After 'E.T.,' she still thinks small

A young boy meets a small, magical creature that becomes the greatest friend he ever had.

Yes, that's the synopsis for "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," the highest-grossing movie ever made. But it's also a good thumbnail description of "The Indian in the Cupboard," the film adaptation of Lynne Reid Banks' award-winning children's book, opening today.


Both pictures were scripted by Melissa Mathison. She would rather no comparisons were made between them at all.

"Basically, I was working against elements that were comparable to 'E.T.'s' at all times," Ms. Mathison said in a telephone interview from the Wyoming home she shares with her husband, actor Harrison Ford, and their children, Malcolm and Georgia. "In this one, it's a more mature relationship. There's more communication, more give and take between Omri and the Indian than there was between Elliott and E.T."


Though it shares a co-producer, Kathleen Kennedy, with the Steven Spielberg blockbuster, "Indian" is by all means a smaller, more intimate and delicate affair. Omri (Hal Scardino, who appeared in the acclaimed "Searching for Bobby Fischer") lives with his loving family in a decaying Brooklyn neighborhood. For his 9th birthday he receives, among other things, an old toy display cupboard and a plastic American Indian figurine.

Omri soon discovers that when a toy is locked in the cupboard, it comes to life -- real life, that is; an actual person is transported across the decades to find himself suddenly, alarmingly in our frightening modern world -- and only 3 inches tall.

"Frank Oz says not to talk about teaching lessons because no one will go," Ms. Mathison said with a laugh, referring to the Muppets-meister who directed "Indian." "But certainly, we are attempting that; otherwise, why bother?

"The movie teaches children respect for the sanctity of human life on an individual level. Omri doesn't get to have omnipotent power over another person just because he can. Obvious lessons about compassion and responsibility are there.

"But the first and foremost lesson I'd like kids to walk away with is knowing that there are stories that they can build into. I think that they can absorb so much more than they are given credit for, their attention spans can last for more than 30 seconds at a time. All of that empowers children."

Although Ms. Mathison's produced films -- besides "E.T." and "Indian," she scripted "The Black Stallion" and "The Escape Artist" -- all have focused on children, she doesn't exclusively work on kids' projects. There are unpro- duced screenplays on other subjects, as well as the teleplay for the General Custer miniseries "Son of the Morning Star."

Still, children's films are a special concern of Ms. Mathison's, especially now that she has two youngsters of her own.

"There's a glut of kids' movies today because they make money," she said. "That's not necessarily the best motivation for making them, though.


"I was interested in writing another one because I was so bored by what there was to take my children to. I'm not deprecating the other work that's out there -- certainly, my children enjoyed them -- but it still seemed to me like the entirety of a child was not being addressed.

"Specific movies were speaking to different parts: the burping/throwing up part, or the 'My parents are stupid' part. But I didn't see enough that spoke to the intelligent/sensitive part. There's a certain amount of self-respect that a child can gain from a movie, and there wasn't enough of that in the movies I was seeing."

As intrigued and engaged as Ms. Mathison is with the content of children's entertainment, she's pretty much sat out the latest family film wave. The writer, 45, admits that the magnitude of "E.T.'s" success contributed to the low professional profile she has kept over the last dozen years.

" 'E.T.'s' popularity was certainly a great high point of my life," she acknowledged. "It was fantastic, and it's still fantastic. But in some ways, it meant that I never had to work again. I had to get past that.

"There was also, in retrospect, the natural fear of 'How do I follow this act?' To fall for these [inhibitions] seemed so obvious at the time, though, that I think they only operated subconsciously. I couldn't believe I was falling into such an easy hole."

The work slowdown wasn't due solely to too much success. "There are lots of other things I like to do with my time besides write movies," Ms. Mathison said. "I read a lot, love to do extensive research. And I was raising children. I didn't want to miss it by sitting in my office. I do try to keep my work separate, in a way, because they need a mom, not a writer. But they're a little older now, so I plan to do more work."


Her general disdain for the consuming aspects of a Hollywood career are shared by Mr. Ford. Famous for shunning the celebrity scene, the couple spends as much time far away from Los Angeles as they can.

"Living in Wyoming allows us the luxury of being part of a real world," said Ms. Mathison, herself a child of the Hollywood Hills. "I like L.A., I grew up there. But if we lived there, all of our friends would be show-business people and we'd spend all of our time talking about movies. I don't think we would go to lunches and parties -- we never have. But you cross the California border and you realize that the world does not begin and end with the movie business."

Francis Ford Coppola, a friend of her journalist father's, gave Ms. Mathison her entry into the movie business. After a stint as his assistant during the heady "Godfather II"/"Apocalypse Now" years, She was encouraged by the director to adapt the script for "The Black Stallion," which he produced.

Regardless of how advantageous her parents' industry connections were for her, Ms. Mathison feels that staying states away from the spotlight is the best thing for her family today.

For one thing, it helps keep her husband sane.

"If I could make a wish and give Harrison anything in life he wanted, it would be a week of anonymity," Ms. Mathison says. "He's very graceful in the way that he knows attention comes with the life that he has. But it's tough to deal with all that, certainly.


"Which is why I think you have to work really hard to find the space where you are not the biggest curiosity around. Basically, Harrison's old news where we live. The star sightings are at the hardware store, and nobody cares. He'll be at his son's baseball game tonight and no one will care."