One of the most gifted comedic actors of the 20th century, Peter Sellers was notoriously difficult to work with in the best of times. His erratic behavior and reportedly poor (and untreated) mental health, fueled by his alcohol and drug abuse, could throw even fine-tuned projects into chaos. Add to the mix an unprepared director and a poorly conceived film shot aboard a sailing vessel, and the result is utter debacle. Indeed, the late comedian’s impudent specter looms large over The Ghost of Peter Sellers, but this documentary is far more focused on director Peter Medak’s self-reflection about a catastrophic professional failure that clearly still stings.

The Hungarian-born British director was on the ascent in the 1973, fresh off the success of black comedy The Ruling Class. When Medak was approached by Sellers with the idea to make a pirate comedy adaptation of the “rollicking” 1965 novel Ghost in the Noonday Sun, it seemed like kismet for Medak to work with a comedy legend. Never mind that Medak approached the film, shot largely off the coast of Cyprus, without considering the challenges of filming at sea. Whether faced with vomiting crewmembers or simply the difficulty of achieving a steady shot aboard a moving ship, Medak was clearly in over his head, and he admits as much in his documentary. Even with a stable star, Ghost in the Noonday Sun was likely destined for failure; the pirate ship was even crashed by a drunk captain before it was even delivered.

Enter Sellers. Ill-tempered from his recent breakup with Liza Minnelli, the comedian soured on the film quickly, demanding that his frequent collaborator Spike Milligan rewrite the script. And that was on an occasion when he bothered to show up. Medak details how Sellers made a habit of not arriving to the set until mid-afternoon, with cast and crew waiting aboard the ship for hours until they could finally shove off as precious daylight waned. Sometimes, Sellers feigned illness to get out of work, and most egregiously, even faked a heart attack—especially notable given his history of heart problems—so he could fly back to London and hit the town with Princess Margaret. Sellers’ blatant attempts to sabotage the film may not have prevented its completion, but his behavior did keep it out of theaters. When Medak turned in the finished product to Columbia Pictures, they deemed it unsuitable for theatrical release and shelved the movie until it was distributed on home video over a decade later, well after Sellers’ fatal heart attack in 1980.

There are times when the late comedian certainly overshadows The Ghost of Peter Sellers, but this is still Medak’s film. He may be haunted by such a spectacular failure, and he does blame it for his relatively mediocre filmography, one that relegated him largely to one-off TV episode direction or artless flicks like Species II—his notable 1980 horror film The Changeling a clear exception. But in owning up to his failures, the director seeks more than just petty retribution for the wounds incurred from a long-dead collaborator who deprived him of his one big shot at superstardom. With the current condition of the world, it’s difficult to feel too badly for a man whose idea of career failure involves directing single episodes of “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire.” But Medak isn’t seeking sympathy; he taps into something bigger here, no doubt achieving some level of catharsis by assessing the fallout of personal failure and disappointment framed within the context of a brush with genius gone mad.

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