The year was 1982. A movie landed in our movie theatres that changed the face of cinema horror. It brought it home to suburbia. Directed by Tobe Hooper and co-written by Steven Spielberg, Poltergeist was released on June 4th 1982.
Poltergeist centred on the Freeling family, Mum, Dad and three children. An average American family. The family live in Cuesta Verde, a housing development in California.
The Freeling families youngest daughter Carol-Anne, is abducted by the poltergeist that haunts their house.
Needing help to find their daughter, the Freelings turn to parapsychologists for help.
Martin Casella played the role of Marty, one of the parapsychologists from the movie, and he graciously agreed to share his time with me.
For those readers on my site, who will not know you, can you tell them who you are and share a little of your career.
My name is Martin Casella and I’m a playwright and a screenwriter, but I was also an actor. My plays and musicals have been produced across the U.S. and around the world.
My latest play, Miss Maude, about the 1950’s meeting between South Carolina midwife Maude Callen and Life Magazine photographer Eugene Smith, has been optioned for Broadway and is scheduled for a World Premiere production in Houston, fall of 2022.
I’ve written film and TV scripts for Kerry Washington, Anthony Edwards, Whoopi Goldberg, Lasse Hallstrom, Disney, Universal, Warner Brothers, Paulist Productions, CBS and HBO, and am currently writing for the award-winning British children’s TV show Moley.
I’m a proud member of the Writer’s Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild, Actors Equity Association of America, and The Dramatists Guild.
What film will people know you from?
Well, I was one of the co-stars of the classic 1982 film Poltergeist, which was directed by Tobe Hooper and produced by Steven Spielberg. I was also in the sketch comedy Amazon Women On The Moon, in a horror film spoof sequence which co-starred Ed Begley Jr. I played The Son Of The Wolf Man.
I also appeared in RoboCop II, which was directed by Irv Kershner, and Six Weeks, with Dudley Moore and Mary Tyler Moore
What was the audition process like for Poltergeist? Who did you read with, and were you always reading for the same part?
When I left working for Steven Spielberg as his assistant, I went back to acting and writing. About three months after I left, I got a call from Mike Fenton’s office (the casting director) asking if I would come in and read for the role of Tak in Poltergeist. (Tak was named after famous cinematographer Tak Fujimoto who worked a lot with Jonathan Demme.)
Having worked on the prep for the film, I had a vague idea of what I would be asked to do. (Heavy breathing and being scared would probably be very important in the audition.) That was exactly what happened. I did my scene on videotape in the casting director’s office with his assistant Marcy Liroff, and then went back to work.
I was teaching high school drama at the time in Santa Monica, California. In the late spring I got a call from Spielberg’s office inviting me to the first private screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, on which I had spent a year working. I arrived at the screening early, not having seen Spielberg for a few months. We shook hands, he asked me how I was doing, I said fine and that I had just been cast in a local theatre production of The Lion In Winter. He muttered something about “I also heard you’re going to be in my movie.”
I looked stunned and then understood what he was trying to tell me: that I had been cast as Tak – later called Marty – in Poltergeist!! I let out a yell you could hear in Florida!! It was my first movie role, which meant I was going to get my SAG union card. Plus I was going to be one of the first people in the world to see Raiders, which as you can imagine was just amazing.
Did you ever have any misgivings about the movies subject matter?
Not at all. I actually worked as an assistant to Steven Spielberg in the three years before I acted in Poltergeist. (On 1941, Used Cars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.) I knew what the story was about in advance and was around when the story and script were being written. In terms of the subject matter, it was exciting to work on a horror film that was a fun, scary haunted house story, as opposed to a grisly slasher movie.
What can you share about filming? Any stories?
Most of the stories I can share I’ve told before. How Beatrice Straight had trouble doing her big monologue, then finally got it all right, except for the last sentence, and she cursed, very loudly, in front of the kids. She immediately apologized and was very embarrassed.
How I had to do about 30 takes of me in that dark kitchen when I was getting the steak and chicken leg – and I just couldn’t get it right. I can tell you how they created the special effect of the steak crawling on the counter: they had hidden chopsticks sticking up through the tile grout and moved the steak like an upside-down puppet.
How, in a scene cut from the film, I got to be rigged on wires and fly around the upstairs hallway set when The Beast grabbed me and bit me in the side, and about how director Tobe Hooper decided my character ate all the time, so I was always eating Cheetos and popcorn and anything I could get my hands on.
Of course, this scene is well known too, where I am ripping my face off, quite literally!
As you can see from the black and white shot, they were not my hands. They were Stevens hands. He knew what he wanted and got the shot.
I remember how much fun it was to watch the special effects, when JoBeth Williams turns her back to the table and all the chairs are suddenly stacked into pile.
