While many women in Hollywood have to be boldly assertive in order to get noticed, Melissa Mathison’s ascent to success was marked by patience and modesty. In fact, the screenwriter behind the beloved film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, who died Nov. 4 at age 65, practically had to be begged to write the movie that made her famous.
Mathison was celebrated for writing dialogue that rang true to the way kids really speak, so it’s no surprise that her entrée to Hollywood started when she herself was a child. She met Francis Ford Coppola when she babysat his kids as a girl; he remembers her as “a skinny, cute 12-year-old kid with a beautiful smile,” the director tells TIME. “She was exuberant and full of fun. Her nickname for me was ‘The Big Spaghetti.’”
As she got older, Coppola says he “became aware of her inquiring mind and interesting opinions,” and asked her to help out on some of his films like The Godfather Part II. Eventually, he suggested she try her hand at a screenplay. “She loved writers and writing, knew a lot and read a lot—and she was anxious to learn, although a little timid concerning her own abilities. I felt she had talent and encouraged her to try with The Black Stallion.” That story of a boy and his friendship with a horse became her first feature film in 1979—and caught the eye of Steven Spielberg.
Years later, Mathison found herself in the Tunisian desert on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark while dating Harrison Ford (whom she later married and divorced). Spielberg had been a big fan of The Black Stallion, but didn’t know that Mathison had been involved.
“So there were a couple of weeks that I spent talking to Melissa between shots, not knowing that she was one of the authors of The Black Stallion,” Spielberg says. “I found that she had a serene confidence in herself about life itself, but was very unsure of herself in her occupation. I asked her what her occupation was, and she said to me, ‘I’m a screenwriter, but I don’t think I’m very good at it.’ I asked her, ‘Well, what have you written?’ And she said, ‘I’ve only written one thing that got made, and that was The Black Stallion.’ So I had already fallen in love with that movie years before, and now here was somebody who I thought—if she was in fact a writer, not knowing any of her credits, just based on personality alone—had the sensitivity to tell my story about a little boy and a family in the throes of divorce, and how they filled the hole in befriending a little lost alien.”
It was a match made in heaven—but Mathison, though “intrigued” by the story according to producer Kathleen Kennedy, was reluctant to sign on. “I asked Melissa if she would write the script, and she immediately said no, arguing she wasn’t the right writer for it,” Spielberg says. “And she kept saying no. I finally turned to Harrison, and I said, ‘Harrison, can you help me? She keeps turning me down. I think she’d be perfect to collaborate with me on this.’ And Harrison, I think, talked to her, and the next day came over on set in his full Indiana Jones costume, and he said to me, ‘I think I talked her into writing this.’”
The experience of working on the story together was “very calming” for Spielberg, who says his moviemaking usually involves some degree of agitation. But “with Melissa, it was almost like E.T. was written from a very meditative place,” he says. “She had almost a mystical power of patience, that everything would come in time.”
Mathison went off to write the first draft and came back in about seven weeks with a near-perfect product. “I think Steven would agree, she probably wrote one of the best first drafts of any movie either of us has ever worked on,” Kennedy says.
Of course, E.T. was a huge hit, thanks in large part to Mathison’s sensitive touch. “I think she really was able to connect with the eternal child in all of us, and she was able to tell a very adult story from the point of view of children,” Spielberg says. It’s a skill she would go on to use again in her future films like The Indian in the Cupboard and Kundun. Her screenplays always marked by “unpretentiousness” and “love of life,” as Coppola puts it.
“Melissa had such a unique and soulful approach to her writing,” Kennedy says. “She read more books than anyone I know. Sometimes 20 a week. Her huge heart and appreciation of language and the ability to use language for emotional power, was her gift.”
“It did not feel like an adult was writing words,” Spielberg says, “but that they were coming improvisationally from the mouths of young people. That was her magic and that was her gift with E.T., and she’s done the same thing with BFG.”
Spielberg’s next film, with a screenplay by Mathison, will be an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG, scheduled to hit theaters in summer 2016. Collaborating again, he says, “I found working with Melissa that those 30-plus years had evaporated—it was just like being back in the cutting room on Raiders sitting on the floor with a bunch of cards strewn about, trying to figure out that story.” She was on set with him every day of shooting last summer. He says she was “more than just a writing partner—she was a real on-set partner.”
“I think her legacy will be that she could only tell a story that began and ended from the heart,” Spielberg says. “E.T.’s glowing heart was, in fact, Melissa’s.”
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