"He is Afraid. He is Totally Alone. He is 3,000,000 Light Years From Home."
So read the original advertising copy for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, promising a film of adventure, emotion and celestial mystery, and what audiences finally saw on screen well transcended the promotional pledge.
But as is so often the case with legends, E.T. did not spring fully formed from the mind of its creator. Rather, it began life as a very different story, and organically mutated into the tale that we all know today. Originally, Steven Spielberg was intrigued by a story he unearthed during research for his previous film about humankind's first meeting with beings from another planet, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
"It had to do with a farm family that was terrorized one evening by gremlin-like extra-terrestrials that kept trying to get access to their house, rode cows through the barnyard and made the people crazy," recalled Spielberg. A first screenplay draft of this story, entitled Night Skies, was indeed written, "but when I read the script I just didn't feel that it was a movie I wanted to direct. It turned me against myself and my own beliefs."
Even as a young boy, Spielberg was intrigued by the notion that extra-terrestrials could be friendly rather than hostile entities if they visited our planet. "I saw my first meteor shower when I was about four or five," he remembered. "My dad took me out to the middle of nowhere in New Jersey and we laid out on a picnic blanket, looking at up at the sky, and saw all these streaks of light moving across the sky. I never thought it was scary. My father read a lot of science fiction, and it was usually about terrifying aliens trying to take over the world. But my dad would always tell me that if aliens have the technological ability to travel these great light distances from there to here, he couldn't imagine that they did it to be aggressive or globally dominant. They did it because they were curious, and wanted to share what they knew with other planetary systems and other species that were perhaps less advanced. My dad always put it into my head that if there is something out there, it's good, not bad."
But one detail of the Night Skies script appealed to Spielberg: at the end, one of the aliens is left behind on earth. Thus, Spielberg put the project aside, but was still haunted by the notion of making another film about a meeting of different worlds ... and he finally turned to deeply personal thoughts and memories to begin tracing out what would ultimately become what is still, perhaps, his most personally reflective film. "I always wanted to tell the story of a child's reaction to his parents splitting up when he's still only about 10 years old," noted Spielberg, "and how it impacts the rest of his life. Perhaps E.T. was a subconscious fantasy of mine since childhood, to make myself feel less lonely in my life. It was a childhood dream of a special friend who rescues a boy from the sadness of divorce."
These vague notions finally began to take shape while Spielberg was looking at sea shells in the middle of sand dunes thousands of miles from home.
"I was shooting Raiders of the Lost Ark, a lonely director sitting in the middle of the desert in Tunisia, making a Saturday Matinee type of movie, and feeling a bit separated from myself, which often happens when you're directing. And then...BANG...this concept hit me. Suddenly, the story of E.T. flooded into my mind, and for the next couple of days, it began to take on a beginning, middle and an end."
Spielberg recalled that he had loved The Black Stallion, the story of the growing friendship between a boy and a wild horse stranded after a disaster at sea, elegantly and often silently directed by Carroll Ballard. The writer of that film was a young scribe named Melissa Mathison, who just happened to be on the Raiders location in Tunisia with (former) husband Harrison Ford. "I had been trying to write a script based on a book that I had optioned, and I was very unhappy with it and feeling pretty miserable about myself," Mathison recalls. "Steven and I were turning over rocks looking for scorpions one day, when he asked me if I would consider writing a movie for him. I protested that I was never going to try to do that again because of my sense of failure on the script I was working on. But then Steven laid out a premise...what if a little alien comes to earth and gets taken in by some kids?
"I thought that Melissa would be so great to write E.T.," Spielberg recalled. "She had such an affection for children and childrens' stories, fables and fairy tales, and such a great connection with nature."
And Mathison could not help but be intrigued. "The idea that this was a children's movie about a man from outer space seemed so unique and intriguing that I wanted to do it," she said.
Spielberg and longtime associate Kathleen Kennedy convinced Mathison to at least attempt a first draft after returning to Los Angeles. "I remember that I would write for four or five days in my little office in Hollywood and then drive out to Marina del Rey, where Steven was editing in a little apartment on the beach," says Mathison. "I'd bring him pages and from there we would talk about the next chunk that should be written. It took about eight weeks for us to get the first draft, which was quite fast. It evolved and unfolded in an incredibly organic way."
"Melissa would come over to where I was cutting Raiders of the Lost Ark with a tape recorder, and we would just spitball. I pretty much had the basic bons and a narrative worked out, but all the touches and little moments--like the psychic connection between E.T. and Elliott--were Melissa's contributions, as well as all of the dialogue. She put the words to my story, and it was a genius screenplay."
By the time Mathison had started writing, she already had a rough sketch of what E.T. would look like. In her early discussions with Spielberg, they had decided that the little alien would be ugly but not frightening, resembling a turtle without a shell. "The love that was shown him was not based on his being cute," she explained.
When Mathison delivered her 107-page first draft to Spielberg, "I read it in about one hour," the director recalled, "which is unusual for me because I'm a slow reader. And I was just knocked out by it. It was honest, and Melissa's voice made a direct connection with my heart. I was ready to shoot the day I read the screenplay."
In fact, after reading the script Spielberg went looking for Kathleen Kennedy in a studio commissary and instructed her "Don't order dessert...Melissa's script is dessert!"
Spielberg immediately brought Mathison's script to his friend and mentor Sidney Sheinberg, the head of Universal Pictures, along with a clay bust of E.T.'s head and some production illustrations prepared by Ed Verreaux. The next day, Sheinberg called the young director and gave him the go-ahead.
Creating and Building E.T.
Casting humans is one matter...but finding the exact right design for a fantastical alien--and the technology to build it in the early 1980s--was quite another. Spielberg and former assistant Kathleen Kennedy--now promoted to full producer status--began making the rounds of the top special effects designers to achieve the near impossible. They had already worked hard on conceptualizing E.T. with noted production illustrator Ed Verreaux.
