E.T. writer Melissa Mathison dies aged 65

Working alongside with such revered directors as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, Melissa Mathison defined the art of storytelling.

6 November 2015

By Peter Hill

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Most writers crave permanence, and in a single sentence Melissa Mathison, who has died aged 65, achieved it. That sentence was “E.T. phone home,” and it came from what she called “a story of resurrection and redemption.” Later, she would claim it as part of her ‘little boy stories’, a collection of just seven films in 37 years.

Melissa Mathison
Paramount Pictures

With a father in journalism and a mother once courted by Clark Gable, storytelling might have come easy. But the Los Angeles native was also a babysitter for a family friend, Francis Ford Coppola. He provided her first break, with a location assistant credit on The Godfather Part II (1974). She abandoned a degree in political sciences to take it. Five years later, in 1979, she would be the director’s executive assistant on the near mythically troubled production of Apocalypse Now. In Notes: The Making of Apocalypse Now, the director’s wife, Eleanor Coppola, makes reference to the fact her husband had a love interest. Some sources claim this as a reference to Mathison.

Her first writing project was on The Black Stallion (1979), an adaptation of Walter Farley’s novel about a young castaway. Director Carroll Ballard impressed her, and said, “He taught me how to frame an idea and an emotional intent in a description. He is a uniquely eloquent visual artist.” By 1981 she was dating Harrison Ford and established a rapport with Steven Spielberg while on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Hollywood lore has it that the trio went on a desert ride during which the director asked Mathison if she would work on his idea for the film that became E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).

The first draft took just eight weeks. “Melissa delivered this 107-page first draft to me and I read it in about an hour. I was just knocked out,” remembers Spielberg. “It was a script I was willing to shoot the next day. It was so honest, and Melissa’s voice made a direct connection with my heart.”

He was not alone. E.T. took $435m in the US alone. Adjusted for inflation, that figure equates to $1.183bn, the director’s most profitable motion picture. With an associate producer credit, she shared in those profits and stepped away from the film business to raise two children with Ford, whom she married in 1983. They would file for divorce in 2001.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

Mathison also wrote the scripts for Frank Oz’s adaptation of the children’s book The Indian in the Cupboard (1995), The Escape Artist (1982), and Spielberg’s contribution to Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). A collaboration with Martin Scorsese was mooted in the late 1980s, to adapt Mark Helprin’s novel, Winter’s Tale. It never happened (though the film was made by Akiva Goldsman) but the pair did unite to make Kundun (1997). Based on some 15 interviews Mathison had with the Dalai Lama, it was Scorsese’s most unlikely project, but the script realises his grand vision. Film Comment said, “If all his films are ultimately, inescapably interiorized, their momentum always spiralling relentlessly inward, Kundun is the first that exists in the mind’s eye from the beginning.”

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Mathison’s final project, The BFG, is scheduled for release in 2016, directed by Spielberg and starring Mark Rylance as Road Dahl’s kindhearted ogre. When The New Yorker asked for her secret of working with such revered directors, she replied, “Honestly, I think you try to give anyone something that goes against his strengths. Much more fun for all of us.”

She is survived by her children, Georgia and Malcolm.

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