Spielberg on Melissa Mathison: E.T.’s Glowing Heart Was Hers

2015
In a TIME Magazine article, Steven Spielberg talks about the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison and her contribution to his upcoming screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG (2016).

Spielberg compares it with his experience of working with her on the story for E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (1982) while shooting Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981):

“I found working with Melissa that those 30-plus years had evaporated—it was just like being back in the cutting room on Raiders sitting on the floor with a bunch of cards strewn about, trying to figure out that story.”

Mathison was on set of The BFG every day of shooting in summer 2015, so Spielberg calls her “more than just a writing partner—she was a real on-set partner.” He adds:

“It did not feel like an adult was writing words, but
that they were coming improvisationally from the mouths of young people.
That was her magic and that was her gift with E.T., and she’s done the same thing with BFG.”

“I think her legacy will be that she could only tell a story that began and ended from the heart. E.T.’s glowing heart was, in fact, Melissa’s.”

In the same article, Kathleen Kennedy reveals that it was Harrison Ford who talked Melissa Mathison into writing the script for Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (1982). Initially, she refused arguing she wasn’t the right writer for it, so Spielberg turned to Ford and asked him for help.

In an interview with EW, Steven Spielberg speaks about his first encounter with Mathison and what he remembers most about his friend and collaborator: Her ability to find wonder in unlikely places. 

“Like a mirage in Lawrence of Arabia…That’s what it was like the first time I set eyes on Melissa. We were shooting Raiders. It was in 1980, in the unbearable heat of Nafta in Tunisia, and amidst a couple of hundred Arab extras dressed in German uniforms, I saw what looked like an egret.This person was bent over, picking stuff up off the ground. I asked, ‘What are you doing?’ And she said, ‘You know, this used to be the ocean floor and look at all these fossils…’ She was right. Everywhere you looked on the ground there were fossils and seashells and all kinds of things in the sand.I said, ‘Who are you?’ And she simply said, ‘I’m Harrison’s friend.’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you do?’ She told me, ‘Currently, I’m a failed writer.’ I began to laugh and she began to laugh. Then I said, ‘What have you failed at?’ She said she had written a number of scripts that she wasn’t really happy with, and only one got made. When I realized she had written The Black Stallion, it stopped me in my tracks because it’s one of my favorite movies. Then I started asking her a lot of questions about The Black Stallion. Before she was even finished answering them, I said, ‘I have a story about this alien that gets stuck on Earth with a family of divorce, and … would you be interested in writing this with me?’  She said ‘No, no, no. I’m retired from writing now. I need to find another way to live my life.’ I started telling her the story of E.T. that I had thus far, not down on paper, but in my head. She heard it and said, ‘That’s really sweet and interesting, but I’ve retired.’

I went back to the set and shot a couple scenes with Harrison and told him this curious story of bumping into Melissa while she was picking up seashells in the middle of the Tunisian desert. I told him I had offered her a chance to write a movie with me and she turned it down. Harrison said, ‘Sounds like Melissa…’ I asked, ‘Can you help me?’ He said, ‘Let me talk to her tonight.’ And so the next day Harrison came into work, and the first thing he said was, ‘I think she’s had a change of heart.’

When I sat down to talk to her about the script again a few days later, she said, ‘I wasn’t really listening to anything you were saying to me before, so why don’t you start over again?’ [Laughs.] She started to brainstorm with me and added all kinds of new ideas to the mix. And that’s when I knew that I had a partner. Melissa was back in the writing game.While I was in the editing room cutting Raiders, Melissa would come in two to three days a week, and we would just sit and develop the story. She would put everything on cards. Those cards became a kind of talisman, and defined the way I thought about Melissa’s creative partnership with me. All these little cards, where she wrote down either my ideas or her own, eventually became the first draft. She went away for six weeks and wrote the script.“When I finally read the script, I pretty much said, ‘I could shoot this movie tomorrow.’ We tweaked it and we changed just a little bit of the third act. At one point, E.T. got sick and was taken to a hospital, and the entire venue of the film shifted to a medical center. On second thought, it just seemed like a better idea to keep it at home and turn the house into a hospital, so that became the triage of trying to save E.T. and Elliott’s lives. Those were some of the very few changes. Of all the movies I’ve ever made, E.T. went through the least amount of revision. Melissa’s heart was just glowing over that movie. 

