Steven Spielberg's Musings on Poltergeist

updated 11/01/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/01/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

His name in German can be roughly translated as "mountain of play"—a fitting appellation for director Steven Spielberg, whose works on film constitute a kind of popcorn Everest. From Jaws, Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark to last summer's box office bonanzas, E.T. and the chilling Poltergeist (which he designed and co-produced), Spielberg, 34, has attacked his work with a boyish zeal and invested it with prodigious technical acumen and a sense of wonder. Now involved in pre-production for Raiders II, the wunderkind hammers away at video games for relaxation and returns at night to one of his two LA. homes, usually with his girlfriend, Kathleen Carey, 34. She signs songwriters and chooses new material for Warner Bros. Music. On the eve of Poltergeist's rerelease for Halloween, Spielberg spoke of goblins and goals with Jim Calio of PEOPLE.

Do you believe things like poltergeists and extraterrestrials really exist?

I unequivocally think there is life in other solar systems in our galaxy. I think we'd drop dead of heart attacks if we knew what it was. I've never seen a UFO, but I've talked to so many people who have, people I'm best friends with, that I believe there is something going on. I really am waiting for my turn. I would love to see something that can't be explained by science or logic.

Did anything eerie happen on the Poltergeist set?

No, because this wasn't a demonic possession movie like The Exorcist. This was more about aspects of life after death. Sure, lights fell and people tripped over cables and bumped into each other on darkened sets. And once a few crew members fell into the muddy swimming pool next to the house the characters live in. But those kinds of things happen on a Neil Simon film.

Were the child actors scared making the film?

Yes, though not so much by the visual effects, many of which were added after the scenes were shot. Heather O'Rourke, who played the little girl abducted by the poltergeists, was terrified of the wind and of dangling at an awkward angle from the headboard of her bed, with nothing but 40 to 50 feet of air between her harness and the ground. At one point we had to put a stunt child, who was slightly older, in a wig, in Heather's position. When Heather began to panic, I fell apart. I ran up there and took her in my arms and dried her tears and promised she'd never have to do that scene again. And she didn't.

Didn't Oliver Robins have a close call?

Yes. Oliver became scared during the scene in which his big clown doll wraps its arms around him and drags him under his bed. The arms became too tight and cut his wind off. I remember Oliver screaming, "I can't breathe." And Tobe Hooper [the director] and I thought it was great acting, because Oliver gave 130 percent to everything he did in the movie. When I asked him to scream, he screamed better than Janet Leigh in Psycho. So here Tobe is yelling, "More! More!" and I'm saying "Great, Oliver, look toward the camera!" and suddenly I saw his face turn crimson. I grabbed him, undid the arms and was horrified by the close call. There was no take two.

How does working with kids differ from working with adults?

The big difference is that kids don't censor themselves. But they can easily lose trust in a director if he screams or is tyrannical. So I was very careful on Poltergeist and E.T. to work with the children like colleagues, not like hirelings.

For example?

For example, I wanted Oliver's bedroom in Poltergeist to be just like his bedroom in real life, which was messy when his mother wasn't in there cleaning up. So I let Oliver, beyond the set director's wishes, trash the room the way he would his own. And we became real close pals.

One surprising thing about Poltergeist is the humor at the beginning—the TV set mysteriously switching to Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood while the men are trying to watch a pro football game, for instance. Why did you include that?

Laughter disarms people. At first, it's a suburban comedy of errors. So the audience is not prepared for Heather's kidnapping. In a good movie, the filmmaker leads you, but you aren't aware of being led. Audiences today are very hip. Most TV shows figure the audience isn't very smart, and that's why TV stinks.

Which movies influenced you when you were young?

Well, the first movie I ever cried at was A Guy Named Joe, with Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne. There's a brief clip of it in Poltergeist. I cried when I saw Bambi. But those films didn't pander. They didn't use a toilet plunger to suck the tears out of you. They presented a story that was easy to identify with, usually boy/ girl situations. If we're emotionally developed, we'll cry in those situations.

Do you consider yourself an escapist moviemaker?

I kind of avoid reality sometimes. But I'm the reverse of an ostrich. An ostrich buries its head in the sand. I like to stick my head up in the clouds and get away from it all. That's why my imagination sometimes works a little overtime. When things are bad here, I try to get off the planet. For a period of a couple of years, I make a movie and then I come down to earth.

Why are so many of your staff and collaborators women?

I work better with women. I grew up in a family of women, with three sisters. The only other male around was my cocker spaniel, and we stuck together. I claim no profound understanding of women, but I have faith in them.

What would you do if you couldn't make movies anymore?

I'd compose music. And probably just get old, gray and tell stories to kids around a campfire at night. Actually, I can't imagine not being a filmmaker. A few years ago, I was going through a bad time. Among other things, a relationship of mine ended, and I cried for the first time in ages. I couldn't believe I was crying. The human being in me was pouring the tears out. But the doggone filmmaker in me ran to the other room, grabbed my Instamatic and took a picture of myself in the mirror. I had to have it on record.

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