The Script's Development (Page 2 of 2)

Over the course of the four year period, many days of deposition testimony were given by the plaintiffs, Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Tobe Hooper and Stephen King and experts retained by all parties.

According to the official Court Reporter's Transcript of Proceedings, dated March 25, 1985, the plaintiff's lead attorney Mark Kalisch argued this before Federal District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall (my notes are in BOLD):

"Compare the earlier drafts to 'Housebound.' Don't just look at 'Poltergeist' in its final version. What other similarities are there in the earlier drafts? Well, there are dozens of them. There is the knife being used to free the boy from the tree. There is the closet which was located in the hall. There is the fact that Carol Anne was killed in the closet just like in 'Housebound,' and that disappears. [Although, in "Housebound" it's the mother who dies in the closet, not "Lucky," the little girl] There is the ant eating a light toque. There is the deep organic well. There is the house as a living entity. There is the fact that it was told that the inhabitants of the house should not let the beast know that it scares you. There is the use of the words 'the beasts.' There is the bath scene, the blood from the faucet, which later on didn't occur. There is the fact that one of the inhabitants of the house was pinned in the chair and flew across the room. That was in an earlier draft and it didn't occur in the final version."

"The fact that the tree prevents the family from leaving. The fact that the animal [E. Buzz, apparently] was pronounced dead in the earlier versions. The fact that night lamps are hurtling through the air; et cetera, et cetera. These similarities between early drafts of 'Poltergeist' and 'Housebound' are circumstantial evidence that is going to go before the jury to determine whether or not there was access. The jury is going to determine whether it is more likely than not that that script was sent by [Clemens' agent] Korman via [Korman's secretary] Halchester and via the 'go-fers' to Spielberg and to [Kathleen] Kennedy. They are either going to believe that it was sent, and they are either going to disbelieve Kennedy or they are not. They are either going to take the circumstantial evidence of access into consideration and come to the conclusion that there is access, or they are not. That is the province of the jury."

In response, the Defendants' attorney, Louis Petrich, argued:

"The question that Mr. Kalisch now knows apparently that Mr. Korman sent the transcript by messenger, he told your Honor that this was so. But as the record shows, Mr. Korman at his deposition could not remember which. All he knows is that he did what his client told him. The only person in the universe, that he thinks he submitted it to, was my client [Spielberg]. And yet, he cannot remember how it was sent, whether it was sent to the right place and of course, we put on evidence to show that even if it was sent, it would not have been accepted, because there was a policy at the time of not accepting unsolicited transcripts of plays or treatments. This is a case where none of the presumptions about due sending come into effect, because the person who was in charge can't say whether he sent it or where he sent it. And at his deposition he guessed twice and guessed wrong both times as to where he should have sent it."

Over a year after the particular court proceeding exchanges above, a Cinefantastique article about "Poltergeist II" contained a small update on the case:

A lawsuit pending against Steven Spielberg and POLTERGEIST's co-writers could, meanwhile, prove more than tiresome. Spielberg and associates still stand accused of having appropriated substantial portions of a script written by actor Paul Clemens and Bennet Michael Yellin. The script, they maintain, had been forwarded to Spielberg's office in January 1980. Its protagonists underwent a fate which would sound more than vaguely familiar in the context of POLTERGEIST. The case could reach the courts during the next few months, Clemens told us, although he's been instructed by his lawyers not to discuss the case. MGM, the distributor of POLTERGEIST II, also had no comment on how the outcome of the case could affect their release.

The plaintiffs had a respected, award-winning genre writer lined up to be an expert witness should the case go to trial. The defendants had an even more well-known award-winning genre writer prepared to testify on their behalf. Forrest Ackerman was never going to be an expert witness in the trial, but was only a consultant -- along with Ray Bradbury -- earlier on in the four year journey toward a court-date.

By the time the case was set for trial in Federal Court later that year (1986), it was agreed that even though they lacked a crucial messenger receipt proving that "Housebound" had been delivered to Amblin' (thus making "access" the weak link in their case), the plaintiffs believed that their case was still strong enough (based solely on the claimed points of similarity), that they stood a 50/50 chance of winning. The Defendants argued both that there was no proof the treatment had ever been delivered to the Amblin' offices, and that the alleged similarities between the two works did not rise to the standard of copyright infringement under the law.

On September 17, 1986, Judge Marshall delivered her Order for Partial Summary Judgment:

1. The motion by defendants for an order specifying certain facts to be without controversy is granted insofar as the Court finds that there is no fragmented literal similarity between plaintiffs' work "HOUSEBOUND" and the motion picture and novel "POLTERGEIST."

2. The remainder of the motion is denied because there are genuine issues of material fact.

Shortly after this date, the case was set to go to trial. Possibly due in part to the Judge's second finding above, the plaintiffs received a settlement offer just three days before the trial was to begin. The terms of the settlement were requested by the defendants and agreed upon by the plaintiffs to remain confidential.

A side note: Several years ago, an unknown person claimed on the (now closed) message board that the suit was settled for a "not particularly large" sum of money (at least according to today's standards).

Another source told me:

"I did get to look at the similarities the plaintiffs said were stolen from their treatment, and I have to say, I was not impressed. Most of it looked like standard haunted house stuff to me, things it would be easy to dream up if you were writing a story in that genre. Spielberg struck me as a completely honest guy, and already on the roll he was on, why would he bother stealing something like that? Much easier just to pay them for the idea, if he saw it and wanted it that much. I also know the screenwriters, Mark Victor and Michael Grais, and can't imagine literary theft from them, either. If there was any crossover of ideas, it would have been with Richard Matheson's 'Twilight Zone' episode, 'Little Girl Lost' - but I don't think that notion was particularly original with him, either, and in any case I'm pretty sure Spielberg and Matheson were friends. The notion of 67 similarities is ridiculous, and even the seemingly significant similarities, like the little girl sucked into the house in a different plane, who everyone can hear but nobody can see, was conceived first by Matheson. So why isn't that theft by the plaintiffs from Matheson's idea? Because ideas emerge from our subconscious minds, which are influenced by cultural mythologies and stories and dreams. It's just not reasonable to go around suing people for coming up with similar manifestations of shadow archetypes.

However, in 1997, Robert "Bob" Martin, the original editor of "Fangoria" magazine, made a post on the old Usenet bulletin board. In the post, he discussed, jokingly, how he knew enough to write a "dark side of Spielberg" book. After discussing the "Twilight Zone" film, he moved on to "Poltergeist:"

Another cool chapter would be about the committee of eight writers who wrote -- and, for many scenes, outright *stole* from multiple sources -- the Poltergeist script credited to Spielberg and two writers. MGM even shut down production on a TV movie because there was a set-piece, involving a ghostly hand emerging from a television screen, that the writing committee wished to incorporate into the Poltergeist script, but other appropriations were not so above-board. Spielberg was unaware that his "ghost writers" had sticky fingers until the lawsuits hit. Veteran fantasy writer Richard Matheson and actor/screenwriter Paul Clemens were paid off. Spielberg has, wisely enough, not taken a bogus writing credit since. (Another chapter might play compare and contrast between Spielberg's many pronouncements on "artist's rights" and his role as 800-pound bear producer on other director's films).

I eventually received an email from Robert Martin himself, in which he wished to clarify a few matters:
Hi. You indicate on your Poltergeist website that you were trying to contact me. I'm right here....My resentment of Spielberg is mainly fueled by circumstantial evidence causing me to believe that he and/or his people used the press (specifically Rolling Stone magazine) to give a PR lynching to John Landis. It so happens I recently outlined this beef with Spielberg in an imdb

Paul Clemens confided in me about his case against Spielberg when I met him on the set of "The Beast Within." I never wrote about it in FANGORIA because I had established a policy of not treating the familiar stories about who stole what as news, since there were so many people writing to me about their "stolen" ideas, most of it baseless or trivial. I believed Clemens, but I didn't feel that was sufficient to make an exception. As a guy who grew up in Hollywood, Clemens knew how things go well enough that he wouldn't sue at the drop of a hat (Clemens himself pointed this out to me when we spoke about this).

When Tobe Hooper claimed to me that he was being shut out of creative credit for Poltergeist, I reported that in Fango because it *was* news. I never had it confirmed that Clemens was paid off, I heard it as a rumor. The case simply disappeared, which itself suggests that someone traded their silence for wads of cash.

I used the term "committee" loosely, in that there were never 8 people working on the script at once; but there were uncredited writers working on the script after Grais and Victor, after it had been scheduled for production (causing a great rush to get the script in shape; this is when I believe there were unauthorized borrowings). My source for this sort of info was a number of personal friends who were on Spielberg's payroll at the time, who spoke in confidence.

One fascinating aspect to me is the fact that a ghost-themed TV movie that MGM had in the can was never broadcast because some elements of the script were wanted for Poltergeist. My source for this named the TV movie in question, and I was able to confirm its existence and late-term cancellation.Since I never wrote about all this, I have no record of the name of that project. My best estimation of the number of writers on the script, total, is eight. This is not including Tobe, who told me flat-out that the basic story and concept were his. I don't discount Tobe as readily as everyone else in the world does, but I've despaired of convincing anyone else of his truthfulness.

You can quote me exactly on any of this, including the Usenet posting, but please be clear that I name no sources nor do I claim any high degree of reliability for these anonymous sources. But I nevertheless do believe I have a better grip on how Poltergeist was put together than the vast majority of people.

In conclusion, perhaps some things will never be known with certainty, especially regarding exactly who added which elements of the storyline from draft to draft. For example, if there really were up to eight uncredited writers who worked on the script after Grais and Victor (besides the previously mentioned Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood) who were they? And what about the alleged MGM TV movie? Was it in fact filmed but never broadcast, or simply stopped in the writing stages? Many unanswered questions remain. One source, another uncredited writer for a different Spielberg film, told me:

"I will tell you.... you'll probably never trace the exact trail of the POLTERGEIST script - so much is said on the phone or in meetings that changes the scripts and different writers etc. - it would be very hard to get it right, and even the people involved decades later won't remember clearly."

And finally, as Tobe Hooper was quoted in a "Fangoria" interview with Bob Martin (when discussing the making of the film in general):

"'Poltergeist' will always be a tricky movie. A number of people who should have gotten credit, didn't get credit. There's a lot of magic and business mysticism connected with it. We're all still trying to figure this one out."