“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”: Film definitely its own kind (1976)
By Tom Zito – The Central New Jersey Home News (New Brunswick, New Jersey) Sept 8, 1976
“We come now to the most bizarre and seemingly incredible aspect of the entire UFO phenomenon. To be frank, I would gladly omit this part if I could without offense to scientific integrity: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, those in which the presence of animated creatures is reported.” – J. Allen Hynek, director of research, Northwestern University’s Lindheimer Astronomical Research Center, former civilian director of the U.S. Air Force’s “Operation Bluebook,” in his book “The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry.”
Mobile, Ala. — Inside two abandoned hangars here. Columbia Pictures has spent $1 million to recreate a mountain and canyon that exist in real life near Muncie, Ind.
Under construction is a rectangular spaceship with slanted sides. Another corner of the hangar complex houses the interior of a Suburban-tract house.
The hangers are part of the $11.5 million Columbia is spending on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” an original film by 28-year-old “Jaws” director Steven Spielberg, the reigning wunderkind of Hollywood.
“Look up, look amazed,”‘ Spielberg instructs the 150 extras gathered on the 490-foot-long 250-foot-wide set.
It is about 135 degrees under the 90 arc lamps, and assistants with sponges are wiping sweat off the extras between every shot.
A crew member in the rafters is dropping four lights that in the film will appear to be a yellow, triangular space vehicle of some sort. The extras are dressed as policemen, as reporters, and as technicians in white Rockwell International jumpsuits.
This is a crucial scene. Francois Truffaut, the French film director who has never before played a featured role in someone else’s movie, appears as a Parisian investigator of aerial phenomena. He has just figured out how to communicate via computer with the extraterrestrials hovering overhead.
Spielberg wants joy, elation, success. The extras stare up at the ceiling. Truffaut says something in French. The extras applaud. They shout.
“Cut. Print,” says Spielberg.
The extras look happy, Truffaut looks happy. Spielberg looks elated.
None of this is happening before the wide, hungry gaze of the media. If one phrase is operative here, it is secrecy.
Security guards ring the Brookley Field hangar area, checking all entrants for Polaroid ID badges. The unit publicist complains that his job is to keep people away.
Some members of the crew and most of the extras have not even seen a script. They don’t really know what’s happening in the work they’re doing here, because much of the action will be processed into the shots back in Hollywood after the location work is done.
Spielberg answers specific questions about the film with a standard, ”You ll have to wait and see the movie to find that out.”‘ He says he nearly had a heart attack the week before “Jaws” was released, when Times magazine printed pictures of the inner workings of one of his mechanical sharks.
Richard Dreyfuss, who’s again working with Spielberg after starring in “Jaws” (at $190 million in box-office receipts the biggest moneymaker in film history), says, “Well, what do you want to talk about? We can talk about anything except the movie.”
“I had this dream about Steven saving, ‘No outsiders are getting on the set under penalty of death.’ Then a lot of reporters show up and a fight ensues.”
Dreyfuss starts a mock-news story: “What started last night as an evening of joy and Hollywood merriment ended in tragedy as 16 journalists battled it out with 400 Alabama National Guardsmen outside the set of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind…'”
The security is almost perfect. Except, of course, for the after-hours conversation of the extras. This seems to be the most exciting thing that’s happened in Mobile since the War of 1812.
So they talk. About the mammoth proportions of the set and its infinite detail, looking more like a moonscape than an earthly realm.
Ten miles of lumber, three miles of steel scaffolding, 29,500 feet of nylon, 16,900 feet of fiberglass, 26,000 square yards of concrete slabs, 7,000 cubic yards of fill dirt, 885 cubic yards of concrete to build the thing.
They talk about Spielberg. His cool, collected manner on the set. How he makes everyone seem to understand what they’re doing even though they don’t really know. How he’ll spend eight hours to set up a simple 30-second shot.
They talk about the money: The most expensive set ever constructed, six times larger than a Hollywood sound stage. More ambitious special effects than any movie ever made, including “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
And the story: If it were a novel it would be an instant bestseller — action, Suspense, humor, drama, awe. It is believable, encompassing all the basics of observed UFO phenomena: strange lights, power failures, a real sense of the ”festival of absurdity” quality J. Allen Hynek has used to characterize close encounters of the third kind.
People working on the film use the phrase “science fact” as opposed to science fiction. referring to the plot. Spielberg says he spent three years researching the project, staying up nights on the ”Jaws” set to talk out ideas with Dreyfuss. His homework has paid off.
“Close Encounters…” is a contemporary story. It opens in an airline cockpit. A pilot sees some strange lights in the night sky, presumes it is a plane with its landing lights on, and radios a ground controller. No, it’s not another plane, the tower says. A pilot in another plane sees the same lights.
