Silent Running | One of the most quietly influential films of the 1970s

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Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running was one of the best sci-fi films of the 1970s – and partly thanks to Bruce Dern, it may have helped change cinema history…

With his groundbreaking visual effects work on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1969, Douglas Trumbull had already made his mark on cinema while still in his 20s. It was his directorial debut, 1972’s Silent Running, however, that established Trumbull as a storyteller.

A sci-fi fable set in a future where Earth is incapable of supporting life, our planet’s last remaining samples of flora and fauna are kept aboard gigantic spaceships. Initially, the ships and their geodesic domes of plants and animals are intended to be maintained until Earth is made habitable enough for their return; then, one day, an order is issued to jettison the domes – the mission, it seems, has become too expensive to maintain.

One crewmember, the botanist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), enraged at the order, kills his three colleagues, and sets his ship, the USS Valley Forge, on a course for Saturn.

Made for a budget of just $1.35 million – a little more than a tenth of what Stanley Kubrick had at his disposal for 2001: A Space Odyssey – Silent Running is a masterpiece of economic filmmaking. Rather than build sets entirely from scratch, Trumbull used a decommissioned aircraft carrier – the USS Valley Forge, which inspired the ship’s name in the film – for the interiors.

Trumbull also employed some of the miniature building and front projection techniques he used on 2001: A Space Odyssey to create his space sequences. The exterior of the USS Valley Forge, for example, was a 26-foot model, built from wood, steel and plastic; the futuristic details you can see all over its surface were taken from hundreds of model kits of World War II army tanks. It’s a technique that would become increasingly used later in the 1970s, with these little futuristic bits and pieces taken from kits eventually given their own name: greebles.

Although the star of Silent Running was Bruce Dern – an actor previously typecast as violent, vaguely sociopathic characters – he was often matched by the film’s robots, Huey, Duey and Louie. Once again, Trumbull brought his technical ingenuity to their design. Having seen Tod Browning’s infamous 1932 film Freaks, Trumbull came up with a means of creating an unusual-looking robot (or ‘drone’, as he called them) without using expensive special effects.

“I had seen a movie called Freaks by Tod Browning,” Trumbull said in a 1972 interview with Cinefantastique magazine. “It was about a group of sideshow people, and one of them was a guy without any legs. He was a good actor and an interesting character. He walked on his hands – it was absolutely incredible […] And I thought, ‘you could make a robot that way’.”

Soon enough, Trumbull came up with a simple yet effective robot body design from light plastic, which could then fit over an actor. (The young actors who would eventually play Huey, Duey and Louie were Mark Persons, Steve Brown, Cheryl Sparks, and Larry Whisenhunt.)

Onscreen, the effect is striking. “It just defies the imagination, as to how they were done,” Trumbull said. “I’ve even had professional special effects people look at the pictures and say, ‘You must have done that with pneumatics, or hydraulics, or some kind of off-stage hydraulics.’”

As ingenious as the end result is, there’s one aspect that really brings Silent Running’s three robots to life: how Bruce Dern’s character interacts with them. Indeed, it’s the growing attachment Lowell has to Huey, Duey and Louie that gives the film its heart – something that makes its latter third all the more devastating. Remarkably, much of that relationship came from Dern himself.

Also speaking to Cinefantastique in 1972, Dern spoke enthusiastically about how much personality Trumbull’s robots can impart with just a small tilt of the head. “These drones will break your heart, I swear to God they will,” Dern said. “You know, everybody has a dog or a cat or some kind of pet, or a kid, or a car, and you give it a name. That was the big thing on this picture.”

Initially, though, Dern’s idea of having a humanlike friendship with the drones was met with some resistance. “When we first started, they didn’t want me to have that kind of relationship with the drones,” Dern said. “They wanted it to be more tongue-in-cheek. And I said no. I said, it has to look like I’m their buddy and they’re my buddies, and they go around with me and do everything I do, like two little dogs or kids would follow me around.”

