This interview first appeared in the Spring 1985 issue of Sight and Sound

Karen Jaehne: You have directed two films yourself, Silent Running in 1971 and Brainstorm in 1983. How did you begin making films rather than designing them?

Douglas Trumbull: In the late 60s, Easy Rider was made for a quarter of a million dollars and took a lot of people by surprise. At Universal Studios a project was developed aimed at making five films for under a million dollars each with completely off-the-wall unknown directors and unknown stories – rather experimental films. I was lucky enough to do Silent Running through a friend, Michael Gruskoff, who was then an agent and also a friend of the project supervisor Ned Tanen. I developed an interesting idea in my treatment and I should never have strayed from that, though the film that got made was substantially different from the treatment. Even in those days, when you could do almost anything you wanted, I had no idea that we had as much freedom as we did.

I have my own philosophy about technology and machinery and the role it plays in history, and my idea revolved around the drone robots on a space freighter, as characters I was trying to develop. The drones do the work on the ship; the human operator, played by Bruce Dern, is notified that, at 35, he is no longer needed, that what he did and believed in has become obsolete.

So he turns the freighter into a maverick ship, isolates himself for an adventure into a rather abstract ‘Outlands’ and develops a relationship with the drones rather like a snowbound Eskimo with his sled dogs. By the end of the movie, a telemetric image is transmitted to him through a drone. In the original story the drones were like ants, hundreds of them, but financial reasons kept us from such extravagance.

It was a rather obscure movie, and it might have played well, but I was under pressure to create the kind of hyped-up Hollywood drama that diverted the picture into an ecological message. Originally, that was to be just one small element.

Bruce Dern in Silent Running (1972)

Aren’t sci-fi films usually vehicles for messages?

I don’t know. I’m not an avid reader of science fiction. As a kid, of course, I read Heinlein and others, but I was taken up with the adventure of it all. Most of the time, however, I was irritated by the gimmicky technological hinges. I’m opposed to sci-fi for the sake of technology. It will never replace the real tensions of human relationships.

But you are the virtual creator of technological wonders – the Stargate of 2001, the Mothership of Close Encounters, the Brainstorm lab.

My interest in science fiction is actually a composite. I used to be an illustrator, an artist, and I think very visually. I understand high technology, but as an artist. I feel comfortable with it, unlike many people, even though we are all surrounded by it. It’s not coming, it’s here.

How did you get into the futuristic business?

I was a background artist in the technical movie business, painting the planets and the stars. I worked in documentaries and made a splash, I guess, with a 1964 World’s Fair film, To the Moon and Beyond. Stanley Kubrick saw it and hired me to work on his avant-garde movie 2001.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Why did 2001 seem like an avant-garde movie in 1965?

Kubrick was determined even then not to make a story-movie. He would say, “This is an experience.” He never would have said, “This is art,” although to him it was art. Something about the movie had to do with the audience directly experiencing the film, absorbing it, instead of being a third person watching other people go about their business. And I thought that was fascinating. Kubrick had a profound effect on me, not to mention the sheer delight in Super-Panavision, widescreen, Cinerama, the whole thing, with six-track stereo sound. It’s clear that the movie did play as an experience, and I think I was involved in creating that experience, solving many of the visual problems with miniatures, the Stargate and a variety of things which were as challenging to make as to view.

Did the hush-hush policy surrounding Close Encounters of the Third Kind have anything to do with giving you more freedom?

Spielberg’s policy of avoiding advance publicity was not just to make the picture a surprise. As soon as someone hears that Spielberg, Lucas or Kubrick is making a movie due out in two years, you can count on three movies-of-the-week coming out before you and soaking up the market. The cheapo-exploitation people do it and, in fact, there were a couple of legal battles on Close Encounters.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

It could be argued that you may have greater control over the look of a picture than the director.

Sometimes. Obviously you need a close collaboration, and sometimes I’ve wound up supporting the director – which is not really my goal in life. But sometimes you are just there to set off the firecrackers, the special effects.

After Silent Running I was scheduled to direct Journey of the Oceanauts, which Arthur Jacobs [Planet of the Apes] was producing – 2001 under water. We were two years deep into it when Arthur died; and because he had always taken great chances and brought them off, he seemed the only one capable of it, and nobody else would pick up the project.

Then at MGM I got involved in Pyramid, an end-of-the-world movie written by David Goodman; the script was completed, the set design ready, models started; then MGM decided not to make any more movies. They sold the backlot and built a Las Vegas hotel.

Later, I had a picture that was a precursor to Rollerball, about an advanced form of sensory entertainment which totally takes over people’s lives. That was at Warner Brothers before all the heads rolled. Zanuck came in, Ted Ashley went out, and the new heads had this ‘not my project’ attitude.

You can’t live on development deals, because you don’t get your money until you start to shoot. Feeling a bit desperate, I approached Frank Yablans at Paramount to see if the studio might be interested in starting a research and development division, which I would head. That’s what launched the Future General Corporation, to see just what the future of movie-making is all about, and if there was a better way to make movies.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Did you discover a better way to make movies?

In the first year, 1975, I invented or discovered the Showscan process. [Showscan is a form of filmmaking that uses 70mm film and runs at 60 frames per second; the high framerate, Trumbull theorised, increases the audience’s emotional engagement.] Then Frank Yablans left Paramount. The new management didn’t care what I was doing. I managed ultimately to save Showscan, but in the meantime I was virtually sold into bondage to do Close Encounters – which was not a bad way, frankly, to live out a six-year contract. The Mothership was left to gestate until the end. When I came on the set, Steven Spielberg was experimenting with flying saucers. It was crude: there were hanging discs with lights inside strung from wires across a stage with smoke. And he had a model of a Mothership that had been built by a physical effects guy, not an optical effects person, that looked like a kazoo with lights. It was the strangest shape, made no sense at all.

Douglas Trumbull

Spielberg had read everything there was to read on flying saucers. All the reports are full of babble about lights but they are quite indistinct, so I suggested we follow this. Forget the saucer: we had trapezoidal shapes, hamburgers, round ones, pointy-topped ones. We tried to create faces subliminally. All the saucers have eyes, noses, mouths – but nobody seems to have noticed, because to see them you have to look right into this blinding light. We lined up lights behind lights behind lights, in front of the anthropomorphic ships.

Was that different from the usual procedure?

There was no established procedure then. They had originally spent a lot of money on computer graphics, but the results were disastrous. I don’t find computer graphics nearly as sophisticated and beautiful as the effects you can create with miniatures, optics and photography, which produce a more delicate image.

What do you think of Tron?

Tron was a daring break out, as different from making a feature film as from making a feature cartoon. The attempt was brilliant, but the drama vapid. You can have all the high-tech processes, but if you haven’t a story going for you, it’s nothing. There will be more stuff like that, I’m sure, but better.

Brainstorm (1983)

Although you didn’t make Brainstorm until 1983, you were working on it earlier, and it’s known that you wanted to do the brain-tripping sequence in Showscan. What happened?

Joel Freedman, the executive producer, submitted the story to me as a first draft from an unknown writer. It veered off into a depressing science fiction ending with the whole world resolving into tapes talking to tapes – something we changed because it was anti-human. I had a lot to do with developing the story and, after several other writers had worked on it, wrote the final draft. At the time I was under exclusive contract to Paramount, and was trying unsuccessfully to get Showscan launched. Finally, Charlie Bluhdorn saw it and told a meeting of studio executives, “Gentlemen, if we don’t make a feature film in this process, we’re fools.” I thought we were turning the corner. My mandate was to find a screenplay that could be shot partly in Showscan and partly in 35mm, so the only risk was the third of the movie to be shot in Showscan – perhaps twenty days shooting. The screenplay I developed was Brainstorm.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Then came the Star Trek business. They had hired an outside company for the special effects, spent $5m and hadn’t got a stick of film. They had guaranteed Star Trek – The Motion Picture to 750 theatres on 7 December 1979 for the Christmas release. The exhibitors, who had paid some $30m in advances, supposedly one of the biggest advances ever taken, then got wind that the picture might not be ready in time. The report was that the exhibitors were going to file a big lawsuit, that this was going to be the showdown over blind-bidding in the United States. So Paramount had to deliver the movie. Whatever the cost, it had to go into the theatres on 7 December. I agreed to do the special effects, even though I didn’t much like the movie, on condition that, when I finished the film, I could get out of my contract and take Brainstorm and Showscan with me. They had an option to make Brainstorm in Showscan, but if they didn’t want to do that, I wanted out.

The Star Trek job was a nightmare. We only had six months and I had crews working in three shifts, round the clock. I never went home, ate junk food and wound up in hospital. We spent, I think, but I quit counting at some point, $19m on special effects – much of that wasted on overtime. There are some incredible pieces of photography in the film, as well as some poor shots. There are as many special effects shots as in Star Wars and Close Encounters combined, done in a quarter of the time. There’s some good stuff in there, to keep it interesting. But nowhere near as interesting as Brainstorm could have been with Showscan giving it an experiential dimension, even for the audience, every time a character put on one of those little helmets. It would have had a really open, edgy, Kubrickian style.

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