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While on location in Tunisia filming Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark outside Well of the Souls more than 40 years ago, Steven Spielberg found time to pitch a script.
“I pretty much had worked out most of the story and I needed a writer to write with me or, hopefully, write it based on the story,” recalled Spielberg. He didn’t have to search far or wide as his star, Harrison Ford, arrived to set with girlfriend Melissa Mathison, a screenwriter responsible for The Black Stallion, a film Spielberg adored. On a break from filming, Spielberg floated the idea by Mathison only to strike out.
“She said, ‘Well, I’m retired from writing. I don’t write anymore. I’m not interested in writing anymore, it’s too hard,” he explained. “I went to Harrison and said, ‘Your girlfriend turned me down. She doesn’t want to write my next movie.’ He said, ‘Well, let me talk to her.’ He talked to her and she came to me the next day and said, ‘OK you got Harrison so excited about this. What is it that I missed?’ I think I hadn’t told her the story very well because I told her the story again and she got really emotional and she committed right there in the Tunisian desert.”
Their collaboration produced E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which became a box office phenomenon and beloved classic upon its release in 1982. To commemorate the film’s 40th anniversary, TCM Classic Film Festival rolled out the red carpet outside Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre on Thursday night, bringing a restored Imax version to the big screen to kick off the 2022 edition.
But before that happened, Spielberg joined TCM host Ben Mankiewicz for a nearly 30-minute discussion, a conversation that covered the early days of his illustrious career, from the first SAG actor he directed (Joan Crawford) to how filming E.T. ultimately influenced his decision to start a family. Going back even further, Mankiewicz and Spielberg discussed another classic film that left a big impression.
“I was living in New Jersey, in Haddonfield, when The Searchers opened [March 13, 1956]. A couple of my friends had seen The Searchers. I was 10 years old and they were saying it was great, and my parents said, ‘No, we heard about it and you’re too young to see it,'” Spielberg recalled of how his protective parents forbid him from watching the John Ford Western starring John Wayne. “I remember going to the cookie jar and getting 50 cents out of the cookie jar, in dimes, and walking a mile and a half to the theater. I got my ticket and I saw The Searchers. I never told my parents I had done that.”
A few years later, Spielberg’s parents split and their divorce has had a ripple effect on his work. “When you go through something like that, when any child goes through an episode where your parents, who you trust and love unconditionally, both come to you to say, ‘We are separating and we’re going to not only be living in two different houses but in two different states,’ the world collapses and the sky falls on your head,” explained the 75-year-old. “It’s something that never goes away and it comes out in the wash. Certainly, it’s come out in a lot of my movies, both indirectly, subconsciously, and in the latest film that I just made, it comes out very directly.”
He was speaking about The Fabelmans, the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama about his childhood that he co-wrote with his West Side Story partner Tony Kushner. It stars Seth Rogen, Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, Julia Butters and Gabriel LaBelle, among others, and is due for release Nov. 23 from Universal Pictures.
Spielberg told Mankiewicz that he started working on a script focused specifically on his parents’ split in 1976, around the time he was filming another alien-themed project, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “We were shooting the scene in Mobile, Alabama, where the extraterrestrial comes down from the ship and does the hand signs with Francois Truffaut,” he detailed. “I suddenly thought, wait a second, what if that little creature never went back to the ship?”
The idea took some years to develop, eventually leading him to Mathison. Spielberg recalled that the pair worked on the script while he was editing Raiders of the Lost Ark in Marina del Rey with editor Michael Kahn. “We would spend two hours a day for five days and she would go off and write pages and come back,” Spielberg continued of their process, crediting the late scribe with coming up with memorable moments, like E.T.’s telekinesis. “There were so many details for character that Melissa brought into my world from her world.” (Ford wound up filming a cameo for E.T. that did not make the final cut.)
When she turned in the first draft, Spielberg said he was floored and immediately delivered it to a young Kathleen Kennedy. “I went over to her and said, ‘I think I just read the greatest first draft of my life — you have to read this.’ And she read it overnight and called me the next day and said, ‘I haven’t read a lot of scripts but this is the best script I’ve ever read,'” he recalled of his conversation with Kennedy, who would go on to become a lifelong collaborator and one of Hollywood’s most successful producers.
They would soon be casting the picture, and Spielberg detailed the process of meeting with Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas, both of whom were scheduled to be in attendance Thursday though they backed out for undisclosed reasons. Those who did turn up included E.T. star Dee Wallace, J.J. Abrams, Topher Grace, Pam Grier, Mario Cantone, Jane Seymour, Kate Flannery, TCM general manager Pola Chagnon and TCM Fest chief Genevieve McGillicuddy, among others. Many of Spielberg’s E.T. collaborators were also in attendance and got a special shout-out from the podium.
“When Drew came into my office, she took over the meeting by storm. She stormed the citadel of my office at MGM, she really did,” he said to rousing laughter. “I said, ‘Do you like acting?’ And she said, ‘I’m not an actor. I have a punk rock band.’ She started telling me about this punk rock band that she had already formed and she was going to play concerts. I believed her. She had such an inner life. I realized after a while that she didn’t really have a punk rock band but if she could believe she did, then she could believe that this little mechanic creature was a real extraterrestrial. And she was in my movie that day.”
During the conversation, Spielberg also shared some details about what it was like to work with another famous actress. Asked by Mankiewicz to name the first SAG actor he ever directed, Spielberg named legendary Joan Crawford, whom he worked with when he was 22 years old on an NBC pilot titled Night Gallery written by Rod Serling.
“She was not Mommie Dearest, let’s put it that way,” said Spielberg, countering claims of Crawford’s well-documented bad behavior. “That was not my experience. She was kind, she was understanding, and she forgave my acne and the Clearasil that attempted to cover it up. She was elegant and she was selling Pepsi-Cola left and right. She brought huge, huge ice chests with Mountain Dew and Pepsis and every single day, gave it the crew and she said if you don’t belch after drinking, it was an insult. She was having a good time.”
Another part of the chat focused on one of Spielberg’s earliest box office bombs, the 1979 war comedy titled 1941 starring John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Treat Williams. “That was the biggest detonation at that moment to my career,” said the filmmaker. “It was a flop for at least 20 years and then Universal said, ‘Well, we broke even in Japan.'”
He suffered from having too much cash and creative freedom, liberties that arrived thanks to earlier hits Jaws and Close Encounters. “Because of the two hits back-to-back, the studios just start writing checks, that’s what happens. They gave me an unlimited ceiling to make 1941 and it took me 178 days to shoot the picture because I directed all the miniature work. That was first unit not second unit photography, and that was a big mistake that I never should’ve made,” Spielberg admitted. That said, he revealed that he had a great time making the film until it came time for a showing at the Medallion Theater, a “good luck” venue, where he’d previously screened Jaws and Close Encounters to strong receptions.
“I took 1941 there and you could hear a pin drop for three-quarters of the movie. It was the first comedy ever made without laughs.”
There were a few “awws” to close the conversation as Mankiewicz ended the Q&A by asking Spielberg about how E.T. influenced his desire to start a family.
“I never thought about having kids because there was not any kind of equation that made sense to me because I was going from movie to movie to movie, from script to script to script. It never occurred to me until halfway through E.T.,” Spielberg said. Reason being that he felt like a parent to his young cast, particularly Barrymore who was only 6 at the time of filming. “It was the first time that it ever occurred to me that maybe I could be a dad. Maybe, in a way, a director is a dad or a mom? It started to really gnaw away at me. When I left those kids and we all went our separate way…I really felt that that would be my next big production.”
It was: “I have seven kids and six grandkids so E.T. worked for me very well.”
TCM Classic Film Festival continues through April 24. See the full conversation below.
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