Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind was his first personally-initiated blockbuster hit. Its almost unanimous acclaim squelched the whinings of critical detractors who insisted on portraying him as a directorial traffic cop for car crashes and hungry sharks. Beaten to the summer boxoffice by the monster hit Star Wars, and shoved aside in the Oscar competition, CE3K nevertheless has aged as well as Lucas' ongoing phenomenon. And that's even after Spielberg's continued monkeying with its final form for subsequent 'special edition' releases.
Savant has a special lump in his throat for CE3K as it was his first bigtime industry job, in a tiny but fun capacity, and an experience that brightened my life. 1 The movie turned out to be a classic. What seemed during production to be a lopsided, over-ambitious remake of Earth vs the Flying Saucers turned into a cultural event that made UFOs credible and aliens benign. It also marked the height of Spielberg's first wave of directorial achievement, that established his visual strengths and signature effects: unabashedly manipulative use of music, transcendant camera moves into the awestruck faces of cosmic converts. The Collector's Edition's extras cover all the known bases: I'll try instead to relate some personal perspectives on the show.
I myself am seeing most of the DVD's 'extra scenes' for the first time, and they bring back memories of reading the shooting script in 1976. I remain of the opinion that the 1980 special edition was a botch that added plenty of stupid material along with the good. The extra footage of Roy Neary cracking up at home was very helpful, while the spaceship interior deflated the whole climax with faux-Disney cuteness. 2 The gigantic foreground-miniature ship in the Gobi Desert, a nice touch, is ruined by latter-day Spielberg over-hype. The expedition vehicles recklessly vault sand dunes for eye-candy 'Rat Patrol' shots, followed by the first truly stupid use of science-fiction helicopters - flying close to the ground, and behind the trucks. On the other hand, a lot of helpful material was dropped. Carl Weathers' excellent moment, telling Neary that, "We shoot looters, Smith," added risk and tension to Jillian and Roy's cross-country tresspassing. This is a scene cut from The Special Edition, not restored for this latest re-edit, and not in the deleted scenes selection. Fudge. The opening scene at the power plant, where we learn that Roy is a put-upon low-seniority lineman, were needed to show us his relationship to his job: The power emergency was a serious one, and he was recklessly irresponsible.
Doug Trumbull's Future General company, where the effects were shot, was sort of a sister-shop to John Dykstra's ILM in the valley (the original ILM, which had to change its name to Apogee when Lucas took Dennis Muren and started anew up North). This meant Savant was able to visit ILM as well and see their dogfight photography setups, big pieces of the Death Star, etc. Some key personnel migrated to CE3K, even Muren himself, when it came time to shoot the giant chandelier, uh, Mothership with eight-hour programmed shoots in a motion-control room full of Mole-Richardson oil smoke. Douglas Trumbull was converting into a director- executive by this time, trying to simultaneously launch the ShowScan Corporation, but he still contributed a lot of hands-on involvement. The son of a wonderful engineer and fabricator-inventor Don Trumbull, Doug was technically super-competent in many fields. He also put up with nothing shoddy. Encouraged to get a cheap intercom for communication in the saucer-room, I ran to Radio Shack. When the thing belched out static and feedback, Doug hurled it into the nearest wall and told me if I brought back another piece of s*** like it I'd be fired!
Spielberg was the hottest director in town but not yet the massive cultural institution we now know, the one that has eclipsed Disney and most other mortal dynasties. Columbia knew they had a runaway production, yet the example of Star Wars put dollar signs in their brains. On their next film they'd try to rein him in and prove that the studio was in charge - what a joke - but on CE3K he was everyone's favorite kid in the candy shop. Steven designed most of the spaceships and aliens himself, excusing their 'electric lollypop' simplicity, and the Bug Eyed Midget look of the ET's, on the basis that that they accurately mirrored the descriptions of people who claimed to have had real Close Encounters. Spielberg kept a tight lid on security, and we all remained loyally silent about details of the show. 3 The biggest gift to all of us 'heelots', as the great effects cameraman Dave Stewart called us ("I'm surrounded by heelots!"), was Star Wars' gambit of giving screen credit to every last soul who worked on the film. Spielberg followed suit and Savant got his 'project assistant' credit next to UCLA pal Hoyt Yeatman, a budding tech genius I had suggested as an automatic camera babysitter to work a night shift after Dennis Muren went home. Savant was a stoop'n fetch-it grunt because I wasn't an effects person - the wunderkind in the shop was young Scott Squires, who of course quickly became a top effects man.
