It’s one of the greatest success stories in the history of cinema. A seemingly simple tale, efficiently told – that was a surprise hit with both critics and audiences alike. A film that is still revered, discussed in hushed whispers of awe – and a film that still captures the imaginations of young and old alike. Unbelievably, on June 11th 2012 it celebrates the 30th anniversary of its release in North America. It is of course, the one, the only E.T The Extra-Terrestrial.

It feels like only yesterday that a small creature – not unlike Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo – captured the heart of the entire planet. This strange otherworldly being with a huge heart and an ugly body carried such a message of friendship, tolerance and love to the planet that no one who ever saw it forgot it.

In this PlayMountain special article we will cover several aspects of this unlikely box office titan – from its origins to its impact. An impact that surprised even its ingenious creator, Steven Spielberg.  A man who simply needs no introduction.

The Origins

One of Spielberg’s earliest memories was being awoken by his father in the middle of the night to go see a spectacular meteor shower that was lighting up the sky. This spectacular spectacle fascinated the young lad who began to consider the possibility of life on other planets, not with fear – but awe. His father always told him that if aliens ever visited it is unlikely they would be hostile, but would want to share technology, ideology and friendship. This notion stuck with Spielberg all his life, and after the runaway success of Jaws he decided he wanted to make a film that explored this subject and this ideal.

That film of course was the masterpiece Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. But Spielberg wasn’t done yet. When Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) left with the aliens at the end of that movie, Spielberg often regretted not having the alien known as Puck (the little guy who exchanged hand signals with François Truffaut) stay on Earth. Like some kind of intergalactic student exchange programme. He really thought there could be another film in that idea, but not necessarily a sequel to Close Encounters. This led to Spielberg taking a look at a supposed “true life” UFO incident relayed to him by Ufologist J. Allen Hynek. This was the “Kelly- Hopkinsville” case in which evil aliens invaded a farmhouse, terrorized the family and disrupted the animals in the barn. He began to prepare a project called Night Skies.

Impressed with the film The Return of The Secaucus Seven, Spielberg and producer Kathleen Kennedy hired screenwriter John Sayles. The green light was given by the studio and in April 1980 the pre-production started. Rick Baker, a rising star in the fields of makeup and animatronics effects initiated design of the creatures and began to design a prototype. Things were well on their way. While production was ramping up, Spielberg accepted a job offer from George Lucas to direct Raiders Of The Lost Ark. During long periods of inactivity, Spielberg would often wander the deserts of Tunisia, looking for prehistoric sea shells and feeling, in his own words, “far from himself”. Spielberg couldn’t help but feel disappointed with the way the Night Skies project was shaping up. He felt it was too violent and scary, and simply wasn’t a story he wanted to tell. He liked the aspect of the friendly alien left on Earth at the end though, the friendly alien who befriended an autistic little boy. So whilst he knew that he was eventually going to ditch the project, he thought that in that one simple little idea, which was originally only a plot-point, there could be a whole film.

Spielberg had also wanted to tell a story about the way a divorce could affect a family, especially its children. This was informed by his own parents divorce when he himself was a kid, and advice from Truffaut telling him that he should really make a film with kids. Truffaut had seen the way that Spielberg interacted with young Cary Guffey on the set of Close Encounters and felt that if Spielberg did something with a cast of children, he could knock it out of the park. Whilst Spielberg was experiencing sadness over the divorce of his parents he used to daydream of a special otherworldly friend who would come and rescue him from that melancholy. And on one of his many walks in the deserts of Tunisia, all these ideas coalesced into a whole. He had a new story he wanted to tell. And he knew exactly who he wanted to write it for him.

Whilst filming Raiders of The Lost Ark, Spielberg became fast friends with his leading man Harrison Ford. The two hit it off immediately and would often goof around together during breaks in shooting. When Ford’s fiancé’ Melissa Mathison arrived on set to stay with him, he excitedly introduced her to his new buddy Spielberg. But Spielberg was excited to meet her for a different reason. She was an accomplished screenwriter, enjoying critical acclaim for writing The Black Stallion, a kid’s movie which Spielberg had seen and was very impressed with. Spielberg told her this new story he wanted to tell, but Mathison was reluctant. She was a little jaded by previous bad experiences and didn‘t think a career in screenwriting was for her. Spielberg however wasn’t taking no for an answer. He knew that Mathison HAD to write this story, and drafted in Harrison Ford’s help. He had told Ford the story just in conversation and Ford knew it had “hit” written all over it. After days of constant bombardment by both Ford and Spielberg, Mathesin gave in and agreed to write the film for Spielberg.

