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Top secret: Steven Spielberg on the brink of the "Close Encounters" premiere

So, this is what was inside that airplane hangar in Mobile.

Other Ebert interviews and set visits with Steven Spielberg:

On the set of '1941'

Interview: 'Saving Private Ryan'

Interview: 'Minority Report' (with Tom Cruise)

Interview: 'Catch Me If You Can

The 'Munich' controversies, Part 1 and Part 2

HOLLYWOOD – On the day when the giant shark was scheduled to have its first trial run for "Jaws," director Steven Spielberg arrived early at the location on Martha's Vineyard. But not early enough. There were already 200 pleasure boats in the area, captained by shark fans. While Richard Zanuck, the co-producer, raced around recklessly in a speedboat trying to drive the would-be sightseers out of sight, Spielberg felt a knot growing in his stomach.

“It had been such a beautiful morning,” he was remembering recently. “And then somehow I knew things weren't going to go so well. We launched the shark, and it… well, it sank. And big bubbles of compressed air came boiling up to the surface, carrying cables and wires and pneumatic tubing, and, God, it was awful.”

That morning had a lot to do with the obsessive secrecy surrounding Spielberg's new film, the $14 million “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” a movie about humans and beings from outer space.

Many millions of those dollars were spent inside a vast airplane hangar outside Mobile, Alabama. The hangar is four times as large as the largest sound stage ever used for a film. What went into it? Columbia Pictures is only too happy to tell us. Tons of construction steel went into it. And untold thousands of square yards of plastic sheeting. Enough concrete to build a highway from Mobile to the next town down the road. Acres of canvas. A fortune in special effects. Devices requiring enough electricity to light a city.

And what was built with all that stuff?

“The final 43 minutes of the movie are all classified information,” Spielberg said, sipping at a cup of herbal tea in his office at the Burbank Studios. “Absolutely secret… We had total security. I learned my lesson on ‘Jaws’ - no free previews. Besides, it's almost impossible to describe what happens in the last 43 minutes, anyway. I'm finding that out because I'm writing the paperback novel version of the film, and what does the movie end in? A total visual orgasm. An orgy.”

During these 43 minutes, I asked, would it be safe to assume that the characters in your movie meet aliens and have some sort of confrontation with them?

“You'll have to wait and see the movie,” Spielberg said. “I'm sorry, but…”

In his office at Northwestern University's observatory in Evanston, Dr. J. Allen Hynek remembers the first time he heard about Spielberg's movie. “It was an article in Time or Newsweek, one of those, about how successful ‘Jaws’ was. And then it mentioned that Spielberg's next film was going to be called ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind.’ Very interesting, I thought, because it so happened that I had coined that title in my book, "The UFO Experience."

“There can be, or could be, three degrees of encounters between human observers and visitors from other planets. A close encounter of the first kind would be close, within a few hundred feet, but with nothing really happening. A close encounter of the second kind would be some sort of interaction between the Unidentified Flying Object and the environment - some effect on people, animals, plants, the ground, anything. A close encounter of the third kind would be one in which entities, or intelligences, or creatures, are reported.”

Would it be safe to assume, I asked Hynek, that in the movie humans have some sort of confrontation with aliens?

“Well, I'm really pledged to secrecy about that,” Hynek said. “But if they don't, then it would be an encounter of the first or second kind, wouldn't it?”

Hynek dropped Spielberg a note pointing out that the movie's title came from his book.

“That's right,” Spielberg replied. “I got it out of your book. It fairly leaped off the page at me as a movie title.” He invited Hynek, the nation's best-known UFO researcher, to become the technical advisor on the film. And he loosely based the film's central incidents on various encounters described in Hynek's book. One of them took place in Atwater, Ohio, where several policemen engaged in a hair-raising 100 M.P.H. chase with an Unidentified Flying Object. Although they were all presumably reliable witnesses, the Air Force rejected the story and the policemen got the curious notion that people were laughing at them behind their backs.

“It's always the same story,” Spielberg said. “Typically, you get a reliable witness. A judge. An attorney. A police officer. But people won't believe them. The movie takes place in Indiana, and one of the sightings is by a guy who works for the local department of water and power. He's played by Richard Dreyfuss, who was the shark expert in ‘Jaws.’ This is his first role where he plays an average guy - he's always playing people with super IQs, or we're watching Sammy run.

