Tuesday, April 10, 2018

'Poltergeist' In His Words

Let's give a little agency back to him, as we seem to just keep on removing it from him, as if everyone is a credible source on the film but him, a person who was there also every day.  For a little bit, anyway, let's give it back to him, thinking about Poltergeist in his words, instead of letting others speak about it for him.

From a 2010 interview for the French l'Etrange Festival, found on Youtube.

[About finding Heather O'Rourke] "She was in the MGM Commissary with her mother, and her older sister was in a movie called Pennies From Heaven.  So I tested already many, many, many children.  But I saw her and, I mean, how do I say that, she was born to be on film.  She had these blue eyes.  Her sister had green eyes, and her mother had one blue eye and one green eye.  Heather, she was five years old.  So she was young enough not to know what acting was.  And she would react appropriately.  And she was afraid a lot of the time.  I mean, not of the crew and things like that, but, in the room that shook that's up on springs, when the hand comes out of the television, though she didn't see that; on a bullhorn, screaming, or whatever I did, press a button that would squeak, or something; then hitting her with the air cannon that blew her hair back... it was unsettling for her.  But it's such a tragic thing.  And with Dominique Dunne."

[About not doing the sequel] "No, that was a business reason.  Steven moved on to something else.  I moved on to something else.  And the two guys, they had credit for writing, though it was actually Spielberg's screenplay, and myself, and Frank Marshall, and Kathy Kennedy, but, we couldn't show their version of the screenplay because Carol Anne gets killed in the first act.  She's crushed in the closet.  But more reasons than that.  But they went off and did their own thing, thinking this Indian burial ground.  So they did Jim Jones, underground, with corpses.  Had we done Poltergeist II, it would start with the National Guard quarantining the neighborhood.  It would be probably more scientific than preternatural, or supernatural.  And you hear this, "Clink, clink, clink, clink, clink" of a big machine.  And you see these pitons being clipped to belt, to belt, to belt, with a cable, and it cuts to this ball of light that sucked the house in.  And the ball of spinning light, that's eighteen feet, and in the dead zone, eighteen feet above sea level, or above the ground... a shot of that spinning light that sucked the house and then the fire truck ladder going "Clink, clink, clink, clink, clink" moving up toward the ball of light.  And the scientists are getting ready and they have themselves chained together and are going up there.  Not underground, but in there, to see what that 'filter of karma' that's three feet, that dead zone... Spielberg and myself had talked about it, but MGM closed.  Shortly after the brainstorm, MGM folded, and that was all kind of within the same year."

(But you were interested in directing the sequel?)

Yes, yes... and it would've been really good.  It would have been a scientific exploration into the other side."

[On if he believes in ghosts] "Oh, absolutely.  Not only I do... Dr. Lesh in Poltergeist, her whole little office, and, Beatrice Straight playing Dr. Lesh, was fashioned after a parapsychologist at UCLA that was the only parapsychologist... And she had a very small grant to run, in the psychology department - parapsychology department - and they gave her a little room in the basement that looked very much like the one in the movie.  A little concrete, cinder block room, and I would... well, I worked with her from the time I... Bill Friedkin, when he made The Exorcist, used her, and he introduced me to her.  Bill Friedkin was my mentor.  So I spent a lot of time going to seances.  They yielded nothing.  We saw nothing of the infrared, time-lapse photography.  But you can't tell anything, it's infrared and it's thirty-second exposure.  If a fly goes through the frame, it'll look like some sort of spirit.  But I disproved all the photographic evidence that UCLA had, with the exception of one picture.  And that was a photograph of a mist, and under a magnifying... or a microscope, you can look at the grain structure of the mist.  And each and every grain resembled a human face.  But wasn't quite close enough to give you, like, "What am I seeing?"  There's only one photograph I've ever seen... but she continued on, trying to prove that there is something after death.  I mean, we believe UFOs, and so do I.  I certainly do.  But it's easier to convince someone there's a UFO than to convince someone that there's a ghost.  In spite of, our world is megalithically religious, and spiritual... but if you enter the ghost-telling through science, for some reason, people... it will ground them."

