How Steven Spielberg's Night Skies became E.T.

Feature Ryan Lambie 29 May 2014 - 06:22

Intended as a sequel to Close Encounters, Night Skies began in the 1970s but later stalled. We look at how its ideas evolved into E.T...

Having scored a phenomenal hit with Jaws in 1975, director Steven Spielberg used his considerable industry clout to make Close Encounters Of The Third Kind - a science fiction fairytale for the UFO age. It was a personal project for Spielberg, conceived and partly written by the director himself (several other writers made uncredited passes on the script), and based on Firelight, the UFO film he'd shot for $500 while he was a teenager.

“I had a real, deep-rooted belief that we had been visited in this century,” the director once said of his fascination with the UFO phenomenon. “I was a real UFO devotee in the 1970s, and really into the UFO phenomenon from reading. For me, it was science.”

Like Jaws, the production on Close Encounters was difficult; as its effects shots caused its budget to overrun, Columbia Pictures, then facing bankruptcy, was ill-positioned to pay for it all. ("I had no ability to comprehend," Spielberg later recalled. "Something about Columbia facing bankruptcy, that Close Encounters was either going to break the company or get it out of the red.")

Again, like Jaws, Close Encounters overcame its difficult path to the big screen, and made $288m on its initial release - a figure bumped still higher when it was reissued in 1980.

Unsurprisingly, Columbia wanted Spielberg to make a sequel. Over at Universal Studios, director Jeannot Swarc had recently directed Jaws 2, and while it wasn't a phenomenon like Jaws, it was still a huge hit. Spielberg had quickly ruled himself out of making a Jaws sequel, arguing that such a film would be a "cheap carny trick", but later regretted losing creative control over a franchise he'd inadvertently helped to create.

Spielberg was therefore anxious to retain some degree of influence over a Close Encounters sequel, even if he didn't particularly want to direct the film himself. The director came up with a concept that would offer a dark counterpoint to the awe and wonder of Close Encounters. Where his 1977 film was about the transcendent possibilities of extra-terrestrial contact, the sequel would be about fear and experimentation, and aliens as unruly visitors with an inscrutible agenda.

Aliens at the window

Josef Allen Hynek was a professor of astrophysics when he was brought in as a scientific advisor by the US Airforce in the 1950s. Initially a UFO sceptic, Hynek's opinion on unexplained phenomena began to change as he sifted through dozens of eye-witness accounts. It was Hynek who created the close encounter classification system which would inspire the title of Spielberg's movie, and it was Hynek who would give Spielberg the idea for its sequel.

During the researching stage of what would become Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Hynek told Spielberg about a strange case which allegedly occurred in Kentucky in 1955. According to several witnesses from the same family in the small town of Hopkinsville, their remote farmhouse was visited one night by something inexplicable. What began as lights in the sky quickly gave way to something even more bizarre: three-foot-tall, goblin-like creatures began emerging from the undergrowth and popping up in windows - even terrorising the family to the point where two of their number began discharging shotguns at them.

Both the police and other residents in the area had also spotted unusual lights in the sky on that same August night, and while the grotesque creatures never returned to Hopkinsville, the story became an oft-shared on in ufology circles.

It was the Hopkinsville encounter that became Spielberg's inspiration for what he first called Watch The Skies (an early title, referencing The Thing From Another World, which he'd also initially applied to Close Encounters). There was, however, a problem: the family involved in the Hopkinsville encounter didn’t want a movie made about them, so Spielberg and his collaborator, production designer Ron Cobb (more on him later) were forced to fictionalise the story as much as they could in order to avoid a potential lawsuit. To flesh their ideas out into a script, Spielberg and Cobb hired the services of the 20-something screenwriter John Sayles, who'd just written Piranha (1978) for director Joe Dante.

The result was a 99-page screenplay called Night Skies, a grisly yet sometimes quirkily funny story which differed wildly in tone from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Like the case which inspired it, Night Skies was based largely around a single family living in a rural farmhouse. The story was largely told from the perspective of its younger members - teenage girl Tess, and her two younger brothers, Watt (also a teenager), and autistic 10-year-old sibling Jaybird.

A spate of cattle mutilations and UFO sightings marks the arrival of the aliens, which, as described by Sayles, are close to the ones in the Hopkinsville account: three feet high, "eyes like grasshoppers". Interestingly, Sayles also makes each of the five alien visitors distinct, even going so far as giving them names. There's Hoodoo, who appears to have hypnotic powers. A pair of mischievous creatures named Klud and Squirt, a young, wide-eyed alien named Buddee, and the scariest member of their group, Skar, who can mutilate with a touch of his long, bony fingers.

Sayles' script hints at something menacing and horrific in its early pages, with graphic descriptions of dead cattle with the flesh on their heads stripped to the bone. Even when the aliens mount their assault on the family's house, the descriptions suggest a film with something stronger than a PG rating:

"Skar stands on the side of the carcass of a horse. The horse's viscera are exposed. Skar's claws are extended like a tiger's, tinged with blood. He looks up at Ed calmly..."

Curiously, however, the script's numerous moments of humour undercut the horror. One scene has a grandmother fending off an alien with a broom. When the alien gets the upper hand, the grandmother's false teeth are caused to shoot out of her mouth and fly across the room. Among the flashing lights and mayhem, the aliens' motivations become somewhat lost: they appear to be trying to figure out the distinctions between humans and their livestock, yet spend more time popping up in windows and terrorising women in baths as they do dissecting cattle.

Night Skies gets its director

While Night Skies was in development, Spielberg was deeply entrenched in the world of Indiana Jones’ debut, Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Spielberg had no intention of directing the Close Encounters sequel in any case, even if he did want to retain a tight control over the project as producer. He’d initially offered Night Skies to Texas Chain Saw Massacre director Tobe Hooper, but Hooper was less interested in the extra-terrestrial and more keen on the supernatural - the result would, of course, be 1982's Poltergeist.

Enter Ron Cobb. Most famous for his production design work on such classics as Star Wars, Alien and Conan The Barbarian, Cobb struggled financially for years as first an animator (he worked on Sleeping Beauty in 1959) then a political cartoonist, before he finally got as a film designer. It was while working on Conan The Barbarian that Cobb first met Steven Spielberg, who was working on Raiders just down the corridor. He began helping Spielberg storyboard Night Skies, and Cobb was surprised at how receptive the director was to his ideas:

"I would suggest angles, ideas, verbalize the act of directing - 'Let's do this and do that, and we could shoot over his shoulder and then a close-up of the shadow.' Steven used a lot of my suggestions. I was very flattered."

Not only were Cobb’s story suggestions incorporated into John Sayles’ first-draft script, but Spielberg paid the production designer the ultimate compliment: he asked if he’d like to direct it.

“Everyone in Hollywood is waiting for the phone call that will change his life," Cobb told the LA Times in 1988. "How many people does that happen to? Steven Spielberg wants me to direct a movie. I've never directed a movie in my life, and Steven Spielberg wants me to direct a movie! I said, 'Steven, I don't know if I can direct.' "

Spielberg’s response was simple: “Get yourself an agent.”

The transition

For a short while in the early 80s, it looked like full steam ahead for the Night Skies project. While Sayles was working on his script, special effects designer Rick Baker was busy designing its various aliens. He produced a range of sketches, life-size models, and even, at a reported cost of $70,000, a working prototype of Skar, the lead alien.

Over in North Africa, however, clouds began to form. Surrounded by the chaos and explosions of the rapid-fire filming of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Spielberg began to have doubts about his Night Skies concept.

"I might have taken leave of my senses,” he said, according to Neil Sinyard’s book, The Films Of Steven Spielberg. “Throughout [the production of] Raiders, I was in between killing Nazis and blowing up flying wings and having Harrison Ford in all this high serialized adventure, I was sitting there in the middle of Tunisia, scratching my head and saying, 'I've got to get back to the tranquillity, or at least the spirituality, of Close Encounters.'"

One of the visitors to the set of Raiders was Harrison’s girlfriend and future wife, The Black Stallion screenwriter Melissa Mathison. Spielberg began reading Mathison the Night Skies script, and both agreed that the most affecting part of it was in its scenes between the young alien and a young boy. Mathison even admitted that the notion of a friendship between a boy and an alien moved her to tears, and Spielberg, who’d been planning to make a more personal, autobiographical movie for several years, immediately saw the value in this plot strand - so much so that he wanted to direct it himself.

Taking the final scene from Sayles’ script - where the young alien Buddee is left stranded on Earth by his own kind - Mathison set to work on a draft of what she called E.T. And Me, and completed a draft of the script in just eight weeks.

E.T. was, Spielberg said, "a very personal story about the divorce of my parents - how I felt when my parents broke up. When I was a kid, I used to imagine strange creatures lurking outside my bedroom window, and I'd wish that they'd come into my life and magically change it."

Columbia Pictures, however, was less than enamoured with this cutesier spin-off from the Night Skies concept. According to the book Steven Spielberg: A Biography by Joseph McBride, the Columbia executives’ response to E.T. was that it was a "wimpy Walt Disney movie."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Columbia was keen to push ahead with Night Skies - a project which had at least tenuous links to the proven box-office success of Close Encounters, and had already had around $1m spent on its pre-production. Nevertheless, Spielberg stuck to his goal of making what would become E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and once a deal had been struck - which saw Columbia repaid the $1m it had already invested in Night Skies/E.T., as well as a percentage of the net profits from the resulting picture - Spielberg’s alien story ended up at Universal Pictures.

The aftermath

Within two years of Spielberg and Matheson’s first discussions about E.T., the movie was finished and in cinemas. Spielberg’s desire to return to the wonder of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind also chimed with what audiences were seeking, and his suburban fairytale about a little lost alien and its friendship with a small boy made E.T. a global hit - E.T. had surpassed Star Wars as the highest-grossing movie of all time, a record it would hold until Jurassic Park came out in 1993.

In E.T., you can still see the faintest traces of the ideas found in the earlier Night Skies script. Its title is still a squat, goblin-like creature, although less mischievous and grotesque than those described by John Sayles. Certain scenes, such as those where the Buddee the alien and Jaybird play together, also have a familiar ring to them. Yet these are clearly inspirations for more developed ideas that would be fleshed out in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, as Sayles himself later admitted.

"[Night Skies was] more of a jumping-off point than something that was raided for material," Sayles later said. “I thought [Mathison] had done a great job."

What’s more surprising is how so many little fragments from Night Skies ended up in other movies. The notion of anarchic, short-limbed creatures attacking a family home - with one of their number being wide-eyed and cute - made it into Gremlins, executive produced by Spielberg and directed by Joe Dante. Gremlins also shares some of Night Skies’ chaotic humour - the latter’s scene with the old woman’s teeth flying out recalls the infamous stairlift sequence in the former - and evil gremlin Spike could be seen as an ancestor of Skar.

A sign on a theatre marquee in Gremlins appears to make its debt to Night Skies obvious: one film playing in the small town is Watch The Skies (that early title for Close Encounters and Night Skies) while another is A Boy’s Life (the shooting title for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial).

Traces of Night Skies can also be seen in Poltergeist, which Spielberg produced (and allegedly ghost-directed) in 1982. Poltergeist is also about a family menaced by mysterious forces, although these ones are supernatural rather than extraterrestrial.

"Poltergeist is what I fear and E.T. is what I love," Spielberg said. “One is about suburban evil, and the other is about suburban good... Poltergeist is the darker side of my nature - it's me when I was scaring my younger sisters half to death when they were growing up."

Interestingly, Spielberg’s fascination with both wide-eyed innocence and horror persisted even as he considered making a sequel to E.T. Just as he had in the aftermath of Close Encounters, he began thinking about an E.T. successor which he called Nocturnal Fears. Here’s an excerpt from the treatment, written by Spielberg and Mathison:

"The evil creatures are carnivorous. Their leader, Korel, commands his crew to disperse into the forest to acquire food. As the squat aliens leave the gangplank, each one emits a hypnotic hum which has a paralyzing effect on the surrounding wildlife. These creatures are an albino fraction (mutation) of the same civilization E.T. belongs to. The two separate groups have been at war for decades!"

Fortunately, Nocturnal Fears never happened, and Spielberg remains adamant that, like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial will stand on its own.

In the aftermath of Night Skies, John Sayles continued to enjoy a successful career as both writer and director. Rick Baker continued to forge ahead as one of the most respected and prolific special effects artists in the movie business, producing unforgettable work for such films as An American Werewolf In London, Men In Black and this year’s Maleficent. Baker recently tweeted a few of the wonderful alien designs he came up with for Night Skies all those years ago, and it’s fascinating to see what they might have looked like: 

Ron Cobb, meanwhile, has continued to work in the film business, with his production design work appearing in such films as The Last Star Fighter, Leviathan and The Sixth Day. When interviewed by the LA Times in 1988, he seemed understandably disappointed at missing out on the chance to direct Night Skies for Spielberg. He rather grumpily described E.T. as a "sentimental and self-indulgent, a pathetic lost-puppy kind of story” - a sign, perhaps, of how keen he was to pursue Night Skies’ earlier, blacker concept.

But for Cobb, who’d long struggled as an artist, there was a silver lining to the Night Skies disappointment. His more financially savvy wife, the screenwriter Robin Love, looked at his contract for the Night Skies picture, and noticed that not only was Cobb owed a $7,500 fee should the project be terminated, but also that he was owed one percent of the net profits from E.T.  - and given that E.T. went on to gross north of $700m by the late 1980s, a single percentage of that profit amounted to an awful lot of money.

"Ron spent all those years doing cartoons and not getting paid,” Love mused, “and then he gets a million for not doing anything.”

It’s but one tangential story resulting from Night Skies - a foundering project that, almost in spite of itself, changed film history forever.

See also: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind at 35

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