We tend to think of E.T. as belonging to Steven Spielberg.
After all, he directed the film, and the idea began with him on the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But, there’s more to the story. The science-fiction fable that cemented Spielberg’s status as a leading director was written by a woman called Melissa Mathison.
Let’s go back to 1980 when Spielberg was filming Raiders of the Lost Ark in Tunisia. At the time, he was playing with an idea in his head – a story about an alien that gets stuck on Earth and befriends a family.
On a day when the heat rippled across the desert, and Harrison Ford and hundreds of male extras in German uniforms prepared for a scene, he spotted a woman picking through the sand. He went over to ask what she was doing.
“The thing about Melissa was, she could just watch the traffic of everyday things speed by her, which was just fine with her because in her life she preferred to stroll. Moviemaking is often a lot of thunder and lightning, and Melissa was always the calm eye of the storm.”Steven Spielberg on Melissa Mathison
“You know, this used to be the ocean floor and look at all these fossils…” she said, still studying the ground. This was Mathison: captured by detail, not overawed by the scene around her or the person addressing her, absorbed in the moment. As Spielberg said later, “in her life she preferred to stroll”.
Mathison’s tendency for understating surfaced as they chatted. She described herself as ‘Harrison’s friend’ (they were later married and had two children) and ‘a failed writer’ (she had written several scripts and one had been made – Black Stallion, one of Spielberg’s favourite films).
Before the conversation was over, Spielberg had asked her to write E.T. with him. This says a lot about Spielberg and his collaborative instincts, and more about Mathison and the power of her serene and contemplative manner.
She turned him down.
After Ford discussed with Mathison and Spielberg pitched once again, she reconsidered, and a potent creative partnership was formed. They threw ideas around and developed the story on set, then Mathison went away for six weeks to write the script. It came back pitch perfect, with virtually no revisions.
Mathison was quick to credit an important source of inspiration. Her ideas for E.T.’s powers, such as his poignant ability to heal, came from a trusted source: she asked her children and their friends. This deep connection with children, and Mathison’s ability to show who they really are, is at the heart of why E.T.’s story touched so many.
Continue the story
Melissa Mathison’s exuberance and sense of fun comes across in this 1982 interview for E.T.:
A piece after Mathison’s untimely death, with stories about her collaborations with Spielberg:
Podcast episode from Forgotten Women of Genre, sharing beats of Mathison’s career: