(Note: this interview with conducted to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 2017.)
By Michael Coate
Ray Morton is the author of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of
Steven Spielberg’s Classic Film” (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2007). He
is a screenwriter, script consultant, and senior writer and columnist for
Script magazine. His other books include “King Kong: The History of a Movie
Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson” (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2005),
“Amadeus: Music on Film” (Limelight, 2011), “A Hard Day’s Night: Music on Film”
(Limelight, 2011), “A Quick Guide to Screenwriting” (Limelight, 2013), “A Quick
Guide to Television Writing” (Limelight, 2013), and “A Quick Guide to Film
Directing” (Limelight, 2014).
Cinema Retro:How would you like
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” to be remembered on its 40th anniversary?
Ray Morton:As a wonderful,
As the first true Steven Spielberg movie. “Jaws” is a magnificent film, but in a way an atypical film for
Spielberg in terms of genre and subject matter. “Close Encounters” is the first of Spielberg’s movies to contain
many of the elements that would become closely associated with him in the years
that followed: an uplifting sci-fi/fantasy narrative infused with a tremendous
sense of wonder; a focus on children; an exploration of life in the American
suburbs; broken families; a fascination with World War II; a highly
sophisticated use of visual and special effects; the use of a powerful John
Williams score to create a powerful emotional response; cinematography that
emphasizes backlighting; and Spielberg’s trademarked “push in” close-ups onto
the awed faces of his characters. “Jaws”
made Spielberg hot, “CE3K” made
him a brand name.
As one of the two films that transformed science fiction and fantasy
from vaguely disreputable “B” genres into “A” movie material in the eyes of
both the public and the film industry. The other was, of course, “Star Wars.”
As the masterwork of Douglas Trumbull, Richard Yuricich, and their great
team of visual effects magicians at Future General.
As one of the most intense and honest depictions ever filmed of
obsession and of the rewards and costs of pursuing a dream.
As one of the most authentic, non-idealized, and non-stereotypical
depictions of American suburban life ever shown on screen.
Cinema Retro:Can you recall your reaction to the first time you saw “Close
Morton:I can absolutely
recall the first time I saw “Close
Encounters”—it was the most significant movie-going experience of my
life. I saw it in December 1977 at the Ridgeway Theater in Stamford,
Connecticut—on a school night with my sisters Kathy and Nancy.I loved the movie as a movie—it was intriguing, thrilling, frightening,
funny, awe-inspiring, thought-provoking, and ultimately extremely moving. But the effect “Close
Encounters” had on me went well beyond the simple enjoyment of a very
good film. By the time“CE3K” opened, I had already been a
film fan for a few years, but “Close
Encounters”is the movie
that awakened me to the true power of cinema. Until that night, if you had
asked the very young me what the most important ingredients in a movie were, I
would have said dialogue and performance. Those things are certainly present in“CE3K,” but they are secondary. The storytelling in “Close Encounters”—especially in its
final thirty minutes—is accomplished primarily through the manipulation of the
core elements of cinema: imagery, sound effects, and music. Watching the film
for the first time, I found myself having a profound emotional response to
Spielberg’s masterful orchestration of light and sound—I was filled with
feelings of awe, wonder, and joy so intense they were almost spiritual. When
the movie ended, I just sat staring at the screen, enraptured and unable to
move as I processed the overwhelming intensity of what I had just experienced.
I sat there so long that my sisters finally lost patience with me. “Wake up!”
my sister Nancy snapped. “The movie’s over!” That brought me back to the world,
but I still hadn’t come back to Earth.I realized then and there the powerful effect that movies could have on
an audience — that in the right hands they could transcend mere storytelling
and impact viewers on a much deeper and more profound level. Driving home that
night (in a heavy fog that filtered the headlights of oncoming cars in ways
that mimicked much of the imagery in the movie we had just seen), I knew I
wanted to do something more than just watch movies—that I wanted to make a life
in the cinema as well.
Cinema Retro:Is there any
significance to “Close Encounters”?
Morton:Well, it’s one of
the best sci-fi movies ever made, both creatively and from a production
stand-point. And, as I mentioned earlier, it’s one of the films that made
sci-fi into a respectable genre.
Beyond those two points, however, it was the first major sci-fi film to
depict first contact as a potentially positive experience—that a meeting
between mankind and beings from another world could be a joyous, peaceful,
uplifting event—something that could be good for us—rather than an occasion of
invasion and horror. In the years following“CE3K”and especially “E.T.” that became a commonplace idea,
but in 1977 it was pretty revolutionary.
Cinema Retro:Which edition of
“Close Encounters” do you like best?
