Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Industry, Interviews, Science Fiction, Technology

“Breaking new ground has always been in the medium itself” – An Interview With Douglas Trumbull

On Saturday, February 11, Douglas Trumbull received the Gordon E. Sawyer Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his contributions to the technology of the industry. Trumbull has over a dozen patents in his name, and developed or improved upon many of the filmmaking techniques that are standard in today’s industry, among them miniature compositing, high frame rate photography and motion control photography. This is his second special Oscar—though nominated for his special effects work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Blade Runner, his only previous Oscar a Scientific and Engineering Award from 1993, for his work developing the 65mm Showscan Camera System.

Revived and expanded from an interview I conducted with Douglas Trumbull in 2005, originally published in shorter form on Greencine in January, 2006.

Douglas Trumbull is unique among American filmmakers. At age 23, he was part of the team that pioneered the next generation of cinema special effects in Stanley Kubrick’s visionary 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was education you couldn’t get in film school and he continued to expand his skills and techniques in such films as The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He made his debut as a director on the ecologically minded Silent Running, where his special effects crew included John Dyksra (who went on to become the Oscar-winning special effects supervisor of Star Wars and many other films) and Richard Yuricich (who partnered with Trumbull on many subsequent projects).

Trumbull’s second feature as a director, Brainstorm, was all but orphaned by MGM and his directorial efforts since have been outside the Hollywood system, including short films in his own high-definition Showscan process (a large-frame film format that runs at 60 frames a second) and Back to the Future… The Ride,” a multi-media mix of film, sound, and simulator ride. More recently, Trumbull worked with Terrence Malick (another maverick director who commands complete control over this films) to create the birth of life sequences for The Tree of Life. Yet to this day, Trumbull’s name is still most closely linked with 2001 and his special effects work on the cult science fiction classic Blade Runner.

Trumbull continues to explore the boundaries of what he calls “immersive media”–3-D, interactive media, virtual reality–and has been partnering with Professor Tom Furness of University of Washington’s HITLab (the Human Interface Technology Lab) with some of his projects.

In November 2005, while in Seattle to meet with Furness, he made an appearance at the Science Fiction Museum for a special showing of Silent Running. In the midst of his multi-media presentation – using still and video footage launched from his lap-top to accompany his talk – he brought some of the working props form the film and donated a drone arm: his gift to the Science Fiction Museum.

At the end of the very long day (after his exhaustive presentation, Trumbull gamely spent over an hour answering questions from the audience), he agreed to sit down for an interview over a late dinner, where we talked about his work with Stanley Kubrick, his own films as a director, and why he hasn’t directed a Hollywood film in over 20 years.

Douglas Trumbull at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, 2005

Sean Axmaker: You had trained as an illustrator. How did you wind up in filmmaking and special effects?

Douglas Trumbull: The story goes something like this. I was going to school at this community college in L.A., kind of learning illustration. I started out studying architecture and this was the pre-architecture curriculum, which was drawing, painting, water colors, graphic design. In that very first year I realized that I’m not specifically interested in architecture, I’m interested in this other thing. I started painting and illustrating and I had an air brush and I was trying to learn the skills of illustration, but I was a science fiction guy so I had my little portfolio that was full of sci-fi, Analog magazine cover kind of stuff, and I went into Hollywood looking for a job because I had no money, I couldn’t afford to stay in school. I took my portfolio around to animation studios, because that was my first inclination, animation and somehow making illustrations move,. I would talk to these really nice guys and they would look at my portfolio and say “You’re not in the right place. It’s great to have you here but you should try out this place across town called Graphic Films because they’re doing space films.” So I went over there and met Con Patterson, who worked on 2001, and Ben Jackson, and they were both mentors to me. They said “Yeah, we might could use somebody like you. We’ll give you a task. Paint this satellite and come back tomorrow morning,” which I did, and I got a job immediately and worked at Graphic Films for a couple years. I did some obscure films for the Air Force about the space program and then there was this one film about the Apollo program that was kind of interesting. I was painting lunar modules and lunar surfaces and the vertical assembly building on Saturn 5 rockets and animated this space stuff. And then Graphic Films got a couple of contracts to do films for the New York World’s Fair in ’64, it was a two year fair in 1964 and 65, and one of them was this dome thing called To The Moon And Beyond, which was kind of a Powers of Ten movie. It went from the big bang to inside an atom in ten minutes.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews

Blu-ray: Walter Hill’s ‘Streets of Fire’ on Shout! Factory

A self-described “A Rock and Roll Fable” from “another time, another place,” I think of Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) as a rock and roll western dropped into the urban badlands of a brick and neon noir. It opens on what appears to be the 1950s frozen in time, a working class neighborhood forgotten in the explosion of the post-war American big city dreams. It could be Chicago (where some of the film was shot) or New York or any city, really, a film noir in comic book color, and it’s where former soldier turned shaggy soldier of fortune Tom Cody (Michael Paré) returns to play reluctant hero.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews

Blu-ray: ‘The Lovers on the Bridge’ on Kino Lorber

The Lovers on the Bridge (France, 1991) (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray), Leos Carax’s tale of l’amour fou, was the most expensive film ever made in France at the time and one of the most ravishing made anywhere ever. It was also a commercial disaster, alternately celebrated as a triumph of personal expression and vilified as the French equivalent of Heaven’s Gate, and despite the presence of Juliette Binoche it was almost a decade before the film finally made it to American shores. The Lovers on the Bridge is the American title, a rather prosaic translation of Les Amant du Pont-Neuf. In French, the title references the oldest bridge spanning the Seine in Paris and all the history and romance that name embodies.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Interviews

Monte Hellman on “Road to Nowhere”

[originally published August 11, 2011]

Road to Nowhere is Monte Hellman’s first feature in 21 years. The director of The Shooting and Two-Lane Blacktop, a resolutely personal director who turned out drive-in pictures for Roger Corman and spent his career largely transforming work-for-hire productions into distinctive and mysterious films, spent years taking jobs as editor and second-unit director while one project after another failed to come together. Among his projects during that time was working with the Sundance institute, where he helped a young filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino workshop a film called Reservoir Dogs. Hellman signed on as executive producer and helped Tarantino get his film made. The role of educator and mentor eventually took him to CalArts, the private arts college where he has been teaching for the past six years.

Road to Nowhere is a welcome return by a master filmmaker. It’s a film about making a film and a film within a film, with an unknown actress (played by Shannyn Sossamon) hired to play a role in a film based on a murky true story about a politician who embezzled $100 million and disappeared with a young woman. She may or may not in fact be the very woman she is portraying on film. The mystery may be real or a fiction within the film. This film’s director, Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan), shares the same initials as Monte Hellman, and the echoes don’t end there.

This is a film aware of its existence as a film, constantly pushing against the nature of representation and storytelling. It’s a mystery where part of the mystery is what the mystery is really about. It’s the best film about the nature of filmmaking since The Stunt Man but with a very different approach to the blurring of life and art. Its name could serve as the alternate title to Hellman’s 1971 masterpiece Two-Lane Blacktop and its play with doubles and characters in reflection recalls The Shooting, his starkly abstract 1968 western. It is a film with imagery as rich as paintings and characters roiling with anxiety even as they appear frozen in space. And it is a film in love with the mystery of cinema, a film about characters playing characters, about stories that shift as they are put on film, shift again as they are placed beside other stories in the editing, and once again shift as the audience pieces together the elements of the narrative. American filmmakers seem unable to stop and watch a character be. Hellman finds the most revealing moments between the beats of action, where characters at rest let their facades down. Or do they simply put on a different character for us to see?

Road to Nowhere opens Friday, August 19, for a week at Grand Illusion in Seattle’s U-District. I had the opportunity to speak with Monte Hellman by phone and discuss the film, his return to filmmaking and his unique take on cinematic storytelling.

Road to Nowhere opens with a character taking a DVD that has “Road to Nowhere” written across it in black marker, dropping it into a laptop DVD-ROM tray and watching a film called “Road to Nowhere” with its own credits sequence of fictional names. Why do you foreground the act of watching a movie at the beginning of us watching your movie?

Because it is a movie within a movie, or if you like, it’s all the movie within the movie. Maybe everything we’re watching is what he puts into that laptop.

I see a director making a film based on a “real life event” and getting father and farther from the event itself because he was finding the story that he wanted to tell, which didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the event. He is searching for a story true to him, not true to the foggy facts of the mystery that inspired the script.

I think this is not untypical of making all movies. I think we start out with an idea and the movie, certainly this one, took over and it let us know what it wanted to be. It was a very interesting process. It was a process for me of letting go, of giving up on some of my concepts of being a control freak.

You’ve know Steve Gaydos, who wrote the screenplay, for years. He worked on Cockfighter almost 40 years ago and wrote the scripts to a number of your films. Did he write this original script specifically for you?

