January 7, 2012

[Unfulfilled Hopes] Night Skies - The Absentee Father of Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment

Previously published at Hope Lies.

During his research for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, director Steven Spielberg latched onto the story of the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter, where a family farm allegedly came under attack by a strange group of small creatures following the appearance of lights in the sky. Spielberg saw the story as a potential spinoff/sequel to his primary film, an acknowledgment of the darker side of UFO lore in the form of a claustrophobic "isolated home under siege" horror movie. In 1979, Spielberg saw the festival premiere of John Sayles' directorial debut, The Return of the Seccarus Seven, and hired Sayles to write a script based on his loose treatment, titled Night Skies.

The story is set in a rugged patch of mountain country, where an unnamed family runs a cattle ranch a few miles from town. The father, Ed, is worrying about his cattle after a neighbor lost a cow in a growing string of mutilations in the area. The mother, Ruth, sets out to be a token housewife, but often gets lost in zealous religious fervor. The elder son, Watt, is tired of his daily chores and the lack of recognition when he gets around to doing them well, and is thinking about joining the air force just so he can get out of this hole. The daughter, Tess, has tremendous talent on a piano, but she's passing up a scholarship for a music school because she's the only one with the patience to care for her younger brother, Jaybird, a mentally handicapped boy who's unable to connect to the world except through geometric patterns. And then there's Gram, a sharp-as-a-tack old granny who has no fun because she's too busy calling it like she sees it in some of the script's funniest one-liners.

After everyone has been established and their dramas have played out, Watt latches onto the story of the cattle mutilations and starts talking about little green men, Ruth sees it as the work of angels and devils, and Ed thinks it's the government teaming up with a corporation to mess with the local businesses. While out doing chores, Watt's car dies and he notices a strange small cloud following him wherever he goes. A ray of light bursts from the cloud, it disappears, and the car starts up again. While having sex in the woods with her old flame, Tess hears something running through the brush, then spots some lights in a nearby field. They resemble lights that were reported before the last mutilation, so the two hop in their truck and drive to investigate. The truck dies and they set out on foot, arriving at the latest mauled carcass just as the same time as Sheriff Love. They also find a half-naked old man babbling about demons, who Love takes into custody.

Everyone returns home where the family argues and sets down for more arguing over dinner. Nobody notices Jaybird wander out to the fields where a few small, glowing ships approach and he starts to mimic the way they move. When they disappear, he loses interest and wanders back inside. That's when the creatures show up, small goblin like things with retractable claws in their fingers, who can manipulate electricity, have limited telepathy, float in the air, and scurry on walls like spiders. They eviscerate one of the family's cows and corner everyone in the house. Ed keeps firing away with his shotgun as they pop up at windows and in doorways, but they always duck away in a flash, seemingly unharmed.

The creatures, referred to collectively as ETs, all have names in the script: Skar, Hoodoo, Klud, Squirt, and Buddee. The names are never used in the narrative itself, but are merely there to distinguish the beings for the reader. Skar is the nastiest of the bunch, always hissing and threatening, and is always the one performing the mutilating dissections. Klud and Hoodoo are his dispassionate thugs, and Squirt the little-used comic relief, leaving Buddee the odd man out. While everyone is gathered in the living room, fending off the three hostile aliens, Buddee sits down with Jaybird in the boy's room and they bond over fingerpainting and checkers, with Buddee painting a detailed star chart that no one else ever sees throughout the entirety of the story. When Tess goes in to check on Jaybird, her scream startles Buddee, who zips out the window.

A strobing blue light suddenly fills the house, but it turns out to be the patrol car of Sheriff Love, arriving to investigate the reports of gunfire. No evidence of the creatures is present, but the damage to the house is still there, as well as the mutilated cow in the barn and several dead chickens that have been entirely drained of blood. The family tells him everything they know, but Ed wants to keep it under wraps so they don't get any embarrassing publicity. Love tells them he's just a call away and heads out. It's not long before the creatures return.

While Tess is taking a bath, she's shocked to see Buddee climb out of the hamper and start examining the toilet. Ruth starts watching a sermon on tv only for Hoodoo to show up and start reading through her thoughts with a telepathic connection. Gran finds Squirt in the pantry and chases him around the kitchen with a broom while he makes a mess of the place, simultaneously dodging her and examining all the food he can get his hands on. Watt and Ed head out to check on the animals. Watt finds the rest of the chickens running loose and starts chasing Klud around the coop. Ed finds Skar in the stable, over a dead and mutilated horse. Ed raises his shotgun, but gets knocked out when Skar causes the remaining horse to rear up and kick.

