The Making of E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL – Cinema Scholars

If it weren’t for a pair of decisions by Steven Spielberg in the late 1970s/early 1980s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) would have never made it to the screen. The forty-year-old blockbuster classic was essentially a hybrid of two movies that the director had intended to make but ultimately didn’t.
Steven Spielberg has a conversation with Drew Barrymore on the set of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)

Growing Up and Night Skies

In 1978, Steven Spielberg was hot on the heels of the successful Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The director announced he was going to shoot a low-budget movie called Growing Up. The planned film would be shot completely in four weeks. Additionally, the film would be semi-autobiographical and based loosely on his relationship with an imaginary friend he invented after his parent’s divorce in 1960. This imaginary friend was a space alien. However, due to production problems on his film 1941 (1979), the project was shelved.
Around this time Spielberg had an idea for another movie, Night Skies, which would be about space aliens terrorizing a family. It was essentially a darker variation of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. However, Columbia Pictures had wanted a sequel to its 1977 classic. Spielberg wasn’t interested. Instead, he came up with Night Skies (originally called Watch the Skies) as a sort of compromise. Writer/director John Sayles was brought in to write the script. Also, special makeup effects legend, Rick Baker came on board to design and create the aliens.
Steven Spielberg dressed in drag on the set of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)
By the time the cameras were rolling on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Spielberg was having second thoughts about moving forward with Night Skies. He shared the script with its screenwriter, then-girlfriend of Harrison Ford, Melissa Mathison.

“I might have taken leave of my senses. 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 tranquility, or at least the spirituality, of Close Encounters.’”

– Steven Spielberg

However, Mathison had really liked one aspect of the script. It was the friendship between an autistic boy and the only non-violent alien in the script. This had brought the writer to tears.
Steven Spielberg gives Henry Thomas direction on the set of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)

“The idea of an alien creature who was benevolent, tender, emotional and sweet… and the idea of the creature’s striking up a relationship with a child who came from a broken home was very affecting”.

– Melissa Mathison

Spielberg decided to scrap Night Skies and turned to Mathison to write a new screenplay dubbed E.T. and Me. Meanwhile, Rick Baker, who had spent over $700,000 creating special effects for Night Skies had a huge falling out with Spielberg and refused to be involved with the reimagined project.

E.T. Design

With Baker unwilling to be part of the reimagined film, Spielberg turned to Carl Rambaldi for the animatronics work. The pair had worked together on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Rambaldi took inspiration for E.T.s face from icons such as Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Carl Sandburg. The animatronic puppet took three months to build. Additionally, four different heads were constructed: a primary animatronic head and three that conveyed a fixed facial expression. Upon seeing the completed creature for the first time Spielberg quipped that it was “something that only a mother could love.” A costume was also produced for actors to play E.T.
Steven Spielberg takes a scrub brush to the titular character on the set of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)
Legendary sound effects visionary Ben Burtt was brought on to create the voice of E.T. He hired Pat Welsh, a heavy smoker to be the primary voice of the Extra-Terrestrial. She was paid $380 for nine hours of recording time. Other elements recorded by Burtt for E.T. included raccoons, horses, Steven Spielberg and Debra Winger.


Hundreds of boys auditioned for the role of Elliot. However, Spielberg wasn’t satisfied with the actors that came in. His friend, director Jack Fisk, recommended nine-year-old Henry Thomas for the role. Thomas came to the audition dressed as Indiana Jones. His performance was unimpressive. However, he was given another chance via improvisation. The young actor began to cry as he acted out a real-life experience where his dog was attacked and killed by a neighbor’s dog. This impressed Spielberg and the casting directors. Thomas had earned the role.
Six-year-old Drew Barrymore wasn’t auditioning for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial when she met with Spielberg. Rather, she was auditioning for another movie that Spielberg was producing, Poltergeist (1982). The director of that movie, Tobe Hooper, was unavailable to see her audition so Spielberg took his place. Spielberg ended up not liking her for the role of Carol Anne (played by Heather O’Rourke) in Poltergeist, instead preferring her for Gertie in E.T.
Spielberg plans a shot of C. Thomas Howell during the shooting of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)

“I was six, and I lied my face off. I told him I was in a rock ‘n’ roll band, that I was a drummer, that I was a cook.”

– Drew Barrymore

Actor C Thomas Howell made his film debut in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial at the age of 14. Previously the actor had been cast in some commercials and also had tried his hand at stunt work as well as rodeo riding. Both of which were things his father did for work.
12-year-old Matthew DeMeritt, who was born without legs, and Tamara De Treaux and Pat Bilon, both dwarves, were cast to wear the E.T. costume. DeMeritt actually walked on his hands and played all scenes where he walked awkwardly or fell over. The head was placed above that of the actors, and the actors could see through slits in its chest.
Steven Spielberg with Harrison Ford on the set of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)
Harrison Ford was cast as the principal at Elliot’s school. Although Ford’s scene was filmed, it did not make the final cut of the movie. Subsequently, Ford’s face was never shown in the footage shot by Spielberg.


Principal photography on E.T the Extra-Terrestrial began on September 8, 1981, and lasted a total of sixty-one days. The movie was filmed under the fake name A Boy’s Life to prevent plot speculation by the Hollywood press during filming.
Steven Spielberg walks down the ramp of an alien spacecraft on the set of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)
The film was shot primarily in sequential order because Spielberg believed that the child actors would be most effective if the story was “real” to them. He also wanted to get more natural and spontaneous performances. Because of this, the character of E.T. was never seen on-set with puppeteers. Nor was he ever seen not in costume by the actors. This was in order to maintain the facade that the alien character was real.
The first thirteen days of filming on E.T the Extra-Terrestrial were shot on location at Culver City High School and in the San Fernando Valley neighborhoods of Northridge and Tujunga. Porter Ranch, another suburb in the San Fernando Valley, was used for scenes involving Halloween and the flying bicycle sequence near the end of the movie. The majority of the shooting of the interiors of Elliot’s home took place over forty-two days at Laird International Studios in Culver City. The last six days of filming were on location at a redwood forest outside Crescent City, California.
Henry Thomas and Robert MacNaughton on the set of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)
Arguably the most famous aspect of E.T. was his love of Reese’s Pieces candy. Originally intended in the script to be M&M’s, candy manufacturer Mars, Inc. refused to let the production use their product in the film. They thought the E.T. character was hideous and would scare children. As a result, producers turned to Hershey in order to use their similarly shaped candy, which they agreed to. This product placement resulted in a huge spike in sales, over 65%, for the candy manufacturer.


Spielberg enlisted his frequent musical collaborator John Williams to score E.T the Extra-Terrestrial. Additionally, the director loved all the music Williams composed, using all of it in the finished film. The music for the final chase scene in the film caused Spielberg to re-edit the sequence to have it be choreographed with the music.
E.T. and Steven Spielberg on the set of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)

Release and Legacy

The film premiered at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival’s closing gala on May 26, 1982. On June 11, 1982, it opened in the United States. From June until October of 1982 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial remained in one of the top two box office positions. As a result, by the end of its theatrical run in 1983, the film had surpassed Star Wars as the highest-grossing movie of all time, earning $359 million in North America and $619 million worldwide.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was nominated for nine Academy Awards. The film won four Oscars at the ceremony (Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Visual Effects). When Spielberg’s film lost the Best Picture Oscar to Gandhi (1982), that movie’s director, Richard Attenborough, who would go on to appear in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) a decade later, said:

“I was certain that not only would E.T. win but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, and wonderful. I make more mundane movies”

Henry Thomas with Steven Spielberg on the set of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)

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