Thursday, 5 June 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013)

There's a heart-stopping moment near the beginning of Frank Pavich's 2013 documentary, courtesy of Nicolas Winding Refn, who is recalling a memorable dinner he attended at the home of Alejandro Jodorowsky in Paris. Very late in the night, Jodorowsky asked the Danish director if he would be interested in seeing his film of Dune, which left Winding Refn momentarily stunned and bewildered. Had Jodorowsky somehow filmed Dune, the film famously abandoned in the late 70's ? What Winding Refn was actually invited to look at was the so-called Dune Book, a huge weighty tome produced for potential financiers, containing the mass of pre-production ideas, sketches, designs, storyboards, and shooting plans for Jodorowsky's projected film. Despite the fact that not a single frame of footage was shot for the film, Winding Ref was clearly awestruck: "Sitting there, 2am, at his house, seeing the book, looking at the images, and hearing Jodorowsky telling me what was gonna happen in every scene....I'm gonna tell you something - it's awesome". Watching Pavich's wonderful account of this legendary lost classic of Cinema, you might well agree.

Like the light from a dead star, Jodorowsky's Dune still shines brightly long after its collapse. Paul Sammon wrote about Jodorowsky's proposed film as early as 1984 in a Cinefantastique article entitled Versions of Arrakis You'll Never See. HR Giger's account of the film has appeared in several of his art books in conjunction with his paintings for the film, as have Chris Foss' conceptual art and Jean "Moebius" Giraud's storyboards and character sketches, which have been published or made available online.  Pavich's film brings all these strands together for what is the most fully rounded account of Dune to date, inching the viewer ever closer to what the film might have been. The heart of the documentary is Jodorowsky himself, at 84 years old discussing in Spanish and his own idiosyncratic take on English, the plans he had for Dune with an enthusiasm and energy of a man half his age. Jodorowsky is one of the great poet-philosophers of Cinema - when El Topo emerged in the early 70's, Jodorowsky declared: "I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs". Speaking about Dune in 2013 Jodorowsky recalled an even greater ambition, referring to his film in hallowed terms as "an artistical, cinematographical God"

Alejandro Jodorowsky: "I wanted to make something sacred"

Jodorowsky has spoken on camera about Dune before, in the 1995 documentary La Constellation Jodorowsky, and the 2007 biography Moebius Redux: A Life In Pictures. What's significant about his turn here is the passion with which he recalls the doomed project, the sense of awe he had for the team of collaborators he gathered around him - Moebius, Dan O'Bannon, Chris Foss and HR Giger, his spiritual warriors whom he intrinsically trusted to bring his dream of Dune to life. There's a wonderful moment in the film when Jodorowsky appears upset yet composed when talk turns to the demise of the film, only to have his mood re-invigorated at the failure of David Lynch's Dune, a film maker Jodorowsky evidently has huge respect for, but cheerfully admits his relief that Lynch's film did not scale his own grand ambitions. Listening to Jodorowsky, there's a sense that the Chilean director is taking the opportunity afforded by Pavich's film to settle his affairs - at least in terms of Dune and at the finale of the documentary he sounds a clarion call for film makers to take all the material created for Dune and make their own film of it.

The colossal Dune Book, and a page of Moebius' storyboards inside

Elsewhere Jodorowsky spins marvelous yarns and delights in the serendipitous way the film came together. No sooner had Jodorowsky decided to seek out Moebius as his major collaborator on the film ("my camera" as he describes the French illustrator), both men soon met by pure chance. After an ill-fated meeting with Douglas Trumbull who was first considered to create Dune's special effects, Jodorowsky attended a screening of Dark Star in a nearby theater, and impressed by what he saw, contacted Dan O'Bannon to offer him the job instead. Ever inventive, Jodorowsky explains how he persuaded to Orson Welles to appear as the grotesquely bloated Baron Harkonnen, and his rather ingenious solution for dealing with Salvador Dali's preposterous salary demand for playing the Emperor of the Universe ($100,000 per minute of screen time!). Jodorowsky also recalls with some amusement his first meeting with Pink Floyd (chosen to write part of the score, along with the volcanic free-rock outfit Magma), and his outrage when the band turned up at the meeting in jocular form - "How you don't understand I am to offer you, the most important picture in the history of humanity. We will change the world. And you are eating...big macs!" - the director's fury quickly focusing the Floyd on the matter at hand.

Dune's spiritual warriors:
top: Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius (accompanied by a Sardaukar soldier)
middle: futurist designer Chris Foss, bottom: the late HR Giger

Despite the scope of Pavich's film there are some omissions although understandably not the fault of the film makers. Dan O'Bannon passed away in 2009, and Moebius followed in 2012. O'Bannon does make a posthumous appearance in the documentary by way of a voice recording, describing his incredible hallucinatory first meeting with Jodorowsky (who supplied the hallucinogen). O'Bannon's wife Diane is on hand and discusses her husband's happy time working on the film and the emotional turmoil he suffered after the film was abandoned. A key theme in the documentary is Dune's sense of collaboration, with Chris Foss and the late HR Giger remembering the atmosphere of creativity Jodorowsky created for his artists, both men turning in some of the best work of their careers; from Foss' spaceships which look like cosmic tropical fish, to Giger's dark, occult landscapes and citadels of the evil Harkonnen planet.

Chris Foss' design of the stricken Pirate spaceship, with the cargo of spice leaking out of the ruptured hull

For all its lofty ambition there is the inevitable question of whether Jodorowsky could have pulled it off. Pavich's film admirably attempts to answer the unanswerable by using some very tasteful 3D animation to bring to life Moebius' storyboards - the opening sequence alone was conceived as an immense long shot which would travel across the luminous wastes of the galaxy, eventually zeroing in on a pirate spaceship engaged in battle with a convoy of transports carrying the precious Dune spice. Jodorowsky later switches from outer space to inner space in a pivotal scene where Dune's hero Paul Atreides is conceived when a drop of his father's blood is seen travelling through his mother's uterus, the blood then fusing with the ovum in a spectacular explosion of fertilization. Considering Jodorowsky reenacted the conquest of Mexico in an extraordinary sequence in Holy Mountain using costumed frogs, one suspects his Dune could have been very special indeed. Despite the providence the film enjoyed as it took shape, Dune's collapse was swift and brutal. The production was financially secure with enough French money, but the film needed a large American distribution deal to recoup its budget. When producer Michel Seydoux shopped the film around to the major studios there was little appetite to deal with a maverick director and a film which might have ran anywhere between 12 and 20 hours. Speaking about the film's reception in Hollywood, Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz recalled "The worry was it would go way over budget...and it wouldn't have an audience because no one would want to sit through that long a film".

Jodorowsky’s Dune may have ended in failure but Pavich steers his own film towards a positive ending of sorts by celebrating the legacy of the film. With Dune Books deposited at all the various studios, the bones of the film were picked clean in the years that followed. Pavich borrows judicious clips from such disparate sci-fare as Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Masters of the Universe, Contact, Prometheus to illustrate the influence of Dune. Dan O’Bannon in the fallout from the film poured his energies into a screenplay entitled Star Beast which incorporated ideas from Dune, and later became Alien. Jodorowsky himself was still working out elements of Dune with his next film, the underappreciated Tusk, which he opened with a spectacular long shot. More significantly Jodorowsky and Moebius went on to collaborate on a series of graphic novels which were steeped in Dune mythology. The final word goes to Richard Stanley who makes a welcome appearance here, best sums up the film’s enigma: “Dune is probably the great movie never made. It continues to influence us and will go on influencing generations to come, despite the fact that it doesn’t exist, we cannot rent it, we cannot watch it…”


  1. An excellent write up, Wes, really well crafted, too. It seems almost alien to think that not only do filmmakers like Jodorowsky exist, but that they managed to get investors and distributors for films such as El Topo and The Holy Mountain in the first place. I remember reading about him in a book on midnight movies back in the early-to-mid 90's, and he felt more like some messiah who had come down from a mountain to show us the way than a filmmaker, or at least any filmmaker I had ever seen or heard about at the time. It's just a great shame that all these incredible visionaries and artists somehow came together at the time to try and create this, but the reality of how the film world works came in and smashed up the party. I wonder, if it had of been a few years earlier would it have succeeded? I mean, the way film was being made and marketed changed so dramatically towards 'high concept' post Star Wars and Jaws that it must have spoiled it for many pictures. Was it really going to be 12 hours long? Bonkers!

    You have definitely got me interested in seeing this, though, and itching to watch the Constellation Jodorowsky doc, again too. It makes me a bit sad to see the passing of the likes of Moebius and O'Bannon, and I'm shocked to see Chris Foss worked on so few films. Why wouldn't you be hiring him to work on your science fiction film? But that probably says it all, really. I don't believe we have an Arthur C. Clarke or the likes in our generation, and if they did exist, they probably couldn't sell a short story, let alone define a genre. Science fiction, especially in film, feels pretty stale right now, with Prometheus wearing the Prom Queen Tiara caked in feces as the leader of what people consider 'intelligent sci-fi' these days. (hey, I don't hate Prometheus, but a smart movie it ain't).

