The Script's Development (Page 1 of 2)


Perhaps not as well known as the controversy over who really directed the film, the story of how the script came to be written is equally fascinating. Contradictions, accusations, rumors, and incomplete information abounds. The official story goes something like this: "Poltergeist" and "E.T." began originally as "Night Skies," which was to be the sequel to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" at Columbia Pictures. Steven Spielberg had the idea of a farm family who is terrorized by a group of evil aliens, with one of the aliens who becomes friendly with one of the family's children. A script was written by John Sayles, and an SFX artist even began work on the alien creatures. Columbia later decided they didn't want the project, so Spielberg pitched it to MGM. He would produce, and find someone else to direct. At first Spielberg offered "Night Skies" to Tobe Hooper, but Hooper felt the alien aspect wasn't really his thing, telling Spielberg he'd like to do a ghost story instead. Spielberg, perhaps (like Hooper) influenced by the classic film "The Haunting" (as well as his own 1972 TV movie "Something Evil") agreed with the idea.

Hooper claims to have pitched Spielberg on an idea he had been developing off and on for the past few years at Universal.  He'd happened to get the old office of director Robert Wise, who made "The Haunting." Hooper found a book about poltergeists in Wise's desk, and thought the idea would make a good movie. According to Hooper, initially he worked with William Friedkin to try to get Universal interested in the project. The idea was to use the studio's surround sound process for the poltergeist audio effects.  Hooper and Spielberg collaborated by mail on a treatment while Spielberg was shooting "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Hooper claims to have come up with the idea of a family situation, people who were next door neighbors to a cemetery, but that his version didn't have an ending. In a "Fangoria" interview, Hooper stated that the idea of the ghosts kidnapping Carol Anne didn't come until late in the development process, and that the idea was both his and Steven's. 

Spielberg's 11 page treatment, then called "Night Time," was dated March 31, 1980. This treatment did not list Tobe Hooper as co-writer (though Hooper and frequent Spielberg collaborators Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy seem to have offered some input, such as Kennedy suggesting that Spielberg include a scene in which blood pours from a bathroom faucet). Spielberg further revised this draft over the next five months, adding 15 pages of amendments by August 18, 1980, and then a further 5 pages on August 23, 1980. By this time, the story was called "It's Night Time."

Elements of the story that were there from the very beginning included the Freelings, the suburban setting, the TV set, the dead bodies in the newly dug pool, Tangina (called "Tagina" in the treatment), and the paranormal researchers. Things that didn't make it into the finished script included the neighbors turning against the Freelings, the family being composed of four kids instead of three, and the bodies under the house actually being the bodies of white settlers killed in the early 1800s by Indians. The amendments to the treatment changed this to a cemetery that had the headstones relocated but not the bodies.

Elements NOT in the treatment at all were: the tree, the clown, the house imploding, bodies exploding up from under the house and yard, toys floating around the bedroom, and the closet turning into a mouth and sucking things in. And in this early version, Carol Anne is never "kidnapped" by the ghosts (rather, she gets possessed by one of them; the family then flees the house, leaving her behind).

First Spielberg approached Stephen King to write the script, but things did not work out. According to author John Baxter in his biography of Spielberg:

They had an amiable lunch, after which King departed for England, leaving his publisher to negotiate a deal on his behalf. Doubleday, King says, 'asked this incredible amount of money to do the screenplay. This is for somebody who had never done a screenplay that had been produced.' MGM-and Spielberg-refused to pay it. 'I got a letter from Spielberg saying he was really unhappy that it turned out this way,' he told the sf and fantasy film journal 'Cinefantastique.' 'Really, as far as writing, it would have been the experience of working with him and watching him work-I could've used that. But in the end, I would've been hired help.'

Spielberg then met with co-writers Michael Grais and Mark Victor about possibly writing a remake of "A Guy Named Joe" (Spielberg would later do this as "Always" in 1989, without Grais and Victor). Grais and Victor were more interested in Steven's ghost story, however, and soon they got the job of turning the "It's Night Time" treatment into a full length screenplay. According to Grais in a 2012 interview with "Rue Morgue" magazine:

"Spielberg had read two scripts that I wrote with my ex-partner [Mark Victor]. 'Death Hunt,' which was a tough adventure drama based on a true manhunt in Canada during the depression, and a multi-character comedy about air traffic controllers called 'Turn Left or Die.' He said the combination of tough action and character development in 'Death Hunt' and the humor of 'Turn Left or Die' convinced him that we were right for the project."

In describing "It's Night Time," Grais went on to say:

"Steven's treatment was more a series of ideas and possible scenes. His idea of setting the story-in typical Spielberg fashion-in the suburbs was unique, as was his idea of the ghosts coming out of the TV. Ideas were evolving and we were doing research into ghost catchers, hauntings, etc., and watching horror movies. Tobe's 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' was the scariest film I'd ever seen up until that point in time. I thought 'Whoa, Spielberg must want to go hardcore horror on this one.' In order to make this film really different-a la Tobe Hooper-we had to kill many of the family members! Spielberg recoiled at that idea but said we could pick one person to die and we said, 'Carol Anne.' He told us, smiling, we were sick but to proceed. We didn't kill her obviously and this solution to killing her-having her disappear into another dimension-came about in conversations with Spielberg."

It's unclear whether the Spielberg- suggested change to her getting kidnapped was really added by Grais and Victor in one of their later drafts, or added by Spielberg personally when he re-wrote their draft himself (more likely). This plot device idea would raise suspicions that Spielberg had been heavily influenced by Richard Matheson's short story and later "Twilight Zone" episode "Little Girl Lost." In fact, in a 1982 interview with "Twilight Zone" magazine, Matheson stated that Spielberg had once shown an interest in adapting that story as a film. It would later be rumored (but not confirmed) that Matheson was hired to write the "Twilight Zone" movie (and given a percentage of that film's box office) partly in an effort to head off any potential suit over "Poltergeist." For more on "Little Girl Lost," see In a 2011 interview with AICN, Matheson was asked:

AICN: Getting back to HELL HOUSE, which I think is an incredibly influential book in terms of the way it comes at the haunted house story with elements of science and parapsychology. These elements were then worked into films like POLTERGEIST, THE ENTITY, all the way up to INSIDIOUS, which came out this year. How do you feel when you see something like POLTERGEIST, which is so clearly influenced by your work?

Matheson: Well, POLTERGEIST was inspired by one of mine, and I never got credit for it. I had one of those old videos of THE TWILIGHT ZONE episode [“Little Girl Lost”] of the little girl that goes into the fourth dimension through the wall of her bedroom. They sort of used that idea and made their own concept of it.


AICN: So all these years later, and here REAL STEEL is executive produced by Steven Spielberg, whose career was partially launched by DUEL.

Matheson: Well, I don’t even know if using “Little Girl Lost,” and kind of taking some of it for POLTERGEIST… god, he must have felt guilty or something. Because he hired me as the creative consultant on AMAZING STORIES, and I didn’t do too well on that. (Laughs) I rejected two of his stories. I’m not too political when it comes to this kind of thing. If I don’t like something, I don’t like it, I don’t care who did it.
But he called me and sent me a copy of the script for REEL STEEL, although as I recall it was not the same as it was in the movie. He asked me “Does it resemble your script for STEEL?” It did, and I told him so. So then they paid me money for it, which they probably wouldn’t have done otherwise.

AICN: Good answer.

Matheson: Yeah, I have an odd relationship with Steven.....But we have always had a very amiable relationship. I can remember sitting with him when he had an office at Metro. I remember sitting with him in this big office; all of the drapes were drawn, and it was sort of dark in there, and I was telling him he ought to meditate. At the time I was into transcendental meditation, and I said, “You ought to meditate.” He said, “This is my meditation.” Which was very nice of him to say. It’s a positive relationship, no doubt. God knows the man has talent.

In addition, in a 1982 "Cinefantastique" article, it was speculated that Spielberg may have also been influenced by another, lesser known Matheson short story called "Through Channels," in which a hysterical teenage boy details how his family was killed by a group of creatures which emerged from the family's television set.

As to who added the "monster tree" element of the story, according to Grais:

"The tree grabbing Robbie is based on an incident that happened to me when I was a small boy and woke up in a storm in our house. Everybody was gone-parents out and sisters out on dates. I was sitting on the landing, on the second floor of the house on the stairs, when lightning struck the tree in our yard. A huge branch crashed through the window close to where I was seated."

