The Interviews That Inspired Steven Spielberg To Make Close Encounters Of The Third Kind

Thanks to their appearance in popular television shows and movies, aliens have become a frequent and popular antagonizing force in science fiction films. Like the creepy, reclusive neighbor or unexplained movement in the shadows, an unknown species of superior intelligence is bound to conjure thoughts of conspiracy and ill intent, which makes aliens the perfect villain. However, not all Hollywood aliens are out for blood or cow organs, some just want to take us for a ride around the universe.

In 1975, after achieving massive success with the murderous "Jaws," Steven Spielberg turned his eyes to the sky and the creatures that might dwell there. Instead of supplying audiences with more nightmare fuel involving abductions and probes, the director showcased a friendlier side of extraterrestrials. In "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," Spielberg created affable aliens, but the material that inspired them was anything but.

'All of them could not possibly be lying'

Immediately after finishing "Jaws," Spielberg places all of his creative energies into his next project, a film about extraterrestrials. Today, aliens are an obvious choice for sci-fi films and television shows, but they were considered fringe back in the '70s, which meant the young director was risking his newfound success and popularity by focusing on such a wacky topic. Regardless, Spielberg told BFI that he was fascinated by the idea of a superior, alien species, and threw himself into researching the topic:

"I read everything on the market, including the clippings from the National Inquirer and the wire services, and even tried to get into the Blue Book archives, long before the project was declassified, to no avail. I was mainly inspired when I began to meet people who had had experiences, and I realised that just about every fifth person I talked to had looked up at the sky at some point in their lives, and seen something that was not easy to explain ... It was this direct contact, the interviews, that got me interested in making the movie. I interviewed enough people to know that all of them could not possibly be lying."

Meeting with contactees and hearing their incredible stories is undoubtedly a very powerful experience, and had a profound effect on the director. These interviews, and the documented experiences of other abductees in books and newspapers, helped the young director create the classic "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

In this interview, Spielberg insists that he's never had any direct encounters with extraterrestrials, but he's certainly had some spooky experiences in his life.

'Dreams of things outside my window'

Spielberg credited interviews with abductees as the inspiration for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," but his own experiences with the unexplained also influenced the film. In a 1978 interview with Rolling Stone, Spielberg admitted having strange dreams while making the film, he recalled:

"Dreams of things outside my window that were trying to get me to come outdoors. Which I refused to do. I had many of those dreams, beckoning me to leave the house and stand in the backyard...that made me wonder what they meant, and why was I supposed to go out in the backyard, and why was I so frightened about standing out in the backyard when I was asked to go out and look at the sky?"

In the movie, an amber glow surrounds the house of a frightened mother and her young son. The mom tries to protect her son from whatever strange creatures are hanging outside of their house, but curious little Barry escapes through the doggie door and takes a ride with the aliens. Spielberg didn't give in to the beckoning as Barry did, but his dreams probably inspired the famous scene, and the aliens returned the boy to his worried mom at the end of the movie.

Real life doesn't always end in such comfort, as Spielberg discovered late one night in the California desert.

'Would I get on and take a ride?'

Another strange experience occurred immediately after he wrapped "Jaws." The director drove out to the desert in Pearblossom, California, to find inspiration for his next film, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." As he recalled in a 1977 interview, the night desert sky tangled with his overactive imagination and fear got the better of him:

"There is nothing around for miles, and if you want to watch the cosmos, that's the place to stand and do it. You feel like a grain of sand and the stars are so vast it's almost like looking down at the sky because the sky surrounds you ... And I went out there, and I parked my car, I turned the lights out, and sat on the roof, and looked up at the sky, and said to myself 'if something comes down here right now, and lands on the road, and an opening appears, would I get on and take a ride?' And I thought about it, and I looked up at the sky, and I got very, very nervous because I realized that I wouldn't get on and take a ride."

Although Spielberg jumped back in his car and hightailed it out of the desert, the protagonist of the film makes a different decision. In the movie, a ship actually lands, an opening appears, and gentle, alien creatures surround Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss). Roy, who has spent the entire film obsessed with the idea of UFOs and aliens, gleefully boards their ship and rides away into the unknown.

Injecting reality with fantasy

Whether it's huge sharks, ancient treasures, or alien abductions, Spielberg has a knack for making fantastical, and sometimes frightening, subjects more relatable to a wide audience. He found inspiration in frightening abductee interviews and terrifying experiences in the desert, but Spielberg used them to create an exhilarating adventure filled with childlike wonder.

Spielberg seems to enjoy taking the audiences' hands and coaxing them into new territory, or maybe the director decided to include gentle, intelligent extraterrestrials in his movies because he felt bad about chickening out in the desert.