Retro Recaps: The Making of E.T. (The Extra-Terrestrial)
Once upon a time, making-of specials and documentaries, were incredibly “thick” with material.
You’d get people to sit down and reminisce, often coming up with the most amazing stories from the production they were thinking back on. All of a sudden, an incident that hadn’t been thought of in years would resurface, or the meaning behind a particular scene, would become clearer. To me, I ate up many of these documentaries like Reeses Pieces.
However, in more recent years, making-of specials have become flash-in-the-pan. They are often whittled down to 20-30 minutes, usually with the briefest of ‘talking heads’ from the crew, and more time given over to the cast.
Though when it comes to many of the making-of films I’ve seen, one name often comes up: Laurent Bouzereau
Bouzereau is one of the most well-known film documentarians around, with a major focus on the works of both Alfred Hitchcock, and Steven Spielberg.
His association with Spielberg largely began in the 1990’s, when he produced and directed a number of retrospective/making-of documentaries for the laserdisc-format.
Several that stand out from that time, include his making-of special for Jaws (which clocks in at almost 2 hours!), and his retrospective on Spielberg’s 1941.
In 1996, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was released on laserdisc, and as an added feature, a 1 1/2 hour documentary by Bouzereau was included.
With the documentary’s 20th anniversary upon us this year, I couldn’t help but share some of my thoughts on one of the best ‘lost documentaries’ that you surely have never heard of (I mean, how many of us even HAD a laserdisc player growing up!?).
In The Beginning…
What many don’t know, is that E.T. originally started out as another project by Spielberg. A darker humans-meet-aliens story, called Night Skies.
Producer Kathleen Kennedy (left) shares a story about how Spielberg requested she research an incident where a farm family was terrorized by extra-terrestrials (sounding similar to one scene in Close Encounters), and use that as the basis for the film.
Also of interest, was Kennedy seeing a film called The Return of the Secaucus Seven, and requesting that its writer/director John Sayles, write a draft for this film…though 14 years later, she couldn’t recall just why she felt Sayles was the perfect fit for the project.
However, upon reviewing the first draft of Night Skies that Sayles wrote, Steven found it wasn’t quite where he wanted to go, and dropped the dark angle, soon after starting over with something simpler.
Steven also called a halt to the alien development, which was originally being handled by physical effects maestro, Rick Baker!
Recently, Baker did release some images of just what the Night Skies alien development was, before Spielberg decided to look elsewhere. As one can see in the image below, the creatures were definitely going in a different direction.
Though in going over the information, it almost feels like that “terrorized family” aspect that had originally intrigued Spielberg, ended up going into another 1982 release that he produced (and wrote), called Poltergeist.
Opening up with E.T’s Screenwriter
One of the often unsung heroes of E.T., is screenwriter Melissa Mathison.
One film that Spielberg had loved was The Black Stallion, which Mathison had also written. Once he had the framework for his ‘boy and his alien’ story, he asked her to work on fleshing out the rest of it.
In the early 1980’s, Mathison was married to Harrison Ford, and she claims she drew some inspiration from Ford’s son and his friends, for the Dungeons and Dragons game scenes in the film.
She also revealed something startling in part of her interview. When researching how to form E.T. as a character, she would poll random children for ideas, and found something consistent with a few of them:
“I was struck by the fact that several of them mentioned, that they would like, if this magical creature came into their life, they would like him to be able to ‘heal.’ And I thought it was such an incredibly poignant idea to come from a child. And they weren’t talking about ‘save someone’s life’ by healing, they were talking about, ‘take the owies away.'”
It definitely is something unconventional when it comes to aliens. One would most likely expect lasers or cool spaceships, but a healing factor was not something I don’t think an average adult would ever consider.
Unlike Sayles’ Night Skies first draft, Mathison’s first draft for E.T. so impressed Steven, that he claimed that he could have started shooting it the next day. Over the years, he would often claim it to be the best first draft he ever read.
Mathison also worked with Spielberg again in the last few years, when she was involved with the screenplay for Spielberg’s upcoming adaptation, of Roald Dahl’s book, The Big Friendly Giant.
Sadly, she passed away last year at the age of 65, but one has to wonder what her final screenplay with Spielberg will bring, when his latest film is released.
Chatting with the Cast
The documentary also gets the chance to talk with the main human cast of the film. They include Henry Thomas (Elliot) Drew Barrymore (Gertie), Robert MacNaughton (Michael), Dee Wallace Stone (Mary, the kids’ mother), and Peter Coyote (known only as “Keys” in the film, because of the ring of them on his belt loop).
There are some fun background facts about some of the actors. Peter Coyote tells of his embarrassing audition for Indiana Jones (he was auditioning for the lead), in which he tripped over his feet and knocked over a lamp. He lost the role, but his clumsiness stuck with Steven, who called on Peter for the role of Keys.
Of those that are speaking, it is Thomas and Barrymore who get the most time.
Thomas shares quite a few insights into production, including his audition, in which he ad-libbed trying to keep a government agent from taking away his alien friend. The whole clip is included on the documentary, including Spielberg’s words off-camera a few seconds after the conversation ends, going: “Ok kid, you got the part!”
Drew also mentions how she originally auditioned for the Carol Anne role in Poltergeist, but Spielberg claimed she wasn’t right for it. Instead, her ability to spin all sorts of crazy stories (she told him she was going to tour with a punk-rock band), led him to cast her for the role of Gertie.
Unlike most films, E.T. was shot in the order of the shots as we see on film, which allowed the kids to find E.T. and grow to understand him, in the same vein as what we see on-screen. This meant that by the time they got to the big scene where E.T. is sick and dying, the emotions were genuine (and, to which Spielberg mentions, many of those shots were got on the first take).
