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Steven Spielberg's E.T.: A Viewer's Guide

Image for Steven Spielberg's E.T.: A Viewer's Guide

You’ve watched E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial dozens of times, because you’re someone with a soul and, chances are, a copy of E.T. on DVD. But have you ever watched it with one of Empire’s tried-and-true viewer’s guides to hand?

Steven Spielberg: Director's Collection Blu-ray box set available to order now.

E.T.

0.22 Before E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, five other different titles were tested: The Extra-Terrestrial, Upon A Star, E.T. And Me, E.T. and The Landing. The working title was A Boy’s Life, which never stood a chance.

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1.53 Spielberg thought that the spaceship should land in a vacant lot, but writer Melissa Mathison – who’d previously written The Black Stallion (1979) and went on to write The Indian In The Cupboard (1995) and Kundun (1997) as well as marry some guy called Harrison Ford – persuaded him a forest would work better. On the day, the chosen location was flooded, and an alternate nearby area had to be found, and covered with grass.

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3.08 Production designer James D. Bissell created a grand array of out-of-this-world flora for inside E.T.’s spaceship, notably a Day Of The Triffids-inspired plant, as well as special gardening tools. Both the Triffid and the tools were cut, but know this: they are there, somewhere.

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3.32 E.T. and his extra-terrestrial brethren are not animal or mineral but vegetable. This idea of E.T. being a plant of some kind led the team designing him – headed up by the Oscar-winning Carlo Rambaldi – to create “plant-like” glowing hearts, first seen here, en masse.

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3.45 The E.T. arms that Rambaldi designed moved well, but were too jerky. Spielberg sidestepped this “wagga wagga” problem (as he called it) by hiring a mime and putting E.T. make-up on their hands. The successful auditioner was professional Marcel Marceau-alike Caprice Rothe, who worked with a specially rigged-up monitor to see what she was doing.

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4.14 Getting E.T. to walk convincingly was a huge challenge. The solution was to use a mix of actors and child actors in suits wherever possible, with 2’10” tall Pat Bilon doing most of the walking, aided by the 2’6” tall Tamara De Treaux, who most notably did the discovery-in-the-woodshed and final walking-up-the-ramp scenes. 12-year-old Matthew De Meritt, who was born without legs and was able to walk on his hands, did the drunken-bumbling-in-the-kitchen scene.

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6.22 Aside from Elliott’s mum, no adults are shown from the top half up in the first two acts of the movie. Yes, that’s a bit like Tom And Jerry, and yes, there’s a cat and mouse hat-tip later.

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6.24 No-one is inside E.T. at this point – he’s on rails.

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6.42 The original idea was to have E.T.’s ship resemble a flying saucer, but Star Wars concept designing veteran Ralph McQuarrie instead came up with a diving bell-shaped craft, to reflect Spielberg’s idea that E.T. and his fellow aliens came from a very humid planet. Squint and you’ll see barnacles on the bottom of the bell.

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7.19 The town were Elliott and his family live is never named, but a bit of sleuthing – cars’ license plates and the spot Elliott points to on the map, basically – put it somewhere near Lake Tahoe in northeastern California. Also never named: Elliott and his family’s surname. Incidentally, if you have ten minutes, watch this amazing E.T. Locations video on YouTube, and prepare to be delighted.

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7.55 Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and his friends Greg (K. C. Martel), Steve (Sean Frye) and Tyler (C. Thomas Howell) are playing Dungeons And Dragons, but the producers did not get permission to explicitly state that they were playing Dungeons And Dragons.

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8.30 Greg is requesting the DJ to play ‘Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow’ on the radio. ‘Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow’ is a novelty song first recorded by The Rivingtons in 1962, but was covered by The Persuasions and it’s this version that appears on the film’s soundtrack album.

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9.02 The house used throughout the film was originally commissioned for just 6 weeks’ use – it finally clocked in with four months’ use by the end of the shoot. If you fancy the road trip to see it, you’ll need to head to Sunland-Tujunga, Los Angeles.

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12.17 The family dog’s name is Harvey. This may or may not be a reference to the 1950 movie of the same name, where Jimmy Stewart becomes best friends with an invisible rabbit.

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16.50 The ultimate movie insult: “penis breath”. Originally, it was going to be “shithead”, but Henry Thomas didn’t want to say that word.

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20.06 Famously, the script required M&Ms for this scene, but Mars, who own the sweet brand, did not want to be associated with such an “ugly” creature. Instead Hersey allowed the producers to use a new product called Reese’s Pieces. After E.T. mania hit, sales shot up by 65%.

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21.54 Your first shot of E.T. inside the house, inside Elliott’s room. Five key rooms in the house – the bedroom, the hallways, Gertie’s room and the two closets – were specially built so they were raised ten inches off the floor, all to accommodate the cables, wires and other technical gubbins E.T. required.

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24.51 The heat-up-the-thermometer-with-a-lightbulb trick came from Spielberg’s own childhood. His mother knew he was faking when he did it, but let him off anyway.

