Did Steven Spielberg Direct Poltergeist?

Poltergeist is a 1982 supernatural horror film supposedly directed by Tobe Hooper. But rumours have surfaced for years that Steven Spielberg was at the helm. Top 10 Films tries to find out what really happened…

Who directed Poltergeist - Hooper or SpielbergThe question of who directed Poltergeist has fascinated fans of the film ever since an article about its production appeared in a 1982 edition of the L.A. Times. 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 terrorised 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, film-making 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

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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.

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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 argument behind the question 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 didn’t matter to Spielberg that he 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.

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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.

Part of Steven Spielberg Week on Top10Films (11th to 19th September 2010)

Written by Daniel Stephens

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    amy Reply

    I’m still not sure WHY Spielberg was not allowed to work on two movies at a time… I can’t remember if the films were backed by different studios. I think they do mention it in the DVD… or maybe I saw a documentary – you know, the one that talked about the scary stuff in the film xD – and they do talk about it. I always saw it as “Spielberg had a lot of say in it”.

    When I was little, it was always the white noise on the tv, and that ominous “They’re here”. Even scarier with all the crazy deaths and stuff.

  2. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    One day this will all be made clear: probably after all the participants are dead and gone, and somebody gets to write the tell-all book we’re all waiting for!!!

    I’d only heard a whisper about this issue: glad to see a little more explanation (and hypothesis) about it!!!

  3. Avatar
    Horror Writer Reply

    At Necon, a horror writing conference, in the mid eighties, I was present when “The Fury” author John Farris spoke at length about being on set, and said, point blank, that “Tobe Hooper was coked to the gills” during the shoot, which is why Speilberg took over — although contractually it had to be Hooper listed as director. Prior to this the rumor mill was rife with reason after another, and cocaine was chief among them. Farris confirmed it.

    • Avatar
      Poltergeist_Thoughts Reply

      Bet he was on the set for a total of half a day. I heard about another individual who had absolutely no role in the film visiting the set and Spielberg was not present. Must have been his coke soiree day.

  4. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Horror Writer: thank you for that…interesting stuff and another indication of Spielberg’s creative influence on Poltergeist.

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    moviegeek Reply

    Very good post.
    I do think he directed it. Hopper might have shouted action and cut a few times but that’s pretty much about it.
    The film has way to many trademarks from “the beard” not to be his own work.

  8. Avatar
    Fogs Reply

    FANTASTIC piece.

    Thank you for compiling all those facts. I’ve always known about the “question”, now I feel much closer to having the “answer”

    AWESOME job!

  9. Avatar
    MovieGeek Reply

    Just a mention a few of the reasons why it’s a Spielberg-directed movie:
    the kids on bicycles, the suburban environment, the amazing performances by young children, the types of camera-work (the amazing shot of the corridor getting longer and longer, just to mention one), the humour mixed with edge-of-your-seat-thrills, the choice of cinematography (And all those flares on lenses), michael kahn editing, the type of music used (not John WIlliams, but the closest thing to John WIlliams that Jerry Goldsmith has ever written), the references to Star Wars (in the kids bedroom), the amazing skills in creating tension (like in the scene with the clown), the big horror-like climax at the end, the fact that in the making of on the laser Disc you can hardly see Toby Hooper, the fact that Toby Hooper did almost nothing worth seeing after Poltegeist (although cheekily Spielberg did offered him episodes from both Amazing Stories and Taken). I’m sure there are 1000 more to list, that it’s pointless.
    just look at the movie and judge for yourself.

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  11. Avatar
    Christopher R. Witherspoon Reply

    I think that the question that answers everything is, “Why hasn’t Toby Hooper directed anything, even near the caliber of Poltergeist before or since?”.

    • Avatar
      Richard Chamberlain Reply

      You don’t think The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Salems Lot, The Funhouse or Lifeforce deserve honourable mentions?? Horror director Mick Garris who was also privileged to have been on the set of Poltergeist recently stated Poltergeist was essentially a Tobe Hooper film, yes Speilberg had creative input and was heavily involved in production but Hooper did direct the movie and deserved the sole credit.

  12. Avatar
    PT Reply

    Fact-checks:

    1) The LA Times article published May 1982 was a general investigation into the controversy that had resulted in the DGA lawsuit (presumably with Hooper’s urging) that alleged he was being discredited by the studio and producers via the press (just look at the paltry released set photos and the one-sided Making Of featurette). Spielberg still couldn’t seem to let go of his particularly compulsive mindset and answered with that “Not a take-charge guy” quote. Frank Marshall had been downplaying Hooper and talking up Spielberg with meaningless dribble about Spielberg’s involvement storyboarding (yes, he was involved, but every filmmaker, including Spielberg, knows storyboards are made only to be broke away from by the director – and this fact is in evidence by the storyboards we do have of the film). Thus, Hooper’s complaints to the DGA.

    2) Making a ghost story was Hooper’s idea. Spielberg wanted him to direct “Night Skies” in the effort to start producing more and Hooper told him his long gestating idea to make a film about poltergeist activity.

    3) If the changes from the *Spielberg-written* script are anything to go by, “Hooper rarely got his way” is a very hasty conclusion to arrive at. Steven Spielberg: “Well, turmoil in producing is essentially created by wanting to do it your own way and having to go through procedure. That is why I will never again not direct a movie I write. It was frustrating for Tobe Hooper and it was frustrating for the actors, who were pretty torn between by presence and his on the set every day. But rather than Tobe saying, ‘I can’t stand it. Go to Hawaii, get off the set,’ he’d laugh and I’d laugh. If he’d said, ‘I’ve got some ideas that you’re not letting into this movie, I would love you to see dailies, consult, but don’t be on the set,’ I probably would have left.” So according to both Hooper and Spielberg, the collaboration was mostly harmonious. It sounds like the rumors are exactly that: rumors.

    4) Those are very apocryphal stories about Spielberg assisting with the child actors, but Oliver Robins, the actor who played Robbie, has said explicitly he mostly remembers being directed by Hooper, and most other outspoken actors fall on Hooper’s side. Even Zelda Rubinstein’s final word on this topic was this: “I believe [the direction] was a split decision.” But she’d always had a bone to pick with Hooper, not cottoning to him from the moment she auditioned for him.

    5) Yeah, Frank Marshall’s comments always had the angle of a marketer. He was shelling that line out since early in 1982, it’s no wonder Hooper decided to sue.

    • Avatar
      PT Reply

      Addendum to Item 1: The very early reports that began the rumors of Spielberg’s “overwhelming” presence began mere days into the production, and it was most likely the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Again, the Los Angeles Times article was late-in-the-game summarizing of the way those early reportings and rumors snowballed into a litigious matter.

  13. Avatar
    Mark Fraser Reply

    Some good points raised here. I bought a second hand copy of the 25th anniversary DVD edition of the movie last week after reading all this (for $2.50), and there’s no interviews with either Spielberg or Hooper in the extras. At times it looks like a Spielberg movie, but after Close Encounters any shots in which the lights were covered by blue gels would look Spielberg-esque. Plus he wrote it; and he produced it, so it might well be his baby. The static shots of the front of the house, though, look Chainsaw-esque. Plus the film has a really peculiar edit, when the cut occurs on a line of dialogue and happens on the flash of lightning (when Craig and Jobeth go to the neighbour’s house and get bitten by mosquitos). I doubt Spielberg would have allowed such jarringness. Certainly there’s a Spielberg aesthetic underpinning the whole thing, but if it was a Spielberg movie – and if we were all serious film critics – we’d all be saying it looked like one of his lazy days out, which suggests that maybe it isn’t quite completely one of his.

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