Who Really Directed “Poltergeist”?


Story by James McDonald

1982 was a great year for movies: “Blade Runner”, “Tron”, “ET”, “The Thing” and of course, “Poltergeist.” It was a movie which starred a variety of relatively unknown actors, including Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robbins and Heather O’Rourke. The movie told the story of a young family living in a California suburb whose seemingly perfect lives are turned upside down when Carol Anne, the youngest child in the family, is kidnapped by supernatural spirits which force her parents to seek the help and advice of a group of parapsychologists.

The movie went on to gross over $76 million in the U.S. alone and spawned two sequels and a TV series, “Poltergeist: The Legacy” with a remake scheduled for release in July of 2015. The new movie will star Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt and Jared Harris and will be produced by legendary horror filmmaker, Sam Raimi (“The Evil Dead”, “Spider-Man”). Over the years, there were rumors that the movie was cursed, with the untimely passing of both Dominique Dunne and Heather O’Rourke but like so many other films which fit into this category, “The Exorcist” and “The Omen” to name but a few, in the end, the rumors proved to be just that: rumors.

One aspect of the movie that has been pored over and examined, from fans to film enthusiasts, is, quite simply, who directed “Poltergeist”? You would imagine that the credits during the opening of the movie, would state who did exactly what. You can see below that Steven Spielberg and Frank Marshall are listed as the movie’s producers:


While the final credit to appear states that Tobe Hooper is the director:


So why has there been such controversy over this one topic? At this point in time, Mr. Spielberg was under contract to Universal Pictures because he was prepping his next movie as a director, “E.T.” and his contract strictly forbade him from directing any other movies while working on this film. By this time, Mr. Spielberg had proved to be a very successful filmmaker with “Jaws”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” under his creative belt and because he also wrote the story and screenplay for “Poltergeist” and was also producing it, some started to question his participation in the film. When asked by a reporter about credited director Tobe Hooper, he responded:

Tobe isn’t… a take-charge sort of guy. If a question was asked and an answer wasn’t immediately forthcoming, I’d jump in and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that become the process of collaboration.

Every director works differently. Some work fast, some work slow but they still get the job done. “Poltergeist” is a movie that Mr. Spielberg desperately wanted to direct but because of his contract with Universal Pictures, why not wait until “E.T.” was finished and then direct it? He had stated after having seen Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” that it was:

One of the most truly visceral movies ever made. Essentially it starts inside the stomach and ends in the heart. As a filmmaker who likes to see everything, I loved it.


So why give the directing chores on a movie that he so desperately wanted to direct himself, to another filmmaker and then take back control of the set? That’s a question scores of people have been asking ever since the movie’s release in 1982. Even the Directors Guild of America opened an investigation into the matter after Mr. Spielberg and other crew members seemingly made some disparaging remarks about Mr. Spielberg professing authorship.

In regards to director Tobe Hooper, co-producer Frank Marshall told the Los Angeles Times:

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.

However, Hooper claimed that he “did fully half of the storyboards.” The week the film was released, Mr. Spielberg, via The Hollywood Reporter, printed an open letter which read:

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… 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 responsibly and professionally throughout, and I wish you great success on your next project.


Back during the film’s production, a 10-minute “Making Of” was produced and while there were interviews with the cast and crew and plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, Tobe Hooper was strangely absent. As the director of the movie, one would expect him to be front and center of the show but that was not the case.

In 2007, Quint with Ain’t it Cool News interviewed actress Zelda Rubinstein, who played Tangina, the spiritual medium who claims at the end of the movie, “This house… is clean!” Below is an excerpt from that interview:

Zelda Rubinstein: I can tell you that Steven directed all six days I was there. I only worked six days on the film and Steven was there. Tobe set up the shots and Steven made the adjustments. You’re not going to hear that from Tobe Hooper, you’ll hear it from Zelda, because that was my honest to God experience. I’m not a fan of Tobe Hooper.

Quint: You’re not?

Zelda Rubinstein: No, I’m not, because I feel he allowed… I don’t know how to say this… he allowed some unacceptable chemical agents into his work. I felt that immediately. I felt that when I first interviewed for the job. Steven was there, Tobe was there, two casting people from MGM were there and I felt at that time Tobe was only partially there.

This was coming out of the drug-fueled 70s and into the 80s and many filmmakers were doing drugs. Back when Mr. Spielberg was making “Close Encounters”, that film’s producer, the late Julia Phillips, in her autobiography ‘You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again’, said many unkind things about a lot of people in Hollywood, including Mr. Spielberg, stating that he was using a lot of ‘mind-altering substances’ throughout production.

Here’s an excerpt from her book:

Steven takes a tentative puff on my joint, coughs, and passes it back to me. We haven’t spoken in four years, but we have run into each other on the MGM lot, where he is directing “Poltergeist.” He is supposed to be producing it, but Tobe Hooper, the director, it is whispered, has lost his cookies and Steven has had to step in. I wonder if Steven has been the first to whisper the Hooper rumors. It would fit his m.o. We are acting as if nothing bad ever happened between us, and Steven has walked back to my set of offices with me, the ex-offices of Louis B. Mayer, which I have defiled with acres of chintz. Steven has asked for the joint, which surprises me, he is such a straightnik. Maybe it is his way of getting along with me on my terms. We hang out for a considerable period, and I am furious the entire time. I don’t indicate this externally at all, so I am working on a hell of a stomach ache. Thank God there is no Sara Lee anything around. “Yup, all hell is gonna break loose in this room,” Steven says. “We’re gonna rotate the whole room day after tomorrow. You should come by and see it.” he says now.

The cast and crew of “Poltergeist” seemed torn about who directed the film. Actress JoBeth Williams, who played Diane Freeling, the mother of the family, stated in a July 1982 AP article after the film was released:

Steven (Spielberg) was there every day,” said the Texas-born actress. “He had very clear and strong ideas about what he wanted done and how he wanted it done. “Even though Tobe was there and participating,” she added, “you felt Steven had the final say on everything.” The actress says that in the initial days of shooting there often was confusion with two people giving conflicting directions. “Sometimes Steven would tell us one thing and Tobe another,” Miss Williams said. “But they soon realized that was doing us more harm than good, so they stopped. Later on, whatever discussions Tobe and Steven had, they held in private and then came to us with their decisions.

Craig T. Nelson, who played Steve Freeling, the father in the family said:

Tobe gave me a lot of direction. It’s not fair to eliminate what Tobe did-he gave me a tremendous amount of support because he’s a warm, sensitive, caring human being. Tobe was simply pushed out of the picture after turning in his cut.

steve and diane

The late Jerry Goldsmith, the movie’s composer, says he worked exclusively with Spielberg. He said the situation was

unusual, because 99% of the time I work with the director.

Mike Fenton, the film’s Casting Director said:

Did he [Tobe] direct the film? Not that I saw.

So there you have it. Officially, Tobe Hooper directed the classic ghost story “Poltergeist.” Unofficially, producer and co-writer Steven Spielberg directed it. Or at least had more of a say in the film’s direction than most other producers normally would have had under any other circumstances. Mr. Spielberg has always been an inspiration to me as a filmmaker and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is my all-time favorite movie but this controversy is just one of those things that simply won’t go away until both Mr. Hooper and Mr. Spielberg sit down together and say exactly what happened. And I doubt that will ever happen.

When “Poltergeist” was released for its 25th Anniversary in 2007 on SPECIAL EDITION DVD and Blu-ray, fans hoped they’d finally get some behind-the-scenes footage and possibly some interviews with cast and crew but that was not the case. Instead, aside from the movie, there was a short documentary about true-life hauntings and that was it. A true disappointment.

Lastly, this is an excerpt from an early 1982 issue of “FANGORIA” before the film’s release:

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 [after re-writing the Grais/Victor draft]. 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. [On future films] If I write it myself, I’ll direct it myself. I won’t put someone else through what I put Tobe through, and I’ll be more honest in my contributions to a film.

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James McDonald

Film/Theater Critic & Interviewer at Red Carpet Crash
Originally from Dublin, Ireland, James is a Movie Critic and Celebrity Interviewer with over 30 years of experience in the film industry as an Award-Winning Filmmaker.
James McDonald
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