The Filming Timeline
Note: Some of the items here may be in error, but they represent my best guess about the sequence of events as they happened. I'll update this page with new info as I get it:
1. May 23rd, 1986-"Poltergeist II: The Other Side" is released nationwide and has a great opening weekend. Early the next Monday, MGM execs call writer/producers Michael Grais and Mark Victor at their office on the MGM lot and ask if they'd be interested in working on "Poltergeist III." The thought of going into "Poltergeist Land" so soon after spending an exhausting two years from writing to delivery of the second film prompts "both their mouths to hit their desks." They both feel it is time to move on, especially when informed that MGM plans to make the next film on a lower budget, and without JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson (in a promotional interview that month, JoBeth stated that she didn't think she'd do a part III, but yet didn't rule it out completely).
It's unclear whether MGM or Grais/Victor made the final decision (and how much back and forth negotiation there was), but ultimately Grais and Victor will not be involved with P3. Grais has said it was his and Mark Victor's decision not to be involved. When I asked P1 and P2 novelization writer James Kahn if he was ever approached to write a novelization for P3, he told me "No, my understanding was there were rights disputes that MGM won and didn't want to involve any of the original players." In addition, in September 1986, MGM/Spielberg would finally settle the lawsuit brought by Paul Clemens and Bennett Michael Yellin over the writing of the original film.
2. By fall of 1986, child star Oliver Robins has decided to leave acting to focus on his education. Consequently MGM never asks him to be in P3. However, the studio decides that they can still make another film as long as they have Heather O'Rourke and Zelda Rubinstein (who both were likely more "affordable" than JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson. Heather, for example, only made $75,000 for P2, and Zelda may have been contractually obligated to do any sequels).
MGM execs Jay Kanter and Alan Ladd Jr. contact director Gary Sherman to ask if he'd be interested in writing, directing, and executive producing P3. Gary had been on the short list as one of Grais and Victor's director choices for P2, so that would explain why Kanter and Ladd went to him first. Gary had also worked for Kanter and Ladd at another studio. Gary is told he can pretty much take the story in any direction he wants to. What the execs mandate is that the story only involve Carol Anne, Tangina, and the Rev. Kane (who would have to be re-cast due to the death of Julian Beck), and that Carol Anne be put into a completely new setting. Gary comes up with the idea of having Carol Anne stay with relatives in Chicago while temporarily attending a school for gifted children with emotional problems. The SFX budget on P2 had ended up costing about twice as much as originally planned, with many of the concepts being changed or scrapped altogether. Sherman tells the execs he plans to control costs by shooting most of the effects sequences live on the stage rather than in post production.
3. October-December 1986-Gary and his writing partner Brian Taggert begin developing and writing the script for what is titled "We're Back: Poltergeist Continues." Zelda Rubinstein is invited to the November screening of the opening of Gary's new movie "Wanted: Dead or Alive." After the screening, Gary introduces himself to her and says they will soon be working together in "Poltergeist III." She hadn't even known there was going to be another sequel at that point, and is charmed by both Gary and his new film. In addition, it seems that Zelda may not have read the fine print of her contract for the original film, which allegedly obligated her to do sequels. This information was claimed by a guy on the IMDB who said he spoke to Zelda once at a party in Florida. He said she expressed frustration with MGM for the way they treated her on the sequels. Also that month, MGM Chairman Ladd tells visiting journalists that Sherman and Taggart are developing P3 and that it will be filmed in 1987.
4. January-March 1987-the film is in pre-production. It will be shot on location for about three months in Chicago, with much of it done on sound stages there. The film will be shot for about half the cost of the last sequel, 9.5 million to P2's 20 million. Producer Barry Bernardi hires legendary makeup man Dick Smith as a consultant on the film. Smith in turn recommends Doug Drexler and John Caglione to actually create the makeups. They are hired and plan to work mainly out of their new studio in Brooklyn, with visits to Chicago during filming. In January 1987, as a California state required procedure, MGM submits Heather's P3 contract to the L.A. County Superior Court for approval (just as they did with she and Oliver on P2, because they were minor child actors). The Court approves the contract and clears Heather for work, under the guardianship of her mother Kathleen. In February, Heather fails the cast physical but is cleared for work before leaving for Chicago in April. In March, some revisions are made to the script, likely in an effort to tone down the cost of the production.
5. Principal photography is completed on location in Chicago between April 13th-June 24th, 1987. All of Heather's scenes are finished. Sometime early during principal photography, writer Steve Feke is brought to Chicago to do a "polish" of the script-
KEN: I sent the novel to Steve Feke, who was, at the time, in Chicago polishing the script, Poltergeist III.
Feke would end up being uncredited on the final film. He had been associated with Gary Sherman productions before, as this excerpt from a 1994 press kit for the TV series "Hawkeye" states:
He began his career as a journalist, covering the plight of Cuban refugees in Spain. Returning to the U.S., Feke was hired by Hatos-Hall Productions where he wrote, produced and co-created 11 network pilots. By, the time he left to make his first feature film, Feke had become head of development and production for Hatos-Hall. Feke' s versatility as a writer/director/producer led to a distinguished career in television and feature films. Feke co-wrote and/co-produced the Columbia Pictures film, When A Stranger Calls, for which he received the Critics Award, Special Jury Award at the Avoriaz Film Festival. He served as writer/producer on the Guber/Peters/Warner Bros. feature film Snowman, and re-wrote scripts for both Poltergeist III for MGM/UA and Warrior for Warner Bros. As a writer/ director, Feke's credits include Papa Was a Preacher for Producer Martin Jurow, and Keys to Freedom, with stars Jane Seymour and Omar Sharif, for Pen-World Productions. Feke's current film projects include All Honourable Men for Producer Freddie Fields and Ants of God which is in pre-production for Todd AO/TAE Productions.His television credits include writer/supervising producer duties for the ABC series Sable. He also served as supervising producer on NBCs Dark Shadows and FBC's Against the Law. Most recently, Feke served as co-writer on all stories for the first season of Missing Persons, also from Stephen J. Cannell Productions, Inc.
At the end of June, a wrap party is held for the cast to celebrate the completion of shooting. This cast party was hosted by a Chicago company called "Dance all Night" and is confirmed here:
6. July-September 1987-Post production begins-sound mixing, editing, scoring, etc. As reported by "People" magazine, to celebrate the end of shooting, Heather and her family spend July and August driving from Chicago to Disney World in Florida and then back to CA. In September, Heather begins the 7th grade in San Diego.
7. October, 1987-Post production work is nearing completion. At the ADR looping sessions, Corey Burton, who provided the voice for Kane, is informed by Gary that they won't waste studio time looping much for the ending, since it will "likely be re-worked anyway." Possibly in early November, Gary Sherman flies to NYC with a VHS rough cut of the film. SFX artists Doug Drexler, John Caglione, and Gary drive up to Dick Smith's house in Larchmont, NY to screen it. While Gary is enthusiastic about the film, the others don't think it turned out all that great. While in NYC, Gary apparently also screens the rough cut of P3 at the World Trade Center for a group of film industry professionals and distributors. This is the screening that Macklin Crux saw. The assembled group likely viewed the same tape Gary screened in Larchmont. Macklin says:
"Yes, several people were from the studio and several people were from the
SFX group in Brooklyn. I want to say color array projector (would suggest
VHS Tape) but I vaguely recall a very loud film projector .... not sure."
He remembers the ending of Kane touching the necklace (and thinking "how cheesy") and the frozen bodies, as well as the scene of Carol Anne, crying, waving goodbye to Tangina in slow motion. He recalls that for some of the effects scenes (possibly a couple of the rare shots involving optical effects), they saw sketches to indicate what the final effect would look like. He also said there were no credits on the film and very little music.
Apparently even in this early cut, although Gary had intended P3 to be the end of the trilogy, MGM decided they wanted an opening for another sequel. According to Mr. Crux, he seems to recall that the lightning strike which appeared in the final film version was also in this early cut (although as he admitted to me, he may have misremembered whether the lightning was in the original ending, the re-shot ending or both:
"There was a clash of thunder over the skyscraper in the ending I saw and it was suggested that 'it wasn't over' (Kane's wicked laugh)."
There appears to be supporting evidence for this in the "making of" featurette for the film. "Poltergeist III: The Special Effects" has a copyright date of 1987, and included a quick, rough sketch-type shot of two lightning bolts striking the highrise. Shortly after the WTC screening, post production work is completed.
8. The week of November 16, 1987-the completed film is submitted to the MPAA ratings board. The next week, in Bulletin #986, November 23rd, the film is given a "PG" rating. This may have displeased the studio execs, who were likely looking to get the demographics (young, teen males) of a PG-13 rating. In addition, Gary Sherman may have been under contract to deliver a PG-13 film. The studio was essentially unhappy with the film and with the film's ending.
9. December 1987-Gary and his team go back to Doug Drexler's and John Caglione's lab in Brooklyn to discuss changes to the ending. At the entrance to the lab, Doug places a photograph of one of the "evil Carol Anne" makeup shots with a post it note that Gary will see when he walks in. The post it says "This makeup did not get ONE closeup!" Gary tells them that since "Tangina accomplishes Kane's death," he'd like to see Kane transformed on camera into a corpse. In the original ending, Kane touched Tangina's necklace, and his face then "exploded with light." Here's how Doug describes that effect:
10. Gary requests that the new version of Kane's decomposition be done without the use of stop motion, optical effects, or under cranking the camera. Doug notes that he thinks "Zelda should not come back at the end. It's very confusing."
