Wednesday, November 4, 2015

R.I.P. Melissa Mathison (1950-2015)

Left to right: Steven Spielberg and Melissa Mathison
On November 11, 2015, screenwriter Melissa Mathison died at the age of 65 in Los Angeles, CA after battling an illness. Among her many credits is the screenplay for director Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, which many consider to be among his best films. Beyond that, her career has featured work on the sets of films such as Apocalypse Now, Kundun, and even in animation with the Studio Ghibli English translation version of Ponyo. With her plans to reunite with Spielberg on the Roald Dahl adaptation of "The BFG," the news comes as a shock. She leaves behind an impressive career spanning 40 years in which she inspired films to be more youthful, whimsical, and lively.

Mathison was born on June 3, 1950 in Los Angeles, CA. Not a lot is known about her early years or private life. In her earlier career, she was a babysitter for Francis Ford Coppola and Eleanor Coppola's children, who included Gian-Carlo, Sofia, and Roman (the latter two would go on to have noteworthy film careers). As a result of her affiliation with the Coppolas, she was an assistant on two of the famed director's films, including The Godfather Part II and the infamously disastrous Apocalypse Now.

In the same year that Apocalypse Now came out, Mathison made her screenplay debut with The Black Stallion; a film directed by Carroll Ballard and starring Teri Garr and Mickey Rooney. The film was about a young child who becomes interested in a horse during their travelling. In fact, children would become a central interest in the writer's career, as her next screenplay piqued the interest of Spielberg. The film would become E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, which would become considered one of the director's finest films for following the story of a boy who befriends an alien. The imagery of the boy riding his bicycle through the air is so striking that it is still occasionally used in the logo for Spielberg's production company Amblin.

For her effort, she received a Best Original Screenplay nomination. She would lose to John Briley for Gandhi. Even during the year, many thought that E.T. was the superior film. When Gandhi won for Best Picture, that film's director Richard Attenborough claimed that "I was certain that not only would E.T. win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, and wonderful. I make more mundane movies." Even if Mathison lost, E.T. didn't go home empty handed. The film would win four Oscars, including one for its now iconic John Williams score in the Best Original Score category. 

She would team again with Spielberg the following year for the anthology film The Twilight Zone: The Movie, based off of the Rod Serling TV series and featuring other directors such as John Landis, Joe Dante, and George Miller. She would write Spielberg's segment "Kick the Can," another play on the youthful wonder theme. Despite having just received an Oscar nomination, she would used a pseudonym for the film - using the name "Josh Rogan." She was working on her third collaboration with Spielberg on the point of her death with the Roald Dahl adaptation of "The BFG," set for release next year.

Over the rest of her career, she worked with a variety of other directors. Her next noteworthy film was director Martin Scorsese's tale of the Dalai Lama's life called Kundun. While the film isn't considered to be among Scorsese's best, the film served as the start of a lifelong relationship that Mathison would have with the Dalai Lama, going back to 1990. She would also write The Indian in the Cupboard, which saw children become fascinated when their toy Indians came to life.

While not a lot is known about her private life, Mathison was married to actor Harrison Ford from 1983 until 2004 when they divorced. Together they had two children named Malcolm and Georgia. While it is likely that we'll be seeing her work in whatever becomes of Spielberg's The BFG, she leaves behind an impressive legacy that is iconic to many people's childhoods. Her work not only was sentimental, but hopeful and full of adventure. She may have not been the most prolific of writers, but she put a lot of effort into her work. And it showed. E.T. is itself an iconic character, largely thanks to her script. History would be very different without her. The world is a better place because of Mathison's contributions. 

No comments:

Post a Comment