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Yes, E.T. Is a Plant: Spielberg Reveals Secrets in Exclusive Excerpt from New Book on Early Career
The legendary director dishes on his coming-of-age classic!
Last fall, Neil DeGrasse Tyson made the claim that E.T., the lovable cosmic visitor, "was a sentient plant" during a guest appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. When asked how he came by this strange piece of information, DeGrasse Tyson simply replied: "Steven Spielberg told me in my office." He didn't elaborate any further than that, but we now know he wasn't just blowing smoke.
The legendary director confirms the titular alien of his 1982 coming-of-age classic (now streaming on Peacock) is "more like a plant or a vegetable" in the pages of Laurent Bouzereau's new book — Spielberg: The First Ten Years.
Bouzereau is, perhaps, one of the few people alive who could actually pull off something like this. After all, he's spent decades cultivating a close professional relationship with the celebrated storyteller while serving as director on the numerous behind-the-scenes documentaries found on the home release editions of Spielberg's own movies.
Hitting stands tomorrow, Tuesday, October 24, from Insight Editions, Spielberg: The First Ten Years features exhaustive and must-read interviews centered around the productions of Duel, The Sugarland Express, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1941, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and, of course, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
After some time spent phoning home, SYFY WIRE has its hands on an exclusive excerpt and several images from the E.T. section, where Spielberg and Bouzereau discuss Melissa Mathison's screenplay, the beginning of his longtime producing partnership with Kathleen Kennedy, and the design process for E.T. himself.
For example, did you know that the look of E.T.'s glowing chest was directly inspired by the facehugger egg in Ridley Scott's Alien? That's just one fun fact of many that await you in the snippet below!
Read an exclusive excerpt from new book Spielberg: The First Ten Years
What did you think of the first draft Melissa wrote?
I’ve struggled through a lot of first drafts in my career. Often the first drafts are pretty good, then you do a second draft, which is always a lot worse. Then the third draft is as good as the first draft, and the fourth draft is finally the draft that’s better than the first draft. It’s so painful going through drafts, but a much better process if you can do it with the same writer throughout. Sadly, that’s rare, and it can get confusing. That’s why so many films never get made. They just go into what we call development hell. With Melissa, I knew from the beginning that she would be the only writer on E.T. We had such comprehensive meetings about the structure, the story, and the characters that I pretty much knew what the movie would be like. I read the script in about an hour, and I was just knocked out. It was a script that I was willing to shoot the next day. I didn’t really have any notes. It was honest, and it came from both of our hearts. Melissa’s voice made a direct connection with my own.
Her dialogue was honest, edgy, brilliant, and reflected the way kids really talked in those days. I went to Kathy Kennedy, who was having lunch at the commissary, and I said, “Kathy, don’t bother ordering dessert — I have it right here!” And I handed her Melissa’s script. I asked her to cancel all her meetings that afternoon, to focus on the script and make sure I wasn’t crazy. Kathy read it and later came over to the office and just said, “You’re not crazy. I love it, too.”
Kathy has played such an important role in your career. She was assistant to John Milius on 1941, became your associate on Raiders, and jumped right into producing with E.T. The rest, as they say, is history.
Kathy was my secretary for a while, or today we would refer to her as my assistant. As an assistant, she couldn’t handle making tea, but she was so smart about movies that I started inviting her to my story meetings. I really saw a kindred spirit in Kathy. On Raiders, she came on as my associate, and when E.T. came along, I knew I had found a great producing partner. I turned to her and said, “Look, how would you like to produce E.T. with me?” Her mouth dropped open. I told her I was serious, and that was the beginning of a wonderful partnership and friendship.
So much relied on the audience connecting with E.T., the alien. At what point did you start designing him?
