I've just read and enjoyed Spielberg, Truffaut and Me, Bob Balaban's diary of his experiences as one of the leading actors in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I'm a sucker for accounts of the making of films and, of course, the best ones are the ones where something, somewhere went terribly wrong: Lillian Ross's Picture (about John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage, vandalised by the studio), Steven Bach's Final Cut (about Heaven's Gate, whose financial failure took an entire studio down with it) and Julie Salamon's Final Cut (about The Bonfire of the Vanities).
Balaban has the pleasant problem that Close Encounters was a critical and commercial triumph. But he had unparalleled access, he got to hang out with Francois Truffaut (Balaban plays Truffaut's interpreter) and he's a skilled writer.
A few thoughts (and anyone who doesn't know the film well should probably stop reading now).
Balaban is a very fine actor but he was peculiar casting because as Spielberg noted on their first meeting, he strikingly resembled Richard Dreyfuss, the star of the movie: 'Spielberg thinks I look like Dreyfuss. Since Dreyfuss has shaved his beard for the movie, I must keep mine.' Which is even weirder, because it means that Balaban looks even more like Dreyfuss than Dreyfuss himself.
Compare the above, for example, with the below:
The result, as Balaban, amusingly describes, is that during the shoot Balaban was repeatedly asked for Dreyfuss's autograph,even when he was with Dreyfuss himself! It seems an amazing risk for Spielberg to have taken.
Balaban has two really memorable scenes in the film: the opening scene, where he meets Truffaut and they find the planes in the desert and the scene where, as a cartographer, he recognizes that the signal from the aliens is a map reference. I learned that both were afterthoughts, shot almost a year after shooting had finished. In the original version, Balaban was a simple translator, not a cartographer. Of course, as Spielberg must have seen, it works much better if Balaban's character is slightly insecure in his role as an interpreter.
There's a lesson for any writer: however painful, it's never too late to make your story better.
Funnily enough, my favourite scene in the film doesn't feature any of the spectactular special effects, or even any of the main actors. If I wanted to show someone how terrific a director Spielberg is (or, at least, used to be), I think I'd show them the little scene featuring the air traffic controllers:
I love the scene both because it's beautifully shot and lit (look at the depth of field, the view of the ceiling), but also because it's so restrained. The controllers simply use their technical language, there is no emoting, the suspense is just indicated by the gradual - but still subdued - interest of the other controllers, and the way they suddenly all start talking across each other. It's a routine, self-contained scene, which could easily have been cut, and yet it is both lovingly made and tells you so much about what this film is about and yet it doesn't do your thinking and feeling for you.
Another lesson for writers: scene should ever be just routine. You can always do something special with it - which doesn't mean too special. We aren't told more than we need to know about the air traffic controllers. We don't see a photograph of a sweet little daughter on someone's work top. We don't hear one of them muttering: 'There's something wrong about covering this up!' He knew when to let well alone, as well.