Chapel Hill, N.C. — When Hollywood star Natalie Wood died nearly 30 years ago, she was wrapping up a film that was shot in the Triangle. With a new investigation into her death, there is also new interest in that movie and the celebrity buzz at the time.
Bill Reppy’s and Juli Tenney’s house on Barbee Chapel Road in Chapel Hill was the perfect setting for the 1981 movie, “Brainstorm,” about a scientist and his wife, played by Christopher Walken and Wood.
With its solar power, parallelograms and angles, their home was one of the stars of the movie.
“Doug Trumbull, the director, said it was a high-tech cabin in the woods, and I think he was spot-on characterizing it that way,” Tenney said. "(He) was fascinated by the way the house was set up."
The couple could not live in the house for three months while movie crews built a set, filmed the actors and then made repairs, which included replacing the roof, refinishing the floors and repainting.
"During the most intensive two weeks, we had anywhere from 140 to 180 people here," Tenney said.
The couple was able to visit the house and watch scenes being filmed. They still have the movie poster and a promotional picture of Wood and Walken hanging on the wall.
“You see this room in a dancing scene with Natalie and Christopher dancing around the room,” Reppy said.
“And there are a lot of outdoor scenes as well, shot at the beginning. You can see Walken on a recumbent bike (outside the house),” Tenney added.
Those who watch the movie can also see local theater legend, Ira David Wood. “Brainstorm” put North Carolina on the film-making map. It was also the last film Natalie Wood made before she mysteriously drowned on Nov. 29, 1981.
It was an irony that played a little too close to the movie script. Wood’s and Walken’s son in the movie was supposed to drown in a pool at the house. The director also shot a scene with Wood and Walken in a canoe on a pond. He cut those scenes due to the sensitivity of Wood’s death.
"One of our regrets is the movie really did play up the water features of this property – the pond as well as the swimming pool – but when the film was finally released, many of those water-based scenes were removed, because we understood that the producers and the director felt that it was sort of a morbid characteristic," Tenney said.
"I’ve always held out hope that the Natalie Wood fan club would insist on a re-issuance of the movie that included those scenes. I mean, what could it hurt?" she added.
The actress was terrified of water and became fearful at times while filming the movie, according to Tenney and Reppy.
"She was very worried about even the water in our swimming pool, which is crystal clear," Tenney said. "I did everything I could to encourage her not to be worried, because Bill and I were in the water everyday, and it hadn’t hurt us yet. The pool only has a depth of 5 feet … She really had a strong fear of water."
"Her fear was such that she had the producers of the movie bring out a scientist from the University of North Carolina to test the water and assure her that it was safe," Reppy added.
Wood was with Walken and her husband, Robert Wagner, the night she disappeared from their yacht and drowned off Catalina Island in Southern California. The circumstances of her death remain one of Hollywood's enduring mysteries.
"I was driving my car to the Chapel Hill post office, and I heard it on the radio, and I just could not believe it," Tenney said. "We understood there were approximately four scenes left to be filmed, which were not finished."
Tenney and Reppy say they are grateful they got the chance to meet Wood and Walken.
“They were all as gracious as they could be,” Tenney said.
Wagner even stopped by their house during the filming, according to Reppy, who said he never got to meet the actor, but talked to him when he called the house.
"He’d call up and want to talk to Natalie. That was kind of interesting, to talk to Robert Wagner on the telephone. I’d say, ‘Well, I’ll see if I can get her,'" Reppy recalled.
Back on the Chapel Hill movie set, there were passing rumors of romance between Walken and Wood. Now that her death is getting a second look, Tenney and Reppy are looking back 30 years as well. Like most, they are curious about what happened to the actress.
“Everyone wants to get to the truth. I think we have a hunger to know the truth,” Tenney said. "It may be illusive. We don't know."