A close encounter with Steven Spielberg

In our Spring 1977 issue, we joined Spielberg on the set of his fourth feature, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to discuss UFOs, casting François Truffaut and the primal elements of his box office smash Jaws

10 December 2021

By Richard Combs

Sight and Sound
Steven Spielberg on the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

“People are always looking for – I don’t know what you’d call it – I guess, the cosmic entertainment. More than the meteorological explanation. From the behavioural science point of view, I was just as interested in finding out why people looked to the skies, and want to believe, as I was in looking to the skies myself, to try to understand what’s happening up there, that the Air Force and the Government don’t want to tell us about.”

After his tussle with the deep in Jaws, Steven Spielberg has turned his eyes heavenward, and the result, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a contemporary story of ‘science speculation’ dealing with the UFO phenomenon, will be seen later this year. At the time this interview was recorded, one important scene remained to be shot, in Bombay, with François Truffaut (appearing for the first time in a film not directed by himself). “The Indian scene is his, in a central plot twist. Without that scene, the Truffaut character doesn’t make much sense.” About the scene or the character, however, Spielberg would say no more; security is still being maintained as tightly about the actual content of the movie, and the nature of its speculations, as it was during shooting around the unit’s main base in Mobile, Alabama.

Steven Spielberg: We have quite a large set. The production designer showed me that the model he had built, and that I had subsequently fallen in love with, was four times larger than the largest sound stage at MGM or Cinecitta. And the only alternatives were to shoot it outside, where I’d have no control over the weather, and shoot at night which is very costly, or to find a dirigible hangar somewhere.

I wanted to use Kubrick’s hangar, until I found it has a lot of main beams running down the centre; and the only two available hangars were in Oregon and the one in Mobile. It’s at a defunct and demilitarised Air Force base – there are weeds growing out of the tarmac. The entire base was cordoned off. We hired security police and built a small kiosk. And the two hangars that we used began to resemble motion picture studios.

We had to administer picture IDs that were coded, so you couldn’t go down to the local newspaper, fake one and try to get in that way. The Washington Post tried everything to get on to our set. Their reporter, who likened himself to Bob Woodward, decided that the best way to break our security was to interview some of the extras at night in bars, when they’re loose and fancy-free, and then write his story in the first person, as though he had been there reporting the whole thing himself. It was printed, and it was the most erroneous, far-fetched encounter of the fifth kind I had ever read. But he made it sound even more intriguing to the general reader, because by not knowing what he was talking about, he wrote a very interesting story.

Richard Combs: But despite the secrecy, your film is not dealing with the futuristic paraphernalia of 2001, for example?

It covers in spirit the thirty years of the UFO controversy, but in actual screen time it’s a contemporary film. If you believe, it’s science fact; if you don’t believe, it’s science fiction. I’m an agnostic between the two beliefs, so for me it’s science speculation. It’s not ten light years away, it’s right in the heart of American suburbia.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Did the story come from any particular incident?

Nothing that ever happened to me. It was a compendium of research I had done. I read everything on the market, including the clippings from the National Inquirer and the wire services, and even tried to get into the Blue Book archives, long before the project was declassified, to no avail. I was mainly inspired when I began to meet people who had had experiences, and I realised that just about every fifth person I talked to had looked up at the sky at some point in their lives, and seen something that was not easy to explain. And then I began meeting people who had had close encounters of the second kind, where undeniably something quite phenomenal was happening right before their eyes. It was this direct contact, the interviews, that got me interested in making the movie. I interviewed enough people to know that all of them could not possibly be lying. A lot of the sightings people have at night are because they never look and are just discovering the sky; so many reports are easy to explain astronomically, conventionally. There are other reports that are impossible to describe conventionally, but the basic scientific community isn’t ready to change Einstein’s rules.

And close encounters of the third kind?

That’s when you meet them. It’s much more outspoken in Europe than it is in America, where there’s a sort of hush-hush about these things that go bump in the night. Somehow, in Brazil, in France, in Italy, throughout South America, there’s much more open-mindedness and a general acceptance – there’s less scientific scepticism. In America, how can UFOs exist over the sky when Phyllis and Maud and all the family are on television at the same time ? When do people go outside and look up any more?

Are there many reported instances of the third kind?

There have been hundreds. Betty and Barney Hill, the interracial couple from New Hampshire, had that experience when they were taken aboard a space craft. They were allegedly both given thorough physical examinations, Betty communicated with some of the entities in the vehicle, and then they forgot the entire episode completely. They spent two years having a horrendous time with each other and their marriage, persistent nightmares. Then they went to a psychiatrist, and separately they were put under hypnosis and were able to piece together what happened during those three missing hours, when they suddenly noticed they were ninety miles further down the road. There’s a book on it by John C. Fuller called The Interrupted Journey; it was also the basis of a television movie.

The contact was that Betty was shown a star map with a configuration of broken lines and solid lines, and different points which she didn’t attempt to memorise but which she looked at very carefully. ‘They’ explained to her that the broken lines were trade routes and the solid lines were expeditionary routes, and under hypnosis she reproduced the map. When it was published in this book in the mid-60s, no one could figure out what the hell the map meant. And then three or four years later, four crucial stars were discovered by our most advanced telescopes, and those stars completed Betty’s map. They were able to find the exact duplicate of her map existing up there.

You mentioned the secretiveness of the government and the Air Force about UFOs. Does the film make any connection between the growing incidence of UFO sightings and feelings of political paranoia, a sort of science fiction version of The Parallax View?

It does and it doesn’t. In a way, it shows the kind of Swiss precision of covert operations in the U.S. today, as they deal with campus unrest, and the Red menace, and also UFOs. It’s all really part of the same thing. The government’s position on UFOs has been covert and just very secretive over the last thirty years. They could have saved a lot of money by simply telling the public that they were experimenting with the SR 71, let’s say, before it was put in the skies as our new supersonic spy plane. It would have been easy for the government to come right out and tell the public that the things you see in the night sky over your back yards are super-secret terrestrial vehicles being tested. But the government isn’t saying things like that, and it’s not willing to say things like that. The U.S. is a policy-ridden country, and in 1947, after Kenneth Arnold sees those twelve silvery discs – Arnold coined the term ‘flying saucer’ – the government sets a policy that this is not to be discussed among the scientific community or professional officers of the U.S. Air Force, and for thirty years, unless there’s a directive from the White House that rescinds that order, people are going to follow it to the letter. It’s just the nature, the structure of the U.S.

The Parallax View was the most paranoid movie I’ve ever seen, next to Mickey One. This movie’s more like The French Connection, as brutally realistic within a dramatic story-telling structure. I think our film does to UFOs what The French Connection said about crime in the streets and narcotics and New York city. It’s more of a movie than it is a film, really. It’s quite entertaining and it’s about people and not about events, but it’s about people who are innocent until they are ensnared by the event, and then have to rise above it.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

How did you work with Truffaut? Was language a problem?

He speaks English well enough to communicate, though he feels that he doesn’t speak English as well as he’d like. He’d been taking some lessons with his private instructor at the Berlitz School. So in our movie there are actually scenes where, while he sleeps in different motels across the country, he plays a tape-recording of this Berlitz lesson.

Truffaut was my first choice all along, but I didn’t have the courage to phone him up and ask the great French director if he would be in this newcomer’s movie. I put it off. I had a meeting with Lino Ventura; I didn’t contact Trintignant but I expressed interest in him; I expressed interest in Philippe Noiret. After a while I decided that I really wanted François Truffaut, and the best thing to do was to call him up at home. He said yes for various reasons. I don’t think particularly because he enjoyed or understood the script that well, but because the timing is right. He’s preparing a book called The Actor, and he wanted to experience the hardships of waking up at six o’clock in the morning to stand around seven hours, to work under pressure the last hour and a half, for another director. And, my God, he sure learned fast.

Is a film like this completely pre-planned?

In that respect it was exactly like Jaws. Every set-piece was sketched, I had hundreds of little drawings, I pre-cut the entire film and then shot it to cut later. There are moments with the people when they improvise and go beyond the script. Essentially I’m not a writer and I don’t enjoy writing. I’d much rather collaborate. I need fresh ideas coming to me, because I can’t send ideas out into space and expect them to return, I need them to bounce off something. So I locked myself away to write Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and when I came out I had a pretty good structure but I wasn’t crazy about some of the characters. The actors helped me shake out the fat and get right down to what the scene was about – essentially the same thing I did on Jaws. We would find the theme of each scene, we would do improvisations about that theme (I had a tape-recorder running), then I’d quickly run to the typewriter, find the best lines, and rewrite the scene so that the next morning the actors had a written script based on some loose improvisations the night before.

Does that method create any problems with the producers of such expensive films?

For some strange reason I got away with murder on Jaws. They just left me alone. I changed the script every day, but I never received a telephone call from any of the powerful executives on the West Coast. I don’t think anybody was ever in love with any of the screenplays, and felt that the story and script could only be improved.

I chose to make a movie that would reach audiences really on two levels. The first level was a blow to the solar plexus, and the second was an uppercut, just under the nose; it was really a one-two you’re out combination. I never intended anything deeper than that, because when I read the book I had a lot of fun, and when I began reworking the screenplay I had even more fun. And I really said, I’m going to make a primal scream movie.

One of the most interesting analyses of the movie was ‘The Last Bastion of the Ecological Sergeant-at-Arms’. You’ve got man controlling the environment inland, building artificial lakes by blocking off natural dams, and suddenly you’ve got this sentry out in the ocean saying, stop, Mr. Cousteau, go no further. It’s our turn to fight you. When I first got involved in the project, the thing that terrified me most was the idea that there’s something else out there, that has a digestive system with intake; and the whole idea of being on somebody else’s menu was just utterly horrifying. It was a horrifying thought to be part of a food chain. Jaws is a raw nerve movie, it’s just baring your nerves and saying this is about the birth sac, you swim around in yourself.

Steven Spielberg

That’s why I like parts of Duel much better than I like parts of Jaws, because Duel was more daring. It was about a very unnatural occurrence, whereas Jaws is as natural as the evolution of mankind. Duel was much more of a challenge, because trying to create that kind of fear out of a truck is a lot harder than the established fear of a man-eating fish underwater. But Duel had a whole new set of rules.

Do you have a strong sense of the similarities between your films, of any kind of stylistic continuity?

I can certainly see a pattern and a similarity between Duel and Jaws, a similarity between The Sugarland Express and a film I’m about to begin. But as far as style within a body of work is concerned, I’m a little too subjective to have feelings about that. What I’m fighting is believing my own journalism, and just trying to form my own opinions about myself. I don’t think I’ve made enough films to do that yet, and most of my films haven’t been as personal as I think I am to myself.

The film-maker who really influenced me more than any other is John Frankenheimer. Not visually but as an editor. His editing often has more energy than the content of the story. When I saw The Manchurian Candidate, I realised for the first time what film editing was all about. After that, I made a number of 8mm films at home and began to experiment with cutting and juxtaposing scenes and tricks in the cutting room. I learned all the negative things, the things I try not to do in movies, from television. One thing I learned from TV was that there was nothing worse than a close-up that’s from the chin to the forehead. I remember watching Paths of Glory and realising how few tight close-ups there were, but when Kubrick used a closeup it meant something.

I think Badlands and Barry Lyndon are very similar films in terms of starring the period and mood of the film, the way the film feels between your fingers, over what you tell your friends it’s about. I like Barry Lyndon, but for me it was like going through the Prado without lunch. And when Terrence Malick’s film was over, I really felt as though I was covered with dust and my hair was greasy and I felt like taking a shower. I’m just the opposite, I think, in terms of the films I’m making. Sometimes I’ll completely forfeit style for content. That’s why I feel that Jaws does not have a style. Jaws is all content, experiment. Jaws is almost like I’m directing the audience with an electric cattle prod. I have very mixed feelings about my work on that picture, and two or three pictures from now I’m going to be able to look back on it and see what I’ve done. I saw it again and realised it was the simplest movie I had ever seen in my life. It was just the essential moving, working parts of suspense and terror, with just enough character development that at one point in the movie you hate Scheider and you hate Shaw and you hate Dreyfuss, within the roles they’re playing, and then you like them again.

We would get into these very deep conversations about everyone’s motivation, and why they were born to fight the shark, and go out next morning and kiss their wives goodbye and duel with the deep. And then I saw the movie last week and realised that what we were talking about were the basic primitive instincts man has about things that he doesn’t understand and is afraid of. We were talking about things that go bump in the night.

I could have made that a very subtle movie if I wanted to. I could have done a lot of things to make it much more appealing to the way I think at night as opposed to the way I think on a sound stage. I think in a way I’m two different people; my instincts always commandeer my sensibilities, or my intellect is always beaten down by my instincts.

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