Skar makes his way into Jaybird's room, where he's startled when the boy mimics his threatening battle motions. Tess escapes the bathroom when Buddee is startled by the toilet's flush, and drags Jaybird away to safety. The family is once again herded in the living room where, sure enough, the phone doesn't work. Watt makes it out to the remaining horse and valiantly tries to escape, but the small, glowing crafts appear again and chase him back to the house. The family tries to barricade the entry points as best they can, but the outside forces are slowly breaking through. Jaybird, attracted by the lights, slips away. The ETs take him to a field where Skar is all set to vivisect him like the other animals, but Buddee intervenes and the two ETs break into a violent fight. Tess lures Jaybird back by playing his favorite song on the piano and the family is once again fighting off the assault, first in the house, then in the tractor shed, where the aliens activate the tractor and have it slam back and forth into the walls.

Just as things reach a head and it all seems over, with the ETs busting through the walls with long tendril weapons extended from their crafts, a new light appears and the ETs scramble away. Jaybird again rushes out and the family emerges. They see a slick silver disc floating over the field and a tall "Cypress shaped" alien looking down at them. Cypress (as he's so nicknamed in the script) holds his hand to the back of Jaybird's head and the boy speaks for the first time in his life, though he's doing so for the alien. In broken English, he says there's many races in the cosmos, among which are those who feel they have the right to take what they want from other worlds, and then promises the family it's a problem they'll never have to experience ever again. The alien then uses this connection to allow Jaybird to tell his family how much he loves them, then releases the boy, returns to his ship, and flies off.

The next day, everyone is cleaning up the destruction. Tess decides to accept the scholarship and move away for school, since Ed has finally forged a caring bond with Jaybird and is ready to take care of the son he's always been afraid to understand. Out in the woods, an injured and abandoned Buddee wanders to an uncertain fate.

While this is a great idea for a story and there are many great scenes and moments within the script, it's not quite the lost masterpiece I expected. While dysfunctional families and kids struggling to break away and find their identities are the strong centerpieces of what would be seen as the "Amblin formula", it doesn't quite work when you have no one you really care about or root for. Watt is often shoved to the sidelines, and Tess, while her relationship with Jaybird makes for an interesting arc, spends too much time trying to get laid or screaming while in states of undress. It's like the script tries really hard to build her as a strong character, but can't help but ogle at her tits every now and then. Jaybird is tough to find compelling as the severity of his condition makes him as indecipherable to us as he is to his own family, and the geometric obsession seems there just to tie in with the aliens, which, even then, is never fully paid off. Neither of the parents draw one in as Ed is a complete asshole who ignores his most troubled child and constantly berates the others, and Ruth's religious fervor is quickly cranked up to eleven and stays at that level for the rest of the story, with her constantly shouting out hymns and prayers and telling the others to welcome the end times. The only character I consistently loved reading about is Gram, who spends the entire first assault griping that everyone got to see the little monsters but her.

The story is also too casually structured, with over half the script going by before the creatures have any kind of a genuine presence, then the assault completely breaks off when the Sheriff shows up and everyone spends ten pages talking about what we just saw. Then there's the big conclusion where things are thrown at us with little rhyme or reason with the tone wildly spinning from comical (Gran vs. Squirt in the kitchen) to horrific (Hoodoo boring into Ruth's mind, Skar dissecting the horse). While I don't have a problem with there being no stated drive or reason for the creatures doing what they do, I also don't feel like anyone worked it out off the page. What are they after? Why are they playful one moment, lethal the next? Why does Buddee turn? There's plenty of speculation thrown around by the humans - my favorite being Watt wondering if the ETs are out of meat and are collecting materials to clone their own cattle with - but everything ultimately feels senseless.

