Hollywood diva NATALIE WOOD died at the very early age of 43 in circumstances that were never clarified. While the cause of her death was initially considered to be “accidental drowning”, it was -30 years later- reassigned to “drowning and other undetermined factors”. Over the last three decades, whodunit rumors have abounded but, if there’s one undisputed victim of the actress’ disappearance, it’s the film she was working on at the time: BRAINSTORM.
Shot in 1981, tinkered in 1982, released in 1983, BRAINSTORM was the long in gestation second film directed by VFX genius DOUGLAS TRUMBULL (his directorial debut, SILENT RUNNING (1972), was recently covered in this column). Based on an innovative 1977 treatment, THE GEORGE DUNLAP TAPE by BRUCE JOEL RUBIN in which a team of scientists invent a “hat” able to record the senses, emotions of a living subject and relive them at will, BRAINSTORM was heavily rewritten by scribes PHILIP FRANK MESSINA, ROBERT STITZEL and, then, heavily re-interpretated by the actors themselves.
During a pre-production two week table rehearsal preceding the filming, a process qualified by TRUMBULL as “heavy group therapy” but decried as “utter chaos” by screenwriter ROBERT STITZEL, the director encouraged his actors to improvise their own dialogues (CHRISTOPHER WALKEN kept insisting on changes before a single frame of film was shot); this was a shift in power that would loom over production and overwhelm a second time filmmaker.
Shooting BRAINSTORM was a difficult matter: TRUMBULL was unable to impart his brilliance and often lost control of his actors because of lack of communication (WALKEN improvised most of his dialogues in what would become his semi-parodic style; almost directing his own scenes), production also fell behind schedule due to inflated egos and tension erupting on set (power struggle in direction had WALKEN act as an unofficial acting coach to an insecure NATALIE WOOD who would take her marks from her fellow actor) and, with a director more focused on visuals than storytelling (the final act in which the evil corporation is wrecked upon is neither compelling, nor credible), the disparity between the caliber of the actors becomes even more prominent. Where CHRIS WALKEN, LOUISE FLETCHER (Nurse Ratched from 1975’s FLYING OVER A CUCKOO’S NEST), CLIFF ROBERTSON, JOE DORSEY (character actor who delivered an effective old school general in JOHN BADHAM’s WARGAMES the same year) shine, every other performer (including NATALIE WOOD) seems distanced by the competition; creating a double acting standard.
“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.”
Not only did MGM shut down BRAINSTORM in 1981 to collect insurance payment as the studio was hitting financial trouble at the time (the film insurer, Lloyd’s of London, eventually worked out a deal with Leo the Lion and injected a little more than 6 million dollars to finish the picture; becoming a profit participant), it also took a reworking of the script and the use of a body double (replacing NATALIE WOOD) to conclude the live action staging. At the time of the actress’ death, BRAINSTORM still had three weeks of principal photography to go and, while the star only had two minor scenes left to shoot, some of the coverage (establishing shots, reverse angles) had yet to be captured requiring the use of the aforementioned stand in.
JAMES HORNER’s score for BRAINSTORM is, not only among the composer’s best works, it’s also among his most self-influential. Considering his young age at the time (29), it is mindblowing that he came up with so many classic scores early on in his career (1982-1983 produced trademark HORNER scores such as 48 HRS., STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, GORKY PARK and KRULL). While the use of the “danger motif” (borrowed from RACHMANINOV’s SYMPHONY N.1 and re-introduced in HORNER’s 1980’s BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS; used verbatim over the years by the composer) will be grating to the ears, the other aspects of the score are first rate. The heart attack scene is nothing less than visceral (ironically built around the “danger motif” itself) and the afterworld choral line is so effective that it ended up being emulated by ALAN SILVESTRI for THE ABYSS (1989). Its countdown motif (recycled from STAR TREK II) does wonders and there’s a bit of aleatoric approach blended with PENDERECKI styling, something rarely heard in the composer’s repertoire, which is quite refreshing. While HORNER already started to demonstrate his self-plagiarism, BRAINSTORM had the chance of happening early on in the musician’s career and, when synched to picture, it ranks among one of the most effective (and psychologically functional) scores the artist ever wrote.
As seen in theaters in 1983, BRAINSTORM is a distant relative of the film it intended to be. Nowhere to be found is the Showscan process (high-speed 70MM motion-picture photography and projection technique developed by TRUMBULL) which the production was supposed to establish but rather an interesting mix of regular 35MM footage (for the real word scenes) and immersive Super Panavision 70 (for the virtual reality sequences); the narrative flow of the original screenplay was also modified to fit with the ultimate unavailability of its main star. In a way, BRAINSTORM -like the DONNER CUT of SUPERMAN II- is a salvaged film and, when it works (high concept, special effects, music score, lead acting), does wonders and, when it does not (final act, acting discrepancy, pedestrian direction), feels out of place.
Very much in advance on its time, it would take more than a decade for a similar premise to be revisited in an audience friendly manner (the JAMES CAMERON produced STRANGE DAYS (1995) and the Cyberpunk infused MATRIX TRILOGY (1999-2003) come to mind). However, BRAINSTORM’s original ideas, noble ambitions (integrity vs. misuse), high production values and the uphill battle fought by the filmmakers who struggled so hard to finish the picture make it a revered piece of movie history. It might be a misfire, it sure is a fascinating one. [Brainstorm Trailer & Discussion]