[On strange occurrences on set] "Almost everyone got injured.  I used a cane through, like, half of the picture.  Because I woke up one night with a leg cramp.  I don't know if you've ever had a cramp in your leg, when you wake up and you start beating on the cramp.  And after an hour, it didn't go away.  And the cramp was so bad it pulled all the ligaments, it pulled the tendons away from the bone.  So I had to walk with... But that was a minor injury compared to some of the injuries.  No one was killed in the making of the film, but something happened to everyone.

(But it was scientifically proved, in a way, that there was no ghost or something like the poltergeist in the film?)

On the set?

(On the set)


(And Heather wasn't afraid of what she was doing in a film like this?)

"Well, Heather was afraid of the room when it shook.  Heather sometimes was afraid of... she could read my anxiety sometimes, and she would cry.  And it was like, 'Please don't cry, please don't cry...' Because I would be running short on time, and on a day when I didn't want to come back to the same set the next day.  And JoBeth would help me on occasion; the scene where all of the chairs stack up on the table, and I had to get the close-up on her.  And it's getting later, and by later I mean probably 4:30 in the afternoon, but she's sort of cranky now and needs her nap.  And she's starting to cry when it's her close-up, when she says, 'The TV people.'  And if you see the film again, you'll see she's just about to cry.  And I would've been 'Oh no, no... I cannot run over-schedule, I cannot come back to this place tomorrow.'  And JoBeth, JoBeth Williams, went in, babied her and hugged her, and did the necessary things to calm a child... (And all went well?) Yeah.  Yeah."

[On the unique quality of Poltergeist as a ghost story] "Well, it was the first ghost story that was a true success since The Haunting.  Now, in between, there was Hell House, and that was good - the spectacle of it was good.  But, intellectually, you had to assume that you were already there.  What I mean is, you had to believe in ghosts already.  But in The Haunting, and in Poltergeist, the build is very slow, to help suspend your disbelief.  And the best way to enter a ghost story is through science.  And, in both cases, in both films, it entered through science that we can believe.  Because we know a penicillin shot works, we know that antibiotic or ointment works, and so it was entered through science, and so it worked.

(Because it enabled you, you and the audience, to meet the unknown, and that's what is scary, in a way.)

To meet the unknown on their own terms, as they know it."

[On the clown sequence]

(Interviewer) I remember the sequence of the clown.

"Well, clowns are scary, anyway.

You think so?

Well, yeah, yeah I do.  From going to carnivals when I was a little boy.  Clowns were very scary.  And this clown, of course, there were two different versions.  And his smile would change slightly.  Especially the one under the bed that gets Robbie and pulls him under, he's got this big, sardonic smile on his face.  And also, these things were like... Robbie and Carol Anne's bedroom.  Star Wars posters.  Things that you could relate to, you know, like right now.  I mean, things... Reality, in terms of commerce.  Mister Rogers, you know, flipping... like Mr. Rogers, who was probably the hardest piece of footage to obtain, to get him to sign off on that.  And all of those things, when you start bringing it into your world, you have a tendency to believe."

It reminds me, one of the last films to share this atmosphere... James Wan.  Dead Silence.  Maybe you saw it?  There was a ventriloquist and a puppet.  You see it?

Now... now... when was this made?  This was...?

Dead Silence.

Oh, oh yeah!  James Wan?  Yes.

The film reminds me of the sequence in Poltergeist, with the clown.  Deep atmosphere.

I like that film.  A lot of those things lined against a wall, in cases!

That was really scary.  When they move, that's it!

Yeah, James creates his own... like, the little thing on the tricycle in Saw.  He makes them with his own hands.

He created them himself?

Yeah, himself, he made it.  And that's much better.  It's like the tree in Poltergeist.  I had the clay and the maquette, I built it myself.

