Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, Steven Spielberg’s perennial E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial arrives today on Blu-ray for the very first time in a DVD/Blu-ray/Digital Copy combo pack loaded with special features. In celebration of the release, ComingSoon.net sat down for a special interview brunch with producer Kathleen Kennedy and star Henry Thomas, both of whom had no way of knowing exactly how enduring the film’s legacy would be.
“The movie only cost $10 million which, even then, was relatively small. I would say that’s the only reason he asked me to produce it,” laughs Kennedy, who followed that first experience to become one of Hollywood’s most successful producers. “It was a surprise to all of us. [Steven] thought he was doing something relatively personal and small and intimate.”
Following the success of blockbuster films like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg planned to move forward with a John Sayles-scripted project, loosely based on an alleged 1955 extraterrestrial encounter wherein “goblins” attacked a small farmhouse in rural Kentucky.
“It was about this alien invasion, essentially,” says Kennedy of that script, titled Watch the Skies. “It was still a small movie and not an alien invasion movie the way we think of them today The very last page of the script is a little alien left alone, looking at the sky and watching his spaceship leave. Steven said, ‘I don’t want to make this movie. That’s the movie I want to make.’ That was really the genesis of ‘E.T.'”
Creating an alien creature that the world could embrace as real was no small feat. E.T. owes his physical design to the late Carlo Rambaldi, who previously worked with Spielberg on the aliens in Close Encounters.
“The first things Steven said is, ‘I don’t want a guy inside a suit,'” says Kennedy. “…He knew that the eyes were really important and we had pictures of Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Carl Sandberg. Soulful faces. Then, Carlo, came up with the idea of a cat. Persian kitties have that round, fluffy face and we were using that in combination with these soulful eyes.”
It was later and through a chance encounter that sound designer Ben Burtt came across Pat Welsh, the woman who would contribute E.T.’s famous raspy voice.
“Ben Burtt stopped into a drugstore near where he was working and there was this woman working at the counter, ordering something,” Kennedy recalls. “She had this incredible voice and he started to talk to her. He said, ‘You know, I’m recording something just down the street here. Would you mind coming into the studio?” What it was was she had smoked Kool cigarettes practically her whole life and she had this kind of amazing, raspy voice that became, really, the essence of the E.T. voice.”
It wasn’t much later that ten year old Thomas joined the production as Elliot after his debut performance in 1981’s Raggedy Man caught Spielberg’s eye. A devoted fan of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Thomas wore a bullwhip to his first meeting with the director.
“It was an easy world for me to fall into,” Thomas recalls, “and ignore the man behind the curtain, so to speak… I was aware of the reality of the wire and the twelve guys on the other side of the studio operating it. But all on all of the sets and all the locations, there was an air of magic about it where you could easily put yourself in a situation where the cameras were gone. Part of that was being 10 years old. For Drew Barrymore who was seven when we were working together, he was very real. She worried about him when we went to lunch.”
Of all the challenges that the role presented him, Thomas remembers being most nervous about his on-screen kiss with 13-year-old Erika Eleniak.
“That was in the beginning of the shooting,” he says. “It was our first couple of weeks, I think. I was so nervous and I had to kiss a girl in front of all these other kids and adults. She was taller and older than me. I was pretty much just thinking about that Then Steven said, ‘Let’s have a rehearsal. You can just try it just to practice.’ I over-amped, we came together and our teeth just clacked.”
After its release, E.T. took the world by storm, playing in theaters for over a year and surpassing Star Wars as the highest-grossing film of all time (a record it would hold for over a decade). Taken aback by the film’s popularity, Kennedy remembers receiving a particularly surreal phone call from the FBI.
“They said, ‘Look, we’ve got two 747s at Newark full of pirated E.T. dolls. What do you want to do with them?'” she laughs.”From that point on, I looked at a call sheet that had like 250 phone calls from companies wanting to put together some kind of a merchandising campaign. Really the reason that we ended up doing any merchandising was to try and put trademarks in place to stop piracy.”
Despite the film’s massive appeal, Spielberg and Kennedy have always been reluctant to consider making a sequel, though she says that they’ve received some interesting pitches over the years.
“I’ve had filmmakers,” she says. “I even had Bono come and talk to me about having a sequel to ‘E.T.’ help with an environmental message I listened. I can certainly understand. I mean, the great thing about Bono is that everything he does is in service to a greater cause. Even back then, he was thinking. His mind is always going about how to put things together to create awareness.”
Bono wasn’t the only musician drawn in by “E.T.,” either. Michael Jackson was such a big fan that he rented his own movie theater for daily screenings.
“He absolutely loved it,” says Kennedy, who worked with Jackson on an unreleased storybook album to accompany the film. “…Interestingly enough, that storybook album never saw the light of day and it’s a beautiful box set where Michael Jackson narrates and Quincy [Jones] did all the music. It has pictures and story. It’s a really, really beautiful thing. Michael was doing ‘Thriller’ at the time When we were getting ready to distribute it, an injunction was put against the album because the producer or publisher at the time of ‘Thriller’ felt that the storybook would be competition to Michael’s album. Which is insane when you think about it. So they refused to let us distribute the album because Michael was involved.”
Although the new Blu-ray features hours of bonus material, one thing fans won’t find included is Spielberg’s 2002 cut of the film, which infamously updated certain shots with CGI effects.
“To be perfectly honest,” Kennedy says, “I think Steven always regretted the decision to do anything to the film. I think he was feeling a certain amount of pressure to be politically correct. Then he sort of stopped after being talked into this and realized that maybe it wasn’t a good idea. I think most fans of movies that have withstood the test of time don’t like for them to be tinkered with. I think that’s a pretty general consensus. You like to remember what you started with.”
Thomas, meanwhile, is going to use the new release as a chance to finally offer his oldest daughter, now eight, her first screening of the film, but he tosses out any notion that she might be impressed by his appearance as a boy.
“They’ve known since they were tiny,” he laughs. “One of their DVDs from years ago has a trailer for ‘E.T.’ at the head of it. One day I was starting a movie for them and I came on the screen as Elliot. I said, ‘Do you know who that guy is?” And they said, [disinterested] ‘Oh. Yeah. We know. It’s you, dad.'”
“It is the sad thing,” says Kennedy. “I don’t think you can ever go back, unfortunately, if you’ve had that degree of success… I think ‘E.T.’ came along at a time when it was probably meant to be. I think that making a movie like ‘E.T.’ today wouldn’t have resulted in necessarily the same phenomenon. It’s hard to pick apart 30 years to say what might have contributed to that, but I think there is an innocence to the filmmaking.”