Morton:I prefer the 1977
theatrical cut, in part because it’s the first version of the movie I saw and
the one that made such a strong impression on me. But I also prefer it because
it’s the most subtle version of the film. As an example, in the scene in which
Roy has his initial close encounter at the railroad crossing, as he drives off
in pursuit of the UFO, the 1977 version cuts to a long shot of Roy’s truck
driving across the landscape and in the sky above you see a little point of
light moving along. Is it a UFO? Or is it just an airplane or a satellite? We’re
not 100% sure and that adds some mystery and intrigue to the picture—was what
we just saw happen real or did Roy perhaps imagine it? We’re not sure and
neither is Roy until the three UFOs come flying around the corner in the
Crescendo Summit scene a few minutes later. In the Special Edition and the 1997 Director’s Edition, that shot is replaced by the shadow of an
impossibly large UFO zooming across the landscape—all of the ambiguity is gone
and the point is hit right on the head that what we saw was real and that UFOs
are real before they are revealed to us at Crescendo Summit. It takes a little
bit of the magic out of it for me.
As technically wonderful as it is, I feel the Cotapoxi scene has similar
problems. The jeeps leaping over the sand dunes in 1-2-3 formation and the
helicopters zooming low across the desert feel like they belong in a slightly
broader, slightly less real film than the theatrical cut is. One of the things
I like so much about “CE3K” is
that the fantastic events occur in a very real setting—Roy’s world and
Jillian’s world all feel very authentic and real to me—but when people are
zooming around like they are in an action movie, some of that reality gets lost
for me. And, as cool as seeing the ship in the desert is, the scene is really
just a repeat of the opening sequence in which the airplanes are discovered, so
it’s a bit repetitious. I do like some of the family strife material that was put back in for
the Special Edition and the Director’s Edition and some of the
editing in the second act is tighter and less raggedy. But I still prefer the
1977 version. Following that I would choose the 1997 cut and then the Special
Edition. (I think going inside the Mothership was always a mistake.)
Cinema Retro:Where do you think
“Close Encounters” ranks among Steven Spielberg’s body of work?
Morton:Near the top, along
with “Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Raiders,” “Schindler’s
List,” and “Empire of the Sun.”
It has always struck me as being one of his most personal movies.
Cinema Retro:Can you discuss Richard Dreyfuss’s
performance as Roy Neary?
Morton:It’s not one of
his signature roles in the way that Matt Hooper from “Jaws” or Elliot Garfield from “The Goodbye Girl” are and in some ways he’s a little miscast in
it since he’s probably a bit too young for the role. But it’s a solid
performance for sure and especially in the interrogation scene, in which he is
desperately trying to figure out what’s going on, a very moving one. And his
final look to the camera before he boards the Mothership is just wonderful.
Retro:The use of music is particularly important in this film, especially
since the five-note theme actually appears in
the film. Do you have any
thoughts on Williams’s score?
Morton:Well, of course
the five-note signal is one of the most iconic piece of movie music of all
time. Beyond that, I think it’s one of his exciting scores, although the five
notes aside it’s not one of his better known ones (in part because it lacks the
signature marches he became famous for). I love its offbeat mix of the
sweeping, orchestral music that accompanies the last 30 minutes of the movie
and the jarring, atonal material that dominates much of the second act.
Cinema Retro:Do you think there
should be a “Close Encounters” sequel?
Morton:Well, “E.T.” is sort of a sequel to “CE3K”—it doesn’t continue the story
but it does continue the subject matter and the spirit.
Otherwise, no. There’s no need—in the end Roy and the aliens fly off
into the heavens in their gorgeous chandelier of a spacecraft. That’s the
perfect end for this story and that’s more than enough for me. It’s a contained
piece — to continue it beyond its perfect conclusion would, to my mind, only
lessen its impact.
Cinema Retro:What is the legacy
of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”?
Morton:Well, as I said
earlier, it’s a wonderful film, it’s the move that made Steven Spielberg a
household name, and it helped make science fiction and fantasy a respectable
genre—so respectable that they’re practically the only types of movie Hollywood
makes any more. Interestingly, while it’s a film that I think is beloved and appreciated
by filmmakers and serious fans of cinema (especially those of a certain age),
it’s not a movie that I think is well known by general audiences these days.
The film made a big impact when it first came out, but it has not had the long
cultural shelf-life that its year-mate “Star
Wars” has had (in part because there has only been one “CE3K,” whereas “Star Wars” has, of course, been an
ongoing series). It’s also not a movie that plays very much (it’s shown two or
three times a year on TCM and pops up in occasional revival screenings in New
York City and Los Angeles, but that’s about it). So I don’t think modern
viewers are all that familiar with it. Hopefully, the 40th anniversary
re-release will change that.
Retro:Thank you, Ray, for sharing your
thoughts about “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” on its 40th anniversary.
Michael Coate is a
journalist and film historian. He writes for TheDigitalBits.com and In70mm.com.
He was the Research Editor for Widescreen Review from 1997 to 2004. He enjoys
attending Major League Baseball games when not visiting libraries and archives hunting
for useful information for his articles.