Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1. Read Ray's full bio.
This month marks the 35th anniversary of the release of one of the all-time great movies: E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial – Steven Spielberg’s wonderful cinematic fable about a 10-year-old boy from a broken family who befriends an alien from a distant world and helps the creature – who has been accidentally stranded on Earth – find his way home.
E.T. began its journey to the screen as a sort-of-a-sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg’s 1977 epic about the first contact between humans and extra-terrestrials. Close Encounters was a major hit and soon after its release Spielberg and Columbia, the studio that financed and released the picture, began talking about doing a sequel. Spielberg eventually opted not to do a direct continuation (he chose instead to revise the original – by re-editing it and adding some new scenes – and re-releasing it in 1980 as The Special Edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind), but he did come up with an idea for a spin-off called Night Skies. Based on a supposedly true story that Spielberg learned about when he was researching CE3K, Night Skies was to be a horror film about a family living on a remote American farm that is invaded by hostile aliens. The visitors raise all sorts of havoc (including dissecting livestock) as the family members barricade themselves in their home and fight off the aliens. Columbia liked the idea and agreed to develop the project with Spielberg producing. Acting in this capacity (with his former assistant Kathleen Kennedy as his co-producer), Spielberg hired John Sayles to write the script, Ron Cobb to direct, and Rick Baker to create the alien creatures before he headed off to North Africa to direct Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Spielberg received Sayles first draft while shooting Raiders on location in Tunisia. While he liked the acclaimed writer’s work, he began having second thoughts about producing such a dark, violent movie. He found that the part of the script that appealed to him the most was a subplot in which one of the invading aliens – the only nice one in the bunch – develops a friendship with the youngest member of the human family – an autistic boy – and decided to rework the narrative to focus exclusively on this aspect of the story (much of the alien-generated mischief originally intended for the movie found its way in Spielberg’s 1984 production of Gremlins). Sayles was no longer available, so Spielberg began kicking his revised concept around with screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who had co-authored the screenplay for another classic children’s film – 1979’s The Black Stallion. Mathison was in Tunisia because she was dating Raiders star Harrison Ford (they would later marry and divorce) and had accompanied him on the shoot. Mathison loved Spielberg’s idea (which the director had infused with the painful memories of his own parents’ divorce) and agreed to write the new, kinder and gentler screenplay. She set to work and produced an exquisite piece of work – a well-structured screenplay that told its tale well and filled it with humor, action, and most of all, heart. True emotion is a very hard thing to write – if not done exactly right it can (and frequently does) come across as manipulative or cloying. But by avoiding hype and resisting the temptation to underline, Mathison expertly dramatized the deep feelings inherent in connection, friendship, and loss. She also succeeded at doing something else that many writers fail to do – by taking them on their own terms and avoiding condescension, idealization, and cutesiness, Mathison created a group of child characters who were believably authentic and real.
As good as Mathison’s script was, Columbia decided not to go ahead with the project. Unwilling to spend $10 million (the projected budget) on a film one of the studio’s executives described as “a wimpy Walt Disney movie,” Columbia put E.T. and Me (Mathison’s original title) into turnaround, choosing instead to proceed with another, more adult-oriented friendly-alien-stuck-on-Earth project called Starman (which John Carpenter directed in 1984 with Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen starring). Spielberg took E.T. and Me to his mentor Sid Sheinberg at Universal and Sheinberg agreed to make it.
Having developed a project more in tune with his own sensibilities, Spielberg decided to direct the film himself. After a lengthy search and a killer audition, 10-year-old Henry Thomas was cast as E.T.’s human pal Elliot Taylor (note the character’s initials). Fifteen-year-old Robert MacNaughton and 6-year-old Drew Barrymore were cast as Elliot’s brother and sister; Peter Coyote was given the part of “Keys,” an adult scientist who has spent his life searching for proof of the existence of extra-terrestrials; Dee Wallace starred in pivotal role of Mary, Elliot’s mom and the only adult character seen in full on screen for the first 2/3 of the movie.
After a falling out with Rick Baker, Spielberg and Kennedy gave the task of bringing E.T. to life to veteran creature-creator Carlo Rambaldi (who had crafted Puck, the alien who waved goodbye at the end of Close Encounters), which he did, with some assistance from fellow make-up artist Robert Short, who helped perfect the creature’s glowing red heartlight, and Craig Reardon who did the final skin and paint design on the puppet. The extra-terrestrial was realized as an animatronic puppet and as a costume worn by little actors Pat Bilion and Tamara De Treaux and by 12-year-old Matthew Demeritt, who was born without legs. Professional mime Caprice Roth donned a pair of prosthetic gloves to act in the close-ups of E.T.’s hands (including those in which the alien activates his glowing finger with the power to heal and those in which E.T. scooped up handfuls of Reese's® Pieces, which became the alien’s favorite candy when the makers of M&M'S® decided they didn’t want their product associated with such an unattractive [in their eyes] creature).
