Make your own free website on


An Interview with producer Frank Marshall

by Bob Martin


Are you ready for a Spielberg summer?

The weeks ahead of us will see the release of two major productions from the man who terrified us with Jaws, astounded us with Close Encounters and left us breathless with Raiders of the Lost Ark; and Raiders itself will be released for another go-round this July, in celebration of its five Academy Awards. The early Spielbergs, from Sugarland Express to 1941, will be surfacing once again on cable and at the revival houses–the perennial summer favorites will no doubt be in special demand this year. As we said, it's a Spielberg summer.

The new Spielbergs include The Extra-Terrestrial, an SF opus covered in the current STARLOG. But those looking for chills of fright on a hot summer's day will particularly welcome the first of these marvels to arrive. Poltergeist, billed as "the first real ghost story," could also be considered Spielberg's first true horror film. While Jaws centainly had all the shocks and the structure of a first-rate monster movie, it never strayed too far from the known, natural world. Raiders certainly had a horrifying climax, but its story was dominated by action-adventure elements. In Poltergeist, however, things get weird.

Spielberg's producing partner on Poltergeist was also the producer of Raiders, Frank Marshall. Marshall describes his first memories of moviegoing as dominated by a passion for monster and sci-fi fare–Forbidden Planet, Them!, House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler are the titles that spring to his mind from his summer afternoons spent at the Fox Theater in Van Nuys, California.

Marshall's father was Jack Marshall, a composer and musician. "You might say I had a 'show biz' background." he says. "My father did some film and television music, and I had a general interest in the arts, but I never even thought about a career in movies until I was nearly out of college." That was when Marshall met Peter Bogdanovich, then a young film scholar and critic, at a party at the home of John Ford. "He was there to write a monogram on Ford for the Museum of Modern Art, and he was also writing a book on him. We hit it off great, and he said, 'Listen, I'm going to get a chance to make a movie in about three montHs...' I told him that if he needed anybody to empty the wastebaskets, to give me a call, and he did."

Marshall continued to work toward his degree in political science from UCLA after his first experience with Bogdanovich. The picture was Targets, the last picture Boris Karloff ever made, and one of his finest. Karloff essentially played himself in the film–Byron Orlock, a great horror actor who has watched the horror genre fade from its once-classic proportions (footage from AIPs The Terror amply demonstrated that). Orlock's opposite number in the film is a figure of real horror that, the story suggest, has replaced fantasy; a mass murderer who sees his victims as anonymous targets.

"The picture had come about because Roger Corman had two more weeks of shooting with Karloff on a contract from some previous pictures," Marshall recalls. "Corman told Bogdanovich that he would give him $125,000 to make a picture provided that he use Karloff and some footage from The Terror in it–apparently Corman needed to use it to write off the costs. So it was like a puzzle that Peter had to put together to make a story, and he did so, brilliantly.

"Because it was low-budget film, it was the best introduction to movie-making that I could have had. Working as Bodganovich's assistant, I was able to dabble into all the different areas–I did a little acting, shot some footage, helped build sets. And I got to see how everything went together. I found that I absolutely loved it, every second of it."

Speeding things up a bit (we are supposed to tell you about Poltergeist, right?), Marshall became a regular member on Bogdanovich crews through Nickolodeon, rising to associate producer level with Paper Moon (not very scary, but still one of Uncle Bob's favorites). During the same period, Marshall served as line-producer on Orson Welles' still-unfinished epic, The Other Side of the Wind. (Welles, Marshalls says, is a genius. But this picture isn't scary, either, so we'll move on.) Marshall then became associated with Walter Hill, as producer on The Driver and on The Warriors which was kind of scary and gets its own paragraph.

"It was one of those miracles of filmmaking," says Marshall, "where you go through hell and come up with a great product." Time-pressures were on to get out the first of a flurry of teenage gang pictures–but few sets are more confining or harder to light than the interiors of New York's subway system; and because the city of N.Y. needs the subways for its own purposes during the day, all of that footage was shot late at night, 62 nights in a row.

Spielberg, meanwhile, first met Marshall in 1973, while passing through Italy on a promotional tour for the European theatrical release of Duel. Bogdanovich and crew were on location for Daisy Miller, and Spielberg made a social call on Bogdanovich and editor Verna Fields (who had also cut Sugarland Express). Several years later, when George lucas asked Steven Spielberg who he wanted to produce Raiders, Marshall came to mind.

Before Raiders came about, Marshall worked in preproduction on Lucas-film's Radioland Murders, an unpublicized project that has since been shelved. It was to be a private eye mystery-comedy with music set in and around a 1940's radio station. "It was an idea that had a lot of potential," Marshall says, "but it just wasn't the right time or place for it."

Plans for Poltergeist began to form during the making of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Marshall recalls. "Just before we went over to Europe to start shooting, discussion started on Poltergeist. Steven had always wanted to do a ghost story that would be allied in approach with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, exploring parapsychology and ghost phenomena in the same way that CE3K explored URO phenomena. Steven wrote the treatment while we were working on Raiders–I have no idea where he found the time, he must have written it in the car between the hotel and the studio! MGM immediately bought the idea on our return."

