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- August 23, 1982
- Vol. 18
- No. 8
Revealing His Secrets at Last
Director Steven Spielberg Takes the Wraps Off E.T.
In its first 66 days, E.T. has grossed an astounding $200 million. At that rate, it should surpass the all-time box office champ, 1977's Star Wars ($486 million). The director of that blockbuster, George Lucas, 38, is a close friend of E.T.'s director, Steven Spielberg, 34. Between them, they have made the five top-grossing movies of all time—Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and now E.T. In a summer noted for megabudget disappointments (e.g., the $40 million Annie and $30 million Blade Runner), Spielberg's achievement is all the more remarkable: E.T. and his second hit, Poltergeist (which he co-produced), cost only about $10.5 million each. A Hollywood wunderkind since he made his first feature at age 23, Spielberg professes to be baffled by E.T.'s success. "I just never expected it to take off like this," says the director whose movies have made more than $1 billion at the box office. Spielberg even held a screening at the White House.
"Nancy Reagan was crying toward the end," he reports, "and the President looked like a 10-year-old kid."
Spielberg thought up E.T. in 1980, when he was in the Tunisian desert making Raiders. "I was kind of lonely at the time," he says. "My girlfriend [Kathleen Carey] was back in Los Angeles. I remember saying to myself, 'What I really need is a friend I can talk to—somebody who can give me all the answers.' " A few days later, during a car ride from Nefta to Sousse, Spielberg and Raiders star Harrison Ford talked Ford's screenwriter girlfriend, Melissa (The Black Stallion) Mathison, into doing the screenplay. The shooting began a year later under extreme secrecy. Steven was afraid that if anyone saw the E.T. model, created by special effects wizard Carlo Rambaldi, it might be ripped off for a TV movie. Everyone on the set was required to wear a photo identification card—even Spielberg's cocker spaniel, Willie, showed up one day with one dangling from his collar.
Spielberg was sensitive about handling his child stars, Henry Thomas, now 10, Robert Macnaughton, 15, and Drew Barrymore, 7. Once, when Drew kept forgetting her lines, Spielberg yelled at her but repented after learning she had reported for work with a 101° temperature. "I went over to a corner and hugged her for 10 minutes," says Steven. "She cried and cried. Then I sent her home—with a note from her director." On another occasion one of the E.T. costumes caught fire with dwarf Pat Bilon inside. "Everyone panicked except Steven," says Bilon. "He just yanked the wires out of the battery."
He provided grace notes too. On location in Northern California, he ordered up a bonfire, causing much speculation from cast and crew. That night they dined on crab bisque, compliments of a French chef who happened to be vacationing in the area.
Today Spielberg would seem to be in a position to do anything he wants. The director personally is taking in $1 million daily from E.T. The only dark cloud: a recently filed $750 million lawsuit by Los Angeles playwright Lisa Litchfield, 38, who claims Spielberg filched E.T. from her 1978 one-act play, Lokey From Maldemar. Spielberg shrugs off the charge—"It's the people you've never heard of who crawl out of the woodwork like cockroaches to sue you"—and focuses instead on making more films. "There's nothing I know how to do better," he says. "If I did, I'd probably try."
On the following pages, Spielberg and the people behind E.T. tell how they helped make him come alive.
Robert Macnaughton: an older brother for E.T.
Almost as famous these days as E.T. are his young co-stars. Robert Macnaughton, a snaggletoothed high school sophomore from Irvine, Calif., was Spielberg's first casting choice among the kids. PEOPLE Senior Writer Kristin McMurran went to Plainfield, Vt., where Macnaughton was filming a psychological thriller, I Am the Cheese, to get his slant on the E.T. experience.
"I was particularly nervous about this audition because I like Steven's films so much," says Macnaughton, who had performed in regional theater and three TV movies before making his film debut in E.T. "When we met, Steven just asked me what I like to do and when I told him I ride my bike and play Dungeons & Dragons, he said, "Oh, really, we have those things in the movie." After Macnaughton read for the part, Spielberg took several young actors to play a D&D game at screenwriter Mathison's house. "You can fake things in an audition," says Robert, "but when you play that game you have to show ingenuity and quick thinking."
