Who REALLY directed Poltergeist? (Page 2 of 3)


I came across some VERY interesting comments on one of the message boards over at the fan site SpielbergFilms.com. The person who made the postings calls himself "BenThere." He worked on the original film and had his own thoughts about the controversy. He did not want to reveal his real name or what he did on the film (I know who he is but will not reveal his identity). Below are his excerpted postings. For the full original discussion, I've also got the link to the message board where his comments first appeared (note: the link below doesn't work because the site was taken down, but luckily I was able to retain Ben's posts):

As this is my first-ever post here, I'll start by thanking and congratulating Steven Awalt for creating a site that so wonderfully allows this exchange of opinion and commentary.

I find it fascinating that some two and a half decades 'after the fact' no definitive answer has, yet, been given the question of Poltergeist's director. How could so many eye-witness the making of this film and not uniformly recall who, exactly, called "Action!" and "Cut!"... who, exactly, provided the stage direction... who, exactly, answered the questions from all cast and crew?

Take, for example, the claim of actor, William Finley, who, according to E-Buzz, said: "... Finley confirms he was originally cast in the role of Marty, presumably by Tobe Hooper. He (Finley) says: "I can't tell you that whole story because it's still sort of a Hollywoood scandal... One of the people who did direct the movie cast me in it and one of the people who did direct the movie cast me out of it... one of those people won."

A more ambiguous quote seems unlikely - but it holds the best clue in this entire thread. I suggest you'll more properly and much more quickly solve this mystery upon changing focus from who directed Poltergeist to why any doubt should still exist. Discover the "why" and the reason for all ambiguity in this matter will be quite apparent. To point you in the right direction, I'll reference the following comments - and allow this obvious hint... (DGA).

Steven Awalt allowed, that, "The L.A. Times ran a great piece on the situation back in 1982. An article that, I believe, spurred the DGA inquiry and Spielberg's subsequent full page letter to Hooper in the trades."

And furtney replied, "From what I understand, Spielberg was forced by the DGA to place that ad in "Variety" (it was part of the "settlement" he agreed to).

Again: WHY does the question of Poltergeist's director still exist?
"So why is there (this) whole section about it? I know (Spielberg) produced it but he produced a lot of movies that aren't here." (Jimmy Legs)

EXACTAMUNDO, Jimmy. Spielberg "produced" about 50 films that also credit someone else as their "director." Why, then, do you figure, that, of all those films, Poltergeist is the only one to have resulted in a controversy over who REALLY directed it?


"... Turner Classic Movies (cable channel) runs a short documentary from the 80's about Poltergeist (that) shows Steven Spielberg on set with Tobe Hooper... and without Hooper directing the actors and crew." (tashtego)

I've seen another documentary showing just the opposite. Of course, at a running time of just two seconds it's MUCH shorter.


"Poltergeist is a Toby Hooper film... I don't think Steven Spielberg would sabotage a director from his duties. ... What I liked about Poltergeist was how much Toby Hooper dedicated Spielberg's style with his strength as a storyteller. That's good directing." (SamKarns)

That's pure rubbish.


"Believe me, I know very well Hooper´s style. I´ve seen all his films, even the bad ones, and (Poltergeist) is a Hooper film. (Grady)

BELIEVE ME... you haven't a clue.


"There was contradiction and conflict between Hooper and Spielberg even in pre-production though, with Hooper approving one thing and Spielberg coming in and scraping it, telling the department head to rework things in his vision, etc. These things have even been talked about publicly, most famous by effects artist Craig Reardon, who (in addition to, then, working with Spielberg on Poltergeist) was working with Spielberg concurrently on "E.T." (Steven Awalt)

Thanks Steven.

O.K. kids... focus on the word "concurrently" as used above. Combine that clue with the first one ("DGA") and see what you come up with. Come on now... don't be shy... squeak up! Show me something and I'll provide another clue. Show me nothing... I'll be gone. At that point, you will have refused to open the door when opportunity knocked
"Do you have any further information on the situation?" (E-Buzz)

Enough to speak expertly, yes.

