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Spielberg, Truffaut and Me – Bob Balaban

Titan Books 2002 , 176 pp , £10.99 , PB
Bitesize: Fascinating excerpts from the production diary of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Hot on the tails of the oh-so-successful Jaws, Steven Spielberg was given unprecedented freedom by Columbia to make Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Although incorrectly marketed at the time (how many kids went to the cinema eager to see the next Star Wars and instead got a two hour long advert for Smash mashed potato… but without the cackling metal aliens?) the film proved to be another huge hit for the young director. And Bob Balaban was there for the ride. Bob played the part of Francois Truffaut’s translator in the film (and partly off film too) and wrote a diary about his experiences on set. What is so fascinating is the perspective you get from the actor’s point of view, as he becomes increasingly embroiled in what is ultimately a special effects film. There are tales of extended shooting, long humid set-bound work, ‘alien’ children bashing each other over the head with their costumes, vaccinations and delayed trips to India. Then there are reshoots, the secrecy surrounding the script and the late filming of the prologue. At the same time we learn about Bob struggling to re-learn his French and striking up a friendship with Truffaut. And of course, will anyone remember his birthday?

Balaban’s account is a fascinating insight not only into the making of Close Encounters specifically, but also of the kind of big budget effects film that was produced in the pre-CGI age. What strikes you about the actual filming is the amount of time spent shooting fascinating sounding material that didn’t make the final cut, scenes which are all helpfully marked by an asterisk. There are a lot of asterisks in this book! Long tracking shots, superfast aliens and flying cubes (later to be resurrected in the close to AI) were all filmed with painstaking detail, only to be excised in the editing suite. Spielberg’s devotion to the project and attention to detail is clear throughout, but the charm of the book really lies in the relationship between Truffaut and Balaban, one made a touch fuzzy but nonetheless humorous by the vagaries of language.

Any Cop?: Even for those not enamoured by Spielberg’s film, Spielberg, Truffaut and Me is a lively, interesting and amusing read that gives a different perspective about the making of a big budget Hollywood movie.

Spielberg, Truffaut and Me - Bob Balaban