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, streaming

What to stream: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ on Netflix, ‘The Expanse’ returns on Amazon, ‘Tenet’ comes to VOD

Here’s what’s new and ready to stream now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Now, video-on-demand, and other streaming services …  

Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey, the mother of the blues, and Chadwick Boseman (in his final screen performance) is the fiery trumpeter in her band in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020, R), a drama of music, power, ambition, and race in America set at Chicago recording studio in 1927. Tony Award-winning Broadway director George C. Wolfe helms the screen adaptation of the August Wilson play and Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman costar. Davis and Boseman are favored to get Oscar nominations. (Netflix)

Tenet” (2020, PG-13), Christopher Nolan’s high-concept thriller starring John David Washington as a nameless agent whose mission to save the world involves the unraveling of time, is a puzzle box of a mystery with spectacular set pieces. Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, and Kenneth Branagh costar. Nolan insisted that it get a theatrical release when major theaters were closed during the Covid lockdown, where it made back a fraction of its cost. Months later, it now debuts at home. (VOD and Cable On Demand, also on DVD and Blu-ray and at Redbox)

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, streaming

What to stream: ‘I’m Your Woman’ on Amazon, ‘The Prom’ and ‘Funny Boy’ on Netflix, ‘Let Them Talk on HBO Max

Here’s what’s new and ready to stream now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Now, video-on-demand, and other streaming services …  

I’m Your Woman” (2020, R) stars Rachel Brosnahan as a housewife who goes on the run when gangsters come after her husband (Bill Heck), who has kept his criminal life hidden from her, and she’s forced to fend for herself when they come for her. Julia Hart directs this 1970s throwback crime thriller costarring Arinzé Kene and Marsha Stephanie Blake. (Amazon Prime Video, also available in HDR)

The Broadway musical comedy “The Prom” (2020, PG-13), about a group of stage actors who descend on a small Indiana town to support a lesbian couple barred from attending their high school prom, comes to the screen from director Ryan Murphy with Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells, and James Corden as the Broadway performers. (Netflix)

Meryl Streep also stars in “Let Them All Talk” (2020, R) as novelist with writer’s block on a sea cruise with old friends (Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest) she hasn’t seen in some time. Steven Soderbergh directs the film, which was partly improvised, and Lucas Hedges and Gemma Chan co-star. (HBO Max)

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Posted in: 2000 Eyes, by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews, Science Fiction

2000 Eyes: Battlefield Earth

[Written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]

“Man is an endangered species,” alerts the introductory card to this adaptation of L. Ron Hubbard’s Star Wars inspired epic sci-fi novel. It should have warned us that logic was also hitting hard times.

The year is 3000 and the place is Earth. After a millennium of brutal subjugation by the Psychlos (seemingly an unholy mating of Star Trek’s Klingon and Ferengi races), humans live like cavemen in the irradiated wilds, foraging through a dying Earth. Rebellious young Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper, in flowing locks and an unchanging expression of determined sincerity) searches for a better land and discovers a race of intergalactic corporate pirates, eight foot alien slavers sucking the planet dry of resources in the name of profit.

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Posted in: 2000 Eyes, by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews, Horror

2000 Eyes: Scary Movie

[Written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]

If the baddest of the Farrelly brothers bad taste gags has you in stitches, then this is the movie for you. For almost ninety minutes director Keenen Ivory Wayans tries to meld the pop-culture parodies of Airplane! and its ilk with jokes so crude and outrageously raunchy that even Jim Carrey would think twice. At a recent preview screening a pocket of college boys were not just laughing but actually hooting their appreciation.

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Posted in: 2000 Eyes, by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews

2000 Eyes: The 6th Day

[Originally written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]

Arnold Schwarzenegger fans were perplexed by End of Days, the dreary, hysterical millennial thriller that marked his comeback from a two-year break. Hollywood’s favorite action hero was reduced to a cynical, burned-out husk of an alcoholic cop on a vaguely redemptive quest. Where was the wiseacre tough guy of few words and explosive action? Where was the beloved teddy bear of a Hollywood Hercules with a destructive streak? Where was Ah-nold?

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, streaming

What to stream: ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ on Netflix, ‘The Right Stuff’ on Disney+, final seasons of ‘Schitt’s Creek’ and ‘Mr. Robot’

Here’s what’s new and ready to stream now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Now, video-on-demand, and other streaming services …  

The Haunting of Bly Manor” (TV-MA), from “The Haunting of Hill House” creator Mike Flanagan, adapts the Henry James classic “The Turn of the Screw,” updating it to 1980s England. “Hill House” actor Henry Thomas stars as the isolated man who hires an American nanny (Victoria Pedretti) for his orphaned niece and nephew in his vast mansion. (Netflix)

The Right Stuff: Season 1” (TV-14) retells the story of the American space program and the pilots who became America’s pioneering astronauts. Based on the book by Tom Wolfe (which was previously made into the 1983 movie), it stars Patrick J. Adams, James Lafferty, Jake McDorman, and Colin O’Donoghue. Two episodes available, new episodes each Friday. (Disney+)

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