For many years, now, the question "Who directed Poltergeist?" has been put to a slew of eyewitnesses ranging from producer, Frank Marshall, to leading actors, Jo Beth Williams and Craig T. Nelson, to a number of various crew personnel. Even Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg, themselves, have been asked this question. So, how, or why is it, then, they should all answer in a consistent and uniform manner as to never really identify - beyond any and all doubt - who, exactly, directed the film? They'd all have us believe that Poltergeist is one of those very rare instances where, rather innocently, a producer became somewhat "involved" with directorial chores to a degree that some might simply "conclude" it was directed by the producer... hence their collective ambiguity on the matter.

Filmmaking is, by far, the most collaborative "art." The reason so many names are listed in the screen credits is simple: Their individual contributions were absolutely necessary. Was there "collaboration" between Tobe and Steven? Of course there was... how could there not be? Still, just like upwards of 99.9% of all studio made films, Poltergeist had only one, true, "director."

Singularly, that director decided every question and/or suggestion from all principal cast and all key crew personnel. That director, singularly, called
"Action" and "Cut."

Had the various media asked those folks who it was that answered all the questions, and who it was that called "Action and Cut" - instead of asking
"Who directed it?" - there'd be a lot more clarity and a lot less ambiguity on the issue.

If you have any questions about your namesake I'll attempt only straight answers. BTW, E-Buzz followed his trainer's commands unlike any other dog I've ever seen.
This is a great thread... The points about movie ownership/vision, producer vs. director (and writer) made me think beyond the Lucas example..." (TechInept)

The reasons a movie is referred to as "A (producer's name here) Production" and then qualified as "A (director's name here) Film" are right and proper.

A Producer acquires rights to a story; commissions or purchases a screenplay for that story; arranges its financial backing and; hires its Director. After that, the role of a Producer could be likened to that of a CEO. Just how much of a "chief" that Producer wishes to act is completely dependent on the individual Producer. Thus, "A Jerry Bruckheimer Production."

A Director oversees all other aspects of the filmmaking process. In collaboration, firstly, with the Writer, Casting Director, Production Designer, Cinematographer, Costumer Designer and, eventually, with all other "keys" the Director decides all questions that will ultimately and permanently affect the final product. Thus, "A Michael Bay Film."

It's a very rocky road for all concerned when Producer and Director are at odds with each other.


"The riddles/clues dropped have me totally intrigued--concurrent productions, 2nd Unit directors . . ." (TechInept)

If memory serves, it was Tobe who, again, with tongue-in-ambiguous-cheek, said something about how fortunate he was to have worked on Poltergeist with the best 2nd Unit Director in the business. (For all that is known he might even have been referring to himself.)
Yow! That's cold!" (Steven Awalt)

Some do find me that way, yes. I believe, rather, that I am "direct" and, at times, too brutally honest. Should I offer a truly "cold" comment... I'm sure you'll see the difference.

Round up Tobe's exact quote, put it in proper context, and explain how my comment could possibly be anything less than truthful.

BTW Steven, I'm having a reasonably fun time here... thanks.
2nd BTW: If Tobe's a great director... I'm an astronaut.
"... it's difficult for some people to accept (that Tobe Hooper) was effectively sidelined on Poltergeist, as seems to have been the case. Did this make it a somewhat difficult/uncomfortable set to be on?" (E-Buzz)

Uncomfortable - not really. Difficult - very, but there were many reasons for that experience to have been so. Poltergeists sets were scattered about on 3 different sound stages at MGM. Actually that is not unusual for any feature film, but what was unusual was how often we'd have to move from one stage to another. In addition to frequently moving a large amount of heavy film equipment was the overall pace of production. It was unusually fast, often frantic, and sometimes furious.

Richard Edlund (then with ILM) worked concurrently on many sets. His camera was an especially large monstrosity and accomodating that camera's special needs was never easy. Also, many sets were built in multiples of two or three. The kids bedroom, for instance, existed simultaneously in three forms: firstly, on the flat surface of the stage floor; secondly, 3' over the stage floor and then; thirdly, on a gimbal (a ferris-wheel like device) built over an open pit dug into the stage floor.

All to accommodate the extensive amount of visual and physical special effects that were a necessary part of the film. Had our pace been any slower we could have easily been a month or more over schedule. As it was, I think we finished shooting just a few days over schedule.


