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Douglas Trumbull's mind-bending 1983 film Brainstorm may be best known as Natalie Wood's last film before her untimely drowning death in the middle of production, but it is also a solid science fiction drama that was well ahead of its time. The story begins with two brilliant scientists, Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) and Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher), who have developed a revolutionary device to record and vicariously experience other people's feelings and perceptions. It's an invention that has seemingly endless possibilities both good and bad. In the meantime, Michael's marriage to Karen (Natalie Wood), a product designer, is on the brink of splitting up. When Michael's boss (Cliff Robertson) decides to sell their invention to the military, Michael and Karen must put aside their differences and keep the invention from getting into the wrong hands.
The seed for Brainstorm was planted when producer Joel Freedman first brought the project to director Douglas Trumbull in 1977. While Trumbull had directed one feature film before, Silent Running (1972), he was best known as one of the world's top special effects wizards. Trumbull had made his indelible mark in Hollywood by creating memorable special effects for films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Blade Runner (1982). Trumbull had been looking for a chance to direct a second feature, and when he heard the concept of Brainstorm, he was intrigued. "There was an original screenplay written by Bruce Rubin that needed to be boiled down but had all the concepts that intrigued me as a film," said Trumbull in a 1983 interview with Film Comment. "I was trying to find a project that dealt with the issue of perception, and I felt the script offered that opportunity."
After several large scale projects that Trumbull had been developing at other studios fell apart, he had devoted himself to creating a process called Showscan through Paramount Studios. Showscan, as described by Trumbull, was "a high-speed 70mm motion-picture photography and projection technique. It's fundamentally a giant screen process which, through its particular technique, creates a tremendous illusion of three-dimensionality." Paramount was interested in making a feature film utilizing this process, and Brainstorm was developed there with that in mind.
While Showscan was an exciting and cutting edge concept for motion pictures, it would also prove to be prohibitively expensive to incorporate all the necessary technology needed for both filming and exhibition. "The theatrical movie industry can't handle any kind of significant technological improvement," said Trumbull in 1983. "It's a huge, entrenched industry with thousands of cameras and thousands of theaters: nobody's going to throw out all their cameras and throw out all their projectors and redesign their theaters and go for a new system. It's just not in the cards." Paramount decided to abandon the Brainstorm project as well as any further development of Trumbull's Showscan technology.
Following the setback, Trumbull decided to try a new approach. "Instead, I came up with the idea of doing Brainstorm in both 70mm and 35mm," said Trumbull. "In movies people often do flashbacks and point-of-view shots as a gauzy, mysterious, distant kind of image. And I wanted to do just the opposite, which was to make the material of the mind even more real and more high impact than 'reality'. So we used 70mm for all the point-of-view stuff, kept moving in and out of 70, in and out of stereo sound. You get everybody sucked in at the beginning of the movie with a sort of training program in reel one. You illustrate what's a point-of-view shot and give them a lot of candy, POV scenes of roller coasters, fun things, and get everybody conditioned to the idea. Then the movie makes this transition and starts to throw at you more emotional material, subconscious material, effects material. I hoped people would be conditioned to accept it."
Trumbull then took Brainstorm to MGM, who had expressed interest in it all along. The studio saw the potential for a spectacular technical achievement in filmmaking and committed to moving the project along quickly. Screenwriter Robert Stitzel was brought in to revise the script, simplifying the original story along the way. "The original screenplay was too complex - too many amazing ideas to put into a two-hour film," said Trumbull. It was just incredibly dense with fabulous concepts. But it also was weak in terms of character development. You can't do both."
Actress Natalie Wood came onto the project when producer John Foreman called and asked her to join the cast playing Christopher Walken's estranged wife. Wood was in the midst of a transitional phase in her career. Having started out as a child star in Hollywood and later making a successful transition into adult roles, Wood had been a movie star for over thirty years by the time Brainstorm came her way. One of the silver screen's great beauties, Wood was now over 40 years old and had been absent from movies for a few years, having taken time off to raise her two young daughters. She faced an uncertain future as to where her career would go now that she was more mature, but she still wanted to do quality work. She readily agreed to make Brainstorm, excited at the prospect of being part of a big budget Hollywood movie again. "Natalie's part, as written, was ordinary," said Wood's husband at the time Robert Wagner in his 2008 memoir Pieces of My Heart, "but the picture sounded like it could be cutting-edge, if only because of the technology and the fact that it was science fiction. It seemed like a good idea."
If Natalie Wood brought a touch of Old Hollywood glamour to Brainstorm, the other stars of the film-Christopher Walken, Louise Fletcher and Cliff Robertson - all brought serious acting chops and one Oscar® each. Walken had won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for his work as a disturbed Vietnam veteran in The Deer Hunter (1978), Fletcher had won her Best Actress Oscar® for her unforgettable performance as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), and Robertson had won his as Best Actor for his portrayal of a mentally challenged man who is turned into a genius in the 1968 film Charly.
To prepare for the film, according to writer Robert Stitzel, Douglas Trumbull took most of the key cast and crew up to the Esalen Institute, an experimental research facility in Northern California known for its new-age classes and workshops that enjoyed huge popularity during the 1960s and 70s. While there, according to Stitzel, Trumbull wanted everyone to study the concept of life after death - one of the themes at the center of Brainstorm--by taking a hallucinogenic drug that supposedly simulated death under the supervision of one of the Institute's doctors. However, because the drug was illegal, that plan was nixed. The group, instead, enrolled in what was called a "rebirthing" seminar that included, according to Suzanne Finstad's 2001 book Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, "everyone lying on the floor listening to a tape, using slow, rhythmic deep breathing until their muscles contracted and they went through emotional states from hysterical laughter to sobbing, simulating life after death." According to Robert Stitzel, Natalie Wood was the only one who didn't participate (perhaps it was because she had already experienced the Esalen Institute while preparing for her role in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice in 1969). Co-star Louise Fletcher thought the whole thing was "insane" but did it anyway, if only to placate Trumbull. "I'm too pragmatic and I just went along with it because I had to," she said.
Trumbull also gathered the cast to spend two weeks going over the script at table read rehearsals before shooting began. During this process, the cast worked on their characters and were encouraged to improvise some of their dialogue. It was a process that Trumbull described as "really heavy group therapy", and it frustrated writer Robert Stitzel, who viewed it as "utter chaos"; he believed that Trumbull was acquiescing power to the Actors Studio-trained Christopher Walken, who kept insisting on changes. Stitzel's misgivings foreshadowed more problems to come during the troubled production.
In late September 1981 the cast and crew traveled to North Carolina to begin six weeks of location shooting on Brainstorm. The cast worked well together. On co-star Natalie Wood, Louise Fletcher said, "When we worked together in scenes, she was in a very good mood and very, very funny. She would be talking under her breath, trying to make me laugh - and she succeeded." Regarding Christopher Walken, Fletcher said, "He's a marvelous actor. He made me laugh a lot...right before the scene would start, he would do something completely different just to get the energy going, like he'd drop his pants or something. He's not over in his own space. He's kind of intrusive, but everybody's got their own way of working."
Despite the camaraderie, there was some tension on set, mostly having to do with Douglas Trumbull reportedly losing control of his actors. While the production fell consistently behind schedule, many felt that Trumbull was far more focused on special effects than on the story. According to Robert Stitzel, "...it was chaotic because of Trumbull's complete lack of control over what was going on, and Walken was pretty much directing his own scenes and doing his own thing." First Assistant Director David McGiffert said, "It seemed as though a lot of the production was in chaos...for some reason, it was difficult for Doug to impart his brilliance, to communicate it to actors." Word of this leaked back to the studio brass at MGM and they began to worry. "The producers and the director," said Louise Fletcher diplomatically, "didn't have a creative meeting of the minds."
Still, Natalie Wood was thrilled to be working on such an ambitious production even though she was plagued with insecurity throughout the shoot about her age, looks and acting ability. Christopher Walken, with whom she had hit it off immediately, seemed to have a soothing influence on her. He was able to help the usually reserved actress loosen up and relax more on the set. He was a New York theater trained actor and represented a whole different world from the Hollywood system in which she had worked most of her life. Walken's raw talent inspired her to take her own craft more seriously, and he encouraged her to dedicate herself to acting. Some on the production felt that Walken's influence over her was so strong that Wood was inclined to listen only to his direction and not Trumbull's.
With both married stars away from their spouses on location, it didn't take long before rumors of an affair between Natalie Wood and Christopher Walken surfaced among the cast and crew. Even Wood's husband, Robert Wagner, felt that something was up. In October, Wagner took a few days off from filming his hit TV show Hart to Hart and flew to North Carolina to spend time with Wood. "During those couple of days, the little bell in my head went off," said Wagner in his 2008 memoir. "Chris Walken was a very exciting actor and a very exciting guy who delighted in taking great risks. The bell wasn't exactly clanging, but I was aware that I didn't have her full attention. She was more involved with the movie than she was with her family, and the thought occurred to me that Natalie was being emotionally unfaithful. I chose not to confront her with my feelings. I flew back to my series, and Natalie continued production on Brainstorm."
In November, the cast and crew returned to Hollywood for one more month of filming at MGM to complete Brainstorm. Following Thanksgiving, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner decided to spend the holiday weekend aboard their yacht, the Splendour, named after Wood's 1961 film Splendor in the Grass. They also invited Wood's co-star Christopher Walken along as their guest. On the night of November 28, 1981 Natalie Wood went missing from the yacht that was anchored off the coast of Catalina Island. The following morning Wood's body was found floating in the water nearby-the victim of what was ultimately ruled an accidental drowning. Natalie Wood's death was a shocking tragedy that grabbed headlines for months and generated endless speculation from media determined to make something sordid out of the accident.
Wood's death also left the production of Brainstorm with an uncertain future. While there were still three weeks of principal photography left, she had already completed filming all of her major scenes. According to Douglas Trumbull, there were only two more scenes left for Wood to shoot, and they were minor. Due to mounting financial problems, MGM took Wood's death as an opportunity to shut down the already troubled production. "When she died," said Trumbull, "all the sets were locked and frozen on all the stages. No one could get in or out without special permission while all the negotiations took place."
While MGM wanted to dump Brainstorm citing Natalie Wood's death as a reason to stop production, Douglas Trumbull wanted to fight for its completion. Trumbull believed that the financially strapped studio simply got cold feet about putting up the rest of the money to complete Brainstorm. "[MGM's] problem was that [insurance institution] Lloyd's of London, when it took depositions from me and other people," said Trumbull, "realized that the film could be finished. Why should they pay an insurance claim for something that really wasn't damaged goods?"
It took nearly two years for the problems surrounding Brainstorm to be resolved. When MGM refused to put up its own money to finish Brainstorm, Lloyd's of London kicked in $2.75 million for Trumbull to complete principal photography and an additional $3.5 million towards post-production. Other studios, meanwhile, became interested in buying Brainstorm from MGM to release as their own. "[MGM] decided to allow Lloyd's of London to offer the film to many of the major studios in town," said Trumbull. "A very nice deal was offered to them. Several of them made bids to MGM. And the studio suddenly realized that a lot of other people in this town were excited about Brainstorm, and were ready to put up millions of dollars. MGM figured they'd look like jerks if they let it go and it turned out to be a big success. So they finally decided to work out this deal where Lloyd's of London would put up the remaining money and become a profit participant."
Brainstorm was finally released in the fall of 1983, almost two years after Natalie Wood's death. The film was dedicated to her memory. Reviews praised the concept and special effects in the film, noting its inspired shifting between 35mm/regular sound and 70mm/stereo sound to help enhance the virtual reality sequences (a technique that loses a great deal of impact on the small screen). While critics agreed that it was wonderful to see Natalie Wood one last time on the big screen and agreed that her performance felt complete, it was actress Louise Fletcher who was routinely singled out for her standout performance as Christopher Walken's chain-smoking research partner. "Louise Fletcher...gives a superb performance, playing a woman whose excitement about her work is matched only by her fury at watching that work subverted," said the New York Times. "The film's acting surprise, because it is so unanticipated," said Variety, "is Louise Fletcher, whose flinty, career scientist is a strong flavorful workaholic portrait, arguably her best role since Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
Even though Douglas Trumbull was ultimately victorious in bringing Brainstorm to theaters, he was so embittered by the painful experience that he decided to withdraw from the filmmaking business altogether. Brainstorm was the last film that he ever directed. "I have no interest...in doing another Hollywood feature film," said Trumbull in 1983. "Absolutely none. The movie business is so totally screwed-up that I just don't have the energy to invest three or four years in a feature film. Moviemaking is like waging war. It destroys your personal life, too. The people who can survive the process of making films have largely given up their personal lives in order to do that, just because it's such a battle to make a movie. And in doing that, they've isolated themselves from the very audience that they're trying to reach."
Trumbull later focused his efforts outside of Hollywood, continuing to develop his Showscan process, which was eventually absorbed into the IMAX Corporation. While at IMAX, Trumbull masterminded the IMAX Ridefilm design, described by the company as "the most immersive, dynamic and realistic simulation product available." Motion simulator rides built under Trumbull's design such as Asteroid Adventure and Back to the Future-The Ride have been wildly popular while helping to revolutionize the ride attraction industry.
While the effects in Brainstorm may seem dated when compared to today's CGI standards, it is important to note that its technology was quite innovative for its time. It depicted a vision of virtual reality in an engrossing story that proved to be well ahead of its time. At its core, however, Brainstorm is a story of simple human emotion and people's relationships to each other. "I'd like the audience at the end of this movie to look at the stars and stop worrying about their little world and think about this huge, awesome life out there," said Trumbull in 1983. "But at the same time, keep that in balance with your own personal life. This movie's really a love story. And it's about determination; it's about integrity; it's about not letting a big company trample all over you and deny you something that you want to do; it's about not letting business get in the way of art or science."
Producer: Douglas Trumbull
Director: Douglas Trumbull
Screenplay: Robert Stitzel, Philip Frank Messina (screenplay); Bruce Joel Rubin (story)
Cinematography: Richard Yuricich
Art Direction: David L. Snyder
Music: James Horner
Film Editing: Freeman Davies, Edward Warschilka
Cast: Christopher Walken (Michael Brace), Natalie Wood (Karen Brace), Louise Fletcher (Lillian Reynolds), Cliff Robertson (Alex Terson), Jordan Christopher (Gordy Forbes), Donald Hotton (Landan Marks), Alan Fudge (Robert Jenkins).
by Andrea Passafiume