Cut to the home of a divorced artist. Her sons asks if she has been playing with his luminescent paints. She says she hasn’t. Then what are the strange streaks of light in his room? And, later, why are his toys becoming animated?
Cut to an Ohio power and water station. Linesman Richard Dreyfuss is called to investigate a power failure, only to discover that two miles of electrical transmission cable have disappeared from a string of power poles.
Actual sightings soon follow. Dreyfuss is driven to know more and more about these bizarre creatures. variously described as ”cuboids” and ”humanoids.”‘
A central conflict involves Dreyfuss’ desire to travel with these beings, versus his wife’s wish that he not get involved. Over and over the question is posed in different ways: Would you want to go?
As it’s now planned, the film ends on a positive, historic, upbeat note, too clever to give away. Suffice it to say that in the course of the drama, Spielberg has extraterrestrials drinking Coca-Cola, and proffers his views on what happened in some famous UFO sighting cases and Bermuda Triangle incidents.
How ”Martians” drinking Cokes and some of Spielberg’s other touches will go over with audiences remains to be seen when the movie is released next Easter.
His instincts were obviously right on “Jaws,” which is probably why Columbia has allowed the budget on “Close Encounters” to rise from $2.5 million to $11.5 million — “and going up every day,” according to producer Julia Phillips, who played the same role on the films ”The Sting” and “Taxi Driver.”
The time also seems right for a blockbuster science-fiction film. The Viking Mars landings have given earthlings a new awareness of regions beyond the moon.
LOVE MOVIES? Look back at more classic motion pictures here!
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The movie
Close Encounter of the first kind: Sighting of a UFO
Close Encounter of the second kind: Physical evidence
Close Encounter of the third kind: Contact
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Close Encounters of the Third Kind coming to selected theaters
Starring Richard Dreyfuss with François Truffaut as Lacombe – Also starring Melinda Dillon & Teri Garr
Music by John Williams – Directed by Steven Spielberg — Produced by Julia Phillips & Michael Phillips
Written by Steven Spielberg – Director of Photography Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC – Distributed by Columbia Pictures
The UFOs are coming: Hollywood’s Close Encounters
Jaws’ creator moves dazzlingly from the deep to deep space
At 27, Director Steven Spielberg took a routine fish-bites-man story and transformed it into a show business phenomenon.
Jaws, a merciless attack on the audience’s nerves, quickly established its creator as the reigning boy genius of American cinema, and went on to pile up the largest box office take in the history of movies.
Now 29, Spielberg is ready with his encore, an $18 million extravaganza about UFOs and aliens who come to earth in them, called Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
If the director is nervous, it is hard to blame him: when the new film premieres in New York and Los Angeles, Spielberg will be judged by the standards he himself set with Jaws.
Spielberg must, in addition, contend with the comet trail of Star Wars, the summer sleeper directed by George Lucas that now threatens to surpass Jaws‘ $400 million worldwide gross. Close Encounters is also a science fiction film, and thus it will inevitably be compared to Star Wars.
Since Spielberg’s movie cost almost twice as much, Columbia Pictures, which financed Close Encounters, has gone to unusual lengths to protect its investment.
From the outset, the film has been shrouded in secrecy to ensure that its suspense not be blown prior to release.
Cast and crew have been forbidden to discuss the movie’s contents in interviews. Security guards have watched over its sets round the clock, at one point assiduously ejecting even Spielberg when he showed up without his ID badge.
The secret turns out to have been worth keeping. Although the movie is not a sure blockbuster — it lacks the simplicity of effect that characterizes most all-time box office champs — it will certainly be a big enough hit to keep Columbia’s stockholders happy.
More important, Close Encounters of the Third Kind offers proof, if any were needed, that Spielberg’s reputation is no accident.
His new movie is richer and more ambitious than Jaws, and it reaches the viewer at a far more profound level than Star Wars. The film is not perfect, but, like Stanley Kubrick’s similar (if far chillier) 2001: A Space Odyssey, it uses science fiction thrills to seduce the audience into looking at the cosmos metaphysically.
Close Encounters is, moreover, its creator’s highly personal statement about mankind’s next leap forward.
MORE: E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial: Find out about this beloved blockbuster movie from 1982
“Close Encounters” came out shortly after “Star Wars,” so there were the inevitable comparisons… even though the two movies couldn’t be more different. I was 12 when I saw “Close Encounters” and I didn’t fully understand it. I appreciated it a lot more when I saw it again as an adult years later.
Fun Fact: Melinda Dillon, who played the mom to the kid in “Close Encounters,” also played the mom in “A Christmas Story.”