Working with an alien on a movie is probably a little bit easier than working with a child actor.
At least with the alien you can literally pull its puppet strings. Kids require a slightly more magical touch.
That’s what Steven Spielberg learned while working on E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and a special documentary on the new Blu-ray release (out Oct. 9) shows just how deep his connection was with 6-year-old Drew Barrymore and 10-year-old Henry Thomas.
The E.T. Journals consist of behind-the-scenes footage from the 1982 movie, presented as-is, without narration or modern interviews. It’s like an extended set-visit to the film, and Entertainment Weekly has an exclusive clip of Spielberg talking young Thomas through the final goodbye. Good luck not tearing up a little yourself at the tender exchange.
The child stars of E.T. have long since grown up, and now have children of their own. Steven Spielberg is the father of seven and the grandfather of three. Thirty years after their movie about a little lost alien made an indelible mark on kids of the ’80s, the three principal players find themselves introducing the movie to their own next generation.
In an interview with Barrymore and Thomas for EW’s current Reunions issue, Spielberg said that working with those two made him long to have kids of his own, and it’s clear from the video above that the iconic director has a way with little ones.
He recalled watching the movie last summer with his then 3-year-old grandson Luke. “I sat next to him, and I talked him through the movie because I wanted him to know that E.T.’s going to be okay and Elliot was going to find what he needed and no one was going to get killed. He was only three years old, so I was really, really careful. My daughter, his mom, thought it would be okay if I told him what the [upcoming] scene was going to be. So I started talking right though the whole movie, and halfway through I’m explaining to him, ‘He’s going to be okay. He’s going to turn a little bit powdery. It’s going to seem really sad for a while, but it’s going to be okay.” And at three years old, he just threw his hand up in front of my face and said, ‘Don’t tell me!’
How did you talk to Drew and Henry about it when you were shooting it? There are some heavy scenes in that movie, not just scary ones.
Steven Spielberg: The first thing we did — because I knew Henry was 10 and Drew was six and Robert MacNaughton [Elliott's older brother Michael] was 14 or 15 I think — I shot the whole film in continuity. So we began at the beginning and ended at the end. So at the beginning of the movie, E.T. could have been a coyote out in the backyard. By the end of the picture on the last day of shooting, they were actually saying goodbye to E.T. And so there was an emotional curve that was taking place in everybody’s collective subconscious, just based on the fact that we were telling the story one page at a time, one day at a time.
Drew Barrymore: How smart is that?
Spielberg: Otherwise it would be a lot of work for all of us — for me especially — to explain to you why we’re starting where we’re starting and everything that we haven’t experienced yet that needs to be the precedent for what we’re experiencing in the moment right now. By shooting continuity, we just got to hang out. I didn’t have to talk a lot about the specifics of what I wanted, except to be a little quiet guide to the actors.
Barrymore: I think adults need that, too. And more and more, every film’s made so schedule-dependent that you’re more than not shooting the end of the film at the beginning, and it’s so hard to be authentic because you would just have no idea how you would actually feel. I guess that’s what acting is.
You had worked with child actors before, but E.T. was all child actors …
Spielberg: I directed a very, very young boy even before E.T. in Close Encounters — Cary Guffey played Barry, the child in the film. I remember that, because Cary was three, I had to do a lot of tricks to get him to react — like opening up presents in front of him so his eyes would sparkle and flash. And of course I gave him the presents after. I didn’t, like, take them back. I gave them to him.
Barrymore: [Laughs] Unless you wanted the other reaction.
Spielberg: But maybe there was something I might need from him tomorrow! But it was interesting that I didn’t have kids of my own, and I’ve often said, and it’s actually the truth, that E.T. put the thought of having children for the first time in my heart. First time ever. Working with the kids in that.
Good thing you guys were well-behaved.
Spielberg: What I decided to do was just talk to them like people and not to treat them like children. So my approach — which for me was the most natural way to talk to anybody. If they didn’t understand what I was saying, Drew would be the first person to say, ‘I don’t understand.’ I would then have to explain more what I was trying to communicate to her.
Was it different with Henry, since he was a little older?
Spielberg: With Henry, we would just have conversations about the scene: where the camera was going to go, what I was hoping Henry would do in the scene. But we would just talk. I wouldn’t call it directing actors. I think it was just called guiding people to discover for themselves what needs to be discovered. So rather than spoiling everything by making a discovery and then having them act the discovery, it was just important for me to say, ‘Something’s going to be behind those cornstalks back there, and you’re investigating it with your flashlight. Make sure you use your flashlight like a weapon because whatever it is could scare you. You want to put that thing out in front of you.’ And I would just roll the camera, and Henry would do what he felt that he needed to do.
Kids have great imaginations, if you can unlock them.
Spielberg: They brought so much to the story, including so many good lines of dialogue.
Spielberg: Sometimes improvised dialogue. [Screenwriter] Melissa Mathison was on the set everyday, and she’d hear them talking in between takes. She always carried this notepad everywhere with her, and she’d go into a corner and write down what she heard. She would just eavesdrop on them talking.
How about the line, “I don’t like his feet.”
Spielberg: [Pointing] Drew made that up.
Barrymore: That was me? Oh my God.
I believe it. Just the way you say that, it sounds like a real little girl speaking her mind about the creature’s feet.
Spielberg: Drew made that line up. But it was also was really interesting that Melissa was able to listen to their patterns of behavior and be able to rewrite some of the dialogue for the next day.
Henry, what are your earliest memories of working on E.T.?
Henry Thomas: The things I remember are very strange usually because I remember eating lunch. I remember sitting at a table with pretty much the whole cast and eating and thinking, ‘I wonder if we’re going to go to Sizzler tomorrow or if we’re going to go over here, that weird place with the sawdust on the floor and if I’m going to get in trouble for riding my bike around the lot again.’
Thomas: You know, I was 10 and I would disappear and explore, and the [assistant directors] would get mad at me and tell me I had to stick around and be in school. My memories are day-to-day memories. When I met Steven, the first thing out of my mouth was, I think, “I love Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and my hero was Harrison Ford and I basically was just excited to meet Steven in hopes that I would meet Harrison Ford.
Spielberg: And he did. Harrison is the excised cameo of the movie. He plays the principal of the school. We didn’t include it in the final released print, but that’s where he got a chance to meet Harrison.
Thomas: That was a very big day for me.
What do you talk about when you’re a kid and you get to meet somebody that you’ve idolized like that?
Thomas: You do this a lot. [Nods head with mouth hanging open.] And you don’t end up saying anything.
Other reunions in the annual double issue, on stands this week (or available to buy online), include Clueless, Arrested Development, Breaking Away, and Melrose Place, and National Lampoon’s Vacation.
Entertainment Weekly and some of the stars featured in the Reunions Issue have teamed up with charitybuzz.com — the global leader in online celebrity auctions — to raise money for a variety of great causes. Fans can bid on memorabilia, meet-and-greets, and more; all proceeds go to charity. Visit ew.com/reunions and charitybuzz/ewreunion for more information.
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