Home » Script to Pieces: Steven Spielberg’s Night Skies (The Original Idea That Went on to Become Two of the Biggest Features of the ’80s)

Script to Pieces: Steven Spielberg’s Night Skies (The Original Idea That Went on to Become Two of the Biggest Features of the ’80s)

Welcome to Script to Pieces! This is a recurring feature at Wicked Horror where we will be looking at the best, most interesting, and at times most unbelievable horror movies that never happened. Sometimes these will be productions that never came together at all, sometimes they will original incarnations that were completely different from what we wound up with. Each should be fascinating in its own way, because the stories of movies that never see the light of day can sometimes be even more interesting than the stories of those that do. On this installment, we will be taking  a look at Steven Spielberg’s Night Skies. 

Steven Spielberg’s Night Skies began life in the 1970s as a sequel to the director’s sophomore feature Close Encounters of the Third Kind. After that movie proved to be a huge success, Columbia wanted a sequel put on the fast track. Spielberg was hesitant, not really having the desire to do a direct sequel to a project he felt didn’t need one, but he agreed to take part because he didn’t want the sequel to move forward without his involvement as had recently been done with Jaws 2. 

Also See: Script to Pieces: The Lost Boys: The Beginning 

close encounters of the third kind

Deciding that he had already done the sweet, uplifting and inspirational alien movie with Close Encounters, Spielberg wanted to take the sequel in a different direction. He’d shown how nice aliens could be, now he wanted to show how mean they could be and planned to do it with a horror film that he initially titled Watch the Skies. 

Spielberg’s treatment was actually based on an actual reported case of alien abduction, in which the residents of a small farmhouse between the towns of Kelly and Hopkinsville, in Kentucky, alleged that they had been attacked by small creatures that had come down from a UFO. They insisted that they had been keeping the aliens at bay with gunfire for most of the night.

According to eyewitnesses, the creatures varied between two to four feet, had spindly limbs, yellow eyes, claw-like hands and large pointed ears. Although they reported the color as grey, press coverage changed it to green, thus resulting in the moniker “little green men” that has persisted ever since.

Spielberg did not have time to write the screenplay himself, so he requested that Lawrence Kasdan do the treatment. Kasdan, however, was already knee-deep in writing The Empire Strikes Back, so he could not lend a hand. Subsequently, Spielberg reached out to John Sayles, who had previously written the Jaws satire Piranha, which Spielberg had loved. Sayles agreed and went to work on putting together a draft.

Around this time, the script had to change titles because “watch the skies” had turned out to be a copyrighted phrase. Spielberg ultimately settled on Night Skies as the title.

Rick Baker FX for Night SkiesTo create the menacing little aliens for the film, Spielberg went to Rick Baker, who was currently working with John Landis creating the groundbreaking effects for An American Werewolf in London. Despite the fact that they were in the middle of production, Baker was fascinated by the concept and agreed to craft the monsters for the picture.

While Sayles finished putting together a script that was referred to as “Straw Dogs with aliens” and Baker began working on the initial creature designs, Spielberg began to search for a director, knowing that he was contracted with Universal and would not be able to direct it himself.

He wanted Night Skies to be a change of pace. He wanted it to be truly scary and with that in mind, he suggested that Tobe Hooper—who had just helmed the already infamous Texas Chain Saw Massacre—be hired to direct.

The story was simple, a small American family just trying to get by is besieged by alien horror. The leader of the extraterrestrials is the malicious Scar, who kills farm animals simply by touching them, his bony finger emitting a strange sort of glow. Most of the other aliens follow his lead, except Buddy. Buddy, one of the younger creatures, does not want to hurt the humans. Instead, he befriends one member of the family: a small boy.

ET 1982When Spielberg went on to direct Raiders of the Lost Ark, he began to have second thoughts about Night Skies. This movie he was currently working on was full of violence and adventure and an element of horror, so the director began to feel that he had gotten it out of his system. He didn’t want to move onto something even scarier, he wanted something that would take him back to the inspirational, spiritual tone of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. 

Reading the script to Harrison Ford’s future wife Melissa Mathison, Spielberg was struck by how much she connected with the subplot about the boy who forms a bond with the young alien. Gears began to turn in his head and he realized what the story should be and what he wanted his next project to be. The inspirational, more uplifting story he wanted to tell already existed within Night Skies, he needed only to excavate it.

Thus, with plans changing, Night Skies was cancelled. Rick Baker, who had spent several months and $700,000 building the creatures for the film, was furious. He had a falling out with Spielberg that led to him not agreeing to do the effects for this new incarnation of the story Spielberg wanted to tell. With Baker gone, it fell on Carlo Rambaldi to create the now iconic friendly alien: E.T.

Knowing he’d be able to make a more inspirational outing with E.T. as his next project, Spielberg couldn’t shake the idea of the small family besieged by otherworldy forces, so he shifted the concept from space to the paranormal and rewrote it as Poltergeist. Tobe Hooper agreed to direct it, Spielberg’s original concept became two of the biggest hits of the early ‘80s, and the rest is history.

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Written by Nat Brehmer
In addition to contributing to Wicked Horror, Nathaniel Brehmer has also written for Horror Bid, HorrorDomain, Dread Central, Bloody Disgusting, We Got This Covered, and more. He has also had fiction published in Sanitarium Magazine, Hello Horror, Bloodbond and more. He currently lives in Florida with his wife and his black cat, Poe.
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