Early in production, word started circulating that Spielberg, not Hooper, was directing Poltergeist. "It was a collaborative effort," Marshall explains. "Tobe direct it, while Steve was the guiding force. From the start, it's been Steven's movie–from the idea to the treatment to the script to the design of each storyboard and on from there; and he has closely controlled each aspect of its making. It's a Steven Spielberg production, and he wanted it to be the film that he envisioned."

In the manner of CE3K, Poltergeist incorporates a good deal of research in the realm of parapsychology–which brings up the question, does Spielberg actually believe in ghosts and flying saucers? "I think he does; he's had actual experiences of both," Marshall answers, "I tend to believe that such things do occur, there are too many such phenomena that remain un-explained. And there's not only the recorded instances; when you wind up talking to people about ghosts, as we did while putting this picture together, you find that a lot of people you know have had these kinds of experiences. They just never talk about them."

"In terms of the picture, we certainly work with the premise of belief. We're trying to present something that is very real, a story that could happen to anybody. For that reason, Steven decided to set the story within circumstances that are very ordinary, rather than in some old house where something horrible has happened. Rather than let the setting be the movie, he decided that we should do it in a setting that is normal almost to the point where normal becomes abnormal."

The normal setting is the suburban, upper middle class home where Diane and Steve Freeling (JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson) live with their three children. As any parapsychologist will tell you, poltergeist phenomena are usually centered around a child in the age range of 5 to 16. In the Freeling household, the weirdness starts when 5-year-old Carol Ann (Heather O'Rourke) is discovered making late-night trips to the family TV set–and she's not watching Carson.

Much of Poltergeist's dramatic burden is carried by the youngsters of the Freeling household, and ET has an even larger cast of kid actors. Says Marshall, 'Steven's always liked kids, and enjoyed working with them; and a thread that runs through all of his films is that they touch the kid in all of us.

"One of the things that we play on in Poltergeist is your childhood fears–fear of the closet, fear of the things under your bed, fear of the tree outside that looks like a person."

"The story develops through three stages," Marshall continues. "It's all very normal at the outset, with a good deal of humor; then there's a series of occurrences that are not necessarily extraordinary–something falls off the wall. Was there an earth tremor? Then things get worse."

Part of what makes things worse is seen on theses pages; for instance, Mike Woods provides a good deal of natural fury via his wind machines, and Craig Reardon has completed a number of bizarre makeup creations. Not seen here, but highly visible in the film, is the work of Richard Edlund and the crew of Industrial Light and Magic, who only briefly interrupted their work on ET and Poltergeist to pick up their third Oscar, for Raiders.

"Without ILM, there would be no picture," says Marshall, "and their work on this film has been incredible. They've tried some things that have never been done before, which are turning out very well. And what's made this picture particularly interesting is that the on-set stuff, though it plays a more supportive role, is almost equal in the picture to the visual effects, which serves to make it more realistic."

From the very start, it's been Spielberg's and Marshall's intention to see that Poltergeist falls within the boundaries of the PG rating, as determined by the MPAA's rating board, and yet make a truly frightening film. "Ghost stories are for everybody–we all like to be scared," says Marshall, "and, besides that, it's very easy to shock with a slash-and-gore film. The art is very often in what you don't see."

According to Chris Walas, there was a good deal of footage of melting and exploding Nazis in Raiders that was never used in the released film. Marshall indicates that Craig Reardon's work for Poltergeist will undergo a similar paring-down process to an appropriate level of intensity, "We wanted teenagers to be able to see Raiders," Marshall explains, "so we were treading a very fine line, and we're doing the same with Poltergeist."

But can a PG film be truly frightening? Watcher In The Woods and The Hearse certainly weren't, but Raiders offers some evidence to the contrary in its climactic scene. Poltergeist, however, strives for sustained terror–and both critics and supporters of the rating system agree that the board's decisions can seem a bit whimsical at times. "I know that there's no specific violation of the code in the film," says Marshall. "There's no sex, no swear words, no gratuitous violence. But I imagine that it's possible that it may scare people so badly that they'll think it's too powerful a movie."

Upon the release of Poltergeist, Marshall looks forward to a long rest–and maybe one small picture–before Raiders II starts preproduction in January. Before wrapping up this interview, we asked Marshall about his infamous alter ego–Dr. Fantasy.

In his guise as Dr. Fantasy, master of T.M. (Total Magic), Marshall amuses and astounds his crews at every wrap party through astounding feats of magic in his own comic style. "I like to think they look forward to it; not just to the end of shooting, that is, but to the magic show," says the good Doctor. One of our informants on the set had given us a rave review of the performance, particularly its climax. "It ends with me doing some sort of fantastic stunt; in this instance it meant falling into a giant cake that had been inscribed 'Thanks from Steven and Frank.' I've done it so many times now, that I tell the baker to use only the cheapest ingredients."

"But I've always felt that you have to go out with a big one at the end of the show!"

1982 © Fangoria


• back to the 'Articles' page    UPW    'Site map'    UPW    back to the 'Top' •