The Making of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND
A few years ago, director Steve Spielberg and producers Julia and Michael Phillips met with the top executives of Columbia Pictures to outline the project that $19 million dollars and countless man-hours later would be the enormously successful CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Spielberg described his original story of ordinary Mid-Westerners whose lives are turned topsy-turvy by sighting several UFO’s (close encounters of the ﬁrst kind), who can’t deny the physical evidence left by the mysterious ships (close encounters of the second kind) and their struggles— by turns desperate, hilarious, and touching—to make sense of what has happened. Meanwhile, an international scientiﬁc team (headed by Francois Truf- faut in a rare acting appearance in another director’s movie) makes radio contact with what seem to be extraterrestrial beings and prepares a secret landing strip to welcome them (a close en counter of the third kind). Despite the ofﬁcial cover-ups and stringent security, a widow (Melinda Dillon) who’s seen her little boy disappear into a UFO and a utility lineman (Richard Dreyfuss) who’s let his marriage and job disintegrate while trying to puzzle out the music and visions resulting from his “close encounter,” manage to sneak into the wilderness landing site. According to one Columbia executive, at this point in the meeting Spielberg brought out a scale model of the massive set he envisioned for the extraordinary installation, then held the studio brass spellbound while he described the special effects for the ﬁlm’s climax: roiling clouds, smaller ships buzzing the site, making formations, hovering, passing overhead, the monolithic, glowing “mother ship” coming closer and closer, the landing, the ﬁrst communication between earthlings and the luminous ship in waves of music and sound and finally— who and what would emerge from the ship for a “close encounter of the third kind.” Afterwards the Columbia people privately decided it was “great, but he’d never pull it off completely. It just couldn’t happen.” But even if Spielberg fell short of his own exceedingly high standards, he’d still end up with enough audience-grabbing excitement to more than justify the studio’s hefty investment. But on the morning after the worldwide press premiere, the Columbia spokesman conceded with a grin that “Spielberg real ly made it all happen. Everything he promised—and more!” The subject was a natural for the 29- year-old wunderkind, an admitted “gadget freak” and UFO enthusiast. His fascination with the possibilities of con tact with extraterrestrial beings dates back to his high school years when he turned out a2’/j hour, 8mm ﬁlm on the subject for $500. “But it was all very hard- edged and sci-ﬁ,” he said. “Things with jaws came out of the ships to gobble up everything in sight.” A much more optimistic and benevolent vision informs CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, which Spielberg prefers to call “science speculation” rather than science ﬁction. According to Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the astronomer, astrophysicist, and UFO authority who served as technical consultant on the ﬁlm, the director did his homework very thoroughly. The wizardry of the special effects department, headed Douglas Trumbull of 2001 fame, is actually based on veriﬁed UFO sightings, or is simply a logical extension of documented reports. No one, Dr. Hynek explained, has ever claimed to see anything as enormous as the vibrating, pulsating, luminous “mother ship” that draws gasps and applause from the audience. But reports of objects resembling “little mother ships” come in from around the world at the rate of 100 a day. Dr. Hynek was an avowed skeptic when he began to investigate the controversial subject for the Air Force in the 1940’s. In 20 years, he looked into some 12,600 reported sightings. Not surprisingly, some 95% of the “UFO’s” turned out to be weather balloons, satellites—even the planet Venus. But the remaining 5% couldn’t be neatly dismissed. Hynek parted company with the military when he “could no longer, in good conscience, keep calling everything ‘swamp gas.’ Moreover, the fact that reports from South America and Asia tallied with reports from this country wasn’t easily explained away.” And UFO’s aren’t sighted only by people who consult their Ouija boards twice daily: commercial pilots, radar technicians, and a host of solid citizens including President Carter have gone on record about their “close en counters.” But Spielberg took the next imagination-stretching step beyond reality to put a stellar ﬂeet of UFO’s, and their occupants, plus a dazzling array of celestial storms, power blackouts, and electronics-gone-wild on the 70mm screen. To do it, he and special effects supervisor Doug Trumbull put together a crew of more than 40 model makers, animators, optical effects people, matte artists, electronics engineers, camera operators, and assistants. For CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, Trumbull and his company converted an entire 13,500 square foot building into a complete movie studio with a ﬁlm processing lab, optical printing and editing departments, special effects “stages” with built-in horizontal and vertical dolly tracks and electronically-operated control booths, wood shop, metal shop, paint shop, and a special shop for miniature construction. There were even in-house facilities for equipment maintenance and an R&D department for Trumbull’s endless experiments.