And the same darn thing happened 30 years later when we started our second collaboration on The BFG by Roald Dahl.The main difference was I didn’t have to talk her into writing this one. She had started writing it even before I came on board and had done three drafts before I started.It was the same energy and ease of conversation that happened all over again. I felt like I got into a time machine with her and went back to E.T.’s making, because the spirit that Melissa carried with her during her entire life had infected all of us, and she shaped The BFG into a portrait of a friendship. Melissa didn’t know she was sick at the beginning. The summer of 2014 was spent in a small garage in my house on Long Island, where we assembled the movie through [pre-visualized animations.] We made the entire movie of The BFG from beginning to end that way, and watched it and changed it. During principal photography in Vancouver this past spring, she was on the set every day, giving me the cards for the day’s work — just like on E.T

She seemed fine, but there were several times that she needed to go back to L.A. for personal reasons. I didn’t ask what the personal reasons were. And one time she was absent [for] four days. Then she came back and she seemed perfectly okay again. So her health issues came as a surprise to all of us.I’ve had a lot of time to think about Melissa since she died in November, and I’m not really sure she’s gone. I feel her presence more than her absence. I’m really going to start to hurt when that fades and I start missing her again in my life.I could speak for many of her closest friends — we’re all still in disbelief that she’s gone. The thing about Melissa was, she could just watch the traffic of everyday things speed by her, which was just fine with her because in her life she preferred to stroll. 

Moviemaking is often a lot of thunder and lightning, and Melissa was always the calm eye of the storm.She could relate to kids better than anybody I had ever met. On the set of E.T., she taught me on the first day of shooting that you never talk down to children. You get on their eye level and you simply fall into conversation with them. It changed my entire approach to directing children because I watched how effortless it was for Melissa to sit with Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, and Robert MacNaughton and just have a conversation with them.I think she understood the natural habitat of childhood. Melissa was all about discovery. And childhood is all about daily, even hourly, even minute-by-minute discoveries.Melissa was like a kid when she was making these little breakthroughs. Like how to tell a story, or how to find the right line of dialogue. Or how to find sea shells in a desert.

Spielberg on Melissa Mathison: E.T.’s Glowing Heart Was Hers

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2015
Melissa Mathison dies at 65.

By writing her Oscar-nominated screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial (1982) she did the groundwork for one of the most beloved film classics of all time – also serving as associate producer.

Mathison wrote screenplays for Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion (1979), Caleb Deschanel’s The Escape Artist (1982), the second segment in Steven Spielberg’s Twilight Zone – The Movie (1983), the TV film Son of the Morning Star (1991), and Frank OzThe Indian in the Cupboard (1995). Mathison had a particular feeling for children’s literature, telling stories about children who she portrayed as sensitively heroic.

She recently reunited with Steven Spielberg to write the screenplay for the Roald Dahl adaptation The BFG (2016) which is currently in post-production. After hearing of her death, Spielberg says in a statement:

“Melissa had a heart that shined with generosity and love and burned as bright as the heart she gave E.T.”

On the 2002 DVD special edition, Spielberg describes her contribution:

“Melissa delivered this 107-page first draft to me and I read it in about an hour. I was just knocked out. It was a script I was willing to shoot the next day. It was so honest, and Melissa’s voice made a direct connection with my heart.”

Mathison explains:

“I would write for four or five days in my little office in Hollywood, and then drive out to Marina Del Rey where Steven Spielberg was editing in a little apartment on the beach. I’d bring him my pages and we’d sit and go through them…It took about eight weeks for us to get the first draft, which was quite fast, I think.”

Her screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997), a movie about the Dalai Lama’s childhood and growth into a young man, reflected her decades-long interest in Tibet. With the help of Richard Gere, a supporter of Tibetan causes, she and Harrison Ford met with the Dalai Lama in Santa Barbara in 1990. She later pitched the notion of a film based on his early years.

Mathison was born on June 3, 1950 in Los Angeles and attended U.C. Berkeley. She interrupted her studies in political science for a job in the movies with a family friend. The friend was Francis Ford Coppola, whose children she used to baby sit. Mathison became his assistant on the set of The Godfather, Part II (1974). After Coppola urged her to write, she came up with her script for The Black Stallion (1979).

She had two children, Georgia and Malcolm, from her marriage to actor Harrison Ford. They divorced in 2004 after a 21-year marriage. From 1983 to 1985, Mathison, Ford and their children lived on a 700-acre ranch outside Jackson Hole, Wyo., where the screenwriter put her career on hold.

“I didn’t want to be missing their childhood while I was away, busy writing about children.”

2015
According to Forbes, Steven Spielberg’s “net worth” is $3.6 billion, with a “self-made score” of 8 out of 10.

On the list of the world’s billionaires, Spielberg ranks #481, far behind his friend George Lucas (#309). Films directed by Spielberg have grossed more than $9 billion worldwide.

Four of them are still in the top 20 of All Time Box Office champions (adjusted for inflation):

#4: E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (1982)
#7: Jaws (1975)
#16: Jurassic Park (1993)
#20: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

2011
Greg Mottola
’s Paul, a hilarious sci-fi comedy road movie, is written by and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. It follows two British science fiction fans who meet an extraterrestrial being (voiced by Seth Rogen) and help the alien to escape the Secret Service agents pursuing him, so that he can return to his home planet. The film contains numerous references to other (science fiction) films, especially those of Steven Spielberg.

In an interview, Pegg and Frost say they made the film to demonstrate their love for Steven Spielberg’s films Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982), as well as their favorite science fiction films. After they mention the project to Spielberg, he suggests he might make a cameo appearance, and a scene is added to include him as a voice on a speakerphone in 1980 discussing ideas with Paul for his soon to become box office hit E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

1982
E.T. – The Extraterrestrial: In his most personal film to date, Spielberg portrays children as an imaginative and important group of society – in short: a beacon of hope. In E.T., children set an example by practicing what was only indicated at the end of Close Encounters (1977): peaceful coexistence of creatures who come from different worlds with different views.

Spielberg shoots his film from a children’s eye level and shows adults only from the waist down. Beneath the surface of a seemingly simple story the movie tells us about the – sometimes painful – process of growing up and touches issues such as government surveillance and increasing environmental problems, a topic that is also addressed in Poltergeist (1982).

Screenwriter Melissa Mathison visits her then-boyfriend Harrison Ford in Tunisia, on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Steven Spielberg intends to make his next movie more intimate and closer to his heart, with a plot inspired by his suburban childhood. During shooting breaks he shares his ideas with Mathison and persuades her to write the script. In just eight weeks, she delivers a draft called E.T. and Me. As Spielberg recalls:

“Melissa delivered this 107-page first draft to me and I read it in about an hour. I was just knocked out. It was a script I was willing to shoot the next day. It was so honest, and Melissa’s voice made a direct connection with my heart.”

The script goes through two more drafts in which a couple of scenes are removed while others are added, such as the famous chase sequence at the end of the film, and the hilarious scene where E.T. gets drunk.

Spielberg sums up his thoughts on E.T.:

“I don’t like picking a favorite of my films, because it’s kind of like saying you have a favorite child. The most significant film I’ve made is
Schindler’s List, but the most personal film I’ve made is E.T. It’s now
become a cliche to say that a movie is for the child in all of us. But I
think that E.T. is for the people we are, the people we have been, and
the people we want to be again.”

“I

wanted to tell the story of a lonely boy in a relationship with
siblings, and I also wanted to tell the story of the divorce of my
parents. Elliott’s not me – but yes, he’s the closest thing to my
experience in life, growing up in suburbia. […] The house in E.T. is
very much like the house I was raised in. That’s my bedroom!”

The famous alien is brought to life by Carlo Rambaldi in the form of a mechanical puppet (in some cases, little people act in an E.T. costume). Sound designer Ben Burtt creates E.T.’s croaking voice by experimenting with voice recordings of (among others) Pat Welsh, Debra Winger and Spielberg himself.

For the first time, Spielberg waives his beloved storyboards and shoots most of the scenes chronologically in order to encourage the child actors to improvise. As a result, Drew Barrymore as Gertie and Henry Thomas as Elliott play the roles of their lives.

In an extended version of the school sequence, Elliott can be seen furiously drawing
space communicator circuitry across a classroom wall until he is stopped
by Melissa Mathison as the school nurse who brings him to the faceless principal played by Harrison Ford. These scenes unfortunately end up on the cutting room floor.

Phrases like “E. T. phone home” and poetic images such as the flying bike in front of the full moon (brilliantly photographed by Allen Daviau) are now a part of global culture. Spielberg selects the image of the moon for the logo of his film production company, Amblin Entertainment.

In the “All Time Box Office”, E.T. moves to No. 1 and replaces Spielberg’s own Jaws (1975). Today, E.T. is still on No. 4 (adjusted for inflation). Despite the enormous financial success Spielberg rejects all offers to do a sequel.

Spielberg is invited by President Ronald Reagan to attend a private E.T. screening at the White House. Parts of the film industry resent Spielberg for his alleged proximity to Reagan.

At the world premiere in Cannes, François Truffaut sits in the audience. He sends Spielberg a telegram with the message “You belong here more than me” – a phrase from Spielberg’s pen, written for Truffaut’s role as Lacombe in Close Encounters expressing his admiration for the childlike mind of Roy Neary.

Variety praises E.T. as the “best Disney film Disney never made“.

However, the film’s melodramatic intensity polarizes audiences and critics. Some reject E.T. for the same reasons that fans appreciate.

At the Academy Awards ceremony, E.T. is nominated in nine categories (including Best Picture, Director, Photography, Editing, Screenplay) and receives four Oscars for Best Music (John Williams), Special effects and Sound Effects Editing. In all other categories, the film loses against another peace-loving outsider: Gandhi.

In reply, Spielberg casts Gandhi actor Ben Kingsley in Schindler’s List (1993), Gandhi director Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park (1993) and Gandhi’s supporting actors Amrish Puri and Roshan Seth in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).

1939
Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz starring young Judy Garland combines Technicolor and black & white sceneries in a fanciful musical film.

Elements such as the child actress, her encounter with creatures from another world as well as the movie’s sense of wonder have inspired much of Spielberg’s work, especially E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (1982).