|Scene from Poltergeist|
It's a fact that everyone knows pretty well. In 1982, Steven Spielberg directed the Oscar-winning film E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. It went on to become a giant success and one of the highest grossing movies period. However, there's another movie released just a week before that may or may not have been directed by Spielberg. Poltergeist is a movie listed as being directed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Tobe Hooper, but it's long been held as a rumor that he didn't actually direct it. There's a new interview out with one of Poltergeist's assistant cameramen that suggests that there was a devious strategy to Hooper getting top billing and that Spielberg actually directed it. How much is true? The details follow after the jump.
Poltergeist is considered one of the greatest haunted house movies in history. It pretty much set the basis for all movies where demons take over a house. It's not exactly the territory that Spielberg would be associated with today, even if his breakout film (Jaws) was a legitimately scary movie and his love of the supernatural showed in almost everything he did from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Still, E.T. suggests that he was beginning to turn towards a softer, friendlier perspective. It doesn't mean that he wasn't producing great family horror adventure movies like The Goonies and Gremlins. He even co-wrote Poltergeist, which he couldn't even say about most of his own movies.
So, what's all the hubbub? Why is it a controversial thought that Spielberg directed Hooper's movie? It's a story that has been well known by cinephiles for years now, but recently resurfaced thanks to an interview with John R. Leonetti, who was on Blumhouse's Shock Waves podcast (listen to the episode here) to promote his new film Wish Upon. His brother Matt was the Poltergeist's cinematographer, and thus allowed John to have some behind the scenes experiences. During the interview, he claimed that:
“Hooper was so nice and just happy to be there. He creatively had input. Steven developed the movie, and it was his to direct, except there was anticipation of a director’s strike, so he was ‘the producer’ but really he directed it in case there was going to be a strike and Tobe was cool with that. It wasn’t anything against Tobe. Every once in a while, he would actually leave the set and let Tobe do a few things just because. But really, Steven directed it.”
There are additional reports that Leonetti saw Spielberg working on set and would take the crew to his home to watch dailies. He criticized Hooper for not being a hands-on director. If a decision took too long, someone would take care of the decision for him. There's a lot of variables that suggest that Hooper wasn't the sole voice of the project. This is in part present in the tone of the film, which many claim to have more of a Spielberg sheen to it. The only issue is that along with the director's strike looming, it was seen as problematic for Spielberg to direct two movies at once (he was on the set of Poltergeist almost every day and was done with it by the time he started E.T.'s production). With all of this said, Spielberg has never admitted to directing the film, choosing to suggest that people didn't understand his personal partnership with Hooper.
While the clues and recent testimony would suggest that the rumor has been cleared, one should be cautious of these rumors. Yes, there's a lot of evidence to back Leonetti's claim. Some of it makes sense solely from a legality standpoint. However, it would be difficult to take information about a 35-year-old movie at face value from someone other than the director/s. Maybe there's clues in the visual aesthetic of Poltergeist that give it away. Maybe Hooper just gets a bad rap. Whatever the case may be, the story lingers onward with a new wrinkle in the case. I'd like to believe that this definitely answers the question, but I'd more like to hear it from Spielberg or Hooper, who don't seem to care to comment. Still, it's a fascinating story and one that will probably last longer than the directors themselves.