The Case that is Extra-Terrestrial

This week we are wrapping-up our spooky season with a movie that isn’t necessarily a Halloween movie, but does have elements of the holiday, and takes place in the fall. 

In June of 1982, seven years after Steven Spielberg made waves with the first summer blockbuster, Jaws, the director brought audiences a new kind of film. At first, Universal Studios was hesitant to make this new movie, as it was for children, and children’s movies weren’t very lucrative at the time. 

But, soon after its release, ET: The Extra Terrestrial proved the nay-sayers wrong. Not only was the film successful, but it was even credited for bringing adults back to movie theatres! After three months of packed showings and outrageous box office numbers, it was clear that this movie wasn’t for kids, it was for everyone that had ever been a kid. 

ET is a story about friendship, and the fear of losing the ones that we love. It celebrates the magic of childhood, and takes place during Halloween, when childhood magic is in major abundance. 

So Cassettes, let’s don our costumes and bust out our Reese’s Pieces! It’s time to phone home and talk about ET. 


  • They say to write what you know, and ET was Spielberg’s most personal film.
    • The idea of a man from outer space, coming to fill a void left in a family, was something that Steven Spielberg had thought about even since he was a child.
    • He incorporated the pain of his parents’ divorce, and used that with the family dynamic. 
  • When he was told that the movie had little chance of financial success, he didn’t care. Steven Spielberg even thought that if only mothers and children saw the film, that was good enough for him. It was simply a story he wanted to tell. 
  • While filming Raiders of the Lost Ark, he dictated the story to screenwriter Melissa Matheson.
    • She had never felt such a responsibility in terms of writing, and the story was so clear, she didn’t have to make major edits to it–Spielberg really knew what he wanted, a great characteristic in any director
    • She asked children, while she was working on the screenplay, what kind of superpower should an alien like ET have, and they often said healing, “to take care of hurts.” So, this was a major part of his character.
ET 19.jpg


  • It’s a truth that we have witnessed again and again throughout human existence: we fear the unfamiliar. This basic idea is the driving force behind many horror stories, and the reason we tell scary stories about aliens from outer space. 
  • If we looked into the catalog of early science fiction films, we would find a common theme surrounding the depiction of extraterrestrials– their eyes are dark, their skin slimy, and often they are hostile toward humans.
  • One of the most famous depictions of aliens occurs in Ridley Scott’s Alien from 1979, a straight-up horror film.
  • So, when it was time to create an alien that audiences would fall in love with, Spielberg turned to special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, someone he worked with on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Rambaldi set out to design a creature unlike any that audiences had ever seen. 
    • Ed Verreaux, the production Illustrator, said that many different looks were tried, especially for the head and face features. Designers settled on a character with a long neck, and bright human-like eyes.
    • ET’s squishy exterior is reminiscent of dirt, since ET is a botanist and was working with plants when he was left behind.
    • ET had to look different from any former alien design, and yet he could not look too familiar–if he was too cute, it would negate a major message of the film, about love and acceptance of something totally unfamiliar. 
  • When Henry Thomas, who played Elliot in the movie, first saw the ET animatronic, what stood out to him was the eyes, and how kind and expressive they were.
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  • In order for the film to work, audiences had to believe that ET was real, even for just a couple hours. So, a lot of painstaking work went into his design and mechanics. 
    • ET was a combination of animatronics and people in a suit. 
    • The face was controlled remotely, sometimes by as many as 12 people at once, working in unison. The scenes where ET speaks, were done in many takes. They wanted his facial and mouth movements to perfectly match the dialog.
    • ET’s hands and arms were often performed by a mime artist Caprice Rothe. She said she was hired because she had really long fingers, which was her father’s fault.
    • Set designers built the set in such a way, that all the cables that controlled ET would run underneath, out of view. Just as the puppeteers for Return to Oz would do a couple years later, they used TV monitors to track movement! (The Muppet Show was also done this way.) 
      • For the full-body-view shots (for example when ET was boozy in the kitchen) they had two Little People, Pat Bilon and Tamara De Treaux, as well as a young boy, Matthew DeMerritt (who was born with no legs) inside an ET suit.
  • Allen Daviau was the director of photography for the film.
    • He used one technique to make ET seem more lifelike, which was to backlight him with very little fill light.
    • ET was also purposely not shown very much in the beginning to build the suspense of the character, which is often done in “creature” movies–for example, Brad Silberling did this for Casper.
  • But, what was special about not showing ET until later in the movie, was that the actors didn’t see him until later as well. Even though films are generally shot out of order, Steven Spielberg insisted on filming in continuity! So, when characters see ET in the movie for the first time, the actors are actually seeing him for the first time as well!
    • This also really brought out the emotion of the film, as the scenes where the house is taken over by government agents happened late in filming, and the actors really felt like they were losing another member of their on-set family when they said goodbye to ET.
    • Drew Barrymore later said that having the house covered in plastic really upset her, because this warm and inviting place that she had grown to love and feel comfortable in, was now scary and full of strange people.
ET 15.jpg


