Review by C.J. Bunce
Raise your hand if you still have your Pizza Hut drinking glasses set, or the sticker they handed out at theaters on opening day that promoted Reese’s Pieces. Five years ago here at borg I watched E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial return to theaters and reflected on the blockbuster film’s 35th anniversary. Here we are at #40 and writer Caseen Gaines–whose landmark book on The Dark Crystal I loved–has penned a complete account of the making of the film. It’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: The Ultimate Visual History, and it’s one of the best behind-the-scenes chronicles I’ve reviewed at borg. It’s available now in a big, hardcover edition at all bookstore retailers and here at Amazon.
Gaines is on his way to becoming film books’ next J.W. Rinzler. Gaines steps back and lets the story tell itself as he begins with Steven Spielberg’s recollections of seeing a UFO with his dad when he was young, and Gaines follows that story as it works its way into a script and then the science fiction classic that would surpass Star Wars at the box office and win four Oscars. Perhaps it’s because E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a “simple story”–as Spielberg and executive producer Kathleen Kennedy called it–and that translates to a handful of creators able to provide a detailed account of every step along the way.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: The Ultimate Visual History is a great way to get to know Kathleen Kennedy, who would rise up the ranks to becoming Lucasfilm’s president. How did she make her mark on Hollywood and begin her journey to making some of genre’s biggest films? It all began with working as a secretary who had the knack for running an office. Those same skills translated to multi-million dollar movies, but that began with E.T.
For Spielberg the movie was a personal journey, his way to push back on the era’s paranoia and sci-fi’s corresponding fear of the unknown. But his trust in key women in lead crew roles helped him mold E.T. in its potential as something more than another sci-fi movie. Selecting Melissa Matheson as screenwriter was key to tapping into a coming of age movie that focused on a family of kids in a neighborhood that reflecting many neighborhoods at the time, but somehow had never made it to the big screen. This would not be a movie about another scary alien invader.
Spielberg would bypass Rick Baker, monster maker, who created creatures extensively during pre-sproduction, opting for the skills of Carlo Rambaldi to create the bent-necked, wide-eyed, tan-skinned, short fellow with a light-up heart and finger. But others would contribute to the visual magic, and their remarks are all included in this book, including Dennis Muren when Lucasfilm entered the picture for final post-production spaceship, horizon shots, and flying-bike-across-the-moon imagery.
Gaines includes all the obscure information long-time fans may have heard about, but many have not. Like Ben Burtt combining Debra Winger’s voice and a woman with a smoker voice who called at the right time, along with several other odd components to create E.T.’s distinctive scratchy style of saying things like “I’ll be right here.” The author also includes perspectives of the people who briefly inhabited an E.T. costume for specific scenes in the film.
Casting was, of course, key, and along with Drew Barrymore providing a foreword, he taps Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote, and more to tell fans what it was like to live with E.T. for the production’s few months of shooting on set. Robert MacNaughton, who played Elliott’s brother, recounts meeting the future King of England at a London film screening, and watching Princess Diana’s handler help her fix her mascara after crying during the film before greeting the cast. By all accounts Spielberg created the ideal environment for his cast and crew to make what has become one of Hollywood’s most beloved movies.
The only thing I would have liked to have seen was even more examples of all those great toys and marketing materials, more about the rejected ideas, like the original deal that saw Ron Cobb as director, which was canned (as discussed here) and made Cobb a mint in residuals. I’d also like to know more about the start-stop opportunity with Michael Jackson that resulted in Jackson and E.T. posters in every music shop in early 1982 in advance of the movie. But everything else is in this dense book, which movie buffs will find to be like Rinzler’s deep dives into the Star Wars movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Planet of the Apes, and Alien.
I can’t hazard a guess as to how many times I have watched E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Probably a handful of times in 1982 and 1983, and at least once during a return to theaters in the past 40 years, plus a few times on VHS. Gaines covers the original release as well as the delayed home release (and why it was delayed) and the altered special edition.
One of my favorite parts is Spielberg explaining how he arrived at the scene where Henry Thomas carefully explains who Greedo, Hammerhead, Walrus Man, Snaggletooth, Lando, and Boba Fett are to E.T., and working the Yoda costume into the Halloween scene.
As you can see, it’s filled with color photographs, mostly behind-the-scenes images you’ve not seen before. I also love tipped-in paper ephemera–copies of things like Steven Spielberg’s access card, story notes, and storyboards–although it’s explained that Spielberg opted to not rely on storyboards for the film. The story of the making of E.T. is mesmerizing and will have you reading it cover to cover straight through. Yes, it’s a small movie story-wise, but it has a big heart.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: The Ultimate Visual History will have a welcome spot on the bookshelves of every fan of the 1982 movie. Order your copy now here at Amazon.