It didn't take Spielberg long to cool on the project after this, the first and only draft, was turned in. Ron Cobb was involved in designing ships, Rick Baker signed on to do the creatures, and there was brief talk about Sayles himself stepping into the director's chair, but Spielberg once again returned to his image of aliens as gentle, spiritual guides as he reworked the story into what would become E.T. I'm sure, had he dived into this script, the kinks would have been worked out, but his passions shifted and a number of elements for his new version were already in place: the older/younger brother rivalry, the alien abandoned when his companions take off without him, the bond forged between the creature and the boy, kitchen shenanigans, the mental abilities which include levitation and electrical manipulation. While in the middle of production on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg brought in Melissa Mathison - then the wife of Harrison Ford and writer of the Black Stallion adaptation made by Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope - to pen the new script, and history was made. While E.T. was actually the second film produced under the Amblin Entertainment banner - the first being the John Belushi bomb Continental Divide - it came to represent everything that people associate with that company as it was quickly followed by the likes of Goonies, Back to the Future, Harry and the Hendersons, and *batteries not included, and inspired other studios to compete with Monster Squad, The Last Starfighter, WarGames, and Pulse (an obscure little creeper well worth checking out). And then there's Spielberg's own (debatably) Poltergiest, which was produced at another studio simultaneous to the post-production of E.T., yet actually arrived in theaters just one week before. And don't think I've forgotten about Gremlins. We'll get to Gremlins in a few minutes. First, let's focus on E.T. a little more.

E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears

In July of 1982, just one month after E.T. became a rousing critical and financial success, Spielberg started toying with the idea of a sequel. He lifted a few additional elements from Night Skies and sat down with Melissa Mathison to co-write a 10 page treatment.

The story picks up shortly after the events of the first film, just as school is letting out for the summer. E.T. is still the talk of the town, with Elliott's friends and family being closer as a result of the encounter. Elliott's mother even has a new love in the form of Dr. Keys, the Peter Coyote character who was hunting E.T. in the first film. She's worried, though, that everyone keeps obsessing over that past event instead of moving on with their lives. Elliott has even transferred E.T.'s jury-rigged communication device to the roof of the family home, and tries in vain every night to reconnect with his friend.

And that's when a new batch of aliens show up. They've followed the simple distress signal to Earth in their pursuit of a renegade named Zesk. Whether Zesk is the E.T. from the first film or someone completely different is never made clear. These aliens are a cousin species to the aliens in the first film and match their body shape, but they're evil, with albino skin, red eyes, yellow hearts in their transparent chests, and pointy teeth. Whereas E.T.'s race were herbivores visiting Earth to gather plant specimens, these evil aliens are carnivores capturing animals to replenish their food stocks, and it doesn't take long for news of cattle mutilations to start spreading around the area.

When Elliott catches a signal from their ship on the communications device, he rounds up his siblings and the other kids from the first film and they head into the woods to greet what they hope is their returned friend. They're instead captured by the evil aliens. Everyone is locked in animal cages except Elliott, who is tortured for anything he might know about the renegade Zesk. Elliott refuses to tell them anything, but finally cries out for E.T.'s help, and we hear the words soaring out into the cosmos.

At the family home, Keys and Elliot's mother hear the communications device going haywire and investigate. The device reads "E.T. HELP ELLIOTT SOON". Uncertain what it's referring to and curious about the absence of the kids, they head into the woods, too.

In the ship, the aliens are all set to get rid of the kids when the ship quakes and the door opens. E.T. is there and he scares the evil aliens back with his glowing finger as he frees the kids and messes with the ship's navigation device. After our heroes leave the craft, it takes off, careening to who knows where in the cosmos. Everyone says another goodbye to E.T. and he again leaves in his mothership.

There is HOPE in everyones' eyes as they all, again, behold the picturesque departure of their favorite alien. Dreams can come true!

There's nothing here. This was Spielberg and Mathison throwing a few ideas on paper to see if they had a followup worth exploring and I can't blame them one bit for giving up on it before going any further. There's no character or drive to the evil aliens beyond them being evil, and the cattle mutilations and torture of the children violently clashes with the tone of the original. There's no arc to any of the characters to really ground anything. E.T. literally pops up out of nowhere to save the day at the end before taking off in a complete repeat of the first film's finale. There's no real meat to chew on, no hooks to pull one in, no potential worth fleshing out. It's nothing.

Fans did get their sequel of sorts in William Kotzwinkle's novel E.T.: The Book of the Green Planet, which instead follows E.T. back to his homeworld, but Night Skies wasn't entirely dead as Spielberg finally found the perfect project to work elements of it into: Joe Dante's Gremlins.


Billy Peltzer hates his life. He works day in and day out as a bank teller, a job he hates, especially when the annoying Mrs. Deagle takes him to task for her own mistakes. He's desperately in love with Tracy Allen, but she's currently on the arm of the local jock/security guard, Gary. His mother is an anxious wreck with an addiction to wine and Valium. His father is off on a never-ending business trip trying to arrange deals that always fall through. Billy is desperate for an escape, which is why he's trying his hand at writing a massive fantasy novel. Problem is, everyone knows he's writing a "fairy tale" book and constantly teases him for it. Except for Pete, a similarly trod upon teenager also lost in fantasies. Or Dorry Dougal, the local antique shop owner charmed by the whimsy in Billy's eyes, who just received the young man's order of a replica medieval broadsword.

As Christmas comes, Billy's father briefly returns with a surprise for his son: a strange little creature called a Mogwai, which can walk, do little tricks, and hum an adorable tune while looking all kinds of cute. There's warnings, though, to keep the creature out of bright lights and away from raw meat. Billy doesn't warm up to the creature one bit, especially when it clashes with his already beloved dog and damages his sword when messing around to get attention. When Pete visits one evening, a bit of water is spilled on the Mogwai, and it splits into four identical creatures. They test it again, and suddenly there's eight. Pete would love to take one, so Billy's father leaps on the business opportunity of wanting to make enough to sell off to the entire town, but the creatures become angry and violent when separated, refusing to abandon any member of their pack. A few nights later, Billy awakens to strange sounds. He finds the creatures in the living room, feasting on the raw meat of his dog, who they've torn to pieces. They smile and giggle with blood on their mouths.

The family gathers the creatures and locks them in the attic, waiting for the fatal sunrise that will kill the creatures off. When morning comes, they find the creatures have sealed themselves in invulnerable cocoons which are too firmly attached to the floor to remove. Unable to destroy the pods, they decide to keep the attic sealed until the creatures hatch or starve.

That day, a frustrated Billy returns to work, where he's quickly fired, and returns home to find that the creatures have evolved into clawed, reptilian killing machines, and that his mother has been killed and partially eaten. Using his broadsword to fight off the creatures (still called Mogwai instead of Gremlins), billy manages to kill all but one, which escapes through the window.

Billy chases the creature, unable to reach it before it drags Pete into the woods and kills the boy. Continuing the pursuit, he realizes the creature is being drawn to the nearest body of water: the YMCA swimming pool. Billy enters the building just as the creature dives into the water and starts to multiply. Several hundred creatures pull themselves out of the now empty pool and start mowing through the town. Billy heads for the Sheriff, but he isn't getting much help there until emergency phone lines light up. Billy instead races to rescue Tracy, which he does, but he's also soon stuck dragging around Gary, who's increasingly irritated at the way his girl and the geek with the fantasy book keep buddying up to one another. By the time the town realizes what's going on, the creatures have swarmed through the majority of it in a wave that leaves nothing alive left behind.

Billy, Tracy, and Gary head to Dougal's store, located on the outskirts of town where the creatures have yet to reach. They hole up there until dawn sends the creatures into hiding. Emerging in the morning, they see nothing but devastation, and try to ignore the mauled corpses as they raid a local McDonald's for food. Heavy snows that night made the roads difficult to travel, so they figure the Mogwai, always desiring to stay together as a pack, are taking shelter as a group at the local movie theater. Sure enough, the creatures are there, and our heroes turn on a film to distract the Mogwai while they sneak into the boiler room to crack the gas line. When the movie ends, the Mogwai notice the noises coming from the boiler room and attack. Gary flees in fear, Dorry is killed, and Tracy and Billy manage to rig the gas line and make their way out, barring the door. They run like hell as the theater bursts into flame behind them, Mogwai screaming within.

They don't notice as the sprinklers kick on.

As night sets in, Billy and Gary break into a fight, which is ended when a Mogwai jumps Gary from behind and tears his throat open. Billy and Tracy see a fresh batch of the creatures pouring out of the theater and jump into the first car they can find, trying their best to figure out how to hotwire it while Mogwai cover it and slash away. Just as the creatures break through, Billy gets the car started and takes off, leaving a single wounded Mogwai in the back seat. Billy knows the others will follow to recover their lost member, so he comes up with a new plan and heads to the local greenhouse with its glass ceiling. They lock the injured creature in a toolbox and set him in the center of the greenhouse before climbing a tree to watch the wave of Mogwai make their way to the scene. The creatures are trapped in the building, the horizon is starting to glow... and Tracy's branch suddenly snaps, dropping her into the greenhouse. Billy dives in after her, sword in hand, and fights for his life as he waits for the sun to appear. He and Tracy are slashed and battered, but the sunlight finally melts the creatures away into steaming puddles of goo. Billy is alive. Tracy is not.

