I am a massive admirer of the Hungarian director Peter Medak’s movie The Ruling Class, starring Peter O’Toole – rarely seen because it got mired in distribution problems. Peter Medak also directed the 1990 film The Krays. And he directed the 1973 pirate comedy movie Ghost in the Noonday Sun, starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan.
No, I had not heard of it either until, back in February, I got an e-mail from Paul Iacovou, who was producing a documentary called The Ghost of Peter Sellers about the making of the Noonday Sun movie.
The Chortle comedy website wrote a very good article about the project back in February.
“Our documentary The Ghost of Peter Sellers,” Paul Iacovou told me yesterday on Skype from Cyprus, “is called that to mirror the original title but also because the ghost of Peter Sellers is the ghost that haunted Peter Medak for 43 years because he blames this film for altering the trajectory of his career. He was THE hot director of the time and then there was Ghost in the Noonday Sun with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan and it was a pirate comedy and everybody was waiting for it and it never materialised. In the film world, you’re only as good as your last film. That’s a cliché, but it’s absolutely true.
“The Ghost of Peter Sellers is Peter Medak re-tracing what happened 43 years ago, by talking to a huge variety of people who haven’t really given interviews before. The original film’s producer John Hayman. John Goldstone who was the Monty Python producer. Actor Robert Wagner who was a great friend of Peter Sellers. Executives and people in the movie business of the 1970s. It gives an incredible insight into how movies were made in those days.
“One of the great things is that everybody is in their 70s, some early 80s. So they speak with such candour. They’re not trying to gain anything. They’re reflective, they look back and are totally honest in what they say, which is so refreshing on camera.”
Paul Iacovou is producing The Ghost of Peter Sellers; Peter Medak is directing; there is an Indiegogo crowdfunding initiative. At the time of writing, there are nine days to go to reach their $40,000 target and the Indiegogo appeal has raised $22,485.
“We’ve managed to do quite well,” Paul told me. “It was quite a large amount we were going for. It’s been quite a bit of a struggle. The crowdfunding audience tends to be much younger. I contacted the strategist at Indiegogo and he told me he had had a meeting with his guys internally and not one of them knew who Peter Sellers was. Their average age is between 25 and early 30s. They are in New York, so I don’t know if that has anything to do with it.”
“The fleeting nature of fame,” I said.
“Tragic, really,” said Paul.
“What’s your link with Peter Sellers?” I asked.
“Well, I’m half Cypriot,” Paul told me. “I moved here eight years ago and just by chance I was in a friend’s office and his father had a photograph of Spike Milligan on the wall. I asked why. He told me: Oh, it’s from the Peter Sellers movie that they shot here in 1973. I had never heard of it. So I started research it and it just got so interesting – a disaster of a production that was never released.
“I got in touch with the original director, Peter Medak, who lives in Hollywood now. We got on like a house on fire and it turned out he had been waiting 40-odd years to tell this story.
“Back then, United Artists had called him to New York and said: We want you to direct this film called Death Wish. He read the script. He loved it. He said he wanted Henry Fonda to play the lead role and they said: Henry Fonda’s too old. You can have anybody else on the planet except him. Then, because he had promised Henry Fonda the part, he walked off the project which went on to be made by Michael Winner with Charles Bronson.”
“It would have been an interestingly different film with Henry Fonda,” I said.
“Yes,” agreed Paul. “Medak saw Henry Fonda as a sort-of shy, retiring accountant type who is pushed into becoming a vigilante. With Bronson, he looked like a tough guy from the start.
“Anyway, Medak came back from New York, was walking along the King’s Road in London and bumped into Peter Sellers who said: Don’t worry about it. Come with me to Cyprus. I have a film ready to go. I want you to direct it. Let’s go. So he did.
“Peter Sellers was his friend. And then Sellers turned on him because Sellers decided, when he got here, he didn’t want to do the movie. And it knocked Peter Medak off that trajectory of success and he’s been carrying this weight with him for 43 years.
“They completed the whole film but, because Sellers became so difficult and he was unavailable for so much of the filming, they ended up falling behind schedule and cutting out a big fight scene between Sellers and Anthony Franciosa and other scenes and then, when they delivered it to Columbia, they said: But the fight scene is missing! and they rejected it. They said: We don’t want to release it now. It ended up costing John Hayman, the producer, $2½ million in 1973.”
“John Hayman?” I asked.
“He’s a financier,” explained Paul, “who has made something like 180 films. He says: Forty of them I should never have made. This was one of them. His son, David Hayman, produced the Harry Potter films. John was the 7th employee at the BBC when they re-started TV after the War and he’s still going strong at 84.”
“If you can’t get the Indiegogo money,” I asked, “does that mean you can’t complete your film?”
“Well,” said Paul, “it makes it harder. It means we won’t complete it NOW. We would lose a bit of momentum. The most important thing is to finish the film ourselves without going to any distributor who then takes a big chunk of it and then could end up diluting the film we want to make.
“It’s kind of grown and grown, which is very good on the one hand but was very difficult for the budget. We’re 90% complete. We shot in London and Cyprus last summer and we just about finished shooting in LA the other day. When we started the crowdfunding campaign, it was to shoot in LA but we took a leap of faith and started shooting anyway.
“The crowdfunding is basically to cover the cost of what we’ve shot and some other stuff we need to shoot and then post production, which is going to be a huge cost because we want to lace the film with as much archive content as we can of Sellers and Milligan etc etc. But we’ve also got permission to use of about 15-18 minutes of the original film itself. The thing is for people to see these incredible scenes that they’ve never seen of Milligan and Sellers – that nobody’s ever seen. That’s where it all started for me.”