You made the tree?

Yeah.  And then they made three big versions.  It's always best to have it come through you as purely as possible, without translation."

[On the directing controversy] "Well, the truth is, in the first two weeks of shooting, on... I think it was toward the end of the first week of shooting.  I was shooting in the back yard the funeral of the little bird, and the dog licking his chops.  And Robbie is in the tree, and he sees the storm coming.  Well, I'm running out of time, and I need shots of the remote control cars and Derek [sic; Dirk] Blocker is coming with the beer, down the street, going to watch the football game.  And I've run out of time.  And I need a 2nd Unit director to shoot these cars weaving in and out over Derek [Dirk]'s shoulder.  And so I ask Steven to do it.  And I'm in the tree, shooting down.  And someone arrives from the L.A. Times and then a small article came out in the L.A. Times that they visited the set of Poltergeist and they don't know who is directing the film.  There's more than one director.  Well, he was doing 2nd Unit for me.  Steven took out a full page ad in Variety saying that "no," telling the truth about it, but... that get's lost.  But that one little statement... And it-- (puts hands up).

(People love this sort of controversy.)

Oh, they do, they do, but... I have to say, I'm the only one who got most of this kind of shit for this.  I mean, everyone who worked for, um... okay, um, David O. Selznick.  For Gone With the Wind.  Duel in the Sun.   They didn't get this shit.  No one got this shit but me.  And it's... I don't know, I don't know what it was.  A full moon.  An eclipse?

(It belongs to these things around Poltergeist, and all this...?)

It... Yeah.  Maybe, the curse.

(Yeah, the curse.)

Maybe.  And that could be my... more than the leg.


But, I'm alive!  And some of them are not... and I don't know, people have asked me that question: do you believe in this curse?  And I've always said no.  But about five years ago I started thinking, well, maybe.

(The facts are here.)

Maybe so."

[On his relationship with Spielberg] "It affected my career.  But, he made sure to continue to hire me to work for him.  And he and I remained best of friends.  But it did not... he and I are still very good friends.  It did not affect our relationship.  And he's done all he can do.  But once something like that is out there at a given time, and you can't take it back.  You can't erase it."

Stay tuned on Friday, I will post a transcription of the entire interview, one of the most excellent of his.


Anonymous said...

Then do so many people in the cast and crew still say that Spielberg directed it? The story that I have read is that Spielberg saw Heather O'Rourke in the commissary. Why did that cameraman say that Tobe Hooper was cool with Spielberg doing everything? It is stuff like that which gives me doubts. I think of Poltergeist as a Hooper directed film of a Spielberg production, which is what I see it as, as plenty of Hooper dread and camera moves exist there featured in his other works. To me, it is kind of like Nightmare Before Christmas, a Tim Burton design but directed by Henry Sellick. Or the Star Wars movies that George Lucas didn't direct, which feel the same way as the Lucas helmed ones. Who actually designed Poltergeist is subject to debate. I read a lot how Hooper was totally in charge of preproduction but lost directing duties on the actual set, which doesn't make sense because all he had to do was follow preproduction shooting scripts. I would just like Spielberg to make a statement in modern times to put it top rest because Hooper's words still leave many doubts. The last time that Spielberg had two movies released at the same time he said that he did that a couple of times with Jurassic Park and Schindler's List and E.T. with Poltergeist. Does he consider Gremlins and Goonies his too?

Anonymous said...

Then why do should be in the first sentence..Sorry for type o

JR said...

I think there’s certain things we will never be able to reconcile, such as the differing opinions of what happened on set. I think it’s as I have said in my numerous, torturous appraisals of the circumstances: Hooper was a mild personality with a slower way of working and thinking about the image, and crew members looked to Spielberg as the person who, seemingly, had all the fast answers, who didn’t think film was open to spontaneous inspiration but was rather something you planned to the smallest move. It does not mean Hooper was not implementing his own designs or that the film was getting away from him, and let’s all remember the only person who was on set more than Spielberg was Hooper.

I also do not mean to imply we must take everything Hooper says at his word, after all he is at a later point in his life and his concern is with setting things in the way he wants them, salvaging some form of agency after years of having no one take him seriously as a force behind Poltergeist, rather than utmost truth or clarity (he still shows remarkable lucidness, this being a year before he was to direct Djinn). Notice Hooper does not say he saw her in the commissary, merely that he was as on board casting O’Rourke as anyone else (Spielberg didn’t cast her on the spot, anyway, O’Rourke had to go through two auditions as well)... though if Hooper was there, I’d put more faith in him sharing the truth than Spielberg or Marshall in ever giving Hooper an ounce of special mention. I’ve considered AC Leonetti’s statements long and hard, as well as Edlund and at least one other anonymous crew member, and I’ve decided they are speaking so generally, they lose sight that film is a medium with an artistic dimension and not just one of technical design. All they could see is Spielberg’s “design,” but they could not see Hooper’s actual work, his actual presence. There is a distinct schism between actors and crew, crew members answering to the louder voice on set while actors were clearly directed in whispers, most actors willing to go to bat for Hooper. As for the point of the post, I am trying to give Hooper back his voice on the film, which has been denied him for so long. His contribution, as constantly belittled as it is, at least warrants that,a little interest in his say, rather than distrust and trying to detect if his resentment over the happenings on set fuels lies. I think Hooper is more truthful than not, more honest about his asserted stamp on the film than dishonest about Spielberg’s “design” that he could not override, but that he could at least direct to a number of his personal preferences and interests in terms of tone and image. Why would he try to be honest and talk about Spielberg’s contributions when he finally got the chance to talk about Poltergeist as if his personal achievement? Why talk about Spielberg truthfully being in charge of all the ILM shooting if he can talk about how he created the eerie, uncanny design of the tree?

I agree with you full force. Hooper directed the specifics of a Spielberg production. Who “designed” is up to your idea of a director: is it the writer/idea-man or the person who worked every day, answered to the small things, and had first say/the ear of the producer before anything was decided on, if he so choose to have his ear. I’m sure a lot of the time he was happy to have Spielberg there to implement the vision both agreed to. This was a joint vision, except when it wasn’t, and the Hooper hallmarks make this clear. Hooper was more tolerant than most would be of the collaboration, and so we can say he did follow the things established in pre-production without issue. Such as Spielberg’s storyboards. That’s why when the film diverts from the storyboards is when it gets the most interesting.

JR said...

I ran out of room. Cont.:

Spielberg has said many times that Hooper directed, but has also not been able to downplay the major creative role he played, as he shouldn’t have to. But he has put in no extra effort to express Hooper’s integral work on the picture. It is galling how he will never mention Hooper’s name in talking about the picture (then again, Richard Donner is hardly on his lips, either, and I guess he’s not obligated to), in modern times. He does have a sense of ownership of Poltergeist, but, as he’s said, he wrote it, designed a number of its supernatural visions, helped envision large set pieces, and I guess he wishes he directed it. The film is that good, and I’m sure he was shocked when he saw the sheer eloquence of cinema that could be achieved when working with an artist such as Hooper. As said, I don’t suggest we take Hooper’s word as 100% truth, but merely giving back a film to him that he rightly owns, to talk about in any way he’d like. He may be leaving out certain Spielberg contributions, but I don’t doubt anything Hooper says, and I don’t see why we have to look at him with a side-eye, as if no one vouches for him and he’s the slimey villain of an 80s corporate drama trying to steal recognition from the poor, tyrranized Spielberg. If he’s hiding more than he’s letting on, it’s because he can’t afford to have his contributions lessened more than they already are being.

What we need is for people to start talking honestly about what Hooper did contribute on set, even if it was oh-so-little compared to Spielberg.

JR said...

And if you think I’m accusing Leonetti and Edlund of being thoughtless automatons, then... you would be right.