Who Really Directed "Poltergeist?" (3 of 3)


Another source who worked on the film told me:

"In the beginning, Steven did occasionally yell action and say cut. Sometimes the actors got two different sets of directions from two directors. Sometimes they would be the opposite directions. After about three days of that, Beatrice Straight put her foot down and said she would only listen to one director. That was Tobe. After that, Steven was often on the set, but since he was prepping ET he wasn't there all the time. The only time I ever saw him really fight with Tobe was after an entire day of shooting a scene with Beatrice Straight and the other two scientists involving a great deal of gobblety-gook dialogue, Tobe just couldn't get the shot. Steven came onto the set and was very upset - there was a lot of ugly yelling - and Tobe just stood there taking it. Beatrice Straight, again the hero of the day, finally stood up to Steven, said that the dialogue (which I believe Steven himself had written for the scene) was unplayable and that Sir Laurence Olivier himself couldn't act such badly-written dreck. She made it very clear that Tobe was not to be blamed. Steven was very quiet and about five minutes later the cast and crew were all dismissed for the day. The next day the actors came back to the set and were handed new dialogue, which again I believe Steven had rewritten. It was 100% better and Tobe shot the scene in about an hour with no problem. But before shooting commenced, Steven got up in front of the entire cast and crew and apologized for the outburst and said Tobe was not to blame for the previous day's delays. It was one of the most generous, selfless and courageous things I had ever seen on a movie set. "

"BenThere" then disputed the particulars of the above recollection:

"I vehemently disagree with almost every detail recounted in that quote. I do not doubt your word that this person worked on the film - so, on that point, I stand corrected, but I believe I'm wrong ONLY on that point. As I said before: 'I'm just plain tired of hearing so much pure conjecture from the public - and so much pure BS from its principal players.' Certainly, my witness IS in the minority, as, to the best of my knowledge, no 'Poltergeist' cast or crew member has EVER publicly stated 'the whole truth and nothing but the truth' on the subject of its director. It may be said, that, in my many years of silence, I DID suppress the truth... but I most certainly DID NOT EVER perpetuate the falsities and outright lies as have so often been professed by many of our cast and crew.

By phone, I've already contacted two other 'Poltergeist' crew members who, like myself, were present 'on set' each and every day of shooting. As well, like myself, neither recall any such exchange among Steven, Tobe, and Beatrice - and, believe me - it's almost impossible that all three of us would EVER forget (or never even hear mentioned) such a 'generous, selfless, and courageous' apology as is claimed to have been given 'the entire cast and crew"... by Mr. Spielberg, no less!!

Semi-Interesting Side Note: Based on my intimate familiarity with the making of "Poltergeist," I believe the claimed exchange of dialogue and subsequent apology could only have taken place in the Interior Freeling House Set (ie. - kitchen, dining room, living room, downstairs bathroom, and staircase with upstairs landing, hall and bedroom doors). Most likely it would have occurred sometime around our shooting the Dr. Lesh / Diane discussion as a tea pot slides across the dining table on its own power... or the scene where Ryan (Richard Lawson) is listening to music via headphones while, simultaneously, sketching his version of a ghostly apparition - even as he fails to notice that his scientific 'ghost image capturing' equipment is, also, stirring to action. What's 'interesting' here is twofold: Firstly, we shot both of those scenes on the same day. Secondly, it was the ONLY day that Mr. Spielberg was, IN FACT, 'very upset - (and indeed) there was a lot of ugly yelling.' Your source got that much right and I would never again see him SO vocally express his displeasure to anyone else. By the way... (geez, I almost forgot)... most interesting of all is this: He was not 'upset' with, nor did he 'yell' at Tobe Hooper. He was upset with... and he yelled at... ME!"

Certainly, it IS possible that Beatrice's objections, Steven's outburst to Tobe, and Steven's apology were known only to a select group of individuals and not to so large a group as was inferred by your source. What DID happen in witness of a large number of cast and crew was Steven's outburst to me. Let me be very clear on this point: Some directors, (too many actually) are, in fact, "reamer/screamers" and they can be easily agitated and/or moved to anger by even the smallest of problems or setbacks. Mr. Spielberg, however, is NOT among them. He is a most cordial person, but he is human, after all, and his emotional facilities are definitely intact.

