Plus, the unique shooting schedule Steven Spielberg adapted to elevate his child actors' performances

On the surface, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) have little in common beyond director Steven Spielberg. But without the swashbuckling archaeologist, the family sci-fi film might never have come to be — at least not in the form we know and love.

While appearing at the opening night 40th anniversary screening of E.T. at the TCM Classic Film Festival, Spielberg revealed that he first convinced the late screenwriter Melissa Matheson, Harrison Ford's then-girlfriend, to take on the project while she was visiting Ford filming Raiders on location in Tunisia.

Steven Spielberg (left) with Harrison Ford and screenwriter Melissa Mathison on the set of 'E.T.'

"I pretty much had worked out most of the story and I needed a writer to write it with me, or write it just based on the story," Spielberg said. "I was shooting in Tunisia; we were shooting outside the Well of the Souls with Harrison, and Harrison's girlfriend Melissa Matheson was there on location...I was just talking to her and I told her my E.T. idea, the whole story. And she said, 'I've retired from writing, I don't write anymore. I'm not interested in writing anymore. It's too hard.' She turned me down."

Spielberg, who felt Matheson was a great fit for the material based on her work on The Black Stallion, was frustrated by this response. "I went to Harrison and said, 'Your girlfriend turned me down,'" he recounted to laughs from the audience at Hollywood's TCL Chinese Theatre. "'She doesn't want to write my next movie.' And [Harrison] said, 'Let me talk to her.' And he talked to her, and she came to me and said, 'You got Harrison so excited about this, what is it that I missed?' I think I hadn't told the story to her very well because I told the story to her again and she got really emotional hearing the story again, and she committed right in the middle of the Tunisian desert."

The idea for E.T. first came to Spielberg while he was making Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). He'd long wanted to make a film about his parents' divorce, and while making that other sci-fi classic, he realized the genre might be the perfect platform for this type of story.

"I had been working on a literal script about my parents separation and divorce…what it did to my sisters and myself," he said. "This was back in 1976, when I was filming Close Encounters, and we got to the scene where the little extra-terrestrial comes down from the ship and does the hand-signs with François Truffaut. I suddenly thought: Wait a second, what if that creature never went back to the ship? What if the creature was part of a foreign-exchange program? Dreyfuss goes, he stays. That was the feeling I had — what if I turned my story about divorce into a story about a children/family trying to fill a great need? What if Elliott needed, for the first time in his life, to become responsible for a life form to fill the gap in his heart?"

Matheson and Spielberg began collaborating on the script while he was in post-production on Raiders of the Lost Ark. "She'd come over and we'd spend two hours a day for five days, and then she'd go off and write pages," he explained. "And then she'd come back with those pages and we'd do another five days."

It was during these conversations that some of the most distinctive features of the film, particularly E.T's powers and his emotional connection to Elliott (Henry Thomas), began to take shape beyond Spielberg's initial concepts. "I had given her the narrative, but all the little moments like E.T.'s ability to teleport things, E.T.'s ability with telekinesis, and also the idea that E.T. could feel Elliott's feelings — that was something that happened in the spontaneity of working with a writer," Spielberg recalled. "That was never in the story I presented to Melissa. There were so many details of character that Melissa brought into my world from her world."

Matheson's first draft was so perfect that it essentially became the final shooting script. "She turns in a first-draft screenplay," Spielberg remembered. "I was having lunch with [producer] Kathleen Kennedy, who was my associate producer on Raiders of the Lost Ark and then I asked her, Do you want a raise? Do you want to be a producer? Will you produce E.T.?' She said yes, and I said, 'I think I've read the greatest first draft of my life. You have to read this.' She read it overnight and called me the next day and said, 'I haven't read a lot of scripts, but this is the best script I ever read.' That's all because of Melissa."

Beyond this spontaneous and unique approach to developing the script, Spielberg also took an unconventional approach to the shooting schedule that he's certain helped elevate the final product. He shot the entire movie in continuity, starting at the beginning of the script and working through it from start to finish over the course of the shoot. It was a creative choice designed to help his child actors.

"I especially shot E.T. in continuity because of the ages of characters — of Henry Thomas, Robert McNaughton, and Drew Barrymore," Spielberg explained. "I wanted the kids to know that what we're shooting now, today, is happening today, and the next three pages of the script will happen tomorrow. What we just shot happened yesterday. I wanted them to actually live a life, a life of the story. At the end of the movie, there's a lot of emotion, and they were there for every take because they were saying goodbye for real. Because they knew soon they'd be going home."

The TCM Classic Film Festival is underway now in Hollywood through Sunday, April 24.

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