Did the late filmmaker Tobe Hooper deserve his position as the credited director of the classic horror film Poltergeist? Or was the film’s co-writer and, by all accounts, very hands-on producer Steven Spielberg the project’s real auteur? It is a controversy that has been debated since the film’s release back in 1982. This week, Hooper’s friend and collaborator, the filmmaker Mick Garris (Sleepwalkers) offered his expert opinion in the course of a new episode of Garris’ Post Mortem podcast which found the host paying tribute to Hooper, who died last month.
“I was doing publicity on Poltergeist and a lot of people were talking about the Spielberg and Tobe Hooper situation,” said Garris, who later worked with Hooper on Showtime’s Masters of Horror series. “From my perspective, it was Tobe’s first studio movie. Here he is, on a studio lot, on a big soundstage. Steven Spielberg had written the shooting script, was on the set, and was producing, and Spielberg is a consummate filmmaker and he lives and breathers movies. He probably has sprockets up and down his spine. Very passionate, very intelligent, very articulate. And, yes, I would see him climb on the camera and say, ‘Maybe we should push in on a two-shot here,’ or ‘do-this-or-that,’ there. And Tobe would be watching. Tobe was always calling action and cut. Tobe had been deeply involved in all of the preproduction and everything. But Steven is a guy who will come in and call the shots. And so, you’re on your first studio film, hired by by Steven. I mean, Tobe directed that movie, Steven Spielberg had a lot to do with directing that movie, too.
“Here’s what happened,” Garris continued. “It happened to Bob Zemeckis too on Used Cars and (Used Cars star) Kurt Russell said to Spielberg, ‘I can take direction from you or I can take direction from Bob Z. I don’t care who it is, but it can only be one of you, it can’t be both of you.’ And Steven just backed off and said, ‘You’re right, I’m sorry.’ Nobody did that for Tobe. So, that controversy still hangs there. But Tobe is so much a crucial part of that movie, and watching both of them work on that film was a fascinating learning experience for me, who would later on become a filmmaker after doing publicity.
“I understand how people could perceive it otherwise, but Tobe was a terrific filmmaker, and I don’t think it’s that Steven was controlling, I think it was that Steven was enthusiastic as a filmmaker who has celluloid running though his veins, and nobody was there to protect Tobe. Look, all of the preproduction was done by Tobe, Tobe was there throughout, Tobe’s vision is very much realized there, and Tobe got credit because he deserved that credit, [everyone] including Steven Spielberg said that.”
You can hear the full episode of Post Mortem, in which Garris discusses Hooper with Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 stars Caroline Williams and Bill Moseley at the PodcastOne website.
Watch the trailer for Poltergeist above.