Just an except from the 1982 Rolling Stone interview, focusing only on the part about E.T.
Q: You’ve said that you have a way of letting “your intellect commandeer your instincts” when you enter a movie set. Did you feel more of a unity about what you were doing when you were making E.T.?
A: They say that when you feel you’re doing the right thing, everything almost magically falls into place; you wonder, why is the forest suddenly opening up – why is there a path that I never cleared, and who’s doing that for me? I just wasn’t ready to make E.T. five years ago (25 years ago, now) when I first wanted to make it. It wasn’t called E.T., and it wasn’t about an extra-terrestrial, but I wanted to do a movie about boyhood wonders even when I was making Jaws. It was as if I had an oil derrick built and I had the drill but I just didn’t know how to get it into the ground. It was very frustrating knowing what was there to be tapped but not knowing how to get to it.
Q: It’s fascinating that you say you’ve been “digging holes.” A lot of people would say you’ve been building monuments because your way of escape has been into extremely extroverted things.
A: It seemed to me that with the making of E.T., I wasn’t interested in showing off. I wasn’t interested in spinning out entertaining things you’ve never seen before, although that does happen in E.T. I was more interested in collecting myself through some of the feelings I had developed via Close Encounters and via my personal relationships and my family life, my social life, and me being a person who is looking for self-fulfillment – and not just fulfillment from Hollywood or New York but fulfillment for my own personal needs. When 1941 came along, there was no place to put all these feelings – there was not one character in the movies, not one situation, not one scene where I was able to give off what I had learned about feelings from Close Encounters.
So I thought, well, I’m going to make my little personal film with kids. And I began writing a little script and it eventually didn’t pan out and wasn’t produced. And then Raiders came along. And I was able to give a little more of myself to Raiders because there’s lots of humanity in Harrison Ford and there’s a lot of comedy with him throughout the movie, and that was partially my contribution. Yet I couldn’t give it wholesale because the genre and the tempo contradicted what I was feeling. So I was this kid with tears in my eyes, making this matinee adventure film.
Between shots on Raiders, I would hang out with Melissa Mathison [the co-screenwriter of The Black Stallion, she marred Harrison Ford in 1983, and separated from him in 2001]; we were turning over rocks, looking for scorpions. Every fifth rock a scorpion would charge and we would jump back and scream. It was terribly frightening. The darn thing’s tail would be in the air, he’d be brandishing his stinger and his claws like a little Maine lobster having at you. And I remember between thrills and screams and yelling through my bullhorn 100 yards away – you know, “Are we rigged for shooting?” and getting the bullhorn back, “10 more minutes,” which always means 20 – I had time to tell Melissa most of the story.
I had no title for it. I just said this is about a space creature who somehow is a botanist and he’s on an excursion on Earth in a redwood forest and he’s pruning bonsai trees, when something captures his attention and he wanders away curious from his coterie and he’s attracted by sparkling lights through the redwoods and he gets to a bluff and he sees a carpet of lights, which is a neighborhood, a suburban tract, a city, a town.
And all at once men, human men, come into the forest, men you don’t see, faces you never behold, but men who come into the forest and form a cordon between the little creature and his ship and his friends. And his friends are terrified, they scurry back aboard, and the ship takes off and E.T. is stranded on earth. He’s attracted by the warm lights of suburbia, he wanders into them and meets a young boy who’s about 10 or 11 years old and needs someone desperately.
And at the end of the story there was a tear in Melissa’s eye. It was hot, it was dusty, it was broad daylight. I was amazed that anyone could sweat in the dry heat, let alone produce one tear. I said something like, “Is something in your eye?” And she said, “That’s beautiful, that’s great.” And I said instantly – I’m very impulsive about these things – “Would you write it?” And she said, “No, no, no – I’ve retired. I’m writing something I’ve been working on for 8, 10 weeks. I’ve hit a wall and I can’t write anymore; I’ve got to get away from writing; I can’t write.” It took me a week to convince Melissa to do the movie. I even worked on Harrison.
Q: The view of life that comes out is not candy-striped in any way. In the movie, you do see suburbia as warm and inviting, yet the fact remains that if Elliott, the kid, with his parents’ separation and his brother getting uppity and his sister getting all the attention – if he hadn’t met E.T. he’d have been one lonely kid.
A: I wanted E.T. to be a movie about “up” tears and “up” loneliness, if there’s such a thing. I think there is. And above everything else, you know, hope. Because for me this movie, even more than Close Encounters, is a picture about hope.
Q: What is the hope in the movie as you see it?
A: The hope is that the character of Elliott and the creature are going to live much better lives for having had that experience and that essentially they’re always going to be together. They’re simpatico. You see that in the transference of feelings that takes place during the cross-cutting between E.T. on the loose in the home for the first time and Elliott letting the frogs loose in the classroom, which is kind of Mack Sennett. Home and the classroom are maybe three miles apart. But I don’t think feelings are limited by nautical miles. I think feelings are infinite. And I really truly believe it in my heart and if I ever make another E.T. I will prove that E.T. and Elliott are locked forever in a simpatico relationship.
Q; Visually you get across how flat and harsh the suburbs can look mid-day.
A: It’s easy to notice strangers in suburbia because everything is equal. And it’s very easy to notice a glitch. The smallest glitch is a spectacle, in that kind of a trapped situation.
Q: You seem to love the suburban ethos and at the same time know it’s something you’ve got to break from.
A: Uh-huh. I’ve broken from it. E.T. is my first break. Suburban American myth for me was only having to go to school when I felt like it – because I had a mother who didn’t like school either. And so I held the thermometer to the light bulb, put a heating pad to my face, so she’d walk into the bedroom and say, “Stay home today.” It was about 20 years later that she admitted to me she knew I was faking it all along.
But to turn on the television set, Sky King was your next-door neighbor, Fury was the horse you always wanted, Spin and Marty spent the summer in the best summer camp in the history of summer camps. At a very young age there was balance in comedy, through Andy’s Gang – you know, “Pluck your magic twanger, Froggy” – and all that jazz. I grew up with a TV set blasting at me, a radio coming from behind me, and a movie camera between everything.
Making E.T., I thought I didn’t need a time machine. I didn’t need trick optical effects to let your imagination wander into space. A 100-year-old creature 3 million light years from home living in a child’s closet with a bunch of stuffed toys – that’s what I wanted to do. That room, that closet between the louvered doors and Gertie’s room adjoining it – that became a universe all unto itself. The magic could happen right there among the trappings of youth – the things that keep us young, or the things our parents buy for us to convince us that we’re always their babies, that we’ll never grow old and we’ll never leave home.
E.T. is a film that I didn’t storyboard (except for some special-effects shots). It’s a movie that I made from how I felt from day to day. And I sat back from the experience cleansed and feeling the best that I’ve ever felt in my entire life, saying “God this is great, when can I do this again?” …. I found that with E.T., I had to slow the movie down. I’m basically very hyper. I’m very, very fast and that’s unique to me, I think. A lot of my friends who aren’t fast are still faster than kids are. I’m not talking about reaction time, I’m talking about attitude. I tried to get Henry Thomas (who plays Elliott) to show E.T. just two or three things on his table and then get on to the next thing. I said, “OK, look, what do you want to show?” Then I said, “OK, I’ll tell you what to show him. Show him the fishbowl and show him the candy and show him the car.” Only the car was in the script.
But Henry said, “Wait a second! I want to show him the PEZ, and I want to show him the Star Wars toys.” I kept saying, “Henry, well, there’s not that much film in the camera and this movie can’t go on too long, it has to be under two hours.” He said, “But there’s so much I want to show him in this room!” And I began to think that I’m the one who’s living life faster than I should be living it. And I said, “OK, I can always cut it out later ” – which I didn’t do. “Go ahead and show him whatever you want” – and in two takes he’d provided the scene, which is Henry talking to E.T. The whole thing with E.T. was to slow down and change gears and get back to slower living through feeling….
The reason I’m so proud of E.T. is that I was able to say I could do all that with fewer people and fewer dollars and yet not limit imagination, not limit size. I don’t think E.T. is a small picture at all. I said it was a small picture for a long time because I didn’t want a bunch of people hanging around my set with cameras out. But E.T. is, if I may say so, an emotional epic. That’s always how I’ve regarded E.T.
Q: And it has no stars – how do you feel about being the only real star associated with the movie?
A: E.T. will certainly eclipse me; I will be an extra in E.T.’s life very shortly.