E.T. is a strange film to talk about from a screenwriting perspective. Throughout the first half of the film, not a whole lot “happens.” And what I mean by that is, once E.T. and Elliot meet and Elliot brings him into the house, the next 40 or so minutes have the two simply hanging out and avoiding mom. I’m not sure I’d advise a screenwriter to try that approach today. The reader would be itching to get out of the house and get the story “moving.” It begs the question, is E.T. a product of its time? Could the same film be made today? The answer is probably “no.” I think we’re too impatient and too cynical to have E.T. in this world. Then again, you could make the argument that E.T. is lightning in a bottle. There was nothing like it, there will be nothing like it, and it was just a one-off, something that inexplicably worked where any movie attempting something similar would’ve failed. Today’s theme is FAMILY FILM tips, a genre that pretty much died when Spielberg grew up. Is there another writer/filmmaker in the shadows ready to replace him? If so, I hope he reads today’s 10 tips!
1) SYMPATHY FOR THE ANGEL – You want a scene that creates sympathy for your main characters so that we’ll root for them (preferably the very scene you introduce them with). This is doubly important in a family film. I mean, how does a family film work if we’re not rooting for the main characters??? The writer, Melissa Mathison, knows this, and creates a great introduction scene for E.T. where we see him left on earth. It is the terrifying feeling of watching his ship head home without him that immediately endears us to the alien. We’re afraid for him. We want him to find a way back.
2) Don’t be afraid to change the direction of your story if it’s not working – Your first take on an idea isn’t always the best. As you write, you may discover there’s a much more interesting story to tell. The stubborn writer ignores this truth and continues on writing because it’s too much work to change. The smart writer follows the better idea, even if it means a drastic rewrite. Spielberg started E.T. as a horror film where a group of aliens terrorize a family in a remote cabin. But the script wasn’t working (it’s a mess – I’ve read it). His favorite part was a key friendship that emerges between one of the aliens and one of the children. That idea, a friendship between an alien and a boy, became the focus of his next draft.
3) Find the high concept (the hook) in your un-commercial idea – Spielberg admits that E.T. is autobiographical, outside of the alien of course. I realized that this is what sets Spielberg apart from everyone else. When he comes up with an autobiographical idea, he doesn’t film a direct translation of it. He finds a hook to get people in the door (in this case, an alien) then tells the emotional story about his life through that hook.
4) If you play with a new toy too much, you get bored – One of the great things about E.T. is the deliberate development of the alien. Sure, he could’ve started talking on page 15, but he has to learn about this world and interact with these people and make mistakes before he finds out how to speak. I find that most writers get their shiny new toys (an alien, a robot, a monster) and burn them out right away. By page 30, there’s nothing left to discover. Take your time developing your new toy. Make sure he evolves over the course of the story, not within the first 20 pages.
5) Bring your own family issues and problems into your stories – Did your parents’ divorce fuck you up? Is your mom a raging alcoholic? Are you unable to meet the lofty standards your father expects of you? Whatever shitty family circumstances have shaped you as a person, use your scripts to explore them. Family dynamics always feel authentic when the writer is drawing from his/her own experiences. You see that with Spielberg here in E.T., who was notably torn up by his parents’ divorce and his father leaving the family. That undercurrent hits the family hard and plays a big role in the story.
6) URGENCY ALERT – Remember, you always want to infuse some urgency into your story. Here, it’s the government looking for E.T. We keep cutting back to them getting closer in their search, so we know it’s only a matter of time before they find out E.T. is at Elliot’s. This script is a lot less interesting if we ONLY focus on Elliot and E.T. hanging out and becoming friends. We need to feel like their time’s running out. Urgency!
7) Wish-fulfillment – I think a big thing when you’re writing family films is wish-fulfillment. You want to integrate some sort of wish-come-true (to be a superhero, to be invisible, to have an alien as your best friend) and then make your hero (usually a child) need to keep that secret. When executed well, this approach rarely fails.
8) Family movies can be serious – I think too many writers become goofy with their family screenplays. It’s all farting and burping and poop jokes and over-the-top humor. What I loved about E.T. was that it took itself just seriously enough that you forgot you were watching a movie. It dealt with real family issues and real problems (loneliness). These days, it’s all flash and no depth (see the alien family film “Aliens in the Attic” as an example of what NOT to do).
9) Family Fun and Games – Blake Snyder was the inventor of the phrase “fun and games” and it refers to the section at the beginning of your second act, after your concept has been established. So here, it’s when Elliot moves E.T. into the house. At this point, you just want to have fun with your idea. So with E.T., Elliot has him meet the family, E.T. learns about television, he gets drunk, he goes out on Halloween. I don’t think the Fun and Games section is right for every genre (I didn’t see it in “Prisoners” for example) but the one genre it is an absolute requirement for is family films. You can also dedicate more TIME to the Fun and Games section in a family film (it’s traditionally supposed to be under 15 pages – but here it lasts over 30).
10) Alternate Goal Character – E.T. is one of the rare movies where neither the main character (Elliot) or the villain (there is no villain in E.T.) have the goal that’s driving the story. In this case, it’s actually E.T. who has the goal (he’s trying to get home). It’s a nice reminder that SOMEONE in the story has to have a goal that’s driving the story forward or else your story’s going nowhere. I mean think about it. What if E.T. didn’t want to go home? We wouldn’t have a movie!