The long, twisting odyssey that was the making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind began, fittingly, with a lonely car ride into the great American west, in search of something big and spiritual that the people involved weren't even sure existed.
Joe Alves had played a crucial role as production designer on Jaws, a shoot that was famously difficult. In the mid-'70s, decades before CGI made anything possible on screen, even getting a mechanical shark to jump on a boat was a seemingly impossible task. Alves helped solve that problem for director Steven Spielberg, but as his handiwork was scaring American audiences and remaking the summer blockbuster, he was already focused on the next groundbreaking movie. "The day they released Jaws was the day I flew to South Dakota, to Mount Rushmore to start looking for strange pieces of topography," Alves remembers. "I just drove around by myself for thousands of miles looking for a strange-looking rock."
Alves drove around the mountain west, admiring the natural beauty. But he was most transfixed by a structure that looked, quite appropriately, like it belonged on another planet: Devil's Tower, in Wyoming. He later brought a group that included Spielberg and the movie's producers, Michael and Julia Phillips, to the massive igneous tabletop, and it was quickly agreed that it would serve as the centerpiece of a movie about first alien contact, and the government conspiracies and blue-collar obsessions that arrived with it. The movie was still titled "Watch the Skies," and soon Alves was a key member of a team charged with figuring out how to convey the magic of the great expanse above.
The movie became a massive hit and an important touchstone in science fiction cinema history. On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the 1977 release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alves — who just released a book of his production designs, sketches, and on-set photos — spoke with SYFY WIRE to look back at the long, hard, and ultimately rewarding production.
Close Encounters was originally meant to be a low-budget affair, but as Jaws broke box-office records, distributor Columbia Pictures got bigger and bigger eyes. On the verge of bankruptcy, they wanted their own blockbuster, and it was becoming clear that Spielberg was going to become the master of the genre. So they tentatively said yes to expanding the scope of the movie, which gave Alves big ideas — especially when it came to creating the climactic third act.
Weather and light issues precluded them from shooting most of it at the actual Devil's Tower location, so Alves had to figure out just how and where they could re-create the scenes in which the aliens arrived at the makeshift military base at the tower, with the obsessed Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss, Spielberg’s on-screen doppelganger) looking on.
"It was just supposed to be a military camp encampment, just tents and military stuff looking at this huge rock," Alves says. "And as that developed, we thought, well it should be really more important; a big arena with a lot of scientific equipment to test it. And [the studio] said, 'Well, what do you think it should be?' And I said, four times that size."
That answer came as a bit of a shock, so Alves made a clay model of his vision and explained why it was so important to blow up the scope of the scene.
"I said, 'If we knew that a spaceship was gonna land, we would have every bit of scientific equipment out there that you can get,' he recalls. "So they loved the big model and they said, ‘Well you gonna build it?’ And that was a thing I hadn't really considered."
There were no soundstages that could match the scale of his model, so they wound up hunting for airplane hangars. A national search took them to Alabama, where they found 300 square yards that Alves could extend another 150 with a runway for a car chase up an Indiana hillside.
"Today we do so much in green screen and CGI, and, for example, when Melinda Dillon and Richard tried to climb up the mountain, today it'd be all green screen," Alves says. "But we had to make this huge thing. So we constructed this big plywood thing and then we covered it with plastic rocks. It was seven stories on rowers because we had to put it front of a front projection screen; [VFX director] Douglas Trumbull was gonna photograph the arena on it. It was like 80 feet tall, all covered with mirror mylar and had 3,000 photo floodlights."
The hangar became the biggest movie set of its time, and construction coordinator Bill Parks hung up a gigantic banner that said "Not Since C.B. DeMille," the showman director of The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Show on Earth who constructed gigantic sets at the dawn of Hollywood.
And yet, because Hollywood had only just started working with computers and digital effects, there were still limits to the production's grandiosity. Alves, for example, had big plans for the aliens' arrival in the arena, but not all of them could be executed.
