By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
Now that the U.S. government is finally releasing decades-long secrets regarding military encounters with unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, there has been a resurgence of interest in alien encounters around the country.
Here in Wyoming, one very “monumental” incident more than 45 years ago put one of the state’s most recognizable landmarks on the map.
But this incident didn’t involve true alien contact. Instead, it involved the filming of one of the classic films that kicked off a global renewal of fascination with science fiction movies.
In 1976, film crews descended on Devils Tower in northeast Wyoming to begin production of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Steven Spielberg’s hugely successful tale of ordinary people confronting intelligent life from other planets.
And Wyoming Sen. Ogden Driskill was there.
National Park Service Said No
“Steven Spielberg came out personally, a year ahead of the movie,” Driskill told Cowboy State Daily. “And the (National) Park Service would not let him do the main part of the filming inside (Devils Tower National) Monument. And so Steven Spielberg met with my mother and father, and I got to go along, and he paid them $20,000 to provide the film site for ‘Close Encounters.’”
Driskill – who was a junior in high school at the time – said his parents owned land adjacent to the unique formation that can only be glimpsed from Interstate 90. He recalled vividly the summer that his family’s land became a film set.
“They came with two or three people, I kind of want to say in June, but I’m not positive, and they were done by August,” Driskill said.
Devils Tower featured prominently in the plot of the 1977 movie as the location that characters who had “close encounters” with UFOs are drawn to. It is also where the movie’s final scenes are set.
“The film site of ‘Close Encounters’ was an irrigated hay meadow that they graveled and turned into the helicopter pad and all the prep for ‘Close Encounters,’” Driskill recalled, adding that he and a friend worked with the crew during filming.
“I worked for the movie company, Columbia Pictures, the whole time up in what is now Devils Tower Gulch, they had set up a catering den, and fed several hundred people a day,” he said. “The kid that I ran around was Scott Robinson, his dad was superintendent in the park. We did grunt stuff, but Scott actually made it into the movie.”
Perks To Being There
There were perks, however, to hanging around the film crew every day.
“If you watch the movie, there’s a lot of helicopters,” Driskill said. “They had a whole fleet of old military helicopters there, and they had pilots on contract so that they were ready when they did the scenes. Well, they had to fly so many hours a day per the contract.”
Driskill said he had made friends with the pilots, who would fly him around the ranch or into Hulett to rope. And when Driskill had to leave the filming for a week to attend the Boys State conference in Douglas in June, the pilots were more than happy to give him a lift.
“When it came time to go to Boys State, they checked the schedule, and they didn’t have anything going, and so the entire fleet of 19 helicopters took me down,” Driskill said, smiling. “One of them lit on the ground at the state fairgrounds in Douglas, I got off, the rest of them hovered around, and then they turned around and headed back to Devil’s Tower.”
The special treatment didn’t do him any favors at Boys State, however.
“I ran for governor and did not get elected,” Driskill said.
Devils Tower KOA
Once the filming was over, Driskill said, his parents decided to put the $20,000 they were paid by Spielberg to good use.
“My mother talked my dad into using that money to build what is now the Devils Tower KOA,” said Driskill. “And when it finished, rather than reclaiming all the gravel and turning it into a hay field again, my mother built a building there, added on to it – there was an old A-frame restaurant there that a cousin had built – and opened a campground the year that the movie premiered.”
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was a huge hit when it was released in late 1977, eventually grossing over $300 million worldwide. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning just one for cinematography.
And although not all of the film was shot in Wyoming — California and Alabama were other primary filming locations — Driskill said the movie has had a lasting effect on the state.
“Well, obviously, 40 years later now, it still has an economic impact on the state of Wyoming, because people still come here,” he said.
But Driskill, the Legislature’s Senate majority floor leader, hasn’t let his family’s work on “Close Encounters” result in unqualified support for proposed legislation that would create an incentive program for film companies working in the state.
“Does the economic impact outweigh the cost?” he asked. “It’s obviously very important that we continue to find ways to promote our tourism, because every dollar of tax that’s paid by an out of state person is a dollar that doesn’t need to be paid by an in-state person.
“I’m generally supportive,” Driskill continued, “but only if it works economically. You know, we’re to the point in Wyoming where we’re trying to be very careful about where we spend our dollars.”