Close Encounters and its pre-release secrecy


Shortly after the release of X-Men spin-off Logan in March, director James Mangold took to Twitter to vent is frustration about the clamour of interest surrounding his new movie – specifically, whether or not it had a post-credits scene.

“People wonder why I care,” a clearly agitated Mangold wrote. “I care ’cause filmmakers now make films under crippling security because of parasitic gossip. Makes movies worse.”

While it’s certainly true that the internet allows rumours and leaks to swirl around the planet with unprecedented speed, filmmakers’ desire for secrecy is far from new. The more directors and studios try to keep their upcoming projects away from the public gaze, the more intent the film press becomes on digging up a juicy story. The more reluctant filmmakers are to respond to interview requests or open their sets to visiting journalists, the more likely those journalists are to hunt around for leaks or rumours from extras or crewmembers.

Such was the case with Close Encounters Of The Third Kind – director Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated follow-up to Jaws. When news emerged, in the wake of his shark-infested 1975 blockbuster, that Spielberg was making a science fiction film with Columbia Pictures, the Hollywood movie press understandably wanted to know more. What was it about? What might it look like? Could it possibly top Jaws, then the most profitable movie of all time?

Much to the frustration of newspaper and magazine editors everywhere, Spielberg was intent on drawing a heavy veil over his new movie. In the summer of 1976, all that the Hollywood Reporter’s writers could dig up was its title – taken from a book by UFO expert Dr J Allen Hynek – and the word that its shoot was set to take place in Los Angeles, Wyoming and Alabama.

By November that year, a few more morsels of information had emerged; the second issue of Starlog Magazine reported that Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running) was overseeing the film’s visual effects. Those effects weren’t going to be cheap, either; the brief news story added that, of Close Encounters‘ original budget of $10m, half of that sum had already been spent on its VFX sequences. As a result, the budget had risen to $12m was “still climbing,” according to the magazine’s sources. 

Intent on finding out more about the movie for a Starlog feature, writer Kirsten Russell began chasing Columbia Pictures for access. Could she possibly visit the set for a look around and maybe a chat with Spielberg, she asked. The reply from the film’s publicists was rather cagey.

“You see, the special effects for this movie are, ah – quite spectacular,” the publicist said. “There’s a strict rule that absolutely no visitors are allowed on the set. It’s just too dangerous, you see…”

That reply must have begged all kinds of questions. Dangerous? Just what was it that Spielberg was making out there in Mobile, Alabama? Some kind of alien invasion war film? Little wonder, then, that reports of what the film was about varied wildly from publication to publication.

The intense security surrounding the film’s set only heightened speculation. Close Encounters’ final 45 minutes were being shot in two colossal, disused aircraft hangars in Mobile, which had been retro-fitted by Spielberg’s crew to create the largest sound stage in the world – four times larger than the 007 stage in Pinewood used to shoot the ending of You Only Live Twice. Columbia Pictures told critic Roger Ebert that whatever they were filming inside the hangars required “tons of construction steel”, yards of plastic sheeting, acres of canvas and “enough concrete to build a highway from Mobile to the next town down the road.”

Ebert’s concerted attempts to get an inkling of what Spielberg and his crew were building in Alabama were politely rebuffed. What he did discover, though, was that Close Encounters’ secrecy had much to do with a malfunctioning shark.

“It had been such a beautiful morning,” Spielberg told Ebert in 1977. “And then somehow I knew things weren’t going to go so well.” 

The director was reminiscing about the troubled shoot of Jaws in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and the prop shark that was supposed to serve as the film’s terrifying centrepiece. Famously nicknamed “Bruce” by the crew, the mechanical shark caused all kinds of headaches for Spielberg and his crew. Its mechanical mouth failed in the salty sea water; on one particularly dismal occasion, the shark sank to the briny depths in full public view.

“We launched the shark and it… well, it sank,” Spielberg recalled. “And big bubbles of compressed air came boiling up to the surface, carrying cables and wires and pneumatic tubing, and God, it was awful.”

As a result, Spielberg decided his next film would be made well away from the sea – and even further away from prying eyes.

“The final 43 minutes of the movie are all classified information,” Spielberg told Ebert over a cup of tea. “We had total security. I learned my lesson on Jaws – no free previews.”

To this end, visitors were barred from visiting the Mobile set, with the hangars surrounded by a “24-hour security system” according to Starlog. Actors were also forbidden to take cameras onto the set, and were warned not to talk to the press about plot specifics. Inevitably, this didn’t stop all kinds of strange rumours leaking out of the production – that Close Encounters’ budget was getting out of hand, and that Spielberg was struggling to work out a way of ending the movie. Another rumour suggested that Spielberg’s team was struggling with the design of the film’s alien effects, and that they were considered so unconvincing that they were going to be cut from the final print. 

As is often the case, there was a grain of truth to these claims. Initially budgeted at a lean $7m, the investment soon swelled to $10m, and finally to $19.4m. The rising costs were making executives at Columbia nervous, since so much rested on the film’s success; one executive later said that, had the studio known how expensive Close Encounters would become, the project would never have gone ahead.

