In this exclusive excerpt from Spielberg: The first 10 yearsauthor Laurent Bouzereau reflects on the origins of the 1977s Close encounters of the third kindand the creative decisions Spielberg made in bringing the story to the screen. In particular, Bouzereau points out that the climax involves the main character – played by Richard Dreyfus – making a decision that Spielberg would never repeat if he were making the film now. Click Here For more information, see our interview with the author.
“The man who didn’t want to grow up“
Close encounters was written by Steven based on his original idea. The story centers on Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), an ordinary power plant worker whose life changes when he has a “close encounter” with a UFO. As Neary becomes increasingly obsessed with the incident, he becomes estranged from his wife and children.
Driven by visions in his head, he travels to a mountain in Wyoming known as Devils Tower, meeting Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) along the way. Jillian’s young son Barry (Cary Guffey) has been abducted by aliens and she has come to Wyoming to find him. Together they manage to break through military security and reach the top of the mountain, where a momentous meeting between humanity and aliens will take place under the supervision of French scientist Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut).
One of the special things Close encounters is the amount of research Steven did for the film. While learning as much as he could about the subject, Steven contacted J. Allen Hynek, the UFO expert who coined the term “close encounter,” and used him as a source in writing the film – even giving it to Hynek a cameo in the big sequence at the end of the film when the alien mothership arrives. Steven has always valued accuracy and wanted this science fiction story to be as close to scientific fact as possible. This really paid off as the film feels grounded despite focusing on these very miraculous events.
By the way, a “close encounter of the first kind” occurs when someone sees a UFO. A “close encounter of the second kind” occurs when physical evidence is found. And a “close encounter of the third kind” occurs when direct contact occurs, as seen in the climax of this film
Steven has often said that Roy Neary was something of his alter ego at the time – a guy driven by his own imagination and daydreams. Neary’s obsession with the images he sees in his head is similar to a filmmaker’s creative process. In this sense, Close encounters is also a film about cinema: it’s about connection through images and the obsession with these images. I think one of my favorite things about the film is the way it opens in complete silence and darkness. Then suddenly the music begins to build as the title appears over black, and it cuts to the bright daylight of the Sonoran Desert.
This journey from darkness to light is cinema. This opening encapsulates the arc of the film in a single moment, the thematic movement from darkness to light in which we realize that the aliens are not our enemies. As the film continues, Steven asks his audience to psychologically question their assumptions from the beginning of the film and look at these scary moments in a new light. At first we’re supposed to believe that the aliens are trying to abduct and harm humans, but then we learn that we misinterpreted their actions and that the aliens were actually trying to make contact and communicate – which, again, is a nice metaphor for that Role of a film director.
The home theme is also very common in Close encounters. At one point, Neary begins building a giant sculpture of Devils Tower based on the image of the mountain he sees in his head. His obsession with recreating it quickly escalates until he has torn his house apart to build the model – literally destroying his home in the process to realize his vision.
Before this moment, and before Neary has his first encounter with the UFO, it is clear that he is something of a man-child, struggling to be both a father and a husband and to juggle the responsibilities of an adult. When we first meet Neary, he is arguing with his children: He wants to take them to Disney’s Pinocchio (1940), but they want to play silly golf. His children want to be like adults while Neary chases the stars. And at the end of the film, Neary chooses the stars and the sky over his family and leaves Earth on the alien mothership.
Steven said that if he had made it Close encounters Today he doesn’t want Neary to leave his family at the end of the film. At the time, Steven was in his early thirties and hadn’t yet started a family, and Neary’s choice made sense to him. However, as a family man, the concept seems unthinkable. This is another interesting aspect Close encounters – it embodies who Steven was at a very specific point in his life and how he developed as an artist.
family in Close encounters is depicted in a particularly stormy manner. Neary’s personal life is very chaotic. His children are loud and destructive – one of the first things we see is Roy’s young daughter banging a doll against her playpen. In contrast, Neary has his own elaborate toy train, which he clearly put together with a lot of love and care – another sign that he is someone who is not yet ready to grow up. Toys are important in Close encounters.
In the scene where the aliens first visit Jillian and Barry’s house, the boy’s toys are scattered across the floor and come to life. Jillian appears to be a single mother raising him alone. When the toys start moving and she looks for Barry around the house, it’s almost as if the boy’s toys become obstacles that prevent her from reaching him. There is a sense that the child’s world is holding Jillian back, much like Neary’s childishness is holding him back from being a fully functioning adult.
When Barry is kidnapped in a later scene, home becomes the enemy. Jillian is essentially attacked by her own home – her vacuum cleaner comes to life, the washing machine turns on, and the phone plays the five notes non-stop. Jillian’s house is not only attacked, but attacked.
It’s also worth noting that when the house comes to life in the earlier scene and the television turns on, an episode of the television show is shown Policewoman, starring Angie Dickinson as a confident police officer. This is clearly a conscious decision that signals how we should view Jillian as a heroic single mother raising her child alone at a time when this was less common. Steven repeated this idea later in AND with Dee Wallace’s character Mary, a single mother who raises her children alone after separating from her husband.
Click here to read our interview with Laurent Bouzereau
Spielberg: The first 10 years is available now from most major booksellers, including Amazon.