The new documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune is a film buff’s wet dream, providing an in-depth look into a cinematic event that never was.
In Hollywood there are hundreds of abandoned film projects that have almost made it to the big screen. Many of them are stuck in development hell for years with countless directors, writers, and technicians revolving through, offering their “signature take” on the material before seeing it scrapped completely. Some of these films eventually do see the light of day, but very rarely in the way they were originally intended. A select few of these films continue to live on as cinematic myth; an intriguing fable of what could have been. Surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mid-1970’s adaptation of novelist Frank Herbert’s Dune is such a film. Those who have seen the original storyboards and script have called the project “a film ahead of its time” and “revolutionary”. Some have even wondered if Dune had been made first, would Star Wars still have changed the cinematic landscape so drastically in 1977 and beyond? The new documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune, makes a compelling case that the unmade film had the potential to change cinema forever. It also lays claim that even in its incomplete storyboarded form, the picture has managed to influence the way science fiction films are made to this day.
Director Frank Pavich (mostly known for his work as a producer and production manager on documentary television) is smart to treat his film as a procedural, taking the audience from the beginning of development on Dune to its unfortunate demise at the hands of unwilling studios. And while the storied process is undoubtedly fascinating, it is the documentary’s enthusiastic portrayal of Alejandro Jodorowsky himself that gives the picture its life force. Jodorowsky is a passionate individual, frequently switching between Spanish and English in a single sentence to make his points, all the while gesticulating wildly with every moveable appendage on his body. Even after nearly 40 years, Jodorowsky’s love of his imaginative creation is palpable as he takes the filmmakers through his unique vision that now only exists as a discarded script along with extensive storyboards that are bound together in one gigantic tome. It is this holiest of cinematic bibles that the documentary references often, even going so far as to animate key storyboards to give an idea of the immense scope of the original project.
The documentary begins with introducing Jodorowsky and his unconventional work that sparked the interest of French producer Michel Seydoux. In the early 1970’s, Jodorowsky became a cult figure when his surrealist films El Topo and The Holy Mountain became surprise midnight hits at local art houses. In Europe his style was especially well-regarded, so much so that Seydoux offered Jodorowsky the opportunity to make any film that he wanted. The choice was that of a science fiction novel that he had never even read. The idea of being able to paint a fully realized world on a large canvas invigorated Jodorowsky as the potential of science fiction seemed limitless. He began to collect a series of artists, actors, and musicians that would bring his vision to life (many of which would go on to become legends in the industry) including H.R. Giger, Dan O’Bannon, Chris Foss, Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Pink Floyd, David Carradine, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dali among others. Jodorowsky likened himself to a cinematic prophet with all of these talented individuals brought on board as his disciples. There is an amusing segment where Seydoux and Jodorowsky discuss a meeting with famed special effects artist Douglas Trumbull, who appeared caught up in his own vanity due to his position in Hollywood (after all, he was the man responsible for the effects on 2001: A Space Odyssey). Jodorowsky denied Trumbull the special effects supervisor job on the spot declaring that he lacked an artistic soul. He was determined to do things his own way (credentials be damned!) and he assembled the kind of dream team a director would kill for through sheer will and force of personality.
There are many other stories peppered throughout the documentary, such as Jodorowsky promising to pay Dali 100,000 dollars a minute for his role while incorporating his vision of burning giraffes into the narrative, how he promised to hire Welles’s favorite French chef to cook for him on set, or how he trained his own son in martial arts for two years to prepare for the central role of Paul Atreides. The anecdotes and pre-visualizations of set-pieces are the kind of insider information that will leave film devotees salivating, but there is a curious lack of information on the narrative adaptation of Dune itself. Jodorowsky describes his adaptation as “raping Frank Herbert with love”, but the only indication of this is when the ending is described at length as a sharp departure from the book. Jodorowsky characterizes his vision as a spiritual reawakening — but details are sparse, forcing the viewer to conclude that the basic plot of the novel would have remained intact. The documentary seems content to fawn over Jodorowsky’s infectious zeal for the project and the artists that surrounded him rather than delve into the failed project’s storytelling ambitions.
Towards the tail end of the documentary they discuss how every studio in town ultimately passed on the project, due to fears of an unpredictable director and an unwieldy script length (the film was reported to be around 12 hours long as written). It sent many who worked on the project into a state of deep depression, while others moved on victoriously (Dan O’Bannon spent almost two years in a psychiatric ward until he wrote and conquered with Alien). Jodorowsky couldn’t fathom why the powers that be would limit his vision and in later years turned to comics as an artistic outlet where his style would know no bounds. But the documentary is quick to point out that remnants of the project remain (especially its artistic style) and have surfaced in many science fiction films since such as Blade Runner, Alien, The Matrix, and yes, even Star Wars.
Eventually a failed adaptation of Dune was made, directed by none other than avant-garde filmmaker David Lynch who eventually took his name off the picture citing studio interference as the film’s downfall. Perhaps Hollywood wasn’t ready for the great expanse that is Dune. Perhaps they needed an old-school adventure like Star Wars to pave the way for the rebirth of Science Fiction cinema. It is surprising that the film has never been remade (save for a TV mini-series), especially in an era when The Lord of the Rings (Dune’s fantasy equivalent) has successfully transferred from the page to a billion dollar franchise. Jodorowsky indicates that someone could still make his film if they wanted to, considering most of the pre-production is done. He even offers up the intriguing and plausible idea of an animated feature (a medium that could be used to tackle many a project, but is unjustly reserved for children’s fare). Until someone takes up the mantle, Jodorowsky’s Dune provides an alluring document to one of the greatest “what if?” scenarios in all of Hollywood lore.