This is part two of a long look at Poltergeist. Part one, which you can read here, is a criticial analysis of the film.
Poltergeist is a movie that lives beyond the screen, spawning rumors and theories about its production... as well as its fallout. The “Poltergeist curse” is an asinine legend that will not go away, one that attempts to tie in the early deaths of some cast members with supernatural elements (some versions of the curse relate it to the fact that actual human skeletons were used for the corpses underneath the Freeling house).
The story that has the most legs is “Spielberg directed Poltergeist,” something that surfaces almost every time people discuss the movie. And this isn’t a new theory; it started in 1982 before the film was even released. The question of who directed Poltergeist is likely to haunt movie fans forever.
But before we talk about that, it’s worth noting that Poltergeist’s pre-production history is long and tangled as well. This isn’t a film that took an easy route to the screen, and its very genesis is really up for debate.
The official story is that Poltergeist was one of the two projects that came out of the scrapped John Sayles script, Night Skies. I wrote about Night Skies a few years ago; here’s the gist:
Written by John Sayles, the script for Night Skies came from a treatment by Spielberg. The director was anxious to head off another Jaws 2; Columbia wanted a sequel to Close Encounters of the Third King and, like Universal with Jaws, could go ahead and make one without him. He decided to pitch them a movie originally called Watch the Skies (named after the last line from Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World, but that phrase was owned by someone else and thus ditched), which was a horror movie take on alien visitation. Inspired by cattle mutilations and the story of a Tennessee family supposedly terrorized by little aliens in the 50s (a story relayed to Spielberg by J Allen Hynek, the UFOlogist who came up with the Close Encounters system in the first place), Spielberg’s film would find a farm family coming under attack by 11 (reduced to 6 in the final draft) evil extra-terrestrials. The aliens would work their way up from cattle mutilation to really menacing the humans.
Sayles envisioned the film as a riff on Drums Along the Mohawk, John Ford’s awesome Revolutionary War-period film about Henry Fonda and family fending off Indian attacks on their upstate New York farm. Sayles named the leader of the aliens Skar, after the Indian chief in Ford’s The Searchers. And at the center of the family he placed an autistic boy, who could reach out to the one good alien in the bunch.
Sayles’ script is like a harbinger of E.T., Poltergeist and Gremlins, but never is quite as good as any of those. There’s some serious tension and good scares and then absolutely silly stuff like an alien named Squirt eating a pie while being chased around a kitchen by a broom-wielding granny. The good alien, Buddee, has it out with Skar and gets left behind on Earth. He’s very much in the ET mold and does all sorts of cute stuff and hides in a clothes hamper and things like that.
As Sayles was writing the script Spielberg was making Raider of the Lost Ark; apparently as he was killing Nazis the director decided he wanted to do something lighter and sweeter next (even though he never intended to direct Night Skies and had in fact tapped Tobe Hooper to do it); he read his treatment to Harrison Ford’s girlfriend Melissa Matheson, and she really identified with the Buddee character. The two worked together on reforging the story into E.T.
Before Night Skies really went away, Spielberg brought it to Tobe Hooper, thinking he might be a good choice to helm the project. Hooper declined, but he pitched Spielberg an idea for a ghost story that he had been playing with.
ET is really the beneficiary of the Night Skies DNA, but the family in peril stuff definitely migrated to Poltergeist. It’s unclear just what Hooper had in mind for his ghost movie; the director had inherited Robert Wise’s old office at Universal and had discovered a book about poltergeists left behind from Wise’s research for The Haunting. This clicked something in Hooper, who realized there had been very, very few really great ghost movies. So while aliens might not be correct for the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, ghosts felt about right.
Spielberg and Hooper worked together on a treatment called Nighttime; this version has the Freelings with four children, one of whom is Carol Anne, but the rest are different. They live in a planned community that surrounds a mall, which is the center of life. The ghosts don’t really manifest physically, and nobody gets kidnapped - instead the ghosts possess members of the Freeling family, most notably Steve while he’s fucking his wife (Nora in the original treatment). And she loves it!
The source of the haunting turns out to be a group of pioneers massacred by Indians a hundred years before; the community has been built on their bones. The eldest Freeling daughter had discovered and become obsessed by a record of pioneer songs, and it seems like that triggered the problems. The haunting of the Freelings is a bit more low key - spectral forms under blankets in bed, furniture moving about, a long ghost kiss (complete with a handprint on Nora’s face, not unlike The Entity). The treatment has no real ending, but one proposed concept is that the haunting doesn’t end with the Freelings and spreads to all the neighbors. Eventually the community is evacuated and as the residents flee they see ghost fires starting behind them, burning the suburb to the ground. That’s a pretty definitive anti-suburban statement.
The Freelings, the suburbs, Carol Anne, a lot of haunting surrounding TV and an early version of Tangina (called Tagina) are all in the Nighttime treatment. But the hauntings are pretty different, and there’s one killer haunting set piece - a babysitter tells the Freeling children a ghost story, and the ghosts in the house one up her the whole way through, sending her screaming from the home - that’s missing from Poltergeist.
The big missing piece is Carol Anne’s abduction; in the finished film this is the center of the story in terms of emotion and theme, and without that abduction Nighttime feels like it’s grasping for a reason to exist. So where does that key piece of the story originate?
Two actors, Paul Clemens (from The Beast Within and Fantastic Fest favorite The Horribly Slow Murdererer With The Extremely Inefficient Weapon) and Bennett Michael Yellin, sent a spec script to Amblin in 1980. Housebound, registered with the Writers Guild in 1979, supposedly had 67 points of similarity to Poltergeist, and included elements not seen in Nighttime, such as the tree that comes to life, a doorway becoming a throat, bodies coming up from underneath the house (they were people who drowned in a swamp in Housebound) and a young daughter being kidnapped by the house.
Clemens and Yellin sued Spielberg over what they called ‘story misappropriation,’ but the case never went to court. While Clemens and Yellin didn’t have a vital messenger receipt proving that Housebound was sent to Amblin, the case was settled before actually seeing the inside of a court room in 1986. Nobody knows the terms of the settlement.
It’s important to note that Amblin probably saw hundreds of unsolicited scripts come through the door. Every production company does. And most of the time these scripts never make it past the front desk for precisely this reason - innocent similarities can begin to look sinister. That isn’t to say that the similarities here are innocent, especially since this isn’t the only strange aspect of Poltergeist’s script development, but it does seem unlikely that out of the hundreds or thousands of unsolicited specs that showed up at Amblin THIS ONE would get before Spielberg’s eyes.
Clemens and Yellin based their suit on a first draft of the script that hit Hollywood. Another person who saw that draft and cried foul was Frank DeFelitta, the author of the book and screenplay for The Entity. Apparently an early version of Diane’s ghost assault was way too close to his story, and he complained to MGM (the sequence, which has Nora being raped, even includes invisible hands kneading her breasts, one of the most infamous elements of The Entity). According to a 1982 Cinefantastique article, the script was changed because of the complaint (but it’s also easy to imagine it being changed for ratings concerns - the scene as described is more than PG).
And this still isn’t the end of it. These elements - the tree, the doorway, the ghost assault - can all be chalked up to similar thinking. But there’s one big element central to Poltergeist as we know it that feels so utterly lifted from elsewhere that it’s impossible to ignore, and that’s Carol Anne’s abduction which so mirrors an episode of The Twilight Zone that at times Poltergeist feels like an adaptation.
The episode in question is called Little Girl Lost, written by Richard Matheson and based on his own short story. In this episode a girl named Tina Miller is put to bed by her parents and mysteriously disappears. But she hasn’t gone far, as her parents can still hear her calls for help echoing in the house from someplace beyond. When the family dog runs under the bed looking for the girl and disappears the father realizes something is really amiss; he examines the wall by Tina’s bed and discovers (and tapes off) a portal to another dimension. With the help of an outside investigator (a physicist), the father goes to the Other Side in search of his daughter, pulling her back at the last minute before the portal closes.
That’s the heart of Poltergeist. And it isn’t as though Spielberg was unfamiliar with The Twilight Zone or Matheson; Spielberg’s first film, Duel, was written by Matheson and at the time Poltergeist was in development Spielberg had The Twilight Zone: The Movie cooking. In fact there were some reports that Spielberg had discussed doing a Little Girl Lost adaptation with Matheson.
One thing Poltergeist certainly improves upon with the concept - it doesn’t follow the parent to the Other Side. The Twilight Zone’s version of the mysterious dimension is pretty cheesy and disappointing, and Poltergeist wisely leaves all of that up to our imaginations.
This still isn’t the end of argument about the writing of Poltergeist. The Nighttime treatment became It’s Nighttime, which still wasn’t exactly the Poltergeist that we know now. Carol Anne remains unabducted, a possessed vessel for the spirits of dead settlers massacred by Indians. And many of the familiar scenes are still not there, although this version also has some cool stuff that never made the final film (including a scene where Diane/Nora takes a bath and the tub fills with blood).
