Steven Spielberg Tells TCM Festival Audience How ‘E.T.’ Was the Divorce Movie That Turned Him Into a Dad
The general public may not think of “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” as a divorce movie, per se … although Dee Wallace’s reading of the line “He hates Mexico” has always been one of its most resonant. But in speaking about the film for its 40th anniversary at the TCM Classic Film Festival Thursday night, Steven Spielberg explored how the split in his own family growing up informed his original story. And, beyond that, the director explained how making the film was the actual trigger that made him suddenly flip a switch from eschewing the prospect of ever being a father to putting parenthood on his vision board.
“What happened was, I had been working on an actual literal script about my parents’ separation and divorce” in the late 1970s, Spielberg told host Ben Mankiewicz. That very un-fantastical film idea would have reflected his and his sisters’ experience with their parents splitting — despite the fact that this idea was percolating during the making of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1976.
“I was shooting the (climactic) scene and I suddenly thought, ‘Wait a second. What if that little creature never went back to the ship? What if the creature was part of a foreign exchange program? (Richard) Dreyfuss goes and he stays? Or she stays?’” It struck him that he could turn his family drama “into a story about children and a family trying to fill a great need and great responsibility? Divorce creates great responsibility. If you have siblings, we all take care of each other (in the wake of divorce). And what if Elliott, or the kid — I hadn’t quite dreamed up his name yet — for the first time in his life becomes responsible for a life form, to fill the gap in his heart?”
The filmmaker told the opening-night crowd at the TLC Chinese Theatre about the devastation he felt as a teen child of divorce. “I think when you go through something like that, when any child goes through an episode where your parents who you trust love and trust unconditionally (both) come to you and your sisters and say, ‘We are separating, and we’re going to be living not just in two different houses but two different states,’ the world collapses. The sky falls on your head.” He sad that children of divorce or those who’ve been the divorcing parties “know the responsibility of how you have to super take care of your kids. It’s something that never goes away and it comes out in the wash, and it certainly has come out in a lot of my movies, both indirectly and subconsciously. And in the latest film that I’ve just made, it comes out very directly,” he added, referring to “The Fabelmans,” the semi-autobiographical film he co-wrote with Tony Kushner that’s set for release in November.
Asked by Mankiewicz if he’d ever imagined himself being a father up to that point in his career, Spielberg flatly said, “No. I didn’t want to have kids because it was not a kind of equation that made sense for me as I went from movie to movie to movie, script to script… It never occurred to me till halfway through ‘E.T.’: I was a parent on that film. I was literally feeling like I was very protective of Henry (Thomas) and Mike (McNaughton) and my whole cast, and especially Drew (Barrymore), who was only 6 years old. And I started thinking, ‘Well, maybe this could be my real life someday.’ It was the first time that it occurred to me that maybe I could be a dad. And maybe in a way, a director is a dad, or a mom.” From that point on, he said, “I really felt that that would be my big production.”
When Mankiewicz, in characteristic tongue-in-cheek fashion, asked “Did you have children, Steven?,” the director answered, “I have seven kids and six grandchildren. So ‘E.T.’ worked for me very well.”
In the space of a half-hour preceding the showing of a new IMAX rendering of the 1982 film, Spielberg and Mankiewicz did not make attempts to tackle a complete career overview (and the only mention of the recent “West Side Story” was the host’s contention that TCM fans had put aside their disinclination toward remakes just for that). But the conversation did at last briefly touch on everything from his “Night Gallery” pilot and “Duel” TV movie debut up through “E.T.”
Spielberg said that Joan Crawford, on “Night Gallery,” was the first SAG-card-carrying actor he ever worked with, then amended that to say that he shot all the interstitial segments with scriptwriter/host Rod Serling prior to that. Crawford, he said, was no “Mommy Dearest” on the set, but as a Pepsi products pitchwoman at the time did expect everyone on the set to partake in the ice chests full of Mountain Dew she brought to the soundstage. “She forgave me my acne and the Clearasil I used to cover it up,” he said of getting his start with the legend at 22. The future-ballcap-wearing filmmaker recalled being surrounded by “men in blazers with hats and ties” in 1968 — below as well as above the line. “The gaffers, the elctricians, the grips, they wore ties. it was a changing of the guard.”
Mankiewicz brought up “Duel,” filmed for ABC, to point out that Spielberg belonged to the generation of renegade filmmakers like Martin Scorsese as much as he did the studio system. His first mini-flareup with a studio — and probably one of the last, given his success record — was explained: “I had no power except the power to say action, cut, print and set up the camera… When it came to releasing it on a major American network, they had a lot of clout, and I was helpless and felt hopeless when the directive got back to me … that they were ordering me to go back out there and blow up the truck, because we can’t end a movie that ends with a truck dying a very slow painful death, with the oil dripping down the steering wheel and the tire slowing down and the fan roaring. They hated that. They wanted a pyrotechnic ending. And (producer) George Epstein came to me and said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I don’t want to shoot it, but what can I do?’ George said, ‘Let me go to work on ABC.’ And George delivered the good news the next day that they weren’t going to make me reshoot the ending. He fought the fight, which is what’s great about having a producer that has your back. Everybody has to know how important producers are in our lives and in our world, especially when we’re just starting out. They’re essential.”
Spielberg came close to conceding that maybe “1941” might have benefitted from a bit more studio oversight, something he was happily doing without in the wake of the blockbuster successes of “Jaws” and “Close Encounters.” He joked, “The explosion that never got made for ‘Duel,’ I make it fit for ‘1941’. That was the biggest detonation, at that moment in my career.”
He remembered, “It was my longest schedule” — even longer than “Jaws,” which would have been seemingly hard to beat, since on that “we shot 158 days, more than 100 days over schedule. But because we were shooting back to back, the studio just started writing checks, saying ‘Let’s see what happens.’ And they gave me an unlimited celling to make ‘1941.’ And it took me 178 days to shoot the picture, because I directed all the miniature work… That was the worst mistake you could have made. But I had a great time making the film. And then I showed the picture for the first time in Texas, at my good luck theater, the Medallion Theater in Dallas,” where he’d experienced thrilling reactions to “Jaws” and “Close Encounters,” only to take “1941” there, where “you could have heard a pin drop” for what he called “the first comedy ever made without laughs.”
A detailed explanation of the writing of “E.T.” involved the recollection of how “Black Stallion” screenwriter Melissa Mathison, then Harrison Ford’s girlfriend, at first turned down his offer to have her do the screenplay when he pitched it on location for “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” “I went to Harrison and said, ‘Your girlfriend turned me down!’” After Ford cajoled her into speaking with the director again, Mathison said, “‘You’ve got Harrison so excited about this, what is it that I missed?’ And I think I hadn’t told the story to her very well, because I told her the story again. and she got really emotional hearing the story (for a second time) and she fainted right in the middle of the Tunisian desert.” They had story sessions during editing lunch breaks on “Raiders,” and Spielberg credited her with adding some of the script’s best conceptual ideas, as well as doing the actual writing by herself — resulting in what he called the best first draft ever and Kathleen Kennedy called the best screenplay she’d read, period. The director said it was that first draft that got shot.
Actors Dee Wallace and Robert McNaughton were among those in attendance at the Chinese, but Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore, who’d been billed as sharing the stage with Spielberg at the re-premiere, were absent for reasons not explained. (“They wanted badly to be here, and we thank them for initially accepting,” said Mankiewicz in his intro.) Spielberg had plenty to say about both present and absent cast members.
“I had never really shot anything in continuity. Well,” he said interrupting himself, “‘Sugarland (Express),’ my first (theatrical) film, I shot in continuity. But I especially shot ‘E.T.’ in continuity because of the ages of the (kids)… and Dee Wallace. The reason I cast Dee was, she had the heart of a child…. So in a sense I cast the child in Dee Wallace to be part of it. She wasn’t really the adult; Peter Coyote was the adult, but Dee was part of the kids’ group. And I wanted the kids to know that what we were shooting now, today, is happening today, and the next three pages of the script will happen tomorrow. What we just shot happened yesterday. I wanted them to actually to live the life of the story, which they did. So at the end of the movie – I don’t want to give it away,” he said, to “as if” laughter — “they were there for every take, because they were saying goodbye for real, because they knew they’d be going home.”
Thomas’ casting story is well known — the video is on YouTube of Spielberg doing an improv that got the introverted child actor to cry, at which point Spielberg tells him he got the part — but he delved more into Barrymore’s rather more brash first impression at 6. “When Drew came into my office, she took over the meeting by storm. She stormed the citadel of my office… I said, ‘Do you like acting? She said, ‘I’m not in actor. I have a punk-rock band.’ And 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 has so much 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’d believe this little mechanical creature was a real extraterrestrial, and she was in my movie that day.”
What Mankiewicz jokingly called “the 11th and also the 13th“ TCM Classic Film Festival (it took two years off for the pandemic) continues through Sunday. Featured guests have included Lily Tomlin, who spoke before “All of Me” as well as being the subject of a Hollywood Walk of Fame hand ceremony, and Bruce Dern, who sat for a wildly funny and illuminating session with Mankiewicz in the TCM Club set up in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s ballroom. Warren Beatty is scheduled to speak Saturday at a screening of “Heaven Can Wait,” and later in the evening Kevin Bacon, Tim Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser will reunite at a “Diner” summit. On Sunday, among many other guest appearances, Piper Laurie and Margaret O’Brien will sit for Q&As in the TCM Club, and Pam Grier will speak ahead of a screening of 1973’s “Coffy” as the festival draws to a close.