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20 Things You Might Not Know About E.T.

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1. The film was initially patched together from different ideas for separate movies.

With his newfound success following the back-to-back smash hits of Jaws in 1975 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, director Steven Spielberg wanted to tell a smaller, more personal story for his next film. Entitled Growing Up, the proposed movie was inspired by the divorce of his parents when he was 15 years old. It included the feelings of alienation Spielberg felt being Jewish in an all Gentile neighborhood in Arizona and was told from the perspective of three children.

When the project was shelved, Spielberg moved on to another big budget film, 1941, but the basic idea stayed with him. Around the same time, Columbia Pictures demanded a sequel to Close Encounters. Spielberg wanted no part of that, though he had a small idea about what would have happened if an alien didn’t go back to the mothership at the end of that movie. To ensure they didn’t make the sequel without him, he instead commissioned writer/director John Sayles to create a script for a pseudo-sequel called Night Skies, about a suburban family terrorized by a group of aliens with one befriending the family’s son.

The project was too dark in tone for Spielberg, though, and ultimately, he had Columbia just re-release Close Encounters in a Special Edition with additional scenes. But he still recognized the potential of a film like Night Skies, so he and screenwriter Melissa Mathison then combined Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical story with the benevolent alien visiting a boy on earth to create E.T. The idea of the terrorized family was refashioned as another eventual Spielberg production: Poltergeist.         

2. Mathison’s first draft is the shooting script.

Most films go through several drafts before a final shooting script is locked into place, but Melissa Mathison’s first draft is what Spielberg used during the shoot of the film. Instead of constantly revising individual drafts, Spielberg gave Mathison the general narrative plot for her to round out. She would write for five straight days and then collaborate with him for five successive days of feedback. This process went on for eight weeks, and Spielberg later called the resulting screenplay “the best first draft I’ve ever read.” In order to maintain a spontaneous and streamlined shoot (and unlike the fully pre-visualized Raiders of the Lost Ark), Spielberg didn’t storyboard any of the shots for E.T. and kept the script Mathison had written on 3 x 5-inch notecards in his shirt pocket. This gave him the freedom to revise, improvise, and make things up with the child actors on set. To maintain secrecy while shooting, the production name was listed as the rather mundane “A Boy’s Life.”

3. A young Drew Barrymore’s little white lies made Spielberg cast her as Gertie.

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Getting the right young actors to play the three main young siblings was a paramount problem for Spielberg. The first kid he cast was Drew Barrymore as Gertie, the youngest of the trio. During her audition, the six-year-old Barrymore allegedly told Spielberg that she wasn’t really an actress at all but rather the drummer of a loud and menacing punk rock band called the Purple People Eaters, who painted their faces with makeup for every show and who had played to an arena packed with thousands of people the night before. Spielberg recognized the value of her vivid imagination and she got the part.

4. Henry Thomas’ improvised audition won him the part of Elliott.

The most difficult role for Spielberg to cast was that of Elliott, the boy who discovers and befriends E.T. Spielberg’s friend Jack Fisk (Sissy Spacek’s husband and the production designer of such films as Badlands and Eraserhead) suggested a young actor by the name of Henry Thomas, whom he directed in his 1981 film Raggedy Man. Spielberg brought Thomas in for a meeting to audition at Universal Studios, but instead of giving Henry the script to read, the director opted to have the young actor improv a scene with a government agent (played by casting director Mike Fenton) who is trying to take his alien best friend away from him. Spielberg’s only direction to Thomas was to do whatever it takes to stop the government agent from taking the alien away. In the heartbreaking audition (seen above), Thomas broke down in tears while pleading with Fenton not to take his friend, prompting Spielberg to conclude the session with “OK kid, you got the job."

5. Peter Coyote’s bad audition for Raiders of the Lost Ark got him a part in E.T.

Actor Peter Coyote, who plays the sympathetic government agent Keys in E.T., auditioned for the role of Indiana Jones during a May 1980 casting session held by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Coyote, who was given snippets of the Raiders script along with a character outline of Indy, brought along a dashing fedora to accentuate his audition in hopes of wowing the two Hollywood heavyweights. But when he was told it was his turn to go, he tripped over the wiring of the lights that were set up in the room. His stumbling first impression was the furthest thing from the debonair, tough-guy Indy. The part went to Harrison Ford, but Spielberg found something endearing in Coyote's clumsiness, and when it came time to cast Keysan adult with childlike wondermentthe choice was obvious. Sometimes being awkward pays off!

6. The combination of a painting and photos of famous people inspired the look of E.T..

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Spielberg originally had production illustrator Ed Verreaux—with whom he had worked on Raiders of the Lost Ark—draft the initial designs of the titular alien creature. Eventually, he went with a different set of design ideas, created by special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi. Rambaldi had previously designed the mechanical head effects for the xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s Alien and the visitors from Spielberg’s own Close Encounters of the Third Kind. For E.T., Spielberg tasked him with coming up with an alien form that audiences could sympathize with. The primary inspiration was one of his own paintings from the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, titled “Women of Delta.” It depicted a shriveled character with stumpy legs, a long neck, an oblong head, and large eyes. To make the alien empathetic, Spielberg had Rambaldi study photos of elderly people who lived during the Great Depression. He also collated the alien's facial design with photos of Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Carl Sandburg. Rambaldi completed his design in clay, and an impressed Spielberg quickly gave it the go-ahead. Artist Ralph McQuarrie, who was responsible for the famous concept art for George Lucas’ Star Wars, designed E.T.’s spaceship, saying it was meant to resemble a hot air balloon as if it were created by Dr. Seuss.

7.  The E.T. puppet was a conceptual wonder, but made the sets a logistical nightmare.

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For scenes that required the animatronic E.T. puppet—like Elliott’s room and the family’s living room—Spielberg had the production designers build the sets raised on stilts. The heavy robotic puppet was bolted down, and its wiring was hidden under the floor. The puppeteers were able to observe and manage the puppet’s performance from a series of TV monitors located in another room.

Spielberg wanted those on-set to act as if E.T. were a real actor for maximum believability, and asked the special effects designers to test out all puppet movements well before production began to ensure that the illusion wasn’t easily broken. Taking the farce even further, Spielberg told the young Drew Barrymore that the puppet was an actual living, breathing alien, and during the scene where—spoiler alert!—E.T. dies, the sobbing reaction shots of Barrymore are true-to-life tears, as she truly believed that E.T. had passed away.  

8. A mime was responsible for E.T.’s hand movements.

A puppet can only do so much, so to breathe a little bit more balletic life into his creature, Spielberg hired professional mime Caprice Rothe to provide fluid and naturalistic hand motions. Each time the puppet was meant to interact with Elliott or pick certain things up during a scene, Rothe would have to lay horizontally underneath the puppet and extend her hands vertically, for take after take. She wore sleeve-length gloves that were made up to look like E.T.’s leathery skin, and mimicked his long, slender, four-fingered hands with her ring and pinky fingers sneakily tucked away in the fourth digit. In the final cut, she was credited as the “E.T. Movement Coordinator.”

9. A trio of actors brought E.T.’s other movements to life.

Universal Pictures

The scenes where Spielberg opted to show full-body shots of E.T. freely moving around were performed by three different actors. Two little people, Tamara de Treaux and Pat Bilon, wore special E.T. suits for wide shots of the alien walking around. They were able to see out of well-hidden slits cut into the upper part of E.T.’s chest. Other scenes, like when E.T. falls on his face from having a few too many beers, were performed by 12-year-old Matthew DeMeritt, an actor who was born without legs. His specially-rigged suit allowed him to walk with his arms where the alien’s feet would be.

10. The first voice of E.T. was Spielberg himself.

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During shooting, Spielberg acted out the voice parts of E.T. by positioning himself just to the side of the camera, uttering famous phrases like “E.T. phone home,” but also occasionally speaking in full sentences to better connect the character to the child actors. In the rough cut, Spielberg’s temp track was later replaced with the voice of actress Debra Winger. (Fun fact: Winger has an uncredited appearance in the Halloween scene as the zombie nurse carrying a little dog). For the final print, sound designer Ben Burtt—who previously worked on all of the Star Wars films and also on Raiders of the Lost Ark with Spielberg—hired a non-actor named Pat Welsh, whose deep and raspy smoker’s voice he overheard at a local camera store. Burtt lowered the pitch of her voice and mixed it with sounds of various animals breathing. For her performance, Welsh allegedly received only $380. In all there were 18 different contributors to the voice of E.T.—including Ken Miura, Burtt’s cinema professor from USC, who provided the burp in the scene where E.T. gets drunk.      

11. Harrison Ford appeared in one scene, but it was cut from the final film.

Ford was already an iconic Spielberg alum, so to play with that image, the filmmaker cast his Raiders of the Lost Ark star as the principal of Elliott’s school. Other than Elliott’s mother, another adult's face wasn't shown until the third act, so Ford was always filmed from behind.  Ford reprimands the youngster after the scene where Elliott frees all of the frogs about to be dissected (when he passionately kisses his classmate in an homage to John Ford’s 1952 film The Quiet Man). In another example of Elliott's and E.T.’s consciences melding, he’s seen levitating just out of his principal’s view until his mother barges in to take him home. These scenes were ultimately cut for time.