Though he praises his director for "talking to kids on their own level," Robert was not as enthralled by E.T. as his co-stars. "To me it was a machine," he says, "but the crew gave it a personality. They would play tricks—you'd walk up and find E.T. picking its nose or eating watermelon." Macnaughton was more impressed by his new friends. "Henry acts the same way he plays D&D. He keeps his moves secret, but when he makes them, they're brilliant. Drew has nothing to hide. She's very loud and spins these wild tales. We got along like brothers and sisters—for better or worse."
The oldest of three, Robert is now represented by his father, Bruce, a management consultant and former child actor. (He played the blond rich kid in The Little Rascals series.) Robert prefers acting to school—by law, he is tutored on California sets—and likes Roald Dahl short stories, light rock music and painting D & D miniatures. "If I was alone for a day," he muses, "I'd put on my Walkman and ride my 10-speed." Besides I Am the Cheese (due this Christmas), Macnaughton is promoting Act Now: An Actor's Guide for Breaking In, which he co-wrote with his father, and hopes to shoot a new film, Tracker, next year. "An E.T. sequel doesn't interest me all that much," says Macnaughton. "But a chance to work with those people again would be marvelous, if they want me."
Henry Thomas: E.T.'s first and best friend on earth
Playing Elliott, E.T.'s best pal on earth, might turn any child's head, but it hasn't spoiled Henry Thomas, 10, who is happier mastering Defender in his video-game-cluttered bedroom in San Antonio, Texas than signing autographs. Henry told his story to PEOPLE correspondent Lianne Hart.
"I love making movies, but I hate the publicity," gripes Henry (his parents erased THOMAS from their mailbox to discourage snoopy fans). "Sometimes girls write to say they love me and stuff," he says. "Oh, I hate that." A pensive, sometimes moody only child, Henry was discovered by Sissy Spacek when she cast him as her son in last year's Raggedy Man. After a short screen test that left Spielberg in tears, the director announced, "Okay, kid, you got the job." Weeping came easily for Thomas, who conjured the memory of his dead dog, Oso, for inspiration. "When I did the goodbye scene," he remembers, "I couldn't stop crying because I worked with E.T. every day and he was real to me." Initially Spielberg worried that "Henry was too serious. But then I introduced him to E.T. and he burst out laughing."
Two scenes in the movie embarrassed the youngster. The first and worst: "When I had to kiss the girl. I had to do it two times!" He gags at the memory. "I don't like girls," he says. The other bad moment came when he had to call his brother "penis breath." Blushing, Henry blames that one on Melissa Mathison. "I hated that line."
"Henry is very sensitive," observes his mother, Caroline, 39. "Even when he was 3 years old he was trying to think what to do with his life. As long as he wants to make a career of acting, then we want him to do it, but he can stop anytime." His parents, who sometimes call him "H.T.," have placed his earnings in a trust fund but permit a $5 weekly allowance which Henry splurges on videocassettes. A B-plus student, he wants to be regarded as just another grade school kid. "Some classmates treat me special," he reports. "That bugs me." His favorite haunts include the shingled tree house built by his father, a hydraulics mechanic, and his backyard. There Henry used to entertain a host of imaginary friends. Now he is more likely to play with his oddball animal menagerie, which includes a horse and two guinea pigs. "Henry was born to play this part," marvels Spielberg. "It was destiny more than good casting." Thomas is less metaphysical. "To act," he says, "all you have to do is do it."
A mime's hands make the movements telling
They are some of the most memorable scenes in the movie: E.T.'s hand reaching for the Reese's Pieces, E.T. digging into the refrigerator for more beer, E.T. wiping a piece of watermelon from his lip. The E.T. torso is mechanical, but the hands belong to Caprice Rothe, 34, a professional mime who says she got the job because she was "pushy" when interviewed by Carlo Rambaldi, E.T.'s creator. Less confident on the first day of shooting, Rothe drank too much coffee before starting work and thus accidentally gave birth to E.T.'s tremulous grip. When Spielberg saw her hands shaking, he said, "I love it. Leave it in." Caprice agreed. "Things are new to E.T.; he's cautious," she says. "He uses his fingers to explore." One time between takes, Caprice, still locked into the zippered four-fingered gloves used for hand close-ups, did some crocheting ("Now I know how an arthritic feels"). Even more of a chore was the now famous drunk scene in which E.T. opens several cans of beer, spilling as much as he drinks. Caprice, lying down between E.T. and the fridge, got "drenched" as Spielberg ordered take after take.
A suburban housewife creates an alien voice
One day last year Marin County housewife Pat Welsh was talking to a salesperson at a local camera store about getting some pictures enlarged. Standing behind her was Ben Burtt, 34, the sound designer for George (Star Wars) Lucas. When he heard Welsh speak, Burtt says, "I grabbed her, took her outside and explained what I was about." On the lookout for E.T., Burtt quickly auditioned Welsh, a former elocution teacher, and once even asked her to speak without her dentures. "I made him look away," she says. Three months later Pat was chosen as the voice of E.T. "I used the parrot approach," says Burtt. "I would pretend I was E.T. and she would mimic me." Burtt recorded Welsh's words off the set, then fit them to match the movement of E.T.'s mouth.
Although Burtt says that most of E.T.'s words were spoken by Welsh, he used other voices. When E.T. burps, it's really the belch of Lucas employee Howie Hammerman ("He does it all the time, so we decided to put him in the film," says Burtt). When E.T. sees Elliott for the first time and screams, it's an otter's shriek electronically processed. And when E.T. lulls Elliott to sleep, Burtt was using a dog's slowed-down growl. Debra (An Officer and a Gentleman) Winger was another voice contender (she ultimately did a few words and snorts), but Spielberg and Burtt preferred Pat for the words. "They wanted a sound unfamiliar to American audiences," says Welsh. "Before Pat, I had almost settled on an 82-year-old Tibetan woman," Burtt says. "Steven thought it was a good idea to give E.T. a foreign accent. After all, he comes from a different planet."
Pat Welsh, 65ish, sympathizes with E.T.'s suffering. She underwent heart surgery in her 30s and has lived with a variety of ailments. Smoking two packs of cigarettes a day hasn't helped ("a nasty habit I wish I was rid of"), but it has probably given her voice its characteristic timbre. "You can't tell whether it's a male or a female," says Burtt. Welsh is delighted to be "a piece of the puzzle," though she earned just $380 for the job, which took nine and a half hours. "I decided they were on a slender budget," she quips. Still, she and her retired banker husband, Tom, harbor no resentment. Their new license plate reads I LOVE ET.
An Italian craftsman builds his masterwork
"Steven Spielberg said, 'How long would it take you to make E.T.?' I said about nine months. He said I only had six. I must have worked 15 to 20 hours a day." Carlo Rambaldi, age 57, the man who designed E.T., has won two Oscars for his previous movie creatures (King Kong and Alien). He estimates that he and his four-member crew put in 5,000 hours to get the Spielberg project off the ground—and came in two weeks ahead of time. Total cost: $1.5 million. "Carlo," says the director, "was the second most important person on the film."
Rambaldi actually built three different E.T.s: a mechanical model operated by cables, an electronic model for the finer facial movements, and the so-called "walking E.T." for the free-standing scenes, this one operated from inside by two dwarfs and a legless boy (see following story). All the models are aluminum-and-steel skeletons covered by layered fiberglass, polyurethane and rubber. In the mechanical and electronic models there are 85 "points of movement," as Rambaldi calls them, ranging from the raising of an arm to the blinking of an eye.
Rambaldi consulted almost daily with Spielberg during the process of constructing E.T. "Once," he recalls, "Steven looked at a clay model and asked me to make the rear end more like Donald Duck's. We did it." E.T.'s long neck was also Spielberg's idea. "He wanted it so nobody could think there was anyone inside," Carlo explains. In fact, the E.T. head derived from a painting Rambaldi did 30 years ago. Spielberg says E.T.'s eyes are derived from a composite photograph of Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sandburg. Not true, says Rambaldi: The eyes were actually inspired by his Himalayan cat.
Rambaldi emigrated from Rome, Italy six years ago in order to design and build King Kong. His wife and three children soon followed. "In Italian movies," he says, "you never get the chance to do the things I've done here." Rambaldi is grateful to Spielberg, and showed it with the radio-controlled flower pot that figures so symbolically in E.T.'s life-and-death throes on earth. "It's my gift to Steven," says Rambaldi. "I didn't even charge him for it."