The effects were produced in 70mm. A clever plan to blow up the 35mm feature footage and mate it with the effects in the larger format was abandoned in the rush to complete the film. All of our shots were taken to MGM and reduction-printed to 35mm, and then RE-ENLARGED to 70mm with the rest of the show, a process that sounds ridiculous, but at least made the footage match better. Unfortunately, all those hero 65mm final effect take negatives have since disappeared, making the two special editions of CE3K an editorial nightmare for Columbia.
In the grandeur of 70mm, CE3K was one impressive picture. On the Cinerama Dome's original curved screen, the picture warped like a horseshoe and the base camp was projected on the floor, but it didn't matter. Crowds exited the theater in a daze, always, it seemed, with a few claiming they'd seen God. Spielberg had out Disney'd Disney and thrown in a shovelful of Cecil B. DeMille to boot, producing the biggest feel-good, warm'n fuzzy, sci-fi charmer of all time. Just as Universal had engineered word of mouth that made 1975 a banner year for shark attacks, 1977 had a rash of flying saucer sightings that Savant thinks must have been snowballed by CE3K's publicity brains. Even President Carter copped to having seen a UFO. Time lost all credibility, but sold a pile of magazines with a full color cover of the Mothership, and the words "The UFOs are Here!"
Random things to look for in the movie:
The shot of Neary pulling the map down in the cab of his truck, seen from behind, was taken in Greg Jein's miniature shop, with the tabletop model positioned right in front of the truck. It was just a test, with cameraman Alan Harding standing in for Dreyfuss, but Spielberg bought it for the final cut ... apparently getting Richard Dreyfuss back for an insert was a big headache.
The police car jump was filmed on a hilly piece of US Navy property in Palos Verdes, and its stunt driver (in a car with none of the expected safety features) took off at top speed to impress Spielberg. In dailies, most of the shots just showed a blurry car exiting the top of the frame: the car vaulted way over several of the cameras and pancaked into flat earth, instead of making the intended skijump landing on the incline. Savant took the night off to watch this shoot, which had a pretty unpleasant finish: the stunt driver broke both his legs. Soon thereafter, he was happily directing episodes of the car stunt-heavy The Dukes of Hazzard.
The Mayflower Project spacemen are shown getting onto buses and witnessing various presentations, wearing dark glasses but never directly explained. One of them always reminds Savant of Austrian Actress Florence Marly, in her role as the green-blooded vampire from Curtis Harrington's Planet of Blood. Savant makes irrational connections like this all the time.
In our screenings, we all felt that the first crane shot reveal of Devil's Tower was more impressive than anything else in CE3K, no matter how good our effects looked. Real has an advantage that effects can't match - as in 1941, where the most breathtaking views by far of the P40 fighter plane are the shots of it buzzing over the trees toward the Grand Canyon.
In the classic shot of the Mothership rising above Devil's tower, to pivot and descend on the base camp, nobody ever remarks on the fact that it's coming from the 'security base' side of the mountain --- by logic, Warren Kemmerling's security chief and all of his 'unclassified personnel' should have gotten a look at it before Truffaut and Neary. Actually, the angle and the perspective are somewhat smushed - rising as it does, the Mothership would have to start with its longest spires buried in the Earth - maybe Kemmerling and company were crushed by it! I've always suspected that it was the graphic power of the image that overruled logical considerations - it was CE3K's 'image' to match the shark in the Jaws poster.
