Breakfast with Kathleen Kennedy & Henry Thomas
Breakfast with Henry Thomas and Kathleen Kennedy. This was not a situation I ever thought I would ever find myself in. Not only was I was seated across from the young man who played Elliot in what might be the seminal film from my childhood, but I was also sitting two seats down from the woman who began by producing E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial in her twenties, helped form Amblin Entertainment and is now running LucasFilm. Kennedy is still the only woman who has made a strong career in the blockbuster film business and been successful at it. That morning we discussed many things, from Thomas’ relationship with Spielberg and what he remembered from the set to Michael Jackson’s complete love for the film and Kennedy’s current project, a live-action adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book, The BFG with E.T.-screenwriter Melissa Mathison.
The breakfast was good. The conversation? Even better.
As they began serving the food, the question that was on many people’s minds was about the fact that this Blu-ray represented the return to the original version of the film as opposed to the digitally altered one that had been released a few years previously. Kathleen was quick to respond to this question. She said, “To be honest, I think Steven always regretted having made the decision to do anything to the film. I think he was feeling a certain amount of pressure to be politically correct and then he sort of stopped after he got talked into this and then realized that maybe it wasn’t a good idea. Most fans and people who like classic films don’t like them to be tinkered with, I think that the general consensus.”
The very idea that E.T. is a classic film begs the question, could the film even be made now? Was this family tale completely temporally located within an early 1980s world, both of filmmaking and of social consciousness? Kathleen Kennedy says that it was definitely something that she considered periodically. “It was [made] at a time when family films in general were really designated primarily to be movies made for children and only for children so the idea that movies crossed over and included the broad spectrum of entertainment, that was a relatively new phenomenon. […] I remember sitting in marketing at the time, we were actually having a hard time booking enough theaters, Steven actually sent me in to say, ‘I’d like it to be in 1,100 theaters,’ which is a lot of theaters today, and they said no. We eventually ended up getting there when the film started to preview and it was clear that it was hitting a really wide audience, but initially it was 7-800 theaters. That was going to be the run.”
As a child actor, Henry Thomas was not immune to the charms of the E.T. puppet. While playing Elliot may have been a role, his experience was something else. “I was aware of the wires and the twelve guys on the other side of the studio operating them,” he comments, “but there was definitely, on the set, an air of magic about it to where you could easily put yourself in a situation where the cameras were gone and part of that was being 10 years old. But for Drew Barrymore, who was 7 when we were working together, he [E.T.] was very real; she worried about him when we went for lunch, saying ‘What’s he going to eat?’ It was an easy world for me as a kid to fall into and ignore the man behind the curtain, so to speak.”
While many child actors have difficult or uncomfortable relationships with people on the sets of some of their first films, this was not the case for Henry Thomas. In fact, he says, it was quite the opposite. “What I remember about working with Steven is that he’s very enthusiastic about working on films, and if he could do everything himself, he would prefer it. But […] he was really great about talking to us like suddenly we weren’t kids anymore we were just technicians on the film set […] Steven was talking to me so much that the first time I saw the film, I said, ‘It’s great, but are you going to be able to get your voice out, because I heard you talking,’ and he said, ‘Oh no, you were imagining that. My voice isn’t on that.’ But it was so ingrained in me from working every day on set, that for me the experience of watching the film for the first time was almost like reliving the workday in a lot of ways, and it shows me now how intrinsic he was in my performance because I was literally hearing his voice the whole time I saw the film and I probably still would have heard it had he not told me that it wasn’t on the actual sound because I was so used to being directed that way. “
When I rewatched the film and studied the special features on the disc, the sheer number of women on the creative end of the production of E.T. stood out to me. Aside from producer Kathleen Kennedy, the editor, Carol Littleton, was female, as was screenwriter Melissa Mathison, first AD Katy Emde and central figure in the film’s narrative, Dee Wallace. Fairly unusual for a film in this time period, I asked Kennedy if she felt that this had any effect on the film itself or its success?
She thought about it briefly and nodded. “Yeah, it probably did. The interesting thing is that Steven has always been so comfortable with women. In fact, I think he works even better with women. So it might’ve, I hadn’t really thought about that, but it might’ve. My feeling is, always, the more diversity you have in a creative environment, the better. And all stories need to be told with lots of different voices and lots of different points of view. So finding that balance in any kind of creative situation like that is going to help, and so it probably did. So having a lot of women and a lot of kids… that was also probably a really good combination.”
The conversation eventually turned to topics of mementos and trophies from the filming. Henry admitted that he still had his badge from the set, although it did not say his name (it said “E.T. and Me”). Kathleen laughed and shook her head, clearly thinking about something that she hadn’t talked about in quite some time. “I have this one silly memory of the movie finally coming out and becoming such a huge hit,” she said, “See, now you think about these movies having huge merchandising campaigns and all that, well… no one was doing that with movies. Star Wars, if you remember, when it came out, didn’t have enough toys so everyone had to pick up gift certificates. And then you had to wait until you could get the toy. So we hadn’t done any of this and we certainly hadn’t anticipated any of this success. So I’m sitting at my desk one day, and I get this call from the F.B.I., and I’m pretty shocked, right? And they said, ‘This is the F.B.I.,’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and they said, ‘Look, we got two 747s at Newark full of pirated E.T. dolls, what do you wanna do with ‘em?’ So from that point on, I then looked at a call sheet that had something like 250 calls from companies wanting to put together some kind of merchandising campaign. And really, the reason we ended up doing any merchandising at all – because we had no idea about the business – was to try to put trademarks in place so that we could stop piracy, because piracy was just exploding with the success of the movie.”
We proceeded to discuss much of the comedy in the film, like the scene with the kiss between Elliot and the other young girl in his class, and whether Henry Thomas knew that he was playing drunk in that scene (he did, “Although,” he clarifies, “I had never been drunk!”), but we finally explored the final shots of the film and were informed that E.T. was, primarily, shot sequentially. After some other topics were covered briefly, Michael Jackson’s relationship with the film was mentioned which I had completely forgotten about. Once people started talking about it, though, it was so familiar to me and, very clearly, to Kathleen Kennedy as well.
It was through Quincy Jones that he became somewhat connected to the film initially, she said, but it became solidified when they were doing something that was called the “Storybook Album,” which never was released. As Kennedy describes it, “He [Michael] loved E.T. I think there was a time when he was renting out a movie theater near where we were all working; I think he would go see it every day. I don’t know how many times he saw the movie. He absolutely loved it. And I remember one night, he used to come to our offices at Amblin, and he had this macrobiotic chef so he’d fix this big dinner, and it’d just be Steven and Frank and I and we’d be working with editors upstairs, I think we were cutting Poltergeist at the time, and we went upstairs to look at some things and the editor, Tina, who was cutting at the time, freaked out when Michael walked into the room. She really held herself together for about 5 minutes and then she goes, ‘Could you do the moonwalk?’ and I couldn’t believe she was asking this but Michael didn’t miss a beat, he just moonwalked around the cutting room, I always remember that.”
Through the various stories and the laughter we caught up with Henry Thomas and his latest projects, such as the Jack Kerouac-based film Big Sur that he just completed with Josh Lucas and Radha Mitchell, as well as what Kathleen Kennedy has been up to. While she has just taken the reigns of LucasFilm, and had mentioned some plans with that as well as the satisfied feelings that both she and Steven had about finding Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln, a project that they had been trying to put into play for about ten years, it was actually a new project that Kennedy herself was pursuing with another E.T. alumna that was of the most interest. “Melissa Mathison and I are working on an adaptation of The BFG right now, “ Kennedy said with pride. Live action? Yes, indeed. Live action. She wasn’t able to say much else, but the knowledge that Mathison and Kennedy, two of the women who helped create one of the “classic” pieces of family cinema are reuniting to adapt a classic piece of children’s literature to the big screen is beyond exciting.
As the breakfast wound to a close we said our goodbyes and left – our stomachs full of Reese’s Pieces pancakes – knowing that at 3, 13 or 30 years old, E.T. is an ageless film. Its simple, quality storytelling and unique capacity to reach people with a brilliant combination of laughter, tears and realistic representations in unrealistic situations makes it one of the most powerful pieces of family cinema ever committed to celluloid.