11. Doug Drexler, John Caglione, and Dick Smith get to work on creating the new version of Kane's decomposition. Doug makes notes and sketches from December 1987 into January 1988 on how the effect will be done. It is planned that after Kane touches the necklace, a waist up dummy of him will be used. It will rock back and forth, an internal mechanism used to move its eyes and mouth. Air will blow upwards, shooting his hat off the top of his head. Meanwhile, intense heat from nearby propane blowers will melt the rubber face of Kane, thereby creating the decomposing effect without the use of stop motion or other post production tricks. Dick creates 6 of the wax Kane masks. One of them is placed over the "articulated Kane puppet head" and tests are run using the propane blowers to melt it. These SFX shots are photographed and filmed. One of the masks ended up being used on set in the later March re-shoot back in LA, and the remaining four were later stored in John Caglione's garage, where they remained for years.
12. The film's production manager, Ed Ledding, tells Doug that the budget for this new sequence has not yet been approved, and the actors are not available for the initial shoot date. As a result, the effect should be in "hold" mode. It's unclear whether this was referring to the new Kane demise scene or a different one. In any event, the newly filmed insert shots of the decomposing Kane model head are used to replace the original footage of Kane's demise. In addition, the very end of the film is shortened, with the scene of Carol Anne seeing Tangina and waving goodbye removed (also cut is a shot of the "frozen Scott"). This footage was later assembled into a rough cut of the revised ending, without sound.
13. The latest version of the ending still proves unsatisfactory, and so plans are made for a more extensive re-shoot. But on February 1, 1988, Heather passes away. Here's some of what Gary Sherman had to say about what transpired that day and after, from an interview he did with Jason Bene at
"The day that Heather died I was in Chicago doing some pre-production on a television show I was producing.....Barry Bernardi was in Chicago with me and we were going through some of the pre-production. I get a call from David Wardlow, who was Heather’s agent and a good friend of mine. He said, “We’re setting up a conference call with Dick Bergerin [Executive Vice-President of MGM] in a half an hour, are you going to be available?” I said, “Yeah, what’s it about?” He said, “I can’t tell you.” Barry and I sat down in my apartment in Chicago and we gathered around the phone, and a half hour later it was Jay Kanter, Alan Ladd Jr., Richard Berger, Barry Bernardi, and myself all on the conference call. David announced to us that Heather had died that morning. Basically, Jay and Ladd just said, “Why don’t you just get on a plane and fly to Los Angeles and we’ll figure out what we are going to do.” I flew into LA [with] Barry and we went into Laddie’s office and we sat down and we said, “What are we going to do?” ‘Laddie’ said, “I don’t want to release a movie with a dead twelve year old in it.” Jay was in total agreement. Both of these guys are very much family oriented people. I said, “I don’t think I could even stand to sit in the cutting room and finish the movie and look at Heather every day.”
The day after the funeral we had a meeting at the studio. The decision was to not finish the film.....Laddie’ and Jay said, “Go back to Chicago and do your television show and we’ll figure this out.” The board at MGM did not have the same feeling because they had a lot of money invested in the film. They owned the footage. Basically, that’s what transpired. We talked about it and we said, “Well, what do we do?” I don’t want somebody else taking all of my footage that I worked on for two years and doing something with it and that I would hate more than I am doing myself."
14. It's perhaps even more important now to re-shoot the climax because of the fact that Carol Anne's "frozen body" is seen in the original ending (I also seem to recall years ago someone else telling me that Jim Peele, Heather's step-father, said a scene of Carol Anne encased in ice was cut from the film). Macklin Crux has his own theory on how MGM may have dealt with the film at this point:
"After her death, it was clear they could not ride the Heather train to success for two reasons...It didn't work and she had passed away but would if they played up"The Final Chapter" [aspect] and changed a few things to bring an end to the saga. This would have been a clever marketing strategy to sell the film to the public."
15. In early March, Doug and John are told that the re-shoot will soon commence. They manage to tweak the "articulated Kane puppet head" they'd created for yet another version of Kane's demise. This time, Nancy Allen will slice his head off with the shovel, and it will decompose on the floor. They also create two "decomposed" bodies for Bruce and Donna to replace the "frozen" bodies of the family. They get everything ready in 12 days. Gary re-writes, again, the script they had been planning to use for the ending of the movie. On March 7th, a Writer's Guild of America (WGA) strike begins. The strike would last for months (interestingly, I discovered that the re-shoot script pages on file at the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills all have a date of "REVISED 3/14/88" stamped on them, AFTER the beginning of the WGA strike).
16. In the emotional and logistical turmoil after Heather's death, not many people are still around for the film. Apparently, the studio execs decide to leave Kipley Wentz's character "Scott" out of the new ending, perhaps because they think it will confuse the audience to see him again, thus making the Scott who comes out of the pool (originally intended to be the "evil Scott") the "real" one instead. The sequence where Tangina shows up to lead Kane into the Light is added, along with the scene of Bruce walking out of the mirror with Carol Anne and Donna.
17. Monday March 14, 1988: the re-shoot begins. The scene where the mist clears and Pat says "She did it...she saved us!" is probably filmed first, since it didn't really require any heavy duty effects, along with the fact that Lara Flynn Boyle may have only been available for one day. The scene of Bruce walking out of the mirror with the double of Carol Anne is likely filmed later in the week. A double for Lara Flynn Boyle was used in that scene, probably because she had to get back to her other movie. She was in L.A. filming the movie "How I Got Into College." In fact, its first day of production was Feb. 1st, the same day Heather died. There seems to be a mistake made by the costume department-the double for Carol Anne is wearing white sneakers over her red PJs for the scene where they're walking out of the mirror, which she didn't have on in the rest of the movie.
18. The more elaborate makeup effects are filmed later. The final scene of Kane decomposing is filmed Friday, March 18th. After this effect is filmed, Gary says "It's a wrap." Doug and John go back to NYC.
19. On Monday, March 21, 1988, an article appears in the "LA Times" titled "MGM Ponders Selling of 'Poltergeist III'"
Producer Barry Bernardi is quoted as saying he doesn't believe any scenes need to be edited in light of Heather's death. It is mentioned that the studio plans extensive audience reaction screenings. The article makes no mention of the re-shoot which took place the previous week (it's likely the studio intentionally didn't tell the reporter about it for publicity reasons). However, the horror SFX magazine "Gorezone" would print an article written by Doug Drexler called "Poltergeist III and a half: The Reshoot," in September of that year).
20. Apparently after these screenings, it is decided to keep the lightning bolt at the very end. Sherman didn't like this, especially after Heather's death. He clearly wanted to make P3 (at that point), the concluding chapter to the trilogy. The execs obviously felt otherwise, and the lightning was left in to both "punch up" the ending "everybody hated" and leave an open door for a "Poltergeist IV." The decision to exclude Scott probably backfires, confusing the test audiences even more by his not returning. However, the budget has run out at this point, and "Scott" is not considered vital enough to the movie for the studio to go through the expense and complication of arranging another re-shoot with Kip present. The film is re-submitted to the MPAA for a re-rating the week of April 18, 1988. Apparently certain aspects of the new ending (the decomposed bodies, Kane's decapitation, Tom Skerritt's looping of "fucking sonofabitch!"in an earlier scene) earn the film the desired rating of PG-13. This is announced in the Monday April 25th, Bulletin # 1008.
As Sherman went on to say in the above linked interview:
"I am very proud of the FX in the film. I think the FX are really amazing. We did accomplish what we set out to do in terms of the FX, but unfortunately with what we had to do with the rest of the film, the story and the script don’t work as well together as they should have."
Jason Bene: MGM didn’t do a lot to promote the movie. There is the trailer that came out, but it comes off as more of a teaser. They hardly showed any footage of the film. They must have been scared to put any footage of the film with Heather in it.
Gary Sherman: "It was the board who wanted the picture released and the executives at the studio really didn’t want to release the movie. I didn’t want to release the movie and I didn’t want to do any publicity. Tom didn’t want to do anything. Nancy didnt want to do anything. Zelda absolutely, one hundred percent refused to do any publicity whatsoever. She just said, “Heather’s dead, I am not doing this.” She called me and said, “What do you think I should do?” I said, “I am not doing any publicity.” I was inundated by all of the tabloids. The papaparazzi were just everywhere. All that anybody wanted to talk about was Heather dying. "
21. The film is released June 10, 1988. The reviews are scathing, and the box office receipts disappointing. Heather O'Rourke's Mother would later reach an out of court confidential settlement with Kaiser, the HMO whose misdiagnosis lead to Heather's tragic death.
22. Over 10 years later, in early 1999, Gary Sherman would begin to claim in emails to fans and in interviews that the film's ending was "not a re-shoot," that the original ending with Heather was "never shot," and that at the time of Heather's death, they still had "17 pages of script" left to film. These claims would be contradicted by multiple sources, as shown above and in much more detail here: www.poltergeistIII.com/gorezone.html).
23. When asked in early 2010 whether the original ending with Heather was filmed, and if so, did the footage still exist in the vaults, an MGM spoksperson would only say "No Comment."