Billy collapses and wakes up in a hospital, where his shocked father is trying to sort out everything that happened in his absence. Billy suddenly flips out, remembering the Mogwai locked in the tool box. At the remains of the greenhouse, workers are clearing away the devastation, including the sealed toolbox. When something inside starts to shake and screech, a worker tosses it into the nearby lake, where we hear giggles as it fills with water.

As you can see, this draft, the original spec script written by Chris Columbus, is a far cry from the playful monster comedy Gremlins would become under Amblin. While I do love the final film, I have to admit this is probably the best piece of writing Chris Columbus has ever done, and I say that as a fan of his work. He openly admits the story is his own dark take on It's a Wonderful Life, and you can see this as it's about a young man who dislikes everything in his life, then suffers when he sees it all taken away from him. Everything he thought he didn't want - a junkie mother, teasing neighbors, a latch on kid who's the only person that likes him - are all things he'd be happy to have back after they're torn from him in the most violent way possible. Even the things he gains - the confidence to take a stand and fight back, the girl of his dreams - fall victim to the apocalyptic nightmare that wipes out an entire town all because his absentee father bought him the wrong Christmas gift. And what is Billy left with in the end? The absentee father, the only person in Billy's life who survived simply due to never being there for his family. It's a really bold, deep script that takes a typical "monsters on the loose" story and turns it into a genuine nightmare that leaves behind horrific devastation and emotional trauma which will haunt the survivor for the rest of his life.

Surprisingly, instead of another writer reworking this script, Columbus was more than happy to alter it himself as he turned it into the first of a line of playful comedies he would become known for. Spielberg finally found a place to drop in elements of Night Skies as Buddee became Gizmo, the lone friendly Mogwai who remains unchanged as the others turn on him, and Skar became Stripe, the mohawked leader of the nasty monsters. Creating two individuals amidst the anonymous pack wasn't really necessary, but it gave them a plushie to market and a lone villain to rally around. It weakens the story, but it does balance it out by increasing the entertainment. And the old scene of Gram chasing the alien Squirt around the kitchen was mixed with a few elements of Billy's first encounter with the creature to form the now classic sequence of Billy's mom taking out several Gremlins with household appliances.

In other additions, Mrs. McDougal became the snotty owner of the town who gets her comeuppance, Dorry's tragic tale of his father's lethal Santa stunt takes on an odd tongue-in-cheek feel as it's now related by love-interest Kate (formerly Tracy), the wily old Murray Futterman is added to relate stories of his WWII experience with Gremlins, and the creatures themselves are played up as the ultimate mischief makers instead of land piranhas interested in nothing but mauling and feasting on their prey. Again, it's not as strong a story as what Columbus originally wrote, but the final product took on a new life of its own and became one of the madcap escapades which came to symbolize the simultaneously sharp and heartwarming aspects we look on as Amblin entertainment.

The film was directed by a familiar name to Amblin fans, Joe Dante, and people often forget his later film The Explorers, which is often seen as one of the most emblematic influences on the recent Super 8, was actually done for Paramount between his Amblin features Gremlins and Innerspace. While the films Dante made under producer Spielberg are now considered classics of the era, it's a little surprising to see their names together so soon after Spielberg got Dante fired from what was supposed to be Dante's big Hollywood debut following his work on Piranha. Joe was all set to direct National Lampoon's Jaw 3 / People 0 (co-written by John Hughes) when Spielberg caught wind of it and pulled strings at Universal to shut down what he perceived as a demeaning and insulting spoof. The studio was eager to please because they figured the film Spielberg was currently working on would be another in his string of box office hits, yet 1941 turned out to be anything but. I'm not sure if Spielberg took Dante under his wing as an apology for costing the man a job or if their paths just once again crossed through fate, but after Dante finally broke into Hollywood mainstream with The Howling, he was hired by Spielberg for a segment in the ill-fated Twilight Zone: The Movie, immediately followed by Gremlins.

It's worth pointing out that Dante's pre-Amblin films Piranha and The Howling were both written by John Sayles, who penned Night Skies for Spielberg. If it was through Sayles that Spielberg and Dante finally came together they way they did, then it once again shows the influence that this dead project had on a new era of blockbusters that were hiding with a mischievous sense of awe just around the corner.

No comments: