Do you mean that making movies is a way of showing off?
With the exception of Close Encounters, in all my movies before E.T., I was giving out, giving off things before I would bring something in. There were feelings I developed in my personal life…that I had no place to put. Then, while working on Raiders, I had the germ of an idea. I was very lonely, and I remember thinking I had nobody to talk to. My girlfriend was in California, so was George Lucas. Harrison Ford had a bad case of the turistas. I remember wishing one night that I had a friend. It was like, when you were a kid and had grown out of dolls or teddy bears or Winnie the Pooh, you just wanted a little voice in your mind to talk to. I began concocting this imaginary creature, partially from the guys who stepped out of the mother ship for ninety seconds in Close Encounters and then went back in, never to be seen again.
Then I thought, what if I were ten years old again – where I’ve sort of been for thirty-four years, any way – and what if he needed me as much as I needed him? Wouldn’t that be a great love story? So I put together this story of boy meets creature, boy loses creature, creature saves boy, boy saves creature – with the hope that they will somehow always be together, that their friendship isn’t limited by nautical miles. And I asked Melissa Mathison, who is Harrison Ford’s girlfriend and a wonderful writer, to turn it into a screenplay.
Did you hire her because you admired her work on The Black Stallion?
I did admire The Black Stallion, but it was more because Melissa was one of the few people on the Raiders location I could talk to. I was pouring my heart out to Melissa all the time.
In E.T., the view of growing up is both uplifting and painful. If Elliott hadn’t befriended E.T., he’d still be one lonely kid.
To me, Elliott was always the Nowhere Man from the Beatles song. I was drawing from my own feelings when I was a little kid and I didn’t have that many friends and had to resort to making movies to become quasi-popularand to find a reason for living after school hours. Most of my friends were playing football or basketball or baseball and going out with girls. I didn’t do those things until very late.
Is E.T. your imaginary revenge –— turning the Nowhere Man into a hero?
Oh yeah, absolutely. When I began making E.T., I thought that maybe the thing to do was go back and make life the way it should have been. How many kids, in their Walter Mitty imaginations, would love to save the frogs or kiss the prettiest girl in class? That’s every boy’s childhood fantasy.
Have you been able to fulfill your own childhood fantasies?
Let me tell you an interesting story. The German director Wim Wenders called me yesterday and said, “Do an interview for me; I’m asking one question: what is the future of the movie business?” I agreed and showed up at three in the afternoon at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes. I walk into the room, and there’s a 16-mm movie camera, a microphone, a Nagra [tape recorder] and lights and a crew of six people. They turn on the equipment and they leave me all alone in the room! Finally, I answer the question —– straightforward, analytic, sort of like the Wall Street Journal. I’m proud of myself until I talk to Harrison Ford. He says he would have taken all his clothes off and sat there in the nude, not said a word for ten minutes, then, when the film had run out, walked out fully dressed and thanked them all for a pleasant experience. After all, they weren’t going to see the film for forty-eight hours —– it takes that long to process it! Now, that just shows me that I’m not as far along in my development as Harrison is. I guess I still haven’t been able to shake off the anesthetic of suburbia.
The anesthetic of suburbia –— that implies that it protects you from pain and from any kind of raw feeling.
And real life. Because the anesthetic of suburbia also involves having three parents –— a mother, a father and a TV set. Two of them are equilibriums, but one of them is more powerful, because it’s always new and fresh and entertaining. It doesn’t reach out and tell you what to do.
To me, the key suburban feeling is claustrophobia. Sitting in the den, waiting for the Good Humor truck to come.
I love that. Remember Pinky Lee? I used to sit in the den, listen for the Good Humor truck and watch Pinky Lee on TV. There was no privacy in suburbia because my mom’s friends would come in the morning, drink coffee and gossip. And it was claustrophobic. It’s a reality to kids; in suburbia you have to create a kids’ world apart from an adult world –and the two will never eclipse. In an urban world, the adult world and the child world are inseparable. Everybody gets the same dose of reality every day. On the way to school, on the way to the drugstore, on the way home, on the way shopping, it’s all the same. In suburbia, kids have secrets. And that’s why I wanted E.T. to take place in suburbia. What better place to keep a creature from outer space a secret from the grownups?