Sunday, October 8, 2017

An odd peccadillo of production comes to light in closer studying of Poltergeist's shooting schedule.  Did you ever realize that the only shots filmed on location at the Simi Valley residence, at which the production took up its entire first week of shooting, are the ones explicitly facing out the kitchen's sink area nook bay windows, overlooking the construction workers and pool-digging, while all other parts of the breakfast scene are shot on a careful reconstruction of the kitchen set?  This goes for any other scene set in the kitchen, which are in fact filmed entirely on the reconstructed stage.  Of course, the Simi Valley exterior was used to film any scene involving the street, front and back yard, and driveway, which means much of the corpse explosions and pyrotechnics of the chaotic finale all occurred in the first few days of production.  A tall order for both crew and cast, to whip up that much energy in the first days.  (I'll also say, if I'm willing to give up any section over to Spielberg's influence, it would be the climax, contrary to every single person out there who are inclined to attribute the second climax as the most "Hooper-like" section, whereas it has the most animated, overblown, and pre-circumscribed artificiality of Spielberg's most freakish adventure scenes.)

These on-location kitchen shots are easy enough to recall: the bulldozer seen behind Steve Freeling as he makes a morning call (as well as getting the tie he hastily puts on tangled in the phone's cord); Diane watching Dana flip off the construction workers; and Pugsly (Lou Perryman) drinking the cup of coffee that Diane promptly removes from him.

The illusion is immaculately created.  But certain necessities of production became clear, namely doing any of the practical effects in the actual location, which would be logistically troublesome, such as the erecting of the stacked chair pyramid, as well as the gravitational force stunts on the kitchen floor.  It was deemed necessary to ground the reality by retaining the idea of seeing the bulldozer behind Steven and Diane directly interacting with occurrences outside, while shuttling off every other kitchen shot to be done on the reconstructed stage.  The nighttime kitchen scene with the sliding chair is entirely on the sound stage, as is the wake for the canary bird between Diane and Carol Anne.

Now this brings up a number of points germane to us.  All the interior house scenes are thus shot on a stage set, a fact affirmed by cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti, who also mentions the fact the floor plans were naturally blown up in size in their reconstruction, allowing for maximum versatility in practical shooting and heightened aesthetics.  There are two exceptions: the previously mentioned three shots integrating the kitchen with the outside pool construction, and Teague and Steven Freeling's discussion preceding their stroll up the Cuesta Verde hill, a scene scripted and planned for shooting for later in the schedule (to be shot on the sound stage), but at some point rethought to be filmed at the location (the scene, as scripted, only involved Steven and Teague having their exchange at the front door and front doorstep of the house.  This means that the interior of the house we see at the beginning of the scene, where Steven averts Teague's attention from a moving piano, is the only shot we have of the actual living room of the Simi Valley home, and one can tell it is considerably smaller in scale than the sets that were built).  This means allowance was made in that first week to move up this scene for shooting, and allowed the director to have Steven and Teague stroll outside to the exterior of the house, contrary to how it was scripted.

Compare the outside views in both these a scenes, the above two shots shot on location, the shot below on a set.

