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Loving the alien: 30 things you always wanted to know about E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, but were afraid to ask…

June 26, 2012

You saw the whole of the moon: alien savant E.T. gives human buddy Elliott’s late-night bike ride lift-off and sets up one of the all-time most iconic images of cinema and popular culture

My dad once remarked that the Christmas after E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) was released, he saw a little figurine of E.T. himself in a nativity scene. Whether or not the bug-eyed, long-necked, goofy yet loveable alien’s presence in this religious reproduction was a knowing reference to the notion doing the rounds back then that the film was a Christian parable (see below), God – maybe literally – only knows, but unquestionably for my dad this was proof of just how great a phenomenon Steven Spielberg’s movie had oh-so quickly become.

Given E.T.‘s now such an established part of the modern zeitgeist and has been for some time, it’s rather easy to forget just how big  it once was. Forget Area 51, in the early ’80s, E.T. was the Studio 54 of box-office excess. Yes, this simple family tale set in small-town American surburbia absolutely conquered the world to become the biggest movie ever made – a sweet little irony that this great fan of the flick has always enjoyed. And earlier this month, the small (and huge), but perfectly formed E.T. celebrated it’s 30th anniversary – yes, believe it or not, it was 30 years ago that E.T. and Gertie screamed at each other; that that pot plant came back to life; that Michael’s friend coined the classic ‘ur-anus’ joke (the old ones are still the best) and, of course, that Elliott and his alien buddy crossed the moon. And in marking the 30th anniversary of the ultimate higher-intelligence-makes-Earth-visit, here’s this blog’s 30 point-by-point celebration. E.T. phones home? Nopes, E.T. comes home, folks…

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1. Many feel the origins of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, with at its heart the tale of a lonely boy living with his brother, sister and single mother, can be traced right back to 1960 when director Steven Spielberg’s own parents divorced. A 1997 biography quotes him as saying that E.T. could easily have been “a friend who could be the brother I never had and a father that I didn’t feel I had anymore”.

2. After directing friendly-aliens-connect-with-humans hit Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977), Spielberg considered for his next project a semi-autographical film he’d shoot in just 28 days entitled Growing Pains, a Close Encounters sequel or a darker sci-fi project with art-house director John Sayles called Night Skies in which aliens would terrorise a family on Earth.

3. He actually next filmed the ill-conceived WWII spoof 1941 (1979) and then the George Lucas-conceived Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981). It was while working on the latter in Tunisia that he got talking with Melissa Mathison, future wife of Indiana Jones himself Harrison Ford, about the now fallen-through Night Skies project and that would-be film’s sub-plot about a non-malevolent, abandoned alien befriending an autistic boy inspired Mathison so much she wrote a screenplay draft in eight weeks. She called it E.T. And Me.

4. Spielberg loved the screenplay and, following two more drafts, a human sidekick for Elliot was removed, while a bike chase sequence and the E.T. character getting drunk were added.

5. The director approached Columbia Pictures (who had been involved with Night Skies before it fell through) to produce the new film, but the studio dismissed it as ‘a wimpy Walt Disney movie’ – big mistake! Spielberg moved on to Universal (then MCA) instead.

6. Night Skies did make it to the screen in the end, however; albeit in a changed form – much material from it inspired Poltergeist (1982), in which, of course, a ghost terrorises a human family. The movie was officially directed by helmer of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Tobe Hooper, but Hollywood legend has it that ironically co-writer and producer Spielberg directed significant portions of the flick.

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7. With studio backing in place, Spielberg set out on the unenviable task of casting the film’s major character… E.T. himself. Raiders art department alumnus Ed Verreaux was paid $700,000 to build a prototype, but Spielberg rejected it and instead turned to the man who had created Close Encounters‘ aliens, Carlo Rambaldi.

8. Rambaldi created three creatures at a cost of $1.5million. This included four animatronic heads and costumes worn by dwarf performers Tamara De Treaux and Pat Bilon and 12-year-old Matthew De Meritt, who was born without legs, while mime artist Caprice Roth wore prosthetics to perform the character’s hands.

9. The look of E.T.’s face was inspired by those of legendary authors Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sandberg and (like that of fellow early ’80s loveable alien pop culture phenomenon Yoda) Albert Einstein. Because she felt they’d be so important in engaging the audience, the movie’s producer Kathleen Kennedy hired staff from UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute to make E.T.’s eyes.

10. Sound effects supremo Ben Burrtt, a master technician on every Star Wars movie and later the voice of the title character in WALL-E (2008), sought out elderly actress Pat Welsh for E.T.’s voice. As she smoked two packets of cigarettes a day, her voice had a unique quality. Burtt also mixed in the voices of Spielberg and actress Debra Winger; the sound of his own wife sleeping, who at the time had a cold; a burp from his old college film professor;  as well as sounds made by raccoons, sea otters and horses.

11. In spite of the fact E.T. would become a huge success and an undeniable icon, Spielberg described him at the time as “something only a mother could love”.

12. Yoda and E.T., in fact, actually meet in the film – well, nearly – when supposedly accompanying Elliott and his brother Michael as they go trick-or-treating and hidden under a white sheet (as he pretends to be Elliot’s sister Gertie posing as a ghost), E.T. sees a child dressed in a full Yoda costume walk past him and, appearing to believe this may be an alien of his own race, turns to follow him down the road.

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Then and now: Spielberg directing Henry Thomas (left) and Drew Barrymore (right) and, altogether again, E.T.’s human leads Robert McNaughton, Thomas, Dee Wallace-Stone, Barrymore and Peter Coyote reunite with Spielberg and Kennedy for 2002′s 20th anniversary 

13. After failing to impress in a formal audition (in which he performed in an Indiana Jones costume), nine- going on 10-year-old Henry Thomas was cast as central character – if not protagonist – Elliott following a more successful improvised scene. Robert MacNaughton, who was 14, won the role of Elliott’s older brother Michael, but would eventually give up acting and is now a mail handler living in New Jersey.

14. Six-year-old Drew Barrymore (a member of the Barrymore acting dynasty) won the role of Elliott’s sister Gertie after impressing with a story of how she performed with a punk band – she would go on to endure a classic child-star spiral that saw he enter rehab aged 13. She’s now, however, one of Hollywood’s most successful actresses and the god-daughter of both Spielberg and Sophia Loren.

15. Supporting players included C Thomas Howell, who played one of Michael’s friends involved in the film’s bike-chase climax, and would go on to become a member of the ’80s ‘Brat Pack’, as well as Erika Eleniak as the girl Elliott kisses in biology class, who as an adult would achieve fame in Baywatch (1989-99). Harrison Ford also appeared in a scene as the principal at Elliott’s school in which the latter is brought before him for destroying the biology class. The scene, however, was cut from the finished film.

16. Roughly speaking, the movie was shot in chronological order to emit realistic performances from the young players – this helped them ‘bond’ with E.T., which ensured the hospital-in-the-home sequence, in particular, achieved the emotional punch it does. Filming began in September 1981 and lasted 61 days, taking in locations in California: the towns Northridge and Tujunga, a redwood forest near Crescent City, a school in Culver City and Laird International Studios, Culver City (the interiors of Elliott’s home).

17. Although far from autobiographical, E.T. still took much inspiration from Spielberg’s childhood – one example is Elliott’s trick of heating up his thermometer by holding it under a light-bulb, something Spielberg did as a boy in feigning illness. The shot of E.T. hiding in a cupboard among the children’s soft toys was suggested by Robert Zemeckis, who would go on to make Back To The Future (1985) and its sequels.

18. As he had been for Jaws (1975), Close Encounters and Raiders, John Williams was chosen as composer for E.T., the score he came up strongly featured piano, harp, celesta and keyboards (unlike in his previously heavy orchestral scores) to complement the film’s youthful and childlike focus, as well as the use of polytonality (two different keys played simultaneously). Yet, at times, the score also makes great use of orchestra and especially strings, such as in the goose-pimple inducing signature theme Flying (see bottom video clip).

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19. E.T. premiered at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival closing gala and opened in America on June 11. A week later it topped the US box-office with $11 million, where it stayed for five further weeks and fluctuated between #1 and #2 until October, hitting top spot for the last time in December. By the end of its original run, it had taken $359 million domestically and $619 million worldwide, knocking Star Wars off its perch as the highest grossing film of all-time – a title it held for 11 years until another Spielberg effort Jurassic Park took the mantle. It made $75 million in VHS sales and, thanks to his share deal from the profits, Spielberg made $500,000 a day from its box-office haul.

20. When approached, Mars, Incorporated wouldn’t allow M&M’s to feature in the movie, but Hershey’s saw it as a great opportunity to publicise their new line Reese’s Pieces. It was a smart move – thanks to Reese’s Pieces appearing in the film, Hershey’s saw their profits rise by 65 percent.

21. The movie achieved huge praise from film critics. Roger Ebert said it was “not simply a good movie. It is one of those movies that brush away our cautions and win our hearts”, while Rolling Stone‘s Michael Sragow claimed that  “for the first time, Spielberg has put his breathtaking technical skills at the service of his deepest feelings”. Over the years, Spielberg – and, by extension, E.T. – has received criticism for sentimentality, but others have suggested the film portrays American surburbia as dark and even bleak; The New York Times‘ A O Scott wrote in 2008 that E.T.‘s “suburban milieu, with its unsupervised children and unhappy parents, its broken toys and brand-name junk food, could have come out of a Raymond Carver story”.

22. Other critics have tried to draw parallels between the character of E.T. and Jesus Christ. Perhaps savvy of how the film’s content could be interpreted by some, Universal Pictures may have deliberately appealed to the Christian market by coming up with a poster for the flick that strongly echoed Michelangelo’s Creation Of Adam. Spielberg answered such claims in 1984 by saying: “if I ever went to my mother and said, ‘Mom, I’ve made this movie that’s a Christian parable,’ what do you think she’d say? She has a kosher restaurant on Pico and Doheny in Los Angeles”.

23. E.T. had mixed success during the ‘awards season’. While it was named Best Film (Drama)  at the Golden Globes, John Williams’ score also won a Golden Globe, a BAFTA award and a Grammy and the movie won Best Foreign Language Film at France’s César Awards, Italy’s David di Donatello awards, Spain’s Cinema Writers Circle Awards and Japan’s Blue Ribbon, it only won for Score, Sound, Sound Effects Editing and Visual Effects out of the nine Oscars it was nominated for. Most notably (and in a surprise) it and Spielberg lost out on the Best Picture and Director Oscars to Ghandi and its helmer Richard Attenborough, who in 1993 admitted “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”.

24. Spielberg considered making a sequel. E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears would have featured Elliott and others kidnapped by evil aliens and appealing to E.T. for help. The project got as far as Speilberg and Mathison working up a screen treatment in July 1982 before the former (surely rightly) knocked the idea on the head.

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Publicity push: an E.T.-branded thermos flask and lunch box (left), the notorious official Atari 2600 video game (middle) and the Michael Jackson narrated audiobook album (right)

25. Aside from the inevitable multiple soft toys and action figures, cereal packet giveaways and lunchboxes and thermos flasks (see above), a unique and high-profile manner in which E.T. was publicised was an audiobook of the film’s story narrated by Michael Jackson (see top video clip). Back when Jackson was considered a firmly family-friendly figure as well as the biggest recording artist in the world, the album should have proved a huge success, however it was pulled very soon after release owing to contractual issues with Jackson’s regular recording company. It was recorded alongside his enormously successful Thriller album (1983) and won a Grammy in 1984.

26. Another infamous publicity tie-in was the official Arari 2600 video game. Unfortunately, this pretty much proved an unmitigated disaster owing to the fact the game had only a five-week development window by the time Atari secured the rights and before it had to be ready to hit the shelves for Christmas 1982. Millions were sold, but  many were returned and many more unsold due to terrible word-of-mouth and reviews. Word has it huge numbers ended up crushed and buried under a landfill in New Mexico.

27. Unofficial, nay illegal, music tie-ins suddenly appeared too, cashing in on the movie’s phenomenal success, namely Extra T’s E.T. Boogie, which became something of a club classic and part of which was later sampled on a Busta Rhymes track, and the actually arguably rather listenable-to Jupiter 8′s E.T. Phones Home (featuring Kitty Woodson on lyrics) – see video clip above.

28. Obviously over the years E.T. has become regarded as an all-time cinema classic. It had widespread re-releases in 1985 and, to mark its 20th anniversary, in 2002 when Spielberg, Kennedy and the cast met up to publicise the event (see image above). When re-released this time, though, the film ‘enjoyed’ controversial updates including replacing the guns of federal agents featured in the bike chase with walkie-talkies, CGI-enhancing E.T. in several scenes and adding in a couple of short scenes cut from the original release. This was the prinicpal version used when the film was made available on DVD.

29. To mark the film’s 30th anniversary this year, it will be released in November for the first time on Blu-Ray and to publicise this an outdoor screening of the movie was shown by the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 15, some of the attendees of which recreated the bike chase sequence by riding to the screening on BMXs wearing red hoodies (similar to the one worn by Elliott in the scene), the leader of which had a plush E.T. seated in the basket on the front of his bike.

And finally:

30. Surely the most memorable few seconds from the entire movie, the moment when E.T. allows he and the bike-bound Elliott to cross the valley by making them fly and pass the moon was immortalised as the logo of Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg’s film and television company, and in 2004 topped a poll held by film magazine Empire of the 50 most magical moments in cinema history. Relive that very magic by viewing the moment in the video clip below – go on, you know you want to…

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