Confirmation? Who Really Directed POLTERGEIST?

This week on the latest episode of Shock Waves, we were fortunate enough to be joined by WISH UPON and ANNABELLE director John Leonetti! But before he was behind the camera as a director, he was a cinematographer on a slew of well known films, including CHILD’S PLAY 3, Chuck Russell’s THE MASK, episodes of TALES FROM THE CRYPT and a stretch of 5 movies with James Wan including INISIDOUS and THE CONJURING.

But even before that, he came from a family of technically savvy camera people in the industry. His brother is cinematographer Matt Leonetti, who among many, many films in his resume, was the Director of Photography on the original POLTERGEIST! John was assistant camera on POLTERGEIST, pulling focus, which means he was there for literally every single shot of that film.

Once the subject came up during the podcast, we couldn’t help but ask the long debated question that is still talked about to this day.

Who directed POLTERGEIST?

Tobe Hooper is credited as director, but the film feels much more in line with producer Steven Spielberg’s aesthetics. Our co-host Elric Kane didn’t even beat around the bush, he just flat out asked!

Leonetti answered, “The really cool thing about POLTERGEIST – I’ll never forget the very first time I walked on the shooting set, there were 4 x 8 foam core boards with 8 ½ by 11 storyboards on them, and I’d never seen anything like that before. It was a very intense, very fun, very technical movie to work on. There’s a lot going on. And candidly… Steven Spielberg directed that movie. There’s no question. However, Tobe Hooper – I adore. I love that man so much. But, had I known you were going to ask me that question, I would’ve brought this one picture I have, which is the whole movie in one shot!” 

“It’s the scene where the tree comes in to grabs the boy, and we have two cameras set up. In the foreground on an apple box is (an excited) Tobe, standing right behind him is Spielberg pointing. Next to him was my brother on camera and me.”

The photo in question? This behind-the-scenes shot from the set of POLTERGEIST!

Photo: POLTERGEIST (1982) Warner Brothers

When asked about the general atmosphere on set, Leonetti told us, “It was both fun and intense. Spielberg, after work was the nicest guy on the planet. We’d even go to his house in Beverly Hills and watch dailies. On the set, he was very intense.”

“Hooper was so nice and just happy to be there. He creatively had input. Steven developed the movie, and it was his to direct, except there was anticipation of a director’s strike, so he was “the producer” but really he directed it in case there was going to be a strike and Tobe was cool with that. It wasn’t anything against Tobe. Every once in a while, he would actually leave the set and let Tobe do a few things just because. But really, Steven directed it.”

There you have it! Listen to the full interview of Shock Waves embedded below! The POLTERGEIST talk starts at the 1 hour 4 minute mark!