How ‘Close Encounters’ Changed My Life

The 40th Anniversary re-release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind marked a pivotal moment for me.

First, I can’t believe it’s been 40 years. I was 15 years old when the film was originally released in November of 1977 (yeah I’m dating myself) and at the time it was a monumental event, both for the film industry at large as it was an enormous hit and solidified Steven Spielberg as a force to be reckoned with, but also for me personally.

Seeing it again on the big screen – multiple times I must admit – brought back a flood of memories, not the least of which was how deeply influenced I was by this film. I remember the excitement of seeing it for the first time (I was also an avid UFO phenomenon enthusiast) and immediately applied for a job at the theatre it was playing so I could work there and watch it again and again, studying the film and all its nuances.

I even fibbed about my age by a year so I could get hired. It worked, and I began my first job as a movie theatre usher in December of 1977. Throughout its run, I must have seen Close Encounters, or portions of it, about 167 times.

It made such an indelible impression on me that I actually picked up the phone one day and called Spielberg’s office at Universal Studios.

Yeah, I did that. And remarkably got through to his personal assistant at the time.

Not sure where I got the cajones, but I imagine my mother probably convinced me as she was a ballsy woman always supportive and pushing me to go after my dreams. So I called and began corresponding with his then-assistant, who became a kind of mentor to me. She was wonderful, provided much needed advice and help, sent me a blank studio budget form so I could learn how to budget a movie, treatments, agreement examples, and corresponded via letters on Steven’s stationary which to this day I have framed in my office.

One of them — essentially my first official rejection letter after I had gained enough courage to ask if Steven would read one of my scripts — written on Close Encounters letterhead. It is displayed proudly in a frame on my office wall.

CE3K Letter_cropped

Needless to say, this movie made a major impact on my life in so many ways. I’d been been making little Super-8 films since I was about 8-years-old when my dad bought me my first camera (more about that here), so I was already on a filmmaker track, but Close Encounters solidified it for me. An unusual film perhaps to have been such an influence, but as a result I wound up studying masters in the field of all disciplines: Directing, Cinematography, Editing, Music, Visual Effects… learning the craft of filmmaking and skills that would carry me forward through today.

Weird how one movie can change a life.

In fact, I even recognized some new things in the film during these recent screenings I hadn’t caught before, so it is still a great learning tool to this day. A few of the things it taught me:

Visual Storytelling

Spielberg is a master at staging scenes and blocking for camera, and is especially adept at the “one-er” – combining what would otherwise be multiple shots through dolly and camera moves into one smooth uncut master. I was reminded seeing Close Encounters again on the big screen just how many of these are in the film, and how brilliantly they are designed and composed and executed. And kudos to the talented camera crew as well that pulled it all off! No small feat.

Also, allowing characters to move into focus as they step into frame rather than following focus, or stacking characters in the frame and pulling the camera back to find focus on them as in the air traffic control scene. Or how that air traffic control scene’s blocking literally mirrors the blocking of the ‘communication’ scene with the mothership at the end. Whether by design or happy accident (of which there are also many in the film) the shot compositions are something to behold.

Lighting & Cinematography

Vilmos Zsigmond “Painter of Light

Vilmos Zsigmond is named among the ten most influential cinematographers in history for a reason. He won an Oscar for his achievements on Close Encounters and became a huge inspiration to me and my cinematography efforts. His painterly use of light and backlight and not being afraid to let characters play in shadow contributed significantly to the look of CE3K, and is the perfect example of the Cinematographer’s creed “shoot the shadow side”. The International Cinematographers Guild’s Steven Poster, who worked on three of his movies, said in a statement, “Vilmos’ genius was not only in his images, but in his sense of duty to honest storytelling.” Some filmmakers don’t think of a cinematographer as a storyteller, but Vilmos and his work taught me the value of that contribution and collaboration.

I had the honor of meeting Vilmos on a couple of occasions at film festivals, and he was every bit the hero I looked up to. He passed away in 2016 at the age of 85, and was working nearly to the end. I hope to be that fortunate.

Editing

Image result for close encounters Michael Kahn
Spielberg and Kahn working on Close Encounters

Spielberg has said of editing: “this is where filmmaking goes from a craft to an art” and film editor Michael Kahn is one of the preeminent artists of our time. Close Encounters was their first collaboration and one can see why they have remained collaborators ever since. It’s his incredible ability to know when and why you need a cut or a transition and how to blend the scenes together that made him a legend. He is quoted as saying “It’s not about knowledge; it’s all about feeling or intuition. Good editors or musicians or directors—what makes them special is that they feel things. Your feeling is what you’re getting paid for. It’s your ability to cinematically touch things.”

His work taught me how to shoot for the editing room, and once in the edit to trust my intuition. Editing is about rhythm and tempo and feeling and emotion. It’s musical in a way.

Visual Effects

douglas trumbull interview close encounters
Academy Award® Winner Douglas Trumbull at work on the visual effects for Close Encounters.