Being Candid with Steven Spielberg
I don’t know what it is about Laurent Bouzereau, but he seems to have a way of just putting Spielberg into such a relaxed state of talking, that Steven just opens up in some of the most surprising ways.
There are a few times where Steven gets so excited thinking of something, that he almost works himself into a frenzy.
Notable is one scene in which E.T. is eating some watermelon, and his left hand (performed by an off-camera mime named Caprice Rothe), reaches for a seed that has stuck to his face, and casually plucks it off. The discussion then lead into this:
“I mean, who would have thought of that, except someone who is really in touch with human behavior? And she really had a great understanding of the way the human body moves and what we do with our hands and our bodies. It’s just a tiny moment people don’t ever recognize in the movie, but I’m really proud of what she brought to that scene, just by taking a little piece of food off the lip-brought E.T. to life, like that! He was alive in that moment, completely alive! Nobody was running him. There were no wires, there were no servo motors going, that was really someone from somewhere else.”
Steven also reveals how he would often voice E.T. off -camera, and we see him in one behind-the-scenes clip, hunched off-camera doing a high-pitched voice, feeding Henry Thomas E.T.’s lines.
Supposedly, Thomas got so used to hearing Steven saying the lines, that after seeing the film at its premiere, he could still hear Steven’s voice in his head!
The bit where Spielberg discusses this is also memorable, because he even starts trying to mimic E.T.’s voice to Laurent (off-camera) during the interview.
Of Missing Scenes, and Sequels
What is most thrilling about the making-of special, is that there are actual clips from scenes that we’ve seen still pictures of, or may have been referenced in some of the film’s storybooks, but never seen in motion.
One of the most famously talked of, is when Elliot is taken to the Principal’s office after freeing the frogs in his science class. The unseen Principal, is actually Harrison Ford (and in one interview, Thomas tells how amazed he was to be in the presence of Han Solo).
There was even an alternate ending to the film, than what we know now.
The alternate ending, shows Elliot playing Dungeons and Dragons with Michael and his friends. However, unlike the earlier scene where Elliot is shunned, he is the Dungeon Master of the game, and as we pan up from the group of boys playing, we see on the roof of the house, the communications device E.T. used, possibly foreshadowing that the two may meet again.
Word was that after seeing the film cut with the goodbye scene in the woods, it was felt that that scene said all that needed to be said about the parting of the two friends.
There was even some discussion about a sequel for a bit, but eventually, it was decided to drop any thoughts of one. Kathleen Kennedy tells how the feeling was that it would “cheapen the film and its experience” for the audience.
As Spielberg states:
“I never made a sequel to E.T., because I can’t ever make an E.T. movie as good as what I did. I would only shame the memory. I would only show people ‘the flaws.’ E.T. isn’t a ‘mechanical cottage industry,’ that invites further adventures of E.T. and other kids on the planet Earth. It is a one-time event, and to do two or three or four movies based on that one character, is creating a franchise, that I didn’t frankly think was the honest and right thing to do.”
Probably the closest we ever got to an E.T. sequel, was the Spieberg-endorsed The E.T. Adventure, which was a fixture in all of the Universal Studios theme parks for awhile.
In the ride, guests would ride bicycles to help E.T. get home, where his healing touch would help save his dying homeworld.
The ride was very much in the same vein as the Peter Pan’s Flight attraction at Disneyland, with the ride vehicles suspended on an overhead track, giving the illusion that you are soon flying over a cityscape, and onto E.T.’s homeplanet.
Even though the film was touted for its effects work, it feels that much like Back to the Future and The Goonies, it is the characters and the story that take more precedence.
The documentary also gives plenty of shout-outs to the crew who built E.T., as well as the various little persons and others who helped bring him to life.
There is talk about the attempts to make E.T. seem believable, but also having to deal with the limitations of the animatronic technology of the time.
Also of note, is a small interview with Ralph McQuarrie, who was a major design influence on Star Wars.
McQuarrie was commissioned to design E.T.’s spaceship, whose design was a Jules Verne-inspired ship, with squat little landing legs coming out from its ‘body,’ almost making it resemble E.T. in a way.
A Word of Warning
When the film was done, word was that Spielberg later regretted scenes at the end, in which as the government agents attempt to stop Elliot and the other boys from escaping, they do so while brandishing firearms.
On-camera, Spielberg mentions how if the film is ever re-released, he intends to use computer technology to “fix” those scenes.
6 years later, he was true to his word when a Special Edition of E.T. was released, with the guns being replaced by walkie-talkies.
The Special Edition of the film received the same amount of flack that was directed at George Lucas for his Star Wars Special Editions. Though unlike those films, when E.T. came to DVD in the fall of 2002, it also contained a disc with the original cut. 10 years later for the film’s 30th anniversary (feeling old yet?), the Special Edition cut was nowhere to be found.
I originally saw the documentary in 10 parts on Youtube, before copyright claims ended up making the person take them down. It has recently resurfaced cut into two pieces, though with some missing pieces here-and-there, making some of the conversations severely disjointed in places.
Unlike the full 2-hour Making of Jaws piece that was included on that film’s recent Blu-Ray release, The Making of E.T. has never been re-released since its 1996 premiere on the E.T. laserdisc release.
Several snippets of commentary were included in a small book included in the 2002 DVD’s special edition boxset release, but it just doesn’t feel the same as Laurent’s documentary.
He has a way of painting his making-of pieces with the kind of informative format that just keeps me coming back to watch them over-and-over again. Then again, I have been one of the weirder persons who craved stuff like this (I’m also the guy who hopes for audio commentaries on Blu-Ray releases these days, even though that practice is pretty much dead).
If you’d like to know more about Laurent Bouzereau, and the other works he’s done, you can find out more at his website, Nedlandmedia.com