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Though there was no obstinate mechanical shark to contend with, Close Encounters was an arduous picture to make. It was shot during a five-month period in early 1976 and took more than a year to edit. The locations—several of them deserts—spread from California to India; the launching-pad set in Mobile, Ala., used in the film's climax is six times as large as Hollywood's biggest sound stage, Spielberg "was forever screwing up schedules like a whirlwind," says Melinda Dillon, the film's female lead, recalling the strain. "He worked all night, every night—catching a few hours' sleep when he could. He had his Winnebago trailer set up to screen films, and he was always running 2001, and when he got tired of that, he would run cartoons." null Truffaut, the French director whom Spielberg persuaded to act in the film, was also dazzled by Spielberg's stamina—though he was somewhat baffled by the movie itself. "I never really tried to figure out what my role meant," he says. "I know I was there a lot, but like Greta Garbo, I can say only that I had the feeling of waiting."
There were a few incidents of unexpected—and largely unwanted—excitement. Star Richard Dreyfuss, after criticizing the Ku Klux Klan in an Alabama newspaper interview, received a death threat and had to be whisked away for two weeks. Dillon's son received a kidnaping threat that brought in the FBI. Then, late one night, shooting halted abruptly so that everyone could observe what Spielberg believed to be a UFO cruising the sky. "Everyone was lying there on their backs with binoculars," says Dillon. "I remember thinking that if there were extraterrestrial beings up there observing us, they would think that earth creatures were flat beings with strange eyes." The object turned out to be an Echo satellite.
Despite Spielberg's preoccupation with UFOs in Close Encounters, he prefers to call the film an "adventure thriller" rather than science fiction, and he may have a point. The movie's conception is pure Hitchcock—on an intergalactic scale. The hero, Roy Neary (Dreyfuss), is a Middle American variant on the kind of man-in-the-middle played by Gary Grant and James Stewart in films like North by Northwest and Vertigo. A power-company worker who lives with his wife (Teri Garr) and three kids in Muncie, Ind., Roy is engulfed one night by phenomena he cannot understand: searing lights burn him from above, a road sign shakes and twists, the contents of his truck move about in violent defiance of gravity, the needles on his dashboard dials spin past go. Roy is sure that he has had an encounter
with alien life forms—but, of course, no one will believe his story. The rest of Close Encounters' plot follows Roy and several other UFO sighters, including a mysterious international scientist (Truffaut) and a neighborhood woman (Dillon), as they overturn their lives in a mad attempt to arrange a rendezvous with the extraterrestrial visitors. When an earthling makes actual contact with aliens, that is "a close encounter of the third kind." (The first kind is sighting; the second, physical evidence.)