When I was developing Night Skies, the John Sayles script, I hired Rick Baker, undoubtedly the best creature designer of his era. He designed some incredible aliens, but what I needed was one special character. I remember I went to Rick and told him that we were switching projects and overall approach. I explained we were no longer doing a bunch of aliens but focusing on one, and Rick was disappointed. We decided that this wasn’t a film that we should do together. I said that E.T. was not going to make a lot of money and that I was making it for kids. We parted ways, and I went off to try to find a designer for my singular creature.
I knew I wanted it to look like an organic alien, not someone in a rubber suit. I wanted it to be about three feet tall, with a neck that could stretch out, like a turtle coming out of its shell, but that the head would otherwise just sit on the shoulders. The neck would have a behavior of its own and would defy anyone being inside a suit. That was the prerequisite that I brought to every designer.
I first went to Stan Winston, who did an interesting design. It was really a curious creature, but I was “shopping.” At the same time, I went to Carlo Rambaldi, who had done the Puck alien in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. My illustrator Ed Verreaux had been sketching E.T.’s face with me at my beach house on weekends, and we gave Carlo several of the sketches we had done, explaining that was the direction we had been developing. I said, “I want his eyes to be very wide. Here are some pictures of Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Carl Sandburg. I love their eyes. Can we make E.T.’s eyes as wizened and as sad as those three icons?” Carlo worked in clay for many weeks. I have actual video footage of E.T. in different stages of development spinning around on a small turntable. I would light him from different angles to try to see how the skin, the cheekbones, his very thick, almost simian brow caught light in relation to his eyes. Carlo did several versions; I stood over him and worked with him. I’m not an artist, so I didn’t touch the clay, but I would say, “Too scary, too cute, too Disney, too sweet.” Finally, this creature did emerge from clay after a few weeks that became E.T.
My biggest fear was that the audience would not love E.T. and would find him off-putting. My hope was that they would love him within fifteen minutes of meeting him. I wanted them to have the same journey as Elliott — to be scared at first and then embrace E.T. completely.
What other references did you study?
I wanted E.T. to give the impression of a thousand-year old wizened life form. Carlo took directions the same way an actor would — but it’s of course really the actor who creates the performance, and in that sense, it’s really Carlo Rambaldi who created E.T. I also remember saying to Carlo that E.T. should kind of waddle when he walks like Chaplin with his cane, that he should look like Bambi on ice. When E.T. starts to walk on Earth, he is ungainly, and he is insecure. Several times in the movie, we showed how awkward E.T. is and how funny he is when he falls over.
You turned to Ralph McQuarrie to design the spaceship.
Yes. Ralph contributed to the entire design from scratch. He wanted to do a different kind of spaceship and got this idea of it being a complete oval shape, with a surface that would reflect nature, trees, and the night sky. It was a wonderful concept, and he drew the ship to look a bit like E.T. It would squat when landing — it had legs — and I just fell in love with the design and didn’t question it. I just said, “That’s it. Let’s build it.”
Ralph also did some sketches of E.T., I believe.
He did a whole series of drawings of E.T. As I said, I was “shopping” and looking for the perfect design. His drawings were perhaps too “science fiction-y,” but he really scored with the spaceship. I still have the model in my conference room at Amblin.
I believe the idea of showing E.T.’s heart light was inspired by Alien (1979) when John Hurt’s character discovers the translucent eggs before the "facehugger" springs out at him.
I was really impressed with the insert work on Ridley Scott’s movie Alien, and I just said, “I want to be able to see E.T.’s organs. When he turns on his heart light, I want to be able to see the organs around it.” I think it was Craig Reardon and Robert Short, who worked on E.T.’s puppetry, who said that based on the script, E.T. was a plant. I agreed. I didn’t think he was anything like a mammal, a bird, or a fish, but more like a plant or a vegetable. They came up with the idea for his organs to be plant-like, and I thought that was fantastic.
Pick up a copy of Spielberg: The First Ten Years right here! The book features a foreword by John Williams and an introduction by George Lucas.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is now streaming on Peacock.