I actually entered the VFX industry after this film. Inspired in large part by the then-revolutionary effects created by Douglas Trumbull and his team, I joined a large Chicago media company as an Optical Printing Technician and Animation Cameraman in the 1980s, where I specialized in film compositing and visual effects. Long before computer graphics, we utilized many of the same techniques used by Trumbull in Close Encounters. I even created some of my own UFO sequences during down time and off hours (currently buried in an old box in my garage somewhere – I really need to dig those out).

This experience became enormously helpful and instructive to my future filmmaking career, as it allowed me to elevate the production value of my films by doing my own visual effects and also understand how they can be utilized most effectively.

The Power of Music

This would seem obvious, especially in a film where music is so integral to the plot, but a great score helps elevate a movie to an entirely different level, and this was driven home for me in a big way with Close Encounters. John Williams’ music is both haunting and wonderous, soulful and profound. JJ Abrams recently said about Williams, “Watch almost any scene without the sound on and see what that scene does. It’s a very different experience. A profound effect. You can’t overstate the importance of his role in the movies he’s worked on.” Harrison Ford has said of his music: “It invites the viewers’ emotional involvement. It encourages us to feel. It’s an example of entertainment elevated to art.”

To serve the film – both its architecture and editorial rhythm – is John Williams’ mantra. The composers I have had the pleasure of working with share that mantra. I learned the power of film music from John Williams. Here he is speaking about that topic:

A bit of trivia: Williams wrote over 300 examples of the iconic five-tone motif for Close Encounters before Spielberg chose the one incorporated into the film’s signature theme.

He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1978, and later won two Grammy Awards in 1979 for Close Encounters.

Continuity

Or lack thereof. As ‘perfect’ a film as Close Encounters is, at least in my humble opinion, there are plenty of continuity errors throughout, most notably during the mothership landing sequence in the final act. The large shadow that travels across the folks in the arena as the ship rises from behind Devil’s Tower and approaches, simulating the blocking out of moon and starlight is, though very cool and ominous, technically not accurate. The ship is too bright with its own light sources. We should be seeing lighting effects play over the arena like they did with the smaller ships.

However this is due to the fact that in the original script, Spielberg wrote it as a giant dark wedge of a ship, not a virtual city of lights. That idea came later when he was driving past a refinery while shooting in India. So when they shot the live action of the landing sequence, the shadow blocking out the light made sense. Later after rethinking the ship, there was no way they could go back and reshoot the sequence, so Spielberg and Kahn left those shots in, relying on a bit of ‘creative license’ and the notion that hopefully by this point in the story the audience would be so invested in the emotion and awe of it they wouldn’t notice. And by and large they were right.

There are numerous other little inconsistencies like this in the sequence (including the ship being too close to the ground as it passes overhead, etc.) but the lesson here is that if your story and characters are strong enough, and the emotional content powerful enough, your audience can forgive what would otherwise be glaring continuity glitches and just go along for ride.

The Hero’s Journey

Last but certainly not least, Close Encounters is a classic Hero’s Journey as put forth by Joseph Campbell in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” Both Spielberg and George Lucas were huge Campbell fans at the time, and it shows in the mythic storytelling of this and the original Star Wars which was released mere months before. As Campbell described it, the Hero’s Journey was “the story of the man or woman who, through great suffering, reached an experience of the eternal source and returned with gifts powerful enough to set their society free.”

Spielberg’s lead character of Roy Neary certainly fits this mold and pattern, as the ‘everyman’ who has an extraordinary experience and sets off on a mission through many hardships and obstacles in order to achieve his true destiny. Christopher Vogler later adapted this concept for his book “The Writer’s Journey”, drawing parallels of mythic structure to the life journeys of writers, and by extension, artists of all stripes.

In fact, in a weird way Close Encounters and the journey of Roy Neary mirrors my own life: Stuck in an unfulfilled place, seeing palm trees and film reels in my mashed potatoes, I chose to leave the comfort and security of home and family in Chicago to pursue a ‘crazy’ dream in Hollywood. Literally feeling drawn to this place by some invisible force. Giving up everything on blind faith for the chance to step into that mothership of destiny.

So for me, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a metaphor for life. For sacrifice and determination in the face of daunting obstacles. To follow your heart. Your passion…

And pursue your Mothership.

*****

Kenneth Mader is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, and self-determined dreammaker. Much to the chagrin of his ex-wife, certain family members, and the “committee” in his head.

His award-winning feature film DISPLACEMENT was released theatrically in Spring 2017, was acquired by A+E Networks for broadcast on Lifetime, and is now available on VOD and DVD. For more info click here.

He is the founder and operator of Maderfilm Studios, a full-service boutique production studio specializing in high-quality films and entertainment projects. He was named one of the “Top 100 Indie Filmmakers in the World” in the book by Action On Film’s Del Weston.

He is also available for consulting on scripts and film projects. Contact him here.

 


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