“The sighting leads to an odyssey from Indiana to Wyoming to India. It's an adventure thriller, not science fiction but science speculation. I just came back from shooting the scenes in India - we shot around Bombay, with crowds of extras as large as 8,000 people. Directing crowds that large, telling them where to move, I felt like Charlton Heston. And a lot of other characters get involved. Francois Truffaut (the French director) is in the film as a behavioral psychologist. And there are other scientists, and the military. Anyway, it all starts with this average guy who sees something funny one day and tells people about it.”

“In my 25 years of work in this field,” Hynek said, “I've heard the same two statements over and over. First, they say they've never seen anything like this before in their lives. Then, they say if they ever see anything like it again, they're not going to say anything about it to anybody.

“People get ridiculed, laughed at… it's a scientific research problem. You can't get anyplace unless you have good data, and you, can't get good data if people won't report. And people won't report if they're going to have to go around being asked how many little green men they've seen this week."

Little green men. There have been lots of aliens in movies over the years, mostly in the Bug-Eyed Monster category. There have been spiders from outer space, and lizards, and robots, and mostly they looked ridiculous. In the most ambitious science-fiction film ever made, Stanley Kubrick's ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ the problem of presenting aliens never was overcome.

As Arthur C. Clarke, author of the screenplay, tells it in his book, "Lost Worlds of 2001," he and Kubrick spent months trying to visualize a practical, working alien, as it were. They had one model with a handy multipurpose, centrally located orifice that served all the functions of breathing, eating, elimination and reproduction. Nice and practical, but would people, ah, laugh? Another model looked too Bug-Eyed Monsterish. Kubrick finally said the hell with it and suggested an alien intelligence in the final scenes of his movie instead of actually showing an alien.

“Yeah,” Spielberg said, “I know all about that. The man who's doing the special effects on our film, Douglas Trumbull, did them for ‘2001.’ He's the best in the business. They actually went out and built aliens and then junked them. They couldn't get the problem licked.”

What about “Close Encounters”? I asked. Are you going to show aliens, or merely suggest them, as Kubrick did? And if you show them, are we going to laugh, or will we accept them seriously?

“I'm sorry, but you're going to have to wait until the movie comes out,” Spielberg said. “That's part of the last 43 minutes.”

“In a great many close encounters of the third kind,” Dr. Hynek said, “the witnesses describe a being that seems remarkably similar from account to account. But please emphasize that I am acting now entirely as a reporter, telling you what other people have described. I myself have never seen a UFO phenomenon.

“In any event, what the witnesses typically see is a being about four feet in height, with a rather large head and a rather spindly body. But please don't quote me as saying this is what creatures from outer space look like. It's hard enough trying to maintain academic and scientific standards in this field, without people thinking I've seen space men. All I'm observing is that a great many reports from all over the world have had this similarity in observation.”

And do the beings communicate with humans?

“In several cases, communication has been reported.”

Do they talk in the observer's native language?

“People have reported that communication seemed to be generally in the form of a telepathic exchange. When questioned, they say that the beings made sounds that were not understood, but that somehow they knew what they meant anyway. That the meaning was present inside their minds. Once again, don't ascribe this to me; I'm reporting the observations of others.”

“This movie was actually started before ‘Jaws’” Spielberg said. “In fact, it sort of started a long time ago, when I was 17. I made an 8mm film that was 150 minutes long, called ‘Firelight.’ A real science fiction film, about flying saucers and so forth. It cost $500. I rented a theater for one night and made $600, so I was in the black. I've always been interested in UFOs. I wrote the screenplay and then ‘Jaws’ came along and I put it on the back burner for awhile because it was going to be awfully expensive, about twice what ‘2001’ cost.

“After the success of ‘Jaws’, I didn't have any great difficulty in getting the money for this one. It had to be expensive because it had to look right. You can't fool people with grade-B space operas, not after Kubrick. And Trumbull is great: He does special effects that can stand up to the closest scrutiny and look like the real thing. That's what he does here. It's amazing.”

But, let me guess, I said, at this point you don't want to say exactly what he does, because that's what happens in the airplane hangar larger than four sound stages and filled with millions of dollars worth of concrete, plastic and electrical equipment. Right?

“I'm really very sorry,” Spielberg said. “I can't tell you. But it's amazing.

Were you inside that airplane hangar outside of Mobile, Dr. Hynek?

“Yeah. I played a little role one day, sort of a walk-on. A scientist. It was all very top secret. Spielberg wouldn't let anyone take cameras onto the set. He swore us all to secrecy.”

Spielberg says we will be amazed. Will we?

“I think you will be. Yeah.”

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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