The windstorms at the base camp were done with air jets on-set, but all the glows, light beams, and atmospheric lens flares in the trucking shots around the personnel with their instruments, were addded afterwards on an old-fashioned animation stand. Painstaking months of rotoscope work by animator Harry Moreau on giant-sized cels were required, while Effects Animation Supervisor Robert Swarthe worked out the multiple moiré exposures that would create the shimmering, music-motivated patterns on the Mothership underbelly.
As the returning 'kidnapees' emerge from the belly of the Mothership, including the pilots of the mystery flight over the Devil's Triangle, their names are spoken over a PA system. Right after a scientist says, "Einstein was probably one of them", we hear over the PA, "Erickson, David" - My brother's name! Modelmaker Ken Swenson's surname is heard as well, and being soft-headed, I've always preferred to believe that Spielberg added details like this on purpose.
The Mayflower Project spacemen are all lined up, ready to board the Mothership, but Roy Neary is herded alone by the aliens into its base (likened, even during filming, to the nipple of a giant inverted breast). When we cut back to the wide shots, the Mayflower volunteers are no longer there, leading many to conclude that they boarded the Mothership as well. Spielberg said later that the volunteers simply retired from the floor, rejected by the aliens who wanted only their choice, and he cut it out because it slowed down the scene. The idea that the aliens choose a guy like the relatively doofus-y Neary to represent the human race is a concept that is said to have estranged writer Paul Schrader from the project. Now Neary would seem to represent the perfect 'everyman' for the Hollywood - a passive, open-minded dreamer who indiscriminately consumes everything the technologically superior movie industry tries to sell him.
The Mothership was originally designed as a black shape erasing stars as it passed overhead, which accounts for the shadow that the final model casts, when it's actually a very bright object, lit up like an upsidedown Manhattan skyline. There was a miniature R2D2 on its rim, along with the cranes and booms from at least 25 plastic model kits of Cousteau's Calypso. The Revell model kit company was right down the street from Future General on Glencoe Avenue, and after filming wrapped we went to Spielberg's Hollywood home to show the 9' diameter Mothership miniature to the the plastic toy company, which wanted to make a model of it. Spielberg kept it locked in his garage to prevent its image from getting out ahead of time (just try doing that now with any movie). The spiky sea-urchin shape of the model was a kid's toy no-no, so the notion was dropped.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Close Encounters, the Collector's Edition, comes in an impressive package, opening up in the strangest way I've seen yet. I'm thinking of storing the discs elsewhere to prevent damage to it, as it's made mostly of card stock and doesn't look too durable.
Disc one is the movie, which is very handsomely presented. There are Dolby 5.1 and DTS tracks and additional French and Spanish language tracks. I'm curious to run the show again in French to see how they handle the 'interpreter' dialogue, when everyone's speaking French! Columbia's usual generous array of subtitles are there: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai. There aren't many chapters in the scene selections, but they're well-chosen.
Disc two has the extras, several trailers and a worn-looking original featurette, and a 1997 docu done for the laserdisc of the 2nd special edition, which received a very limited release. Owners of the old Criterion Box laser are advised hang onto it, for this DVD has none of its still galleries or effects interviews.
The best extra on the DVD are the above-mentioned deleted scenes. Almost all would have helped the movie. The Nearys' visit to a neighborhood picnic looks a little forced and too critical of the suburbanites, but Savant thought all of Roy's adventures on the night of the blackouts were great. With power outages threatened in California (think of the riots that could happen! think of the economic blackmail our President and his corporate cronies are threatening us with!), the havoc that results when the aliens mess with the power grids seems very topical now. The documentary also has some deleted scene bits that Savant's never seen before, all of them very interesting, especially all of the failed attempts at filming aliens, and Neary entering the Mothership floating on wires. To be honest, even when I watch this 'final' version I'm confused by what's there and what's not, and what version it was in. Spielberg very clearly says (in 1997) that showing the inside of the Mothership was a mistake. In 1980 he behaved as if it were the greatest idea ever. There's something to be said for the old one movie, one negative rule. Classics like Metropolis and Napoleon and For Whom the Bell Tolls look as though they were cut down bit by bit over the years, even by their own filmmakers, who could never arrive at a finished product.