"It was tough finding a good look for E.T., because I wanted him to be special," noted Spielberg. "I didn't want him to look like aliens from other movies. I wanted him to look so anatomically different that the audience would never be able to think that there was a person in a suit with a zipper up the back. I started with these principles when I first began working with Ed Verreaux."
One enormous challenge was that Spielberg wanted E.T. to be only three feet tall with a telescopic neck and short, stubby feet. This eliminated the possibility of full-sized performers inhabiting an E.T. suit. Among the designers approached by Spielberg was Carlo Rambaldi, the talented Italian who had designed the long-limbed alien who communicates with Francois Truffaut's scientist at the emotional climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (dubbed "Puck" by the director).
"We gave Carlo about six sketches that Ed Verreaux had already done," Spielberg noted, "and I really loved the initial designs that he came up with for E.T."
"The thing that I really remember very specifically working with Steven on E.T.'s design," recalled Verreaux, "was going into his office and seeing all of these books that he was using as reference. Steven would point out a particular picture and note details of their eyes, mouths and other features...and nearly all of them were very, very old people." In fact, Spielberg was particularly influenced by photographs of Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sandburg in their later years. "I loved their eyes," said Spielberg, "and I asked Carlo if we would make E.T.'s eyes as frivolous, wizened and sad as theirs."
Spielberg and Rambaldi began to assemble a "police composite" of what E.T.'s face should look like. They went through magazines and cut out baby pictures, gluing Einstein, Hemingway and Sandburg's eyes to the photographs. Part of the inspiration also came from the eyes of Rambaldi's Himalayan cat, as well as an early painting by the Italian called Women of Delta, a tribute to women in a remote part of his country. Their heads, long necks and whole upper bodies would influence E.T.'s head and neck.
In early January 1981--six months before filming was scheduled to commence--Rambaldi made a full-sized clay model of E.T.'s head and surprised Spielberg with it, to delighted response. The filmmaker did a screen test for the clay figure with a video camera, and discovered that lighting could further enhance the little alien's effectiveness.
For the effort of creating the complete E.T., Rambaldi was joined by a myriad team of special effects artists and technicians, and fabricating the alien began in March 1981. Spielberg and Kennedy continued to provide Rambaldi with very detailed notes, such as the requests that E.T.'s lips be moist and fleshy, like human mouths, but that their texture be different from the rest of his skin and appear very wet and gooey, and that the area in each corner of E.T.'s eyes be moist, just like human eyes.
Special artistic consultant Craig Reardon was summoned to paint E.T., and also to create his unique heartlight, joined in that specific effort by Robert Short. Spielberg described the heartlight as looking like the glow juice generated by the tail of a firefly. Reardon and Short struggled over the heartlight concepts in an effort to get it exactly right almost until the beginning of filming, at which point Short decided to fabricate a whole new torso out of transparent plastic and to paint over that, leaving the lighted area clear. He then manufactured a neck brace on which E.T.'s head could be mounted. Short also created a second heartlight--a plaster breastplate equipped with a tungsten halogen lamp--that could be strapped onto a Rambaldi E.T. suit for scenes in which E.T. moves through the forest.
Another major challenge was to make E.T.'s tongue work properly, with E.T. technical supervisor Steven Townsend coming to the rescue and constructing a mechanism requiring six separate cables. Because Spielberg had always insisted on the importance of E.T.'s eyes being absolutely believable--the eyes being the window into the soul--Kathleen Kennedy took them to Los Angeles' famed Jules Stein Eye Institute--arguably the best such establishment in the world--and discovered a young woman working there named Beverly Hoffman who was hired to paint them.
Finally, three E.T.s were built for the film: (1) the full-sized mechanical E.T. was 48 inches high with his neck pulled in and 56 inches when extended. The head was 20 inches long, with the eyes three inches in diameter. This would be controlled during filming by 12 men standing at control boxes connected to the creature's body by 20-foot-long cables; (2) An electronic model was devised, operated by radio control for close-ups and facial expressions; (3) A full-sized E.T. "suit" to be inhabited by several talented performers who were skilled at different functions. There were also four E.T. heads built, all of which could be removed and interchanged with the various bodies, and all of which had E.T.'s signature stretchable neck.
The models were fabricated of aluminum and steel skeleons covered with layers of fiberglass, polyurethane and rubber. The mechanical and electrical E.T.s had 87 points of movement, from the raising of an arm to the blinking of an eye, with 10 points of movement in the face alone. They represented the outer limits of what special physical effects could offer in 1981.
Casting the Humans
Steven Spielberg has often referred to the casting of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial as "summer camp," as so many important roles needed to be inhabited by children or teenagers. While E.T. was being created and constructed in March 1981, the casting process began simultaneously. First to be selected were Dee Wallace Stone as Mary, Elliott's lonely but loving mother, Robert MacNaughton as his older brother Michael, and a six-year-old blonde tyke with a big imagination (and mighty family name), Drew Barrymore, as playful younger sister Gertie.
"I had auditioned for a movie that Steven produced called Used Cars," recalled Wallace Stone, "and that turned out to be my audition for E.T. Steven is a master at casting. He watches people carefully and has a real talent for taking whatever their quality is and putting them in a role that's right for them.
"So Steven saw me playing hookers and call girls on television and cast me as Elliott's mom," Wallace Stone laughed.
Robert MacNaughton was 14-years-old when he auditioned for E.T., and Spielberg was impressed with the young man's professionalism and stage experience. "I was doing a play in New York and they had me come and read for another movie in Los Angeles," remembers MacNaughton. "I didn't get the part, but the casting director said, 'Well, I hear there's something going on over at Spielberg's office called A Boy's Life. I ended up getting in on a late audition for the film, and I recall that it wasn't really an audition, because they wouldn't allow the script to be seen. It was more of an interview with Steven himself."
"I thought that Robert was just a really good actor," Spielberg stated. "He was the most professional of all the kids, and he was really an anchor because he had worked a lot and been in front of a lot of people. Robert was solid."
Spielberg first met with little Drew Barrymore for Poltergeist, and liked her immediately because she was "an adorable liar." Recalls Barrymore from the lofty perspective of adulthood, "When I auditioned for Poltergeist, Steven just said 'No, you're not right for this, but you may be right for another project I have so please come back in.' Which I did, several times. At first he just wanted to meet and get to know me, and I was so happy to have a grownup that would actually listen to me talk. He listened to my stories and loved them, and it made me feel so good and alive."
Added Spielberg, "I met a lot of potential Gerties, but when Drew came in, she had the part the minute she stepped into the room because she began to make up these stories that she was a punk rocker who was about to go on the road and do a 20-city tour with her band ... and Drew was six years old! She kept making up stories, and they got bigger and bigger and bigger and wilder and wilder, and she just blew me away, especially after she told me that she could help make my movie better! There was no second choice."
Another important addition to the cast was Peter Coyote as the scientist known as Keys. "The first time I met Steven," recalled the actor, "I was brought down by the casting agent Mike Fenton of Fenton & Feinberg, who had wanted me to meet for the Indiana Jones role in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Mike asked me if I could wear a hat, and I said that I wore hats all the time. So he gave me a fedora, said that the role was a swashbuckling adventurer, and I should just go in and meet Steven.
"So as I walked into the room," Coyote reminisced with a humorously pained grimace, "I tripped over a lamp stand."
"Had I made Raiders of Comedy," Spielberg continued with tongue firmly planted in cheek, "I would have cast Peter Coyote to play Indiana Jones because he was kind of awkward and clumsy at that first meeting. But he made a good impression on me, and those memories carried over. So when I was looking for someone to play Keys, I asked 'Hey, whatever happened to that guy who kept knocking things down?'"
And then there was the not inconsiderable matter of finding a young actor to portray the central role of Elliott...
...For if E.T. is the heart(light) of the film, then Elliott is surely its soul. As summer's end neared in 1981, "I had not been able to find an Elliott," Spielberg recollected. "I had looked for a long time, at least six months, and couldn't find the right young actor. I finally made an offer to a boy who I thought could be a good Elliott, but his parents didn't want him to do the movie and the whole thing fell through. So we were about four or five weeks away from shooting the movie without an Elliott.
"But then," Spielberg continued, "I spoke with Jack Fisk--who had just directed a movie for Universal called Raggedy Man--and he told me about this great 10-year-old kid from San Antonio, Texas named Henry Thomas who he had cast as Sissy Spacek's son. Jack, who was still editing the film, was kind enough to cobble together a few scenes featuring Henry and showed them to me."
Spielberg invited the boy in for an initial meeting. "My audition was kind of scary," recalled Thomas. "I hadn't read the script, just had a brief idea of what the movie was about, and I read two random scenes. I remember thinking 'I'm not reading this very well. I'm not gonna get this part.' Steven said 'Well, let's do an improvisation. Here's the situation: you found this creature, and you love it...it's like your dog, your pet...and the government's going to take it away and do experiments.'"
With the audition video camera switched on, the tears started to flow from little Henry Thomas' eyes, perhaps remembering a beloved pet dog who had died three years before, "and that's how Henry convinced me that he was Elliott," said Spielberg. "Everybody in the room was in tears. I just remember turning to Henry and saying 'Okay kid...you got the part."
Filming ... Making the Unbelievable Believable
Principal photography of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial began on September 8, 1981 in and around Los Angeles, at Laird Studios (now The Culver Studios) in Culver City and in the suburban bedroom communities of Tujunga and Northridge. The redwood forest scenes would be filmed near Northern California's Crescent City, close to the Oregon border. Filming was scheduled for 65 days, and for security reasons and to maintain a cloak of secrecy over the project, the shooting title was the utterly nondescript A Boy's Life.
And that first day presented both director and young star with a huge challenge: how to get 10-year-old Henry Thomas to kiss a girl on the lips as part of the scene in which Elliott liberates the classroom frogs from their terrible fate of dissection. "Henry absolutely did not want to do this," said Spielberg, "and if he had to, he didn't want to be a movie actor. At that moment, I saw him giving up his entire career over the matter of a kiss!"
Thomas confirmed Spielberg's memories: "That was the one part of the script that I had a big problem with. I remember, when I read it for the first time, I thought 'Spaceship...cool. Alien...cool. Kissing a girl?? No way!!! I have to do this???!!!"
Finally, Thomas screwed his courage to the test, puckered up, and the scene went pefectly. (The young actress on whom he bestowed the kiss was Erika Eleniak, who has, like Thomas, gone on to a fine career as a grownup).
The look of the film was very carefully devised by Spielberg and director of photography Allen Daviau, who had previously worked with the filmmaker on his short film Amblin and for whom E.T. would be a most auspicious feature film debut. They decided upon a very naturalistic look which then takes on a fantasy element as E.T. interacts with Elliott and his family. Daviau also worked closely with production designer James D. Bissell, who created an appropriate world both familiar (the domestic niceties of suburbia) and otherworldly (the misty, mysterious opening in which E.T. and his fellow alien botanists study samples of the redwood forest).
"One of the things that Steven knew from the very beginning," said Daviau, "was that E.T. would be a very shadowy, hardly-seen figure in the early stages of the film, and that we would take a while to discover him. We experimented with different color tones, and his brownish skin with purple overtones evolved out of those early tests. For the first stages of the story, we developed a procedure of using strong backlight on E.T., his face largely in shadow and just the glint in his eyes.
"And once we had E.T.'s lighting down," continued Daviau, "we examined how to light the scene around him so that it all made sense. One of the first things I said after reading the script was that everything to do with Elliott's house, neighborhood and family had to be very, very real. Everything had to be naturally motivated because the magic would happen with the presence of E.T. The house would remain the same outwardly, but Elliott's room would be transformed into a magical place."
One remarkable aspect of the production was how the fabricated E.T.s were treated by cast and crew: as if they were real. This was particularly gratifying for his designer, Carlo Rambaldi. "During the shooting, everybody forgot about his mechanical insides," he said. One day, a visitor to the set not connected to the production made fun of E.T. ... and was instantly castigated by the silence of the very unamused cast and crew. Another time, an assistant makeup man in charge of spraying the full-sized E.T. to keep him looking fresh and moist jokingly asked him to turn his head...and the operators complied, scaring the makeup man half to death.
Because no matter what he was made of, E.T. was truly a character with his own presence. "It was thrilling to see him come to life," Mathison recalled. "The character had earned people's respect and so they treated the (fabrication) respectfully, too."
"We were dealing with an alien that all three kids in the movie, Henry, Drew and Robert, believed was real," said Daviau. "Despite seeing all of the operators, wires and special effects technicians in the background--despite the kids catching out of their peripheral vision that a pull of the lever meant the blink of an eye--the kids all treated him like a real being."
"It was amazing that once everything was set to go, the cameras were rolling and you were in the scene, everything was incredibly real," noted Henry Thomas. "By the midway point of filming, I had worked so much with E.T. that it all started to become very tangible to me. I was drawing on the here and now rather than previous experience."
"I don't think tears have ever been that readily available to me in my entire life," Drew Barrymore said of her more poignant moments with E.T.
"One of the things that really helped all of the kids and the crew was the fact that I insisted on shooting the film with complete continuity," said Spielberg. "So the kids knew, emotionally, where they had been the day before, and they pretty much didn't have any idea where they were going the next day. So, like real life, every day was a surprise, and all of the experiences they had from one day to the next would sort of heap up against their heart until, finally, when E.T. was dying, Henry, Robert and Drew really believed that it was happening. Their acting couldn't really be called acting at that point. It was reacting to their best friend in the universe going away and leaving them."
E.T.'s 12 operators took on very unique roles. "I always felt that E.T. had 12 hearts," said Spielberg, "and each heart belonged to one of the operators who had the function of moving his cheek, creating a smile, a blink or the pulsing of blood through veins in his neck."
Also lending their heart and skill to bringing E.T. alive were the "Special E.T. Movement" performers who at various times inhabited the alien "suit": Pat Bilon (a 2'10", 45 pound former sheriff's dispatcher from Youngstown, Ohio who did most of the walking scenes), Tamara De Treaux Matthew De Merritt (who performed E.T.'s "drunk" scene), Tina Palmer, Nancy MacLean and Pam Ybarra.
One of the challenges facing Spielberg and company in fully articulating the little alien was the need for complete dexterity in E.T.'s arms and hands, to perform such functions as delicately picking up a flower or tiny Reese's Pieces candies (although a different brand of candy was originally scripted in, the company quite famously declined participation in the film, thereby boosting their competitor's sales by millions after the film was released). "The mechanical arms that Carlo Rambaldi designed were really great," recalled Spielberg, "but early 1980s technology being what it was, they had what I called a 'wogga wogga' effect. An arm would stop and go 'wogga wogga' in a jerky way, and I knew that E.T. had to have almost balletic, graceful arms."
Thus, an idea was formulated to utilize a mime's hands inserted into specially constructed E.T. arms for some of these and other scenes. A pair of gloves that looked like E.T.'s hands were designed and fabricated of very fine latex, which had zippers and wires and tubes protruding near the elbow, allowing for infusion of air to simulate a pulse.
Several mimes were auditioned, with the highly experienced Caprice Rothe finally selected, with superb and often unexpected results. "I remember a wonderful moment," said Spielberg, "when Caprice drank a lot of coffee in the morning and when we began to work, her hands were actually shaking. I thought she had found something about E.T.'s character! And in that same scene, there was another marvelous instance in which E.T. was eating some watermelon, and there was a little bit of the fruit left on his lip. So Caprice reached up and took this little piece of errant watermelon off of E.T.'s lips, which was the most natural thing in the world. I mean, who would have thought of that except somebody who was very much in touch with behavior and had a great understanding of what we do with our hands, face and bodies. It's just a tiny moment in the movie that most people don't even recognize, but I'm really proud of what Caprice brought to that scene, bringing E.T. to life in such a way. He was alive in that moment, completely alive. Nobody was running him. There were no wires, no motors going. It was as if Caprice was actually channelling E.T."
Although the Academy Award®-winning visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic under the supervision of Dennis Muren played a key role in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Kathleen Kennedy noted: "I really think that a big part of the reason the movie hasn't aged very much is because, in a sense, it was never designed to be an 'effects movie.' Steven always wanted to concentrate on character and story, and weave the effects in as seamlessly as possible."
Nonetheless, the visual effects artists of ILM created some of film's most indelible images: the first appearance of the alien spacecraft (designed by Ralph McQuarrie) and its unique inhabitants...perhaps its single most famous effect, Elliott and E.T.'s rapturous bicycle flight silhouetted against a huge, detailed moon (which would ultimately become the symbol of Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment)...the suspenseful airborne escape of E.T., Elliott, Michael and their friends on bicycle to elude the police and government agents at the film's climax...and that magical rainbow at the finale. ILM, with Dennis Muren at the helm of the visual effects team, began their work on E.T. in May 1981 and, in Spielberg and ILM tradition, helped to revolutionize visual effects for motion pictures with numerous innovative techniques.
The alien spacecraft, designed by Ralph McQuarrie, had an almost retro-Jules Verne appearance, and took more than three months to build. The dome of the ship, which reflected sky and landscape, was Spielberg's own idea. Chief Model Maker Charlie Bailey (who shared that responsibility with Mike Fulmer) constructed two spaceships for filming purposes, one approximately two feet in diameter, fully detailed and articulated by a joystick and a computer. The second model was three feet wide and was meant to be seen for its shape and lights.
Everyone had their share of fun through all of the very hard work, partially because of the atmosphere of freedom that Spielberg created on set. Screenwriter Melissa Mathison was also appointed associate producer by the director, and was on set every day to rehearse with the kids. "They'd catch me on misspellings, or they'd give me a hard time about some piece of dialogue, or they'd come up with something they thought was better," Mathison laughed in retrospect. "And I finally had to kind of show them who was boss!"
Henry Thomas had to struggle with one of his most famous pieces of dialogue--when he calls his older brother "penis breath." "I was brought up to think that kids shouldn't say those kinds of things, but finally decided that it wasn't that bad because it was an anatomical term. I thought Grandma could live with that one!"
Spielberg, in his direction, allowed the child actors a certain amount of liberation, all in an attempt to create the most realistic dialogue and situations possible. "I would ask Henry or Drew what they would say if these things were really happening to them, trying to get the kids to invent their own lines. When Gertie studies E.T. for the first time without getting hysterical and says 'I don't like his feet,' that's Drew Barrymore's own improvised line. A lot of the kids found wonderful things to say that came from the truth of themselves."
"Steven wasn't afraid to let kids be kids and bring something new to the film," noted Henry Thomas. "For the scene in which Elliott brings E.T. to his room for the first time, Steven had a table set up with all of these Star Wars toys and little gadgets, and he explained the situation to me. Steven instructed me to go down the line and introduce E.T. to all of his toys. So I basically improvised that entire scene. We were allowed opportunities to let it be told through children's eyes."
The relationship between director and young star was consistently supportive. "Henry would go from thinking I was his new best friend to thinking that I was his schoolteacher, because I would talk to him constantly. I talked to Henry so often while the camera was rolling and he was in his dialogue that when he saw the movie for the first time he still thought he was hearing my voice direct him."
For the Halloween scene, Spielberg discovered that the kids were going to surprise him by coming to the set already costumed, so he decided to return the surprise and showed up on set dressed up as a schoolteacher...a woman schoolteacher, replete with veil, lipstick, hat and orthopedic shoes!"
A sidenote to that Halloween scene was the surprise appearance of Yoda, the wizened zen alien from the Stars Wars films, which Spielberg added as a surprise for his friend George Lucas. "I thought it would be fun for E.T. to try and follow Yoda because, you know, the galaxy is a rather small place among filmmakers."
By the end of production, inside the forest set as Elliott and his siblings say goodbye to E.T., Spielberg recalled that "all the kids were just trying to hold it together. And if I did three or four takes, they would fall apart on each take because they knew that this was their last day with E.T., and they weren't going to see him again. Just before E.T. tells Elliott 'I'll be right here,' I went to Henry and whispered in his ear, 'This is it. This is the last moment between the two of you.' And at that point, Henry's heart broke open, but he held it back. And when I said 'Action,' it just all came flooding forth."
Finding E.T.'s Voice and Music...and The Release of a Phenomenon
The original voice of E.T.--although it was never intended to remain in the final film--was Steven Spielberg himself, feeding lines to Henry Thomas and the other actors from off-camera. It's also been rumored for two decades that Debra Winger was actually the voice of E.T. In fact, as a friend of Spielberg, she was invited by the director to visit the set during the filming of the Halloween sequence, in which she makes an unrecognizable appearance as a doctor with a scary mask. "Debra has this low, husky, beautiful voice, so I asked her if she would read all of E.T.'s lines into a Nagra recorder," recalled Spielberg, "because I didn't want my voice to be the only one that was heard when people watched the rough cut. What they heard in the temp track were a couple of lines that I spoke, but mostly Debra. But neither of us ever intended that to be the final product. She was just helping out as a friend."
But as principal photography was completed and the complex post-production phase was entered, the brilliant, multiple award-winning voice and sound designer Ben Burtt--whose work had already been heard to such extraordinary effect in George Lucas' Star Wars films--discovered a woman named Pat Welsh. A housewife and sometimes amateur photographer, Welsh was at that time in her mid-60s and living in Marin County, California.
"Although Pat had always wanted to be an actress and in fact had briefly pursued her ambitions in those directions, she wasn't a professional," recalled Burtt. "I explained what I was trying to do, which was to search for an interesting quality voice for an alien character. Pat was a real sport, and she recorded all of E.T.'s dialogue, which I altered electronically by changing the pitch. Then I mixed Pat's voice with breathing sounds of animals that I had recorded to bring in a non-human quality.
"I should mention that all told there were 18 different contributors to the voice of E.T.," added Burtt, "including animals and various humans who might have provided a snort, a breath or a burp. But certainly, Pat Welsh's was the most significant single contribution because she did all of the actual dialogue."
Meanwhile, film editor Carol Littleton was working on bringing the film down to a reasonable running time. "We made several fairly large lifts," she recalled, "and because you never know if those pieces of film are going to go back in at some point, they were lifted out in their entirety."