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27.32 Improvisation was encouraged on set. All of this scene, where Elliott shows E.T. his fake “spilled” Coca-Cola can, Star Wars toys, Jaws-like shark-on-a-stick, Captain America Pez dispenser, giant peanut piggy bank and tiny car, was ad-libbed by Henry Thomas. The writer, Melissa Mathison, says that this is her favourite scene.

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30.17 This isn’t actually Robert MacNaughton running up the drive, but his stand-in, and it was shot as a pick-up after principal photography had ended.

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30.30 The lyrics Michael sings as he opens the fridge and wanders into Elliott’s room – “There's so many people to see / So many people you can check up on / And add to your collection... Accidents will happen / We only hit and run / He used to be your victim / Now you're not the only one” – are from Elvis Costello’s ‘Accidents Will Happen’, from the 1979 album Armed Forces. Speaking to Empire Magazine stablemate Q back in 2008, Costello said this about the lyrical cameo: “No, I don't think they offered any money. We had no way of knowing it was going to be so huge so there was the chance we'd given it for nothing and they'd use it for some big production number. Ha ha! But you really have to paying attention to notice."

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30.54 Michael’s Yoda impression is another Star Wars nod, of course, but there is also a Star Wars X-Wing Fighter hanging above Elliott’s bed, as well as a Star Wars 2-1B Medic Droid toy inside his American football helmet and much, much more, some of which will be revealed later.

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32.29 The stained-glass window in the closet was specially installed on set to differentiate whether it was day or night.

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32.40 On the left, you can see an Elvis Costello poster, tying in with Michael’s fandom. On the right, on the dresser, there’s a big ol’ toy TIE fighter. Also, a glow-in-the-dark Hulk-themed lightswitch cover. The Hulk is also on the sleeping bag Elliott covers himself with when he’s waiting for E.T. to emerge from the shed. God, bedrooms in the ‘80s were awesome.

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34.15 In the script, Michael and Elliott convince Gertie to join their E.T. gang by threatening her cat. Using her doll instead was Spielberg’s idea.

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35.50 This scene was shot as a pick-up after principle photography. Also, could that “Jerry?” on the phone be a reference to Tom And Jerry?

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36.54 E.T.’s feet. “I don’t like his feet” was an ad-libbed line by Drew Barrymore.

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39.55 Yep, that’s the girl Elliott kisses later, saying hello here, and later at 40.26. She’s played by Erika Eleniak and has no name in the credits, but did in Baywatch, much later, where he played Shauni McClai, and Under Siege, where she played Jordan Tate, the Playboy Playmate who burst out of the giant cake. Also, notice the GIGANTIC headphones Greg is sporting.

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41.18 The idea of hiding E.T. amongst all the toys was all down to Robert Zemeckis.

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43.37 E.T.’s voice came from a variety of sources, but elderly housewife and heavy smoker Pat Welsh takes much of the credit, as she spoke all the English words, as opposed to E.T.’s numerous sounds. After meeting E.T.’s voice designer, Ben Burtt, in a camera shop in Marin County, she was recorded speaking for just nine and a half hours and paid $380 for her work. Her voice as then tweaked electronically by Burtt, mixing it with animals breathing and other humans snorting or burping or grunting. E.T.’s screams, for example, are amplified otter shrieks, while this particular burp, as the drunken E.T. stumbles about the kitchen, came from some vocalisations from his old cinema professor at the University Of Southern California.

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44.32 Whaddaya know, it’s Tom And Jerry!

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44.48 An actor by the name of Richard Swingler played the science teacher here. Harrison Ford played the school’s headmaster in a scene that saw Elliott levitating on a chair as E.T. levitated his communication equipment back home, but it was cut, as was any footage of the school nurse, played by the film’s scriptwriter, Melissa Mathison. You can see a very blurry version of the headmaster scene – and the deleted ending – here.

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46.54 Spielberg also released frogs in his science class when he was at school: “As a kid, I set free about five of the frogs we were supposed to dissect in science class. I let them go and never got caught. So, what the heck, I put it in the movie.”

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48.01 The movie E.T. is watching is called The Quiet Man, which was directed by John Ford and came out in 1952.

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48.15 This kissing scene was Henry Thomas’s toughest day on set. “He really did not want to do it,” says Spielberg. “He didn’t want to be a movie actor. At that moment, I saw him giving up his entire career.”

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50.00 If you’re curious, The Sesame Street episode was first shown on November 19, 1973. Now you know.

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51.50 Mathison wrote into the script that Gertie should dress up as a cowgirl for Halloween because she always dressed up as a cowgirl when she was young. Incidentally, Drew Barrymore originally auditioned for Poltergeist, but Spielberg suggested she went for Gertie instead.

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53.11 Did Michael just say “Shit”? Cripes.

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53.18 E.T.’s eyes – constructed by Beverly Hoffman, from the Jules Stein Eye Institute –were so big and so far apart, the kids just picked one eye to look at and stuck with it.

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53.56 All of this garage scene was improvised by Henry Thomas and Robert MacNaughton, including the lines about their characters’ father and the popcorn fights.

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55.38 E.T. looks at Mary and Gertie as they read Peter Pan together. A scene was shot where E.T. puts some Reece’s Pieces on Mary’s pillow, implying that Elliott’s new best friend had a crush on his new best friend’s mother, but it was eventually cut.

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58.09 To surprise the kids on Halloween, Spielberg dressed up as an old lady. He looks pretty good.

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1:00.43 This is a cameo from Debra Winger, who did the temp track for E.T.’s voice.

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1:01:01 Hello Yoda. “E.T. recognises Yoda because, you know, the galaxy is a rather small place amongst filmmakers,” explains Spielberg. “I remember George was sitting right next to me during the screening when Yoda came on the screen. George gave me a little nudge with his arms, which, I guess, was his way of saying that was cool.” Lucas repaid the nod by putting E.T.’s into the senate scene in Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace.

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1:02:42 This shot became the logo for Amblin Entertainment – Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall’s company. This particular shot of the moon was taken in Nicasio, California, near the ILM studios.

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1:05:58 This communicator, while not actually able to speak with aliens from far off in space, did actually “work”, and was designed by radio whizz and science-to-the-masses all-round super-educator Henry Feinberg.

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1:14:02 These three NASA suits are actually from NASA, and were actually lent to the production. Actually. From NASA.

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1:16:06 The reason why Keys is called Keys is because of the keys he carries. His face is the second adult face we see close up in the film.

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1:16:38 There he is!

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1:20:17 Some of the doctors in these medical scenes are actual, real-life physicians, including Dr. Stein, Spielberg’s personal GP at the time.

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1:21:23 “He’s converting back to normal sinus rhythm!” Melissa Mathison did not enjoy writing these medical scenes, because of the technical dialogue required.

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1:24:02 E.T.’s technical supervisor, Steve Townsend, had the highly technical job of lying underneath the very special extra-terrestrial with a stick, jabbing upwards after each shock.

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1:24:16 To help him cry, Henry Thomas thought of his dog, Oso, who recently died.

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1:32:08 There was nothing in the script to say what was on this note. Instead, Mathison told Thomas to write it himself, as if he were Elliott. This was the result: “Dear Mom, E.T. is alive. We are going to the forest. Don’t try and stop us.”

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1:33:05 This was the one and only day of the shoot that Robert MacNaughton came in late. Making things more stressful for him was the heat, which was extraordinarily high inside the plastic suit and the van. Spielberg can be seen directing him in some B-roll behind-the-scenes footage, where he tells MacNaughton to take of his hood like a monk would.

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1:35:49 Note the gun, removed in the rerelease. Spielberg said in 1995 that he wanted to removed two things from the film, which he did come 2002: “I really regret having any guns in the movie and in the reissue of the picture I’ll use the miracle of CGI to remove the guns from the cops’ hands. I’ll simply delete the shot of the cop holding the gun right before E.T. flies.”

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1:37:00 This is stuntman Ted Grossman, veteran of Jaws (Estuary Victim) and Raiders (where he’s the Peruvian porter) at this point. He can also be seen in The Goonies (FBI man), Always (Fisherman No.2), Last Crusade (Deputy Sheriff) and Crystal Skull (reprising the role of Peruvian Porter), and you can read up more about him and his stunt co-ordinating work here on our Unsung Heroes Of Jaws feature.

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1:38:11 Here’s that other gun shot Spielberg eventually removed.

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1:38:30 On the left, that shotgun is now a walkie-talkie.

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1:38:40 John Williams’ score fits so well with this sequence because Spielberg decided to let the edit follow his music and not the other way around. “Steven re-edited the last part of the film slightly to configure with the musical performance that I felt was more powerful emotionally,” says Williams. “And I think the result is that the end of the film has this kind of musical experience where it sweeps you away.”

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1:38:52 It’s during this section, when the film was shown as the closing gala at Cannes, that the audience began to stand up and clap. Afterwards, Spielberg got a telegram from Francois Truffaut which said “You belong here more than me,” playing with a similar line of his in Close Encounters.

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1:40:13 Spielberg: “My favourite E.T. is the one that touches his heart. That was an E.T. completely operated by wires that moved armatures that stretched the latex and gave E.T. his look of wonder. That was my favourite all-time E.T.”

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1:42:34 E.T. was shot, by and large, in chronological order, so these tears from Henry Thomas are genuine tears of sadness, saying goodbye to E.T., and this world he’s been a part of for almost half a year. “I had worked so much with the E.T. character,” says Thomas “and it had become very tangible to me. I could just draw on what was going on in the scene.”

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1:45:35 Spielberg loves a good shooting star, whether it has a rainbow trail or not.

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1:46:01 The end? Yes, it is. But in the script, there was a scene that showed the communicator still on the roof, and a more confident Elliott playing Dungeons & Dragons, not as the whipping boy, but as a much more confident young man, but it was eventually cut out of the movie, such was the power of Henry Thomas’ emotional performance in what became the final scene.