"Are there any parts/moments that could be indisputably said to be Hooper's contribution?" (E-Buzz)

Certainly, there were, yes.


"BTW: I was glad to hear that my namesake was so-well trained. Having recently seen Poltergeist in the cinema I was impressed by 'my' performance and obvious screen presence." (E-Buzz)

It wasn't that E was so well-trained as much as it was the unique manner in which E was trained. Every dog handler uses hand and sound signals in combination with speech to cue the animals reaction. These three methods are used, most often, in equal combination.

Dog wrangler, Richard Caulkins, had only two or three trained "movie dogs" to show. None of them passed the audition, but, instead, it was his personal dog (E) who won the job. E, however, was Richard's pet. He had never trained E for film work because he wanted a pet... a companion.

Just before each shot Richard simply articulated his instructions to E (like he was talking to a human being) and then he'd verbally coach E while each scene was being shot. I've seen many a child actor disregard or fail screen direction more often than E did. E-Buzz was a most amazing dog.
What was the reason for the furious pace of production? Was it spurred on by a filmmaker who had just discovered how effectively he could work at speed on a film like, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark?" (E-Buzz)

Well, E-Buzz, the particular filmmaker you refer here is, obviously, Spielberg. I cannot speak with any inside knowledge on the Raider pace. Just the other day, however, I did mention a thing or two about the Jurassic pace. To wit:

J.P. used life-sized animatronic dinosaurs. In essence, they were "machines" and considering their complicated engineering, construction, de-construction, packing, shipping and eventual reassemblage made them all quite vulnerable to certain malfunction and breakage. Consider, too, they had to repeatedly function in high winds, heavy rains and oppressive humidity. Repairing them was expected to be common, difficult, and slow.

J.P. lost nearly a week of shoot-time after suffering a Category-5 hurricane while filming in Hawaii.

J.P. shot, approximately, one extra day to film some "tests" for Schindler's List.

In light of the above, remember that a good percentage of feature films require more shooting days than are originally scheduled. Only half are likely to finish "on schedule."

So, here's the most incredible thing about Jurassic Park: It was completed some three weeks prior to its scheduled finish date.

Jurassic Park felt as much a track meet as a film shoot!
"If anyone here has any real grounds to feel one way or the other about Mr. Hooper, you would... Gotta respect "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," though, right? (Steven Awalt)

I do. Given Texas' limited time and budget, I think Tobe did a fine job, but a "great directorial effort" does not a "great director" make. Tobe is not without certain filmmaking skills - I'll give him that much. Still, he's as far from being a great director as this astronaut is from space travel.


"Have you read the "Poltergeist" chapter in the book "Directed by Steven Spielberg"?

No, but I'm certain it does not parallel the Poltergeist chapter in my own memory. Who wrote that fairly tale?
Thanks Steven. As I figured even before your Cliff's Notes version, Buckland's book is based on just enough fact to qualify as "fairly tale." Indeed, some things must be believed to be seen. His concoction is nothing more than snake oil.

With regard to the relationship of director-to-editor in the filmmaking process: Any yo-yo can read the script and, then, armed with the film product "cut it" somewhat cohesively. The best editors, however, trim the fat faster than a butcher; creatively explore certain "options" that can dramatically affect a film's pace; and even tweak scene placement to better effect than the script.

One such editor was Verna Fields, from whom Steven learned all he needed to know. She opened his eyes to much he'd never even considered.

As I said here in a different thread: Film directors ply their trade with an array of tools. Some directors may use a couple of those tools to even better effect than Steven Spielberg, but there's no question that Steven has MORE tools and a BETTER COMMAND of those tools than any other film director in history. (At least from my point of view.) He doesn't really need great talent to make a great film. His greatest strength, if not his least known, is an unfailing ability to coax extraordinary things from quite ordinary people. That ability is but one of his tools and he wields it in varying manner to achieve his purpose.