12. E.T.’s favorite candy was supposed to be M&Ms.

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Spielberg brought his idea to Mars Incorporated, the company that owns M&Ms, to ask if they could use their little candies in a scene where Elliott attracts the inquisitive alien back to his house. Universal Studios legally barred the company from seeing the final script, so Mars passed on the cross-promotional opportunity. Spielberg and company then brought the idea to the Hershey Company to see if they could use Hershey Kisses, but the company was looking to get more exposure for their newest creation, Reese’s Pieces, and suggested the peanut butter filled treats instead. Hershey agreed to spend $1 million for the rights to promote the use of their product in E.T., and Reese’s Pieces became the little alien's candy of choice. The agreement certainly paid off for Hershey, as the company reported a 65 percent increase in profits on Reese's Pieces just two weeks after the film premiere.

13. On set, Spielberg was an old hag.

In the Halloween scene (shot in October 1981), Elliott and his brother Michael dress E.T. up as if he’s their costumed little sister so that they can safely get him to the forest to phone home. To join in the fun, Spielberg spent the entire day dressed up as an old woman. He even bobbed for apples and went trick-or-treating with the cast at the wrap of that day’s shoot.

14. An international flight into LAX inspired one of the film’s later scenes.

In the original script, Elliott and E.T. are brought to an undisclosed hospital when the government captures them both, but production designer James Bissell and cinematographer Allen Daviau were having trouble finding a hospital suitable for filming. One day, Spielberg flew into Los Angeles International Airport aboard an overseas flight, and his return was severely delayed by the airport’s extensive construction that included huge scaffolding, over-sized plastic sheets, and cylindrical tubing everywhere. The space sparked Spielberg's imagination, so instead of bringing the two to a hospital, the government would create a temporary structure to shroud the family’s house in gigantic mylar sheets and plastic tubing similar to what he saw from the construction at LAX. The production covered the exterior of the house in the Northridge neighborhood of Los Angeles for the shots in the final film. The interiors were done on soundstages.

15. Everything in the famous shot of Elliott and E.T. flying across the face of the Moon was real—except Elliott and E.T.

Visual Effects Supervisor Dennis Muren and his team at Industrial Light and Magic were tasked with creating organic special effects to surround the potentially inorganic looking E.T. puppet. Surprisingly, the iconic shot of the boy and alien flying across the full moon was mostly a "real" shot. It took Muren and his team weeks to find the right spot to film a low moon among trees, so they used maps and charts to coordinate the scene once they found the right spot. In the shot, Elliott and E.T. are puppets that were added with special effects in post-production, but the rest is photo-real.

16. Spielberg gave a cinematic tip of the hat to George Lucas, and eventually Lucas did the same thing back.

The two friends and collaborators had hidden little nods to each other’s films in their work before, but for E.T., Spielberg didn’t need to hide anything at all. In one of the film’s cheekiest jokes, E.T. sees a child dressed up as Yoda for Halloween, prompting the little alien to exclaim, “Home! Home!” Spielberg didn’t tell Lucas about the joke until he held a personal screening for his friend at his Skywalker Ranch, which Lucas approved of with laughter. When he went on to make The Phantom Menace, Lucas returned the favor and made E.T.’s race of aliens part of the Galactic Senate. You can see them acting uncharacteristically hostile in the video above.

17. François Truffaut gave the film, and Spielberg, his blessing.

Spielberg worried that his intensely personal story wouldn’t resonate with audiences, and that they might have trouble identifying with a potentially off-putting alien character. Once finished, E.T. was publicly previewed a handful of times, but when the film was shown out-of-competition at the 1982 Cannes Film festival, audience members stood and applauded 15 whole minutes before the film ended. The standing ovation went on for another 15 minutes after the credits rolled, and Spielberg knew he had hit the perfect mark. After the Cannes screening, he received a telegram from fellow director François Truffaut, who acted in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The telegram read, “You belong here more than me,” echoing a similar line his character uttered in Close Encounters.

18. The film wowed audiences and heads of state alike.

Following Cannes, the film was released in the United States on June 11, 1982, and would go on to overtake Star Wars as the highest-grossing film of all time—a record it would hold until 1993, when it was beaten by another Spielberg film, Jurassic Park.  Spielberg held personal previews like the one with Lucas for his friends and colleagues, but he would also go on to screen the film at the White House for then-President Ronald Reagan and the First Lady, Nancy Reagan. The director recalled sitting next to the President for the show, and even thought he saw Reagan shed a tear or two. When the film was screened for newlyweds Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Spielberg and the stars in attendance were bizarrely ushered backstage the moment the film ended. Apparently, Diana had wept so much that her prim and proper makeup was running, causing the Royal minders to whisk her away to redo the makeup before holding an informal meeting at the Princess’ request.

