Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Douglas Trumbull on SILENT RUNNING (1972)

Visual Effects legend Doug Trumbull talks with TV STORE ONLINE about his 1972 science fiction landmark SILENT RUNNING...

TV STORE ONLINE:   So is there any truth to what I've read in regards to the rumor that you originally conceived of the idea for Silent Running while you were working with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:
  Yeah, I did.  I just came up with the initial idea though.  I think I may have seen the Tod Browning film, Freaks (1932) while I was working on 2001.  I really can't remember what the exact time frame of it was now but the idea of making a robot character using a human person inside that was an amputee was an idea I really liked.  It was an idea I kept in my head for quite sometime.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Prior to starting production on Silent Running, didn't you have another project in the works? Something about UFOs?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  Well, I was sort of a consultant on it. There was a funny movie that wasn't my film that was made by another guy.  It never got completed but it was in pre production.  Of course, I can't remember the name of it but it was about aliens coming to Earth and it ended out at Giant Rock, California at an annual UFO Convention.  It was pretty interesting and pretty funny too for the time, but it never got made.

TV STORE ONLINE:  And you had no intentions of directing Silent Running originally did you?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  Right.  I just had no expectations that I'd be doing that whatsoever.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Why not?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  I don't know...I mean, I knew that I was a creative guy that had good ideas, some visual ideas and some story ideas and when I wrote the treatment for Silent Running it was quite different from what we actually ended up shooting. And I had never directed a film either. My original idea that I wrote out was a six page outline based upon this idea of doing robots with bilateral amputees and it was seen by a friend of mine who had another friend who in fact had a friend at Universal.  Silent Running was the type of idea that wasn't made at a studio though.  But when Easy Rider came out in 1969 it surprised everyone.

You had this low budget independent film that made a huge amount of money and the studio wanted to be a part of that.   So the studio heads at Universal decided to conduct an experiment.  They green-lit five films in attempt to duplicate that Easy Rider success.  So they agreed to giving each a budget of one million dollars and Silent Running was one of those five.

So then the question came up, "Whose going to direct it?"  And someone at the studio said, "Well, why doesn't Trumbull just direct it?"  So I said, "Okay."  I had never thought about it, but I just decided to do it.  I mean I had no idea how to direct a movie when I started Silent Running.  So the crew on the movie actually trained me in screen direction and photography.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Do you think that had Easy Rider not come out when it did that you would've been able to get Silent Running made?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  I don't know.  You never know how things are gonna happen. It's always a big surprise when something happens.  So I'm not sure.  It would be impossible to speculate on that scenario.

TV STORE ONLINE:  In an earlier version of the script for Silent Running that you came up with initially...that was based around the Freeman Lowell character meeting aliens wasn't it?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  Well, there was a six page outline, not really a finished screenplay, and yes, that was the original idea.

TV STORE ONLINE:   So how would all of that come about in the story?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  Well there really wasn't an outcome.  The treatment really didn't go much into it except to go into this territory where he, by virtue of himself being totally alone and out in the middle of space is approached by an alien. Who asks Freeman Lowell  if they can explore his ship and read his mine and come aboard and that was about as far as that idea went.  I mean, it never had a real beginning or an ending, it was just an idea.

TV STORE ONLINE:  So at what point do the film's other writers get involved with you?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  Well, various steps along the way really.  I mean you probably know as much about the history of Silent Running as much as anyone I've talked too.  Steven Bochco was one of the new, young, hot writers at Universal and he had a deal there plus I believe he was a relative of somebody at Universal or something.  So he helped out, and he was really good and very intelligent.  Then Deric Washburn (who I didn't really know) came aboard and he was a young rising writer as well.  Finally Michael Cimino came in and he had just written Magnum Force (1973) for Clint Eastwood.

So they were young guys at the time who were coming through the portals of Universal and they were kind of assigned to me as contributors and they each wrote drafts of the story and I didn't like any of the drafts but I like some of their ideas, so I rewrote the whole thing myself by literally cutting their drafts apart and pasting them together with scotch tape and then rewriting it again to clean it up.  So I had a lot of do with the actual final screenplay even though they each contributed components of it.

TV STORE ONLINE:  And you had originally thought about casting Larry Hagman in the role of Freeman Lowell right?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL: Yes.

