TCM Festival: Hollywood Visionary Douglas Trumbull Working on Terrence Malick Movie
Source: Vanity Fair
The "Star Gate" sequence from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, designed by Douglas Trumbull.
Hollywood is littered with the bodies of creative people who had a great idea about 10 minutes too early. Douglas Trumbull is one of those people, only he has had about a dozen brilliant ideas that were premature by decades.
The visual effects pioneer who helped Stanley Kubrick realize his ambitious vision for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Trumbull made a rare appearance at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Hollywood in conjunction with a screening of a 70mm print of the science-fiction epic. In a frank, reflective, two-hour discussion, Trumbull confirmed that he worked on a new Terrence Malick film, his first feature credit in 27 years. Trumbull also shared his views on Avatar and showed fascinating clips from a making-of documentary called 2001: Beyond the Infinite.
"I'm tired of talking about 2001," Trumbull confessed to a crowd of about 75 people at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel who had gathered to hear him do just that. While working for Kubrick at age 23, Trumbull was sent on errands into London in the director's Bentley to retrieve objects needed for the ground-breaking effects. His most significant contribution to the film was the psychedelic tunnel of colored light called the Star Gate sequence. After 2001's release in 1968, Trumbull worked on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner and Star Trek: The Movie, and directed two sci-fi films of his own, 1972's Silent Running and 1983's Brainstorm.
Kubrick wanted 2001 to be a first-person experience about being in space, Trumbull said, and the director designed the film for a 90-foot screen. As a result of his experience on the movie, Trumbull became enthralled by the possibilities of giant screens just as grand movie palaces were giving way to multiplexes. "The palettes for immersive experiences went away right after I got entranced by the whole thing," he said. Nevertheless Trumbull was a hot young commodity in Hollywood after 2001, and he directed the eco-sci fi film Silent Running, starring a young Bruce Dern and a robot that was a clear inspiration for R2-D2. George Lucas tried to hire Trumbull to helm the effects on Star Wars, but Trumbull turned him down. "That would have changed the direction of my life," he said. But I had my own career path. Trumbull went on to create various prescient moviemaking technologies with names like Magicam and Showscan. He worked constantly on immersive, dynamic entertainment experiencesa predecessor to IMAX, 3-D video games, Universal Studios' Back to the Future ride.
It was after directing Brainstorm, a film that was meant to be a debut for the Showscan technique, that Trumbull abruptly left Hollywood. In 1981, with photography nearly finished, star Natalie Wood died before shooting a crucial scene. The picture hung in limbo for two years until Trumbull completed it using body doubles, and without Showscan, which the studio wasnt ready to take a chance on after all. That experience drove me out of this industry, he said. The lawyers, the insurance companies, the creeps. Trumbull moved to Massachusetts, where he has lived for the last 27 years.
The Malick project will be Trumbull's first feature credit since Brainstorm. Malick is working on two films, a long-awaited cosmic family drama starring Brad Pitt called Tree of Life, and an accompanying IMAX movie. Like most who work with the notoriously secretive director, Trumbull was reluctant to discuss the project. But he hinted at a retro style of visual effects: "Terry is a friend," Trumbull said. "He said to me, 'I don't like CG.' I said, 'Why not do it the old way? The way we did it in 2001?'" Trumbull said he also has two modestly priced sci-fi fantasy movies of his own in stages of development. And there is the 2001 documentary, made in partnership with author David Larson, who has spent years digging through the Kubrick Archive in London, unearthing artwork, photographs, and memos. The clips of the documentary Trumbull showed bring back the computer HAL as a character that takes viewers through the artifacts. But Trumbull, for reasons he declined to discuss, is pessimistic about the documentary ever making it to audiences.
Trumbull's tone in the talk varied from awe over the potential of movies as a technological art form to dismay over the reality of Hollywood as a smotherer of innovation and creativity. "I spent my life on the fringes trying to be a normal director," he said. "You do that at your peril. Studios don't want to know that you're a geek." But Trumbull was moved by the recent work of another geek auteur—he called Avatar "a technology-enabled out-of-body experience." Trumbull's work in 2001 heavily influenced James Cameron: the tunnel of light humans pass through to inhabit their avatar bodies owes an obvious debt to the Star Gate sequence. And what Cameron has done with Avatar—create an immersive cinematic experience—is what Douglas Trumbull has been doing his entire career. He was just a few decades early.