Was Steven Spielberg the “ghost” director of “Poltergeist” in 1982? Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

By Megan Bianco

Ghost directing is an interesting phenomenon in Hollywood film making. A director, for whatever reason, will leave or suddenly be let go, and secretly replaced by someone else to finish the film.

The classic 1939 movies Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz both have small amounts of ghost-directed scenes or sequences. But filmmaker Victor Fleming was given full credit on both films because he spent the most time in the directing chairs of any of the men behind the cameras.

Humorously enough, the most famous example of ghost-direction is on a horror movie legitimately about ghosts—Poltergeist (1982). Steven Spielberg was all set to simultaneously direct both Poltergeist for MGM and E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) for Universal throughout the summer of 1981. But he discovered in his contract for Universal that he couldn’t direct a film for them and another studio at the same time. So Tobe Hooper of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was brought in and Spielberg agreed to being credited as a producer and writer. Yet from interviews conducted over the decades with various cast and crew members, it sounds a lot like Spielberg was on the Poltergeist set regularly making multiple creative decisions.

Similarly, three decades earlier Christian Nyby was credited as the director of the sci-fi classic The Thing from Another World (1951), but film-making legend Howard Hawks is rumored to actually have been the man in charge. This one’s harder to dispute as it was so long ago and neither man publicly addressed the rumors before their deaths. But the general consensus in the film community is that Hawks let Nyby have all the credit for the film as a “thank you” for editing Hawks’ classics To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946) and Red River (1948).

Movie stars will sometimes have a bigger role in their film productions than audiences realize. In 2006, Kurt Russell claimed that he actually directed the majority of Tombstone (1993), with credited director George P. Cosmatos being hired just do whatever Russell told him. There’s a rumored similar situation with Cosmatos on the Sylvester Stallone pictures Rambo: First Blood, Part 2 (1985) and Cobra (1986) as well.

On IMDb and Wikipedia, Amy Heckerling is listed as an uncredited director on A Night at the Roxbury (1998). But strangely, no one from the film, including Heckerling (who was the producer), has ever acknowledged the claim. One possible theory is that she might have directed a couple of scenes while visiting the set.

Director Pete Travis was allegedly locked out of the editing room of Dredd (2012) over disagreements with producers. Screenwriter Alex Garland was then called in and helped Mark Eckersley edit the movie, enough to supposedly warrant a directing credit. The most unfortunate episode might be Richard Donner being fired with 80 percent of Superman II (1980) already filmed and Richard Lester hired to reshoot. The added insult to injury was Lester getting credit despite 45 percent of the released footage still Donner’s.

Whether it’s a bizarre contract clause or a hissy fit, you can’t say the Hollywood film-making process is ever boring.

Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.

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