Three little people do a big inside job
"Wearing E.T. was not comfortable; it was very warm inside," understates Pat Bilon, 34, a former sheriff's office dispatcher from Youngstown, Ohio and one of three small humans who donned the costume for the "walking E.T." scenes. The others: Tamara De Treaux, age 22, a San Francisco actress (her only scene: E.T. walking up the ramp to the spaceship), and Matthew De Meritt, 12, a resourceful Torrance, Calif. seventh grader, born without legs. Both Bilon, 2'10", and De Treaux, 2'7" are dwarfs, their heads barely reaching E.T.'s chest in the costume. Between scenes the E.T. head was removed, and they were cooled off with blow dryers. Bilon, who did most of the scenes, had it roughest. "I had to sit around in the costume for three or four hours at a time," he says. "It was like a steam bath. They got me aspirins for my back pain. I couldn't stand up a long time." Pat laughingly recalls one scene in which his E.T. costume was covered with beef baby food so a dog would sniff curiously at him. "Instead," Pat laughs, "the dog jumped up and licked me all over."
Matthew, who gets around at home on a skateboard, made a special contribution. He created E.T.'s woozy waddle by walking on his hands. Inside the costume for the drunk scene when the fridge door knocks E.T. over, Matthew, whom Spielberg found through the UCLA Medical Center, had no complaints. "There were people behind me ready to pick me up," he says. Matthew especially liked working with the other kids. "He fell hopelessly in love with Drew Barrymore," says his mother. "Now he wants to be a director."
As E.T. grows, Spielberg cools out and mulls the sequel
The box office bonanza that has characterized E.T.'s young life so far is only the beginning. Commercial spin-offs from the movie are expected to gross $1 billion. Among the E.T. products already on the market: a $19.95 E.T. doll and an E.T. version of the Texas Instruments Speak & Spell game that E.T. uses in the movie. Also slated for the market are 30 additional products, ranging from E.T. sheets and posters to pull-string talking dolls that say "E.T." Spielberg approves plans for every product, and manufacturers must submit samples for his inspection. "We think E.T. will be the next Mickey Mouse," says Cleveland manufacturer Marshall Bedol, who makes an E.T. food tray. "And we expect him to be around just as long."
Inevitably there are questions about an E.T. sequel. One of the people on the Spielberg team has worked out her own scenario. "It's three years later and the doorbell rings. When Elliott answers it, there's E.T. Next to him is a creature that looks like a giant celery stalk. E.T. says to Elliott, 'My friend needs a place to stay—can you put him up for the night?' " For obvious reasons, Spielberg is not talking about the plot, but he confirms that he and Mathison already have one in mind. "People would have my hide if I didn't make the sequel," he says.
The time for shooting will have to be put off. This fall Spielberg will film a segment of a movie based on the old TV series The Twilight Zone. Last month that project was marred by tragedy, the death of actor Vic Morrow and two children in an on-set helicopter accident. Early in 1983 the director will begin work on a sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark with Harrison Ford. Yet Spielberg clearly feels that in E.T. and its predecessor, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he has tapped a deeper vein. "Action is wonderful," he says, "but while I was doing Raiders I felt I was losing touch with the reason I became a moviemaker—to make stories about people and relationships. E.T. is the first movie I ever made for myself."
Working with E.T. and the kids in the film also provoked a subtle change in his personal life. "I have this deep yearning now to become a father," he says His girlfriend of the last two years, Kathleen Carey, 33, who signs songwriters for Warner Bros. Music, is his first major romance since a traumatic split with actress Amy Irving in 1979. "I think Kathleen and I will have kids," he says. "We've just been so busy with our careers that we haven't dealt with each other on a marital basis. But now we're thinking about it."
Spielberg is pleased that millions of others have felt the beneficent effects of his movie creature. "He's a creature but also symbolizes positive things," he says. "I think part of the response to E.T. has to do with a backlash against what's been happening in the world: Lebanon, the Falklands, the arms race. What we relate to in E.T. is not what he looks like from the outside but the goodness inside him."
- Kristin McMurran,
- Lianne Hart.
November 23, 2015
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