Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Tobe Hooper.
Tobe Hooper is deservedly recognized for making one of the most consequential, game-changing titles in horror film history. Few horror movies, then or now, match the raw, urgent dread of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. But the well-earned primacy of that film obscures a career that grew notably diverse as it went on. Rather than a horror auteur known for revisiting styles, genres, and a consistent worldview, Hooper’s films have attempted regularly to depart from what he’s done before.
In so doing, Hooper’s filmography exhibits a remarkable and confident range of abilities and interests, from the mesmerizing slow-burn nightmare of Funhouse to the Spielbergian blockbuster Poltergeist to the campy tribute to ’50s sci-fi in his Invaders From Mars remake. After all, this is the guy whose only sequel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, took his most beloved property ‐ a terrifying small-budget gorefest ‐ and turned it into a bizarre slapstick comedy.
So here is some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the director who taught us never to pick up a hitchhiker in Texas.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Tobe Hooper
1. Trust your instincts on set
In an interview with IndieWire upon the 40th anniversary of Texas Chain Saw, Hooper discusses how one of the film’s most iconic moments came into being when Leatherface powerfully slams that door.
“I shot the scene all the way up to just before the sledgehammer and I already had this little ramp built on the floor ‐ like a cattle ramp. So I rehearsed the scene and there was something missing. I didn’t have a button on it to make the next shot, which was Pam, to make it as powerful. And so I said, ‘I need a door. We have to stop. Bob Burns, can you deliver a door to me in an hour?’ And the door was put in.I knew it needed that kind of power. So when I had the door there, I just said, “Throw him in. Throw him in, dude, and just slam that damn thing.
“It all came out of that. It would be hard to do that today on a film ‐ to shut the thing and rebuild part of the set, but it was all a part of that. I needed to show his potential and his strengths. It made the hammer hit… the actor [actually] got a black eye, you know. The real hammer weighs about 30 lbs ‐ of course a much safer prop was used, but he still put a big welt on his eye because he hit him right upside the head with the prop.”
2. Un-boring the horror genre
Hooper has repeated across numerous interviews that he wants, as both a horror fan and a filmmaker, to make films that give audiences their money’s worth, and Texas Chain Saw was built in the context of his frustration with what he saw as a stale state of the horror genre. This is not reducible to a guiding principle of purely commercial filmmaking ‐ Hooper stresses here the pragmatic importance of giving audiences something new.
In order to do so, Hooper himself has to find material that separates itself from the boring, the repetitive, and the expected. This goes a great deal towards explaining why Hooper’s movies are often so different from one another in terms of style and content: by always looking for something new.
So, if the audience expects you to repeat yourself, or if there’s something interesting from your last work that you didn’t explore enough…
3. Change direction
TwitchFilm: “Then 10 years later, after making a few more movies, you made the call to take the story into the comedy realm with Chainsaw 2. What prompted that decision to go in that direction?”
Hooper: “Well, because for eight years, no one got the ironic humor in the original movie. I mean it is ironic and the humor wasn’t played for humor but you know it was like truth, family truth. Like when the older brother, the cook, screams ‘Look at what your brother has done to the door!’ and all these hippies are dead and he focuses on something that was logical to him.”
4. Embellish your source material
“Un-boring-ing” movies does not mean dismissing the past. The original Invaders from Mars affected Hooper deeply as a filmgoing child. So when he set out to remake it, he attempted to re-capture that feeling of wonder and fear he experienced, but while using the original as a platform to do something “bigger,” to “amplify” the material and bring modern spectacle to a decades-old film (then Stan Winston goes into pragmatic detail in terms of how this new spectacle played out in creature design and special effects). Hooper’s Invaders From Mars represents a meeting of the old with the new.
5. Collaboration is not a dirty word
“I don’t understand why any of these questions have to be raised. I always saw [Poltergeist] as a collaborative situation between my producer, my writer, and myself. Two of those people were Steven Spielberg, but I directed the film and I did fully half of the story boards. I’m quite proud of what I did…I can’t understand why I’m being slighted. I love the changes that were made from my cut. I worked for a very good producer who is also a great showman. I felt that was a plus, because Steven and I think in terms of the same visual style.”
Debates have persisted through years over whether or not Poltergeist is “Hooper’s film” or “Spielberg’s film.” Hooper’s comments on the topic (notable for their growing frankness and insistence as he is expected to answer the same question time and again) reiterate that the case is neither, that Poltergeist is a meeting of two creative minds with overlapping interests.
Are their disagreements? Inevitably. But the idea that a film belongs to one creative mind, or that films can’t benefit from collaborative approaches, is simply as absurd as the prospect of a suburban family haunted by primeval spirits.
6. Use the history of the moment as a source of inspiration
The Onion: “The chief assertion of The American Nightmare is that the ’70s horror films were largely a response to the social unrest of the time. How much do you think that applies to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?”
Hooper: “Well, 100%. We were out of gas in the country at the time, and it boiled up out of those times. It’s all true, the content of the film, actually. People were put out of jobs, they were out of gas at the gas station. It was actually pretty amazing that my consciousness was there. When I saw the documentary, I was really surprised to see that Romero, Carpenter and Craven were all there, in that mindset. It all bubbled up out of that. Personally, I found that really incredible.”
Popular readings of ’70s horror often reiterate the crisis-heavy socio-political contexts in which such films were made. While blanket assertions of these films’ allegorical roots can often read as Reflectionist Film Analysis 101, it’s important to remember that these individuals did make films within certain cultural and historical contexts whose mood and character, intentionally or not, can bear out in certain aspects of the final product. While avoiding strained allegory, it can be incredibly effective for a filmmaker to use present crises as a direct or indirect source of inspiration.
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
Tobe Hooper is driven by a desire never to bore himself in hopes that such a drive will translate to an engaged audience, and as a result he’s realized a filmography that (especially in his ’70s and ’80s output) represents one of the more diverse bodies of work amongst his lauded contemporaries.
He’s one of the most accomplished, dare I say underappreciated, modern masters of the craft.