Why Steven Spielberg’s E.T. is the ultimate divorce movie

Young Elliott becomes responsible for E.T. when he's abandoned on Earth - TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo
Young Elliott becomes responsible for E.T. when he's abandoned on Earth - TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo
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Surrounded by Star Wars toys, Hulk merchandise, and an Atari 2600 games console, a 10-year-old boy haunted by divorce guides an abandoned alien through his pop-culture world in a film that was to become a pop-culture icon itself.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial – which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month – was not Steven Spielberg’s first foray into domestic make-believe. He had already explored plucky moms fighting for their flared mop-haired kids in the TV movie Something Evil (1972), The Sugarland Express (1974) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). And 1975’s Jaws not only yielded another robust mother (Lorraine Gary’s Ellen Brody), it also revived the notion of cinema-going for dwindling teen and young adult markets. As it replaced Hollywood’s once summer lull with a new blockbuster template, a revived sense of event cinema and bolder release strategies, over 65 million people in the US alone flocked to see Jaws in 1975.

But the success of E.T. was never assured. Spielberg may have been following his 1981 smash Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he had also endured the costly folly of his WW2 comedy, 1941. So just as the director was positioning himself as the bearded poster boy of the American new wave blockbuster – he was already toying with going smaller. And personal.

Growing Up, After School and A Boy’s Life were all different story drafts of what became E.T. as the director squinted back to his own personal sundown world of kids and absent adults. Growing Up initially became After School – a rose-tinted tale sprung from Spielberg’s own experience of what 10-year-old kids get up to in-between school and dinnertime. When he was 19, Spielberg’s parents divorced.

Another slightly darker take on that same post-school-bell canvas was subsequently written by John Sayles of The Howling. With early alien concept work by horror make-up marvel Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London), Night Skies explored what happens when a bunch of kids and a family’s farm are besieged by malevolent aliens. It was ultimately dropped when Spielberg felt Sayles’ tone was too much of a horror film – despite one motif of an abandoned alien becoming a story spark for A Boy’s Life (the working title for E.T. the Extra Terrestrial).

Director Steven Spielberg behind the scenes on E.T. - Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Director Steven Spielberg behind the scenes on E.T. - Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

It was 1980 when Spielberg first properly began brainstorming ideas for A Boy’s Life with writer Melissa Mathison as he was shooting and editing Raiders of the Lost Ark – which starred her then husband, Harrison Ford. 1977’s Close Encounters had proved Spielberg’s acumen for kindly aliens landing in Americana. But could Mathison help Spielberg successfully land that mothership twice?

Predominantly filmed in Culver Studios and San Fernando Valley’s Northridge throughout 1981, E.T. was also a rare film shot in chronological order to safeguard the child actors’ engagement in the story – especially the six-year-old Drew Barrymore who genuinely believed the rubber creature existed. “I believed E.T. was real!” she confessed on an October 2022 cast reunion on her own production, The Drew Barrymore Show. “I really, really loved him in such a profound way.”

Such was her enthusiasm for her stellar co-star that she asked for a scarf to warm E.T.’s neck during the shoot. Sweetly, Spielberg responded by asking the puppeteers to keep the alien “alive” at all times.

“It was supposed to be his smaller film, in between his bigger ones,” says actor Dee Wallace, who played Mary – the quietly pivotal mother at the heart of the story about an exiled alien three million light years from home.

'I really loved him': during the shoot, Drew Barrymore believed ET was real - Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
'I really loved him': during the shoot, Drew Barrymore believed ET was real - Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Part of that sense of small is achieved by anchoring the story to Wallace’s three on-screen kids. In conscious reference to the school desk and dinner table universe of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and the half-seen adults of Tom and Jerry cartoons, cinematographer Allen Daviau deliberately shot the film at a child’s height. A potentially distracting Harrison Ford cameo as a school principal was later cut as Spielberg did not want to show any grown-ups apart from mum Mary for as long as possible. Might that have added pressure to Wallace as the only adult in this Spielberg sandbox? “No,” she ponders, “I felt blessed and just did the best, most truthful job I could.”

Wallace came on to a project whose own script and casting also straddled the production of 1982’s Poltergeist. Spielberg had always liked John Sayles’s concept of a besieged family, and later swapped the aliens of Night Skies for ghosts. Directed by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper, written and produced by Spielberg, Poltergeist and its alien cousin also secretly shared casting calls, and were shot just 15 miles apart at the same time. “I had auditioned for a role in another of Steven’s movies. When it came to E.T., he remembered me and offered me the part,” says Wallace. Likewise, Drew Barrymore got the role as Gertie having originally auditioned for Carol Anne in Poltergeist.

E.T. came from a director whose own mother Leah was such an artistic and supportive element in his life. He proudly cited her as his “lucky charm” when accepting his Best Director Oscar for Schindler’s List in 1994. In turn, Dee Wallace remembered the strong women of her own family when it came to her role in E.T. “I was raised by an incredibly strong grandmother and mother,” she recalls. “My dad was a severe alcoholic, and my mom worked and raised three dynamic kids. I had a good role model.

Quietly pivotal: Dee Wallace as single mother Mary with Drew Barrymore as daughter Gertie - PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
Quietly pivotal: Dee Wallace as single mother Mary with Drew Barrymore as daughter Gertie - PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

“Steven trusted me. He saw the essence of Mary in me. Like any great director, he had a strong vision, guided us through it, and was open to moments and ideas from everyone on the set, the kids included.”

In April 2022, Spielberg told the TCM Classic Film Festival’s celebration of the film how his parents’ separation made him realise “divorce creates great responsibility” and that “if you have siblings, we all take care of each other”. Spielberg suggests E.T. works as a story because Elliott “for the first time in his life becomes responsible for a life form, to fill the gap in his heart.” The film is a divorce film. And one about repair. It’s Spielberg’s first love story.

In 1983, E.T. flew past Star Wars as the highest-grossing film of all time and ended its initial theatrical run pushing $1 billion at the global box-office. “When my husband took me to see it with a live audience. I had never seen anything like it,” Wallace beams. “Laughing, crying, cheering. It was an unbelievable experience.”

With the usually prickly US critic Pauline Kael declaring in 1982 how the film was “a dream of a movie – a bliss-out”, E.T. was soon on every lunch box, candy bar and chewing gum wrapper. And John Williams’s soaring theme outflanked Wham and The Stranglers in the UK charts. “You never know what the public is going to make a hit, but this was so magical, it was destiny,” says Wallace.

Forty years on, E.T.’s legacy continues to stretch its glowing fingertip across a myriad of pop-culture. It’s there, of course, in Stranger Things and the UFOs and homesteads of Jordan Peele’s Nope (2022). But perhaps it’s most curious recent influence is the Bond film, No Time to Die (2021). In 2020, its director of photography Linus Sandgren told American Cinematographer magazine how he wanted to find that “E.T. look” for Bond and contacted the film’s original camera crew to determine what lenses and camera kit were used. E.T.’s wondering, child-like perspective is vividly present in No Time to Die’s brake light reds, low-shot forests, venetian blinds, constant sunsets, and lens flares.

E.T. is not just the best film about childhood. In its portrayal of kids who endure their parents’ separation, it is also one of the most striking films about the end of it. When that mothership zips into the night skies with a rainbow flourish, Elliott is now facing adulthood. It is an oddly blunt moment which sets out E.T. as the third act – after Jaws and Close Encounters – of an everyman trilogy of contemporary and technically exhilarating films that not only defined Spielberg’s career, but also pop-culture cinema as 20th century art.

As Wallace says, watching E.T. you feel: “Like the kid in the adult. We are one.”