Last month he told an audience at FrightFest 2010 in London that the rumor of Spielberg’s directorial ventriloquist act got started because of bad luck, bad timing, and bad reporting by a Los Angeles Times journalist.
According to Hooper, when a reporter from the Times showed up on the film’s set, he found Spielberg directing some second unit footage, and made the mistake of thinking this meant Spielberg was actually directing the whole movie. This got worked into the infamous story about the film’s production that ran in the paper in 1982, and thus incited the idea that Spielberg had essentially done all of the work while Hooper got the directing credit.
As explained in the Wikipedia recounting of the event, the issue got so serious that the Directors Guild of America “opened an investigation into the question of whether or not Hooper’s official credit was being denigrated by statements Spielberg has made, apparently claiming authorship.”
But in fact, Spielberg himself, in an open letter to Hooper published in The Hollywood Reporter, praised Hooper for his wonderful work and expressed regret that “some of the press has misunderstood the rather unique, creative relationship which you and I shared throughout the making of Poltergeist.”
In a detailed report on Hooper’s words at this year’s FrightFest, the website Obsessed with Film quotes his explanation of how the whole affair damaged his career:
Well, it did harm my career, and it started with the LA Times, who came out when I was shooting the funeral sequence for the little bird and I needed to pick up the pace. . . and Steven was shooting [second unit], and the LA Times came out and saw two people directing a movie and didn’t consider the second unit. And I think that was the best second unit direction I have every had [audience laughs]. So that got the ball rolling on the whole thing, and yeah, it very definitely damaged me.
When asked whether Spielberg ever tried to restrain him or prevent him from engaging in his famous directorial style of high-intensity ruthlessness, Hooper replied, “When he was completely out of town, things would get a bit. . . edgy.”
For a detailed consideration of all sides of the Hooper-Spielberg-Poltergeist controversy, including reports from cast members about what they saw on the set — Zelda Rubinstein, for instance, said she saw Spielberg directing everything the whole time she was there; others reported different observations — see the excellent article “Did Spielberg direct Poltergeist?” at Top 10 Films.