Melissa Mathison obituary

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The screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who has died aged 65 of neuroendocrine cancer, had only a handful of credits to her name.

But the fact that one of them was E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) guaranteed that her name was enshrined in cinema history. It was in 1980 that the director Steven Spielberg suggested to her the story of a being from outer space who becomes stranded on Earth. Mathison was visiting her then partner, the actor Harrison Ford, in Tunisia during filming on Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. “We were driving through the night across the desert and we started talking about it,” Mathison recalled. “It was just beautiful, empty desert, with this incredibly starry sky. It was two o’clock in the morning, just Harrison and Steven and I. It was very exciting.”

John Sayles had already turned in a draft in which the intergalactic visitor was malevolent, with a beak-like mouth and grasshopper eyes. But Spielberg and Mathison decided the character should be frightened rather than frightening. “He was just someone who got off the bus and didn’t get back,” she said.

She wrote the script in eight weeks. “I found it terribly moving when I was writing it. When I got to the last page, I was in floods of tears. The big question, though, was: would anyone react the same way?” They did. The screenplay was virtually flawless; the producer, Kathleen Kennedy, remembered Spielberg announcing: “I’ve read Melissa’s draft. Let’s shoot it.” He also insisted on Mathison’s presence during shooting, and she credited the film’s more “feminine” feel to the number of women on set. “I suspect that if Steven had been surrounded by men, they would have said, ‘Oh come on, this is getting soft,’” she said, “whereas everyone kept telling him, ‘It’s fine, don’t worry, everything is going to be all right.’”

Mathison coined several movie catchphrases – “E.T. phone home”, “Be good” and the goosebump-inducing “I’ll be right here” (spoken by the young hero, Elliott, played by Henry Thomas, as E.T. leaves Earth for ever) – that are imprinted indelibly on the memories of moviegoers. She also captured beautifully the cadences and unforced earnestness of childhood speech. Pauline Kael of the New Yorker said the picture “probably has the best-worked-out script that Spielberg has yet shot” and observed that Mathison “has a feeling for the emotional sources of fantasy … [and] an ear for how kids talk”.

Mathison’s screenplay also stipulated the look of E.T. – his glowing finger, squashed legs, telescopic neck and distended belly. The film’s adherence to this blueprint would come in handy during arbitration in the late 1980s, when the Writers Guild of America argued successfully that she should receive a share of revenue from merchandise featuring the character she had, in effect, designed. She was awarded 4% to 5% on all products bearing E.T.’s likeness.

Mathison was one of five children born in Los Angeles to Richard, a journalist, and Margaret Jean (nee Kieffer), known as Pegeen, who worked in publicity. She was employed as a stringer at Time magazine and majored in political science at the University of California, Berkeley, but interrupted her studies to accept a job as an assistant on the set of The Godfather Part II (1974). She had got to know the director, Francis Ford Coppola, through being a babysitter for his friends. “All the things that were tedious and mundane to most people were exhilarating to me,” she said. “Bringing coffee to Al Pacino was exciting.”

Next she worked as an assistant on Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now (1979). Coppola had an affair with her during the making of the film, and was confronted about it by his wife, Eleanor, who later wrote about the episode in her book Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now (1995). It was also on the set of that film that Mathison met Ford, whom she married in 1983 and with whom she had two children. When the couple divorced in 2004, she was the recipient of what was then the third highest settlement in history, in which alimony, child maintenance, lump sums, property and percentages of Ford’s earnings totalled between $100m and $115m.

Coppola, who had first encouraged Mathison to write, called on her to salvage the screenplay for The Black Stallion (1979), on which he was executive producer, a film about a boy shipwrecked on an island with only an Arabian horse for company. “We all agreed the movie should be like a children’s book, with just pictures,” Mathison recalled. “That’s when I learned to take out the words, to tell the story visually, which is the best training there is.”

This eloquent, poetic film, directed by Carroll Ballard, had an emotional directness that stood Mathison in good stead for writing E.T. It also contained the theme that ran through most of her work – that of a lonely child negotiating magic or miracles in the real world. This occurs also in The Escape Artist (1982), about a teenage escapologist, The Indian in the Cupboard (1995), in which a plastic figurine acquires special powers, and even Kundun (1997), Martin Scorsese’s film about the Dalai Lama, for which Mathison provided the level-headed script, making friends with the Dalai Lama while writing the movie.

After receiving an Oscar nomination for E.T., Mathison scripted Kick the Can, Spielberg’s segment of the portmanteau, four-director picture Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983); she was credited as “Josh Rogan”. Otherwise, she didn’t have another screenplay filmed for almost a decade. Reflecting on the destabilising effect of E.T. on her career, she said: “It scared me, I guess. It’s hard to have a success that huge and feel like that’s what you’re supposed to be doing.”

There was another extended gap following Kundun, until her recent adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG. The film, starring Penelope Wilton, Rebecca Hall, and Mark Rylance as the Big Friendly Giant of the title, with Spielberg making his directing debut for Walt Disney, will be released next year.

Mathison is survived by her two children with Ford, Georgia, an actor, and Malcolm, a rock musician.

• Melissa Mathison, screenwriter, born 3 June 1950; died 4 November 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ryan Gilbey, for The Guardian on Friday 6th November 2015 18.53 Europe/London

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