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Remind Me

Behind the Camera On CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND

Saturday March, 2 2019 at 05:30 PM

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For Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg originally planned to cast Jack Nicholson in the lead role of Roy Neary, a part he said had been written for a 45-year-old man, but Nicholson was committed to other projects. Waiting for him would have delayed production another two years. Some reports say Richard Dreyfuss campaigned for the role while he was working for Spielberg on Jaws (1975), others say he was reluctant to accept it until producer Julia Phillips began sending scripts to other actors, among them Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, both of whom were closer to the age Spielberg originally had in mind. In the end, Dreyfuss accepted the role for $300,000.

Spielberg was intimidated by the prospect of asking one of his cinematic heroes, French director Francois Truffaut, to play the part of Lacombe. He considered a few other actors, among them Gerard Depardieu and Jean-Louis Trintignant, before finally getting the courage to ask Truffaut if he would consider being an actor in this production. Truffaut liked Spielberg's work and agreed but told him, "I am not an actor; I can only play myself." Spielberg replied that was exactly what he wanted, and Truffaut signed on for $75,000.

When the project was first pitched to Columbia in 1973, Spielberg said it would cost $2.7 million to make. Due to delays caused by script development problems, he went on to make Jaws, a huge success that gave him more status and bargaining power with the studio. At that point, exhausted and frazzled from the difficult location work on the shark movie, Spielberg decided he wanted to make Close Encounters entirely in the studio, and the budget was set at $4.1 million. As time went on and production ideas and plans grew more elaborate, it became clear more money would be needed, a prospect not looked on favorably by the financially strapped studio. Special effects creator Douglas Trumbull was surprised by the original low budget because he had estimated early on that his effects alone would cost about $3 million. The final figure for effects was fairly close to that.

One of the reasons behind new cost increases was Spielberg's decision to release the film in 70mm using a process that allowed for a wider magnetic sound track to let him create greater audio impact as well as visual.

Beyond having to manage the myriad of complex technical and artistic details involved, Spielberg would find he also had to spend a lot of time and energy battling the studio for more and more money, a task he wasn't prepared for and didn't like. At one point later in production, the studio refused to shell out several thousand dollars for the effect of the Devil's Tower control room glass shattering and Spielberg used his own money for it.

While making Jaws, Steven Spielberg was sure he was in the midst of the most difficult production he would ever have to tackle. He would come to find Close Encounters to be "twice as bad, and twice as expensive, as well."

Preproduction began with a year's worth of conceptual planning between Spielberg and illustrator George Jensen, who created thousands of sketches from the visual ideas he and Spielberg exchanged. The two plotted details of seven major sequences, including the 30-minute finale.

The production began shooting on December 29, 1975, at an air traffic control center in Palmdale, California, so that Columbia, juggling its very shaky resources, could qualify for a tax shelter. That shoot wrapped after two days and filming would not resume again until the following May.

When principal photography began again on May 16, 1976, the budget had risen in stages to $11 million, and kept climbing as Spielberg expanded his ideas.

Because the complicated and extensive visual effects were stretching the limits of what had been done before, Spielberg also discovered a difficult new challenge in having to shoot scenes without an exact idea of how they would look when special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull completed them and added them to the film in post-production, months after principal photography was finished. On Jaws, the effects were difficult, but they were mechanical and physical, right there before him every day. The unknown of working around optical effects to be added later meant a more tense on-set atmosphere. "I'll never be able to thank him enough for having the confidence and the patience to see it through time and not panic," Trumbull told Spielberg biographer Joseph McBride. "There was enormous pressure on the production all the time from the studio to keep moving on."

The actors had to spend a lot of time acting to objects and things that weren't there and being told by Spielberg what they were looking at and how to react. "For weeks we were just sitting on a rock, shifting positions, pretending to look at the landing site and the sky," Melinda Dillon said. "It was a great acting exercise." Francois Truffaut, however, found it very difficult, finally giving himself over to be nothing more than another object in the "grand cartoon strip" of 2,000 storyboard sketches Spielberg had shown him. When Richard Dreyfuss saw the final picture, he was upset with several moments of his performance, believing he would have reacted quite differently if he had seen the actual effects.

Special effects were a part of more than 200 different shots in the movie, and some of them contained as many as 18 separate visual elements, including dozens of matte paintings and animated sequences. With no knowledge of such techniques, Spielberg depended heavily on Douglas Trumbull, who was effects supervisor on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). "If Trumbull hadn't accepted the job," Spielberg said in a 1978 article, "I'd still be on the Columbia back lot trying to get a cloud to materialize from thin air."

Spielberg ran a few tests of computer generated imagery (CGI) now the industry standard but then in its very first stages of development. He decided none of it looked believable.

A digital system called the Electronic Motion Control System was employed to record and program camera movements so they could be duplicated in post-production when putting live-action photography together with the matching miniature effects.

Production designer Joe Alves drove 2,700 miles through the West to find a suitable mountain site for the mother ship landing. He finally suggested Devil's Tower in Wyoming, which closely resembled prominent features of Monument Valley, where John Ford shot movies like The Searchers (1956). Devil's Tower was preferable because it was less familiar to movie audiences and a more solitary and abrupt intrusion on the landscape. These features made the sheer, jagged-edge rock rising nearly 1,300 feet from the surrounding terrain eerie and imposing.

Spielberg and Alves at first thought they would build the landing site in Monument Valley but realized that would present great difficulties in controlling climate and lighting conditions. They settled on an abandoned hangar near Mobile, Alabama where they thought they'd have greater control over the enormous $700,000 set. Bigger than a football field and six times the size of the largest Hollywood sound stage, the hangar harbored its own climate, trapping humidity that sometimes caused clouds and precipitation during filming. Dozens of very large lights were needed, and the 200 extras involved necessitated careful choreography of movement. All of this meant frequent delays and rising costs. The scenes filmed on this set accounted for only about a fifth of the film's running time but took up easily half of the shooting schedule. Spielberg stated, "That set became our shark on this picture."

Vilmos Zsigmond, the director of photography on Spielberg's debut feature The Sugarland Express (1974), returned to work with Spielberg after passing up the job of shooting Jaws. He found the director more commanding and less eager to discuss options than previously, but Zsigmond was enthusiastic to be on the picture. "[Close Encounters] had the smell of a great movie. We fell into sandtraps not because anybody made mistakes but because we were making things that had never been done before." Zsigmond found himself blamed for many of those "sandtraps" by producer Julia Phillips and the studio, who almost fired him over his insistence that he needed at least one day to pre-light the enormous set. Nevertheless, Zsigmond refused to give in to pressure to use less lighting, and he was supported in this by Spielberg and especially Trumbull, who knew what it would take to match the scenes to the special effects. After the first two months of shooting in Mobile, when studio executives and financial backers began to show up on set, Julia Phillips insisted on firing him. Several other cinematographers were called as potential replacements--John Alonzo, Laszlo Kovacs, Ernest Laszlo--but most of them were friends of Zsigmond and agreed that if he couldn't handle the job, no one could.

Although Spielberg continued to support Zsigmond, creating what the cinematographer called "a very rewarding" experience, Zsigmond was not asked to shoot additional sequences and shots that were needed after the company left Alabama. He believed this was largely the work of Julia Phillips and the studio. Although Zsigmond shot about 90 percent of the picture, additional material (the India sequence, the discovery of the lost Air Force squadron, etc.) was shot by others, primarily William Fraker, as well as Douglas Slocombe, Alonzo, and Kovacs, all of whom received on-screen credit as additional directors of photography, a vindictive move by Phillips, by her own admission.

Julia Phillips, who by this time had developed a serious cocaine problem and was divorced from producer Michael Phillips, was forced off the picture by Columbia during post-production in 1977.

Spielberg's original conception of the mother ship was an enormous black object that blotted out the sky and emitted light from the bottom, but that evolved into the brightly lit and less threatening image we know today. One of the influences on the final design was a huge oil refinery that Spielberg saw while filming the India sequence (the first overseas location shoot in his career), covered with pipes, tubes, walkways, and thousands of small lights. The bottom of the ship took form after he drove up into the hills of Los Angeles and looked upside down at the great expanse of city lights.

Trumbull and Spielberg went through several conceptions of what the UFOs would look like. One abandoned idea was to have them resemble structures and logos familiar on Earth, such as those for McDonalds and Chevron, to suggest the aliens were using human symbols to make their crafts appear less threatening.

Trumbull achieved the dramatic cloud effects by filling a tank half full of salt water with lighter fresh water on top, then injecting paint into the top layer. The paint billowed through the fresh water but flattened out at the top of the heavier salt water, creating the effect we see on screen.

The aliens who appear at the end were achieved through several different methods. The first, aborted attempt involved putting an E.T. suit on a chimp, placing the animal on roller skates, and rolling it down a ramp. The chimp kept falling and laughing, but finally took off the alien costume head and threw it at the crew. Another plan to have 70 puppets operated by 70 puppeteers on scaffold high over the set was also scrapped as unwieldy, particularly since before today's digital capabilities, it would be nearly impossible to remove all traces of the wires from the film.

The little aliens who gather around Dreyfuss were played by six-year-old girls from dance schools wearing large heads and gloves. On film, the costumes looked either too obviously fake or more threatening than they should have been so Zsigmond overexposed them to soften the details.

The large, long-armed alien character who came to be known as Puck was a puppet created by marionette maker Bob Baker with an upper torso and head and articulating features for close-ups by Carlo Rambaldi, who had created the ape's face in the remake of King Kong (1976). Eight people operated the mechanisms to control the puppet, and Spielberg was so pleased with it, according to Rambaldi, he often played with it. The face worked particularly well in the moment when the creature exchanges beaming smiles with Truffaut's character. Truffaut became so enchanted with it, he would go over to greet it every morning on the set.

After a while, Truffaut found the long shoot tiring and he was frustrated over not being able to get on with his own directing work. He also got a good dose of Hollywood reality, noting to Teri Garr that for the $250,000 it cost to do a single helicopter shot, he could make an entire movie. Still, the experience gave him good insight into what it takes to act in film. All in all, Truffaut respected Spielberg for his outward calm, patience and good humor and found that despite his own relative lack of experience in front of the camera (having acted only twice in his own movies), "several times during the shooting [Spielberg] made me...come out of myself. Thanks to that, I discovered a real pleasure as an actor." Truffaut also added, "In the face of overwhelming hardships and innumerable complications that would, I suspect, have discouraged most directors, Steven Spielberg's perseverance and fortitude were simply amazing."

During a fierce summer storm, the side of the hangar blew off. Luckily no one was hurt, but the accident caused further delays while it was repaired. Richard Dreyfuss later said, "Part of the shoot was a nightmare. It went from fun to frightening."

Melinda Dillon said because it was done without rehearsal, the scene in the kitchen with all the objects flying around was truly scary, and her alarmed reactions were often quite real and spontaneous as she tried to protect herself and the young actor playing her son, Cary Guffey.

Spielberg got the wondrous expressions on Cary Guffey's face, in the scenes where his character sees the UFOs and aliens, by using visual aides, such as slowing unwrapping toys at a height that made it look like the boy was peering up at the sky toward the UFOs. In the scene where the boy looks into the kitchen, Spielberg had a make-up man in a gorilla suit on one side of the set. The boy's expression revealed a certain alarm when he saw it, then a partition on the other side was dropped, revealing Spielberg in a bunny suit, making the boy smile but still wary of the gorilla. The make-up man took off the gorilla mask and Guffey, seeing his friend there, began to laugh.

Guffey really did cry at the end of the movie when he said goodbye to the aliens. Spielberg told him to think of all his friends going away forever.

In an interview for the "making-of" featurette on the DVD release, a grown Guffey said it was embarrassing for him to shoot the scene of him exiting the mother ship because he had to wear ballet slippers to keep from falling on the ramp.

The filming was done under utmost secrecy to keep the element of surprise until it finally became ready for release and also to prevent anyone ripping off the idea and making some quick knockoff of it. Security at the Mobile hangar was so tight that even Spielberg was denied entrance one day when he forgot his ID card.

According to producer Michael Phillips, the company had six different wrap parties, believing each time that principal photography was complete. Then Spielberg would come up with something else he wanted to do.

Spielberg edited the film secretly, not at the studio but in a rented apartment in Marina del Rey under guard.

Spielberg wanted to release his movie in the spring of 1978, but Columbia forced him to have it ready by fall 1977. That left him with many aspects he felt needed changing or correcting. So just a few years later, he created a new version of the film, known as the "Special Edition," and released it in 1980. He eliminated some scenes he felt didn't work, such as Dreyfuss digging up his yard and throwing parts of it through the kitchen window to build his vision of the mountain; Spielberg restored scenes he originally shot but never used in the first release, among them the ship discovered in the Gobi desert and sequences of Dreyfuss mentally struggling with the strange compulsion that overtakes him after encountering the UFO; he also shot brand new scenes, most notably the new finale, which shows what Dreyfuss sees when he enters the ship. This last addition was made at the urging of Columbia, who made funding for the other work contingent on its inclusion so that they would have something substantial to hang a marketing campaign on. Spielberg reworked Close Encounters of the Third Kind again for a 1998 home video release, re-editing the 1977 version with elements of the 1980 cut, but eliminating the final interior spaceship scene.

by Rob Nixon

Key source material for this section: Steven Spielberg: A Biography by Joseph McBride (Simon & Schuster, 1997)

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