While dealing with the trauma of his parents’ recent divorce, nine-year-old Elliot, discovers an alien creature, separated from its family. Elliot and his siblings fall in love with the extraterrestrial, ET, and decide to do whatever it takes to make sure he returns home safely.

While filming ET, the actors and crew started to feel like a family. Steven Spielberg talked with the actors and found out how to best direct them. He felt a strong connection to the children on set, especially six-year-old Drew Barrymore who played Gertie. He later said that the interactions between him and the kids convinced him to become a parent.

ET 12.jpg


  • Dee Wallace as Mary- The kids’ Mother
    • She appreciated that Steven Spielberg took the time to get to know how all the actors worked best. It seemed as though the way everyone worked best was to not rehearse a lot, be fed lines, and just react.
  • Henry Thomas as Elliott
    • He met Spielberg when he was 9. In the audition Spielberg gave him an improvisational situation where he was told a government agent knocks on the door to take away his best creature friend, and he has to do whatever he can to stop him. Henry Thomas instantly got emotional saying “you can’t take him. He’s my best friend.” He had tears in his eyes and it was just like the movie. They told he got the part right there. Henry said it was the fastest casting he had ever gotten. 
    • Spielberg would have to often talk Henry through the scenes so that he would know what he would be reacting to. In the 2002 reunion Henry said that when watching the movie he could hear Spielberg’s voice still.
  • Peter Coyote as Keys (you know the one that said he had been waiting his whole life for ET to arrive.)
    • In most of the movie he is only seen from the waist down. He is listed as Keys because this is mostly what you see and hear of him.
    • When talking about being cast he said “When great directors call you you just gamble with them. If they jump off a cliff, you jump off the cliff, and I felt that way about this movie.”
    • When talking about the impact of the movie he said “I always thought that one of the things that made people love this film was if two people or three people as far apart as ET and those children, could bridge a gap and fall in love with one another and communicate, then there were no two people on earth that were that far apart or there are no two cultures that were that far apart.”
  • Robert McNaughton as Michael
    • Spielberg said he put himself in all the characters but especially into this character. He would tease his sisters just as Michael teases his siblings in the movie.
    • Robert was very protective of Henry Thomas and would play Dungeons and Dragons with him off of set.
  • Drew Barrymore as Gertie
    • She was 6 years old at the time but says she could remember everything like it was yesterday.
    • In her audition she told Steven that she was a Punk Rock and Roll band leader, of the band The Purple People Eaters. She was 6, and according to her, the drummer in the band.  This is why she was the first one hired for the role by Steven. He thought she was remarkable.
    • ET was absolutely real to her, and the scene where the doctors used defibrillators to attempt to revive ET, she really cried.
    • She said it was the most perfect experience and that Steven Spielberg was a father figure to her that believed in all the kids a lot.
  • K.C. Martel as Greg
    • He has been in things like The Amityville Horror from 1979 and he was Eddie in Growing Pains.
  • Sean Frye as Steve
    • Sean was a child actor most known for his role in ET.
  • C. Thomas Howell as Tyler
    • He has been in several things since ET, most notably Soul Man, Red Dawn, and The Outsiders.
  • Pat Welsh as the voice of ET
    • She did not have many credits besides her ET voice for the movie and the game. Her one other notable was an uncredited voice role as the Bounty Hunter Boushh from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.
    • She was only paid $380 for her nine and a half hours of recording the audio. She did not mind the low pay and reportedly bought a vanity license that read “I love ET.”


  • In 2002 Steven Spielberg released a remastered version. He did graciously release both the theatrical version and the remastered on dvd and blu-ray. Unlike some other well known directors *cough, cough, George Lucas, cough, cough.* 
    • He said that it gave him the chance to correct the 50 or so pet peeve shots that he had.
  • There were a few things changed with this remastering. Not only did they remaster the work digitally but they added a few scenes and things. One specific change however came because of 9/11. In a scene when Elliot and his sister Gertie are in the bathroom you can hear their mom telling Michael that he cannot be a terrorist for Halloween. In the 2002 remaster they switched this word out for hippie.
  • The scene where ET is being chased in the beginning of the original is just a light on a rail. For 2002 they were able to put in a CGI ET running.
  • Some scenes that were added Steven Spielberg felt strengthened the bond between Elliott and ET because they lengthened the time that Elliott spent with him while being home from school and “sick.”
  • In the film, government agents come to take ET away. Spielberg had wanted a real threat in the original movie and so a lot of the adults had guns. Even though it was to build tension for the scene, he never felt comfortable about guns being near the kids, so he decided in 2002 to have walkie talkies digitally replace them. This was done specifically to the scene where the kids start flying above the police cars.
  • One cool scene included in the remaster was that of Harrison Ford as the school principal! 


  • Spielberg says that ET is the movie he gets asked the most about in terms of sequels.
  • He never wanted to do a sequel, and he likely never will. 
  • But, he did end up giving permission for a small short film titled “A Holiday Reunion.” A two minute version aired during the Macy’s day parade in 2019. In this cute reunion Elliot is all grown up and has kids of his own when ET comes for a visit. A lot of consideration was put into this film to keep the integrity of the original story. They even used similar techniques, like lighting ET from behind to make him seem more life-like. It also has a lot of nods to the original movie with things like Elliot’s first drawing of ET in school, a framed picture of Harvey the original dog, and so much more. 
ET 16.jpg


  • After working with John Williams in Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg asked John Williams to write the music for ET
  • John Williams worked his magic, creating an iconic theme that audiences would not easily forget–the actor that played Michael said that he was humming the theme for weeks before mainstream audiences got to see the movie!
    • This theme is most prominent in the scene where Elliot glides across the moon on Halloween night.
      • Though the scene is iconic, Henry Thomas said it wasn’t nearly as exciting to film. He was on a bike that was attached to a camera crane, and lifted and dipped in front of a blue screen in the studio.
      • There is a behind the scenes clip where Steven is sitting next to John Williams while he watches the test footage for the score–it’s pretty funny and cute because they’re watching a model.
  • We mentioned this in our John Williams episode, but the scene on Halloween night in the street when a child with a yoda costume walks by Williams put yoda’s theme into the composition.
    • Spielberg also allowed Williams to compose the final chase score and they edited what was filmed for it around the music.
  • Since its original release, a version has been edited so that orchestras can perform along with the movie live to enhance the viewing experience.
  • The clip above and to the right shows John Williams and Steven Spielberg in early works of the films theme song. It’s a super cute clip!


  • When talking about the financial success of ET, The New York Times said, “Predicting the success of movies has always been a gamble. Much has been made of the fact that Columbia, which had an opportunity to make ”E.T.,” turned down the project. But studios are always putting into ”turnaround” scripts that later become successful movies for someone else. As a hedge, Columbia kept 5 percent of the profits from ”E.T.,” a practice that is becoming common. (1982)
  • Opening Weekend: ET made 11.8 million
  • Worldwide Gross was 663 million
    • Partially because of ET, the summer of 1982 was the most lucrative in Hollywood history at the time.
  • ET won four Oscars in 1983 and was nominated for 5 others. It won for
    • Oscar for Best Visual Effects
    • Oscar for Best Original Score
    • Oscar for Best Sound Mixing
    • Oscar for Best Sound Editing
  • ET won several other awards such as The Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film in 1983 which traditionally honors science fiction, fantasy, and horror film.

In the making-of documentary, Steven Spielberg said, “It’s a cliche now to say that this movie is for the child in all of us. No; this movie is for the people we are, and the people we have been, and wanna be again. I think it’s for everybody.”

Audiences absolutely agreed. The praise was unanimous, and by the time Christmas came around, ET toys were flying off shelves. Steven Spielberg recognized the iconic nature of the film, and even later used the image of the bike over the moon as his logo for Amblin. 

ET resonated with children and adults. It was about love, and the capacity that children have for it. It showed us the story of a child, willing to do anything for his friend–a defenseless being lost in a strange world. ET is a story that enriched the lives of its audiences, and ran them through the various emotions of childhood. It’s filled with images that we all relate to: staying home from school, dressing up for Halloween, and saying goodbye to someone we love. Sure, maybe we all haven’t been chased by government agents in order to rescue an alien life-form, but watching the kids in this movie trust each other and drop everything to make sure that ET makes it home, somehow reminds us all of our own capacity for good. 

ET is pure movie magic. 


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