Thursday, January 05, 2006

NME: Alien Visions

First published in the NME on May 20th 1978.

Pictures by Pennie Smith

Is It true that Columbia Pictures have bought you a ticket on the space shuttle?
"No, I bought it myself."
For £7,000, is that right? That was the figure I was quoted.
"For £7,000! Oh my God, no. I wouldn't pay £7,000 for a ticket on the space shuttle. I paid $750. I bought two tickets as a matter of fact. The first ticket is for my luggage to be sent ahead of me."
Do you plan to take a camera with you?
"Oh my God, a battery — good heavens, yeah."

STEVEN SPIELBERG is fond of pointing out that he was born in 1947, the year that Jack Arnold coined the term "flying saucer" after noticing a group of strange objects in the sky while piloting his plane over Washington State.

Sixteen years later, Spielberg borrowed $5000 from his father to make a two-and-a-half hour movie called Firelight which he tells me: "Was a UFO contact story about an invasion with the worst of intentions. People being melted, blood, the army mobilised. It was my version of War of The Worlds".
Now, in 1978 Steven Spielberg has created one of the most expensive motion pictures ever made in Hollywood — Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And the aliens are friendly.

SPIELBERG IS NOT the charismatic "boy wonder" figure you might expect to meet; more Clark Kent than Superman. Closeted with him in the palatial Edwardian atmosphere of London's Connaught Hotel it is easy to forget that sitting opposite you is the most successful young director in New Hollywood who has already produced the biggest-grossing movie of all time in Jaws and could be set to beat that with his new colossal celluloid confection.

His films reflect his middle American roots. His parents — father an electrical engineer, mother a concert pianist — kept a blanket over the TV and wouldn't let young Steven see a movie until he was 14. Because of — or in spite of — this, Spielberg developed into a true film freak, making a number of home movies before breaking into American TV and signing a seven year contract with Universal at the tender age of 21.

Knocking out episodes of Columbo and Marcus Welby in just ten days provided him with a valuable education which paid off when Duel — a television movie featuring Dennis Weaver being menaced by a psychotic truck — proved to be his launching pad from the small screen to the wideworld of theatrical features. His first attempt, Sugarland Express picked up good reviews but bad box office. The came Jaws and suddenly the young director who "couldn't command ten cents" was the hottest man in town.

Faced with the seamless spectacle of Close Encounters it is difficult to conceive how such a project was pieced together. Producers Julia and Michael Phillips claim that around the time of Sugarland Express (when they were working on The Sting in the next lot), Spielberg talked to them about a movie mixing UFOs and Watergate.

Spielberg pinpoints his inspiration for the film somewhat differently: "When I heard the song 'When You Wish Upon A Star' from Walt Disney's Pinnocchio, sung by Cliff Edwards, everything kind of fell into place. That song combined with my seduction by the universe from years before. I was a kind of amateur astronomer and a real fanatic of the sky at night. The two went together very well."
(The song was originally featured at the end of the film but was cut after a negative audience reaction during the test screening in Dallas).

"The first step then was writing a series of encounter sequences. I just sat behind the typewriter and wrote seven or eight scenes that never got into the movie, but it put a fire under me. Then I sat and wrote the story -the structure, the idea, the plot points, the characters and, in parting, the final encounter. In fact, I began with the final encounter and worked backwards, telling the story that led up to it."

George Lucas had been laughed out of several boardrooms before he managed to sell Star Wars. Had Spielberg had the same problem with his cosmic baby?

"As a matter of fact David Begelman, who was then head of Columbia Pictures, approached me and said I've heard you are writing a novel about UFOs and I have a strong interest in them. Before you take it to any particular studio I would like to have an opportunity to bid for it."

Not for the last time in our conversation, Hollywood politics raised its head. Begelmman is currently facing four charges of grand theft and forgery involving alleged misappropriation of $40,000 in funds and phoney checks while he was Columbia's big cheese. Inside rumours in the American press claimed that one reason Close Encounters was passed over for a best-film Oscar nomination was Hollywood's reaction to the scandal.
Another was the trend now growing against big budget productions. From conception to shooting Close Encounters grew into a very expensive proposition. There were several factors at work here. Spielberg and the Phillips had both had huge hits in the meantime with Jaws and The Sting and were thus bankable; during the same period the definition of what was an expensive movie was going through the ceiling.