According to Spielberg's sister Sue, when interviewed in the E! True Hollywood Story documentary "The Curse of Poltergeist," Spielberg was also supposedly scared of old trees and clowns when he was growing up in suburban Scottsdale, Arizona.  

Ultimately, Spielberg was unsatisfied with the Victor/Grais draft. Not only did it feature the death of Carol Anne, it was extremely violent in general (Diane is graphically "ghost raped" while being drug across the bedroom ceiling, Dana gets trapped in a bathtub full of blood, and the Freeling's neighbor Ben Tuthill gets his head crushed by the family's station wagon as they flee at the end). Finally, over a seven day period (after the film had already been scheduled for production and as a Writer's Guild strike loomed), Spielberg did/oversaw a wholesale re-write, churning out over 100 pages with the help of Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, who moved into his house with him because he didn't want to be alone as he wrote. Each morning he'd read what he'd written back to them, and then they'd offer their ideas and feedback.Tobe Hooper also "hung around" at Spielberg's house as that draft was being worked on, offering his input as well. Spielberg would later claim in interviews (such as with Michael Ventura in the Los Angeles Weekly, July 11-17, 1982 edition) that he wrote this draft of the script by himself. However, according to Bob Martin, the original editor of "Fangoria" magazine, sources on Spielberg's payroll alleged that potentially "up to 8" uncredited ghost writers took a crack at the script at various points after Victor/Grais turned in their version.

According to a source of mine, one of those uncredited writers (likely helping out during that 7 day period) was Spielberg's friend Matthew Robbins, who wrote "The Sugarland Express" and also did uncredited work on "Close Encounters." It's also probable that the longtime writing partner of Robbins, Hal Barwood, contributed as well (in at least a minimal way, if not more). Evidence for this would seem to be backed up by a statement of author Joe Haldeman, who wrote an unused version of the film's novelization:

"I gave them [Spielberg, Frank Marshall and Kathy Kennedy] a tentative okay and they gave me the script. It was absolutely appalling. Spielberg had cobbled it together with a couple of friends [right before] a Writers' Guild strike."

This official "revised first draft" of "It's Night Time" was dated February 9, 1981, and was renamed "Poltergeist." By this point, added to the script was Carol Anne's abduction into another dimension, the change of the male Dr. Lesh character to a woman, and the monologues of Lesh and Tangina about the nature of "The Light," " the Beast," and why the ghosts wanted Carol Anne and her "life force." The film began shooting three months later.

In 1982, a young actor/writer named Paul Clemens (who starred in "The Beast Within," "Death in Canaan" and "Promises in the Dark") and his co-writer Bennett Michael Yellin would allege that in January of 1980, they submitted, via their agent, a script treatment called "Housebound" to Spielberg's production company, Amblin' (which at the time was located on the MGM lot). Spielberg's office would deny ever receiving the manuscript. Clemens had auditioned (with Debra Winger) for Spielberg on "1941," but did not get the role. Clemens liked Spielberg, and admired his movies. "Housebound" had been registered with the Writer's Guild West on September 7, 1979. It was a haunted house story about a family (consisting of a mother, father, older daughter, middle son and young daughter) who live in a strange old house which traps the family. The youngest daughter ends up being kidnapped by the house, and hidden somewhere inside it. As the family attempt to get her back, they can hear her voice calling out somewhere within the house for help. It's discovered that the home was built on top of a swamp where people had died under mysterious circumstances, and at the climax, bodies of those who drowned in the swamp come crashing up from beneath the home's floorboards. Also part of the treatment were a "living" tree that is found inside an upstairs bedroom (which attacks the father), and another room that takes on a "throat like" appearance (with a "tongue") as it attempts to suck in and "swallow" things from outside the room (featuring "saliva" dripping from around the edges of the door frame and an interior of smooth, glistening pink flesh). Clemens and Yellin said they never heard anything back from anyone at Spielberg's office after their treatment was submitted.

