In 1983, a fantastic movie came out that starred four Hollywood legends, three of whom were Oscar winners. It was directed by one of the most important and influential visual artists in film history, and the plot foretold the invention of virtual reality decades ahead of its time. The script was written as a showcase for a new technology designed to change the way we see movies. One of the Hollywood legends died before the movie was finished, a mysterious death, and this ended up being her last movie—
And you’ve never heard of it.
We’re guessing you’ve never heard of it, anyway. In writing this article, we asked several dozen people if they had. One guy said he might have maybe seen it, a long time ago.
It was called Brainstorm.
Brainstorm was supposed to be huge. The director—himself a three-time Oscar nominee—was Douglas Trumbull, a visual-effects genius who had already worked on some of the most monumental films of all time: as Stanley Kubrick’s special photographic effects supervisor on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and as visual effects supervisor on Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).
Brainstorm starred Christopher Walken, who two years earlier had won the best supporting actor Oscar for The Deer Hunter; Louise Fletcher, an Oscar winner for her unforgettable role as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; and Cliff Robertson, who had won a best-actor Oscar for Charly in 1968.
The fourth leading actor was Natalie Wood.
Wood’s performance at age nine as the star of Miracle On 34th Street remains one of the most memorable by a child in movie history. She went on to star in Rebel Without a Cause opposite James Dean, in John Ford’s classic The Searchers, in West Side Story, and in Splendor In the Grass, among many others.
By the summer of 1981, Natalie Wood was one of film’s most beloved stars. She had taken fewer roles in the 1970s as she raised her children, and Brainstorm was to be her big comeback.
When filming was almost complete, she and her husband, the actor Robert Wagner, invited Walken for a weekend excursion to California’s Catalina Island aboard their yacht, the Splendour.
Wood did not survive the trip. After an incident aboard her boat, her body was found on Catalina’s rocks on November 29, 1981. Wagner told police she must have hit her head and slipped into the water in the middle of the night. The death was ruled accidental by the Los Angeles police and coroner. But it was suspicious, and the case was later reopened.
What was the story behind Brainstorm, the movie that precipitated the fateful trip, and did it have anything to do with the death of one of the most famous actresses of all time?
By the late 1970s, Doug Trumbull had worked on some of the biggest movies in history. He enjoyed those experiences, and learned from Kubrick, Spielberg, and Scott. But on a deeper level, the state of cinema made him depressed. “I was at a point in my life where I was very frustrated with movies as a medium,” Trumbull says. “I felt it was really decrepit and not evolving to anything like what I had grown up on as a kid.”
What he had grown up on included Cinerama (“cinema” plus “panorama”), an innovative widescreen moviemaking process in which films were projected on a massive curved screen to make viewers feel as if they were in the middle of the movie, experiencing it. Three projectors in perfect synchronization covered the entire surface of the curve, and the goal was a sense of total immersion for the audience. This was the 1950s, when soon there would be a television in every living room. Hollywood studios and movie-theater owners saw a threat, and Cinerama was one of the new technologies they were exploring in order to keep the theatrical experience exciting.
Trumbull now wanted to do something equally transformational and immersive. He started thinking about what could make movies better—what could make them new again, and thrilling.
What he came up with was a two-part plan that sounded simple: Use wider film. Shoot more frames per second.
The industry standard for movies in the 1970s was the same as it is today—24 frames per second on 35mm film. Very few filmmakers ever strayed from that. Doing so would have presented a mechanical problem, for one thing: Physical film moved through a camera as sprockets caught holes along the side—there was a limit to how quickly the film could move. But it was also a complacency problem. Everyone was used to 24 fps. Everyone was used to 35mm. The screens and projectors in movie theaters were equipped to show it. It was less expensive.
It worked just fine.
Trumbull wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to try a faster rate for a sharper picture: 25, 48, 66, 96. He wanted to try 70mm film—wider, higher resolution. He tested all sorts of combinations with the able help of Richard Yuricich, a cinematographer who had worked with him on 2001. The effects of their experiments were astonishing.
“We were seeing stuff we had never seen before, because there was no blurring,” Trumbull says. “The frames were sharp as a tack, because the shutter closure was so narrow. The movie became incredibly vivid and powerful.”
They settled on 60 fps on 70mm film and named the technology Showscan, incorporating a company called Future General. “The reason I choose 60 was because that’s the same frame rate that television has been forever, because television is very narcotically stimulating,” Trumbull says. “We did this test in a laboratory at the university [California State Polytechnic] down in Pomona, California. We found these laboratory guys that were really interested in measuring human physiological stimulation—to gauge people’s reaction. We ran tests that could show all these films shot at different frame rates and do what they call a double blind study—mixing them and never tell anyone what the order of events are. We hooked individuals up to an electrocardiogram, and an electroencephalograph [which records electrical activity in the brain], and we measured galvanic skin response [similar to a polygraph]—all to measure the physiological stimulation at the different frame rates. It created this hyperbolic curve that got better and better the higher frame rate you went to. It was empirical. This was like a really epic discovery about how to make movies better. That was our mission.”
They started shopping Showscan to movie studios. At Paramount Management, an executive named Charlie Bluhdorn told Barry Diller, then the CEO of Paramount Pictures, and the studio chiefs that he wanted in. He advised Trumbull to make a movie that was half Showscan, half normal, so that the audience could see the difference.
Trumbull took that mandate and adapted a screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin specifically to meet it. Originally titled The George Dunlap Tape, Rubin’s story revolved around a powerful, VR-like technology—a headset that allowed people to download their experiences and memories, and allowed other people to play back those sensations on tape and feel exactly like they were living it themselves.
“The story [initially] had a very big metaphysical aspect,” Rubin says. “The idea was that we were watching a tape that was being played by the machine. The machine would be looking for its creator, and that creator would be George Dunlap; it would be trying to re-create biological life at a time when all that existed were tapes playing themselves out over and over.”
Trumbull pared it down. “We got into this thing, and we were all saying, Holy shit, this is enough for three movies,” he remembers. “Let’s just make a movie that deals with the turbulence of the technology, before people start going solid state.” So the technology—that headset—became the focus, and that story became Brainstorm.
Rubin flew from New York to Los Angeles to see Showscan demonstrated at a theater in Westwood. He was shown footage of a roller-coaster ride, which Trumbull had filmed in a first-person view, as if you were the passenger. The increased film speed and aspect ratio shocked Rubin. “I’ve ridden on roller coasters in real life, and I rode the roller coaster in Showscan,” he says. “The memory locked in by the viewing of Showscan was stronger than the memory of actually going on a roller coaster. It registers in a very deep, impactful way.”
George Feltenstein is a film historian and the senior vice president of catalog marketing at Warner Bros., which now owns Brainstorm. “With the changing aspect ratios, the film changes as you go into this alternate reality,” Feltenstein says. “This is the way Doug’s mind is fifty years ahead of everybody else.”
That effect was going to play right into Trumbull’s vision for Brainstorm. During the parts of the story when no character was wearing the magic headset, the film would run as usual—24 fps, 35mm. But when a character put the headset on and entered another character’s consciousness, the aspect ratio would widen to 70mm and the frame rate would jack up to 60: Everything would seem bigger, crisper, hyperreal. Viewers would feel like they were wearing that headset themselves—a meta effect pushing the science-fiction plot into something approaching reality.
It was going to be sensational.
That’s not exactly what happened.
Those worries about the difference in film techniques being too expensive? They proved correct. Then there was a shakeup in the Paramount leadership. Trumbull was released from his contract. He took the idea over to MGM, which agreed to take on Brainstorm—sort of. They revised the plot, and reached a compromise on the filming: It would all be 24 fps, but the headset’s effect would be shot on 70mm film, and displayed with stereo sound, versus 35mm and mono sound for the real-world sequences. It wasn’t Showscan, exactly, but it would still create something like the duality Trumbull wanted.
Walken and Fletcher would play the two talented scientists who developed the technology. Wood signed on to play Walken’s estranged wife, with whom he gradually reconciles with with the help of the very technology he is working on. Trumbull successfully angled for Robertson to join as well, as the head of the company that funds the headset research.
Source: Popular Mechanics