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After a tense and troubled 1981 shoot, director Douglas Trumbull had almost finished shooting his sci-fi film Brainstorm, about a gizmo that records people’s memories and lets others download them into their own brains, when star Natalie Wood died on a boat trip.
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Also on the boat? Christopher Walken, who played her husband in Brainstorm and became emotionally close to the actress during filming, and her real-life husband, Robert Wagner.
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Ironically, the film’s plot turned on the death of a third character, played by Louise Fletcher, who records her own death on the device. Since Wood’s performance was almost completely in the can, Trumbull eventually was able to tweak, reshoot a bit, and release the film in 1983.
In a 2009 interview, Trumbull discussed his experience with trying to get the film completed after Wood’s death.
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“Lo and behold Natalie Wood died in production, completely out of the blue,” he told the blog Archive Seven. “I was saying, ‘Holy shit!’ It actually became the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do — get that movie finished — and so it never really was anything it was intended to be. We had to finish it with money from the insurance company and try to get it on the screen.”
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The problems weren’t related to the actress, he said. “It had nothing to do with Natalie Wood dying, really, she was already in the can, but the studio was going broke and I frankly think there was some kind of subterfuge going on to get a big insurance claim to keep the studio [MGM] going and I stood between them and the insurance claim, because it was easy to finish the film without her because she was basically done. They didn’t want to hear it, so I became persona non grata at MGM. I finally got it done and then MGM management changed and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is just going on and on and on.’”
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The bad experience with Brainstorm drove Trumbull, a VFX wizard who worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, out of the film business for years.”Getting the movie done was extremely heartbreaking and difficult and that was when I decided I just have to get out of here. This feature film industry is just not working for me — I have to hang out my shingle doing something else,” he said.
After making motion-based rides like Back to the Future for Universal and smaller versions for science museums, he’s back in 2011 with splashy effects supplied for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and a plan to direct a future 3D feature.
Watch Brainstorm‘s 1983 trailer below.
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