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Bob Balaban Remembers Close Encounters of the Third Kind

The Making of a Classic Sci-Fi Movie

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Bob Balaban

Bob Balaban

Getty Images/by Evan Agostini
It was the most fun anyone has ever had sitting for hours in a sweltering airplane hangar in Mobile, Alabama. Or standing in front of a massive wind machine spewing sand in the Mojave Desert. Or completely misunderstanding Francois Truffaut when you‘re supposed to be his translator.

At least, that’s how Bob Balaban remembers shooting Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind more than 30 years ago. The classic science fiction adventure celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2008, and the veteran character actor says that despite the discomfort, the set was fun.

"Steven creates a magical, really magical, climate in which to work," Balaban said of Spielberg. "It was a great, fun set."

Audition en Francais

Balaban plays the cartographer/translator to Truffaut in the epic film. The legendary French director plays a UFO scientist, based on a real French UFO expert.

At the audition, Spielberg and star Richard Dreyfuss were under the impression Balaban spoke fluent French. So, he said (in well-accented French), “It has been many years since I’ve spoken French, so if you give me this job it will be very difficult for me.” Then he proceeded to recite the children‘s story, “The Ant and the Grasshopper.”

"Thank goodness nobody else in the room spoke French. I learned 'The Ant and the Grasshopper' in French in seventh grade…and that’s how I got my favorite job," he said.

Spielberg's Vision

At the time, Spielberg was a rising genius coming off the astronomical success of Jaws, but Balaban said the cast couldn’t fully grasp a vision that would only be completely realized when the ground-breaking special effects were finished.

"We couldn’t see any of Steven’s brilliance during this movie. He was organized, he was methodical, he was great to work with…but only he could see the movie. He kept the whole of the movie in his mind," he said.

Spielberg showed the cast storyboards and described his inner vision to get the emotions he needed on film. The director sat beside the camera to help actress Melinda Dillon convey her first sight of the mothership.

"He did it the way they did it in the days of the old silent films. He sat beside the camera and described it to her in great detail, and drew out that lovely performance," Balaban said. "When you work with Steven every day, you see that the normal expression his eyes is a look of awe and wonderment, and so it was easy for him to convey the feelings he wanted."

Exotic Locations

Some of the most memorable scenes weren‘t shot until months after principal photography was finished and Spielberg realized he wanted them. They included the astonishing scene of every member of a village in northern India pointing to the sky as one, and the vintage fighter aircraft appearing in the Mexican desert. "I say I still have sand in my beard from shooting the original scene with the lost airplanes, and the wind machine howling in the desert," Balaban said.

An Actor's Diary

While he had no idea during shooting that the movie would be a huge success and an enduring classic, Balaban kept detailed notes during filming.

"I knew that whatever happened with the film, I was working with Truffaut, one of the most important directors the world has ever seen, being directed by one of the most important directors there ever would be. For nine months I was joined at the hip to Truffaut, working with Spielberg. I knew something like that would never happen again in my life. So, I took notes," he said.

The notes became a book: "Spielberg, Truffaut and Me: An Actor’s Diary," which Balaban updated for re-release with the 30th anniversary edition of the film.

Balaban Today

A veteran of more than 70 movies, the ever-busy Balaban is currently working on two projects with HBO. He’s playing lawyer Ben Ginsberg in an HBO retelling of the 2000 presidential voting debacle in Florida, Recount, with Kevin Spacey, Laura Dern and Susan Sarandon. He is producing and directing another HBO film, Bernard and Doris, about heiress Doris Duke and her butler.

Je ne comprende

And the part about misunderstanding Truffaut?

Well, Truffaut's line was "They belong here more than we." All Balaban could catch was the first phrase, "they belong here." He told Spielberg the rest sounded like "Mozambique."

The next day, t-shirts sprouted on the set reading: "They belong here - Mozambique!"

And the rest is cinematic history…

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