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First Contact! – Douglas Trumbull’s Original Concept For ‘Silent Running’ Revealed!

July 22, 2012

Unsung trivia unearthed by greg moss.

This week I’d like to reveal a little-known piece of trivia to do with one of my favourite films of all time – Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 SF eco-fable Silent Running.

This film had a massive impact on me as a third grader and no doubt planted the seed for my lifelong appreciation for ecology. The film screened as a midday movie on television and my favourite teacher Mr. Till (who, looking back, could probably be referred to as a bit of a hippy) sat the class down to watch it. I don’t know about the rest of the kids, but for me, it was a seminal experience.

And one which I will be eternally grateful for.

It was only later, in high school, that I learnt the ecological aspects which had such an impact on me weren’t actually present in Trumbull’s original story idea which was primarily about the relationship between the Lowell character and the drones.

The shooting script was ultimately credited to Deric Washburn & Steve Bochco and Mike Cimino (who subsequently directed The Deer Hunter).

In an interview with Trumbull, published in the August 1978 edition of Fantastic Films magazine, Trumbull outlined his original story …

“I wanted to elaborate the story of that relationship [between Lowell and the drones]  showing how the machines changed from simply doing their job to their anthropomorphization into real characters. I wanted to show what a dead end it is but also what a wonderful thing it is because of the output of emotion.”

“Around the beginning of 1970 I met [producer] Mike Gruskoff. He said “Come up with a story and maybe I can sell it for you”. I worked out a short story and we made a deal with Universal Pictures”.

“That story involved contact with with an extraterrestrial life force. It was the basic story of some ET’s who are travelling around and who detect this guy who is totally alone, totally isolated. He’d be the guy to make contact with. Here’s a guy out alone. He likes being alone. He likes that job. He’s totally alone in the ship with his little robots whom he has no relationship with at all. He’s getting a little bit old for the space program and he gets the kiss off from the company. They say “You’re being retired with congratulations and everything … and we’re really glad you’ve done such a good job for us.” He says, “But I don’t want to go back. I like it out here alone. I don’t want to go back to Earth. I just want to be left alone.” Here he is with a big old clunky space freighter that is going to be decommissioned anyway. It’s a big piece of shit and he says, “Well, I’ve always sort of wanted to go out exploring.” He decides to steal the ship and he enlists the help of the drones. He reprograms them to help him out and respond to him. They tear out all the communications equipment, throw it out into space, paint the whole ship totally black so no one can see it jet off. He’s constantly threatened by the fact that he could be pursued, that the authorities will be out looking for him. He’s a space pirate, and he’s having the time of his life. He sees a little blip on the radar screen which is the only thing he’s kept functioning. He sees something approaching his ship, and figuring the only safe way is to stay out of sight, he goes into the silent running mode. He turns off all the lights, all the electricity, anything that emits any kind of detectable emission. The ship’s all black and everything. He tries to be absolutely cool and not make a noise and not do anything. No light, all black. And he just waits and this blip gets closer over a period of a week he’s sitting there watching it and he’s sort of cracking up, watching this radar scanner. The air is getting really foul and the oxygen is getting really thin because he hasn’t got the air conditioning on, and finally just before it gets there he passes out. Then there’s this really neat sequence that happens.

It’s all seen from just his room. He’s in the control room. He’s all alone, completely conked out. He’s in that room and it’s dark and you just hear this big clunk of two ships coming together. Then you hear the air lock open and footsteps going down the hallway. You hear things going by. You hear someone turning the knob of the door. It’s all dark. And the camera is just cruising around. By this time with all the things turned off the ship’s in weightless condition. There are books and junk floating through the room and you just sort of see shadows moving. You go back out and the door shuts and the electricity comes back on, and he wakes up a few minutes later with fresh air and everything. The ET’s are gone. He looks around and finds all the places where they pried doors open. He sees all the manifestations that some weird being was on his ship and had saved him by turning the oxygen and stuff back on for him. Finally he realizes that one of the drones is gone. The drones are constantly transmitting television pictures to the three little screens in the control room. He figures that by setting up a little impromtu tracking system he can find out where the drone’s signal is coming from. He sets up his antenna and gets this little, weak signal. He tunes it all in and he’s super adjusting it, increasing the gain and everything, and finally he gets a picture from the drone and it’s a view of our own galaxy receding away from the point of view of another ship that’s got some weirdo shape. He starts talking to the drone. “Find a hatchway. Get inside the ship. Find out what the ship is like.” He’s making first contact with extraterrestrial beings by remote control. The drone hustles around and finally finds a door and gets inside. He’s really getting close. The drone is inside. Then there’s another blip on his radar screen and he realizes it’s the cops. The rest of the film is a big race against time for him to try to make contact before the cops break in. They’re saying “Come out you goddamned space pirate.” He won’t come out. He’s got the door bolted and everything. On the ET ship the drone is getting closer and closer until finally it goes to the right room and opens the door. You see some really weirdo electric man, or something really super duper – he sees the ET and just at that moment, just as he’s finally made that contact, the door to his room just goes Whammo! This cop comes in and wipes out the whole room with a big flame thrower and he’s instantly incinerated. The camera cuts to the drone. It’s just sitting there, not knowing what to do, confronted with these extraterrestrials. The drone just takes his little arm and reaches inside his little body and pulls out a little photograph that he’s carried around with him. It’s a picture in which the hero posed with the three drones, like a little family portrait. The drone holds the photo up to these extraterrestrials and the movie ends like that.”

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes right-brained people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

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