Brainstorming Douglas Trumbull: The Short Lived Film Directing Career of A Visual Master

Douglas Trumbull is bringing Showscan back with a new name and slight modifications, Magi. Here is a brief history of his short lived career as a director. 

On the set of Blade Runner
Nominated for five Academy Awards over the course of his career, Douglas Trumbull is what the film industry often refers to as a special effects wizard.  The son of visual effects maestro Donald Trumbull, best known for the photographic effects of 1939’s timeless The Wizard of Oz, Douglas Trumbull began work in animation and graphic arts for a short film called To the Moon and Beyond.  With it, Trumbull caught the attention of director Stanley Kubrick, who ultimately hired him to devise and supervise a majority of the visual effects behind 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Soon Trumbull was a mainstream industry name, producing legendary visual effects work on such science-fiction classics as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner and recently The Tree of Life.  

Trumbull’s also heavily involved in the production of theme park rides such as the Back to the Future Ride at Universal Studios as well as briefly residing as a Vice Chairman of the IMAX Corporation.   For a very brief period, Trumbull turned his talents for the visual medium towards film direction, beginning in 1972 with the promise of a technical storyteller in the same league as Stanley Kubrick before it all tragically imploded in 1983 with the unexpected death of his leading actress.  Within Trumbull’s two films lie the ambition and drive of a potentially great major filmmaker, if only circumstance didn’t close the doors for good.  There are enough ideas and visions in both movies to make at least 5 or 10 pictures.  And so, let us take a gander at the sadly short lived film directing career of a special effects genius.

Silent Running (1972 – directed by Douglas Trumbull)
Decades before Duncan Jones’ lonely tale of space madness Moon hit the screen, there was a different, far more environmentalist evocation of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, made by none other than the aforementioned film’s visual effects supervisor, Douglas Trumbull.  Penned by future The Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino with a poignant theme song by folk singer Joan Baez, Silent Running tells the tale of a team of astronauts manning several space freighters harboring the last of the Earth’s wild forests in domed greenhouses after all life on Earth has reached extinction.  Originally intending to eventually repopulate the Earth with the forests, the astronauts receive special orders from Earth to destroy the domes so the freighters can be returned to their docking stations for commercial purposes.  Only one of the four crew members aboard the Valley Forge freighter, a botanist and ecologist named Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), objects to the decision and elects to murder the crew to save the last of Earth’s forests left in the universe.  Alone with 2 robots for company, Huey and Dewey (absolutely a precursor to R2-D2 in Star Wars), will Lowell succeed in protecting the plants from the destructive forces of industry, or will the guilt and loneliness drive him towards madness?

Silent Running
A stunningly beautiful and somber effort, Trumbull’s quiet, slow paced mood piece is one of the great, underrated science fiction films of the 1970s.  More akin to the realistic realizations of space travel paved by Kubrick’s 2001 and Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Silent Running is both a technical dazzler and above all a human story that asks the audience what they would do if they were faced with such a drastic situation.  Is the act of taking a human life worth preserving our natural world from complete and total obliteration?  You could make the argument Lowell is a futuristic Noah and the Valley Forge has become his ark holding the innocent.  While Trumbull and Cimino’s screenplay do tend to persuade viewers towards siding with Lowell considering the fellow crew members’ and Earth-base executives’ indifference towards botanical life, he doesn’t alleviate Lowell of the guilt and responsibility for his actions either.  There’s a real moral conundrum at play in Trumbull’s fable, with Lowell’s devotion to botany at war with his guilt over his steps taken to protect it. 

