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October 08, 2012

‘E.T.’: Kathleen Kennedy on Spielberg, Lucas and making of a classic

Posted in: It's Alive,Movies

kathleen kennedy5 crop E.T.: Kathleen Kennedy on Spielberg, Lucas and making of a classic

Kathleen Kennedy, producer of "E.T.," holds drawings of the now-beloved extraterrestrial. Astrid Kamar, center, and her husband, Pascal, show off an E.T. toy. Pascal Kamar's company was the first licensed to make the E.T. plush toy. (Courtesy Joy Kamar)

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Robert MacNaughton, left, Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace Stone, Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Drew Barrymore and Peter Coyote celebrate the 20th anniversary of "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" in 2002. (Alex Berliner / Universal Studios)

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Harrison Ford, left, Kathleen Kennedy and George Lucas chat during a break in filming "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." (David James / Lucasfilm)

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Frank Marshall, left, Karen Allen, Harrison Ford, George Lucas and Kathleen Kennedy attend the Japan premiere of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" in 2008. (Junko Kimura / Getty Images)

Kathleen Kennedy has a résumé nearly unmatched in Hollywood — over the years, she’s produced such respected films as “The Color Purple,” “Empire of the Sun,” “Jurassic Park,” “The Sixth Sense,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and the upcoming historical epic, “Lincoln.” In June, George Lucas named Kennedy, 59, as co-chair for his vast Lucasfilm empire.

One prominent feature of her lengthy filmography is Kennedy’s long-running collaboration with Steven Spielberg — she first worked with him as a production assistant on his costly flop, “1941,” then as associate producer on 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark”; along with her husband, producer Frank Marshall, and Spielberg, she created the successful production company Amblin and served as its president until 1992, when she and Marshall formed the Kennedy/Marshall Co.

Her first producer credit came in 1982 with Spielberg’s beloved boy-and-his-alien fantasy “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. The digitally restored version of the blockbuster makes its Blu-ray debut this week, and Kennedy recently spoke to Hero Complex about her experience making the film, which continues to entertain and enchant audiences.

PHOTOS: ‘E.T.’ behind the scenes

HC: How did “E.T.” come to be the first film you produced?

KK: Well, it happened kind of gradually. [Spielberg and I] were doing “Raiders of the Lost Ark” together, and we were over in England. Our whole discussion of what our next movie was going to be was something that was a focus of conversation whenever we had time. We had been working on a project called “Night Skies,” which was a different kind of a story [than “E.T.”], but in the same realm of “Close Encounters,” and “E.T.” [“E.T.”] evolved out of those discussions. Once Steven and I had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do, we would just sit around on the set in between shots and work out a treatment for what the story might be. Melissa Mathison, who was going out with but not yet married to Harrison Ford… I was talking about writers and I had mentioned I loved “The Black Stallion” [which Mathison wrote] and he said, ‘Oh, my god, she would be perfect.” So we went and sat and pitched Melissa over lunch one day. She said she’d love to do it and the rest is history.

HC: Considering its status in the annals of film history, “E.T.” was actually a small movie.

KK: The budget was $10 million. It was considered a pretty small movie even then. The irony is that it was not easy to get the movie made. I think certainly science fiction was not something that anybody was interested in at the time, even though Steven had made “Close Encounters” that had done very well. There also was another movie called “Starman” that was being made at Columbia. There is the famous story that we tried to make the movie there and they passed because of “Starman,” so we ended up back at Universal.

HC: Were you nervous about producing?

KK: The interesting thing is when you start out … you are only literally thinking of what is in front of you and what’s going to happen the next day, so I was pretty terrified. But I had had a tremendous opportunity on “Raiders” to really learn…. I had already worked with Steven and been around Steven. I had a pretty good idea of what the expectations were, but even so, I was very, very nervous. There were times I would be violently sick because I was so nervous about what I was doing. When you are that stage you don’t  have any perspective that you put on it years later. I didn’t really have anything to compare it to. I just knew there were a whole series of things in front of me that needed to be done and things that needed to be organized and pulled together.

PHOTOS: Memorable moments in ‘E.T.’

HC: When you were on the set, was there one point when you realized “E.T” would be a hit?

KK: No. Never ever. I mean it was always interesting and fun, but you know you have to remember this was also at the time … you weren’t making movies ever thinking about the box office necessarily. We were just trying to tell a good story and make a good film.

HC: Why do you think “E.T” still resonates with audiences today?

KK: I think it taps into the classic idea of storytelling. I think it crosses over all generations because it taps into the sense of childhood and also taps into that sense of abandonment. I think that resonates deeply with many, many people. I think everybody can associate that feeling of having to say goodbye to a really close friend, to a pet, to parents — whatever that sense of loss is. I think that is something that resonates whether you are a child or 80 years old.

HC: And now you are working with Lucas.

KK: I feel incredibly fortunate that I have had the opportunity to work all of these years with Steven and then have George come and ask me to take over the legacy of his company. It is an incredible honor. There’s a similarity between Steven and George in that they both have three sisters — I think they have shown over the years that they work very well with women.

[For the record, 9:24 a.m. Oct. 9: An earlier version of this post had Kathleen Kennedy's age as 58.]

– Susan King

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