Steven Spielberg spoke at length about the making of his 1983 masterpiece “E.T.” – including how it was inspired by his parents’ divorce – on Thursday night as part of the TCM Film Festival, as well as how “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” directly inspired the story for the emotional sci-fi drama.
Spielberg was in conversation with Ben Mankiewicz for nearly half an hour, kicking off the discussion with his experience of working with Joan Crawford on the TV series “Night Gallery.” Of working with Crawford, Spielberg said, “She was not Mommie Dearest.” The Oscar-winning filmmaker then discussed the making of his first big hit “Jaws” (the film went 100 days over schedule), before talking about how his 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” inspired the story for “E.T.”
“I had been working on an actual literal script about my parents’ separation and divorce, and I had been working on ideas about that and what it did to my sisters and myself, and this was back in 1976 when I was actually filming ‘Close Encounters,’” Spielberg began, before talking about a moment of inspiration while shooting the scene in which the aliens come out of the ship.
“We’re shooting this scene and I suddenly thought wait a second, what if that little creature never went back to the ship? What if the creature was part of a foreign exchange program? Dreyfuss goes, he stays or she stays. And what was the feeling that I had: what if I turn my story about divorce into a story about children, a family, trying to fill the great need and creating such responsibility – a divorce creates great responsibility especially if you have siblings, we all take care of each other. What if Elliott, or the kid – I hadn’t dreamed up his name yet – needed to, for the first time in his life, become responsible for a life form to fill the gap in his heart?”
Spielberg didn’t make “E.T.” directly after “Close Encounters” – first, he had a humbling experience on his 1979 comedy flop “1941.” The director said he was given carte blanche by the studios after the back-to-back success of “Jaws” and “Close Encounters,” which led to an overlong shoot. “Because of the two hits back-to-back, the studios just start writing checks, you know that’s what happens. They gave me an unlimited ceiling to make ‘1941’ and it took me 178 days to shoot the picture because I directed all the miniature work. That was first unit not second unit photography, and that was a big mistake that I never should’ve made.”
The director said he had a great time making “1941,” but he realized the film wasn’t working during the first screening in Texas when the audience didn’t laugh. “You could hear a pin drop for three quarters of the movie. It was the first comedy ever made without laughs.”
Spielberg moved on to “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which would mark a resurgence in a big way, and it was on that set that he found his writer for “E.T.” in Harrison Ford’s girlfriend Melissa Mathinson.
You can watch Spielberg go deeper into the making of “E.T.” – including how he and Mathison went about crafting the script – in the video above.