that. It’s not the film I wanted to make.
AD: In the doc, you said the film hurt your career and that you walked out of a number of films, afterwards. Are there any you regretting walking out of?
PM: Most of them. Yes! (Laughs) I very proudly walked out because I disagreed with certain things either in the preparation or in the casting..
AD: Can you share some examples?
PM: One of the films was A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand. She was obsessed making a movie about two singers. And I was obsessed…And I wasn’t the first or the last director on it, five or six directors were on it. I wanted to remake the second movie with James Mason [and Judy Garland], which was about this drunken actor who’s destroying his life. We had a wonderful premise for the script, which Dory Previn wrote…Barbra agreed to do it but then she changed her mind. And that’s when I walked out…I should have done it because it would have been incredible working with Barbra. And I love music so much.
The very first one I ever walked out on was right after Negatives, a film called Figures in a Landscape. That’s when Peter O’Toole and I met. It was 1969. Peter and I were going to do it and I cast Malcolm McDowell, whose remained a great friend…first Peter walked out because of a disagreement with the producer. Then I cast Robert Shaw. And darling Robert started rewriting the script and changed Malcolm’s character’s name. He didn’t physically change it but [he was] called, “Kid,” and in the [new] script he was “Boy.” And I remember saying to Bob, ‘Look I know I’m not English but there’s a big difference [between] calling someone “Boy” or “Kid.” “Kid” is lyrical and “Boy” is talking down to him.’ So I walked out of the film…I regretted it ever since, because my whole career would have been different. It was an incredible film about two soldiers in Indochina…
AD: Any others?
PM: There was a picture with Richard Burton and another one with Rod Steiger called Lucky Strike. I should have made all of them. And more important, the film I was going to do after Ruling Class was Death Wish, and I wanted Henry Fonda to play [the lead]. United Artists agreed, at first, and I started working on the script in New York and David Picker who was head of production decided, ‘You can’t have Mr. Fonda. You can have whoever else you want, but you can’t have him because he’s not the right person for that role.’ So I walked out again. And that’s when I came to Peter Sellers. It had a lot to do with the mentality of sticking through the absolute hell with Peter, because I just walked out of a wonderful movie with Henry Fonda…I couldn’t keep doing it, one after the other. Then after the disaster of Ghosts, I was very cautious of not repeating (the same mistake) which is the reason why I kept walking out of these movies.
Awards Daily: The Charles Bronson Death Wish?
PM: Yes. And without changing a word, it would have been a completely, totally different film. Same plot.
AD: Near the end of the doc, you spoke about how you and Sellers reunited and discussed possibly buying back the film and having Fox release it with a new voice-over. Do you think he was serious?
PM: He was dead serious because he went back to Columbia to try to buy back the film. He would have done it but he then discovered that the budget of the film was X, and the film in the books of Columbia Pictures was written off the double of that, so they refused to open up the books…It’s quite obvious what happened. Why wasn’t the cost of the film kept the same? Why was it twice the cost [on the books]? But that’s the practice of movie companies, cooking the books…So Peter and I sat down and he said, ‘You know I can’t get the movie back. I’m sorry.’ He tried to get the movie back and he couldn’t. And then soon after that, he dropped dead.
The Ghost of Peter Sellers is available on VOD.