As I ponder which film or filmmaker is the most significant to me; I raise questions on why would this film or that film be significant. Am I looking through an audience point of view or am I viewing this film as a filmmaker? As a viewer I find it very difficult to pin point one particular film that had an impact on me, there are so many and for different reasons. And as a filmmaker, even more so. In order to find the answer to my most significant film, I look to the past. A moment in time that introduced me to the world of cinema, the world of story telling. I am immediately transported back to a childhood event; my mother took me and three friends to the movie theatre for the first time. The experience stuck with me, to this day I remember the feelings, emotions and the whole cinematic experience. And perhaps that was the moment that the filmmaking seed was planted in my being. The year was 1983, and the film was “E.T. – The Extra-terrestrial” (1982, Spielberg, S.).
Steven Spielberg commission the film script to Melissa Mathison, and it was a collage of ideas that were shelved years before. One of them, a semi-autobiographical story about a boy with divorcee parents (Growing Up) and another one about an alien taking a family hostage and befriend one of the children (Night Skies). “E.T.” tells the story of an alien left behind after a peaceful exploration in the forest of a small town in Southern California. The alien takes refuge in a family suburban house, where he is discovered by a 10 year old boy; who befriends him and eventually helps the alien go back home. The film is a study on feelings of alienation and loneliness, told through the eyes of a child. The bond between the alien and the boy, is a substitute of what they are both craving: home. And so their physical/psychic connection grows, and they communicate through that until the end.
The film was well received world wide, and enjoyed a successful box office campaign. It is considered to be one of Steven Spielberg best work and most personal. I loved this film when I watched as a 6 year old girl, and for years it was my favourite film. However, today I return to watch this film not as an audience but as a filmmaker. In this blog, I attempt to analyse why this film is important to me and why this director has impacted me to became a director and master the director craft. To me, a great film starts with a great script. It is the soul of the film, the epitome. To quote Spielberg, “People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories dont have a middle or an end any more. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning” (Steven Spielberg).
Spielberg is a master in telling stories, he might not always succeed, but most of his films have a well written script. Where characters are well developed, there is no character appearing and disappearing for no reason, the story flows with no loop holes, usually full of suspense, fear, excitement and no loose ends. Nowadays, films relay heavily in visual effects, however they lack a good story (thankfully not all of them). Without a good script, a film can not sustain a viewer for 2 or so hours. It becomes tiresome and irrelevant as a viewing experience. There are a lot of lessons to be learned on the way Steven Spielberg uses a script to tell compelling visual stories.
In “E.T.”, he explores how a child can feel alienated in front of a major life event, for instance parents divorce. By telling the story through the eyes of a child, an audience can easily relate to those feelings. Once the bond between E.T and Elliot is established, it is evident that they seek in each other what is lacking at that moment in time. Elliot misses his father and seeks what once was a complete home, and E.T misses his equals and evidently, his home. The connection between them is so strong, that they mirror each other feelings and fears. For example, in one of the scenes where Elliot and his older brother look after E.T, Elliot feels very scared all of sudden. The next scene shows someone was watching their house, and we understand the fear felt by E.T. And mirrored in Elliot.
However, this is only one of the reasons I think Spielberg is a great filmmaker. Once he has the script down, he then translates that to the screen and it is here that we really see his mastery. Spielberg is very inventive on translating the script to screen, and does it beautifully without the need of heavy dialogue. At the beginning of the film, when Elliot searches for the creature in the family backyard, the fear is palpable and everything is done with camera movements, lighting and actor blocking. His use of mise en scene to tell the story is impeccable, everything that is in the frame has only one purpose, to push the story forward. I shall explain that mise en scene, are the contents within the frame, how they are presented and organised. Therefore, anything that is in frame: Lighting, costume, décor, make up, actors, and so on are considered to be mise en scene. And the only reason they are there, is to tell a story. (Gibbs, J., p5)
He blocks the actors to hit a specific mark, once the actor hit that mark, he then reveals important information. In E.T this is done a few time, at the very beginning of the film we see a set of keys that the actor carries around, the actor is mostly running or walking really fast, but still needs to hit the mark to appear on camera at an specific time. This information will be relevant later on in the film, and Spielberg uses this technique again to introduce the character. Another scene that this is used, is when the children are being chase by the police and comes to a sudden stop, they hit the mark, the audience thinks they finally escaped the police and it is then revealed that they haven’t.
Another technique used in “E.T” is what Kenworthy calls: “Guiding the eye”. “If Spielberg has a signature move, it’s using objects and people to guide the camera around a space” (Kenworthy, p.19). The first few scenes are set up to introduce us to the story, a group of alien exploring the planet. While one, wonder a bit further observing the vast forest. This is then interrupted by cars approaching rapidly and a group of man with torches. At this stage the audience can’t quite tell how the creature looks like, neither we can tell the men with torches. As he is left behind, we get the first sense what is this story is about. An alien left behind and his needs to search for refuge. We also now, that those group of men are after him and are possibly the government. However, here Spielberg gives a little clue on a character that will be important later, Keys, played by Peter Coyote. The only thing that we can see and hear through the darkness is a set of keys, and that is the same set of keys that we will see again when the character is later revealed coming out of the plastic tunnel into Elliot’s house.
Spielberg developed several techniques throughout his career, and uses constantly those techniques to tell compelling stories that connect us to the characters and immerses us in that world. For instance, going back to the bike chase scene, according to Kenworthy, “Before a pursuit begins, use an image that makes it look as though your hero’s task is almost hopeless. The more visual barriers you put in front of your hero, the more tense you will make the audience feel” (Kenworthy, p3). He calls this technique, “Desperate chase”, and this is used on E.T with the bikes desperately trying to take E.T to the forest and the police and government chasing them, there are plenty obstacle they have to over come (police cars, houses, people), however the audience is re compensate when they finally reach the forest, with a beautifully constructed goodbye scene.
To conclude, Spielberg is definitely a master of his craft. He is very inventive and created his own techniques to tell a story. However he does not shy away from borrowing techniques from past masters. For instance, he uses the Hitchcock Zoom, pioneered by English Director Alfred Hitchcock and presented for the first time in “Vertigo” (Hitchcock, A., 1958), in “Jaws” (Spielberg, S., 1975) and even E.T. I could go on and on about Steven Spielberg techniques on story telling and directing skills. However I believe his films speak louder than any essay on it. There are many wonderful directors and many more films that I love, and get inspired by. But if we are talking about developing oneself as a director, I think Steven Spielberg comes full circle and the film E.T is a good starting point.
“The Elements of Mise-en-scene” – Mise-en-scene, Film Style and Interpretation
Wallflower Press, (2002, pp. 5)
“Shoot Like Spielberg” – Desperate Chase and Guiding the Eye
Michael Wiese Productions, (2015, pp. 3, 19)
“E.T. – The Extra-terrestrial”
Steven Spielberg – 1982
Steven Spielberg – 1975
Alfred Hitchcock – 1958