Did Spielberg direct Poltergeist?
Who directed Poltergeist is a question that has been raised many times between fans of the film ever since an article appeared in the L.A. Times in 1982. The article, about a set visit during principle photography, queried whether credited director Tobe Hooper was actually at the helm. On the day of the newspaper’s visit Steven Spielberg was directing some on-location shots and Hooper was nowhere to be seen.
It’s no secret the film came from a Spielberg idea. In fact, the genesis of Poltergeist was based around the Oscar-winning director’s Night Skies project about a family terrorized in their home by an evil alien. Spielberg ended up making the alien peaceful and loving and thus we got E.T. Realising that his original idea may be too dark for his own audience, Spielberg adapted Night Skies once again, making the alien a ghost and thus Poltergeist was born.
“The creative force of the movie was Steven. Steven did the design for every storyboard and he was on the set every day.” – Co-Producer Frank Marshall
The problem that has always troubled me is how Poltergeist feels like a Spielberg movie (a Spielberg story, directed with a Spielberg mentality). It follows the same themes the director has probed his entire career (childhood, family, loss, the supernatural). The film is a far cry from Hooper’s low-budget shocker The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it isn’t as implicitly violent, it features far more special-effects (albeit, the film had a much bigger budget), and it has a much more mainstream, less documentary-inspired feel about it. It’s also, when you look at Tobe Hooper’s career post-The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – the likes of such rubbish as Invaders From Mars and The Mangler dominating his C.V. – far too good to be Hooper film.
Aside from aesthetic evidence there has always been some ambiguity from people who worked on the set (the actors and the production staff) about who was running the show. Indeed, Spielberg produced so many films he didn’t direct yet Poltergeist is the only one where his role is unclear.
Of course, filmmaking is a collaborative effort, you only have to look at the eight minute end of movie credit sequences to know that. Yet, the imaginative and creative force behind a film has to come from the person directing it, and the ambiguity surrounding Poltergeist arises because Hooper’s creative force was either seriously diminished under Spielberg or rendered practically null and void.
“I can tell you that Steven directed all six days I was there.” – Zelda Rubinstein
Hooper and Spielberg had creative differences right off the bat and rarely did Hooper get his way. Dominique Dunne who played Anna Freeling in the movie said that she was directed by Spielberg and that in one scene he asked her to have a hickey on her neck. She argued against it but Spielberg got what he wanted. Dunne has also mentioned how it was Spielberg who comforted little Heather O’Rourke when she became frightened during scenes.
There is another story from the set that concerns Oliver Robins who, during the scene where the clown attacks him, it was Spielberg who told him to ‘keep going’ as he was so authentically acting. When Spielberg realised the actor was actually being strangulated by the puppet, he ran to Robins, saving his life.
But perhaps this only suggests Spielberg helped out with the young actors and added a few creative touches here and there. It does however add to the speculation. Why, for example, does the Turner Classic Movies documentary feature both Spielberg and Hooper on set yet no shots of Hooper actually doing any direction.
But most illuminating and perhaps the most definitive idea of who directed Poltergeist comes from Zelda Rubinstein who played Tangina in the movie. Rubinstein told Ain’t It Cool news: “I can tell you that Steven directed all six days I was there. I only worked six days on the film and Steven was there. Tobe set up the shots and Steven made the adjustments.”
Consider the fact that due to a contractual agreement with Universal Studios, Spielberg could not direct another movie while preparing E.T: The Extraterrestrial. Spielberg’s vague but interesting comments point to the idea that Hooper wasn’t a force on the movie. He says, “Tobe isn’t a take-charge sort of guy. If a question was asked and an answer wasn’t immediately forthcoming, I’d jump in and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that became the process of collaboration.”
Spielberg couldn’t contractually direct another movie while E.T. was being prepped, so he simply hired Tobe Hooper to stand in for the credit, and directed it anyway.
The Director’s Guild of America even opened an investigation into whether the ‘Directed by’ credit was valid, and the film’s co-producer Frank Marshall said, “the creative force of the movie was Steven. Tobe was the director and was on the set every day. But Steven did the design for every storyboard and he was on the set every day except for three days when he was in Hawaii with Lucas.”
Perhaps it doesn’t matter that because Spielberg couldn’t contractually direct another movie while E.T. was being prepped, he simply hired another director to stand in for the credit, and directed it anyway.
Poltergeist is an excellent supernatural-horror film, so why all the fuss? Well, it’s one of those Hollywood controversies, the sort of story that gives the industry a mystique it loves to manipulate. After all, the Poltergeist set was haunted, and the actors were cursed, but that’s a whole other story.