Now I had also waxed on in the past - in the Poltergeist Walk-Through post covering the breakfast kitchen scene - on the canniness of how that breakfast scene was filmed, separating the two halves of the kitchen space between shots and having them seamlessly integrated by the precision of the angles and fluidity of the action.  Now it seems to have been a matter of necessity.  Such a determination merely points to the incredible nature of Poltergeist as an intensive effects film, where simple kitchen scenes could not be filmed in an actual kitchen because of the imposition of two practical effects (the stacking chairs and the sliding force).  It also points to the intense pre-production and the necessity of an image of the film prior to the first roll of film being shot, or the construction of the film's integral sets.  It means an intense sort of location scouting, and an image of how the layout of the house plays into the events inside the house.  Little has been said about Spielberg's involvement in the pre-production of Poltergeist, which involves such matters as location scouting, set design, set construction, production design, props and wardrobe acquisition, and casting, as well as intensive special effects discussions and storyboards.  Now regarding the latter three, Spielberg was apparently involved - certainly in casting, evidently in storyboarding, though I am not convinced Hooper had no involvement in the creation of storyboards.  And it has been said, or at least conjectured numerous times, that, if this film was anything, at any capacity, for Spielberg to "take away," it was during the actual production, whereas non-existent are statements, from credible sources, that assert Hooper was just as kow-towing to Spielberg in the facets of pre-production.  Mick Garris, in his tribute episode to Hooper of his Post Mortem podcast, makes at least one unequivocal statement, that pre-production was all his, barring casting and storyboarding - casting which Spielberg was surely a part of, for the sake of apocrypha, and storyboarding which must have still been going on adjunctly well into the principle photography.  Whether Hooper had visualized scenes in his mind, having seen the sets, having seen the film's purely visual production possibilities, before Spielberg came in and started sketching scenes out for storyboard artists, the possibility seems strong if the film is anything to go by, and it would seem counter-intuitive to believe Hooper would have let Spielberg railroad him - without his express consent, without his participatory say - when drawing out the visual design of scenes.  If what he sketched was essentially what he scripted, then it goes to show that Hooper would numerous times diverge from what was scripted, if still he had to use the basic building blocks of what Spielberg wrote, which is essentially what Spielberg saw in his head.  Naturally, all this storyboarding occurred after set construction, so, if Hooper had anything to do with the sets and layout, that is the very least capacity he must have played in the drawing up of storyboards.  Shutting Hooper out of storyboarding seems premature, for, as the director and a director involved since pre-production, the onus is on him to allow Spielberg, the producer, to have whatever involvement he has in storyboarding.  A partnership must be occurring.  Hooper must have a seat in the meeting room.  It is not an untold fact that directors have been replaced in the middle of productions, leading to filmmakers working with sets and production design they had no say on creating, and have no familiarity with.  Hooper was there during pre-production.  He also was there during production.  This means he has more claim to directing Poltergeist than Piers Haggard had on Venom, to take an immediately recognizable example for me (speaking in a purely rhetorical sense to make a point, Venom is most certainly Haggard's, despite a production design and a cast that was not his).

Now before I get to the point of "doth protesting too much," let it be said I have all the evidence I need, which is the film and the film's aesthetic success itself, with certain qualifications made to accommodate "Spielberg's imagination" which provided the script, script beats, FX visualizations, and certain "visual scenarios" (inextricably tied to having written the script).  I merely evolve in my fascination with Poltergeist's minutiae of planning, a planning that involved so many cogs and moving parts that it essentially solidifies the grandiose, epic nature of the film, perhaps a film that, more than any other post-70's  film, harks back to the processes of old studio filmmaking, where deliberate craftsmanship is required from director and all departments to create something both communal and authorial, idiosyncratic and populist... and no one, especially Poltergeist's detractors, would deny the fact it is a populist product - in my opinion, in an ideal sense, a perfect and theoretically culminate way; a collective dream is fulfilled (Hooper realizes it in his very particular way); it is truly a work of the old system, an aspect that can be threaded through to Lifeforce, and find precedent in The Funhouse.

You can listen to an American Cinematographer podcast here in which Poltergeist cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti and Visual Effects Supervisor Richard Edlund discuss the making of the film, which I listened to while preparing this post.  There is only one mention of either filmmaker involved with the shoot, and that is Edlund mentioning Spielberg when describing himself pitching the look and execution of the staircase ghost.  Leonetti talks about how the film was shot entirely down a stop, and lit the way he lit for television (which he was primarily a cinematographer for before Poltergeist), which allowed for more freedom with the image.

1 comment:

Tom Luca said...

Thank You, love this movie. Poltergeist scared me as a kid and it still holds up to this day.