It was also true that there were more than a few problems with the film’s special effects. Early tests using computer graphics were dropped due to their expense. At one point, a lightning strike disrupted the  Alabama shoot. Douglas Trumbull later admitted that Spielberg had changed his mind more than once about the look of the aliens, designed by Carlo Rambaldi and Bob Baker, and whether he should include them in the final cut. Word of these aliens first leaked out of the production in a magazine called Media Scene, which published an unauthorised image of one of the extraterrestrials’ face masks in the summer of 1976; a few weeks later, the New York Post published a rumour which suggested that the final print of Close Encounters was due to be delivered to Columbia that September. The story reportedly irked Spielberg – perhaps because he was facing increasing pressure to get the film finished and into cinemas.

“I remember being forced to finish it before it was ready,” Spielberg later said. “I felt I was being pushed to finish it based on huge corporate matters I had no ability to comprehend. Something about Columbia facing bankruptcy, that Close Encounters was either going to break the company or get it out of the red.”

With pressure like that on his shoulders, it’s little surprise that Spielberg wanted to make Close Encounters in as close to isolation as he could get. But from the studio’s perspective, it’s also easy to see why the director’s secrecy could also make their life difficult. Close Encounters’ expense meant that it was vital that Columbia’s publicists start generating hype and attention long before its release. In those pre-internet days, that meant getting press releases and official photographs out to newspapers and magazines, and showing off early footage to potential licensees. 

By the summer of 1977, however, with Close Encounters’ release mere months away, US publications were still waiting for photographs they could use to illustrate the movie.

“The publicity budget for Close Encounters is substantial,” a piece in Starlog stated that year. “The problem is that Columbia and Spielberg have not allowed their publicity people to do anything. At the time of this writing, Columbia had already turned down cover stories in Time, Newsweek and the New York Times Sunday Magazine because photos could not be made available.”

That July, a 20-minute promotional featurette was finally put together to drum up interest in the movie. Pitched largely at companies who might want to partner up with Columbia to produce merchandise, the promo was screened privately in New York, where viewers were asked to sign an embargo which meant they wouldn’t publish images or discuss Close Encounters before its release.

The good news, according to Starlog’s report, was that licensees were impressed by what they saw; while the promo was largely made up of interviews with the cast – including Richard Dreyfuss – and Spielberg, it also contained a couple of Douglas Trumbull’s effects shots. The movie’s now-famous glittering, alien craft were, according to one attendee, “breathtaking.”

 Members of the public hoping for an early glimpse of Trumbull’s UFOs would be disappointed, though. An unusually long trailer – running to almost five minutes – emerged in September 1977, cut together from footage in that 20-minute promo. Using still pictures and interview clips, the trailer hypes Spielberg’s success and the prowess of his collaborators – Trumbull, composer John Williams – the trailer stokes up the air of anticipation surrounding the movie, but reveals precious little else.

We see Richard Dreyfuss, in character as average working guy Roy Neary, interviewed about a blinding light he’s seen in the sky. There’s an explanation of the film’s title (“A close encounter of the third kind is really when you meet ’em,” Spielberg says) and some beautifully-lit images from the final film. The effects shots that had so impressed licensees were, meanwhile, carefully trimmed out.

When Spielberg sat before the film journalists he’d studiously avoided at a press conference in November 1977, it was clear that the long shoot and intense secrecy had left the 29-year-old director feeling drained. Breaking into a wan smile, Spielberg said, according to Starlog reporter Ed Naha, “I’m just glad it’s over.”

“It was tougher to make than Jaws,” Spielberg added. “It was emotionally  more difficult […] I’ll be very happy to look into the sky and not see special effects.”

What journalists packed into the ballroom of a New York hotel really wanted to know, though, was why Spielberg was so reluctant to reveal anything from his work-in-progress. Actress Teri Garr, who starred alongside Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary’s wife, Veronica, defended the director’s secrecy. 

“What was Steven going to do?” Garr said at the movie’s press conference. “Tell everyone what the movie was about? […] The fact that he didn’t made a lot of writers hostile. ‘Oh, I suppose we’re not good enough for you, huh?'”

If Columbia were fearful that Spielberg had been too secretive for his own good, then Close Encounters‘ release soon put all that to rest. Despite the ongoing mania surrounding Star Wars as it emerged in US cinemas that November, Close Encounters was a huge hit. A sci-fi film shot through a haze of awe and wonder, its final 45 minutes – in which Roy Neary finally meets the aliens in their glittering craft – remains a masterful piece of cinema. In this regard, Spielberg’s desire to keep that final close encounter under wraps seems entirely justified; with Trumbull’s huge ships kept out of the film’s promotion, audiences could enjoy their full impact with fresh eyes.

Unusual though Close Encounters’ lack of pre-release marketing was – and frustrating, for the reporters desperate for a story – the lack of press coverage merely added to the film’s engrossing air of mystery. 



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