Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic Film

Since the beginning of time, mankind has looked to the heavens and dreamed of encountering life from beyond the stars. Depicted first in myth and then in literature and finally on celluloid, many of these dreams were fearful ones in which potential visitors were characterized as invading monsters intent on conquest and destruction. These frightening scenarios reached their apotheosis in the science fiction films of the 1950s and 1960s. Inspired by the rash of UFO sightings that began in the United States just after World War II and further influenced by Cold War tensions and anxieties, these films portrayed the arrival of aliens on earth as doomsday events full of horror and catastrophe. These nightmarish notions were the standard until November 1977, when wunderkind filmmaker Steven Spielberg, fresh from the tremendous success of Jaws, gave us a startlingly new vision of extraterrestrial visitation.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind used all of the power and the magic of cinema to tell a story of man’s first meeting with beings from another world — an event Spielberg boldly envisioned as a peaceful and even a spiritual one, full of hope and wondrous possibility. This joyful, awe-inspiring message made a powerful impact on audiences of the time, who were weary from a decade of violence, scandal, and pervasive cynicism and desperate for something to believe in. The film was a massive hit at the box office and revolutionized the movie industry – along with Star Wars, it created the modern blockbuster, initiated the late 70s/early 80s cycle of science fiction and fantasy classics such as Superman: The Movie, Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and E.T., and ushered in a new era of high tech visual and special effects.

The story of the making of CE3K is almost as amazing as the movie itself. Filmed on a variety of far-flung locations including India, Alabama, and the Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, the production was an extremely ambitious one. With Spielberg attempting to create images that no one had ever seen before, the project was full of creative and logistical challenges that required the invention of a myriad of new optical processes and technical devices. In addition, the production team had to overcome a tremendous series of obstacles including a hurricane, wave after wave of non-functioning aliens, and a budget that rapidly rose from $2.8 million to a then-astronomical $19 million, pushing Columbia Pictures, the financially-strapped studio backing the film, to the fiscal edge. When the film fell far behind its shooting schedule and required an elaborate series of reshoots, doubts arose that the project could even be completed, but Spielberg and his team pulled it off, delivering a film that was not only a critical and commercial smash, but one that quickly came to be considered a motion picture classic.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic Film is the first book to chronicle the making of this magnificent movie from the initial conception of the idea until the film’s triumphant premiere at New York’s Ziegfield Theater and beyond. Released on the 30th anniversary of the film’s debut, the book is based on extensive research and new interviews with key members of the cast and crew including producer Michael Phillips, special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond (who won an Academy Award for his work on the film), production designer Joe Alves, actors Teri Garr and J. Patrick McNamara, screenwriters John Hill, Jerry Belson, Matthew Robbins, and Hal Barwood, cinematographers William A. Fraker, Douglas Slocombe, Steven Poster, and Allen Daviau, second assistant director Jim Bloom, production sound mixer Gene Cantamessa, project assistant Glenn Erickson, and visual effects wizards Richard Yuricich, Dennis Muren, Greg Jein, Rocco Gioffre, and Scott Squires. The book also contains a set of exclusive behind-the-scenes photos taken by people who worked on the film.


