Friday, May 13, 2022
The general public may not think of “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” as a divorce movie, per se … although Dee Wallace’s reading of the line “He hates Mexico” has always been one of its most resonant. But in speaking about the film for its 40th anniversary at the TCM Classic Film Festival Thursday night, Steven Spielberg explored how the split in his own family growing up informed his original story. And, beyond that, the director explained how making the film was the actual trigger that made him suddenly flip a switch from eschewing the prospect of ever being a father to putting parenthood on his vision board.
“What happened was, I had been working on an actual literal script about my parents’ separation and divorce” in the late 1970s, Spielberg told host Ben Mankiewicz. That very un-fantastical film idea would have reflected his and his sisters’ experience with their parents splitting — despite the fact that this idea was percolating during the making of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1976.
“I was shooting the (climactic) scene and I suddenly thought, ‘Wait a second. What if that little creature never went back to the ship? What if the creature was part of a foreign exchange program? (Richard) Dreyfuss goes and he stays? Or she stays?'” It struck him that he could turn his family drama “into a story about children and a family trying to fill a great need and great responsibility? Divorce creates great responsibility. If you have siblings, we all take care of each other (in the wake of divorce). And what if Elliott, or the kid — I hadn’t quite dreamed up his name yet — for the first time in his life becomes responsible for a life form, to fill the gap in his heart?”
The filmmaker told the opening-night crowd at the TLC Chinese Theatre about the devastation he felt as a teen child of divorce. “I think when you go through something like that, when any child goes through an episode where your parents who you trust love and trust unconditionally (both) come to you and your sisters and say, ‘We are separating, and we’re going to be living not just in two different houses but two different states,’ the world collapses. The sky falls on your head.” He sad that children of divorce or those who’ve been the divorcing parties “know the responsibility of how you have to super take care of your kids. It’s something that never goes away and it comes out in the wash, and it certainly has come out in a lot of my movies, both indirectly and subconsciously. And in the latest film that I’ve just made, it comes out very directly,” he added, referring to “The Fabelmans,” the semi-autobiographical film he co-wrote with Tony Kushner that’s set for release in November.
Asked by Mankiewicz if he’d ever imagined himself being a father up to that point in his career, Spielberg flatly said, “No. I didn’t want to have kids because it was not a kind of equation that made sense for me as I went from movie to movie to movie, script to script… It never occurred to me till halfway through ‘E.T.’: I was a parent on that film. I was literally feeling like I was very protective of Henry (Thomas) and Mike (McNaughton) and my whole cast, and especially Drew (Barrymore), who was only 6 years old. And I started thinking, ‘Well, maybe this could be my real life someday.’ It was the first time that it occurred to me that maybe I could be a dad. And maybe in a way, a director is a dad, or a mom.” From that point on, he said, “I really felt that that would be my big production.”
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