It has been forty years since the release of Steven Spielberg’s family-friendly classic E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. Starring such actors as Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, and Peter Coyote, E.T. was an immediate success, becoming the highest-grossing film of all time – a title which it held until 1993 when it was overtaken by another Spielberg hit – Jurassic Park.
The beloved film was co-written by Spielberg and Melissa Mathison, Harrison Ford’s then-girlfriend (and future wife). The inspiration for E.T. stemmed from Spielberg’s desire to create a film about childhood inspired by his own. He claimed that as a child he would imagine an alien friend to keep him company amidst his parent’s divorce, stating that he was “a friend who could be the brother [he] never had and a father that [he] didn’t feel [he] had anymore.”
Furthermore, Spielberg expressed an interest in creating a film where aliens came down to earth and terrorised a family, which he began to work into a project called Night Skies alongside John Sayles. The director had just completed Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, another extraterrestrial-themed film, which further inspired the conception of E.T. In an interview with Ben Mankiewicz, Spielberg said: “We were shooting the scene in Mobile, Alabama, where the extraterrestrial comes down from the ship and does the hand signs with Francois Truffaut. I suddenly thought, wait a second, what if that little creature never went back to the ship?”
By 1981, Spielberg was busy making Raiders of the Lost Ark in Tunisia which starred Harrison Ford in the leading role as Indiana Jones, and a sense of loneliness seemed to prevail over him, leading him to remember the alien companion he had created for himself as a child. He told Ford’s girlfriend Melissa Mathison about Night Skies, since he was a big fan of The Black Stallion, a film she had written in 1979.
According to Spielberg: “She said, ‘Well, I’m retired from writing. I don’t write anymore. I’m not interested in writing anymore, it’s too hard.’ I went to Harrison and said, ‘Your girlfriend turned me down. She doesn’t want to write my next movie.’ He said, ‘Well, let me talk to her.’ He talked to her and she came to me the next day and said, ‘OK you got Harrison so excited about this. What is it that I missed?’ I think I hadn’t told her the story very well because I told her the story again and she got really emotional and she committed right there in the Tunisian desert.”
Both Spielberg and Mathison worked on the script for E.T. whilst the director was editing Raiders of the Lost Ark in Marina del Rey. He details that “We would spend two hours a day for five days and she would go off and write pages and come back. There were so many details for character that Melissa brought into my world from her world.” The first draft of the script was sent to Kathleen Kennedy, who would go on to become one of Hollywood’s most prolific producers. Spielberg said: “I went over to her and said, ‘I think I just read the greatest first draft of my life — you have to read this.’ And 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’ve ever read.’”
Thus, without Mathison, we would not have the E.T we know and love today, including the friendly alien’s telekinesis powers or his iconic phrase “E.T. phone home.”