One of these was a humorous scene in which Elliott takes E.T. into the bathroom, weighs him and shows him the difference between hot and cold water. Elliott leaves the bathroom to answer the phone and returns to find E.T. at the bottom of the bathtub, under water. A special E.T. was built for this scene by Carlo Rambaldi, but Spielberg felt that the scene didn't quite work because of the technological limitations of the time.
Spielberg already knew who he wanted to compose the musical "voice" of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: his already longtime collaborator John Williams. "I always felt that Johnny was my musical re-write artist," Spielberg comments. "He'd come in, see my movie and re-write the whole damn thing musically and make it much better than I did. He can take a moment and just uplift it, like he can take a tear that's just forming in your eye and cause it to drip."
For Williams, it was a formidable task to write music for scenes he was not yet able to view. "The first time I saw E.T., the bicycle over the moon wasn't there because the visual effects shot wasn't ready yet, so the composer doesn't always have the benefit of all the beautiful visuals. What we have to do is to use our imagination and stretch the musical grammar.
"When you get that feeling," continued Williams, "you feel it with your heart. For the flying sequence, I took a deep breath and felt the freedom and affirmation of the vision that you can fly with a creature not of our own spcies but of our own spiritual oneness. And we can go over the moon, a fantastic idea that needs great sweep in the music and a great feeling of freedom. We lose gravity, we're in space and finally free. And what's what the orchestra and composer has to give us for a scene like that."
"When John saw E.T., he was really happy with the film," Spielberg recalled, "and I can tell when John's happy because we don't have a lot of musical discussions. He already has themes running through his mind. So I just left him alone to do his work, and one day he called and asked if I could come over to his office...that he wanted to play me some of the music on the piano.
"It was more than I could ever hope for," continued Spielberg. "I had tears rolling down my eyes, sitting at John's piano and sobbing. I was embarrassing myself in front of him. I loved it, and told him not to change a note. I could not wait for the day when he scored the film." Williams' music for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial has become one of the highly honored composer's most beloved and sensitive scores, outstanding out for its many moments of sheer musical virtuosity, whether in moments of rapture, quieter, more reflective passages, or moments of suspense or menace.
The film was basically completed in spring of 1982, and its first sneak preview was scheduled for May 7 in Houston, a month before its official opening. In truth, Spielberg didn't know what to expect. "I didn't pretend that E.T. was anything other than a movie about kids made by a kid, because I was a still a kid then. What the hell, I'm still a kid now!
"But the sneak preview was a religious experience," he continued. "It was emotional, it was loving, it was generous on the audience's part. You never know what you have until you show it to an audience for the first time, but they responded to every nuance of the movie. They were picking up on every laugh that I didn't think they would understand. We had six spontaneous rounds of applause during the movie, and three minutes of sustained applause, almost through all the end credits."
Melisssa Mathison remembers it vividly, too. "Steven was sitting next to me and he kept pounding me on my leg. 'They like it, they like it.' I wound up with black and blue marks! It was overwhelming to see the audience's reaction, and at the end of the movie the audience were on their feet clapping and cheering."
"There was a real feeling of identification," added Spielberg. "You could just slice the atmosphere. It was a wonderful, tender experience that I'll never forget. We were all just soaring...and then we showed the film at the Cannes Film Festival."
Producer Kathleen Kennedy continued, "About 15 minutes before the end of the movie the audience at Cannes started to clap and stomp their feet. And we thought, 'Oh God, they don't like the movie.' Our stomachs were churning. And then we realized it was just the opposite. They loved the movie."
Recalled Spielberg, "That was my first time at Cannes, and what a way to go! I got a little telegram from Francois Truffaut that meant so much to me. It said 'You belong here more than me,' echoing the line of dialogue that he says to Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And at the end of the festival, we had a standing ovation and I remember thinking 'This feeling can never be equalled.'"
Another glorious moment for Spielberg came when he screened E.T. for George Lucas and children of ILM and Skywalker employees in the Bay Area. "George began to roar with laughter when he saw Yoda onscreen in the Halloween scene, and he gave me a very warm little elbow in the side. It was a very sweet moment.
"And then," recollected Spielberg, "just after the kids take off on their bicycles, George leaned over to me and said 'Okay, you can be number one for awhile.' Later, I asked him what he meant by that, and George said 'E.T. is going to be the biggest movie of all time. This is going to beat Star Wars, you mark my words.'
"I thought George was crazy. I thought he was just being really, really nice, a great compliment. I didn't know how right he was until it actually happened."
The film opened to wildly enthusiastic response from both critics and audiences, with record box office. In short, it became a cultural phenomenon, adding at least one catch-phrase to the American lexicon (E.T.'s famed "phone home" line), inspiring not one but two hit songs, by trans-generational pop icons Neil Diamond and Michael Jackson, inevitably imitated by several sub-par features highlighting new-found friendships between children and aliens (most of them now mercifully forgotten)...and inevitable talk of a followup. Highly honored, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was nominated for nine Academy Awards®, including Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay. It won in the categories of Original Score, Visual Effects, Sound and Sound Effects Editing.
Kennedy recalled her own surprise at the international response: "I had a unique opportunity on E.T. to travel all over the world on the publicity tour and see how audiences everywhere reacted to the film. It made me realize that when you show a movie that operates so fundamentally on primal emotion, how alike we all are. I watched French, German, Japanese and Indonesian audiences all react nearly alike in exactly the same places."
The film changed the lives of all involved, launching the careers of Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore (as well as such supporting players as C. Thomas Howell and Erika Eleniak), solidifying those of comparative "veterans" Dee Wallace Stone and Peter Coyote, and putting a credit on the resumes of crew members which would raise eyebrows on perspective employers for decades to come.
For Steven Spielberg, who had already enjoyed massive success with Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark, "E.T. opened me up to more personal stories. The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan and A.I. Artificial Intelligence were inevitable followups regarding films about the human condition rather than straightforward adventures. My career's sort of gone on two different roads that parallel one another, with two kinds of films. I think E.T. gave me the courage to start creating the second kind of film.