Besides, as Michael Phillips put it: "I think Columbia always believed that this could be their biggest film of all time. It could solve their financial problems in one fell swoop." As it turned out, the future of the whole studio came to rest on Spielberg's shoulders. When did he realise that that was the case?

"When I saw their product for next year. When I realised they had nothing coming out with a cosmic topside potential except Close Encounters, which was potentially a hundred million dollar movie and only I could ruin that... I could very easily make a movie that nobody would go and see. But the success of Jaws gave me a great deal of insulation from any would-be detractors at Columbia Pictures and there weren't very many, just a couple of assholes ..."

Meantime, three years after the initial conception, Doug Trumbull (of 2001 and Silent Running fame) was brought in to do the special effects.

"Doug was probably much less creative on Close Encounters than he was on 2001. He was my engineer. He took my vision, my concepts . . .and it was his job to hire the best special effects experts in town. He built a lab just for the film, surrounded himself with about 45 technicians . . . and supervised the workload. He was much more a nuts and bolts collaborator."

Maybe so, but Trumbull still managed to update the whole state of the art in the process. If you consider that the giant Mother Ship was, in reality, a model barely a yard wide, drilled with tens of thousands of tiny holes, 10-25 thousandths of an inch wide, which were then capped with plastic bubbles and illuminated from inside by 1,000 neon tubes, you get some idea of what this cinematic magician can achieve.

Later in the conversation, Spielberg seems to contradict himself by claiming: "Close Encounters is not a special effects movie at all. It is a humanist movie about people caught up in extraordinary circumstances." How many punters queueing to gawk at the saucers would agree, I wonder?
Special effects aside, Spielberg faced innumerable problems filming the final sequence of the movie inside a vast dirigible hangar in Mobile, Alabama, which was so huge that rainclouds formed inside it.

"Nothing was petty, everything was a crisis. We were giving them numbers on the scale of 1 to 10. One would be a crisis but 10 would be a crisis to the tenth degree. The kind of crisis when an electrician faints in the 150 degrees temperature, 95 feet in the air, and he falls in a dead faint on a small catwalk three feet wide and just misses falling to his death. Things like that happened every day. It was a physically debilitating experience."

In his giant encounter arena, psychological pressures were equally intense: "I had by this time surrounded myself with the most neurotic people in the industry who, I also believed, were the best at their jobs. The art director Joe Alves is a neurotic genius. In his own very quiet and almost monkish way Doug Trumbull is a neurotic genius. I'm a neurotic pragmatist.

"The more disharmony occurring aboard my ship, the more benevolent the space visitors became in my overall concept. I needed a friend."

WHICH BRINGS US right down to the root of the matter. There is no denying that Spielberg is a very accomplished and professional filmmaker, possessing the rare combination of technical, artistic and organisational skills necessary to put together a movie of the size and complexity of Close Encounters but many of the film's basic concepts worried me. How did Spielberg himself view UFOs?

"The UFO phenomena is not a mystical phenomena, it's a nuts and bolts phenomena. It's about craft of a highly advanced variety visiting us from God knows how many light years distance and obviously being
operated by flesh and blood, depending on what kind of flesh and what kind of blood."

For me, the aliens were the biggest disappointment of all, particularly when one winked. Why did he choose to show them with a vaguely humanoid form? After all, it is conceivable that alien life could be microscopic.

"It's conceivable that alien life could resemble anything your imagination permits. It's just that reports from around the world conform to the extra-terrestrial portrait in Close Encounters. I would have loved to exercise my imagination at that crucial point in the movie and put on aliens that much more conform with my thinking, with everything as spectacular as the Mother Ship but ... I felt that too many people know what extra-terrestrials look like and I didn't want to put a pin into the balloon."

