Natalie Wood’s last film: How Hollywood tried to wreck Brainstorm

This week the Los Angeles Police Department reopened enquiries into the death of Natalie Wood. Many people will not be aware of her work. She had been making the film Brainstorm (1983) at the time — and it’s such a remarkable project that I thought it worth drawing attention to.

Best known for her anguished teen roles — Rebel Without A Cause, Splendour in the Grass, and a pivotal part in The Searchers, Brainstorm was a mature film and potentially the start of a revived starring career, after Wood had lost her way in poorer roles and personal difficulties.  Douglas Trumbull, who’d pioneered the remarkable  special effects in 2001 A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner had previously made the thoughtful eco thriller, Silent Running. Brainstorm had fully developed characters and dealt with bold scientific and ethical ideas, about experience and memory. Wood and co-star Christopher Walken played scientists battling their fears (and the industrial military complex) in pursuit of scientific truth when they invent a machine that can record and replay memory into other minds.

Walken and Woods in Brainstorm

When she died during the shoot the studio tried to shut down the production and cash in on the insurance. Trumbull had to fight hard  to complete the film, even rewriting scenes and using a body double to deal with his star’s absence. It’s said that the experience ended his Hollywood directing career. When I interviewed him last year for Channel 4 News we talked off camera about the film. He spoke with real sadness of how talented Wood was, the impact of studio pressure on the final movie, and the fact that her film was regarded with mawkish interest because of of her death, rather than on its merits.

Trumbull was and is an engineer. He was devising an immersive cinematic format at the time (Showscan) and was to go  on make the pioneering Back to the Future Ride at Universal Studios in LA. Brainstorm, like the several minutes’ long timewarp travel sequence near the end of 2001, went where no other filmmaker really could go — engineering to take the viewer into the film and on that cosmic journey

Suffice it to say, that the final sequence of Brainstorm is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen on  film. A humanist’s film about playing God. For all that’s dated about it (analogue tape technology) the references to the government’s finding torture uses for the memory capturing machine and the battle over ethical scientific boundaries, seem rather relevant to a world where politicians debate waterboarding and  stem cell research.

This is the summary of Brainstorm on Douglas Trumbull’s website:

First developed at Future General Corporation as a vehicle to launch the Showscan process of high speed 70mm photography and projection, the project foundered at Paramount under new management. Picked up by MGM under David Begleman, the film starred Natalie Wood, Christopher Walken, Cliff Robertson, and Louise Fletcher, under the direction of Douglas Trumbull. MGM was unwilling to make the film in Showscan, so a compromise was reached by using both 35mm and 65mm formats, alternating between mono and stereophonic sound. The story of Natalie Wood’s tragic death during production will never been fully known, and the challenge of completing the film against the will of MGM was one of Douglas Trumbull’s greatest triumphs, while also revealing to him the worst of Hollywood machinations. For this reason, he moved to the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts and began working outside the Hollywood feature film community, soon to land the very exciting project “BACK TO THE FUTURE – THE RIDE for Steven Spielberg and Universal.

Further reading/viewing

My full  Douglas Trumbull interview about Silent Running and his patented idea to solve  the BP Oil Rig disaster. (Also viewable on the Featured Video page of this website)

Douglas Trumbull website

Guardian feature on Trumbull’s work on The Tree of Life (July 2011)

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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