Filming on E.T. began in September 1981 at what was then called the Laird International Studios (formerly known as the Ince, DeMille, Pathe, RKO-Pathe, Selznick International, Desilu-Culver, and the Culver City Studios and now known as The Culver Studios) under the cover title (to ensure secrecy) A Boy’s Life. Spielberg and his cinematographer Allen Daviau also shot on location in Culver City, in the Los Angeles suburbs of Northridge, Tujunga, and Porter Ranch, and in the forests of Crescent City in Northern California (where the Endor scenes in Return of the Jedi were also filmed). Spielberg – renowned for his meticulous planning of every shot in his films – threw away his storyboards and instead chose to (in his words) “wing it” during the shoot so that he could stay spontaneous and just go with whatever gold his unpredictable young cast was giving him, as well as stay available to whatever emotions were happening in the moment. Harrison Ford filmed a cameo (one Spielberg later chose to delete) as Elliot’s school principal, whose office Elliot is sent to after – under the influence of his psychic connection with a drunken E.T. – sets the frogs free in his science class and re-enacts a romantic scene from The Quiet Man when he kisses the little blond girl played by future Baywatch star Erika Eleniak. For the most part, the shoot went smoothly, with the biggest challenges being those involved in coordinating the puppet version of E.T. as well as his actor-inhabited incarnations so that the cable-controlled foam rubber construct would appear to be a living. Breathing creature on the screen.
After filming wrapped at the end of 1981, Spielberg began cutting the footage together with Body Heat editor Carol Littleton (Spielberg’s regular editor Michael Kahn was busy assembling Spielberg’s other 1982 production Poltergeist), while visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren and his team at ILM created the movie’s delicately beautiful vfx, including the soon-to-be-iconic shot of Elliot and E.T. riding across the face of a massive full moon on Elliot’s extra-terrestrial magically-enhanced flying bicycle. Sound designer Ben Burtt – a veteran of both Star Wars and Raiders – created E.T.’s distinct croaking voice by combining voice tracks performed by radio actress Pat Welsh and supplemented by several others including Debra Winger and Spielberg himself, as well as sounds created by a number of humans and animals. John Williams put the cherry on top of Spielberg’s delightful sundae with another of his wondrous musical scores. As post-production advanced, the film’s title was changed from E.T. and Me to E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial in His Adventure on Earth to its final moniker: E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial.
Following a tremendously well-received screening at the Cannes Film Festival in May, E.T. was released in U.S. theaters on June 11, 1982 and worldwide in the months that followed. The critics were very enthusiastic – Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it “a children’s classic of the space age” and Roger Ebert said that E.T. was “…not simply a good movie. It is one of the rare movies that brush away our cautions and win our hearts.” Audiences loved it even more – the film was an absolute smash at the box office. It ran for more than a year, viewers all over the planet went back to see it again and again, and before long E.T. had become the highest-grossing movie of all time (a record it held for many, many years after). It also became an honest-to-goodness cultural phenomenon: E.T. stories saturated the media; references to both the creature and the movie appeared in all areas of pop culture; millions of dollars of E.T. tie-in merchandise (both official and unofficial) was sold; “Phone home,” the squishy alien’s catch-phrase, became ubiquitous. The film’s success transformed Spielberg into significant public figure – he not only became the most famous movie director in the world, but also his own brand: the modern Walt Disney – a filmmaker whose name identified a special form of entertainment (animation for Disney; family-friendly fantasy for Spielberg) and an assurance of quality to the public at large. The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director) and won four (Original Score, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Visual Effects).
The picture deserved every bit of its success. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is a wonderful movie – filled with thrills, comedy, emotion, and magic, it is a supremely entertaining picture. As mentioned previously, Melissa Mathison’s script is just superb. This cast is too and the craftspeople above and below the line all deliver at the top of their games as well. But the film’s triumph ultimately belongs to Spielberg. He brought all of his remarkable gifts for visual storytelling – his unerring sense of composition, camera movement, staging, pacing, and editing – to bear on the project, along with his deep and nuanced understanding of life in the American suburbs, and his unparalleled ability to infuse a film with an authentic sense of wonder and awe. He also brought his heart – E.T. is an intensely emotional movie, filled with joy and pain and love. Spielberg puts all of these emotions up on the screen unfiltered and with a deep and genuine sincerity that allowed viewers to experience the story with the same intensity of feeling that he does. As a result, auditoriums across the planet were filled with sniffles and snobs as E.T. and Elliot said their final goodbyes, followed by peals of joyous laughter as the alien visitor rose into the heavens in his Christmas-ornament of a spacecraft, leaving a brilliant rainbow in his wake as a parting gift for his friend – and for us all.
Thirty-five years on, E.T. is still “right here.”
Copyright © 2017 by Ray Morton
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