Friday, April 13, 2018

L'Etrange Fest Interview, Complete Transciption

[About Eggshells] "Well, it represents the fragile nature of... the way things were in the States at that time.  It centers around a hippie commune and [stammers]... the return of troops from Vietnam.  And protests against the war, and against the government.  Most of it takes place in a commune, in this place where there was "fashion hippies."  There were the real hippies, the one that did the "works," and then the trickle down from that was, grow long hair and wear sandals.  But in the basement of this commune house, there is a crypto - wait a minute, I'm sorry, it's a... - "crypto-embryonic hyper-electric presence," that is a kind of a ghost.  I mean, it is a kind of a spirit.  Then there is a spirit, that is the "spirit of thought," that lives in the house.  So it's... it's weird."

[About inspiration from the hippie culture] "Yeah, well... And the freedom.  It was a time in the States where, well, literally, you'd let the hair go long, reflecting what was happening in Europe.  And breaking away from the family unit and becoming free, running away from mother, running away from the family."

[About Eggshells versus Texas Chain Saw Massacre] "Okay, this film... you know, I... [stammers] well, the films I went to see was Fellini films, Godard, Truffaut in particular.  And I wanted to make a film that had experimental and multiple levels of narrative.  And so, but anyway... it bombed in the states.  I mean, it went nowhere.  It got a few play dates around campuses.  I mean, it did not get me out of Austin, Texas to Los Angeles.  And so a friend of mine suggested that I should make a horror film.  And so I made a horror film, so they could see my sky rocket from L.A. to Austin.  And so I did that, but when I made that, Chain Saw Massacre, I put all that European filmmaking knowledge and multiple levels of narrative and... the attention to behavior and synchronicity of behavior to situation.

(It was really new, to put out this European background in a horror film?)

It was.  It was, there had not been anything quite like it."

[About his feelings toward to horror genre] "Oh, I liked it.  I like the Hammer films.  I liked earlier... the gothic films that I was too young to see, but in revival houses things came back like... I don't think I saw Frankenstein until television, or Dracula.  But the idea appealed to me.  I did see Howard Hawks's The Thing.  I was under the seat most of the time and was ducking down, I couldn't watch.  So I knew there was an emotional response that the genre film can cause, I mean, a direct, emotional bolt of electricity, and immediate response to that."

[About Eaten Alive and a possible fear of small-town America] "Oh, yeah, Eaten Alive was next.  That was my first film in Los Angeles... Small town America is terrifying.  It's still terrifying.  [Laughs] They didn't want me in Texas, really.  I'm too short!  I'm not really a Texan by those standards.  But I was a filmmaker.  When I was shooting Eggshells, even I had the long hair, the sandals, and the attire of hippiedom, because I had a camera, I had an NPR, a 16 mm Eclair, and they would say, 'Don't. Don't talk to him. He's FBI. He's CIA. He's a narc.'

I guess my goal growing up as a child, watching movies, like three movies a day until I was twenty-three years old, was to leave Texas and go to Los Angeles... Because the machine was in Los Angeles.  But the audience was in Austin.  Not in Dallas, not in Huston, not in other parts of Texas, but specifically Austin, because of the University of Texas.  Because that crowd of students will let you know immediately if it's thumbs up or thumbs down.  I mean, they'll boo, they'll scream at the screen if it's bad.  And if they like it, they'll let you know."

[About Texas Chain Saw Massacre's difficult shooting conditions] "Yeah.  Except happily, no one was killed.  But yes, I mean, it was.  It was the toughest shoot I've ever been on or ever... helped create, and that was good for the film."

"Eaten Alive, or Death Trap, was a different kind of difficulty.  In Chainsaw, I was 'auteur,' in Eaten Alive... I was 'auteur,' but I had to fight for it.  I had to pack up all my stuff every day and say, 'Bye bye!'  And, they'd chase me to my car, bring me back! And I had to deal with this Los Angeles thing, this thing where they say... I think the most important word there, then and now, is 'explain.'  You must explain.  Don't give the audience... the audience doesn't want to think.  And they think that now.  An example, in Chain Saw, we're shown that cannibalism is involved.  It never says it, it never shows it.  But you assume it, because of the multiple levels of narrative.  But there, in LA... I went to a couple of meetings a couple of weeks ago, and the word 'explain' came up, at least ten times.  "You must explain, they don't want to think."  Then why do they buy video games if they don't want to interact?"

