Behind the Screen

Updated February 13

The following features interesting trivia and stories about the productions and actors of older and current films. Titles are chosen arbitrarily. This page will be updated every other Tuesday.
Note: As always..Spoiler Alerts



Brainstorm (1983)

PG (1 hr, 46 min) Director - Douglas Trumbull


Brainstorm is a 1983 science fiction film directed by Douglas Trumbull and starring Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood, Louise Fletcher and Cliff Robertson. It was Wood's final film appearance, as she died during production. It was also the second and final major motion picture to be directed by Trumbull. The film follows a research team's efforts to perfect a system that directly records the sensory and emotional feelings of a subject, and the efforts by the company's management to exploit the device for military ends.



Basic Plot:

Brilliant researchers Lillian Reynolds and Michael Brace have developed a system of recording and playing back actual experiences of people. Once the capability of tapping into "higher brain functions" is added in, and you can literally jump into someone else's head and play back recordings of what he or she was thinking, feeling, seeing, etc., at the time of the recording, the applications for the project quickly spirals out of control.



To prepare for the film, Trumbull took most of the key cast and crew up to the Esalen Institute, an experimental research facility in Northern California known for its new-age classes and workshops. In September 1981 the cast and crew traveled to North Carolina to begin six weeks of location shooting, before moving back to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in Culver City, California in November to film interior scenes.


Esalen Institute

The film was nearly scuttled by Natalie Wood's death during a production break in November 1981. By this time, Wood had already completed all of her major scenes, but due to mounting financial problems, MGM took Wood's death as an opportunity to shut down the already troubled production. "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." (More on Natalie Wood's death can be found below)


Natalie Wood

Trumbull believed that the financially strapped MGM simply got cold feet about putting up the rest of the money to complete Brainstorm. "MGM's problem was that insurance institution Lloyd's of London, when it took depositions from me and other people, realized that the film could be finished. Why should they pay an insurance claim for something that really wasn't damaged goods?" When MGM refused to pay for the film to be completed, Lloyd's of London provided $2.75 million for Trumbull to complete principal photography and an additional $3.5 million towards post-production. Meanwhile, other studios showed interest in buying Brainstorm from MGM to release as their own production. "MGM decided to allow Lloyd's of London to offer the film to many of the major studios in town," said Trumbull. "Several of them made bids to MGM. And the studio suddenly realized that a lot of other people in this town were excited about Brainstorm, and were ready to put up millions of dollars. MGM figured they'd look like jerks if they let it go and it turned out to be a big success. So they finally decided to work out this deal where Lloyd's of London would put up the remaining money and become a profit participant."

Trumbull proceeded to complete the film by rewriting the script and using Natalie Wood's younger sister for Wood's few remaining scenes.


Lana Wood

The film carries the dedication credit "To Natalie".

The film was conceived as an introduction to Trumbull's Showscan 60 frames-per-second 70mm film process. "In movies people often do flashbacks and point-of-view shots as a gauzy, mysterious, distant kind of image," Trumbull recalled, "And I wanted to do just the opposite, which was to make the material of the mind even more real and high-impact than 'reality'". However, MGM backed out of plans to release the experimental picture in the new format. Trumbull instead shot the virtual reality sequences in 24 frames-per-second Super Panavision 70 with an aspect ratio of 2.2:1. The rest of the film was shot in conventional 35mm with an aspect ratio of approximately 1.7 to 1.

The score to Brainstorm was composed and conducted by James Horner, it won him the Saturn Award for Best Music in 1983. The Varèse Sarabande album/CD release is a re-recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, produced shortly before the original theatrical release.



The film was not a commercial success, with a production budget of $18 million and grossing only $10 million in ticket sales in North America. Because of the immensely troubled production and disagreements with MGM, Trumbull (pictured) opted never to direct a Hollywood film again. In 1983 he stated "I have no doing another Hollywood feature film...Absolutely none. The movie business is so totally screwed up that I just don't have the energy to invest three or four years in a feature film. Moviemaking is like waging war. It destroys your personal life, too. The people who can survive the process of making films have largely given up their personal lives in order to do that, just because it's such a battle to make a movie. And in doing that, they've isolated themselves from the very audience that they're trying to reach." In 2013, he explained that the uncertain circumstances of Natalie Wood's death were the main reason for this decision. He has since returned to filmmaking.



Brainstorm was finally released on September 30, 1983, almost two years after Wood's death. However, it opened on a small number of screens and with little publicity, despite being trumpeted unofficially as "Natalie Wood's last movie". Rotten Tomatoes reports that 63% of 16 critics have given the film a positive review. The film was intended for a July 1982 release date.



The tape used in the tape machines is a variety of decorative tape made by 3M. 3M only sold it in four-inch widths, so it had to be slit by hand to two-inch widths to fit in the tape machines. When filmed, they were astounded at how gaudy it looked, so to dampen its brightness, the prop crew wound the tape back and forth across a sander to dull its brilliance. "One of those things that actually looked a lot better on film when we finished with it," Douglas Trumbull commented. The "tape machines" were loaned to Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983), which was being filmed on an adjacent set.


tape machines

In 1973 screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin was set to direct his script, then titled "The George Dunlap Tape." He raised $400,000, secured filming locations in Indiana (including Indiana University), had props built, cast Laurinda Barrett ("Karen Brace"), Woody Eney ("Michael Brace"), Fred Holliday ("Hal Abramson") and Jacqueline Brookes ("Lillian Reynolds") and assembled an FX team that included Jordan Belson, John Whitney Jr. and Scott Bartlett. Just as shooting was about to commence, the primary investor withdrew their funds and the entire production collapsed.

The shots of "Heaven" were done by poking a hole in a piece of sheet steel, putting a quartz bulb behind it, and a piece of very scratched plastic in front of it. The rivers of "angels" were made with high-speed, backlit footage of a dancer wearing a long costume which was twirled about on two poles.



When the film was shown in the UK it was advertised as being in "Dynamic Expanding Frame", which meant that, although much of the film was in the conventional 35mm format, for the subjective camera scenes of people using the helmet, the image would suddenly expand into a huge 70mm wide-screen aspect ratio. In the U.S., if you looked carefully in theaters you could see that the "taped" scenes were just a bit wider on the screen and had more deeply saturated colors. The effect was subtle but enough to make those scenes distinct from the "real" scenes.

The cast includes three Oscar winners: Christopher Walken, Cliff Robertson and Louise Fletcher; and one Oscar nominee: Natalie Wood.



When Michael first shows the machine to his son Chris, he calls it "The Hat." However, in the script (final revised draft 9-21-81) he called it a "super-conducting phased field neural discharge sensor array."

Several more shots of "Hell" were created but cut from the final print for pacing. One of these was termed "Condo Hell" and featured many rapidly changing faces drifting slowly towards the viewer against an austere, high-tech looking background. Some of this can be seen in the trailer for the film. "Cancer Hell" was the crew's term for the gory-looking shots of tormented souls.




It is clear that Hal, upon being approached by Michael at the golf course just before his corroborated attempt to view the "death tape", has no idea what he is doing with the golf cart wheel.

The Death of Natalie Wood:

Because of recent current events regarding Natalie Wood's death, is the main reason I decided to use "Brainstorm" for the "Behind the Screen" page. During the making of the film Brainstorm, Wood drowned while on a weekend boat trip to Santa Catalina Island on board the Splendour. Many of the circumstances surrounding her drowning are unknown; it was never determined how she entered the water. She was with her husband Robert Wagner, Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken, and the Splendour's captain, Dennis Davern, on the evening of November 28, 1981. Wood's body was recovered by authorities at 8:00 a.m. on November 29, one mile away from the boat, with a small inflatable dinghy, named the Valiant, found beached nearby. According to Wagner, when he went to bed, Wood was not there. The autopsy report revealed that Wood had bruises on her body and arms as well as an abrasion on her left cheek.



Later, in his memoir Pieces of My Heart, Wagner acknowledged that he had an argument with Wood before she disappeared. The autopsy found that Wood's blood alcohol content was 0.14%, and there were traces of two types of medication in her bloodstream: a motion-sickness pill and a painkiller, both of which increase the effects of alcohol. Following his investigation, Los Angeles County coroner Thomas Noguchi ruled her death an accident by drowning and hypothermia. According to Noguchi, Wood had been drinking and she may have slipped while trying to re-board the dinghy.

After a 30-year hiatus, the case was reopened in November 2011 after Davern publicly stated that he had lied to police during the initial investigation and that Wood and Wagner had an argument that evening. He alleged that Wagner was responsible for her death. Walken hired a lawyer and cooperated with the investigation, and is not considered a suspect by authorities. Wagner has denied any involvement in Wood's death, but was named a person of interest in the investigation in February 2018.



In 2012, Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran amended Wood's death certificate and changed the cause of her death from accidental drowning to "drowning and other undetermined factors." The amended document included a statement that the circumstances of how Wood ended up in the water are "not clearly established".

Wood was buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. Scores of representatives of international media, photographers, and members of the public tried to attend her funeral; however, all were required to remain outside the cemetery walls. Among the celebrity attendees were Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Astaire, Rock Hudson, David Niven, Gregory Peck, Gene Kelly, Elia Kazan and Laurence Olivier. Olivier flew in from London in order to attend the service.




Christopher Walken as Michael Brace
Natalie Wood as Karen Brace
Louise Fletcher as Lillian Reynolds
Cliff Robertson as Alex Terson
Jordan Christopher as Gordy Forbes
Donald Hotton as Landan Marks
Alan Fudge as Robert Jenkins
Joe Dorsey as Hal Abramson
Bill Morey as James Zimbach
Jason Lively as Chris Brace
Georgianne Walken as Wendy Abramson

film scene