Actor Harrison Ford was fundamental in bringing 1982’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” to life.
It also has to do with his role as Indiana Jones in 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Fans probably already know that filmmaker Steven Spielberg directed both films, but they probably don’t know just how fundamental Ford was to bring the iconic children’s film to life.
Harrison Ford’s Girlfriend Was The ‘E.T.’ Screenwriter
As first reported by Entertainment Weekly, Spielberg shared the story while appearing at the opening night 40th-anniversary screening of “E.T.” at the TCM Classic Film Festival.
According to Spielberg, Ford was the one who had to convince late screenwriter Melissa Matheson, his then-girlfriend, to take on the film. She had been visiting Ford in Tunisia while he was filming “Raiders” when Spielberg approached her with the project.
“I pretty much had worked out most of the story and I needed a writer to write it with me or write it just based on the story,” Spielberg told the audience at Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre.
“I was shooting in Tunisia; we were shooting outside the Well of the Souls with Harrison, and Harrison’s girlfriend Melissa Matheson was there on location…I was just talking to her and I told her my E.T. idea, the whole story. And she said, ‘I’ve retired from writing, I don’t write anymore. I’m not interested in writing anymore. It’s too hard.’ She turned me down.”
“I went to Harrison and said, ‘Your girlfriend turned me down,'” he explained. “‘She doesn’t want to write my next movie.’ And [Ford] said, ‘Let me talk to her.’ And he talked to her, and she came to me and said, ‘You got Harrison so excited about this, what is it that I missed?’ I think I hadn’t told the story to her very well because I told the story to her again and she got really emotional hearing the story again, and she committed right in the middle of the Tunisian desert.”
Steven Spielberg Came Up With The Idea For ‘E.T.’ While Making Another Film
Spielberg revealed that he first got the idea for “E.T.” when he was making 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
“I had been working on a literal script about my parents separation and divorce… what it did to my sisters and myself,” he said. “This was back in 1976, when I was filming Close Encounters, and we got to the scene where the little extra-terrestrial comes down from the ship and does the hand-signs with François Truffaut. I suddenly thought: Wait a second, what if that creature never went back to the ship? What if the creature was part of a foreign-exchange program? Dreyfuss goes, he stays. That was the feeling I had — what if I turned my story about divorce into a story about a children/family trying to fill a great need? What if Elliott needed, for the first time in his life, to become responsible for a life form to fill the gap in his heart?”
Soon after, Matheson and Spielberg began collaborating on the script while “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was in post-production.
“She’d come over and we’d spend two hours a day for five days, and then she’d go off and write pages,” he explained. “And then she’d come back with those pages and we’d do another five days.”
Spielberg said that he had “given her the narrative, but all the little moments like E.T.’s ability to teleport things, E.T.’s ability with telekinesis, and also the idea that E.T. could feel Elliott’s feelings — that was something that happened in the spontaneity of working with a writer. That was never in the story I presented to Melissa. There were so many details of character that Melissa brought into my world from her world.”
Spielberg explained that Matheson had turned his notes into “a first-draft screenplay,” and recalled, “I was having lunch with [producer] Kathleen Kennedy, who was my associate producer on Raiders of the Lost Ark and then I asked her, ‘Do you want a raise? Do you want to be a producer? Will you produce E.T.?’ She said yes, and I said, ‘I think I’ve read the greatest first draft of my life. You have to read this.’ She read it overnight and called me the next day and said, ‘I haven’t read a lot of scripts, but this is the best script I ever read.’ That’s all because of Melissa.”
Steven Spielberg Took A Unique Approach To Filming ‘E.T.’
Spielberg also did something almost unheard of in the entertainment industry: he shot the entire movie in continuity, from start to finish. He said that the child actors were his primary influence for that decision.
“I especially shot E.T. in continuity because of the ages of characters — of Henry Thomas, Robert McNaughton, and Drew Barrymore,” Spielberg explained. “I wanted the kids to know that what we’re 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 live a life, a life of the story. At the end of the movie, there’s a lot of emotion, and they were there for every take because they were saying goodbye for real. Because they knew soon they’d be going home.”
Fans can watch more remarks from Steven Spielberg at the 2022 TCM Film Festival below.