Close Encounters still plays extremely well, and has an emotional kick that hasn't faded one bit. Spielberg's sentiments are unforced, and he has the miracle of Cary Guffey to make the scenes with the kid spellbinding. There's a strong undertow of 'youthful irresponsibility' vs. the straight family life here. Roy Neary is an undistinguished man who basically throws his life away for an idea, less than an idea, and runs happily into some abstract kind of eternity, pausing on the way to kiss a friend before going. The fact that the aliens have hypno-suggested Neary's erratic behavior doesn't mean that they're completely responsible for breaking up his family. As in Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life, where the drug cortisone merely liberates James Mason's unexpressed dissatisfaction and hostility, the aliens have simply freed the childlike Neary to follow his true character. Spielberg alludes to Flying Saucer cultism as an alternate religon, and a learned book I have about human belief systems agrees with him. Because he's not really an artist, but an individual compelled to express himself in any way he can, Neary's rush to 'become one with the universe', to find a higher plane of existence, or to change into something totally different, has to be read as an impulse to avoid the responsibility of living a mundane human life with all its problems.
Dreamers are always accused by loved ones or experts or even themselves, of really not wanting to face life or fulfill anyone's expectations but their own. For us '50s science fiction kids, Sci Fi really was some kind of religion, and its best fables charted an evolution of our attitudes towards responsibility. The Day the Earth Stood Still is supposed to be pacifist and open-minded, but it's really about a heavy morality coming down on the transgressor. The feeling I still get at the end of Close Encounters is a youthful one, of being willing to do what Neary does ... it's like what some sacrificial volunteer must have felt in a primitive society, ecstatic because he gets to be the one to jump in the volcano and join with God.
Close Encounters, even though Spielberg defensively calls it naive, is possibly his purest movie, done for himself and not to conquer an audience with a giant celluloid Disney battering ram. And he doesn't have his alien space ramp open up to reveal a big robot Gort delivering some moral homily about minding our manners or being good boys. What you recall from CE3K are exultant moments, embraces and smiles, and especially those clichéd push-ins to awestruck, beatific faces. In Close Encounters, they're perfect. Spielberg was at his best interpreting genres like Science Fiction, that only rarely had gotten around to really being about, what they were about ... I like to remember him for this movie most of all.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. hired as a special effects production assistant by Douglas Trumbull's
effects production manager on the basis of my UCLA project 2, for 13 months I ran errands for the
effects shop, clerked in the editorial shack, projected 70mm dailies, squired for Gregory Jein
building miniatures, and took all of the b&w stills of the effects effort, which was run out of
an old, seagull-infested candle factory in Marina Del Rey. It was the most fun, and the worst
pay, that I ever had.
2. I always felt that the cut from the spaceship interior back to the
original film, gave the inappropriate impression that Neary
had been transformed by the shower of pixie dust into an alien! The 'kids in suits' aliens are
entirely different from the one that appears just after Roy enters the spaceship. He walks out
and smiles, and blinks his eyes so sadly ... but the cut, and the unique appearance of the critter
implies that it IS Neary.
3. Which brings up a funny story from Star Trek: The Motion Picture,
two years later: a nightshift cameraman called a radio deejay at 2AM to request a song, and
innocently blabbed all about the story and Shatner and Nimoy. He didn't know that his entire
conversation about the anxiously-awaited movie had been recorded, and it was broadcast on morning
radio morning shows all over the country, attributed to him by name. We
all thought he'd be fired for sure when effects supervisor Richard Yuricich called him into his
office. Optical cameraman John Bailey had the last laugh when he suddenly announced that the
the employee in question had been taken to the hospital. Gasps from all around the room.
We loved the guy. "For God's sake, why?" "To remove Richard Yuricich from five feet
up his a**!"