It Was Originally A Horror Movie And Other Facts About ‘E.T.’

Since its release in the summer of 1982, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial has gone on to become one of the most beloved, and most popular movies of all time. The story of a boy and his family who befriend an alien stranded here on Earth resonated with audiences across the world, and while it started out as a much different idea, director Steven Spielberg’s heartfelt tale would nonetheless change the movie industry forever.

To celebrate this timeless classic and childhood staple, here’s a look at some of the most interesting facts behind E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.

It Started As A Horror Movie

According to the 1997 biography Steven Spielberg, the story of E.T. was initially inspired by an imaginary friend the director made up when he was a child. When Universal was pushing for a follow-up to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg tapped John Sayles to write Night Skies, about a family that ends up terrorized in their home by extra terrestrials, and was even described as Straw Dogs but with aliens. Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper was originally slated to helm the project, with Spielberg acting as a producer.

When he was traveling the world filming Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg told screenwriter Melissa Mathison about the idea, who then wrote a script that was a much more whimsical, child-friendly tale. Spielberg liked Mathison’s first draft so much that it became the shooting script. Night Skies would live after the aliens were switched out with ghosts, which became Spielberg’s supernatural thriller Poltergeist, released the week before E.T., and directed by Hooper.

Not wanting to let a good idea go quietly, after the massive success of E.T., Spielberg and Mathison discussed returning to the movie’s horror roots for a sequel, conspicuously titled E.T. II: Nocturnal Skies. The story involved Elliot’s family kidnapped and tortured by hostile aliens, only to be rescued by the alien we all knew and loved — who’s name would’ve been revealed as Zrek.

The Rewrite Caused A Falling Out

Back in 2014, special effects wiz Rick Baker started tweeting out some old photos of the unused Night Skies prototypes on his Twitter account. You can see the resemblance between the extra terrestrial we’d all come to know and love and the host of unfriendly aliens, particularly the hero alien, nicknamed ‘Buddy’ in the script.

Spielberg and Baker ended up having a falling out over the fact that Baker had spent $700,000 on building the prototypes that would never end up getting used. After Baker walked away from the project, Carlo Rambaldi, who did the alien effects in Close Encounters, wound up working on E.T. based on the preliminary work that had already been done.

Drew Barrymore Lied In Her Audition

Drew Barrymore was six-years-old when she read for the part of Carol Anne in Poltergeist. Citing inspiration from her hero Pippi Longstocking, Barrymore lied to Spielberg in her audition, telling him that she was a drummer in a punk band called the Purple People Eaters, she was an excellent cook, and had a family full of brothers. Spielberg felt that the imaginative actor wasn’t right to play Carol Anne, a part that went to the late Heather O’Rourke, but he offered her the role of Gertie, and was the first child cast in E.T.

Henry Thomas Cried To Play Elliot

Already a fan of Spielberg’s movies, actor Henry Thomas showed up to his audition wearing an Indian Jones costume. Instead of a scene from the script, Thomas was given an improvised scene where he had to try and stop a government agent from taking E.T. away. Spielberg was impressed with the young actor’s ability to cry for the scene, brought about by Thomas thinking about his dead dog to help conjure up some real tears, which won him the part.

Corey Feldman Was Almost In It

During pre-production, Corey Feldman was hired to play Elliot’s best friend. However, before filming began, there was yet another change to the script, and Elliot’s best friend was deemed an unnecessary character and written out entirely. Spielberg, who had gone so far as to show Feldman around the set prior to filming, called the actor to break the news to him personally.

Feldman was heartbroken, but Spielberg promised he’d put him in his next project. Two years later he made good on his word and Feldman scored a part in 1984’s horror/comedy classic Gremlins.

Two Actors Played E.T., While Several More Provided His Voice

When filming, Spielberg would stand off camera and recite most of the character’s lines to give the actors something to work with. Later, in post-production, E.T.’s voice was temporarily subbed out with that of actor Debra Winger (who has a brief cameo as a zombie nurse carrying a dog in the film’s Halloween scene).

For the final cut, however, sound editor Ben Burtt hired non-actor Pat Welsh, a two-pack-a-day smoker he overheard at a camera store, to be the basis of E.T.’s voice. The pitch of her voice was adjusted, then mixed with the sound of various animals breathing. Welsh was paid $380 for her nine-and-a-half hours of work. In the end, a total of 18 actors would be layered together to create the final voice of E.T.

For the physical costumed version, most of those scenes were filmed with stunt performers Tamara de Treaux and Pat Bilon, who were both under three feet tall. However, the scene where E.T. gets drunk and falls over was performed by 12-year-old Matthew DeMerrit, who was born without legs and had become adept at walking on his hands. He was fit with a special suit that allowed his talent to appear as though the alien was shuffling across the floor.

It Was Filmed From A Child’s Perspective

The idea of making a film about a child’s friendship with an alien was imperative to Spielberg, who’s confidence in working with kids was boosted after the success of Close Encounters. To help capture this, the director set his cameras about three feet off the ground to capture this perspective.

It was also filmed in chronological order, a difficult process, but one Spielberg used so the emotions of the young actors would be authentic. Which means that those tears shed by the actors were real as they bid farewell to E.T. at the movie’s emotional climax.

Harrison Ford Filmed A Scene, Which Was Cut

After starring as Indiana Jones, Han Solo, and Rick Deckard, the carpenter-turned-actor had a role as the principal of Elliot’s school. The scene was later cut, though had it been included only the back of Ford’s head would’ve been visible, as Spielberg opted not to show the face of any adults for the first part of the movie, except for Elliot’s mom, Mary.

It Popularized Movie Product Placement

In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Elliot lures E.T. into his house by leaving a trail of Reese’s Pieces. The filmmakers originally wanted M&Ms, but the studio wouldn’t supply a script to Mars Incorporated, the company that makes the candy. Without knowing any context, they passed on the opportunity.

They then approached Hershey with the idea of using their signature Hershey’s Kisses for the scene, though it turned out Hershey were more interested in promoting their new peanut butter candy concoction and agreed to a $1 million cross-promotion campaign, which allowed them to use E.T. in their commercials.

While the specifics are still squabbled over, within two weeks of the film’s release, Reese’s Pieces sales skyrocketed from anywhere from 65-300%.

The Film’s Most Iconic Shot Was (Almost) Effects Free

Fearing that the character of E.T. was going to look too unnatural on screen, Dennis Muren and the Industrial Light and Magic team were looking for ways to produce practical, in-camera effects to balance out the potential problem. With the scene where E.T. helps Elliot take off through the air on his bicycle, Muren and his team spent weeks finding the perfect spot to film a low-hanging moon across the treetops. Once they did, they used several lunar charts to make sure they’d get the best possible shot. While the silhouettes of Elliot and E.T. were added later in post-production, the rest of the shot was all done in-camera.

That shot would later go on to become the logo for Amblin Entertainment, the production company Spielberg founded in 1981.

The Star Wars Connection

There’s a long history of Spielberg and George Lucas intertwining their works, including several Star Wars references littered throughout E.T. Almost two decades later, Lucas would repay the favor by slipping in a couple of E.T. lookalikes during a scene in the Galactic Senate in 1999’s Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace.