In this exclusive excerpt from Spielberg: The First 10 Years, author Laurent Bouzereau reflects on the origins of 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the creative choices that Spielberg made in bringing the story to the screen. Notably, Bouzereau points out that the climax features the main character — played by Richard Dreyfus — making a choice that Spielberg would never repeat if he were making the movie now. Click here to read our interview with the author for more details.
"The Man Who Didn’t Want to Grow Up"
Close Encounters was written by Steven, based on his original idea. The story focuses on Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), an everyman blue-collar worker at a power plant whose life is changed when he has a “close encounter” with a UFO. As Neary becomes increasingly obsessed with the incident, he alienates himself from his wife and children.
Driven by visions in his head, he travels to a mountain in Wyoming known as Devils Tower and meets Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) along the way. Jillian’s young son, Barry (Cary Guffey), has been abducted by the aliens, and she has come to Wyoming to find him. Together, they manage to breach military security and reach the top of the mountain, where a momentous meeting between humanity and extraterrestrials is about to take place under the supervision of French scientist Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut).
One of the special things about Close Encounters is the level of research that Steven undertook for the film. In the course of learning everything he could about its subject matter, Steven contacted J. Allen Hynek, the UFO expert who coined the term “close encounter,” and used him as a resource when writing the movie—he even gave Hynek a cameo in the big sequence at the end of the film when the aliens’ Mothership arrives. Steven has always been very focused on accuracy, and he wanted this science-fiction story to be as close to science fact as possible. That really paid off because the film feels grounded, despite its focus on these very wondrous events.
Incidentally, a “close encounter of the first kind” is when someone sees a UFO. A “close encounter of the second kind” is when physical evidence is found. And a “close encounter of the third kind” is when direct contact is made, as seen in the climax of this movie
Steven has often said that Roy Neary was kind 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 analogous to a filmmaker’s creative process. In that sense, Close Encounters is also a film about cinema: It’s about connectivity through images and being obsessed with these visuals. I think one of my favorite things in the movie is the way it opens in absolute silence and darkness. Then, suddenly, the music starts 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. That opening sums up the arc of the film in a single moment, the thematic movement from darkness to light, where we come to realize that the aliens are not our enemies. As the film progresses, Steven asks his audience to psychologically reexplore their assumptions from earlier in the film and look at these scary moments in a new light. Initially, we are meant to think the aliens are trying to abduct and hurt people, but then we learn that we have misinterpreted their actions, and the aliens have really been trying to make contact and communicate—which, again, is a beautiful metaphor for the role of a film director.
The home theme is also very prevalent in Close Encounters. At one point, Neary starts building a massive sculpture of Devils Tower based on the image of the mountain he is seeing in his head. His obsession to re-create it quickly escalates until he has ripped apart his house to make the model—literally destroying his home life to fulfill his vision.
Prior to this moment, and before Neary has his encounter of the first kind with the UFO, it’s clearly established that he is something of a man-child, struggling to be both a father and a husband dealing with adult responsibilities. When we first meet Neary, he’s having an argument with his kids: He wants to take them to see Disney’s Pinocchio (1940), but they want to go play goofy golf. His kids want to be like grownups, while Neary is chasing after the stars. And at the end of the film, Neary chooses the stars and the sky over his family, leaving Earth on the aliens’ Mothership.
Steven has said that if he made Close Encounters today, he would not have Neary abandon his family at the end of the movie. At the time, Steven was in his early thirties and hadn’t yet started a family, and Neary’s choice made sense to him. As a family man now, however, the concept seems unthinkable. That’s another interesting aspect to Close Encounters — it embodies who Steven was at a very specific time in his life as well as in his growth as an artist.
Family in Close Encounters is depicted in a particularly tempestuous way. Neary’s home life is very chaotic. His kids 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 set, which he’s clearly put together with a lot of love and care — another sign that he’s somebody who is not ready to grow up. Toys are important in Close Encounters.
In the scene when the aliens first visit Jillian and Barry’s home, the boy’s toys are scattered all over the floor and come to life. Jillian appears to be a single mom raising him alone. As the toys begin to move, and she searches for Barry in the house, it’s almost as if the boy’s playthings become obstacles that keep her from being able to reach him. There’s a sense that the world of the child is holding back Jillian, not unlike the way in which Neary’s childishness holds him back from being a fully functioning adult.
When Barry is abducted 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 switches on, and the phone is playing the five notes nonstop. Jillian’s home is not only under attack but also attacking.
It’s also worth noting that, when the house comes alive in the earlier scene and the TV switches on, it shows an episode of the TV show Police Woman, featuring Angie Dickinson as an empowered female cop. This is clearly a conscious choice that signals how we are meant to see Jillian, as a heroic single mom raising her kid alone at a time when this was less common. Steven later reprised this idea in E.T. with Dee Wallace’s character, Mary, who is a single mom raising her kids alone after separating with her husband.
Spielberg: The First 10 Years is available now at most major booksellers, including Amazon.