[About the extremer reactions to Chain Saw] "Well, my memories was... because of Eggshells getting very little attention... any attention.  Anything is better than nothing.  Any publicity is better than no publicity!  And then when it became a... invited in the Fortnight [Directors' Fortnight], at Cannes, and the Museum of Modern Art picked the film up... and everything changed.  But... there were riots.  In Cannes, there were riots.  I mean, people just trying to get in the theater would fight!  And there was a lot of throwing up, like in San Francisco, in a showing, a sneak preview, there was a lot of people jumped up from the seats and went to the bathroom to puke...

(Did that make you happy?)

... Yes. [Interviewer laughs] Well, it did, because I was able to show... I was able to do something that was able to get an emotional response.  And we regurgitate these emotions... laughter... crying... screaming, throwing up... it's all part of a process.

(Even if there is almost no blood in the film?)

Sure... almost no blood.  But within the cinematic narrative... it seemed like they filmed in the gaps.  Like... panning down after the girl's hanging on the meathook, it tilts down to the washtub, and there's no blood dripping in, but you know what it's for.  You know it's there for blood, and many, many people will tell you that they saw blood dripping.  But they didn't."

[About the cult followings created after films, and sequels] "Well, it's only natural.  It's... I don't think that's the way cinema should go, I mean, in general... but it does... because of the generations, and the passing on of a fable or a yarn.  And it's a place to showcase the new talent.  But, and I understand this, but the cinema should be like a painting.  People should revisit old cinema... but they can't really, because the language difference, the progression of emotions...

(The interaction is stronger with the audience, so when you are a fan of a film, you want to see more.  It's kind of natural.)

It is natural... And, I must say, in the remake of Chain Saw, my favorite thing is, and I must say I truly love this, is a shot, over Jessica Biel's ass.  As she's walking to the house.  And Jessica Biel is... what can I say, I would pay just to see that... Having said that, it's a film that is not in the context it should be in.  They should have just not gone back into the 70's, they should have just had it at 'now.'  And they could have.  But, I don't know.  But I'm proud of it."

[About the throwback trend in horror] "Well, it's really interesting.  I don't really know how to comment properly on this, other than it seems to be sort of two things: they've run out of original ideas, or they're just doing what they always do, which is they're remaking what's expected.  Like, for instance, "Tell them what they want to hear." "Show them what they want to see." But the problem with that is, it's what they think they want to see.  I would like to see more originality, because it could be done.  But they stick to things... that cost so much money now, so much pockets lined.  There's so much expense in making a movie, that goes beyond making the movie.  You know, people are getting paid up front, and not waiting for possible profits.  But it's... it's natural, here we are, living in maybe the decline of things as we know it.  I hope that isn't true, I hope it's just the fifteen year cycle.  Depression, affluence, depression, affluence.  Probably it is."

[On trying to repeat the success of Chain Saw as a filmmaker] "No... I made Chainsaw 2 the funny one, the gory one.  Not as a businessman, but as an artist.  Wanting to... see, I was disappointed that no one, thirty-five years ago, noticed the comedy, the red humor, that was in Chain Saw 1.  So, I don't know, that's... my fault, I mean, by not understanding myself."

(So you made comedy in 1?)

I mean, there is comedy in 1.  I mean, ironic comedy.  For instance, "Look what your brother's done to the door," when there's dead bodies lying everywhere.  Leatherface is more frightened, probably, than anyone.  He runs to the window, he looks out, he sits down and he pats his head, and he's wondering, "Where do they... they just keep coming.  They keep coming to the door and they shouldn't.  So there's ironic comedy.  But I love comedy!

(And that's why you made the second film, the sequel?)