  2. Many thanks John for the kind words, hopefully it's not too rambling a post... Yeah, I definitely feel that way about Jodorowsky, for me he's less a film maker and more a magus who used film to transmit his visions to the world. I sort of feel the same way about Tarkovsky, Herzog and Kenneth Anger - all of them, great sorcerers of Cinema... I find the whole notion of alternate history really fascinating - I'm thinking of Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel The Man In the High Castle where Germany-Japan had won the war, or the 2004 mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, which rewrites American history from the starting point that the Confederates won the Civil War - y'know that notion in Slacker where Richard Linklater ponders what kind a movie Wizard of Oz would have been if Dorothy decided to follow a different yellow brick road. And down this alternative yellow brick road you can see Jodorowsky's Dune, Stanley Kubrick's film of the life of Napoleon, Vincent Ward's Alien 3, Sergio Leone's WWWII epic Leningrad, Hitchcock's serial killer thriller Kaleidoscope - in my dreams, they're all essential viewings...

    Yeah, I think to do justice to Dune, it would have to be a long film (even though David Lynch's 140min adaptation is a very good distillation of a long complex book), but how would you stage this kind of long form picture ? It's a real conundrum. I thought the 3-picture Lord of the Rings would lead the way to more films of this type - something like The Stand, which George Romero wisely walked away from in the early 80's, when Warners were offering a 2 hour cut. Television is perhaps the solution but it comes with its own compromises, and in that regard, I'm glad the proposed TV series of The Dark Tower saga was knocked on the head.

    John I suspect you're right about the current state of science fiction, and while I can't say anything intelligent about contemporary sci-fi literature, sci-fi cinema has become really knuckle-headed over the years, where ideas have been replaced by spectacle, so much so that when something like Inception comes along, and you need a second or third sceening to straighten it all out in your head, that's genuinely exciting...

    1. Absolutely agreed on Tarkovsy and Anger there, I probably should watch more Herzog, though. I guess you are right, Dune would be completely doable nowadays in a three-movie format, a la LOTR, though due to the fact that the original film was a perceived flop, I can't imagine it ever happening. TV is even more of a gamble, as the budgets are lower and usually it ends up spreading pretty thin (The Walking Dead comes to mind), and I really don't think something like Dune would ever truly have mass market appeal. As you said regarding The Dark Tower, I'd nearly rather it never happened than have a it made badly.

      Yes, Inception was a breath of fresh air, in regards the fact that the ideas were more important than someone shooting in slow motion while looking cool.There's been a few over the years that I've really enjoyed (Moon and Primer come to mind) but they are few and far between. From what I can see in literature (and I'm not expert either) it seems that Sci-Fi just isn't that popular at the moment, Fantasy is definitely the 'in' genre these days.

  3. I thought The Walking Dead was pretty good John although I should qualify that by saying I’m not a comic book guy and have never seen a page from The Walking Dead books if that matters – having said that, I found the show a tad repetitive, with endless scenes of people sticking guns in each other’s faces. I have season 4 on the planner at home but I have yet to muster the enthusiasm to get stuck into it… Yep, Dune would be massively tricky to pull off today – not so much in terms of a special effects picture, but trying to balance the fantasy elements with the complexities of the book’s geopolitics – the book is probably more relevant today than it’s ever been with the parallels between Dune’s desert planet and the Middle East. Of course there’s an obvious pitfall right away, and we talked about this recently – that you end up with something like the Star Wars prequels, but if you could take all the sci-fi stuff and splice it with a film like Syriana, and I think you’d really have something… I haven’t seen Primer but Moon is a great call-out – wonderful film, and a great spiritual heir to 70's sci-fi like Silent Running… Even something like Gattica which I caught a few weeks ago and was really impressed with it. I really hate almost all of the current crop of fantasy pictures, I can’t think of a single one I liked. I’d have no hesitation in burning the negatives of the Lord of the Rings films…

    1. I think The Walking Dead is a fine piece of entertainment, so don't get me wrong, but I think if you look at it from a writing point of view if falls down harshly, especially as some events, which should be no more than a two/three episode arc get dragged out to 5/6 episodes. I can understand the desire not to rush things, but it got silly at one point, and I left off when they went to the prison - maybe two/three episodes into that season. No doubt I'll go back to it, but things like the point of guns in faces,or the constant running off alone to help someone only to then end up in trouble is mind numbing to me.

      I was thinking of our conversation on the Star Wars prequels in regards to this, and you know, I put that more down to the fact that Lucas just botched in the scripts for those films. Surely there could be a way to make it interesting? A film could be about anything, either interesting or perceived to be dull, but if the writing is good, and the film is well made, then there is no reason it couldn't work.

