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Thursday
Nov052015

THE BEAUTIFUL WORDS OF MELISSA MATHISON

Screenwriter and author Melissa Mathison passed away on Wednesday, aged 65, at the UCLA Medical Centre, having fought neuroendocrine cancer for several months. Her Hollywood experience was legendary; the political-science graduate from Berkeley befriended Francis Ford Coppola (she would babysit his young children) and became his PA during the production of The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now. Over four decades, six of her screenplays would transition to the big-screen (including a co-writing credit with Stephen Zito on Caleb Deschanel’s 1992 drama, The Escape Artist); at the time of her passing, her adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG (the third collaboration with Steven Spielberg; pictured together, below, on the set of ET) was in early post-production. Her work, filled with warmth, humour and honesty, will never be forgotten… 

THE BLACK STALLION (1979; Dir: Carroll Ballard)
Having worked as a TIME correspondent, Mathison was encouraged to tackle her first screenplay by Coppola, playing the mentor role. With fellow feature debutants William D Witliff and Jeanne Rosenberg, Mathison crafted the adaptation of Walter Farley’s novel into the first of her classic family storylines. Under the stewardship of director Carroll Ballard and visionary eye of DOP Caleb Deschanel, Mathison’s lean, spiritual tale of the desert-island friendship between Alec (Kelly Reno) and The Black Stallion has endured; in 2002, it was admitted into the National Film Registry by the US Film Preservation Board.
Classic line: “’Cause this Black, he can outbreak ya, y’know? He can outbreak ya. You’d just be sittin’ in mid air.” – Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney).
Says Mathison, “We all agreed the movie should be like a children's book, with just pictures. That's when I learned to take out the words, to tell the story visually, which is the best training there is." (LA Times; July 9, 1995).

E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982; Dir: Steven Spielberg)
With John Sayles and Ron Cobb, Steven Spielberg had written a 99-page treatment called Night Skies, a sequel-of-sorts to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While in the midst of the action-movie mayhem that was the Raiders of the Lost Ark shoot, Spielberg met his leading man Harrison Ford’s girlfriend (and future ex-wife) Melissa Mathison. She took the script’s final scene, in which an alien is abandoned on Earth, and crafted a first draft, entitled ‘ET and Me’, in just eight weeks. ““It was a script I was willing to shoot the next day,” Spielberg said on the DVD commentary of the film’s 30th anniversary re-release. “It was so honest, and Melissa’s voice made a direct connection with my heart.” The writer’s first sole screenwriting credit would become the most successful film of all time and earn her an Oscar nomination.
Classic line: “I'll...be...right...here.” – E.T.
Says Mathison, “In 1982, I was not yet a parent, but I was a stepmother, and had been a consummate babysitter and an older sister. The kids in E.T. can be directly linked to kids I knew. I even stole some of my little friends’ best lines: i.e. ‘penis breath.’ What adult woman could have thought of that?” (The New Yorker; October 3, 2012).

TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, Segment 2: KICK THE CAN (1983; Dir: Steven Spielberg)
Working under the pseudonym ‘Josh Rogan’, Mathison adapted the original teleplay, ‘Kick the Can’ by George Clayton Johnson for the anthology reworking of Rod Serling’s cult TV series. Although it appears mid-film, it was the final segment shot during the troubled production. Following the on-set deaths of Vic Morrow and two child actors while filming John Landis’ opening segment, Joe Dante and George Miller had shot their contribution; Spielberg, back behind the camera for the first time since ET, was tasked with delivering his special brand of magic in the tale of old folk literally rediscovering their youthful selves. Critics weren’t kind (the New York Times said the “rather ugly, sentimental comedy” was “inept in every way”), but retrospectively the narrative clearly captures Spielberg and Mathison at the most whimsical, least cynical juncture in their professional lives.
Classic line: “Fresh…young…minds…” – Mr Bloom (Scatman Crothers).

THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD (1995; Dir: Frank Oz)
Mathison’s first ‘family film’ in over a decade was an adaptation of Lynne Reid Banks beloved fantasy, in which 9 year-old Omri (Hal Scardino) finds a new friend in a tiny plastic Indian (played by native American actor Litefoot, of the Cherokee nation) that comes to life. It achieved middling box office upon its initial release but, like much of Mathison’s timeless work, has become a childhood staple for generations.
Classic line: “You are always a great people, but it is not always so good.” – Omri (Hal Scardino).
Says Mathison, “"If children are given some real content, they can feel powerful with their own understanding of it. I think a movie like 'Indian in the Cupboard' will instruct them how to proceed as people. They can think about whether they would have done something the way a character did, how they would have felt about an event in the story.” (The New Yorker; October 3, 2012)

KUNDUN (1997; Dir: Martin Scorsese)
Director Martin Scorsese’s interest was pique when his then-agent sent him Mathison’s original screenplay, chronicling the early life and ascendancy of His Holiness, The Dalai Lama. “I read the script and liked its simplicity, the childlike nature of it,” Scorsese told Film Comment in 1998. “It wasn't a treatise on Buddhism or a historical epic in the usual sense.” A devout Buddhist, Mathison had spent time with The Dalai Lama at her home in Wyoming and worked through 16 drafts of her screenplay before the narrative became fully formed. Early screenings suggested it was an Oscar front-runner (it would earn 4 tech category nominations), but Disney allegedly stalled its marketing approach when Chinese officialdom attacked the film over their depiction.
Classic line: “I believe I am a reflection, like the moon on water. When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself.” – Dalai Lama (Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong).
Says Mathison, “I think it's kind of pretentious or presumptuous to think that you could actually affect anything with a movie. Certainly, I hoped that people would be moved by this truth and maybe want to get involved on some level. I think when you set out to make a political statement through a movie, you're in big trouble.” (Hollywood Bitchslap; May 23, 1999).

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