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The Real Story Behind Those Rick Baker 'Night Skies' Photos

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist June 5, 2014 at 4:19PM

It all started with a tweet. On May 22nd, Rick Baker, the make-up wizard and self-proclaimed "monster maker" behind everything from "American Werewolf in London" to "Maleficent," posted an old, black-and-white photo to his Twitter account. The caption read: "As requested, the Night Skies alien. Not finished, no eyes. Cover the top of his head and tell me who he looks like." The photo was in reference to the infamously canceled "Night Skies," a project that he worked on with Steven Spielberg. The next day, Baker blocked out the top of his head, added eyes, and proclaimed the creature "ET's dad." This lead to a flurry of internet speculation, mislabeling "Night Skies" an "E.T. The Extra-terrestrial" prequel or a follow-up to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." It was neither. And here's the story.
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Rick Baker, Night Skies

It all started with a tweet. On May 22nd, Rick Baker, the make-up wizard and self-proclaimed "monster maker" behind everything from "American Werewolf in London" to "Maleficent," posted an old, black-and-white photo to his Twitter account. The caption read: "As requested, the Night Skies alien. Not finished, no eyes. Cover the top of his head and tell me who he looks like." The photo was in reference to the infamously canceled "Night Skies," a project that he worked on with Steven Spielberg. The next day, Baker blocked out the top of his head, added eyes, and proclaimed the creature "ET's dad." This lead to a flurry of internet speculation, mislabeling "Night Skies" an "E.T. The Extra-terrestrial" prequel or a follow-up to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." It was neither. And here's the story.

In 1980, Steven Spielberg found himself at something of a crossroads. After ushering in an era of special effects-driven blockbuster filmmaking with the back-to-back smashes "Jaws" (1975) and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), he had released a certifiable dud in 1979's "1941," a film written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, whose first two movies Spielberg had produced (and suffered similarly at the box office). His outlook was dour, compacted by the fact that his relationship with actress Amy Irving, who starred in "Carrie" (directed by Spielberg's close friend Brian De Palma), was falling apart. Meanwhile, Spielberg was prepping "Raiders of the Lost Ark," a modern action film in the style of the film serials the director loved as a child, with George Lucas, while being urged by Columbia to think about a "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" follow-up. The director had seen what had happened when a sequel to one of his films was made without his involvement. It was called "Jaws 2." Spielberg didn't want that to happen again.

According to Simon Braund's "The Greatest Movies You'll Never See," published earlier this year by Octopus, Spielberg turned to a bit of UFO-related miscellanea that he had initially dug up while researching "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." In late 1955, members of the Sutton family of Christian County, Kentucky, alleged that small, extraterrestrial creatures had menacingly swarmed their small farmhouse. The creatures were dubbed the "Hopkinsville goblins" by local media and investigated by state troopers, local policemen and even the U.S. Air Force. (The supposed attack happened between the towns of Kelly and Hopkinsville.) This incident is where the popular notion of "little green men" originated.

Spielberg provided Columbia with a treatment for something called "Watch the Skies" (named after the last line of dialogue in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers;" rights issues with the phrase ultimately kept it from being used). Spielberg contemporized the story's setting and the aliens, after they have landed, attempt communicating with local farm animals, before turning their (hostile) attention on the family inside the house. He wanted Lawrence Kasdan to write the actual screenplay, but the writer was committed to salvaging the work that had already been done on his friend George Lucas' "The Empire Strikes Back" (that's a whole different story). Instead, Spielberg turned to John Sayles, who had scripted "Piranha," a low budget "Jaws" rip-off that Spielberg greatly appreciated. (Spielberg, reassuming control over the franchise, had wanted "Piranha" director Joe Dante to do a comedic third entry, entitled "Jaws 3, People 0," and after that project ran out of steam, installed him at the head of "Gremlins.") The project was less of a direct "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" sequel than something that would satisfy Columbia's yearning for a follow-up, while allowing Spielberg to play in the same general sandbox (and retain creative control). There would be no other crossover; Richard Dreyfuss would not land the mother ship outside of the besieged family's farmhouse.

As recounted in the indispensible "The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made" by David Hughes, Sayles' script drew heavy inspiration from dusty western "Drums Along the Mohawk," "with aliens instead of Indians attacking the farm," Sayles told Gavin Smith. While Sayles worked on the screenplay, Spielberg floated his directorial choices by Columbia: either Toby Hooper, who was coming off the art house horror movie "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," or Ron Cobb, a noted production designer and illustrator who had provided early sketches to both "Star Wars" and "Alien." Hooper was more interested in doing a haunted house movie (more on that in a minute), with Hooper saying, "I told him that didn't appeal to me." Eventually Cobb was signed. In April 1980, Variety announced that the newly titled "Night Skies" was a go.

Even at that stage, it was clear to Spielberg that "Night Skies" was going to be a motherfucker of a technical challenge. The director knew that he couldn't trust the effects work to Carlo Rambaldi, the Italian technician responsible for the willowy aliens at the end of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." These were meaty creatures that dissected cows and ransacked living rooms. They had to do more than wave. On his friend John Landis' advice, Spielberg got in touch with Rick Baker, then prepping his groundbreaking transformation work on "American Werewolf in London" for Landis.

In a lengthy interview with glossy genre magazine Cinefantastique from 1983 (recounted in "The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made"), Baker noted that, "The assignment was a dream come true… I told Spielberg what he wanted to do would be incredibly difficult and expensive." Baker told Spielberg the effects would cost him $3 million. Without a finished script, Baker was given the go-ahead to do some preliminary work for $70,000. Spielberg left to continue work on "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Baker periodically mailed videotapes of the creatures' progress to Spielberg and the director's producing partner, Kathleen Kennedy.

This article is related to: Features, Feature, Rick Baker, Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Dark Skies, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Poltergeist, John Sayles, John Sayles, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind


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