“E.T.” Phones Home, 30 Years On

Original cast and crew gather to mark the 30th anniversary of Spielberg's classic, and fete the special edition Blu-ray release.

Thirty years ago, a diminutive visitor from another planet touched down in theaters for the first time, and a colossal phenomenon blasted off into the stratosphere.

Director Steven Spielberg’s beloved classic "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” makes a return visit for his Blu-ray debut on Oct. 9, in a dazzling anniversary edition. Digitally remastered, the edition features behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the movie, deleted scenes, a reunion of cast and filmaker, as well as a special vignette of composer John Williams conducting a live version of the "E.T." score at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

To mark the anniversary and special edition Blu-ray release, actors Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace and executive producer Kathleen Kennedy shared their behind the scenes memories of the making of the film.

Kathleen Kennedy: We started out talking about a movie that was quite different. Steven and I had just started working together on 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' and he said to me ‘There's this wonderful man, J. Allen Hynek, who worked for the government where there were reports of UFOs and they were unexplained.’ He said, 'There was this case in Kentucky called The Hopkinsville Case – go find out about that, because that might make an interesting movie.' So I called and sure enough there was this really interesting case, which involved a family who claimed that they'd been visited by creatures from outer space.

They were all put under hypnosis individually, and they described exactly the same thing under hypnosis. We were fascinated by this…We brought John Sayles in and he wrote a script called 'Watch the Skies' about this alien invasion, essentially – it was still a small movie and not alien invasion the way that we think of movies today. We both were reading this script, and the very last image of the script is a little alien left alone, looking at the sky, watching a spaceship leave. Steven said, 'I don't want to make this movie – that's the movie that I want to make!' And that was really the genesis of 'E.T.'

Dee Wallace:
I was just looking for job! Look, when you do a movie, you don’t really think about two years later when it’s gonna be a major hit – at least, I don’t. I knew when I read the script, because I was offered the part – Steven had interviewed me for ‘Used Cars’ but he saw this childlikeness that he wanted for Mary so he sent it to me, for which I’m grateful. So I had the part before I read the part, and I went over to the studio to read the script, and I knew that the script was magical, and I knew that it touched a truth and a heart place that very few scripts that I had ever read did.

Kennedy: Nobody necessarily wanted to make the movie. The movie only cost $10 million, which even then was considered relatively small. I would say that's the only reason he asked me to produce it. So consequently the success was a surprise to all of us because he thought he was doing something relatively personal and small and intimate. Almost everybody on the movie, interestingly enough, it was kind of their first major move, career-wise. There were a lot of firsts, whether it was our AD, our production designer, our costume designer. Lots of people were really young and just starting out in the business. So the whole thing was an explosive experience.

Henry Thomas:
I was a huge 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' fan. The first time I met Steven I decided it would be smart to wear a bullwhip.

Kennedy: That is how Henry arrived: a bullwhip rolled up and hung on his belt, and a little hat.

Thomas: I was very interested in talking to him about 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' and whether or not I got the job was kind of in the back of my mind. I also knew that he was in good with the people of 'Star Wars.' [‘E.T.’ screenwriter] Melissa Mathison was on the set almost every day and [her soon-to-be husband] Harrison Ford was actually on set a lot, so I got to follow him around and bother him with a few questions. The cool thing was after the film came out, I got nominated for a Golden Globe and some other things, a kid's award or something, and Harrison Ford sent me a telegram that said congratulations. I still have that.

Wallace: I had met the children before we actually started filming, or course – we all had gotten together. And what I loved about all of them was that they were not Hollywood. They weren’t really trained – they were just natural, brilliant, in-the-moment real kids. And Drew – we knew from the time she walked on the set the first time and she came up to me and said ‘I’m going to sit in your lap now, Dee,’ she was a director. She owned who she was, and you could see it even back then. And truthfully, Henry is very much who he was back then. He’s very talented and very quiet and very personal, and not real bravado about what he does.

Steven was great at talking to us. Suddenly, we weren't kids anymore. We were just technicians on the film set…The cool thing about the way that Steven worked was as a child he made you feel like you were a part of everything, not just your character. He would take us to the art department and show us the sets that were being built or sketches or things that [‘E.T.’ creature designer] Carlo Rambaldi was building and different ideas for the creature and what he was going to look like, what he might've looked like before and things like this. So I remember as a kid feeling like I was a part of the filmmaking process.

Thomas: I was aware of the reality of the wires and the 12 guys on the other side of the studio operating E.T., but there was definitely, on all the sets and all of the locations, an air of magic about it, to where you could easily put yourself in a situation where the cameras were gone. Part of that was being ten years old, but I think for Drew Barrymore, who was seven when we were working together, he was very real. She worried about him when we went for lunch and would wrap a scarf around his neck. 'What's he going to eat? Why doesn't he eat with us?'

Kennedy: I was so freaked out because people were laughing at the Houston preview and I thought that they were laughing at the movie, and so I was thinking 'Oh my God!' It's a strange thing, when you haven't made a lot of movies and you've sort of experienced things over and over and over again, sitting on the dubbing stage or whatever, and you get one sense of what you think the experience is like without an audience. And then all of a sudden the audience fills in what you haven't done yourself. In this case, that was phenomenal.

Wallace: It was amazing, and it was scary. Because my Kansas roots went ‘[Gasps] Too much, too far, too fast!’ I got scared and I kind of pulled back. And yet it was one of the kind of grandest moments of my life. You know, it’s one thing to be a ‘star,’ for a film that makes a lot of money. It’s a whole different thing to be a star in a film that changes people’s lives. And for that I will be eternally grateful.

Kennedy: [Sequel pitches have] gone on for years. For years! And it's not just studios. I even had Bono come and talk to me a long time ago about selling something that would be a sequel to 'E.T.' with an environmental message…I listened. I can certainly understand. The great thing about Bono is that everything he does is in service to a greater cause, and even back then he was thinking. His mind is always going about how to put things together to try and create awareness, and so I couldn't blame him for that.

Thomas: Definitely the relationship that I've had with the film over the years has been evolving, because I think when I was a teenager I was like, 'Oh gosh – they're going to call me Elliott again. Here we go.' But I have kids now and also just everybody that you meet, especially like people close to my age, a little bit younger, a little bit older, they all have stories, very meaningful stories of seeing the film for the first time, so in a small way I feel kind of proud for my own contribution to that.

Kennedy: ‘The success was a surprise to Steven, and I think that's an interesting and valuable thing for any artist, any filmmaker – certainly of Steven's status – to recognize that they can still have commercial success inside something that is very, very personal. I think even today that gets forgotten sometimes. People sometimes want to make a distinction between what's commercial and what's art and what's driving the creativity. I think Steven, more than many, understands that he can combine the two. He tries to do that a lot and I think 'E.T.' probably inspired a lot of that.


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