As elaborate as the special effects set up was, it was rivaled by some of the actual locations. While outdoor backdrops for the climactic sequences were shot at the stark “Devil’s Tower” in a desolate area of Wyoming, Spielberg wanted the control only possible on a soundstage for the critical closer shots. Hollywood simply couldn’t provide a stage big enough for the spectacular UFO landing site, so the company took over a World War II dirigible hangar on the outskirts of Mobile, Alabama, and converted it into a soundstage 6 times larger than anything available in Los Angeles. The set measured 450′ long, 250′ wide, and 90′ high; its construction required 54,000 board feet (about 10 miles!) of lumber, 19,000′ of steel scaffolding, 29,500′ of nylon canopy, 16,800′ of ﬁberglass, 2 miles of steel cable, 5000 yards of cloth backing, 150 tons of air conditioning, 26,000 square yards of concrete slabs, 7000 yards of sand and clay ﬁll, and enough concrete ﬁll to re-build the Washington Monument. The electronic gear on the set drew more than 4 million kilowatts when all the equipment was running simultaneously (the equivalent of 35,000 amperes). To put that ﬁgure in perspective, keep in mind that the average home pulls around 70 amps on the rare occasions when all appliances are on simultaneously. Life imitated art during the shooting in that the security surrounding the actual hangar set was as stringent in reality as the ﬁctional government cover-up that plays so prominent a part in the story line. (Just by the way, Spielberg used 2000 extras plus whole herds of sheep and cattle to ﬁlm the evacuation of the landing site area.) A heavy private security force surrounded the set 24 hours a day; cast and crew were forbidden to discuss details of the plot; and Columbia clamped a tight lid on pre-release details and visuals. In a beautifully orchestrated publicity campaign, an ample supply of “teasers” were available months before the press premiere: background material on UFO’s, bios, beautiful graphics of star- ﬁlled skies. But production stills or storylines? Nope—not even a hint! blackout primarily to preserve the wonder, surprise, and sheer delight that comes from seeing all the startling effects in dramatic context. And, he admitted, he didn’t want his concepts “borrowed” by, say, a TV movie-of-the-week. “If word really got around,” he said, “I was afraid we’d see something quite similar to our story on all three networks while we were still in post-production.” Such fears were well-grounded, since editor Michael Kahn and two assistants worked with Spielberg for over a year on cutting. Mixing composer John Williams’s elaborate score, using a special Dolby system, was another massive task. And, of course, ﬁne-tuning all the intricate effects was, according to Doug Trumbull, “the biggest challenge I’ve ever undertaken.” Spielberg frankly admits he was a perfectionist about every one of the thousands of big and small details. The otherwordly special effects had to mesh perfectly with the prosaic reality of suburban kitchens, highways, and battered pickup trucks. Not surprisingly, the director enlisted Vilmos Zsigmond, A.S.C., as Director of Photography, Douglas Slocombe, B.S.C., to direct the sequences in India, as well as William Fraker, A.S.C., John Alonzo, A.S.C., and Frank Stanley, A.S.C. Spielberg explained that he had so many brilliant D.P.’s mainly because “I couldn’t decide when to stop shooting. Vilmos did the original principal photography with me, but then during editing my ideas on the story changed and I decided I needed additional scenes. By that time Vilmos was on another project so I called on Bill Fraker. After Bill did the wonderful desert sequences with me, I thought I was finished—but then further down the road I needed more and Bill wasn’t available. So I called on John Alonzo—and so it went.” Spielberg was still adding and subtracting from the ﬁnal cut until very shortly before the ﬁrst press screening. He gained a reputation as a master orchestrator of audience response with JAWS, but claims he can only do his ﬁnal honing and tinkering after previewing the ﬁlm for a real audience. So Spielberg scheduled sneak previews in Texas 2 weeks before the ofﬁcial press opening. Audience feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but the director still felt compelled to snip a few minutes there and add a bit here to ﬁx what he felt were less than perfect moments. The ﬁnal product has been hailed by critics as “more affecting than STAR WARS,” “spectacular,” “profound,” even “mystical”—adjectives that sound overblown only if you haven’t seen the ﬁlm. Glorious special effects mesh seamlessly with a suspenseful, touching story and the result is both thoroughly entertaining and highly thought- provoking. It’s not hard to understand why pre-release rumors brought Columbia’s stock to new highs, why the studio has sunk nearly $10 million into the advertising campaign, and why exhibitors put up $20 million in guarantees sight un seen. Even if Spielberg’s track record with JAWS weren’t enough to start a box- ofﬁce stampede, Spielberg and company have given us in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS a dazzlingly optimistic vision of extra terrestrial contact that could, he says, “happen next week, or today, or even last week.” To bring CLOSE ENCOUNTERS to the screen, Spielberg stretched the limits of the possible in terms of concept, technology, equipment, and techniques. And in the aftermath, the director says he’s mainly “glad it’s over, because now I can look at the sky again without worrying about whether it’s black enough, or if the ship’s bright enough, or positioned right, or whether we need another generation. I can just go out and look at the sky and see stare.” Stars—and maybe, some day, something else?