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