This is a sad day for our childhoods, as well as cinematic history at large. Melissa Mathison, probably best known for writing the screenplay to E.T., has passed away at age 65, after an undisclosed illness.
Mathison’s may not be a name you’re immediately familiar with, and if it is, it’s probably because of E.T. (Or possibly because of her marriage to Harrison From from 1983 to 2004.) But her contributions to cinema went beyond that one masterpiece.
Mathison’s rise to Academy Award nominee was insanely quick. She had one hell of a lucky connection, in that she babysat Francis Ford Coppola’s kids. But while you have to be uniquely lucky to find that kind of in, few people would turn that break into what Mathison made of it. She worked as an assistant on The Godfather II, and was then promoted to what must have been one of the worst, most grueling jobs in Hollywood history: she was an executive assistant on Apocalypse Now. That gig probably would have sent most people running to a new career path, but Mathison instead followed it up with her first screenplay, 1979’s The Black Stallion, produced by Coppola. Then came E.T. and a longtime partnership with Steven Spielberg. Spielberg has talked about his reaction to reading that script.
Melissa delivered this 107-page first draft to me and I read it in about an hour. I was just knocked out. It was a script I was willing to shoot the next day. It was so honest, and Melissa’s voice made a direct connection with my heart.That’s what Mathison had that was so unique: a direct connection with all of our hearts. She wrote movies for adults as well, including Kundun, Scorsese’s movie about the Dalai Lama, and Spielberg’s segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, but she had a spectacular talent for speaking to children. She wrote the 1995 Indian in the Cupboard, and was the story consultant on the English dub of Ponyo. Besides that Ponyo gig, though, Mathison took a nearly two-decade-long break from Hollywood. She returned only last year to write the screenplay for Spielberg’s The BFG, which is now in post-production. I suppose we can be grateful that we will have a new movie to add to our Mathison memory banks, and that the existing material can never be taken from us. But this is a very sad day for movie lovers who grew up on flying bikes and Reese’s Pieces.