As he does with Michael Kahn.
"There was in fact one very notable shot in the film that Hooper and the production heads tried to get away from the storyboards on due to some technical issues, and Spielberg insisted that they work it out and get the shot..." (Steven Awalt)

"What was the shot in question?" (kevin)

If my guess is correct, the shot would be in the Freeling living room that featured an inattentive Richard Lawson who is pencil sketching his still doubtful depiction of what a ghost might look like if it were to manifest on the stairway. Self-absorbed and lost in the music on his headphones, he is oblivious that some of the high-tech parapsychological equipment has just whirred into action as mysterious balls of light decend that stairway.

Do I hear any opening bids for that original Lawson pencil sketch?


"I don't know why anyone questions SS's major involvement with the film. It was clearly a joint effort on both Hooper and Spielberg's part. The movie just screams Spielberg, with a nice touch of Hooper might I add." (tashtego)


"Was there 'collaboration' between Tobe and Steven? Of course there was... how could there not be?" (Ben There)


"Are there any parts/moments that could be indisputably said to be Hooper's contribution?" (E-Buzz)

"Certainly, there were, yes." (Ben There)


So, tashtego: Poltergeist SCREAMS SPIELBERG - with just a nice touch of Hooper, eh? I'd say yours is a most omniscient comment for not having witnessed the films making.
"... it's interesting hearing your points about the creation of the film... I'd love to hear more, as I'm sure would everyone." (tj)

If you've read all my posts, tj, you know I've already said so much more than a mouthful. If you have any questions, please, ask away. What I'll not reveal is the name of Poltergeist's director nor my own. Still, those answers should be readily apparent in my past comments. I have, indeed, "Ben There" many, many, times over three and a half decades in "the biz" and I know of which I speak. So, again... just ask away.
In (Poltergeist), several Kenner Star Wars toys are visible. So are some Star Wars posters. Given Spielberg's motto in other films to incorporate Star Wars nods, did Spielberg actually pay to purchase these toys and posters or were they furnished by Lucasfilm?" (tj)

Firstly, I've never been aware any such Spielberg "motto" (per se), but it is always good business sense to include a visual nod to any close friend, or to the work of a close friend, as long as that visual nod is a natural fit within the framework of the film.

My short answer to your question is this: Directors and Producers will, invariably, affect certain choices made in the acquisition of any and all properties, but only a Set Decorator and a Property Master can make those acquisitions - by manner of renting, purchasing, manufacturing, or borrowing. So, no, Spielberg didn't pay for those toys and posters (himself) and I cannot recall their ever being furnished by LucasFilm.

In this case, the Set Decorator and Propery Master purchased those toys and posters directly and/or borrowed them through a signed agreement with either, the manufacturers of those items or with a Product Placement company. More to your point, however; yes, there were at least a couple meetings and memos with regard to which particular toys (and posters) should be used as props and set dressing in the kid's bedroom.


"Also, there is an Alien movie poster in Carol Anne's bedroom. Were these placed specifically on the set by Spielberg or was it left up to a designer? I've always just wondered how they were actually picked for the placement among the set." (tj)

"Ben There may have different info when he responds, but I would be shocked if Spielberg didn't have a hand in the "Alien" poster's placement. He's a massive fan of the movie." (Steven Awalt)

Bear in mind, firstly, the importance of certain "legalities" involved whenever a copyrighted prop is to be photographed. The two people charged with affecting permission to photograph such things are, again, the Set Decorator and Property Master. Let there be no mistake: Production Designers, Art Directors, and Set Designers have no such concerns. The specific (original) placement of furnishings within the set is, most often, a matter of choice for the Set Decorator - with the occasional or, even, frequent input of a Production Designer.

As to who, in fact, picked the particular place to affix that "Alien" poster... I've no recollection. Of course, the sets are "dressed" and approved prior to being filmed, but often while, either, rehearsing or blocking, a change in the actual placement of the furniture or furnishings must be made before the scene can be filmed. As to who determined the absolute necessity of that poster, well, of course, that was... the Director.


"Also, the Queste Verde Estates. What was the scenario that led to picking the suburban location in California that would represent the QV Estates on film?" (tj)

I've no knowledge that any "scenario" caused a certain area to be chosen except as Cuesta Verde was described in the script and, thereby, perceived by the Director and/or Producer. Ultimately, however, all possibile choices are strictly within the purview of the Location Manager.

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