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SYFY WIRE E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

Why Saving Private Ryan Was the First Movie Steven Spielberg Shot in Order Since E.T.

If a director decides to go the extra mile and shoot a move in sequence, it's usually for a good storytelling reason.

By Josh Weiss

Movies are a lot like thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles. Long before a film makes its way to your local theater, it is nothing more than a jumbled collection of many different pieces, from which a director must decipher meaning alongside their trusty editor and script supervisor.

Unless you're Christopher Nolan, your movie is probably going to follow a traditional linear structure of events occurring in chronological order. Easier said than done, because scenes are rarely ever shot in sequence due to a number of logistical factors (time and money prominent among them) that make it unfeasible for a script to be realized in sequential order. The list of projects filmed that way is relatively short, but if a director decides to give themselves the extra headache, it's usually for a good storytelling reason.

For instance, Steven Spielberg famously shot E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (available to own from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment) in an effort to keep the young actors immersed in the illusion of the story. "All the emotional stuff was on track in terms of building a relationship with E.T.," Henry Thomas (Elliott) told ComicBook in 2022. A little over a decade later, Spielberg would employ a similar tactic for his seminal, men-on-a-mission World War II picture: Saving Private Ryan (now streaming on Peacock).

For More on Steven Spielberg:
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Why Steven Spielberg Shot Saving Private Ryan in Order, Like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

"I ended up with a film better than I set out to make," Spielberg said in a 1998 interview with WFAA in Dallas, Texas. "Because I made the movie in continuity. By simply shooting the movie in continuity, starting in the Higgins Boats and ending at the memorial cemetery in France, the movie told me what it needed to become. Every single day, I was informed and re-informed of how far to go, where to take it, what to tell the characters, and how to rewrite the script."

He continued: "A lot of times, in the movie business, you shoot the last scene ... first, you shoot the beginning last, and you shoot the middle all over the place. That's an economical consideration when you're watching your budget. I watched my budget on this picture very carefully, but I did shoot it in continuity."

Speaking with Roger Ebert around the same time, Spielberg described production as "a mentally demoralizing experience" for himself and the crew. Quite understandable, given how the movie doesn't pull any punches about the horrors of war. The opening sequence of the D-Day invasion — which took place 80 years ago this month — ended up being so realistic, that actual World War II veterans suffered episodes of PTSD while watching it.

"We were all reliving the story together," the director said. "The last film I shot in continuity was E.T. I did that to help the kids understand where they were coming from and where they were going in the story. So literally yesterday was a page ago and tomorrow would be a page later. I did that again in this picture but I didn't realize how devastating that was going to be for the whole cast to actually start off with Omaha Beach and survive that as a film team, and then move into the hedgerows, move into the next town, as we all began to get whittled down by the storytelling."

The screenplay for Saving Private Ryan, which ended up nabbing an Oscar nomination at the 71st Academy Awards, was written by Robert Rodat, whose next historical outing — Those About to Die, set in Ancient Rome — will debut exclusively on Peacock next month.

Saving Private Ryan is currently streaming on PeacockE.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is available to own from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.