TV STORE ONLINE:  What did you like about Hagman so much that you considered casting him?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  I just thought he was a kind of warm, charming, kind of character and I thought he could actually play the role convincingly.  I met with Larry, went to his house, and hung out with him talking about the film in his hot tub.  I'm not so sure he was interested in the film.  Then Bruce Dern's name came up, so I decided to go with Dern as Lowell.

TV STORE ONLINE:  So how did his name come up?  Did he audition, or did you have some sort of secondary interest in him?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  I think he just came to my attention through an agent or something.   He was about to start work with John Wayne on The Cowboys (1969) but he had some time in between and I went and looked at some of his work, and it seemed like he had already been type cast in his career.  He was always some kind of monster or bad guy, a baby killer or something.  There was just something about him that I really found interesting.   So I met him and he was really charming and I really liked him personally.  And I could see right away that he could do something quite different with Freeman Lowell.

I just didn't want to type cast anyone either.  I wanted to do everything differently than the way Hollywood was traditionally doing things, so Dern just seemed perfect, like he was somehow against the grain.

TV STORE ONLINE:   As the creator of the concept of the film, developing the Freeman Lowell character, who do you envision this character to be in terms of a human being?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL: Well you know I don't think of any prototypical character because I don't know any historical characters that could have been Freeman Lowell.  I'm sure there is someone or were some people in history that one could create a parable with, but I just thought then that he was a completely different character than we had seen before in any film.  I thought of him as a man with strong ethics and moral feelings that realized that those feelings were being compromised.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Do you think there is any Douglas Trumbull in the Freeman Lowell character?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  Of course.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Do you think Silent Running could be looked at as this film commenting on "Death of the '60s" idealism that you see running through film criticism these days?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:   Well, in retrospect, I guess you could say that.  That certainly wasn't the concept behind it when we made it though.  If you want to say that, be my guest.  Those statements are for other people to make, not me.

TV STORE ONLINE:
One of the most interesting aspects of the film and the Freeman Lowell character is how you've written him.  Did you ever worry when you're writing the Lowell character that you'd possibly have a hard time convincing an audience to get behind a hero that was actually a killer?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  Yeah, I really like that aspect too.  I wasn't too worried really. You know, I really like the fact that the audience doesn't have any clean flat answers and that he is in fact a killer and he knows in the end that he's gonna have to pay with his life for his actions.  So there's kind of a classic retribution that takes place and he does it himself because he knows he's guilty.  Sometimes we get caught in circumstances in our lives that we don't have any control over and if we have to shred ethics or morality and we're not ready to compromise...that's the kind of thing that can happen.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Do you think fans over analyze or create meanings and metaphors within Silent Running?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  Sure I do, yeah.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Because some would say that there's this whole religious utopia thing happening in the film in which Freeman Lowell has created a world and he's taking a bite from the proverbial apple and then he kills a man.

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL: Yeah, I don't know about that.  You can take anything from the film that you want to I guess. I think a lot of movies get over analyzed including 2001: A Space Odyssey.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Indeed. One of my favorite moments in Silent Running comes not in the story but in the cinematography with that absolutely stunning hand-held camera work at the beginning of the film, was that some sort of camera trick?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL: Thanks. I thought it was a very nice way to open the film as well.  No trick really, just a special lens. I had this lens built for a television commercial that I had done years before Silent Running. It was this kind of probe lens where the end of it was only about half an inch in diameter and it was about a foot long and it fit onto my Arriflex camera.  And those shots were done with an f stop of f/22.  That's very much a pin hole opening in the lens. I then rigged up the camera on this motor controlled track and it went through the flowers. And that's pretty much how it was done.

TV STORE ONLINE:   You know, going back quick to something you said earlier about the film Freaks.  What did you find so compelling about Freaks that was enough to take inspiration from it?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  Well, did you see Freaks?

TV STORE ONLINE:  Of course, dozens of times.  I guess I was just looking for a specific point of inspiration in regards to Silent Running?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:
  Well, Freaks is an amazing movie and the character that's played by Johnny Eck..I thought was just an incredibly powerful character.  And he was a very very handsome guy.  He just didn't happen to have a lower half to his body but he could dress in a tux, walk around on the table with a glass of champagne with anyone else.  And I just thought that was an amazing thing that someone could move on their hands with such dexterity and that gave me the idea that you could create this kind of robotic creature that would have all the attributes of a living being who would actually move and wouldn't be mechanical in movement.

It would be organic in movement, but it wouldn't look like a person in a suit.  And then also, it wouldn't be something that looked like the classic midget in a suit, or a man in a robot costume. It would be something completely fresh and different

TV STORE ONLINE:  So being a first time director here...is your crew is helping you along the way?  Do you take any inspiration from any directors, that perhaps, as someone younger in business you admired?  Are you inspired by something unconscious that perhaps you've seen in the past as a kid growing up?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  No, I don't do that.  I mean, I know other directors who do that, but I've never wanted to do that. I've never wanted to emulate anybody.  I just wanted to make something that was true to me and that was my idea and I wanted to embrace that and do the best I could do but I was never trying to copy any other great movie directors.  Whenever I see something I think is great in a film, my whole attitude is do just the opposite.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Like with 2001: A Space Odyssey you're using a front projection system for some of the effects work on Silent Running.  Had that front projection process evolved any in the few years since 2001 had been completed?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  Not as far as I could see.  I thought the front projection system usage on 2001 was a really great idea because it allowed you to bypass blue screening, green screening now, matte shots, com-positing, and optical printing.  So I thought it was a great technique.  It had it's limits of course, but it was great for the time.  I felt confident with the whole system and I thought that it could be miniaturized down quite a lot.  I didn't need it on such the large scale that 2001 did, so it worked perfectly for me on a much smaller level.

With 2001 they were projecting 8x10 Ektachrome plates. I was using 4x5 plates, so all the optics and lenses for Silent Running were much smaller.  I found an engineer in L.A. and he helped me build the projector and let me just tell you what a beautiful engineering job it was.  I still have it.

We did all of those from projection shots for Silent Running quickly because we planned ahead and built miniatures and shot the plates and made Ektachrome transfers and put them on glass and had them ready to project way ahead of time.  I mean we were shooting like fifteen projection shots a day plus our normal action coverage and when we got ready to apply for an Academy Award for special effects, the Academy said, "Well, that's impossible. We think you're lying."  And they wouldn't accept my application for Silent Running for visual effects.

TV STORE ONLINE:  So Silent Running comes out and you get a wonderful response from audiences and critics alike right?  I know that Silent Running opened some doors for you, wasn't there a film you were planning after Silent Running with the title Pyramid?  What was that about?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  Pyramid was a movie for MGM that fell though.  It was an idea for a kind of end-of-the-world movie where it started out and then Earth stopped rotating and there was this cataclysmic disaster and there's only one city left and it's completely solar powered.  And so, the whole last remnant of society is in jeopardy and they've got to figure, "What the heck is going on?"  And there's seismic activity on the other side of the planet which was in perpetual darkness.  So the big adventure has been launched into the dark side of the Earth.  I'm not going to tell you much more about besides that it was a cool movie and Kirk Kerkorian who ran and owned MGM at the time decided to build a casino in Las Vegas and closed the studio.

So the movie ended, and not because it wasn't a good movie but because of a poor business move.  And then, I had a project over at Warner Bros that was called, The RideThe Ride eventually became part of what happened to me over the years with the theme park attractions I developed like Back To The Future: The Ride that were really successful.

TV STORE ONLINE: 
Then what about another idea I've researched out that I heard you were trying to get off the ground around this same time, Journey Of The Oceanauts?

DOUGLAS TRUMBULL:  That was a project I was working on at 20th Century Fox with Arthur Jacobs, who of course, had done the original Planet Of The Apes (1968) film.  I was going to co-direct Oceanauts and it was to be a big underwater futuristic adventure, very much like how James Cameron's The Abyss (1989) turned out years later.

Then Arthur Jacob's died suddenly of a heart attack, and the project got tied up in his estate and that was that.  At that point I realized that this whole Hollywood thing isn't what it was all cracked up to be.  You can't make a living on development deals, especially if they all go bad.  So with all of those projects gone I put together a company called Future General Corporation and did some technical work with Paramount Studios.  The purpose of this was to look into the future of cinema as a kind of broad stroke RND company to see how we can make movies even better than they are now.

Because I had really got to know the the giant screens of Cinerama because of 2001: A Space Odyssey I knew that they also had shortfalls. I thought, maybe we can come up with some interesting ways to entertain people and so in the first year of operation, we built the first prototype simulation ride by adapting flight simulation technology to entertain people.  This concept again, became what would turn out to the Back To The Future ride.


Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung