After the success of the cult films El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), producers were more than willing to finance visionary director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s next venture. When asked what kind of picture he wanted to make, Jodorowsky answered “Dune.” He had never read Frank Herbert’s beloved sci-fi opus, but he knew it was a high-water mark in the genre. After securing financial backing, what followed was an ambitious, perhaps too ambitious, undertaking. Jodorowsky’s Dune chronicles the director’s efforts to assemble cast and crew for the creation of an innovative and quixotic film. But in the end, the adaptation was never made, at least not by Jodorowsky.
Step by step, Jodorowsky guides us through the early stages of the ill-fated film’s development. He sought out an artist to storyboard the production. French illustrator Jean Giraud, who goes by the pseudonym Moebius, signed on, and filmmaker and artist sketched out the entire production, with a script by Jodorowsky. Early in Frank Pavich’s documentary, Dune seems fated to be made as coincidence after coincidence piles up. Everyone Jodorowsky wanted for the project gravitated to him as if by magic. Soon, other artists came aboard, including Dan O’Bannon, who was in charge of visual effects for John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974), and Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger. When it came time to begin assembling a cast, Jodorowsky went to great lengths to get his dream team. The cast included David Carradine, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dalm - whom the director courted over months. Dalm’s fee to do the picture was $100,000 per minute of screen time. Jodorowsky also found a very overweight Orson Welles gorging on a meal in his favorite restaurant. Welles agreed to act in the film after the director promised to hire the restaurant’s chef so Welles could eat like a king on set. Jodorowsky’s opening shot for Dune, depicted in the documentary in an animated sequence using Giraud’s original artwork, was directly inspired by Welles’ celebrated tracking shot at the beginning of Touch of Evil (1958). Jodorowsky’s son Brontis, who had appeared in “El Topo,” trained for two years to star as the film’s lead, Paul Atreides, learning swordplay and fighting techniques. Pink Floyd signed on to score certain sequences. Moreover, the illustrated script, replete with production notes, wardrobe details, and color reproductions of artists’ set concepts, was beautifully produced. Those who saw the script considered it a work of art in itself. Copies were sent to the major studios in Hollywood, and presumably they’re still there.
Pavich had plenty of access to Jodorowsky, who is now in his 80s, while making “Jodorowsky’s Dune.” Jodorowsky’s narration dominates the film. He envisioned the project as a spiritual experience and potential masterpiece, and he brought to his adaptation of the novel a metaphysical, wildly imaginative dimension. We don’t get an opposing viewpoint, but there are hints that Jodorowsky’s ego got in his way. There was no way the film could be cut to run in what the Hollywood studios saw as an acceptable screen time: an hour and a half. The epic sci-fi film - intended, according to the director, to produce a hallucinatory experience in the viewer, not unlike LSD - would have run at least 12 hours long. In the end, he refused to compromise his vision for what he describes at one point in the documentary as the most important film in the history of humanity.
Jodorowsky is an irascible figure in the world of cinema. “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” had been plagued with legal troubles after John Lennon’s manager, Allen Klein, who owned the rights to the films, refused to distribute them in retribution for Jodorowsky pulling out of another film project Klein hoped to finance. The rights to “Dune” were sold to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who didn’t want Jodorowsky as director, and the plans for Jodorowsky’s adaptation were scrapped. De Laurentiis got a film version of the Herbert novel made some years later, with director David Lynch at the helm.
Despite the sense that Jodorowsky’s adaptation would be reviled by Herbert fans for its extensive liberties with the source, Dune could have been a cinematic wonder. Instead, the artistic team he assembled got scooped up to work on other projects. O’Bannon, Giger, and artist Chris Foss went on to work on 1979’s “Alien.” Concept art for Jodorowsky’s Dune was incorporated into films as recent as Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” (2012). Jodorowsky and Giraud lifted ideas from the project for later comic-book collaborations such as “The Metabarons” and “The Incal.” But Jodorowsky’s cinematic inclinations waned as he immersed himself in other projects, including the restoration of a 15th-century tarot deck. Nine years passed between 1980’s “Tusk” and his psychological horror film “Santa Sangre,” and 23 years between “The Rainbow Thief” (1990) and 2013’s “Dance of Reality,” during which time he tried, unsuccessfully, to get financing for a sequel to “El Topo.” Remaining steadfast to his ideals may mean that his films seldom got made, but for those who’ve seen the few films that make up Jodorowsky’s oeuvre, they make an indelible impression.
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“Jodorowsky’s Dune,” documentary, rated PG-13, in English, French, German, and Spanish with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 stars