19. There was a plagiarism scandal.

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Following the film’s resounding worldwide success, a claim of plagiarism arose when Indian director Satyajit Ray alleged that Spielberg had stolen the idea from a script he wrote in 1967, titled The Alien. Columbia Pictures had optioned the concept with Peter Sellers and Marlon Brando in the lead roles, but legal troubles forced Ray to abandon the project. When E.T. broke the bank in 1982, Ray felt certain that the similarities weren’t mere coincidence. Ray told the press, "E.T. would not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies," but Spielberg denied plagiarizing the script, saying, “I was a kid in high school when his script was circulating in Hollywood.” No further legal action was taken, and Ray would continue to make films until his death in 1992.

20. Spielberg and co-writer Melissa Mathison envisioned a sequel that was eventually abandoned.

Both Spielberg and Mathison wrote a story treatment for a potential sequel to E.T. during its initial theatrical run. Dated July 17, 1982, the treatment is titled “E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears,” and takes place the summer after the events in the first film. The story describes a plot in which Elliott and his friends are abducted by a mutated race of E.T.s led by an evil entity named Korel who is looking for Zrek, another alien stranded on Earth. Eventually, E.T. manages to save the group of kids and helps them back to Earth. Ultimately, Spielberg decided not to do a sequel because doing so "would do nothing but rob the original of its virginity.” You can read the 10-page treatment by clicking here. A novelized sequel by author William Kotzwinkle—who also penned the novelization of the original film—was published in 1985. E.T.: The Book of the Green Planet was set on E.T.’s home planet, which Kotzwinkle dubbed Brodo Asogi.

Additional Sources: E.T. Blu-ray special features; The Films of Steven Spielberg by Douglas Brode; Steven Spielberg: A Retrospective by Richard Schickel

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11 Surprising Facts About Fatal Attraction
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Paramount Pictures

Written by James Dearden and directed by Adrian Lyne, 1987’s Fatal Attraction showed audiences just how dangerous sex could be. Michael Douglas plays Dan Gallagher, a married man who has a weekend-long affair with single career woman Alex Forrest, played by Glenn Close. When he breaks off their affair, Alex goes a little nuts. Despite drawing the ire of feminists and frightening men everywhere, the film grossed an impressive $320 million worldwide, earned six Oscar nominations (including one for Close), and ranks number one in the “Psycho/Stalker/Blank from Hell” genre. Here are 11 scintillating facts about the movie, which was released 30 years ago today.

1. THE MOVIE IS BASED ON THE SCREENWRITER’S SHORT FILM.

In 1980, Fatal Attraction screenwriter James Dearden wrote and directed a short film called Diversion. “I was sitting at home thinking, ‘What is a minimalist story that I can do?’ My wife was out of town for the weekend, and I thought what would happen if a man who has just dropped his wife at the railroad station rings this girl who he's met at a party and says, ‘Would you like to have dinner?’” he told The New York Times. “It’s a little fable about the perils of adultery. It is something that men and women get away with 99 percent of the time, and I just thought, ‘Why not explore the one time out of 100 when it goes wrong?’”

Fatal Attraction producers Sherry Lansing and Stanley Jaffe saw the short and asked Dearden to elaborate on the story. “To turn it into a mass-audience film, I knew there would have to be an escalation of the psychological violence, which in the end becomes physical,” Dearden explained. He says he wasn’t trying to make a social statement about AIDS, but he was trying to say “we can have the most intimate sexual relationships with somebody we know nothing about.”

2. GLENN CLOSE WANTED TO PLAY AGAINST TYPE.

By the time Fatal Attraction came around, Glenn Close was a three-time Oscar nominee who had never been asked to play a sexy role. “When Glenn made it known she was prepared to test, I became fascinated with the idea of using her,” Adrian Lyne told People. “She’s a person you’d least expect to have this passion and irrational obsession. When she and Michael tested, an extraordinary erotic transformation took place. She was this tragic, bewildering mix of sexuality and rage—I watched Alex come to life.” 

Close recalled her nerve-racking audition to Entertainment Weekly: “My hair was long and crazy. I’m very bad at doing my hair. I got so nervous, I took a little bit of a Valium. I walked in and the first thing I saw was a video camera, which is terrifying, and behind the video camera in the corner was Michael Douglas. I just said, ‘Well, just let it all go wild.”’

A year after Fatal Attraction’s release, Close kept the sexiness going in Dangerous Liaisons, which garnered her yet another Oscar nod.

3. ADRIAN LYNE WANTED TO DO A DIFFERENT TYPE OF SEX SCENE.

According to Lyne, the only thing audiences remember about the movie is the spontaneous and somewhat goofy kitchen sink sex scene. “But what people take away from the movie is not Glenn Close putting acid on the car or even the last 10 minutes when they are flailing around in the bathroom,” he told MovieMaker Magazine. “What they remember is Michael f*cking her over the sink early on—which was like 30 seconds—and another 30 seconds of them making out in the elevator … but there’s another two hours and five minutes! And I guess it worked or they wouldn’t have gone to the movie.”

In John Andrew Gallagher’s book Film Directors on Directing, Lyne said he didn’t want the love scene to take place in a bed “because it’s so dreary, and I thought about the sink because I remembered I had once had sex with a girl over a sink, way back. The plates clank around and you’ll have a laugh. You always need to have a laugh in a sex scene.” During filming he yelled at the couple, praising them. “If they know that they’re turning you on, it builds their confidence.” He used a handheld camera to film it “so there was no problem with the heat going out of the scene.”

4. CLOSE HAD A HUGE PROBLEM WITH THE NEW ENDING.

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Two endings of the film were shot: The first had Alex planting Dan’s fingerprints on a knife and then killing herself while Madama Butterfly played in the background. Test audiences felt unsatisfied, so Paramount decided to re-shoot the ending and make it more violent. They had Dan’s wife, Beth (Anne Archer)—the only untainted character—shockingly shoot and kill Alex as a statement on preserving the American family.

“When I heard that they wanted to make me into basically a psychopath, where I go after someone with a knife rather than somebody who was self-destructive and basically tragic, it was a profound problem for me because I did a lot of research about the character,” Close told Oprah. “So to be brought back six months later and told, ‘You’re going to totally change that character,’ it was very hard. I think I fought against it for three weeks. I remember we had meetings. I was so mad.”

In Entertainment Weekly, Close said she thought Alex was a deeply disturbed woman, but not a psychopath. “Once you put a knife in somebody’s hand, I thought that was a betrayal of the character,” she explained. The main reason the ending was changed was because moviegoers wanted revenge. “The audience wanted somebody to kill her,” Michael Douglas told Entertainment Weekly. “Otherwise the picture was left—for lack of a better expression—with blue balls.” Though audiences wanted Alex dead, Douglas saw that as a compliment. “You were so good in the part that everybody wanted you to be killed,” he told Close on Oprah.

In hindsight, Close thinks they did the right thing in changing the ending. “Bloodshed in a dramatic sense brings catharsis,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “Shakespeare did it. The Greeks did it. That’s what we did. We gave the audience my blood. It worked.”

5. THE MOVIE CAUSED THE PHRASE “BUNNY BOILER” TO BECOME A PART OF THE LEXICON.

In probably the most disturbing scene in the movie, Alex boils Dan’s kid’s pet bunny. The phrase is listed in Urban Dictionary and on the U.K. site Phrases.org. Urban defines it as “after a relationship break-up, the person who wants some kind of revenge, like stalking, or harassment,” and Phrases says, “an obsessive and dangerous female, in pursuit of a lover who has spurned her.” Close herself was uneasy about the scene. “The only thing that bothered me was the rabbit,” she said on Oprah. “I thought it was over the top.”

6. CLOSE HAD THE KNIFE SHE TRIED TO KILL MICHAEL DOUGLAS WITH FRAMED.

In the theatrical ending of the movie, Alex comes after Dan with a knife but doesn’t succeed in getting away with murder. Close told Vanity Fair that she framed the fake knife, and that it’s hanging in her kitchen. “It’s all an illusion. It’s a cardboard prop!” she said. It’s also a rather creepy reminder of the film.

7. THE MOVIE SAVED MORE THAN A FEW MARRIAGES.

The film shows what happens when a married man lets his guard down and embarks on an affair, only to have it destroy his life. “That movie struck a very, very raw nerve,” Close told Daily Mail. “Feminists hated the movie and that was shocking to me. They felt they'd been betrayed because it was a single, working woman who was supposed to be the source of all evil. But now Alex is considered a heroine. Men still come up to me and say, ‘You scared the s**t outta me.’ Sometimes they say, ‘You saved my marriage.’”

8. CLOSE WOULD PLAY ALEX DIFFERENTLY TODAY.

One of the reasons the film was so controversial is the negative way it depicted mental illness. Psychiatrists have said Alex suffered from erotomania, a condition in which a person wrongly believes a person is in love with them. Close spoke to two psychiatrists in preparation for her role, and neither said Alex’s behavior—especially the bunny-boiling—was because of mental illness. “Never did a mental disorder come up. Never did the possibility of that come up,” Close told CBS News. “That, of course, would be the first thing I would think of now.” She also said, “I would have a different outlook on that character. I would read that script totally differently.”

9. DEARDEN ADAPTED FATAL ATTRACTION INTO A PLAY, WITH THE ORIGINAL ENDING INTACT.

In 2014 a stage version of the movie went up in London, starring Natascha McElhone as Alex and Kristin Davis as the long-suffering wife, Beth. Dearden reimagined the script in making Alex more sympathetic, Dan more blameworthy, and returning to the original ending.

