Like Lost in La Mancha to Terry Gilliam’s The Man who Killed Don Quixote (which ironically is in production again, fifteen years after original thwarted attempt), there are very few documentaries dedicated to films which didn’t actually get made, but maverick visionary Alejandro Jodorowsky is no ordinary filmmaker, nor was his proposed film version of Frank Herbert’s Dune, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel, any ordinary film adaptation.
“For me, movies are an art more than an industry… a search for the soul.” With a stated intention to replicate the effect of lysergic acid diethylamide on his audiences without the chemical stimulation, Jodorowsky goes on to say that he “wanted to create a prophet for the young minds of the world,” a purpose in parallel with the narrative of young Paul Atreides, exiled into the desert after the assassination of his father Duke Leto who rises to power as the prophet Muad’Dib, gathering followers from the native Fremen of the planet Arrakis to overthrow the Emperor.
Echoing the effects of the spice melange, Jodorowsky wanted to open minds and expand the consciousness of those who saw his film, and certainly he was no stranger to unorthodox approaches and ruffling feathers. From a background in theatre he moved directly to film without any training and without the approval of the film unions (“I need permission to make art?”) and at the premiere of Fando Y Lis at the 1968 Acapulco Film Festival it prompted a riot.
His followup, El Topo (1970) on which he wrote, directed, starred and performed the soundtrack, became a midnight movie cult, allowing him the freedom to make Holy Mountain (1973), described by Richard Stanley, director of Hardware, as “a work of art from a parallel world,” which brought Jodorowsky to the attention of French producer Michel Seydoux. Telling Jodorowksy he wished to make a project with him, whatever he chose Dune, knowing it only from the recommendation of others and never having read it himself.
Told through interviews, production art and newly animated storyboards, this documentary is likely the closest Jodorowsky’s interpretation of Herbert’s novel ever comes to realisation, and to witness it is to join what for the last four decades a select band. Invited to look through Jodorowsky’s personal copy of “the book”, the complete illustrated screenplay prepared as a presentation to the studios, Only God Forgives director Nicolas Winding Refn felt as though he were the only person to have been personally guided through the vision: “It’s awesome.”
To imagine the impact the film might have had were in not abandoned when no major studio was willing to contribute the final $5 million of the estimated $15 million budget, fearful that costs would spiral higher, of working with a director they could not understand and in whom they had no faith, eliminated “for being too original” in the words of Seydoux, it is simplest to consider the film which eventually did emerge from the project.
With the script written by Jodorowksy, the most important aspect was the visual representation, with costumes and storyboards composed by French comic artist Jean “Mœbius” Giraud, hardware designed by British illustrator Chris Foss with the key designs of the Harkonnen homeworld Geidi Prime conceived by Swiss artist H R Giger.
These unique talents would be brought together again to contribute concept art to a script written by the American whom Jodorowsky had hired to work on special effects concepts, Dan O’Bannon, who had worked on John Carpenter’s Dark Star in which he had also starred as Sergeant Pinback. Originally titled The Eighth Passenger, it was renamed Alien when it was filmed by Ridley Scott.
That was not until 1979, but it is important to consider if following the breakthrough of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 if rather than John Boorman’s Zardoz it had been Dune that 1974 was remembered for, if that had been the next huge science fiction hit rather than Rollerball, setting a precedent for intellect over violence and guns, how different might science fiction cinema now be.
The proposed cast, all of had provisionally agreed, were as eclectic and eccentric as the man behind the camera; Duke Leto Atreides have been played by David Carradine, the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV by Salvador Dali while his “muse” Amanda Lear, who persuaded the artist to sign on, was to play the Princess Irulan. Orson Welles agreed to appear as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen on the promise that the head chef of his favourite restaurant would be hired to provide his catering. As the Baron’s psychopathic nephew Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, Mick Jagger was not the only musician involved, with Pink Floyd to provide the Atreides themes and French progressive rock band Magma the Harkonnen sound.
His enthusiasm undiminished by forty years, Jodorowsky is the heart and soul of Frank Pavich’s documentary but he is not alone; also present are Seydoux, Foss, Diane O’Bannon, widow of Dan O’Bannon who himself is represented in an audio only archive interview, and Brontis Jodorowsky who was to have played young Paul Atreides and underwent two years of intense martial arts training in preparation, and all have stories to share of those heady Parisian days.
Eventually directed by David Lynch almost a decade later, that film failed to connect with audiences who found it too challenging, but that version would have seemed positively mainstream next to Jodorowsky’s radical interpretation. Initially reticent to see Lynch’s interpretation, Jodorowsky found comfort in the failings (“I became happy because the picture was awful!”) but saw that as the restrictions of producers Dino and Rafaella De Laurentiis rather than Lynch whom he admires greatly; Seydoux continues to refuse to see the film.
Rather than mourning the failure to complete the task Jodorowsky and his “spiritual warriors” set themselves, this is a celebration of the uncompromising visionary whose places the value of art above money, whose only mistake was not realising that it would have been easier to change the ecology of Arrakis than to change Hollywood. Now in his mid-eighties and still writing plays, graphic novels and directing films (The Dance of Reality, produced by Michel Seydoux, premiered at Cannes in 2013), his passion is the antithesis to all that is stale and dead in the studio system.