"I don't like picking a favorite of my films, because it's kind of like saying you have a favorite child," noted Spielberg. "The most significant film I've made is Schindler's List, but the most personal film I've made is E.T. It's now become a cliche to say that a movie is for the child in all of us. But I think that E.T. is for the people we are, the people we have been, and the people we want to be again."
And now, the passing of 20 years since the initial theatrical release of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial seems like a mere twinkle in eternity's eye, although teenagers euphorically discovering the film then are now introducing it to their children (and baby boomers doing the same with their grandchildren). In its audiences' collective memory, Henry Thomas--now, astonishingly, a highly accomplished young actor 30 years of age--is still a spirited, soulful 10-year-old searching for a best friend. Drew Barrymore--now a youthful movie star and industry powerhouse as both an actress and producer--is still a feisty, adorable and loving six-year-old.
And E.T.'s final promise to Elliott, his illuminated finger imprinting it forever in the boy's mind and heart..."I'll Be Right Here"...seems as much a vow to audiences then, now and forever.
Two Decades Later...Restoring, Preserving and Enhancing A Classic
But that's not the end of the story...for film being a perishable substance, 20 years had taken its toll on the condition of the original E.T. negative. What's more, the enormous advances in visual effects technology since the advent of the digital age could allow Steven Spielberg the opportunity to not only restore, but also to enhance and even "fix" his film in a way true to his original vision, in terms of structure and content as well as technically.
"I never wanted to make a sequel to E.T.," he said, "but I thought that it would be great to reissue the film on the 20th anniversary with a few enhancements to please the perfectionist inside myself, and for an audience both old and new. I've seen the film many times on videotape with my kids as they grew up, and I would always flinch at technical flaws that perhaps only I noticed. For example, I always wanted to fix E.T.'s run at the beginning of the film when Keys is chasing him, because he was simply an outline of E.T. on a rail with his heartlight moving through some weeds. There were also moments in the movie that were cut from the original which I thought would be great to put back in."
"The film's 20th anniversary was looming," explained Kathy Kennedy, "and there was a discussion as to whether or not it would be of value to reissue the movie. And when I say of value, this means of value to the audience. We realized that E.T. is a movie that does cross over so many generations, and the fact that there's a whole new generation that's never experienced this movie on the theatre screen was very apparent to us.
"I now have a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old," added Kennedy, "and Steven has six kids. We all looked at the movie together in a small theatre, and it was so incredible to watch their reactions. Steven's youngest and my youngest had never seen E.T., and the film played to them with the same enthusiasm as it did to kids that age 20 years ago. So my guess is that there are a lot of parents out there with small children who remember this movie as a genuine personal experience of their childhood, and now they get to shareit with their own kids. And I also think there are a number of kids who grew up seeing this movie who are now college age, who are going to have a competely different experience looking at this movie as adults.
"It was also clear," Kennedy continued, "that we're now sitting here with a new tool in computer graphics, and we were remembering things like 'Remember that day when E.T.'s lip got caught and we were never able to fix it for the shot?' That's really what inspired the discussion of going in and being able to make very subtle adjustments to things that could maintain the sense of charm and all of the things that we like about E.T. while at the same time correcting things that always nagged at us.
"The key to these creative changes was Steven's proviso that he wanted these enhancements to really assimilate into what people remember about this movie."
To assist in these goals, Spielberg once again turned to Industrial Light & Magic, preserving a creative and artistic continuity that had begun in 1981. "This was a very unique film for us to work on," commented Bill George of ILM, visual effects supervisor for the 20th Anniversary Edition of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. "First of all, before the enhancement, it was an actual restoration of a film that ILM had worked on 20 years before. At the same time, we approached it differently than most films. Normally on a film, you come up with designs and shoot the film with effects in mind. This was very different. We were talking about something that pre-existed, and our task was to restore it.
"Our approach was that E.T. was like a classic piece of architecture that had fallen into disrepair," George continued, "and we needed to redo the floors and repaint the walls to make it as close to the original classic vision as we could. It's kind of like the difference between sending grandma to the beauty parlor, or sending her to the plastic surgeon. We wanted to send grandma to the beauty parlor, because she's someone you love. You don't want to change her...just make her more attractive."
Spielberg noted, "I was very careful not to change the substance of the story. It was just like taking a very fine paintbrush and putting a little bit of rouge on a pallid face."
And so, Spielberg went through the entire original film and "spotted" each shot that he wanted to revise with state-of-the-art visual effects that would enhance rather than irrevocably alter the extant movie. "If this film were done today," noted George, "chances are that E.T. would be an all CG [computer generated] character. But this film wasn't made today, it was made in 1981 to '82, and the E.T. puppets, although brilliant, had their limitations. However, those limitations also helped contribute to his character. There's something very graceful and deliberate to his movements. And so, we all tried very hard never to deviate from the character or movements of E.T. in the original film, except where it could bring him even more alive than ever before."
The tasks broke down into two ILM units, with George leading the technical side and Colin Brady serving as animation supervisor, both teams working very closely together under the guidance of Steven Spielberg. The first task was to restore the actual film elements. "It was in sorry shape," noted George. "Some of the negative reels had been scratched and were very dirty. There was a certain amount of archaeology involved, such as going back and finding out what lenses were used from Allen Daviau, the cinematographer."
It was crucial that all of the visual effects enhancements match the original film, so that it wouldn't look like something brand new. Thus, many of the enhancements devised by ILM are remarkably subtle, such as widening the range of E.T.'s facial expressions, or re-doing a matte background with new techology that allows for moving clouds or the wind wafting through forest trees. And although a fully digitalized E.T. was created for certain shots, most of the time we see CG enhancements over the original alien puppets. George, Brady and company attending to tiny details, such as re-doing elements of Elliott's first bicycle flight with E.T. by having the cape of his Halloween costume moving in the wind, whereas in the original it was stationary.