Creating E.T

After 8 weeks, in December 1980, Mathison delivered her first draft of the script to Spielberg. Spielberg was blown away by the script and to this day says it’s the best first draft he’s ever read. There would actually be very, very few changes from Mathison’s initial draft and the finished product. Something which in itself is very rare in the crazy industry of filmmaking. The script was delivered with the title E.T and Me. Spielberg was under contract with Columbia Pictures with the Night Skies project and took Mathison’s screenplay to them for consideration. They didn’t like the sudden U-Turn the story had taken dismissing it as a “wimpy Walt Disney” movie. Also, they had John Carpenter’s Starman in development, which is quite similar in certain aspects. Rick Baker was also furious, and this led to something of a feud between him and Spielberg. He felt all his hard work had been for nothing, and refused to work on the new idea (however, Baker and Spielberg buried the hatchet years later and collaborated on the Men In Black movies).

Despite not wanting to work on the E.T project, Columbia didn’t want to sour their relationship with Spielberg, so they gave the rights to the project back to him and gave their blessing for him to take it to another studio. Spielberg went back to his mentor Sid Sheinberg at Universal. The man he had made Jaws for. Sheinberg loved the idea, said it sounded like a great movie and gave an almost immediate green light.

Mathison did make some pages to the concept. Originally the ship landed in a parking lot, but she changed it to a forest. It was her idea for the boy and the alien to have a psychic link. It was her idea for the boy to be the middle child (Spielberg wanted him to be the oldest). Much like Spielberg’s own childhood, the central family in the movie was suffering the effects of having an absent father. He had left to be with another woman and had left the mother with the sole responsibility of taking care of the family. And the focus was on Elliott. A small lonely 10 year old boy. His father was gone. His mother was too caught up in trying to take care of everything. His older brother Michael (Spielberg’s alter-ego in the story) was more interested in playing football and Dungeons and Dragons with his nerdy friends. And his younger sister, whilst imaginative and playful, was too young to understand the situation and provide him with the support and friendship he so desperately craved.

Two big ideas were abandoned. Elliott was going to have a friend called Lance who also knew about the secret alien friend and threatened to expose the secret for profit. This was a role earmarked for Corey Feldman and, when it was ditched during production, Spielberg gave him roles in Gremlins (which like Poltergeist is one of the projects that the remains of Night Skies morphed into. Elements of that story can also be seen in Critters and Signs) and The Goonies. The Lance story however did survive into William Kotzwinkle’s novelization of the film, which is an interesting read to see how this would’ve gone. There was also supposed to be a character called Pfister who was a “Mr. Wizard” type. A local eccentric who helped the kids with the alien. Like Lance, this character was dropped, but elements of him can be seen in Doctor Emmett Brown in the Back To The Future movies.

The creature, whose name comes from the abbreviation for “Extra-Terrestrial”, would be a botanist. A scientist from the planet Brodo Asogi who along with other ancient explorers from his world visits planets throughout the cosmos collecting samples of plant life. These creatures are neither male nor female and are somewhat akin to plants themselves. On a routine exploration mission in the Southern California region of America, the aliens are disturbed when scientists who’ve detected their presence arrive to investigate. Forced to flee, they accidentally leave behind one of their crew. Stranded on Earth, our little alien hero crosses paths with Elliott who, desperate for companionship, takes him into his home like a wandering stray.

Whilst creating the character of this alien, Matheson asked Harrison Ford’s children from a previous relationship what powers they’d like this little guy to have. Interestingly enough the ability to “heal” was an overriding one. Telekinesis was also a big one. Matheson duly wrote these abilities into the character’s story. As well as a somewhat rudimentary power of levitation.  Spielberg also decided that up until the third act of the movie the only adult face he wanted seen in the film was that of Elliott’s mother Mary. So until the end, we saw all other adults exclusively from the waist down. This was done in an attempt to show the world through “a child’s eyes” and was also a tribute to old cartoons that Spielberg grew up with like Tom & Jerry is which adults are shown in this way.

The child’s point of view was very important to Spielberg, and he wanted the kids to be as realistic as possible. To aid improvisation, Mathison put the entire script on little cards which Spielberg could carry around in his pocket. This enabled him great freedom to let the story have a more organic flow and encourage more ad-lib moments.

Creating The Creature

With the story and characters set it was time to create the alien himself. Spielberg bought in Ed Verreaux, a movie illustrator who had worked on Raiders. Spielberg wanted E.T. to have a long neck that could extend significantly. It was very important to him that the alien didn’t look like “some guy in a suit”. Spielberg provided various pictures of people he wanted the alien to resemble. Albert Einstein was a big one, as well as faces of old people. He indicated in each what he liked the best: eyes, cheeks, foreheads etc. Carlo Rambaldi, the Italian artist who had designed “Puck” for Close Encounters, was immediately called to help create E.T and its animatronics. After numerous drafts, Rambaldi started working on clay models so that they presented a sense of a three dimensional character. Spielberg worked with Rambaldi and Verreaux on these clay models, giving insightful criticism on the work they were doing. He basically wanted E.T to look like an upright turtle without a shell, have a face that only a mother could love,  and would often say that the models were “too Disney” or “too fat” or “too skinny”.  He also said the eyes were an important part of the design and gave Hemingway, Carl Sandberg and Albert Einstein as examples. A team of professionals from the Jules Stein Institute provided realistic eyes made from glass that featured such details as pupils that contracted and dilated.

After much hard work, a creature emerged that Spielberg approved of.  The final dimensions of the alien standing (with neck down) were 48 inches in height, and 56 inches (with the neck up). The head was 20 inches long and the eyes were 3 inches in diameter. At a cost of nearly ten percent of the film’s entire budget, a number of E.T.s were created. The most detailed and complete with 87 points of articulation was mechanic and operated smoothly in a complex tangle of wires and levers operated by 12 technicians, affectionately referred to by Spielberg as “The 12 Hearts of E.T.”. They stayed away from the “dummy” and constantly had to look at monitors to do their job. Four technicians were required to operate the face alone! The second type, electronic, was operated by radio control and used in more scenes to which the more detailed model could not be driven by technical and logistical issues and was typically used for facial expression.  The third and less detailed was, in a literal sense, “a suit”. It was worn by “little people” Pat Bilon and Tamara De Treaux, and a boy born without legs who walked on his arms, Matthew De Meritt. This technique was used for scenes in which the alien had to be seen walking. Spielberg wanted him to have a somewhat “wobbly” gait, not unlike Charlie Chaplin.

A peculiarity however led to the hiring of a mime. The movements of the arms and hands of the models operated by the staff looked somewhat fake. Due to the technology of the time the movement seemed unnatural. This spoiled the illusion. Caprice Rothe was hired after a test with five other mimes. She literally wore the arms and hands of E.T. In a scene where E.T is eating watermelon, a bit of the fruit was on the model’s lip. In an attitude all too common and typically human, she manipulated his arm to come up and remove the stray bit of fruit, something that Spielberg was very impressed with, since most of the time she was squatting or lying on her back – with only a monitor to aid her movements of the creature’s arms and hands.

E.T also had a heart light that lit up in occasions where he was communication with his kin. The tip of his finger also lit up, usually when healing a minor injury or establishing communication. Spielberg wanted the heart to also illuminate other internal organs (which could be seen moving), furthering the “plant” and “vegetable” motif of the alien himself.

The Cast

Besides all the technical parts, the production team began to interview several actors for the roles. The search for Elliott lasted more than six months. A mutual friend, Jack Fisk suggested Henry Thomas who had worked with him on the film The Raggedy Man. Thomas first audition was not a success as his reading from the script didn’t seem organic. However, Spielberg liked him and put together another audition which was more improvisational. Spielberg told Thomas to imagine, for a moment, that he had a special friend and someone wanted to take this friend away from him. Thomas was still upset by the recent loss of a family pet and used this raw emotion and grief to help him cry for the scene. Thomas’ audition practically blew everyone in the room away, and immediately after Thomas wiped his eyes,  a shaken Spielberg uttered a phrase which would go down in movie history. He simply said “OK kid, you’ve got the job”.

The role of Elliott’s older brother Michael was given to Robert MacNaughton who auditioned for the part on the day of the assassination attempt of U.S President Ronald Reagan. MacNaughton was somewhat disappointed on losing out of a role in the film The Entity. Spielberg was impressed by the young man’s already extensive film and stage experience, and by his professionalism. After a few informal chats with Spielberg, he was informed the role was his.

Drew Barrymore (at 6, the youngest member of the Barrymore acting dynasty) had originally auditioned for the role of Carrie Ann in Poltergeist. However, Spielberg straight away knew she would make a great Gertie (Elliott’s kid sister). Barrymore’s imagination and flights of fantasy (such as claiming to be the drummer in a punk rock band) greatly impressed the director who said on numerous occasions that she “had the role the minute she walked into the room“.

For the role of the kids’ mother Mary, Spielberg chose Dee Wallace who he had seen on the old Karl Malden series Skag playing a hooker. Despite the unsavory character she was playing, Spielberg saw in her an “essence” which he liked. Due to her youthful features and childlike attitude Spielberg allowed her face to be seen throughout the movie.
For the role of the mysterious, but sympathetic government agent “Keys”, Spielberg chose actor Peter Coyote. Coyote had previously auditioned for the role of Indiana Jones in Raiders but put himself out of the running when he tripped over a lamp stand at the audition and fell to the floor in a heap in front of the somewhat confused Spielberg. Spielberg however liked him straight away, and not long after saw him in the movie Southern Comfort. When asked who he wanted in the role, Spielberg simply said “find that guy who’s always knocking things down. I want him”.

The Shoot And Filming Locations

Filmed in chronological order (except for the classroom sequence), Spielberg’s intention was to create and emotional link between the children and E.T so that the tears at the end of the film felt real. Like a real farewell. As much as the children knew (although Barrymore had her doubts) that the creature was essentially a controlled puppet, a kind of bond between them was indeed created. The children were encouraged to act like children to improvise with a large degree of freedom. Filming began in September 1981 with completion scheduled in 65 days. E.T And Me was retitled A Boy’s Life for a working title, presumably not to reveal the nature of the film’s plot. Universal described it as simply being about “the adventures of some kids in the suburbs”.

The scenes inside Elliott’s house, the tool shed and the cornfield were shot at the Laird studios in Culver City and the house interiors were constructed so that they stayed suspended. This was done to for the E.T mechanism to be installed and operated by technicians. The exterior scenes were filmed primarily in the San Fernando Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles. Elliott’s house was located east of the valley in Tujunga. It was owned by an executive of Bell industries at the time, and was loaned to the production for a period of four months. The scenes involving the neighborhood in general, the playground (which appears at the end) and the dirt track (in which Elliott appears riding his Kuwhara bike) and some of the streets used during the bike chase were shot in Porter Ranch, just north of the valley. The avenue from where the kids “take off” with E.T, White Oak Avenue is located in Granada Hills, a more central point in the valley.

Technicalities And Other Artists

E.T wasn’t all about models and actors, and the film relied extensively on a team of technicians and artists – and a particularly gifted musician for the magic to happen. Cinematography was done by Allan Daviau, Spielberg’s partner. Daviau’s job was somewhat difficult due to the production’s demands. At first, when E.T could not be shown directly for keeping the secrecy of his appearance, the director of photography had to exacerbate the shadows and use too much backlight. The effect of which caused only the silhouette to appear. Then, in the scenes where the neighborhood and house appeared for the first time, Daviau had to keep the look as ordinary as possible to demonstrate the ordinariness of the surroundings. “Magic” did not really happen until E.T. was revealed in Elliott’s room and elsewhere in the house. That’s when the DOP needed to enhance the alien so that his presence had an influence on everyone and became a metaphor: a metaphor for the magic and fascination of the children – and to some extent the magic and fascination of infancy.

The Oscar winning score, created by musician and Spielberg’s friend John Williams, is a key factor that has cemented the film’s immortality. At times minimalist and cozy, at times resounding and powerful, the compositions of Williams not only helped to build the tone but also helped to elevate proceedings to another level. Interestingly, Spielberg and Williams worked in a way totally contrary to the usual in the film’s final sequence where the boys escape on their bikes. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to make the music “fit” in the various takes of the bike chase sequence, due to Williams’ difficulty into making the music’s accents match the onscreen action, Spielberg just told the composer to carry on and do the composition with his orchestra the way he saw fit. Then the director altered the actual editing of the film itself so that it matched the music. The result of which is one of the most beautiful sequences of harmony between image and music in the history of cinema. And a well deserved Oscar win for John Williams.

Henry Feinberg, a scientist whose gift was to “simplify” science and explain it to ordinary people, created the famous E.T communicator that the alien built and used in order to call his ship. It actually really worked and was established on a scientific basis. Concerning the ship itself, the craft was designed and created by Ralph McQuarrie, a famous illustrator and conceptual artist who had also worked on Star Wars and Raiders. Spielberg wanted the ship to have a “Dr. Seuss” look, kind of like a Christmas tree ornament, and after three months work Spielberg approved a design. Spielberg wanted the designer to bear in mind that the ship had come from a dark and humid planet so that the design had to be reflective in order to create more artificial light. The ship had a dome structure. Spielberg said that on the home world everything was divided by three so the ship had three landing gears and nine engines. Finally the interior was created in the studio and featured a complicated sprinkler system for the atmosphere to be always wet in order to sustain plant life from all over the galaxy.

The alien’s voice was recorded by an old lady, Pat Welsh, who smoked two packets of cigarettes per day. This gave her voice an unusual timbre. She was found by chance in a photo shop in Marin County by Ben Burtt, the film’s sound designer. She agreed to contribute to the film and was recorded with and without dentures on about 20 tapes, each with 15 minutes of monologues that were inserted in post production. In the end, only one minute of material was used out of the five hours of recordings – and Welsh’s voice was modified electronically. She, among many other lines, recorded the famous “E.T Phone Home”. In order to finish composing the voice of the alien, Burtt recorded other sounds. Animals breathing, a person snoring, etc. Totalling 18 distinct sound sources, he used the cry of an otter for E.T’s cry albeit amplified and modified. During the shooting, Spielberg himself did the voice of the alien, whispering the dialogue for the kids. The actress Debra Winger, a friend of Spielberg’s, recorded all the lines that were in the script as the voice of E.T and Spielberg loved the quality. The recordings ended up being used in one of the first raw cuts of the film so that the editor had the notion of discourse on the time of the scenes.

The optical and visual effects were supervised by Dennis Muren and ILM (Industrial Light & Magic), a team of professionals who had worked on Close Encounters and Raiders with the director and also on the Star Wars movies among many, many others. Muren was responsible for all the miniatures effects, blue screen effects and matte paintings. The effects department, for example, recreated all the children and their bicycles in miniatures – ranging from 15 to 22 inches each – for the final escape sequence for which they fly over the neighborhood and forest. The view from San Fernando Valley at night, when E.T. flees toward the city lights, is another example of what had been patiently and laboriously executed by the effects team creating a beautifully lit panel that simulated the valley in nocturne. The team won a well deserved Oscar for the excellent workmanship here.

Release And Impact

Universal promoted and internal test to verify an appropriate title for the film as A Boy’s Life was merely a working title. The possible choices were E.T And Me, The Extra Terrestrial, Upon A Star, The Landing and simply E.T. The problem with the latter title was that for most it meant nothing. It was not automatically associated with the word “extra-terrestrial” at the time. The studio then decided to add two titles to create the official name of the movie, something that would be self explanatory: E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.

As usual, Spielberg wanted to make a small preview of the film at the some “lucky” local theatre where he previewed Jaws and Close Encounters. The Medallion Theatre was famed for bringing good luck to films. After leaving the plane and going down the mat to get luggage and the film rolls, he noted that a bird had entered that section and had become stuck, a traditional omen of bad tidings. Already a little worried, Spielberg was again dismayed that the cans of film were open and part of it fell out. This all did not deter Spielberg however, and to his delight the film had an excellent reception.