So what happened between these treatments and the finished film? Here comes some mystery. At one point Spielberg reached out to Stephen King to write the movie, but the author declined. Then Michael Grais and Mark Victor entered the picture, taking a meeting with Spielberg for a remake of A Guy Named Joe (which would become Always). They took a shine to the ghost treatment.
But what did they do? There are stories of Spielberg, Hooper, Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy and others literally locking themselves in a room and frantically churning out a script, Spielberg at the typewriter as people called out concepts and ideas. This sort of a scenario would help explain some seemingly ‘lifted’ elements - in the heat of a brainstorming session it’s possible to forget the genesis of certain good ideas and think they’re your own. It’s one of the worst problems facing creative types; Paul McCartney resisted writing Yesterday, which came to him in a dream, because he was certain he must be unconsciously appropriating the tune from elsewhere.
Did that script (or likely big, messy treatment) then end up in the hands of Grais and Victor, who turned it into something usable? Spielberg, Grais and Victor are the only names on the script, despite Hooper claiming to have been creatively involved the whole way (Hooper’s name isn’t even on the Nighttime treatment). Others say that Hooper was just sort of there, along for the ride - a claim that would continue to haunt him during the making of the film.
If the film’s trip from concept to script is muddled, things only get worse with shooting. Anyone who has seen Poltergeist will immediately lump it into the Spielberg film canon; while Spielberg has produced a ton of films, I can’t think of another that looks and feels so much like his own work (except maybe Super 8, and that’s a deliberate aping). Even if Spielberg didn’t ‘direct’ the film, he was powerfully, heavily involved in it every step of the way, leaving his fingerprints all over the production.
Tobe Hooper insists that he directed the film, full stop. He has the complete credit. The reality, though, might be much more complicated than “Hooper directed it/Spielberg directed it.” It all might come down to a point of view situation - where one might see a strong producer stepping in for a weak director, others might see a director who knew when to accept close collaboration with one of the great modern filmmakers.
The rumors began while the film was still shooting; the LA Times visited the set of the movie and observed Spielberg shooting scenes (either the bit where kids chase a bicyclist with an RC car or some shots of Buzz in the backyard). But there has to be more than that - second unit happens on every single film and this wouldn’t be the only time in history a producer (who is also a director) shot second unit. No journalist worth a shit would mistake that for anything but Spielberg pitching in on second unit.
Spielberg was heavily involved from the start; while Hooper says that he did half the storyboards himself that still leaves half the storyboards for someone else. Department heads have gone on the record to say that Spielberg would make final creative decisions, vetoing elements that Hooper had okayed and coming up with his own ideas. For Hooper this was a sign of his desire to collaborate. Talking to the LA Times upon Poltergeist’s release, when rumors were already swirling, Hooper had this to say:
“I always saw this film as a collaborative situation between my producer, my writer, and myself. Two of those people were Steven Spielberg, but I directed the film and I did fully half of the story boards. I'm quite proud of what I did...I can't understand why I'm being slighted. I love the changes that were made from my cut. I worked for a very good producer who is also a great showman. I felt that was a plus, because Steven and I think in terms of the same visual style."
I think that the reality on set is that Hooper was simply overshadowed by Spielberg, who was invested in the story and who possibly saw Hooper as a guy without strong leadership qualities. Here’s what Spielberg said in 1982:
"Tobe isn't what you'd call a take-charge sort of guy. He's just not a strong presence on a movie set. If a question was asked and an answer wasn't immediately forthcoming, I'd jump up and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that became the process of the collaboration. I did not want to direct the movie-I had to do 'E.T.' five weeks after principal photography on 'Poltergeist.'"
Talking to Ain’t It Cool News, Zelda Rubinstein flatly stated that Spielberg directed the film, at least on her six days on set. But she does undermine some extreme conspiracy theories, which have Hooper leaving the set altogether: “Tobe set up the shots and Steven made the adjustments.”
Did that situation change over the course of shooting? Rubinstein’s stuff was shot about 20 days into production, at which point the show had obviously found its groove. James Karen shot most of his stuff in the first few days, and he adamantly states that Hooper was the director (Karen remains very pro-Hooper. In fact, he got involved in Return of the Living Dead back when it was still going to be a Tobe Hooper film). It seems possible that as Hooper’s laid back attitude became a problem, Spielberg stepped in more and more. In that AICN interview Rubinstein blames much of Hooper’s problem on ‘chemicals,’ by which she surely meant drugs.
