Wednesday, April 4, 2018

'Poltergeist' Storyboards

Let's talk about these storyboards... now it's true a known selection of Poltergeist's scenes followed closely a storyboarded path, most of which were sketched by Spielberg.  Now what sort of producer would be holed up in an office, drawing up storyboards for another director's film, well, it is beyond me.  We can always try to rationalize in various, unverifiable ways, such as these were sketched during collaborative meetings, or sketched out in the open, with Hooper and one of the storyboard artists looking over his shoulder, Hooper only a whisper away from stating he saw things differently.  The most likely case, though, is that Spielberg needed to see Poltergeist come out a certain way, a certain polished and seamless way, and drawing up storyboards to accord with his specific conception of swift, dynamic, mainstream filmmaking seemed the least he can do.  In any case, Spielberg was, at one point, never shy about saying he "designed" the picture, and designed he may have, but storyboards are meant to be broken (yes?), and a design does not automatically supersede the tone that can be captured, in an alchemical way, on set.  Perhaps Poltergeist moves a bit quicker, with more a pep in its step than many other Hooper films, but I refuse to believe Hooper ever felt anything less than completely on board with the direction the film was taking at every point.  He was, after all, never not in Spielberg's close circle, from the span of the It's Nighttime treatment to the final shooting draft, which Spielberg allegedly rewrote with Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy, and Hooper "[hanging] around," as Spielberg put it.  "Hang around" sounds like Hooper, who may have never written (in a literary extent) a thing in his life without a collaborator at the typewriter or a transcriber, but he was still being able to think about and devise around the film throughout all its permutations, become excited by the prospects, even if he knew it was becoming rather empty and Spielberg-like, even if he never contributed an idea past the It's Nighttime treatment (which, by the way, the film could at that point be summarized as an Entity-like-in-tone tale of a yuppie woman and her family beset by ghosts and a pool of pioneers' skeletons, then the media circus, then scientists, then the entire implosion of their suburban enclave by angry metonyms for Manifest Destiny anxiety.  It would've been gooood, though I just realized the reason they did not go with ancient skeletons is because they wanted the visceral effect of decaying corpses, the dead who could be our friends and neighbors).  This is to ignore any strife during the shoot, any spoiling of those prospects by on-set ire, such as Hooper almost causing mutiny on the set because Hooper is a little scattered and Hollywood is a hard-ass town where it's not about nurturing someone with a different sensibility but just about getting "the checks cleared."  Maybe we should be glad, if it is in fact true Hooper couldn't pull off this production without Spielberg, for at least it spared him years on mainstream productions thinking he had to have the approval of competent men to make art.

Anyway, I have a pet theory that Spielberg worked with storyboard artist Richard Lasley on his side of things (as there are numerous online scans of Lasley's storyboards and the Spielberg stick-figure drawings that appear directly adapted), and the readily available evidence shows Lasley having drawn the storyboards for the climax (from Diane and the kids dodging corpses to Dana arriving in her boyfriend's car) and the entire tree attack sequence, while Hooper worked exclusively with artist Carl Aldana, whose storyboards are also scattered online, and he has drawings of the scene of Diane putting the children to bed early in the film, and the ceiling-pulling attack on Diane in her bedroom, scenes which, to me, speak of Hooper's personal touch.  Completely uncorroborated.  Total speculation, but...?

Spielberg sketches of additional scenes exist online, without any Lasley reproductions, though, and these would be the Living Room scene and, without further ado, the following...

What differences, if any, do you see, between scene and storyboard?

Well, it seems to be very little, which is not a point in my favor.  This is a scene that is scripted to the very last beat, as executed, in terms of dialogue and the paranormal activity happening around the group, as well as staging (a group sits around a table), and the script basically says: "Pan up with cup from shaking hands to Dr. Lesh's face."

Now we'll never know if Tobe Hooper would have filmed this scene in the same way without Spielberg.  That's the hard part, practically in a Shangri-La/Lost Horizons-like, unattainable sense, wondering how Hooper would have filmed it if he just had the Poltergeist script slapped onto his desk, then was told, "Okay, direct it.  How's it gonna look?"  To figure out if Hooper is capable of such polish, and I believe he is; he is not above a conventionally beautiful OTS shot, such as Miss Hattie speaking to Libby and Mr. Wood in Eaten Alive, or the Carnival Manager bringing Joey to his parents in The Funhouse.  In a film which Spielberg has many times on, at least circa 1982, felt no compunction in saying he "designed," there's no way of knowing how Poltergeist would have turned out without Spielberg there.  But the same goes for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Empire Strikes Back, Rebecca, any film where the movie-making template machine takes over and it becomes more about delivering a product than creating an individuized work of art.  Yet, in all these cases, Raiders still feels like a Spielberg film, hyperactive and comic-book-like, Empire Strikes Back not quite like a Lucas film, lugubrious and elegant, and Rebecca still with brilliant Hitchcock set-pieces, except dressed to the nines in a production design department's ostentatious frills.  Poltergeist is Spielberg-driven but Hooper-depressed.

Now in many Hooper films, albeit being bound by less luxurious shooting schedules, Hooper tends to favor simple frontals to this sort of fanned-out shot-reverse shot.  But the way it is drawn in Spielberg's sketches, we can see some divergences.  Lesh is drawn at a straight-on frontal angle.  So is the family facing her.  One can imagine that scene in Close Encounters when Roy Neary is finally interrogated by Francois Truffaut.  Now storyboards often mean very little or are little more than an organizational and efficiency tool for complicated shot lists, but in a scene as simple as this and with a difference as small, but still stark, as this (not to mention the director being a different person from the one who storyboarded), then it seems likely that whoever decided how to shoot this day felt... opposed... to any remaking of any Close Encounters scene.  This could have been Matthew Leonetti, or Spielberg himself.  Who knows.  Throwing it out there, Hooper was on set that day, too.  This is the storied production day where Beatrice Straight demanded one director after both men wouldn't stop giving suggestions.

There is also Dana and Steven switching places.  What fine tuning can possibly happen by not making Steven a pillar in the frame?  An immediately digested personality for foregrounding?  Who, on set, could possibly have thought to rethink the modal nuances of image and emotion, as depicted by the storyboards?  Apologies for suddenly making this a comparative literature study guide.  This all just goes to show the level of influence that we cannot deny goes both ways.  Spielberg may have been instrumental as the designer of the film, but one can also say Hooper was there to have made it all go one or two ways... and he decided on the one way.

The wide shot at the top of the page below comes at an opposite perspective from that filmed, favoring the scientists, which seems odd, if we want to see more rather than less faces.  Spielberg probably was thinking the important part here is the reaction of the scientists and the blasé nature of the family seen with their backs to us, but, on the set, it probably seemed more practical to try to get the angle in which as many faces as possible would be visible.

Below, Hooper opts for a particularly composed frame rather than a fanned three-person shot with Ryan in the background, Marty in "E.C.U."  An unscripted occurrence of the flabbergasted Marty's camera suddenly flashing and winding appears in the storyboards (accompanied by a kinetic pan-down to his hands), but it is neither in the script (in which he merely misses the two additional flashes) or in the film (in which he manages to bring up his camera, but realizes he leaves the lens cap on).

Steven, again, is no longer favored.  It's not about him, who is largely a passive figure, it's about Diane.  In the first use of the tighter frame on the family members, Diane is flanked by her children, both whose soberness reflects their innocence.

In Spielberg's films, it's all about including as much in the frame as possible, as much as the Cinemascope allows.  In Hooper, it is very much about things being left off, excluded, from the frame.

Lesh's discourse on poltergeist phenomena is not yet greeted with her close-up, which again, in drawing, appears to be a head-on frontal shot.  The close-up appears just a moment later, to emphasize Lesh's radiating compassion, and it's not a frontal but another one of directional appeal.

Lesh's frontal was to be greeted by a frontal on Diane.  Now again, a director is allowed to change his mind from initial storyboarding to production, but when the storyboarder is not the nominal director, who is also always present on set?  Who is the most likely to want to diverge from your hard-laid plans?  Your attachment betrays you.  A director, one with no such fidelitous relationship or interest in storyboards, suddenly has freedom to make a scene whatever he wants.  The following scene, within the film, the Living Room contact scene with Carol Anne, is also present online in the form of Spielberg sketched storyboards, and those and the scene they depict diverge in an incredible way.  Freedom and rules (Spielberg's or otherwise), two diametrically opposed things that are often the two most important individual condition s - diametrically opposed but not mutually exclusive - under which great work is done.

Spielberg has famously said that he storyboarded all his films up to and including Poltergeist, and it was with E.T. and its more gentle, character-driven story that he decided he would finally forgo storyboards and let the set and the blocking speak to him.  This is Hooper's preferred method.  Dare we say, on the set of Poltergeist, Mr. Spielberg learned something from Hooper?

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