The huge strides in technology that have taken place between 1981 and today also allowed the ILM artists to restore scenes previously deleted, including E.T. and Elliott's aforementioned bathtub escapade, and a sidebar to the Halloween sequence in which Mary searches for Elliott. "With the inclusion of the bathtub scene, there is a little more bonding opportunity for E.T. and Elliott to get to know each other," noted Spielberg. "And there's also a moment which shows the audience that E.T. and Elliott experience each other's feelings. When the phone rings and Elliott jumps, E.T. also jumps, not because the phone startled him, but because Elliott's heart skips a beat. It also restored the moment when E.T. exposes and displays his very elongated neck, which is a nice reveal of the growing trust between the new two friends."
As for the Halloween scene, "I always wanted to put the scene back in, because it includes one of Drew Barrymore's best moments," said the director.
Certainly, the ILM visual effects artists were awed by their challenge, and extraordinarily respectful of the original film. "When I was first asked to work on this re-release of E.T. I was a bit hesitant," admitted Colin Brady. "It's always been one of my favorite films, and I just always assumed that every frame was perfect. It was almost like being asked to paint over the Mona Lisa and make it better. But in this case it was Da Vinci himself who was asking us to do the work under his supervision.
"The greatest challenge," Brady continued, "is that E.T. is more than just a creature, or an alien. And he's not a cartoon character either. We really had to think of him as a living, breathing being, and we wanted to approach him in the same way as if he had been played by a human. We didn't want to make E.T. overly smooth or fluid in his motion, which we easily could have done with computer animation. There was a beautiful warmth in the way that the original E.T. moved, sort of like the innocence of a baby combined with a jittery quality that deepened his character. We would also compare him to different animals. Sometimes E.T. is very catlike, other times like a bunny or a turtle. This helped us to re-invent some of his movements when it was necessary."
One example of the ILM team making over an original shot is the suspenseful moment when E.T. runs through the forest in an attempt to escape the oncoming scientists in the opening sequence. "That was the one moment that everyone felt could be totally replaced," said Brady, "because E.T. was moving in a very linear fashion, like he was on a track. We really had to sit dwn and think about how this little character would run, because he has such short, stubby legs and little feet. And finally, we came up with a solution that Steven Spielberg was satisfied with."
As none of the original E.T.s existed any longer, George, Brady and their crew had to go through the original film shot by shot and reference the alien's physicality the best they could in order to create a new model which could then be digitally scanned. But as Colin Brady admitted, "If we were making E.T. today from scratch, we couldn't use a lot of the wonderful tricks they used in the first film. If E.T. were just a digital character, then Henry Thomas and the other actors wouldn't have had a 'real' E.T. to play off and react to!"
Perhaps the most important alteration that Spielberg made in the 20th anniversary edition of E.T. was something he had wanted to do for years: remove the guns from the hands of the police and government agents who are chasing E.T., Elliott and his friends during the extraordinary chase sequence which climaxes in their bicycle flight. In a 1995 interview, Spielberg definitively said:
"If I ever re-issue the film theatrically, I will somehow take that shot out...I really regret two things in the movie. I regret that a gun was used as a threat to stop children on bicycles. I really regret having any guns in the movie. And if I ever re-issue the picture, I'll use the digital miracle of CGI to take the guns out of the cops' hands."
Between the time that E.T. was filmed in 1981-82, Steven Spielberg became a father and had a new way at looking at life. And although replacing the policemen's guns with walkie-talkies is sure to inspire a certain amount of controversy among some die-hard fans and purists, the world of 2002--for better or worse--is a very different one from 1982, and the filmmaker feels different responsibilities toward his often very youthful audience.
"The climate for guns was not as inflammatory in 1982 as it is today," he noted, "but I was still very, very sensitive to the fact that I had put guns in E.T. It bothered me more after my son Max was born in 1985, especially when he started growing up and I started taking the world more seriously. Having a child was the biggest change and catharsis in my life, as I think it is with all parents of firstborns. I began to feel that the guns were probably an inappropriate thing to have in the movie, and felt that the 20th anniversary version was a great opportunity to get rid of them.
"I notice that some people have accused me of being Polyanna and too soft," noted Spielberg, "and I'm sure the National Rifle Association will be angry at me as well. But I stand by this decision."
"From a logical standpoint," Kathleen Kennedy remarked, "Steven realized that it would be highly unlikely that police chasing a group of kids on bicycles would draw their weapons. Aside from the ethical standpoint, it made more sense in terms of story realism."
Along the same lines, Elliott's mother no longer forbids him to go out on Halloween looking like a "terrorist." In Melissa Mathison's original script, the word was actually "commando," but now the word has been altered to the non-violent "hippie."
Bill George, Colin Brady and everyone else at ILM assigned to work on the special edition of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial felt tremendous responsibilities. "One of my personal goals on the project was to make sure the effects are the way people remember them - for them not to stand out," George emphasized. "Our hope is that they're not obvious, that they just flow and have the same charm that the original did. And I think we succeeded on that count. When people go to see this version of E.T., unless they're been educated ahead of time about what we changed, they're not going to notice it. And they shouldn't - because what they're going to see is the film - E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial - and not the effects."
In terms of sound, said producer Kennedy, "Basically what we did with John Williams' music was to digitize and give it a six-track spread, which gives it a much fuller sound. We didn't re-record anything, but with the technological advances over the past 20 years, we've been able to bring the sound, dialogue and music of E.T. into the 21st century."