At the Cannes film festival, it was not scheduled to compete but was shown out of competition nonetheless in May 1982. It was the first time the director and producer Kathleen Kennedy had attended the event and both were hesitant since Cannes juries are famous for being overly critical. To their complete surprise, cheers were coming up from the audience (of critics and peers) fifteen minutes before the film ended! By the time the end finally came, the audience rose in a unanimous standing ovation. Jerry Lewis held up a lighter and the other audience members followed suit. It was an unprecedented success.

The official opening came on June 11 1982 in the United States. The first weekend’s box office result of $11.8million paid off production costs. As word of mouth got out as well as excellent reviews, each successive weekend topped the preceding one: $12.4million in the second week, $12,8million in the third, $13.7million in the fourth and so on. The total amount collected from the original release was $359million domestic, and $303million in the international market. An impressive total that officially made E.T. The Extra Terrestrial the most successful film of all time, and a record that would be held for a further 11 years until Spielberg broke it himself with Jurassic Park. Critics highly praised the movie highlighting the positive message of the movie’s plot, great performances and stunning effects. In the words of the famous American film critic Roger Ebert: “This is not simply a good movie. It is one of those movies that brush away our cautions and win our hearts”.

At the Oscar ceremony in 1983, the film competed with such grand competition as Ghandi and Sophie’s Choice. It received nine nominations but was awarded only four: “Best Music, Original Score”, “Best Effects, Visual Effects”, “Best Sound” and “Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing”. Unfortunately, Spielberg lost the gong of Best Director to Richard Attenborough for his film Ghandi. Later, Attenborough said himself in an interview that he believes the victory was rightfully Spielberg’s. Sadly, one of the film’s more negative legacies is that it helped inadvertently to create the illegal industry of film piracy. A gang of these so called pirates bribed a projectionist and taped the whole film on a VHS camera. Copies of which were sold on a grand scale.


E.T The Extra Terrestrial has become a cultural and commercial phenomenon. A massively successful merchandising campaign saw the release of toys, books, sticker albums, video games, Cds and Lps. On October 27, 1988, the original VHS tapes were released with their tape guards coloured in green in with the MacroVision signal embedded to impede piracy. The tapes sold 75Million in the US alone. In 1985 the film was re-released and grossed another $40million.

In that same year, the author William Kotzwinkle, who had written the movie’s novelization, published a literary sequel E.T The Book Of The Green Planet under guidance from Spielberg. In the story, E.T goes back to his home planet where he is demoted in punishment for becoming stranded on Earth. Rumour has it that a treatment was written for a big screen sequel with the working title E.T 2: Nocturnal Fears by Spielberg and Mathison. A treatment can indeed be found on the internet, but whether it’s genuine or not is questionable. In that story, evil aliens come to Earth looking for E.T whose name is given as Zreck. They kidnap Elliott and his friends and terrorize them to find E.T’s whereabouts, causing Elliott to send a psychic message to E.T imploring him to come to their rescue. The idea was dropped as Spielberg didn’t feel that his film needed a sequel. It ended where it needed to end, and a sequel would only “rob it of its virginity”.

In 1990 a special ride, The E.T Adventure, opened at Universal Studios in Florida. A year later, the attraction was also opened at the Los Angeles resort. On the tour, besides having several other curiosities and interviews with those involved, people could climb on bikes and go on and adventure which combined elements of the film and Kotzwinkle’s sequel novel.

In 2002 to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the film, Spielberg released a new edition containing addition scenes, new CGI enhancements of existing scenes and the infamous digital removal of weapons from the government agents chasing the kids at the end. The film was re-released in theatres, but wasn’t as big a success as first hoped. The changes implement were criticized by fans and that same weekend the Marvel Comics blockbuster Blade II was released.
Spielberg recently says he regrets making the 2002 edition and asked fans to give preference to its original 1982 incarnation. He has also regained a lot of respect by promising that the upcoming Blu-ray release of the film will only have the 1982 edition on it.

The greatest legacy of the film is its positive message of tolerance, friendship and unconditional love. The film is ode to childhood, a celebration of childhood with its make-believe heroes and crazy stories, silly jokes and sincere heartfelt emotion; specifically the way of looking at life that we lose when we grow up.

E.T’s message still remains valid in the current social and economic climate of 2012. It’s important to remember the message in these uncertain times.

Let us celebrate the 30th anniversary by turning our heart lights on. All we lack is the courage to try.

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