According to Dern, “Douglas fought me for about a day, the week before we started shooting, because he wasn’t sure of that.”

Dern therefore came up with a compromise: on the first day of filming, he offered to perform the scene with the drones as written, then play it again as though they were friends. Ultimately, Dern’s approach won out. Said Dern afterwards, “It’s a movie about a person and relationships, rather than 2001 [A Space Odyssey] where you didn’t care about the men at all… That’s what makes it heart-breaking. The human emotion, the human involvement. And the contrast to it.”

FIlming on Silent Running was unusually brisk for such a complex sci-fi film – just 37 days. It was, Trumbull later said, “Very short shooting – like a cheap motorcycle movie in terms of scheduling.” This was, in all likelihood, a nod to Easy Rider – the 1969 counter-culture motorbike movie that was such a success for Universal that it felt emboldened to put small amounts of money into other low-budget projects. Silent Running was one of them; another was American Grafitti, directed by one George Lucas.

With all the live-action elements filmed, Trumbull and his collaborators then spent seven months producing Silent Running’s effects sequences in a workshop far away from Universal Studios. Among the young college students building models and working on effects shots for the movie was one John Dykstra – a pioneering artist who, just a few years later, would go on to work on Star Wars.

That connection is an important one, because Silent Running anticipated so much of what George Lucas would later pull off – albeit on a larger scale – on his 1977 space opera. Although Star Wars was in no small part inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, it was Trumbull’s quick-and-efficient method of producing special effects that Lucas and his collaborators would ultimately turn to.

Lucas was, after all, attempting to build an entire space fantasy universe, with action taking place on multiple planets and futuristic space stations, on roughly the same budget 2001: A Space Odyssey had enjoyed about eight years earlier. (Lucas had originally sought out Douglas Trumbull to work on Star Wars before production began; by then, Trumbull was working on the transcendent effects work for Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Trumbull therefore recommended Dykstra.)

Then there were the droids of Star Wars, most famously R2-D2 – both his design, loyal personality, and the way human characters interact with him, are all reminiscent of Huey, Duey and Louie. Even the idea of having a diminutive actor operate the droid is akin to Trumbull’s method employed in Silent Running.

In JW Rinzler’s book The Making Of Star Wars, Lucas is open about the debt his droids owe to Trumbull’s movie – he’d even shown concept artist Ralph McQuarrie images of Silent Running’s drones during pre-production. “I showed Ralph the Metropolis robot and the Silent Running robot, and I said I want something like this,” Lucas said. “I wanted one to be a stubby little robot and I wanted one to be a kind of human robot.”

Influential though Silent Running was, its box office performance was frustratingly muted. Despite highly positive reviews, Universal made the baffling decision to release the film with little marketing; “They [the studio] decided to experiment with ‘word of mouth,’” Trumbull later told Mark Kermode in the latter’s excellent BFI Film Classics book on the movie. “It was a business experiment, and I didn’t know about it until much later. I just sat there thinking, ‘Why isn’t this movie taking off?’”

Silent Running wasn’t an initial financial success, but it found a deserved cult following in the years after, with the subtle brilliance of Bruce Dern’s central performance and Trumball’s direction and effects work rightly singled out for praise. Most importantly, Silent Running proved that a science fiction film could have heart as well as intelligence – a sentiment that echoed through the genre movies that followed, whether it was the Star Wars saga, Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, or Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and its own quietly personable robots.

Among all the smart decisions that went into Silent Running, then, Dern’s is one worth remembering. Had he not sought to forge such a strong, human connection between his character and the film’s drones, it’s arguable that the film’s more emotional moments – not least that late shot of a Duey holding a child’s watering can – wouldn’t have packed such a punch.

As Dern later told Mark Kermode, “[Audiences] can never remember where or when they first saw the movie, but they can never forget that scene.”

How true.

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