As part of the publication of episode 7 of Fond Memories on Brainstorm, we publish this interview with director Douglas Trumbull which was conducted by Didier Leprêtre and originally published in Dreams Magazine in 1996.
What do you remember about Brainstorm 15 years later ?
I remember a long and difficult job. Brainstorm took up more than 5 years of my life. I started working on it in 1978 and it was only released in 1983. Tragedy struck when Natalie Wood died at the end of 1981 [29/11/81] under the circumstances that you know. I remember that we only had a few days' shooting left, and everything was instantly turned upside down. Insurance companies started interfering and we had to solve a lot of problems before we could complete the film. However, we struggled to carry on till the end and I think that the result was worth our efforts. It was a painful experience but fortunately we managed to carry it through to completion.
Precisely, where did the idea of Brainstorm come from ?
In addition to the theme of the seizure of our time by electronic technologies, my intention was to explore the various forms of mind transfer. Above all, Brainstorm was a means of visiting people's minds and of “hacking” them. But at the same time, Brainstorm was intended as an almost “intimist" film. Love, relationships and psychology were at the very heart of the story. I was able to play on a permanent basis with the philosophy of each of the characters, confronted with themselves. You know, Brainstorm deals as much with inventions as with inventors ! As a matter of fact, if you watch carefully the last scene of the film, you'll find out that I've put more emphasis on showing personal enrichment as Michael's main objective, rather than the scientific experiment.
Would you agree to say that the opposition between Technology and Man can be felt at all times ?
Brainstorm does indeed offer this opposition, but it is treated in a dramatic and emotional way. In the film, everything ‘is’ technology: the film set — the Research Triangle Park at Burroughs. Welcome —- and the atmosphere, but it all rests on human emotions. By definition, technology can only be unreal. Brainstorm is above all based on reality, even if it’s only virtual, and on the way of perceiving reality.
Besides being a brilliant technician, were you an inspired visionary ?
Well, maybe I was. I don't know. It probably has to do with the fact that I‘ve tackled science fiction as a serious topic. And maybe this dual (technical/human) scale did provide sufficient credibility for the fulfillment of Brainstorm. It's difficult to answer your question. We‘re all visionaries at one time in our life.
So you are both a poet and a technician !
Most of all, I'm stubborn. If I hadn‘t been so stubborn, Brainstorm would never have existed. My poetic side was mostly linked with my determination. Secondly, I needed to give warmth to these special effects and to make visual all these inexpressible impressions. I provided my own translation. Is it a poetic one ? I don't know.
I believe so. It reminds me of the sentence by Rimbaud: “Life is stronger than Death and its obscure mysteries as long as it has the face of Love."
Yes, you're absolutely right. That’s the exact definition of Brainstorm.
Tell us about the special effects, and in particular the Showscan.
Brainstorm is a film with special effects, not a film meant for special effects. I did not try to add any special effects for the sake of it, they all blend harmoniously. As for the Showscan, this was a new technique that allowed very fast shooting and projection, offering spectators a new three dimensional impression and increasing their sharpness of perception. As a matter of fact, the screen would literally disappear, you got the impression it was no longer here.
I remember this experience, it was quite gripping. It really felt like reality !
In fact, the illusion was perfect. You were really transposed beyond reality, especially when you were used to ordinary perception.
Changes in formats. that too was a brilliant and fascinating idea.
I wanted to show very clearly the distinction between virtual reality (70mm / stereo sound) and reality [35 mm / mono sound). At that time, the cinema would smother human senses rather than fire them, and this was a big mistake. Brainstorm changed and developed during the film and according to your perception of it. You would therefore go from a subjective point of view to a more lively point of view. The image would really "come to life."
Can you tell us more about the origins of the score of Brainstorm ?
At that time, James Homer was not the ‘Maestro’ he is today. The MGM was considering other composers but in fact none of them was appealing to me. [The MGM finally chose Jerry Goldsmith]. Just like for the Showscan, I was looking for a composer capable of straying from the beaten track, from the conventions of the genre. I don't think that the other composers who'd been sounded out would've been able to do what James did. We needed a new approach, an electric shot treatment. And a young, ambitious composer was exactly what I was looking for.
Tell us about the fabulous scene where the couple formed by Michael and Karen becomes reconciled, and about the fantastic piece called Michael's Gift To Karen.
The music in this scene represented their way at communicating, at a time when the couple was precisely falling apart because of their inability to communicate. My intention was to create a magical moment, a poignant scene, a love cry. This love cry, through the intermediary of a machine. was James Horner's music. The scene is both discreet and poetic, and so is the music. The pictures recorded were the "memory", Michael's Gift To Karen was "life". There are no more barriers, no more privacy, only pictures and James.
And what about Lillian's Heart Attack — undoubtedly one of the greatest scenes in the history of cinema and of the soundtrack ?
Oh that's a great compliment (laughts). Well first of all I'd like to point out the amazing performance by Louise Fletcher, who manages to glorify human will to its height. Death gets the upper hand over Life after the latter's strength has finally deserted it. James and myself had agreed on the idea that the music should be exactly the same: an opposition, then, step by step (note by note), Death encroaching upon and trampling on Life. It's quite philosophical, you know.
This scene is pure art !
You know, Lilian produces a real artistic performance. Although she knows she's terminally ill, she manages to gather enough strength to record her own death in order to complete her work and carry it through to completion. I remember that the camera was equipped with a fish-eye that would convey this illusion of weightlessness, of elevation. There was an impression of fluttering, of rotary motion. I'm very proud of this scene.
What do you remember about James ?
l've got excellent memories. The most intense are linked to the London sessions. It was fabulous, I'm sure you would've given your life to be there (laughs). James had finished recording the film score in US and had carried on with the digital recording session in UK. The walls are still shaking with it !
The musicians at the LSO still remember it !
I've no doubt about it ! Besides, if you’re here today, it actually means that something Great was born out of this music.
To conclude, what do you think about the present success of virtual reality as a means of communication (in the movies, among others) ?
Well, simply that what was unreal in 1982 is well and truly real in 1997. So I'm pleased with this evolution. There are times when it's necessary to "show" rather than to "say", and that's why reality can be virtual
Mr Trumbull, thank you for the interview.
Thank you too.
A great and warm thank you to Didier Leprêtre for authorizing us to publish this interview on James Horner Film Music.
Photo credits: © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.

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