“[I] wanted to return to my original conception of the characters in a sense to set the record straight,” Dearden told The Atlantic. “Because while Alex is undeniably borderline psychotic, she is also a tragic figure, worn down by a series of disappointments in love and the sheer brutality of living in New York as a single woman in a demanding career. So whilst remaining faithful to the storyline, I have introduced the ambivalence of my earlier drafts … nobody is entirely right and nobody entirely wrong.”

10. DEARDEN AND CLOSE DON’T BELIEVE ALEX IS A MONSTER.

“Alex is emphatically not a monster,” Dearden wrote in The Guardian. “She is a sad, tragic, lonely woman, holding down a tough job in an unforgiving city. Alex is not a study in madness. She is a study in loneliness and desperation.” He goes on to write that he regrets “that audiences shouted ‘Kill the bitch!’ at the screen … Did Fatal Attraction really set back feminism and career women? I honestly don’t believe so. I think that, arguably, it encouraged a vigorous debate from which feminism emerged, if anything, far stronger.”

Close doesn’t see Alex as monstrous either. “I never thought of her as the villain, ever,” she said on Oprah.

11. A TV VERSION OF FATAL ATTRACTION WAS KILLED.

In 2015 it was reported that Paramount would be bringing the film to the small screen in what was described as “a one-hour event TV series.” Mad Men producers Maria and André Jacquemetton were set to write and executive produce the show, with Deadline writing that the TV version would show how “a married man’s indiscretion comes back to haunt him,” just like in the movie. The show was set to air on Fox. But in early 2017, it was announced that the project was being killed—at least by Fox—after the producers encountered troubles with both the title and casting (The Hollywood Reporter wrote that both Megan Fox and Jenna Dewan Tatum were both said to have passed on the project.)

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13 Stylish Facts About dELiA*s
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Lucy Quintanilla

Millennial women across the United States will remember rushing to their mailboxes after school to grab the hottest catalog of the ‘90s: dELiA*s. The groundbreaking magalog, which debuted in 1994, was, by 1998, sending out 55 million catalogs a year. REaD oN fOr A fEw fUN fACts aBoUt dELiA*s.

1. THE COMPANY WAS FOUNDED BY TWO MALE YALE GRADS.

Stephen Kahn and Christopher Edgar, former Yale roommates, were in their 20s when they started dELiA*s in New York in 1993. Kahn—who, after Yale, had studied political philosophy and Victorian history at Oxford—had taken a job at the brokerage firm PaineWebber and was studying for his MBA at night. But he was bored. He wanted to run his own company. “I was interested in being more creative,” Kahn told Crain’s New York Business in 1998. “And I wanted to make a lot of money.” He convinced Edgar to leave his comparative literature Ph.D. program at Columbia University to start the company. Kahn provided $100,000 of his own money, and his father provided another $100,000.

2. DELIA*S WAS ORIGINALLY AIMED AT COLLEGE-AGED WOMEN.

In the early ‘90s, 90 percent of catalogs were aimed at women aged 30 to 50; it was seeing fashionable undergrads at Columbia that inspired Kahn and Edgar to launch a catalog aimed at selling clothes to college-aged women. They called the catalog dELiA*s. (Where that name came from is a mystery.) Initially, they created 20,000 catalogs and, in 1994, hired students to distribute them around college campuses.

But the response from college women, Kahn told Chief Marketer in 1998, was “lukewarm.” After running ads for the catalog in a few magazines, they found a new market: the college students’ little sisters. “We got a huge response from high school kids,” Kahn said. “So basically the market found us.”

They expanded their customer base to include 10- to 24-year olds with the goal of giving girls who might not live in areas with tons of shops for them an opportunity to buy cool clothes. (Fortune’s summation of the company’s strategy, from a 1997 article, is too amazing not to share: “Today’s average 14-year-old girl in Des Moines is just as hip to what’s hot as the 14-year-old in suburban Los Angeles … She, too, wants shiny avalanche pants and baby-T’s, but she’s stuck in the backwoods with nowhere to shop but her local Wal-Mart. Delia’s body glitter, like Dorothy’s red shoes, transports her from the farm to Melrose Avenue.”) “We felt that this group was not well served,” Edgar told The New York Times in 1997. “There wasn’t a recognition of these kids as real consumers.”

The first catalog hit campuses in the fall 1994, and quickly became a hit: Within four years, the company had annual sales of $158 million. When it went public in 1996, Kahn’s 57 percent share of the stock was worth $163 million.

3. KAHN AND EDGAR WOOED INVESTORS BY COMPARING dELiA*s TO MTV.

In the ‘90s, it was tough to get investors to put their money into catalogs. According to the Los Angeles Times, they “often doubted that teens will bother to leaf through pages and manipulate measuring tapes.” But dELiA*s was able to land financing by comparing its catalog to MTV’s programming. “We told them to think of us as a ‘channel’ through which you can program different types of apparel brands,” Evan Guillemin, the company's chief financial officer, told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. “We, like MTV, stay constant … but we’ll provide them with a constantly changing assortment of designs and brands.”

4. CREATIVE DIRECTOR CHARLENE BENSON HAD A DAY JOB AND WORKED ON DELIA*S AT NIGHT FOR THE FIRST YEAR.

The cover of the first-ever dELiA*s catalog
The cover of the first-ever dELiA*s catalog.
Courtesy of Charlene Benson

With its irregular capitalization and engaging photos, dELiA*s was a standout from the start. That strategy came from creative director Charlene Benson and her collaborators. Benson was the art director of Mademoiselle magazine when she got the dELiA*s gig—and she kept that day job for a full year while producing the catalog at night.

How Benson got the dELiA*s job is what she calls a “folksy” story: One of her friends, the writer Hilton Als, met Kahn at an art show, and they got to talking about the catalog. Benson went in for an interview. The office was casual; “it looked like they had collected all the furniture off the street,” Benson tells Mental Floss. “They didn’t really have an idea of what it should be yet. They wanted to know if I knew how to put together a photo shoot, how to do the layout, how to talk to printers. It was more of the business part of it.”

Given pretty much free rein—albeit on a shoestring budget—Benson hired some help and got to work … at night, after she finished at her day job. And though she loved working at Mademoiselle (which was, she says, “wonderful”), dELiA*s gave her a different kind of opportunity. “I did all of the things that I didn’t get to do at Mademoiselle—choose the pictures where the girls were making faces, and have kind of more chaotic layouts, and just have a certain kind of fun and a certain kind of real girl-ness that I always missed working at a Condé Nast fashion magazine,” she says.

That included randomly capitalized type. “We really liked that mixed up and down type,” Benson says. “Sassy had kind of done something like that [before dELiA*s] and we really liked it. But because I was such a bad typist a lot of times my typing would kind of look like that, so it was like, ‘This feels right.’”

Benson didn’t do any market research to create the catalog, but she did look at teen magazines that were available at the time. “When I looked at teen stuff it was a lot of ‘how to kiss a boy,’ or ‘how to know if he likes you.’” She and her team decided to do the opposite: “It was kind of like, ‘Let’s do something where that’s not in the picture yet or maybe it’s not the most important thing to her—that she’s more creative, and she’s more interesting, and she’s more about her friends still.”

The copy in the catalog (an example: “wOulD YoU rAtHeR bE iN a cAve oF sNakEs oR a bAthTub fUlL oF sluGs?”) also reflected that—something Benson says parents appreciated. “I got a lot of nice notes from moms that would be like, ‘Oh thank you for the funny copy. My daughter and I had a really beautiful moment reading it together.’”

The first catalog, which Benson says “wasn’t totally baked,” was a huge success; Edgar came back to Benson in two months and said they’d sold every piece of merchandise. “He was like, ‘So we want to do another one,’ and I was like ‘Wow, didn’t you find that first one really difficult?,” Benson says, laughing. “And so we did another one. ... I did that for a year and was still working at Mademoiselle and I just basically had no life,” Benson says. After that year, Kahn and Edgar asked Benson to come on full-time, and she left Mademoiselle. “That’s really when we made the catalog grow.”

5. THERE WAS A “FICTIONAL DELIA.”

Though no one knows where the name Delia came from (Benson calls it "one of the great mysteries"), according to Jim Trzaska, dELiA*s' photo producer, there was a fictional Delia who “was supposed to be a girl’s girl who loved hanging out with her friends above all else, and dressed for herself rather than to attract boys. That naturally set the tone at the photo shoots as well.”

6. THE CREW HAD A STRATEGY FOR MAKING PHOTO SHOOTS FUN.

A page from the Summer '97 dELiA*s catalog.

Rarely will you find a girl in a dELiA*s catalog smiling; she’s more likely to be making a funny face or looking like she’s having the time of her life. They were looking for a particular type of girl, Benson says—someone who was expressive. "Sometimes I would ask them, 'Do you want to be an actress someday?' The actual shoots were super fun. We just had the funniest crew, and the stylist that we worked with consistently, Galadriel Masterson, was just really, really funny and she had this way of teaching the girls how to be on set and how to express themselves. She had a really good idea for how to put the stuff together because we weren’t match-y and we weren’t outfit-y. We just shot a lot of film until we got the funny pictures we wanted." Benson brought on Kevin Hatt to photograph the early catalogs, and later, Mei Tao shot them.

According to the models who participated in those shoots—who typically had already appeared in teen mags like Seventeen—they really were awesome. “Every single one was fun,” model Kim Matulova told MTV. “There was always a lot of energy and it was very natural, unforced, and spur-of-the-moment. [The photographer] would just turn on the music and let us girls do our thing, and he’d capture it.”

The photographer shot on Polaroid, and the models would get to take some photos home at the end of the shoot. “I have a huge box at my mom’s house full of old Polaroids and outtakes,” Matulova said.

A page from the Summer '97 dELiA*s catalog.

The crew also had a strategy for getting girls to let loose. “One thing that always got a big reaction from everyone on set was a fake boy named ‘Billy’ who was invented by our lead stylist, Galadriel Masterson,” Trzaska told Refinery 29. “Depending on what kind of mood we needed from the model, ‘Billy’ could be anyone from a shady ex-boyfriend to a bratty little brother or a gay best friend. He definitely helped us get the shot on more than one occasion.”

7. YOU MIGHT FIND SOME FAMOUS FACES IN YOUR OLD CATALOGS.

Miranda Kerr, Brooklyn Decker, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Cassie, and Krysten Ritter all struck a pose for dELiA*s back in the day.

8. AT ITS PEAK, THE COMPANY GOT THOUSANDS OF CATALOG REQUESTS DAILY.

Courtesy of Charlene Benson

According to Chief Marketer, by August 1998, Delia’s was receiving 3000 to 5000 catalog requests every single day. (Some outlets suggest the number was as high as 7000 requests a day.) The company had a whopping 5 million names in its database, each one accompanied by its precise order history.

According to The Cut, 4 million people—or 10 percent of the 40 million female Millennials currently living in the United States—have requested a dELiA*s catalog.

9. THERE WERE PLENTY OF COPYCATS.

Not surprisingly, dELiA*s' massive success led to a number of “magalog” competitors, including Zoe, Wet Seal, moXiegirl (or mXg), Alloy, Airshop, and Just Nikki. But Kahn was not threatened by the competition. “People will try to play catch-up,” he told Chief Marketer. “There will be a shakeout on the imitator side. Most of these guys will lose a lot of money for a long time.”

10. THERE WAS A SPIN-OFF FOR BOYS.

Droog, a.k.a. dELiA*s for boys, launched in 1998. Though it, too, aimed for a market Kahn and Co. thought was untapped, its approach was different than its big sister’s: Instead of being shot in a studio, Droog was shot in fields and parking lots. Its centerfold featured a car, shot head on, bearing a license plate which read “Droog.” The name was the result of a company contest. It was, Kahn told Catalog Age in 1999, a “natural progression from dELiA*s” that featured “streetwear, workwear, and urban and athletic lines.”

Sadly, Droog did not find the same success as dELiA*s; according to Catalog Age, it folded in 2000.

11. THERE WAS A CATALOG FOR HOME FURNISHINGS, TOO.

Contents, which featured roomwares for teens, launched in the late ‘90s. Says Benson, who collaborated with a designer named Whitney Delgado on the catalog: "I love the pictures so much, and those crazy rooms that we built."

12. THE BRICK-AND-MORTAR STORES POSED A PARTICULAR CHALLENGE FOR BENSON.

A Delia's storefront.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Following the launch of its website in 1998 (which, according to Chain Store Age accounted for two to three percent of the company's total sales in just two weeks online), dELiA*s began opening brick-and-mortar stores in 1999. Creating the look of the stores was, according to Benson, a tough but rewarding assignment.

To help, the company enlisted visual merchandiser Renee Viola and hired store designer John Farnum, who had worked with Nike. “The tricky part was like ‘OK, we have this thing, it looks like this and feels like this in print. How do we bring what’s happening here into the stores?’” she says. “We didn’t want to lose what we had. From a design standpoint and a building creative team standpoint, it was super fun—I haven’t been in a store development process that was so collaborative since. It was quite wonderful.”

13. THE COMPANY WAS SOLD, WENT OUT OF BUSINESS, AND CAME BACK FROM THE DEAD.

In 2003, amidst decreasing sales, dELiA*s was sold to Alloy, its former competitor, for $50 million. (Catalog Age called it “one of the hottest pairings in teendom since Britney and Justin.”) Alloy at first absorbed the company; then, two years later, spun it off again so it was a separate entity. In 2014, after it lost $57 million, dELiA*s filed for bankruptcy; all of its retail locations and its website were shuttered by March 2015.

But that wasn’t the end. In early 2015, Delia’s was purchased by Steve Russo and other investors and relaunched that August. “In speaking to women who came of age in the ‘90s, they all said they couldn’t wait to receive their dELiA*s catalog in the mail after school,” Russo told The Huffington Post. “The company in those days was visionary, with its inclusive product assortment. We saw an opportunity to revive that excitement in every girl again through print catalogs, exciting new social media campaigns, and a strong e-commerce presence.” You can shop here.

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