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The Real Story Behind Those Rick Baker ‘Night Skies’ Photos

The Real Story Behind Those Rick Baker 'Night Skies' Photos

It all started with a tweet. On May 22nd, Rick Baker, the make-up wizard and self-proclaimed “monster maker” behind everything from “American Werewolf in London” to “Maleficent,” posted an old, black-and-white photo to his Twitter account. The caption read: “As requested, the Night Skies alien. Not finished, no eyes. Cover the top of his head and tell me who he looks like.” The photo was in reference to the infamously canceled “Night Skies,” a project that he worked on with Steven Spielberg. The next day, Baker blocked out the top of his head, added eyes, and proclaimed the creature “ET’s dad.” This lead to a flurry of internet speculation, mislabeling “Night Skies” an “E.T. The Extra-terrestrial” prequel or a follow-up to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” It was neither. And here’s the story.

In 1980, Steven Spielberg found himself at something of a crossroads. After ushering in an era of special effects-driven blockbuster filmmaking with the back-to-back smashes “Jaws” (1975) and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), he had released a certifiable dud in 1979’s “1941,” a film written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, whose first two movies Spielberg had produced (and suffered similarly at the box office). His outlook was dour, compacted by the fact that his relationship with actress Amy Irving, who starred in “Carrie” (directed by Spielberg’s close friend Brian De Palma), was falling apart. Meanwhile, Spielberg was prepping “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” a modern action film in the style of the film serials the director loved as a child, with George Lucas, while being urged by Columbia to think about a “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” follow-up. The director had seen what had happened when a sequel to one of his films was made without his involvement. It was called “Jaws 2.” Spielberg didn’t want that to happen again.

According to Simon Braund‘s “The Greatest Movies You’ll Never See,” published earlier this year by Octopus, Spielberg turned to a bit of UFO-related miscellanea that he had initially dug up while researching “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” In late 1955, members of the Sutton family of Christian County, Kentucky, alleged that small, extraterrestrial creatures had menacingly swarmed their small farmhouse. The creatures were dubbed the “Hopkinsville goblins” by local media and investigated by state troopers, local policemen and even the U.S. Air Force. (The supposed attack happened between the towns of Kelly and Hopkinsville.) This incident is where the popular notion of “little green men” originated.

Spielberg provided Columbia with a treatment for something called “Watch the Skies” (named after the last line of dialogue in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers;” rights issues with the phrase ultimately kept it from being used). Spielberg contemporized the story’s setting and the aliens, after they have landed, attempt communicating with local farm animals, before turning their (hostile) attention on the family inside the house. He wanted Lawrence Kasdan to write the actual screenplay, but the writer was committed to salvaging the work that had already been done on his friend George Lucas‘ “The Empire Strikes Back” (that’s a whole different story). Instead, Spielberg turned to John Sayles, who had scripted “Piranha,” a low budget “Jaws” rip-off that Spielberg greatly appreciated. (Spielberg, reassuming control over the franchise, had wanted “Piranha” director Joe Dante to do a comedic third entry, entitled “Jaws 3, People 0,” and after that project ran out of steam, installed him at the head of “Gremlins.”) The project was less of a direct “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” sequel than something that would satisfy Columbia’s yearning for a follow-up, while allowing Spielberg to play in the same general sandbox (and retain creative control). There would be no other crossover; Richard Dreyfuss would not land the mother ship outside of the besieged family’s farmhouse.

As recounted in the indispensible “The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made” by David Hughes, Sayles’ script drew heavy inspiration from dusty western “Drums Along the Mohawk,” “with aliens instead of Indians attacking the farm,” Sayles told Gavin Smith. While Sayles worked on the screenplay, Spielberg floated his directorial choices by Columbia: either Toby Hooper, who was coming off the art house horror movie “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” or Ron Cobb, a noted production designer and illustrator who had provided early sketches to both “Star Wars” and “Alien.” Hooper was more interested in doing a haunted house movie (more on that in a minute), with Hooper saying, “I told him that didn’t appeal to me.” Eventually Cobb was signed. In April 1980, Variety announced that the newly titled “Night Skies” was a go.

Even at that stage, it was clear to Spielberg that “Night Skies” was going to be a motherfucker of a technical challenge. The director knew that he couldn’t trust the effects work to Carlo Rambaldi, the Italian technician responsible for the willowy aliens at the end of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” These were meaty creatures that dissected cows and ransacked living rooms. They had to do more than wave. On his friend John Landis‘ advice, Spielberg got in touch with Rick Baker, then prepping his groundbreaking transformation work on “American Werewolf in London” for Landis.

In a lengthy interview with glossy genre magazine Cinefantastique from 1983 (recounted in “The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made”), Baker noted that, “The assignment was a dream come true… I told Spielberg what he wanted to do would be incredibly difficult and expensive.” Baker told Spielberg the effects would cost him $3 million. Without a finished script, Baker was given the go-ahead to do some preliminary work for $70,000. Spielberg left to continue work on “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Baker periodically mailed videotapes of the creatures’ progress to Spielberg and the director’s producing partner, Kathleen Kennedy.

“I got this call from Kathleen Kennedy saying, ‘Steven is so flipped out about this! This is so incredible! It makes Yoda look like a toy!'” Baker told Cinefantastique. Baker was given more money and he hired a small crew to oversea the work being done on both “Night Skies” and “American Werewolf in London.” Sayles script was delivered to Baker in mid-1980, with the original eleven aliens whittled down to 5, and the heart of the story coming in the form of one of the nicer aliens, nicknamed Buddy in the screenplay, forming an unspoken bond with a young autistic boy (sound familiar?)

By this point, though, Spielberg was having second thoughts about such dark material (described by some as “‘Straw Dogs‘ with aliens”) and Columbia began to fret about the movie’s astronomical production costs, despite the kind of money “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” had brought in. “I might have taken leave of my senses,” Spielberg later told Film Comment. “I’ve got to get back to the tranquility, or at least the spirituality, of ‘Close Encounters.'” This was coupled with his desire to tell a coming-of-age story about a young boy growing up in suburbia. He started talking to screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who was dating Harrison Ford at the time, about the idea, and so was on the set of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” constantly. According to Spielberg, “We sat down, and I told her the story, and she wept.” She began to write what would become “E.T. The Extra-terrestrial” in October 1980.

When Spielberg came home after shooting “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he quickly began to prep “E.T.” Sayles didn’t care and gave the project his blessing; Baker, on the other hand, was pissed. “I was working weekends, and long nights to do this stuff,” Baker told Cinefantastique. “Then he walks in one day and says something like, ‘Guess what? I’m not going to make this movie anymore.’ My jaw dropped. My heart skipped a beat. I almost felt like crying. Then he said, ‘But I am going to make another picture which is going to have an alien in it – a cuter alien, a nicer alien – and I want you to start re-designing him.” That, ultimately, proved not to be the case.

Baker was deep into “American Werewolf in London” now, and Spielberg was unhappy with the amount of money that had already been spent on the project by Baker’s team. Baker also recalls that, “He got pissed off that I wasn’t excited about it.” Spielberg wanted to move the costs that had already been spent on “Night Skies” over to the development of “E.T.” Baker balked. Harsh words were exchanged and lawsuits threatened (Baker, for his part, had been told stories about Spielberg’s duplicitous business side and was, he admits, “paranoid”). Stories vary as to who suggested Carlo Rambaldi for the new project, but either way, Baker was out and the designer of those wimpy “Close Encounters of the  Third Kind” aliens was back.

Not that the split was amicable. Baker was locked out of his own studio, and designs and prototypes confiscated by Spielberg and his team. In an interview in “The Greatest Sci-Fi Films Never Made,” Baker says that he knows what happened: “I think Carlo Rambaldi ended up with it. I know he did.” At the time of the Cinefantastique interview, Baker was downright irate, especially after a Time Magazine story from the year before referred to Baker as someone who “tried to make the spaceman and failed, spending a reported $700,000.” Ouch. “If Spielberg and Rambaldi are claiming that the thing I did was no good, why don’t they okay me to publish pictures of it?” Baker asked the magazine.

Columbia wasn’t happy either. They had spent $10 million on what, internally, was now being referred to as “a wimpy Walt Disney movie.” The contractual obligation for a “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” sequel was fulfilled, oddly enough, by the theatrical re-release of the original film (dubbed “The Special Edition”). Spielberg also had an obligation to direct his next film at Universal, something that rankled Columbia head Frank Price. Universal paid Columbia $1 million (supposedly to cover the “Night Skies” development costs) and promised the studio 5% of the eventual film’s profits, something that would net Columbia untold millions. (An executive famously noted, “I think that year we made more on that picture than we did on any of our films.”) With Columbia and Spielberg on bad terms, the director took whatever was left of “Night Skies” to MGM, turning the marauding aliens into disturbing ghosts. Say hello to “Poltergeist.”

After some initial false starts (Stephen King was originally supposed to pen the new script, but some miscommunication over the author’s intended fee, led to that not being an option), Spielberg returned to the “Night Skies” well and hired Tobe Hooper to direct. As Hughes notes, “the resemblance to Spielberg’s original vision for ‘Night Skies’ is obvious, despite his canny substitution of paranormal phenomena for extraterrestrial entities.” “E.T.,” too, shared DNA with “Night Skies,” maybe more explicitly: the last page of Sayles’ script, in which the nice alien is marooned on earth, cowering under the shadow of a nearby hawk, is “the first page of ‘E.T.'” (according to Sayles), and the movie borrows an idea from “Night Skies” where one of the creatures has a long, bony finger that emanates an unearthly glow. (In “Night Skies,” what it does with that finger is much nastier.) Sayles didn’t want story credit on either project, but both come from that same initial concept. Everyone claiming that the photos Baker posted on twitter were shots from an “E.T.” prequel could be just as right claiming that they were exploratory artwork from “Poltergeist.”

Additionally, elements of “Night Skies” can be felt in a proposed sequel, “E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears,” which was submitted by Spielberg and Mathison in July of 1982. Essentially, the mean aliens from “Night Skies” come down and kidnap Elliott and his crew and E.T. has to save them. It didn’t get far. But Spielberg would return to the concept of “scary aliens” with “War of the Worlds,” a project that ended up having a number of similar sequences to those in “Night Skies.”

Baker, for his part, still hasn’t worked with Spielberg directly. This might have to do with the fact that Melissa Mathison famously (and successfully) won a Writers Guild of America arbitration that allowed for her to get a greater percentage of the film’s profits due to the fact that her description of the alien was in the script. (Nothing was awarded Baker. Or Carlo Rambaldi for that matter.) Or the fact that Baker feels that he was basically shanghaied. (Baker provided work for Spielberg-produced projects like “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” and “Men in Black,” but when Spielberg directs, usually Stan Winston (up until his death), handles the practical effects.) As Baker says, more recently, in “The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made,” “It was a real disappointment. They turned around and took my stuff, altered it slightly, and made one of the most incredible movies in history.” Well, at least now, thanks to twitter, we can now see some of that “stuff.”

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