E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: Alien pal!



‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’, an iconic movie directed by Steven Spielberg had its concept based on an imaginary friend Spielberg created after his parents’ divorce in 1960. In 1980, Spielberg met Melissa Mathison and developed a new story from the stalled sci-fi horror film project, ‘Night Skies’, adapting it as ‘E.T…’.

Having worked with the child actor, Cary Guffey, in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977), Spielberg felt confident in working with a cast composed mostly of child actors for ‘E.T…’. For the role of Elliott, he auditioned hundreds of boys, and finally settled for Henry Thomas, who actually failed in the formal audition but excelled in improvised scene. Robert MacNaughton auditioned eight times to play Michael. Spielberg felt Drew Barrymore had the right imagination for mischievous Gertie after she impressed him with a story that she led a punk rock band. Actor, Harrison Ford was initially intended to have a cameo role in the film as Elliot’s principal, but the scene was cut. Spielberg felt that the well-known actor would distract the audiences.

Italian special effects artist, Carlo Rambaldi, who designed the aliens for ‘Close Encounters …’ was hired to design the animatronics of E.T. He modelled E.T.’s face after the poet Carl Sandburg, a pug, and Albert Einstein. Rambaldi’s own painting ‘Women of Delta’ led him to give the creature a unique, extendable neck. Spielberg stated that E.T. is neither male nor female.

‘E.T…’ began shooting in September 1981, with the project filmed under the cover name ‘A Boy’s Life’, as Spielberg did not want anyone to discover and plagiarise the plot. The actors had to read the script behind closed doors, and everyone on set had to wear an ID card. To ensure realistic responses from the actors, especially children, Spielberg shot the film in roughly chronological order, something that is rarely done. The decision did get the desired results as all the emotional responses from the actors in the final scene are genuine. All the puppetry related to E.T. was performed by a 2’10” stuntman, except for the scenes in the kitchen, which were done by a 10-year-old boy, who was born without legs but had expertise in walking on his hands. However, Spielberg ensured that the puppeteers were kept away from the set to maintain the illusion of a real alien. Finally, for the first time in his career, he did not storyboard most of the film, in order to facilitate spontaneity in the performances. The shooting was completed in 61 days, four days ahead of schedule. The memorable scene where E.T. disguises himself as a stuffed toy in Elliott’s closet was suggested by Spielberg’s colleague, Robert Zemeckis.

Long-time Spielberg collaborator, John Williams, who composed the film’s musical score, described the challenge of creating one that would generate sympathy for such an odd-looking creature. Williams took a modernist approach, especially with his use of polytonality, which refers to the sound of two different keys played simultaneously. His theme, emphasising instruments such as harp, piano, celesta, and other keyboards, as well as percussion, suggests E.T.’s childlike nature.

The film was previewed in Houston, Texas, where it received high marks from viewers. It premiered at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival’s closing gala. Released on June 11, 1982, ‘E.T…’ was an immediate blockbuster, surpassing ‘Star Wars’ (1977) to become the highest-grossing film of all time, a record it held for eleven years until ‘Jurassic Park’, another Spielberg-directed film surpassed it in 1993. Finally, produced at a budget of $10.5 million, ‘E.T…’ earned a total of $792.9 million and became the highest-grossing film of the 1980s. The universal acclaim received by the film from critics as well as audiences reflects in its enormous business.

The film was nominated for nine Oscars at the 55th Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, but it lost both to ‘Gandhi’ (1982). The director of ‘Gandhi’, Richard Attenborough, felt ‘E.T…’ should have won the Oscar, saying, “I was certain that not only would ‘E.T…’ win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, (and) wonderful. I make more mundane movies.” ‘E.T…’ nevertheless won four Academy Awards.

In July 1982, during the film’s first theatrical run, Spielberg and Mathison wrote a treatment for a sequel to be titled, ‘E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears’. It would have shown Elliott and his friends getting kidnapped by evil aliens and follow their attempts to contact E.T. for help. Spielberg decided against pursuing it, feeling it “would do nothing but rob the original of its virginity”.

An extended version of the film, including altered special effects, was released on March 22, 2002. Certain shots of ‘E.T…’ had bothered Spielberg since 1982, as he did not have enough time to perfect the animatronics. Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI), provided by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), was used to modify several shots, including ones of E.T. running in the opening sequence and being spotted in the cornfield. The spaceship’s design was also altered to include more lights. Scenes shot for but not included in the original version were introduced. These included E.T. taking a bath and Gertie telling Mary that Elliott went to the forest on Halloween. Spielberg did not add the scene featuring Harrison Ford in the extended version also, feeling that it would reshape the film drastically. Further, he became more sensitive about the scene where gun-wielding federal agents confront Elliott and his escaping friends, and had their guns digitally replaced with walkie-talkies.