      Wes, I think Primer is right up your alley, it was made for very little cash, but it is a welcome return to the think man's Sci Fi. I suggest you check it out! I adore Moon, I only watched it again recently, and the comparison to the likes of Silent Running is spot on - now that's a film I preach about to anyone who will listen! I have Gattica here, actually, but never watched it. I'll bump it up the pile on your suggestion.

      I hate to break it to you, but I'm actually a fan of the LOTR films... I love the books, despite their ramshackle way of meandering through the story, and I think they did the best job they could do with getting it on screen. Now, The Hobbit is a different story, what with it being a bloated, egocentric pile of nonsense... but somehow I find them watchable. Is it wrong that I'm getting excited by the leaked photos from the new Star Wars film? The fact that there are sets and animatronic creatures is giving me great hope for a return to form for the series...

      P.S, can't believe I've made it this far without mentioning how much I love the poster for the documentary above! It's an eye catcher!

    2. John, I know no one in this life who shares my disdain for Lord of the Rings, so I must concede and that in this case, everyone else is just plain wrong ! I'll keep my indelicate ramblings about Lord of the Rings for another time, God knows I've subjected everyone within shouting distance of how much I hate these films. Getting back to Jodorowsky's Dune, I wish someone else had taken a crack Tolkien - nothing against Peter Jackson as such, I thought King Kong was very watchable, but I'll always wonder what John Boorman might have done with Lord of the Rings when he tried to put together the film in the early 70's - I really dig the idea of Frodo getting raped by an orc but sadly it was not to be... Yep, I always heard good things about Primer so I will keep my eyes peeled for it - maybe it's one of these low-budget wonders like the 1997 Canadian film Cube which puts a lot of huge studio pictures to shame... Yeah, I normally wouldn't run a big poster like that in a post but it's a beauty. Next visit to Amazon, I'm gonna grab a collection of Chris Foss designs...

    3. Ha! LOTR definitely belongs in a different conversation, so we'll leave it at that. To be honest, I can't imagine that Boorman would have done it much better - especially in light of The Exorcist II and Zardoz. He is the definition of a mixed bag director to me, seeing as both Point Blank and Deliverance would rate extremely high with me (Point Blank is one of my favorites of all time). Plus, optical effects and make up weren't up to the point they were even by the time Star Wars rolled around... It's probably why the only versions attempted of either LOTR or The Hobbit were through animation...

      Thanks for that link to the Chris Foss book, it went on my wish list!

    4. John, you are of course absolutely right about the Boorman adaptation, and I've pondered weak and weary about a solution to LOTR and I've yet to find one. I don't want to sound like a hard case here but I really liked the Ralph Bakshi version - despite it being an incomplete take on the book and the animation technique looking totally primitate nowadays, when I first saw it about two years ago, it really put the hook in me, and I'm not even an admirer of the book. I thought that film's approach to the Gollum with the strained, hoarse yet recognizable human voice was much better than Jackson's irritating over-egged goblin-voiced thing which gets on my fucking nerves every time I hear it !

    5. It has been way too long since I watched the Bakshi version, but I used to love it as a kid. Maybe I'll dig into it in the near future, and it might make for a nice comparison to the Jackson films. A bit of perspective on my behalf would be nice! And we shall continue that argument then!

      But you totally put me in the mood for some good sci fi at the weekend, so I popped in the Blu Ray of 2001, which I had yet to watch in HD. Obviously the film was incredible in SD, but the details that get brought out now are delicious..

    6. Oh incredible, what a choice ! Easily my favourite Stanley Kubrick, and an immovable Top Ten-er... It's one of those films which is perfect in every way, and at the risk of sounding corny, that jump cut from the bone to satellite fills my eyes with tears, just because it's such a huge idea - for me it's up there with Hamlet's soliloquy, or Carravagio's Taking of Christ as a moment of monumental human imagination. I was lucky to see this projected in a theatre back in 2001. It's one of those films that you come away from with a new perspective every time...

    7. No, I agree, I personally think it's the most perfect amalgamation of art and science we've ever had, and has yet to be bettered (sure, technology for effects has gotten better, but they are all built upon what was used to make this film what it is), and I'm not sure we'll see anything better soon.

  4. Jodo's reply to Dali "I haven't found any clocks but I've lost a lot of them" is my standout moment!

    1. Hey Jeremy, thanks for stopping by ! Yeah, I think Dali was impressed as well by the sounds of it. Still not sure what Jodorowsky meant though !