Well, yes... but, admittedly, that's selfish.  But then, on the other hand, it has become in the States a classic, because it's well-made, it's interestingly made, and cut.  And there is a lot of... fun in it.  I mean, there is a lot of something in it... But in fact, what they wanted was more of the same.  Part 2 came out of the generation of Breakfast Club, you know, and money in America, and comfort.  Where the original film came out of the depression, or recession.  And people were waiting two miles in a queue to get gasoline, where there was either a real shortage of petrol or not, but still, lines were long."

[Working with Robert Englund] "I was in the casting session [of Eaten Alive] and Robert came in, and I recognized him instantly as this actor who was in a film called Buster and Billie, where he plays this albino with pink eyes, and he's very energetic, and he's everywhere, at one time.  And I say, go to wardrobe.  Let's start making the film.  So I worked with him five times, since then, and we're good friends, and old friends...

(And you worked with him on your first Master of Horror.)

 Yeah.  I mean, Masters of Horror, I totally loved him in.  He's a dying man.  The emcee... he's, like, Joel Gray in Cabaret, but post-apocalyptic.  Only the man is dying.  He's spitting up a lot of blood.  But everyone else is dying as well.  There's this one sequence where he coughs and he coughs, and he knows the audience would tear him apart if he's weak.  But he looks up, and hides spitting blood up in a glass, and hands the glass off to someone else, who... a girl, who later drinks it.  It's so warped and messed up."

(What strikes me in the film, the Masters of Horror, is your direction is really more frenetic as your movie.  Is it a way for you to go toward this new sort of filmmaking, really chopped and really fast?)

"Well, I'm still a film student.  I mean, I learn, I continuously learn.  I mean, you've seen directors that hit a style and they stick with it.  But if I did that, I would turn into a piece of glass.  I would be useless.  So I throw it out, every time."

(So you took pleasure in the Masters of Horror episodes?)

I loved those two, that and The Damned Thing.  I'm very proud of those two pieces of film."

[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 it wasn't quite close enough to give you, like, "What am I seeing?"  There's only one photograph I've ever seen that... (was really scary?) Yeah... 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)

No...

(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.

(Yeah.)

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."

[On the design of Barlow in Salem's Lot being a reference to Nosferatu] "Yes, it was.  Because I wanted a monster.  I didn't want Bela Lugosi.  And, I must say, too, Max Schreck, and, after that, Klaus Kinski... a vampire should be scary.  For me.  Because, by then, I wanted to frighten people, and I wanted to stay as true to Stephen King's novel as possible.  Well, actually, Stephen King's Barlow was not like Max Schreck.  But there was something about that I couldn't deny.  If this was a vampire, it should be scary.  It should be a monster."

(And this highlights, too, your affiliation to European cinema, in a way.)

"Well, yes.  As well as remaining true to the emotional relationships of the characters in Salem's Lot.  They all have a subtext, where in American films, you say 'Explain' and there is no subtext.  There's nothing to imagine that a person had a life before the movie began."

[On the two versions of Salem's Lot] "Oh, the smaller one... should be thrown away.  I-- I don't really mean that, because you shouldn't destroy anything, but the 180, uh, 89 minutes?  That's the one to watch.  Because if you don't have the town going crazy and closing in, then you don't have the accoutrements hanging from the tree to emotionally create the worth of the piece.  You must have that to see that the Marsten House is like the negative side of a magnet that is drawing a darkness to it, and the house had a history even before Straker or Barlow got there."

(And so this smaller version was made without your agreement?)

"No, it's in the contract.  The agreement is there... they could throw it away if they want to, you know, but contractually, to CBS, and a miniseries, they had to have enough to fill two two-hour slots.  And so, by luck of commerce, the long version exists."

[About Cannon Group contracting him to head a "Fantastic Department" for them] "I got a very large contract for the time, and in its time... I thought it was just to make movies, this is the first I heard of this "Fantastic..."?  But I guess that's true, Colin Wilson's Space Vampires was the first thing.  And then they said, then what would you like to do next?  A week or two before I had just seen Invaders from Mars, the original, and I thought, something like Invaders from Mars.  Well, that was a suggestion, but they ran out, bought the property.  I did not want to compete with William Cameron Menzies.  So that was my only... well, I made that film for five and six year old kids.  Eight year old boys."

(And, for all the fans of 50's sci-fi films.  It reminds a lot of Invaders of the Body Snatchers, too.)

"Yeah, well, I should have re-done that!  Really, I mean...

(Everybody remade it.)

"Oh, they remade it and remade it.  But... you know, how far out is it that the child has the parents turn on him.  So, then I found myself in the middle of this huge, giant budget, at the time, picture, with time passing... the way the time went by, the audience grew smaller for that movie.  I like that movie, I've seen it, there's some nice comedy... I mean, I've seen it recently.  But there is some comedic... not comedic, but there's some humor in it that I appreciate."

[On his vision of family and the recurrence of the dinner motif] "I had to have dinner with the family every Sunday, until I was maybe twenty-one years old... and, there was more conflict, and there was more... they... they hated one another.  I mean, in my family.  I don't know if that's true of all of America, but I suspect it is.  Because everyone wants to escape the gravity of the family.  And I had to sit there and listen to this, those people talk about one another, to their face or to someone about another one.  And, you know, I think that had more than an influence for horror, and bad vibes.  Unfortunately, it's a place I would rather not be, which is at that American dinner table.  American Gothic dinner table, where the turkey, the head was not cut off, where it was beat in with a hammer."

(It's a gimmick in your cinema to put these diner moments...)

"Well, it just happens.  It just... it is deliberate, that's why it's there, but to me, it's the Round Table, it's that place where everyone bares their true feelings, where they tell one another just how they feel, and just how much they hate.  Not necessarily one another, but they just hate."

[On a present-day equivalent of Cannon] "Well, I can't speak highly enough of those guys... Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.  They were family and they ended up hating one another, as I understand.  But the thing is, they made movies because they loved movies.  They hoped it would make money, but if it didn't, it wasn't... they just wanted to make movies.  I mean, they were a couple of guys from Israel, Tel Aviv, that grew up watching American films, and they wanted to come to the States and become big producers for the love of cinema... In a way, the people that now run Nu-Image/Millennium were people that came from the Cannon days, and they've only just now had their first hit, with the Stallone movie [The Expendables].  But they still love to make movies.  And Avi Lerner, who I knew from South Africa, from the Nu-Image theaters, and Boaz Davidson I knew from all the way back with Yoram and Menahem.  And they loved movies."

[On Lifeforce and Mathilda May] "Well, Mathilda was great.  Mathilda was about the fiftieth or sixtieth screen test.  And I shot it in London, on Stage Six, and all of EMI/Elstreet, I had the studio.  And it was a 117 shooting schedule.  And I could not find a British actress who would take off her clothes.  But then they did eventually.  But I could not find the right body, or image.  And then, so, they started flying actresses in from Germany, and they would sabotage one another.  Like, one person wanted the part and would tell everyone else, don't do this... (Snide comment about women.) Women, exactly.  Then I kept hearing about this seventeen-year-old ballerina that I should look at, that's in Paris.  And the casting director was working all over Europe.  And so Mathilda flew in, and Mathilda did not go back for 117 days, and had her 18th birthday party on the set.  To me, it makes it a modern film now, Mathilda does.  I mean, she's timeless."

[On the autopsy-life-sucking scene] "Well, I had a huge prosthetics team.  I had the whole studio working... it took over twenty people to operate this animatronic.  And to the best of my knowledge, this is the first real animatronic, fully articulated and everything - eyes, and expression, and fingers, and body.  And I had the budget to do it, and people willing to give it their all.  And there were maybe twenty, maybe twenty-five people with pulleys and levers on the other side of the set watching TV monitors, and each person, one person had control of the mouth, one control of the eyes, one person may have controlled both hands, I'm not sure... and then it would switch off.  When the actor took the lifeforce away from the doctor, at one point, it was no longer make-up and a human being, but an animatronic figure would change, and the other person became the actor, the one taking the lifeforce, had bladders on his face... so it was done in cuts."

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)

No...

(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.

(Yeah.)

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.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Time fucking passing





 

Time...



*   *   *


 fuckin'...


 passing!


'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?