Largely anchored by Bruce Dern’s conviction to the material, this is a performance of a complex, conflicted man with a slightly madcap edge providing the capacity to kill his own for a greater good.  The other cast members making up the crew perform their scenes serviceably, but special mention should be given to the robots Huey and Dewey, which were dwarves in elaborate costumes.  You really wouldn’t know from looking at them these were men in suits.  Given the man behind the camera, it goes without saying the film is a technical marvel to behold, with elaborate models, expansive set pieces largely filmed within an aircraft hangar, and visual effects sequences that will remind many of the stargate sequence concluding 2001.  Unfortunately and understandably due to Silent Running’s minimal cast, simplistic premise and deliberately slow pacing, the film flopped at the box office.  While it would be presumptuous and unfair to label Trumbull’s meditation on the fragility and vitality of the Earth’s ecosystem a work of tedium, you also can’t blame those easily bored by it.  That said, the heart beating within Silent Running, though quiet and subtle, is seen clearly in the film’s somber opening and closing cues of plants, vegetation and all the small creatures alive in it.  While we might take our fragile environment for granted as industry and technology bulldoze over it, if we’re not careful, we may lose it forever to a manmade and sterilized prison cell. 

Brainstorm (1983 – directed by Douglas Trumbull)
The last film of both actress Natalie Wood and Douglas Trumbull is something of a great Hollywood tragedy.  Not so much because Wood’s untimely death mid-production resulted in a compromised work-in-progress, but because Trumbull was genuinely interested in pushing the envelope as far as how films are experienced in a theatrical setting.  It was intended to introduce a new cinematographic process Trumbull called Showscan, which would project 70mm film at a high speed of 60 frames per second, resulting in what Trumbull called an ‘even more real and high-impact than “reality”’.  Deemed by MGM executives to be the most expensive projection process of 70mm film since the inception of Cinerama, the studio withdrew their support of Trumbull’s scientific breakthrough.   Not wanting to lose the endeavor, Trumbull instead opted to shoot his idiosyncratic opus on Super Panavision 70mm at approximately 2.2:1 with the rest of the picture lensed on 35mm at approximately 1.85:1.  What does all this mean for the Christopher Walken starring science fiction epic known as Brainstorm?

Penned by Jacob’s Ladder screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, the plot is exceedingly simple: Walken, Wood and Louise Fletcher (Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) make up a team of scientists who develop a device that can record and playback human thoughts and experiences on rainbow ribbon tape for others to view later.  Much like Christopher Nolan’s shape-shifting The Dark Knight, which alternated between 2.35:1 35mm filmstock and 1.78:1 IMAX sequences, Brainstorm shifts aspect ratios and film formats to create a jarring disparity between the banal real world and the heightened reality of the Brainstorm sequences.  As their creation gains momentum and promises a new quantum leap in telecommunication, the military investors who contributed to the project have more destructive plans for the device.  One night alone in the lab, Fletcher’s chain-smoking scientist suffers a heart attack and dies, but not before she manages to slip the device on and hit the record button, leaving behind a tape of her death experience.  Determined to take a scientific look at eternity and beyond, Walken vows to view the tape in its entirety, no matter how terrifying or dangerous the journey becomes.

When Natalie Wood died, however, Brainstorm nearly died with her, as MGM attempted to close production and locked up the sets much in the same manner Walken’s protagonist finds himself locked out of his own lab when military figures begin to take over the project.  Trumbull found himself fighting an uphill battle with studio executives and insurance companies over a half-finished film in the can.  After heated negotiations back and forth, a stand in for Natalie Wood and some heavy revisions to the original script, Trumbull finally resumed production on what was now a deeply troubled project.  When the film was finally released two years after Natalie Wood’s death, the film flopped at the box office.  A battered and defeated Trumbull ultimately resigned from film direction in Hollywood as a result of the ordeal, claiming ‘Moviemaking is like waging war.  It destroys your personal life, too.’  To add insult to injury, many home video incarnations over the years (save for a 1991 laserdisc release and eventual DVD/Blu-Ray disc) misrepresented Trumbull’s vision, with incorrect aspect-ratio shifting so all the 35mm scenes filled the screen as opposed to the theatrical pillarboxing, thus destroying the impact of the headset sequences.  As the years have gone on, Trumbull resumed visual effects work in film over the years, working on theme park rides, IMAX documentaries and eventually serving as a visual effects supervisor on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.  Still, with the advent of home video and regular television syndication, Brainstorm eventually did earn a much deserved place in film history as a cult favorite and moment when a filmmaker attempted to push the state-of-the-art medium further than it had ever been taken before.

-Andrew Kotwicki