For very practical reasons, the entire film, or quite nearly the entire film was storyboarded. In purely artistic terms, the action as depicted in "Poltergeist's" storyboards was quite simple in nature... almost cartoonish. (This is not to slight our, then, storyboard artist, Ed Verreaux, who is now a production designer. His sketches were drawn in the style and manner of Steven's request.) In the earlier stages of preparing "Poltergeist" we were told the storyboards should not be taken too literally - they were not "the bible," then again, neither was the script, but I digress. The storyboards were most useful in keeping the entire crew 'all on the same page' and they provided a good deal of information as to how Steven wanted the film to be shot, especially in terms of his preferred camera angles, lens sizes, and camera movements.

Twenty five years later, I have yet to work another film that was so completely storyboarded as was "Poltergeist." The combined bulk of the storyboards made them almost twice as thick as the script itself and a steady stream of changes to both required our constant and diligent upkeep. As our remaining number of prep days decreased, emphasis on our knowledge of (and, therefore, the importance of) those storyboards increased. In short, it turned out that, sometimes, those storyboards WERE considered "the bible."

No more than a couple or three weeks before we began shooting, I was forced to inform Tobe the limitations on some of the technical equipment to be used in the film. I also confessed a lack of certain expertise on my part as well. Tobe was actually quite gracious and accomodating. He asked if his cutting the scene - in a place where neither the script nor the storyboards called for a cut - would solve my problem. Indeed, it would, and by his agreeance to do just that, I was greatly relieved.

Only days into our shoot, however, as we began to rehearse that scene it suddenly dawned on me that neither Tobe nor myself had ever made Steven aware of my problem and our agreed upon cut. My greatest fear was realized then as Steven's blocking of the scene did not allow the cut that I'd been assured of. I looked over at Tobe and he just raised his hands and rolled his eyes as if to say, "Hey... tell Steven your problem... I ain't directing this thing!" At that point, it became my distinct and very unfortunate task to tell Steven that I could not accomodate the shot he wanted to do. Quite frankly, I fully expected a swift and harsh reaction to that news... and, geez-louise... did I ever get it! I won't detail his exact words or the heated manner in which he communicated his thoughts, but, in essence, he wanted to know why I had failed to accomplish something that had been in the script AND in the storyboards for some three months.

In the moment, I did not take his wrath well... but I took it. Later that day, I had occasion to return that disfavor to him in nearly the same tone and in, exactly, the same words. Like I said before, you CAN argue with Steven... but you damn well better have good reason. If you don't have good reason, however, well you damn well better be nothing short of RIGHT!"

[I asked: And I'm assuming the shot in question involved Ryan making the pencil sketch while the camera tilts up toward the stairs...?]

"That is correct."

Here's another interesting rumor that someone posted on the IMDB:


A famous rumor has it that the final shot (which was also the final shot of the entire production) was actually photographed by Spielberg himself, with Hooper off with several crew members getting drunk...he'd had enough and had left Spielberg to do whatever he wanted to do on the last night of shooting (something that King Vidor did to David O. Selznick on the last day of filming "Duel in the Sun"). I highly suspect this is a true story...that and another aside that said once the interior house sets had been shot out, Hooper punched holes in all the walls...Remember JoBeth Williams' words, "If I'd been Tobe I might have been resentful."

Some interesting message board posts from industry insiders follow.



The basic thing was that the aliens in NIGHT SKIES were impish, even dangerous, and Spielberg thought that didn't match with the benign aliens of CE3K. The impish/dangerous part went on over to POLTERGEIST.


As for POLTERGEIST--what happened was that suddenly the producers realized they were about to release a family-oriented movie directed by none other than the director of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. The idea that Spielberg really directed the film, not Hooper, was actually created in house and leaked carefully to the press. Spielberg did direct a couple of scenes, but no more than that (though those are his hands in the fantasy scene of the guy pulling his face to pieces).
The making-of film created for the movie was part of this rejiggering everything to make POLTERGEIST a Spielberg movie rather than a Hooper movie. In it, there are several shots of Spielberg on the set; there's a single shot of Hooper, deep in the background, saying nothing, labeled "Tobe Hooper-Director." The official still set included a couple of shots of Spielberg; the only one featuring Hooper also included Spielberg, pointing something out to Tobe.
Hooper was TRYING to make the movie in the Spielberg style; that was the point of the script.
Another odd story that I think is true. Some people have noticed that the plot of POLTERGEIST is similar to that of Richard Matheson's story "Little Girl Lost," dramatized on TWILIGHT ZONE. Supposedly, Matheson was one of those who noticed this. Supposedly, TWILIGHT ZONE THE MOVIE was made largely to pay Matheson a big chunk of change to keep him from filing a plagiarism lawsuit over POLTERGEIST. But as I say, this is all "supposedly"--I have no way of knowing if this is true, just that I have heard this from some fairly reliable sources. But I know nothing of the reliability of THEIR sources.


Fanboys did not start the rumors. The impression was deliberately perpetrated by the film's promotional campaign. Tobe Hooper was a cult figure because of CHAINSAW MASSACRE, but his name didn't mean anything on a marquee; if anything it might scare away the intended audience of a PG film. Spielberg, on the other hand, had already directed some BIG movies, and audiences knew his name.

Before the film was released, I attended some kind of promo event at the Norris Theatre on the U.S.C. campus. The P.R. guy for the film came down and every other word out of his mouth was "Spielberg." Finally, someone asked him who directed the film, and his two-word answer was "Tobe Hooper." That was the first and last time Hooper's name was mentioned out loud that day. The p.r. guy went right back into his "Spielberg-Spielberg-Spielberg" routine.

There was also a short behind-the-scenes documentary, which consisted amost entirely of footage of Speilberg. There was one brief shot of Hooper somewhere on the sidelines, with his can of coke in his hand, standing silently. A subtitle identified him as the director, and that was it.

The whole question of who directed the movie comes up because of auteurist assumptions that the final film must represent the director's vision. Ergo, iit feels like a Spielberg film, Spielberg must have directed. POLTERGEIST is, I think, simply a Steven Spielberg production, directed by Tobe Hooper - kind of like THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is a Howard Hawks production directed by Christian Nybe.



A friend of mine who worked on the set of POLTERGEIST told me that most of the film was directed by Spielberg though I don't recall if he ever said what the percentage was. There is a line in an above post "...Hooper somewhere on the sidelines, with his can of coke in his hand, standing silently" that is just about how my friend described the situation on the set. The one night I was there during production it's my recollection that Spielberg was literally calling the shots. I realize this is all second hand and anecdotal so it doesn't really prove anything.

Since my first post on this topic I had a chance to check with my friend who worked on the set during the production of POLTERGEIST. Your description "of Spielberg directing the cast while Hooper is in a chair just watching them" is exactly what he told me it was like there. Hooper did not seem happy with the arraignment, according to my friend, but there wasn't much he could do about it.


I did some articles on POLTERGEIST, though I forget who for. While the film was in production, rumors leaked out that Hooper had largely been supplanted as director by Spielberg. When I interviewed Frank Marshall, I asked him who'd directed the movie. His face froze, he paused, then asked why I wanted to know the answer to a question that didn't really seem to need to be asked. He said that Hooper directed it, but that Spielberg was also on the set a lot, and of course offered his input. I suspect this relates to the "director can't take over officially from producer" rule mentioned above--but it may have had another origin.
Spielberg liked TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE; it was his idea to hire Hooper. But then partway through the making, they realized that promoting the family-friendly movie--it was always intended to be that--as being by the director of that gross-out gore-fest might present certain problems. The rumors about Spielberg taking over were, according to this scenario, actually leaked by the producers themselves. That's why you get just a brief, silent shot of Hooper in the "making of." In the still set, there are several shots of Spielberg. The one shot of Hooper is >with< Spielberg, who is pointing down the hill at the suburbia set, clearly instructing Hooper on what to do.
A friend of mine worked makeup on the film, including that shot of the face being torn away by Spielberg's hands. He said that Tobe Hooper directed the movie. Craig T. Nelson has also made that assertion.
So who directed it? Beats me.
Another good question that I will not go into: what's the source of POLTERGEIST's plot?

Bill Warren


"There was one brief shot of Hooper somewhere on the sidelines, with his can of coke in his hand, standing silently.

Oh, and for my next feat of pedantry, Hooper's drink of choice is Dr. Pepper."

I think you got it right the first time. Apparently Mr. Hooper drank a lot of coke. On Funhouse, immediately afterward, word on the street is, he spent a lot of time locked in his trailer drinking coke. All that caffeine makes you a little jittery and, oh, perhaps a bit unreliable. Your judgment may be impaired; decisions may not be completely thought out. You find it far more important to drink more coke than to get on with business. And sometimes those around a big coke-drinker pick up the slack for him, since it's their jobs on the line.

Interesting that Hooper's best to films (IMHO) are 'Salem's Lot and Poltergeist, which both had very strong producers (and, I expect, finished scripts long before they hired a director).. Then when you get into something like Spontaneous Combustion... where he's all by his lonesome... oy. Oy!!! What went right???

(I was at the Academy screening of that, invited by the PR guy who wanted me to interview Hooper. After I saw the film, I cancelled. I told him I couldn't do an interview without talking about that film, and it stunk on ice; I didn't want to be a downer on it, so I just called off the interview. The audience-- invited, with a lot of heavyweights, plus cast and crew-- were in hysterics for an hour and a half.)


This info is from a Special Effects artist who visited the set for one night. His friend was a crewmember on the film. Keep in mind this visit came during about the first full week of filming, which means that Spielberg was in control from a very early period. This night of shooting was done on location at the house in Simi Valley:

I'm getting in touch with my friend who worked on the film. I think I'll be able to get you an outline from him of what it was like on the production. I was just there for one night when they filmed the family driving away from the house at the end of show and the street was lined with coffins. I haven't watched the movie in years but I remember a girl running up to a car and then the car with the family driving down the street. There was also an ILM matte unit filming some BG plates for effects that night. They photographed all this on a real street, not in a studio, which is why I could stand around and watch. I know that Spielberg directed everything that night anyway because I was standing rather close to him much of the time. I'll get back in touch when I have more detailed info from my friend.

Update: 9/20/10-This site did an article on the "who really directed it" controversy: http://www.top10films.co.uk/archives/3283

In the comments section below was this post:

Horror Writer said:

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 [of "Poltergeist"], 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.

Update: 10-9-10

I asked source "Ben There" the following on the Spielberg fan site PlayMountain.net (Ben now goes by the name of "Teen Herb"):


I asked:  Since you were on set, can you speak at all to the rumors (from multiple sources) that Tobe had a, shall we say, "issue" with cocaine use? And did that problem contribute to Spielberg's "taking over" the film?

"Ben":  Hi David, it's been a while. I hope all is well with you and yours. Thank you for adding so much to the whole Poltergeist discussion through your own dedicated research.

Actually, I did, already, speak to those rumors, but that was years ago back at SF. com. Just recently, by private email, I told one fellow Playmountaineer that, IMO, Tobe exhibited a sober demeanor and that I'd not seen him have so much as a beer to drink - but I was talking about the, approximate, ten week "prep" period before we started principal photography. Bear in mind, that, up until the first day of shooting, everyone believed Tobe was, in fact, our director. During the shoot, however, Tobe, myself, and C.T. Nelson did quaff quite a few beers on just one particular night...after wrapping, of course. As well, in celebration of our last night of shooting, Tobe, myself, and a few others did imbibe a bit o' the bubbly. Still, even on those two occasions I would not say that Tobe was overtly inebriated.

I don't know that Tobe had any "issue" with cocaine, but from the late 70's to about the late 80's, cocaine use was quite common to most (Hollywood) cast and crew members. Having 'Ben There,' I can honestly tell you that I never saw Tobe exhibit any tell-tale sign of cocaine use. IMO, Steven took the reigns for the simple reason that Tobe made poor decisions and was much too slow to make any decision at all.

Another poster said:

Hooper made a statement regarding his directing the movie, just some weeks ago:

In response, Ben noted:
Apparently, Tobe's memory from the time of Poltergeist's filming has been completely erased. It's either that or he's just turned into the proverbial "liar, liar, pants on fire," but it is, literally, one or the other.

As "Ben There," I previously relayed accurate portrayals of what took place from the beginning to the end on Poltergeist. Again, just to keep the record straight, I will lend truth and insight to these (and any other) false claims as made by Hooper, Spielberg, or any other source.

(So, according to that article:) 'Legendary film director Tobe Hooper graced the FrightFest stage a few minutes ago. During his chat with Total Film, he spoke about the myth surrounding Spielberg’s on-set contributions to Poltergeist. A writer from the L.A. Times visited the set while they were filming some backyard scenes and Spielberg was shooting 2nd unit footage in an over-the-shoulder angle of remote control cars. The Times didn’t consider that this might only be 2nd unit, which is how the Big Story got started in the first place.' 

Okay, yet again, here's the real Big Story: Our very first shot, on the very first day of principal photography took place on a hilltop overlooking the area that was Cuesta Verde. It was the scene where James Karen offers an already frazzled C.T. Nelson a higher position within the real estate firm. Tobe's decisions were tentative beyond belief, and it took him a ridiculously long time just to decide the blocking of that scene... so Spielberg jumped in and did it for him. Having taken that initial step, Spielberg - not Hooper -  immediately and forever found himself answering all pertinent questions from both cast and crew.

Upon completing that scene, our company moved down to the Freeling house. I do not recall the specific scene or shots in the backyard, but it was simple work in that it did not involve mechanical/visual effects or any stunt work. ("Tweety's" burial scene in a cigar box comes to mind as that was one of the very few scenes I recall Tobe calling "Action!") Now, the scene with Dirk Blocker peddling 6-packs o' beer on a bmx bicycle was NOT a "2nd Unit" shot. In shooting those backyard and frontyard scenes simultaneoulsy, we were simply trying to pick up the time as was squandered by Hooper back on the hilltop.

Worth noting, is that the kids who cause Blocker to crash the bike via their remote controlled cars are NOT in the final draft of the script. Spielberg suggested those kids and their cars as merely an afterthought... and very much a last minute afterthought, at that.

(Furthermore, according to that article:) 'In fact, Spielberg was prepping ET, and wasn’t really on the Poltergeist set that much. (Hooper) also asserted that Poltergeist was definitely his baby: he designed it, he directed it, and it had his “feel.”'

The only part of the above that is true is that, yes, Spielberg was prepping E.T. during Poltergeist's period of principal photography. Hooper is absolutely delusional to claim that Speilberg "wasn't really on the Poltergeist set that much." Poltergeist was "Hooper's baby," but only during pre-production. From it's first shot to its last shot, it was no more Hooper's baby than mine.
Josh Asked:
Considering there was a lot of stuff that was different in the final draft, it would seem that the film was a bit of a monotonous production. From your true experience, would you say that?

No, not in the least. Poltergeist was a most spontaneous film production and, in fact, it was often quite maddening in that regard. On day-1 of shooting, the key crew personnel were ready to shoot the film they had prepared with Tobe Hooper. By lunch-time of day-1, that whole concept was completely out the window.
Should have mentioned that I don't believe Hooper on this one. Just wanted to point out that he made that statement again.

No problem, Shimrod - as the messenger you're fine. You have to remember, however, these "statements" are older than the movie itself, and I, for one, believe it's high time to stop this ridiculous travesty. In pre-production, Poltergiest had one director; in principal photography and post production, Poltergeist had a different director. That's just the way it was, and it's just the way it will always be.
Josh asked:
I was wondering... the vision that Hooper was planning for Poltergeist... was it incredibly different from what Spielberg did when he took over, or did it just vary in tone?

Of course, Tobe's version would have been quite different, but it's hard to know how different. I'm just spitballing here, but I figure his would have been darker in tone, and lighter in suspense. For an example, I imagine his version of the clown doll would have been stubbier and a little less friendly in appearance - still smiling, mind you, but in a way that tipped off the audience right from the get-go. I also think Tobe's version of the Freelings would have tended more toward the Adams Family than to the Brady Bunch. Such, however, would not necessarily render an inferior film... just a different film.
Were the tasks planned for your department to do completely changed that first day?

Certainly, that was my immediate fear, and on that first day I half jokingly asked Steven if I'd prepared the film with the wrong person. He said that he would work with whatever Tobe had already decided. (I'm sure that was not an intentional fib, but it certainly did not work out that way.)
It's somewhat sad that most of the information you can find on Poltergeist... is (only) in newspaper and magazine articles from 1982. Occasionally, an interview pops up. But really, there isn't enough and a lot of this really should be on the DVD.

From the beginning, I criticized the media for intentionally perpetuating this lie. Not once did I ever read an article where they flat-out asked Tobe or Steven who, exactly, it was that called "action" and "cut;" who, exactly, answered all pertinent questions from the cast and crew. In the end, Spielberg's somewhat effusive but evasive responses were just as misleading as Tobe's own claim to be Poltergeist's one, true, director.
And that's what makes Reardon's recent comment in that magazine so curious and disappointing. To wit: "I never saw him (Spielberg) say 'action' or 'cut' – Tobe did that." To be sure, Reardon also allowed: "The nature of my job had me in a workshop for a lot of the shoot." In fact, Reardon was rarely on-set. As well, in fact, on rare occasions, Tobe did call "action/cut." With tongue firmly in cheek, then, Reardon could claim that his rare on-set visits actually coincided with Tobe's rare calls of "action/cut." Still, his comments are quite misleading.

After all that has been said and done on this issue, there are still legitimate reasons for the controversy to remain, forever, open. Do not expect any definitive closure from either Hooper or Spielberg.