"In the movie, the mothership lands, and then the little aliens start coming out. But as it was originally planned, they were supposed to come out and then sort of float around," Alves says, still a bit bummed he couldn't make the creatures fly around his massive set. "Flying all those kids would have been very, very difficult. And as it was, to begin with, the set was so big that we had 48 arcs up on that terrace and all these photo floodlights. It was just really, really complicated."
The next idea was to have "little cuboids of light" fly all over the place. "The little cube things we had on wires, so there were little square lights flying by," he recalls. "That became too much, so we killed that, too. Today we could do it with CGI. We would have flown the kids and gotten a green screen, put them in a layer and the same thing with the cubes."
Alves worked with a number of production legends, including Trumbull and Vilmos Zsigmond, who would win an Oscar for Close Encounters. Their work was key, but it built on the early concepts that Alves created for Spielberg during preproduction. One of the most important elements were the actual aliens (whether they flew or not), the inspiration for which came from a number of sources. They closely consulted Project Blue Book, which was the code name for the Air Force's study of UFO sightings throughout the '50s and '60s, and Alves spent time talking to people who claimed to have seen aliens.
"Some of them were sort of freaky, but some were pretty valid. I talked to a couple airline pilots that didn't want to say anything, didn't report [sightings] because they didn't want someone to think they were crazy," he remembers, a recollection that's reflected in one of the film's early scenes. "Whether they were kooks or not, it seemed to be whoever I talked to, there was a similarity in what they described: a large head, very simple, large dome kind of thing with big eyes, a slim mouth, a very little nose — if any nose — and elongated fingers. That was repeated by various people, so I made an early charcoal sketch."
The prosthetics team began taking the aliens in a different direction, and at first Spielberg had them revert back to the more simple sculptures of "nice aliens" that Alves had laid out. They planned on putting the prosthetics on young girls — the "kids" that Alves mentioned — and have them be a welcoming presence. The original design, to the naked eye at least, looks much like the final product, but Alves sees some key differences in what designer Carlo Rambaldi ultimately turned out.
"Later, in post-production, a lot of things changed, and then they came out with that weird alien," he says. And that was sort of surprise to me when I saw it later, because I was doing other stuff during the post-production. I was surprised that Steven changed it and wanted to bring out that weird-looking alien, because the concept was nice little aliens and they're welcoming Dreyfuss and these other people."
Initially, the movie was supposed to come out in the spring. Instead, it was pushed back to several months after Star Wars, which of course took the world by storm and redefined sci-fi.
"Star Wars really changed things. Steven had met this guy — or [George] Lucas sent over a guy — who was trying to convince us that we didn't have to build a big set, that we could do everything CGI. So I had to constantly deal with this guy, but Steven would say, 'Joe, give him a chance.' But to render up one image, it took 72 hours back then, so it wasn't practical. I mean, it was the future, but it wasn't practical then."
Alves notes that a lot of elements changed from not only his preproduction planning but also from what had been shot during principal photography. Zsigmond, Alves says, was fired toward the end over a conflict with Spielberg. The opening scenes, with the old World War II airplanes found in the desert, were added during reshoots; according to Alves, those scenes were not part of any initial shot list or script. And he wasn't a huge fan of the special edition that showed the inside of the mothership (and neither was Spielberg).
Some of the ideas that Alves and Spielberg initially spoke about didn't even make it to the storyboard stage but would be reused in the director's future classics.
"I think at one point he really wanted it more like E.T. He wanted it more home-based, and he wanted [the mothership] to land between a Jack-in-the-Box and a McDonald's or something," Alves remembers. "So I said okay and I made a model of that, of an area with a McDonald's. And then he looked at it and he said, 'No, it's a dumb idea. Forget it.' But it wasn't a bad idea, because I think that sort of turned into E.T, the landing at home."
For all the changes and tweaks and unused ideas, Alves doesn't think he'd do anything differently or change anything about the film now. He recently visited Devil's Tower again for the first time in years and was struck by how spiritual it felt. And as the film's 40th anniversary approaches, he still marvels at how it connects with people.
"It's weird, you could spend your lifetime making movies and never have a Jaws or a Close Encounters, something that doesn't seem to go away," he says. "I've been involved in lots of movies, but 40 years later, I'm doing shows and interviews about this."