E.T.: Creating Movie Magic That’s Out Of This World
E.T. Arose In Part From Spielberg's Experiences
After Steven Spielberg found success with Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), he wanted to create a more personal film. He proposed Growing Up, which was inspired by his experience after his parents divorced when he was 15 and featured the perspectives of three children. However, Columbia wanted a sequel to Close Encounters and although he didn’t want to work on the sequel, Spielberg contemplated the question of what would happen if an alien didn’t return to the mothership at the end of the film. Because he didn’t want Columbia to make the sequel without him, he commissioned John Sayles to create the script for Night Skies. In Night Skies, aliens terrorize a suburban family. He didn’t want to create a film as dark as this, so he had Columbia re-release Close Encounters with additional scenes. Spielberg then worked with screenwriter Melissa Mathison to combine the stories, which led to E.T. The terrorized family story eventually reemerged as Poltergeist.
Casting The Roles
Mathison and Spielberg collaborated on the script for eight weeks, and once she completed the first draft of the script, Spielberg used it without going through multiple revisions. As Spielberg said, it was “the best first draft I’ve ever read,” and Spielberg didn’t storyboard any of the shots for the film. Spielberg also wanted to ensure that he created a film that was as realistic as possible since they would be dealing with an animatronic puppet of an alien.
Spielberg had to find the right actors to play the parts of the siblings, and the first one he cast was Drew Barrymore. During her audition, she allegedly claimed that she was the drummer in a punk band called the Purple People Eaters. Her vivid imagination won her the part of Gertie. Henry Thomas had an unconventional audition as well. Spielberg directed him to improv a scene where an agent is trying to take his alien best friend. He started crying while begging the “agent” played by casting director Mike Fenton to not take his friend.
Creating The Titular Character
For the character of E.T. himself, Spielberg wanted an alien that audiences could sympathize with. E.T. evolved from a painting by Carlo Rambaldi of a character with stumpy legs, a long neck, an oblong head, and large eyes. Rambaldi also studied pictures of elderly people from the Great Depression, as well as photos of Einstein, Hemingway, and Carl Sandburg to design the facial features. To create E.T.’s eyes so that they would engage the audience, producer Kathleen Kennedy studied real and glass eyes at the Jules Stein Eye Institute and hired staff there to create the eyes. Once the design was complete, they had to bring the animatronic puppet to life. Part of this required building some sets on stilts, with the puppet bolted down and the puppeteers managing its movements in another room to help maintain the illusion. To make E.T.’s hand movements, they hired a mime who wore sleeve-length gloves which looked like E.T.’s skin. Three additional actors were hired to perform scenes where E.T. walked around. They were dressed in special E.T. suits. E.T.’s voice was created by the combination of 18 different contributors. The sound designer, Ben Burtt, hired Pat Welsh and mixed her raspy voice with the sounds of various animals breathing. The sound of the burp was provided by a USC professor.
More Techniques To Make The Film Realistic
One of the iconic shots from the film, of the boy and alien flying across the full moon, was actually mostly real. They found the place to film the low moon, so the scene itself was real, but Elliott and E.T. were added using special effects later. He also cast doctors from the USC Medical Center as the ones trying to save E.T. because he wanted them to seem natural as they were reading lines of technical medical dialogue.
Spielberg wanted the young actors to create convincing emotional performances, so he shot the film in rough chronological order. He also asked the special effects designers to test E.T.’s movements prior to production so that they could ensure the illusion of E.T. as a living alien was not broken. It worked well, as Barrymore’s sobs when E.T. dies were real; she believed that he had died.
Audiences Fell In Love With The Extraterrestrial
Spielberg’s film was an overwhelming success, with audiences who were polled that weekend giving the film an A+ grade as reported by CinemaScore and Empire magazine calling Elliott and E.T.’s flight “the most magical moment in cinema history,” As Roger Ebert wrote, “This is not simply a good movie. It is one of those movies that brush away our cautions and win our hearts.”