Study Guide

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    E.T. was directed by Steven Spielberg, a reclusive art house filmmaker with a penchant for making small, independent films about vegetables and… just kidding. E.T. was directed by Steven Spielberg, one of the most popular and influential filmmakers of the last half-century and winner of close to two hundred awards for filmmaking, including three Academy Awards.

    From Boys Scouts to Man-Eating Sharks

    Spielberg began making movies at age 12 in order to earn a Boy Scout badge for photography. (The "Win Lots of Oscars One Day" badge hadn't been invented yet.)

    He followed up this first film, about a gunfight, with a 40-minute war movie called Escape to Nowhere. Three years later, at age 16, he shot a full-length science fiction film, Firelight, and screened it at his local movie theater. And we thought nailing our driver's test on the first try was an accomplishment.

    The point is this: Steven Spielberg has been making movies about adventure from the very beginning. From Jaws (1975) to Jurassic Park (1993), adventure is his modus operandi. We're talking about the guy who made the Indiana Jones movies. His interest in science fiction was apparent from the start as well, and continues through films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Minority Report (2002), and War of the Worlds (2005).

    Where the Dads At?

    Spielberg isn't all about giant sharks and laser beams, though. Child-parent relationships are at the center of many of his films, especially fathers who aren't around much, or even at all.

    Whether it's the workaholic dad in Hook (1991) or the "Sorry I Wasn't Around, So You Named Yourself After the Family Dog" dad in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), many of Spielberg's films feature some arguably bad dads. So what's with all the shade thrown at fathers? Chalk it up to Spielberg's childhood and his own parents' divorce.

    Don't pull out the tissue box just yet, though: Spielberg and his father have a strong relationship now—and from great tragedy comes great art (and a $3.6 billion net worth).

    When it comes to Spielberg's hallmarks as a director, E.T. is a veritable buffet. There's adventure, aliens, and an absent father. There was also an opportunity for Spielberg to reevaluate himself as a filmmaker.

    Walkie-Talkie Controversy

    On March 22, 2002, a 20th-anniversary edition of E.T. was released on DVD, and everybody cheered. Then they actually watched the movie, and they were significantly less happy. Several shots from the original theatrical release of the film had been changed.

    Some of these had to do with E.T.'s movement. Spielberg had never been stoked with the herky-jerky way the original animatronics looked, so he brought in the big guns at Industrial Light and Magic to smooth things out. 

    Viewers weren't thrilled.

    More problematic, however, were the actual guns in the film—namely the fact that for the 2002 re-release Spielberg had them removed entirely. Here's the deal: In the original film, as Elliott and his friends try to escape with E.T., they run into gun-toting federal agents. Cops pulling guns on kids? Scary stuff. In the 20th-anniversary edition, those guns were replaced with walkie-talkies. Not so scary. Film buffs were furious, and critics accused Spielberg of being too politically correct.

    A mere seven months later, on October 22, 2002, a two-disc 20th edition of E.T. was released on DVD. This release included both the 2002 revision and the original theatrical release of the film, so viewers could choose which version of the film graced their awesome home theater setups.

    But it doesn't end there! A 30th-anniversary edition of E.T. was released on Blu-Ray on October 9, 2012. How many versions of the film did it include? Just one: a fully restored version of the original film, guns and all. It even reinstated the original animatronics. "There's going to be no more digital enhancements or digital additions to anything based on any film I direct," Spielberg told Ain't It Cool News in 2011. "I'm not going to do any corrections digitally to even wires that show… I think letting movies exist in the era, with all the flaws and all of the flourishes, is a wonderful way to mark time and mark history."

    So if you were worried about the velociraptors in Jurassic Park being replaced with adorable animated iguanas, you can rest easy.

  • Screenwriter

    E.T. was Melissa Mathison's first solo screenwriting credit and her first original screenplay. Not bad for a newbie.

    What's Indiana Jones Got to Do With It?

    The idea behind E.T. came from director Steven Spielberg. "In the beginning, E.T. was never going to be the story of a little lost alien," Spielberg explains in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial From Concept to Classic (New Market Press, 2012). "Instead, I had intended to tell the story of the effects of a divorce on a young boy, a purging of all the pain children suffer and then must endure when a seismic event divides a family."

    We don't know about you, but that sounds like a real downer of a film to us. Fortunately, while shooting Sci-Fi family drama Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Spielberg was struck by a new idea, and he passed it on to his pal Harrison Ford's girlfriend, Melissa Mathison.

    Don't think Mathison just got the job because she was dating Indiana Jones, though. Mathison had also written an adapted screenplay of everybody's favorite book about being stranded on a desert island with a wild horse, The Black Stallion. That adaptation is precisely what brought her to the attention of Spielberg and his producing partner, Kathleen Kennedy (source). Okay, so dating Indiana Jones probably didn't hurt… but The Black Stallion showed Mathison's flair for family-friendly fare, a talent she would later lend to screenplays of The Indian in the Cupboard and Roald Dahl's The BFG.

    Writer, Producer, Child Wrangler

    Mathison wrote the first draft of E.T.—which was originally titled E.T. and Me—in two months. There's something to chew on the next time you have an English paper you think you'll never get done. "I would write for four or five days in my little office in Hollywood, and then drive out to Marina Del Ray where Steven Spielberg was editing in a little apartment on the beach," Mathison explained in From Concept to Classic. "I'd bring him my pages and we'd sit and go through them… It took about eight weeks for us to get the first draft, which was quite fast I think." We think so, too.

    Mathison's involvement in E.T. went above and beyond the script. She became an associate producer and was a fixture on the set during shooting. "The writer's specialty on set is to keep the entire script in her head," Mathison told The New Yorker, describing herself as a "willing sounding-board to bounce future changes off of" without "cannibalizing other scenes."

    She was also a hit with the film's pint-sized actors, helping them rehearse and generally keeping them in line, which we'd imagine is no small feat when your cast includes Drew Barrymore. "In 1982 I was not yet a parent, but was a stepmother, and had been a consummate babysitter and an older sister," Mathison said. "The kids in E.T. can be directly linked to kids I knew. I even stole some of my little friends' best lines: i.e., 'penis breath.' What adult woman could have thought of that?" (Source)

    Quality vs. Quantity

    While some might describe Mathison's career as sporadic—she has just ten writing credits to her name, total—it makes a pretty solid argument for quality over quantity. Her script for E.T. earned her Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Hugo nominations for Best Screenplay, and she took home two trophies: the Los Angeles Film Critics Association's New Generation Award and the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen. 

    Again: not too shabby for her first solo screenplay.

    P.S. Mathison passed away—way too young—in 2015. One thing's for sure: girl has a legacy.

  • Production Studio

    Nobody loves putting butts in seats quite like Universal Pictures, and with E.T., Universal hit the butt jackpot, so to speak.

    Universal Pictures Makes it Rain

    By the time E.T. hit theaters, Universal, the third oldest film studio in the world, had already produced close to three thousand films, but none of Universal's films had grossed as much domestically as E.T.—and none of Universal's films have since. Combining the film's initial release in 1982 with its 1985 and 2002 re-releases, E.T. earned Universal $435,110,554 in the United States. Internationally, it's brought in a whopping $792,910,554. That's a lot of Reese's Pieces.

    The Birth of Amblin Entertainment

    Also sharing production credit on E.T., perhaps more unofficially than officially, is Amblin Entertainment, the production company founded in 1984 by director Steven Spielberg and his producing partners Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall.

    Spielberg and Kennedy both received producer credits on E.T., and the film was the inspiration for the production company's fanciful logo, which features a silhouette of E.T. riding in the basket of Elliott's flying bike. We shudder to think what that iconic logo would've looked like had Amblin been formed on the set of Jaws instead of E.T. Dun-nuh… Dun-nuh…

    E.T.: The Ride

    In 1990, Universal gave E.T. fans themselves the chance to fly like Elliott and E.T. when they opened E.T. Adventure, an attraction at the Universal Studios Florida theme park in Orlando.

    The low-intensity, gondola-style ride features Spielberg asking park guests to hop into a bicycle-themed vehicle helmed by none other than E.T. himself. Their task is to help the alien get back to his home world, which is dying and can only be saved by his famous healing touch. Before setting off on their journeys, each rider must give their name, or perhaps a clever alias, to one of Spielberg's "assistants" (who look eerily similar to ordinary Universal Studios theme park employees).

    These names are keyed to an Interplanetary Passport that every rider receives. Then, through the wonders of theme park technology, at the end of the ride, E.T. thanks each rider individually by name, a feat that is entertaining for riders of all ages… and especially entertaining for riders with names that are difficult to pronounce.

    Phonetic issues aside, E.T. Adventure was another hit for Universal, and in 1991, Universal Studios Hollywood opened its own E.T. Adventure attraction, with Universal Studios Japan following suit in 2001. Both of these have since closed and been replaced by other attractions, but the original Orlando ride remains.

  • Production Design

    Greetings from California

    E.T. is a totally Californian production. Most of the interiors, like Elliott's bedroom, were filmed at Culver Studios in Culver City. The exception is the sequence at Elliott's school, which was filmed nearby at Culver City High. (Go Centaurs!) All of the exterior shots were also filmed in California, many of them in the Northridge neighborhood of Los Angeles

    What about the forest? It's a combination of several locations, including Redwood National Park. If any of those trees look familiar, it might be because portions of Stars Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi were filmed there, too.

    Shooting on location in California lends to the film's authenticity. If you want to capture life in early '80s suburban California, then early '80s suburban California is a pretty good shooting location, don't you think? The technical specs keep it real, too. E.T. was shot on 35 mm color film and features a Dolby sound mix. These were both the industry standard in the early '80s. By keeping it simple, E.T. captures a distinctive moment in time.

    Dee Wallace Gets Centered

    Also contributing to E.T.'s authenticity is the fact that the film was shot in chronological order. Most productions don't do that; instead, they jump around from scene to scene. But director Steven Spielberg thought that shooting in order would help the child actors maintain their emotional growth throughout the movie—especially at the end when E.T. hightails it for home.

    Of course, this unconventional shooting style meant that Dee Wallace (a.k.a. Mom) had long stretches during production where she had nothing to do. So she used her time off to learn how to meditate. Nice work if you can get it. Om.

    Dry Your Eyes, Drew

    E.T. himself was portrayed by a combination of animatronic puppets and people in costumes. Standing three feet tall, E.T. had thirty-five facial expressions and was able to perform eighty-five different movements. His look was created by Carlo Rambaldi, a special effects artist, and modeled after one of Rambaldi's own paintings, "Women of Delta," which features some, uh, unique-looking ladies.

    In order to make E.T. appear empathetic and wise, his eyes were modeled after those of Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Carl Sandburg. On set, Spielberg even requested that everyone treat E.T. like he was a real actor. In fact, he told Drew Barrymore (Gertie) that E.T. was an honest-to-goodness alien, so when he dies in the film, her tear-soaked reaction is very real. The poor kid thought her fellow thespian just kicked the bucket

    Making a little girl cry? Steven Spielberg, you're hardcore.

  • Music (Score)

    What do E.T., Superman, Harry Potter, Darth Vader, and Abraham Lincoln all have in common? If you guessed composer John Williams, give yourself a handful of Reese's Pieces.

    Williams, a five-time Oscar winner, has composed the scores for close to 150 films, many of them directed by Steven Spielberg. His partnership with Spielberg dates back to 1974 with the director's very first feature film, The Sugarland Express.

    According to The Guardian, "the central relationship of [Williams'] working life is with Steven Spielberg. He has written the score of every Spielberg film except The Color Purple; his spine-tingling music for Jaws in 1975 took him into the big league after 20 years of solid film and TV work; and three of his Oscars were for Spielberg movies—Jaws, E.T., and Schindler's List." In other words, Williams and Spielberg are tight. Their creative partnership is one of Hollywood's most enduring.

    And oh yeah, did you catch that? We just casually mentioned that Williams' score for E.T. won an Oscar. No biggie. Except that it is a biggie because (a) it's an Oscar, man! and (b) the score for E.T. is characteristic of Williams' overall style as a composer. In fact, Williams' scores themselves are just plain big—often using thundering brass or billowing strings to heighten the action on screen.

    The most outstanding example of this in E.T. happens the first time that E.T. and Elliott soar into the night sky on Elliott's bike. The string music swells like a thumb slammed in a trunk (you know, except way more magical), underlining the exhilaration and astonishment of flying past the moon. Variations of this iconic theme are used all throughout the film, including in the climactic chase scene.

    But it's not all blazin' cellos. Williams' score is also used to enhance quieter moments of wonder and awe, like when Elliott first introduces Michael and Gertie to E.T., or when Elliott and E.T. stand in the closet, listening to Mom read Peter Pan to Gertie. In each of these scenes, the score takes on a dreamy quality and embraces sparser instrumentation and flourishes like ascending harps. In contrast, whenever Keys and his goons show up, the score features inquisitive, yet ominous horns. Williams uses the music to accentuate the on-screen action.

    One more thing: leitmotifs. A Williams joint is also marked by the frequent use of leitmotifs. What the heck are those? You know the dun-nuhdun-nuhduh-nuh, dun-nuh, dun-nuh, dun-nuh, dun-nuh in Jaws? That's a leitmotif—a.k.a., a recurring theme associated with a particular person, place, or situation.

    E.T. has his own gentle leitmotif that repeats throughout the film, albeit in several distinctive variations that depend on the tone of the scene. Did you pick up on E.T.'s signature tune? Are you humming it right now? We are, if for no other reason than to get that dang shark's leitmotif out of our head. Sheesh.

  • Fandoms

    Although E.T. first hit the big screen more than three decades ago, it retains an active—and creative—fan community.

    For example, fan fiction writers are still creating stories that update the E.T. universe. Most, somewhat predictably, involve E.T. returning to Earth for things like Elliott's wedding, to locate the cure for a mysterious plague, to learn about the true meaning of Christmas, etc. Some reimagine the original story of E.T. from E.T.'s point of view.

    E.T. is also the source of fan theories, the most famous of which posits that—wait for it—E.T. is a Jedi. Here's the gist: E.T. is full of Star Wars references. Star Wars was created by director Steven Spielberg's friend (and occasional collaborator) George Lucas. E.T.-like aliens make an appearance in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Many, many years in the future, E.T. visits Earth and strikes up a friendship with Elliott. When they go trick-or-treating on Halloween, E.T. spots a kid dressed like Yoda and seems to recognize him, even yelling, "Home! Home!" When Elliott and E.T. escape from the police later in the film, E.T. magically makes the boy's bike fly… which seems an awful lot like he's using The Force.

    If your mind isn't exactly blown, don't worry. The "E.T. is a Jedi" fan theory has plenty of holes in it, but it's just one example of the many theories devised by fans that still have E.T. on the brain some thirty years after he first toddled onto their screens and into their conspiracy-tinged hearts.