Spielberg was on the set every single day of shooting (except for three days when he went to Hawaii with George Lucas, probably as an Indiana Jones summit). He was hands on every step of the way. There is no doubt that the finished film is simply full of his DNA, and even at the time Spielberg recognized that he loomed in every single frame of the film. Again, from the 1982 LA Times story:
"My enthusiasm for wanting to make 'Poltergeist' would have been difficult for any director I would have hired. It derived from my imagination and my experiences, and it came out of my typewriter [after re-writing the Grais/Victor draft]. I felt a proprietary interest in this project that was stronger than if I was just an executive producer. I thought I'd be able to turn 'Poltergeist' over to a director and walk away. I was wrong. [On future films] If I write it myself, I'll direct it myself. I won't put someone else through what I put Tobe through, and I'll be more honest in my contributions to a film."
And, as seems to be the case with the development of this film, things don’t get any clearer in post. Every department head involved in post-production says the same thing: Tobe Hooper delivered his cut of the film and then was promptly shut out. Composer Jerry Goldsmith says he worked only with Spielberg, which is highly unusual. Hooper wasn’t involved in the sound mix or the FX work. Some people say that after he handed in his cut the next time he was involved with the film was when it was first screened; he hadn’t even seen that cut before it was shown to people.
And there are other, crazier rumors. I’ve heard unsubstantiated claims that a few days into shooting Hooper freaked out and locked himself away, forcing Spielberg to step in. I’ve heard unsubstantiated claims that not only did Spielberg direct the whole thing, Robert Zemeckis stepped in for him on the days when he was out of town or dealing with ET. And these are just the less crazy rumors surrounding the whole film. My favorite wacky theory is that Spielberg cannibalized an MGM TV movie for the script and then forced the company to shelve the film, unaired.
But the truth, I think, is more mundane. Steven Spielberg got really excited about this movie. He was torn between this and ET, and he opted for ET. But as production went on it became clear to him that Hooper was not a strong director, and Spielberg felt compelled to step in - and honestly wanted to step in. He wanted to direct the movie.
Thirty years after Poltergeist came out and the stories and rumors began swirling I believe the key to it all lies in an article published when the film was released. That 1982 LA Times piece feels like the Rosetta Stone of Poltergeist, explaining how Hooper worked with actors and was on set but found himself really operating as an underling of Spielberg. As with any film set there are many versions how this worked, but everybody seemed to agree that Spielberg was calling all of the shots.
Why that was allowed to continue, why Hooper wasn’t just removed (as he eventually was during post) and why Spielberg didn’t simply direct the film comes from a Directors Guild rule: if you fire a director you cannot replace him with someone who was already on the film before his firing. That includes a producer. The best they could have done would have been to bring in a different figurehead to replace Hooper. Spielberg could never get the credit.
In fact, the rumors surrounding it all came to a head just before the film’s release, and the Directors Guild opened an investigation. Spielberg took the unusual step of placing a full page ad in the Hollywood Reporter essentially apologizing to Hooper and giving him full credit for directing the film:
Regrettably, some of the press has misunderstood the rather unique, creative relationship which you and I shared throughout the making of Poltergeist.
I enjoyed your openness in allowing me... a wide berth for creative involvement, just as I know you were happy with the freedom you had to direct Poltergeist so wonderfully.
Through the screenplay you accepted a vision of this very intense movie from the start, and as the director, you delivered the goods. You performed responsibly and professionally throughout, and I wish you great success on your next project.
Cinema is the ultimate collaborative artform. It takes dozens, sometimes hundreds of people - each bringing their own vision and point of view, in even the tiniest of ways - to make a movie. And the idea of a director as the author of a film only really began in the 50s; before that it was producers who were the authors, with screenwriters and directors tasked with bringing the producer’s vision to life. In that way the filming of Poltergeist maybe wasn’t so different from how movies were made back in Hollywood’s golden age. Gone With the Wind went through THREE directors, and in the end it’s really David O Selznick’s vision.
Talking about who directed or wrote what is interesting, and this is one of the great discussion topics for film nerds, but I still think the most important thing to remember about Poltergeist isn’t what happened on set, but what happens when you watch it. Whoever made it, the film works. Thirty years later that’s all that matters.
This article would not have been possible without the incredible archival material at Poltergeist: The Fan Site, curated by David Furtney. I am especially indebted to him for collecting the LA Times article from May 24, 1982, which is sadly not available on the Times' own website.