In late 1981, Clemens first became aware of the similarities between "Housebound" and "Poltergeist" while at a party at the home of "Alien" producer Ronald Shusett. He'd been in conversation with one of the "Poltergeist" actors, who had just completed shooting on the film, as Clemens had also just finished his horror film "The Beast Within." Clemens had become friends with another "Poltergeist" actor previously-Dominique Dunne-since the two of them had auditioned together on "Ordinary People."  As Clemens and the other "Poltergeist" actor (not Dominique) traded stories, Clemens realized with surprise that the storyline of "Poltergeist" seemed to share multiple similarities to "Housebound."  He decided to obtain a copy of the "Poltergeist" script as soon as possible. Once he and Bennett Yellin read it, they got it to Clemens' attorney/business-manager, and then it quickly found its way to the desk of the barrister/solicitor copyright infringement specialist team (that became their lawyers on the case). The legal team agreed to take their case on a contingency basis. The $37 million suit would be filed in federal Court on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles several months after the film's release. The defendants named included Steven Spielberg, MGM/UA, Lucasfilm (since ILM designed the visual effects) and Warner Books (which published the novelization of the script).


Here's an article excerpt from the November-December 1982 issue of "Cinefantastique", written by Donald Moore:


"We think there's clear story misappropriation," said Clemens' and Yellin's attorney, Derrick Fisher. "Spielberg might defend his story against copyright infringement by claiming it was an 'independent creation.' Well, you can have independent creation in maybe one of these plot elements, but there are so many of them which are almost identical." In 1981, Clemens had obtained a first draft copy of the Poltergeist script, but was counseled by his attorney to wait and see what similarities remained in the finished movie. The first draft had prompted author/director Frank DeFelitta to protest a scene he felt was lifted from his film "The Entity" (to be released by 20th Century Fox next spring) in which a mother is literally raped by a ghost. In that case, the script was changed. The plaintiffs have already lined up two expert witnesses, magazine editor Forrest J. Ackerman and author Ray Bradbury, who have agreed to go over each story and render their own professional opinions as to similarities in plot and structure. Ackerman also served for the defense in the Battlestar Galactica vs. Star Wars lawsuit, and Bradbury read Clemens' original story when asked back in 1979 for his literary advice. Clemens insists he has no personal animosity towards Steven Spielberg. "I like Spielberg," he said. "I've met him twice and he was enourmously gracious to me. I love his films. This is just a specific case. I'm not out to 'get' Spielberg. But look at the evidence! He's the only person we sent this script to and he makes this movie."

Here's an excerpt from "Fangoria" Issue #24:

It is not the policy of Spielberg or his offices to comment directly on such lawsuits. But, as one Spielberg associate said, "It is amazing to see the amount of material that gets dumped on the man every day. It's put into mail sacks-unopened-and sent to the Writer's Guild [Presumably, the Writer's Guild sees that submissions made by their members are returned] It's something the man has to do to protect himself, because every time a film makes over $100 million, these people come out of the woodwork."
"Certainly that would not be the case with an agented manuscript," says Mark Kalisch, one of Clemens' attorneys in the case, and Paul's agent [Tom Korman of Korman Contemporary Artists] only sent the script to one person, and that was Spielberg."
"I was raised around the film business," says Clemens, whose mother is actress Eleanor Parker, "so I have a pretty good idea of how things work. I'm going ahead with this with some reluctance; I did have to consider the possibility of being blacklisted. And I've always been a great admirer of most of Spielberg's work-I still admire his work." 


  "Housebound" was not a script in the usual sense but rather a script-length treatment much in the same format as Kubrick's original draft of "Full Metal Jacket." What the plaintiffs in the case would come to believe (as the case dragged on for four years) was that an intern or other lower level "ghostwriter" employee at Amblin' read the treatment, and then jotted down ideas from it which were then presented to the "Poltergeist" creative team as their own (the intern/ghostwriter's) contribution. It was not believed that Spielberg himself "stole" or authorized the theft of the material; he was simply too busy a man to be reading spec submissions from then unknown writers. What remains unclear is exactly when these alleged unauthorized "borrowings" took place, if they in fact happened. It would eventually be claimed that there were up to 67 alleged similarities between "Housebound" and the various early drafts (not just the final draft) of "Poltergeist."

In addition, "Housebound' didn't have a number of elements: the TV, a character like "Tangina," the clown, the house imploding, or the toys flying around the room, so those elements were original to "Poltergeist." Contrary to "Little Girl Lost," in "Housebound" the kidnapped little girl was literally INSIDE the house, rather than in another dimension.  But in "Housebound" people could hear her from time to time as they were desperately trying to locate her (it was as though the house itself had devoured/abducted her and was hiding her away as bait as it then played games with the other characters trapped inside it).
Article continues here:

Below, some scans of the film's script: