Poltergeist

Part 2: Who Really Directed Poltergeist?

Steven Spielberg has many talents, but here’s one thing he isn’t very good at: not directing. Or at least, in 1981, this appeared to be one of his worse qualities.

Although Spielberg had co-written and storyboarded Poltergeist, he was unable to direct the film because of a commitment he’d made to helm E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. So, as a huge fan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he and MGM selected Tobe Hooper to bring Poltergeist to life. And heading into the summer of 1982—with the film set to be released in June—the selection of Hooper appeared to be a terrific decision. The film finished on time, on budget and, most importantly, it turned out absolutely great. Tobe Hooper, it seemed, was poised for a new tier of greatness. But that, unfortunately, is where the problems begin.

In May 1982, weeks before Poltergeist opened, Steven Spielberg was interviewed by The Los Angeles Times and made the following comments:

Tobe isn’t what you’d call a take-charge sort of guy. He’s just not a strong presence on a movie set. If a question was asked and an answer wasn’t immediately forthcoming, I’d jump up and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that became the process of the collaboration… My enthusiasm for wanting to make ‘Poltergeist’ would have been difficult for any director I would have hired. It derived from my imagination and my experiences, and it came out of my typewriter. I felt a proprietary interest in this project that was stronger than if I was just an executive producer. I thought I’d be able to turn ‘Poltergeist’ over to a director and walk away. I was wrong.” 

Spielberg’s insinuation was soon echoed by many involved in the film:

Mike Fenton (Casting Director): Did he [Tobe] direct the film? Not that I saw.

Frank Marshall (Producer): “It all depends on your definition of director. The job of the producer is to get the film finished, and that’s what we did. The creative force on this movie was Steven. Tobe was the director and was on the set every day. But Steven did the design for every story board and he was on the set every day except for three days when he was in Hawaii with [George] Lucas.”

Jobeth Williams (Actress): “It was a collaboration with Steven having the final say. Tobe had his own input, but I think we knew that Steven had the final say. Steven is a strong-minded person and knew what he wanted. We were lucky because we got input from two very imaginative people.”

In an attempt to put this issue to rest, Stephen Spielberg wrote an open letter to Tobe Hooper that was published by The Hollywood Reporter on June 8, 1982 (four days after Poltergeist had opened):

To Tobe Hooper, 

Regrettably, some of the press has misunderstood the rather unique, creative relationship, which you and I shared throughout the making of “Poltergeist.” 

I enjoyed your openness in allowing me, as a producer and a writer, a wide berth for creative involvement, just as I know you were happy with the freedom you had to direct “Poltergeist” so wonderfully. 

Through the screenplay you accepted a vision of this very intense movie from the start, and as the director, you delivered the goods. You performed professionally and responsibly throughout, and I want to wish you great success on your next project. 

Let’s hope that “Poltergeist” brings as much pleasure to the general public as we experienced in our mutual effort. 

Sincerely, 

Steven Spielberg

Although Poltergeist didn’t open particularly strong, the movie had legs and a long theatrical lifespan. And with each week of impressive box officer numbers—combined with the runaway success of E.T., which opened June 11—this “controversy” only seemed to grow louder.

WHO REALLY DIRECTED POLTERGEIST

Reading Eagle (June 27, 1982)

The controversy just won’t go away. The Directors Guild now is probing whether producer Steven Spielberg is guilty of union violations for meddling in director Tobe Hooper’s province. (The guild is no pushover; producer George Lucas was fined six figures for skipping director Irwin Kershner’s name during the opening credits of “The Empire Strikes Back.” Lucas withdrew from the union rather than pay).  No word yet on who filed the complaint. Spielberg earlier had purchased trade ads thanking Hooper for the “wide berth” given him during filming, while Hooper has been mum but reportedly eager to start work on his next project and forget the brouhaha.”

But what, exactly, would that next project be? Although Poltergeist had been a critical and commercial success, nobody in Hollywood seemed interested in working with the man who may or may not have directed it. Nobody, it turned out, except for Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.

cannon logo

Part 3: The Unacceptability of $999,999

In August 1983, Tobe Hooper signed a three-picture deal with Cannon Films. The company—run by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus—had become something of a rogue juggernaut in the film industry following a corporate makeover that began in 1980 with a new cinematic mantra of “dropping exploitation pictures, making bigger films and casting with stars.”

To that end, working with Hooper made a lot of sense for Golan and Globus; and, conversely, their new trajectory was perfectly aligned with what the exiled director had in mind. As a result, over the next few years, Hooper agreed to director a trio of films for Cannon: Spider-Man (whose rights had recently been acquired by Marvel), a sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (to be made with a much higher budget than the original) and, most immediately, a sci-fi horror flick called Space Vampires.

Space Vampires was a film that Cannon had been trying to make for a few years now, based on Colin Wilson’s 1976 novel “The Space Vampires.” Since as far back as March 1980—when Golan and Globus were readying to shoot Space Vampires in Hawaii for $10 million—this film consistently appeared on the brink of being made. But for whatever reason, Space Vampires never made it into production. After several stalled starts, it perhaps seemed fated for a life only in development hell until, unexpectedly, a fellow producer took interest in the project.

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Below is an excerpt from “Winner Take All: A Life of Sorts” by Michael Winner:

Dino de Laurentiis, the Italian producer who’d made Death Wish, was in London in 1981 making a movie at Pinewood. He said, “Let’s do another picture!” He had in mind a book he’d once optioned called Space Vampires. He asked me to call the agent to see if it was still available. The agent said a new option had been taken by two Israelis, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus

…Menahem was very large. Yoram was rather small. They sat in my antiques-filled living room and I treated them like youngsters entering the industry. “We’d like to buy your opinion on Space Vampires,” I said. 

Menahem looked up and replied in a guttural voice, “A million dollars!” 

The option was worth twenty thousand at most. I said, “Is that your final say on the matter?” 

Menahem said, “Yes. Come and make the picture for us. 

I said, “I’m negotiating on behalf of Dino de Laurentiis. You’re telling me there’s nothing you’d accept under a million dollars?” 

“No,” said Menahem. 

“What about $999,999?” I asked. 

“No,” said Menahem. 

I said to Dino, “They’re a couple of nut cases!” 

Nut cases or not, eventually both parties—Cannon and the Dino De Laurentiis company—decided to partner up and make this movie together. Their joint effort was to be directed by the Italian filmmaker Ferdinando Baldi (and this planned iteration of Space Vampires was to be released in 3-D).

Baldi eventually dropped out of the project. Michael Winner (author of the excerpt above) was then offered to direct, but ended up passing. So too, at some point, did Dino De Laurentiis who exited the project which, midway through 1983, left Goran and Globus without a captain for this spaceship.

Around this time, Tobe Hooper was struggling to find work at the studios. With limited options, he signed on to direct a $4 million sequel to Night of the Living Dead. Shortly after doing so, Menahem Golan offered him a chance to direct a much larger movie: Space Vampires, which was budgeted at $25 million. Tempted by the offer, Hooper exited Return of the Living Dead and was replaced with his hand picked successor: Dan O’Bannon, a well-known sci-fi filmmaker most famous for writing Alien.

With Hooper now on board, Goram and Golum was finally able to move forward with production. And on February 6, 1984, at Elstree Studios in London, Cannon Films commenced principal photography on their most expensive production to date: Space Vampires, which would eventually be retitled Lifeforce.

Continue Reading Lifeforce Oral History >>

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