I also got to watch the scene where ‘The Beast’ pulled JoBeth up and down the walls of the bedroom; that was shot on the bedroom set after it was hoisted onto a huge gimbal placed in a huge hole in the floor of sound stage, and revolved with the camera locked down in place. (It was the same studio stage – and the same technology used – when MGM filmed Fred Astaire “dancing” on the ceiling in the film Royal Wedding.)
A thing about the movie most people don’t know, is that the entire Poltergeist house set was built about 30 feet in the air, so they could do the scenes at the end with the coffins shooting up from underneath the floor. We all had to climb thirty feet up to go to work every day. The whole massive set was up there: the house, the driveway, the swimming pool, the garage, and the second floor!
Did you read James Kahn’s book after the movie came out?
I must have, to see what he added to the film’s story. But honestly, I can’t remember reading it. Years later, when someone asked me about it, and told me details, I was grateful I didn’t have a nervous breakdown – like in the novelisation – and run around the house naked in front of the whole cast!
Was there any of the book that you would have liked to see in the film?
As I said, I was more relieved about what I didn’t have to do!
Did you watch the sequels and do you regret not being part of them?
I saw Poltergeist II, which I enjoyed because of the new characters that were invented for the film. Plus it was great to see the old cast again, especially Zelda. There was some regret on my part I wasn’t in the film, which would have been fun, but my character’s exit from Part I made it pretty clear I was not coming back. I saw Part III, but don’t remember much except there was lots of breaking glass and the special effects were pretty great! And so was Nancy Allen.
You have had a varied career and from working with Bob Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, you will have been gifted some truly great experiences. What was it like working with each of them? You were there for some amazing films.
Steven Spielberg is, as it is generally accepted, a genius and a master filmmaker. He’s also a sensitive, kind man, who could often be as excited and animated as a kid. He has great timing, a sly sense of humor, and a big heart. Watching him direct and create screenplays was like a master craft in narrative and storytelling. And of course, he has studied the great directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, so he understands how important camera moves and editing are to telling a story. Most importantly, he ALWAYS knows exactly where to put the camera! He instinctively knows humour helps relax an audience so they will follow you anywhere, whether it’s into a dinosaur playground, a shark fishing boat, a Nazi concentration camp, or the private resident of Abraham Lincoln.
Bob Zemeckis is very much like Spielberg in that he is obsessed with details, humor, and how things work. He’s a lovely, thoughtful man. His kid side shows in the way he manipulates new technology and cinema toys.
You have taught playwriting, worked with directors, acted, written and sold screenplays to the great and the good of tv and film. You have written plays, musicals and acted in theatre yourself. But of all the strings on your proverbial bow….what’s your favourite and why?
Well, writers always say the one they are working on now is their favorite. My new play, which is called Miss Maude has its World Premiere here in Houston, Texas in September 2022. It’s a true story about a famous LIFE Magazine photographer, who goes to South Carolina in 1951 to do a story about a beloved black midwife who works in the backwoods.
It’s about two lost broken people who begin a friendship that lasts for the rest of their lives. I just love the story and hope I do it justice. My other favorite is my award-winning comedy play called The Irish Curse. It’s about five New York men in a support group who, as we say in America, “find their tribe.” It’s about telling truths, male body image issues, and toxic masculinity. It’s played all over the world and across America; it’s very popular and audiences go nuts for it.
Women especially love watching a play where men open up about their bodies, their feelings, their emotions and their fears. I’m still hoping some theater company in Australia will do it. It was done in New Zealand just before the pandemic; that’s as close as I got.
Do you miss any particular aspect of your work?
If you mean because of the pandemic, I’ve been busy writing all during it.
I did a rewrite (in English!) on a French film about African farm workers; spent most of last year pitching stories to, and writing a cool episode for a British animated children’s show, which will be their Christmas episode this winter; spent several months adapting my play Black Tom Island into an old-fashioned radio play with fantastic sound effects; did rewrites on my play Miss Maude for the upcoming production; and worked with a writing partner on a screenplay about how two women (one American and one French) started the famous Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company – and how it survived during World War II. If anything, I don’t miss anything about a particular aspect of my work… I miss having a vacation from it!!
If you mean about not acting anymore… well, I miss it every day. A few years ago, I was asked to act in an off-Broadway play and so wanted to do it, but it conflicted with a production of one of my plays. I would love to act on screen again. I stopped doing it a long time because I hated memorizing lines, and because getting work was so out of one’s control. I got a TV acting job on Murder She Wrote but woke up the day of the shoot with laryngitis and lost the part. Then got a job acting in a big Hollywood movie but the movie was cancelled before we could shoot it.
Being a writer is similar – it can take forever to get your plays and scripts done – but at least, as the great choreographer Agnes DeMille once said, it still exists on paper!
Martin, it has been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for your time.