Steven Spielberg was in a nostalgic mood this week, appearing at the TCM Classic Film Festival to commemorate the 40th anniversary of “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.” On the red carpet, he revealed that his beloved movie could have looked very different were it not for the help of frequent collaborator Harrison Ford.
Spielberg recalled that he came up with the idea for the film while shooting “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in Tunisia (via The Hollywood Reporter). He did not have time to write the script himself, but he thought he knew the perfect person for the job: Melissa Mathison, the screenwriter behind “The Black Stallion” who just happened to be dating Harrison Ford at the time.
“I pretty much had worked out most of the story and I needed a writer to write it with me, or write it just based on the story,” Spielberg said. “I was shooting in Tunisia; we were shooting outside the Well of the Souls with Harrison, and Harrison’s girlfriend Melissa Mathison was there on location…I was just talking to her and I told her my ‘E.T.’ idea, the whole story. And she said, ‘I’ve retired from writing, I don’t write anymore. I’m not interested in writing anymore. It’s too hard.’ She turned me down.”
Mathison may not have been interested, but Spielberg was not ready to give up on her yet. He took another route, opting to convince her by pitching the story to Harrison Ford first. It appears that his pitch resonated with Ford more than Mathison, as he ultimately convinced her to take the job.
“I went to Harrison and said, ‘Your girlfriend turned me down. She doesn’t want to write my next movie,’” Spielberg said. “He said, ‘Well, let me talk to her.’ He talked to her and she came to me the next day and said, ‘OK you got Harrison so excited about this. What is it that I missed?’ I think I hadn’t told her the story very well because I told her the story again and she got really emotional and she committed right there in the Tunisian desert.”
The collaboration turned out pretty well for both of them. “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial” was a massive hit, firmly embedding itself in American pop culture and winning four Oscars from nine nominations. Mathison received the sole writing credit, picking up an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for her efforts. Mathison passed away in 2015, but she collaborated one final time with Spielberg on 2016’s “The BFG,” which he directed from a script she wrote.