Naturally, Spielberg had spoken to many people who claimed to have actual contact with aliens. "The story that interested me the most was told me by Dr. J. Allen Hynek (American UFO expert who advised on the film), and this happened to a friend of his who was also a scientist. I found it fascinating because it pretty much sums up what is happening in America, with the government involved in a cosmic cover-up.

"There was a ballistics expert, working in the Space programme, who was very good at measuring the impact of meteors against the Earth. He was contacted by the Air Force, sworn to secrecy and then told to meet at a certain time at an airforce base. A bus picked him up — there were 20-25 people in the bus already, some of whom this gentleman knew — and he was given instruction not to speak to anyone on board. The bus had black windows so you couldn't see out and there was a curtain separating your view and the driver's view of the road.

"They drove for hours and eventually began to bump down some sort of dirt road before the bus finally came to a stop. When the door opened it was night and there, in a field under the stars, were three huge tents set up with big stadium lights surrounding them.

"He walked round the corner and saw a cylindrically shaped vehicle with no seams, no apparent rivets, smashed into the field, buried seven or eight feet with another 20-25 feet visible. It was being worked on by dozens of people, soldiers and civilians, and he was given his instructions to measure the velocity of impact.

"He finished his work in about an hour-and-a-half and walked away from the vehicle. And on his way back to the holding area he passed by a tent and looked inside. And just for a few seconds he observed four occupants, very short humanoid creatures, obviously dead, inert on a makeshift operating table being worked on by seven doctors in green gowns with surgical masks. It was obviously an autopsy because they were talking into microphones and tape recorders.

"But before he could really get the gist of what was happening inside the tent, the flap was pulled down and he was physically taken back to the holding area, put back on the bus and driven back to his point of origin.

"Dr. Hynek chose not to tell me this man's name or why this man decided to talk about the incident which, by the way, happened 15 to 20 years ago."

Spielberg has already described the now-fashionable conspiracy theory about UFOs as a "cosmic Watergate". Did he really believe in the cover-up?

"Yea, but I don't think the cover-up has malignant roots. I feel it's less than a cover-up and more of a bungled job, poorly done. I think that the scientists and the Air Force and the Federal Government know as much about UFOs as the public — nothing. They have no idea what it is, where it comes from, whether it's extra-terrestrial or meteorological, or something that ten years from now we'll have an answer for."

Still, I had nagging doubts. Surely if aliens did land they would be greeted by a more military-dominated reception committee?

"Well, I would have felt that the military had its place in my movie on the south side of Devil's Tower. I felt that was very, very important but I don't know if in real life that would be the case. I would think that for our own protection and for our own gesture of welcome if we were to have military advisers at the base of operations during a close encounter, they would dress as civilians."

Incidentally, why did he choose to make Lacombe a Frenchman?
"Well, he could have been a German or Spanish. I was determined to make the team leader of the corporate project a European. I've always felt that UFOs are of global interest and I didn't want this to be a product of American conceit."

On the face of it, Spielberg's grasp of the deeper implications underlying his film seems a trifle weak. But he should worry. He is, after all, a mass entertainer to whom sharks, trucks and UFOs are all grist to the mill. The film will make him very rich, as will the novel from the film — of which, by the way, he only wrote four chapters.

And yes, there is a sequel on the way, which Spielberg hopes to have finished scripting by the summer, as well as a joint project with Lucas.

SINCE THE FILM opened. Dr. Hynek has been receiving 7,000 letters a week at his UFO centre. According to Spielberg "The letters were from people who now fell it safe to talk about their encounters and that's what I felt was very positive and healthy.

"It's been a cultist closet phenomena and it's suddenly going public. Everything's going public these days anyway. The closet queens are coming out and marching down the streets with placards. Presidents are admitting lust for other women during a marriage, so there's nothing unusual in the case of people saying: 'UFOs have been on my mind for 20 years but I was afraid you'd put me in a loony bin, so I kept my mouth shut'."
1. Was Dr Hynek a super-secret mole for the CIA. Read the arguments for and against.

No comments: