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Melissa Mathison, the screenwriter of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Black Stallion, Kundun, and the upcoming adventure fantasy The BFG, died at age 65 on Nov. 4 from neuroendocrine cancer.
As we commemorate those we lost in 2015, Steven Spielberg spoke with EW about his first encounter with Mathison and what he remembers most about his friend and collaborator: Her ability to find wonder in unlikely places.
“Like a mirage in Lawrence of Arabia…
That’s what it was like the first time I set eyes on Melissa. We were shooting Raiders. It was in 1980, in the unbearable heat of Nafta in Tunisia, and amidst a couple of hundred Arab extras dressed in German uniforms, I saw what looked like an egret.
This person was bent over, picking stuff up off the ground. I asked, ‘What are you doing?’ And she said, ‘You know, this used to be the ocean floor and look at all these fossils…’ She was right. Everywhere you looked on the ground there were fossils and seashells and all kinds of things in the sand.
I said, ‘Who are you?’ And she simply said, ‘I’m Harrison’s friend.’ [Eds. note: She was later married to Harrison Ford, and they had two children together before splitting in 2001.]
And I said, ‘Well, what do you do?’ She told me, ‘Currently, I’m a failed writer.’ I began to laugh and she began to laugh. Then I said, ‘What have you failed at?’ She said she had written a number of scripts that she wasn’t really happy with, and only one got made. When I realized she had written The Black Stallion, it stopped me in my tracks because it’s one of my favorite movies. Then I started asking her a lot of questions about The Black Stallion.
Before she was even finished answering them, I said, ‘I have a story about this alien that gets stuck on Earth with a family of divorce, and … would you be interested in writing this with me?’ She said ‘No, no, no. I’m retired from writing now. I need to find another way to live my life.’ I started telling her the story of E.T. that I had thus far, not down on paper, but in my head. She heard it and said, ‘That’s really sweet and interesting, but I’ve retired.’
I went back to the set and shot a couple scenes with Harrison and told him this curious story of bumping into Melissa while she was picking up seashells in the middle of the Tunisian desert. I told him I had offered her a chance to write a movie with me and she turned it down. Harrison said, ‘Sounds like Melissa…’ I asked, ‘Can you help me?’ He said, ‘Let me talk to her tonight.’ And so the next day Harrison came into work, and the first thing he said was, ‘I think she’s had a change of heart.’
When I sat down to talk to her about the script again a few days later, she said, ‘I wasn’t really listening to anything you were saying to me before, so why don’t you start over again?’ [Laughs.] She started to brainstorm with me and added all kinds of new ideas to the mix. And that’s when I knew that I had a partner. Melissa was back in the writing game.
While I was in the editing room cutting Raiders, Melissa would come in two to three days a week, and we would just sit and develop the story [of E.T.]. She would put everything on cards. Those cards became a kind of talisman, and defined the way I thought about Melissa’s creative partnership with me. All these little cards, where she wrote down either my ideas or her own, eventually became the first draft. She went away for six weeks and wrote the script.
“When I finally read the script, I pretty much said, ‘I could shoot this movie tomorrow.’ We tweaked it and we changed just a little bit of the third act. At one point, E.T. got sick and was taken to a hospital, and the entire venue of the film shifted to a medical center. On second thought, it just seemed like a better idea to keep it at home and turn the house into a hospital, so that became the triage of trying to save E.T. and Elliott’s lives. Those were some of the very few changes. Of all the movies I’ve ever made, E.T. went through the least amount of revision.
Melissa’s heart was just glowing over that movie. And the same darn thing happened 30 years later when we started our second collaboration on The BFG by Roald Dahl.
The main difference was I didn’t have to talk her into writing this one. She had started writing it even before I came on board and had done three drafts before I started.
It was the same energy and ease of conversation that happened all over again. I felt like I got into a time machine with her and went back to E.T.‘s making, because the spirit that Melissa carried with her during her entire life had infected all of us, and she shaped The BFG into a portrait of a friendship.
Melissa didn’t know she was sick at the beginning. The summer of 2014 was spent in a small garage in my house on Long Island, where we assembled the movie through [pre-visualized animations.] We made the entire movie of The BFG from beginning to end that way, and watched it and changed it. During principal photography in Vancouver this past spring, she was on the set every day, giving me the cards for the day’s work — just like on E.T.
She seemed fine, but there were several times that she needed to go back to L.A. for personal reasons. I didn’t ask what the personal reasons were. And one time she was absent [for] four days. Then she came back and she seemed perfectly okay again. So her health issues came as a surprise to all of us.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about Melissa since she died in November, and I’m not really sure she’s gone. I feel her presence more than her absence. I’m really going to start to hurt when that fades and I start missing her again in my life.
I could speak for many of her closest friends — we’re all still in disbelief that she’s gone. The thing about Melissa was, she could just watch the traffic of everyday things speed by her, which was just fine with her because in her life she preferred to stroll. Moviemaking is often a lot of thunder and lightning, and Melissa was always the calm eye of the storm.
She could relate to kids better than anybody I had ever met. On the set of E.T., she taught me on the first day of shooting that you never talk down to children. You get on their eye level and you simply fall into conversation with them. It changed my entire approach to directing children because I watched how effortless it was for Melissa to sit with Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, and Robert MacNaughton and just have a conversation with them.
I think she understood the natural habitat of childhood. Melissa was all about discovery. And childhood is all about daily, even hourly, even minute-by-minute discoveries.
Melissa was like a kid when she was making these little breakthroughs. Like how to tell a story, or how to find the right line of dialogue. Or how to find sea shells in a desert.”
As told to Anthony Breznican on Nov. 25, 2015.
Mathison and Spielberg’s final collaboration, The BFG, opens on July 1.