Table of Contents


CHAPTER ONE: Invaders from Mars
The book begins with a short history of the UFO phenomenon that began in the United States in the late 1940s and first brought UFOs into the public consciousness. This is followed by an overview of the alien invasion films of the 1950s and 1960s, with emphasis on the negative manner in which these movies portrayed aliens as hostile invaders bent on conquest and destruction.
CHAPTER TWO: Steven Spielberg
This chapter presents a brief biography of Steven Spielberg, focusing on the development of his interests in both filmmaking and UFOs and offers an account of the making of Firelight, a two-and-a-half hour, 8mm science fiction epic about UFOs that Spielberg made when he was 16 years old and that later served as one of the inspirations for Close Encounters.
CHAPTER THREE: From Amblin’ to Sugarland
This section chronicles Spielberg’s entry into the film business and his meteoric rise in Hollywood, culminating with the production of his 1974 debut feature The Sugarland Express.
CHAPTER FOUR: Watch the Skies
Chapter Four describes the history of Project Blue Book, a program initiated by the U.S. Air Force to investigate UFO sightings. It also describes the remarkable journey of project member Dr. J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer who went from being a UFO skeptic to a believer and who later defined the three levels of “close encounters.” Finally, it tells how Hyenk’s book The UFO Experience impressed Steven Spielberg and inspired him to make a movie about UFOs.
CHAPTER FIVE: The Producers
Chapter Five introduces Julia and Michael Phillips, the Academy Award-winning producers of The Sting, and tells how they became involved in making Close Encounters.
This portion of the book contains a brief history of Columbia Pictures and tells how the studio agreed to finance CE3K.
CHAPTER SEVEN: Kingdom Come and Meeting of the Minds
This section describes the writing of two early versions of the Close Encounters script—Kingdom Come, an esoteric drama based loosely on the transformation of Dr. J. Allen Hynek from agnostic to believer written by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and Meeting of the Minds, a thriller version of the same concept written by John Hill (Quigley Down Under)—and how Spielberg’s and the Phillipses’ dissatisfaction with both scripts led to the project being temporarily put on hold.
CHAPTER EIGHT: Starting Over
Chapter Eight tells how Spielberg decided to start over and write the film’s script himself.
CHAPTER NINE: The Screenplay
Chapter Nine describes the challenges Spielberg faced as he struggled to write his script and the concurrent discovery by production designer Joe Alves of the uniquely-shaped mountain that would serve as the setting for the film’s ethereal climax: Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming.
CHAPTER TEN: Assembling the Team
This section follows Spielberg as he assembles the key members of his creative team, which included the renowned and innovative cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.
CHAPTER ELEVEN: The Box Canyon and Beyond
This chapter describes the search for a soundstage big enough to build the film’s massive “Box Canyon” set – the landing zone at the foot of Devils Tower where the humans and aliens finally meet—and how this search finally led the production team to an abandoned Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama, where the biggest indoor set in film history until that time was finally constructed inside a giant WWII era airplane hanger.
CHAPTER TWELVE: Black Backings and Green Lights
Chapter Twelve tells how legendary special photographic effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull joined the production and how producer Julia Phillips and studio chief David Begelman finally persuaded the Columbia Pictures Board of Directors to “green light” (approve the film for production) CE3K, despite their concerns about the project’s ever-increasing scope and ever-increasing budget.
Chapter Thirteen follows Spielberg as he assembles his cast, included star Richard Dreyfuss, co-stars Teri Garr, Bob Balaban, three year old Cary Guffey, and legendary French film director Francois Truffaut, who Spielberg persuaded to take the role of Claude Lacombe, the sweet-souled project leader who ultimately makes first contact with the extraterrestrial visitors.
CHAPTER FOURTEEN: Music, Aliens, and Melinda Dillon
This section describes the initial development of the film’s alien creatures, the arrival of composer John Williams, the last minute rewriting of the script by Spielberg and his Sugarland Express collaborators Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, and the eleventh hour casting of Tony-nominated actress Melinda Dillon to play Jillian Guiler, the terrified young woman whose son is kidnapped by the extraterrestrials.
An account of the film’s first two weeks of production on location at Devils Tower in the Wyoming wilderness.
This chapter tells of the company’s adventures as they filmed in and around Mobile, Alabama and the shooting of the first portion of the film’s climactic scene on the “Box Canyon” set. It also tells how delays in shooting and continuing increases in the budget alarmed Columbia’s executives and prompted them to send a tight-fisted representative to the set in an attempt to get things under control.
An examination of Steven Spielberg’s working methods and their impact on the film.
The shooting of the film’s climactic moments—the arrival of the massive extraterrestrial Mothership and the meeting between mankind and a race of alien beings played by a group of six and seven year old girls recruited from a local ballet school.
CHAPTER NINETEEN: Back to Los Angeles and On to India
Chapter Nineteen follows the production as it returns to Los Angeles, where Spielberg—dissatisfied with the look of the ET costumes worn by the ballet students– commissioned Academy Award-winning creature creator Carlo Rambaldi to create an articulated animatronic alien named “Puck.” The chapter then relates the adventures of the company and it travels to India to film the scene in which Lacombe and his team first hear the mysterious, five-note “Close Encounters theme.”
CHAPTER TWENTY: Special Photographic Effects, Part I: Clouds, Miniatures, and Matte Paintings
This section describes how Douglas Trumbull and his partner, special photographic effects supervisor Richard Yuricich, assembled a team of talented veterans and enthusiastic newcomers to create the visual effects for Close Encounters and how they then developed the techniques used to create Close Encounters’ beautiful landscapes and awesome cloud effects.
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: Special Photographic Effects, Part II: Making Saucers Fly
This section describes the techniques used to create and film the movie’s flying saucers and its awesome Mothership.
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO: Special Photographic Effects, Part III: Putting It All Together
This section describes how the effects footage was combined with the live action material to create what American Cinematographer magazine characterized as “the most believable and sophisticated visual effects ever put on film.”
This chapter covers the editing of the film by Michael Kahn, the creation of its unique sound effects by Frank Warner, and the composition and recording of its thrilling score by multiple Academy Award winner John Williams. It also covers Spielberg’s decision, following a screening of a rough cut of the film, to shoot several additional sequences to flesh out the story.
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR: Close Encounters Scene by Scene
A scene-by-scene exploration of the film, including production anecdotes and a description of the effects techniques used to achieve each shot.
The portion of the book describes the various facets of the film’s release including: the extensive pre-release promotional campaign that featured the memorable tagline “We are not alone”; the authorization of a wide range of CE3K merchandise including books, posters, record albums, toys, games, and trading cards; the film’s generally rave reviews, smashing box office performance and many nominations and awards.
CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX: The Special Editions
Two years after the release of Close Encounters, Steven Spielberg, dissatisfied with some aspects of the film, re-edited his movie and shot some additional sequences, including a new ending that took the audience inside the Mothership. This chapter covers the creation of The Special Edition (1980) and describes other versions of CE3K that have appeared over the years, including an extended television cut and a “final” director’s version that combined elements of both the original release and the special edition.
CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN: Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind
This chapter examines Steven Spielberg and Michael Phillips’ s discussions about a sequel to CE3K that never came to fruition, as well as Spielberg’s production of Night Skies, an indirect sequel based on a supposedly true incident in which a group of hostile aliens attacked a family living in an isolated farmhouse that was eventually transformed in E.T. The Extraterrestrial, the film recognized as the spiritual if not the factual sequel to CE3K.
This chapter will describe the further careers and fates of the people who made Close Encounters as well as the legacy of the film itself.