There are plenty of fascinating unrealized projects from great directors – Sergio Leone’s “Stalingrad,” Martin Scorsese’s “Dino,” and David Lynch’s “Ronnie Rocket” among them – but few as unlikely and bizarre as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune.” Frank Herbert’s beloved sci-fi novel was eventually adapted by Lynch in a version that sees him grappling with studio interference and a gigantic scale the director clearly isn’t comfortable with, so giving the project to another famous surrealist doesn’t necessarily sound like a great idea. Yet in “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” Frank Pavich’s documentary about the aborted project, Jodorowsky proves to be as charming and thoughtful as he is wildly ambitious, to the point where it’s hard to believe that anyone could resist the man.
Indiewire spoke with director Frank Pavich about the ongoing interest and influence of Jodorowsky’s “Dune,” and gathering the right voices to shed light on the project. Sony Pictures Classics opens the film this Friday.
There are so many unrealized projects that hold the public’s fascination. Why Jodorowsky’s “Dune” rather than Kubrick’s “Napoleon” or Coppola’s “Megalopolis?”
Two things. I think that this is the most fully realized. The beauty of Kubrick’s “Napoleon” was the research. But I think this was the most realized. This was completely storyboarded, completely cast, musicians, everything. His team of artists was ready to go in front of the cameras. That’s what makes it cool. It wasn’t something spoken about, it was actually something that was gonna happen. And then the fact that many projects die every day and every year, but how many don’t come to fruition but still go on to be so influential. I don’t know any examples besides this one. Who was influenced by Kubrick’s “Napoleon?” I don’t know of anybody. It’s cool, it’s wild, but I don’t know that those ideas got out there like the ideas that Jodorowsky had with “Dune.” They really permeated the history of the movies. Those are the things that drew me, that I found interesting.
How were you first introduced to Jodorowsky’s work? Were you very familiar with him when you first found out about “Dune?”
I was pretty familiar with him, but it was back in the time when you couldn’t see his movies. It was in those years where Allen Klein and ABKCO prevented his movies from getting out there, so the only way you could see them was on bootleg VHS tapes in really bad quality stuff. You could barely get an idea. But that also kind of helped to create his myth and mystique, so it kind of backfired on Klein a bit, because it made Jodo into something even more incredible. So I came to him way back then, then was happy when the movies finally got re-released and remastered and put onto DVD. But I come to it originally from the Jodorowsky side.
And along with the re-releases, you get those new projects he planned finally going forward, and his new movie, “The Dance of Reality.” Have you seen that yet?
Yes! Many times! I saw it at Cannes, since we were both at Cannes. It was kind of a double feature! You stay in the theater and watch the movie. It was great. I love it, though, I love the new film. It’s not for everybody.
That describes him perfectly, though.
Exactly. That’s no surprise, but it’s beautiful. It’s fantastic. It’s magical.
Was there anyone in the process of making the film that you tried to get ahold of but couldn’t, or had trouble getting in contact with?
No, because really the only people were the people who aren’t alive anyone. We’ve done a couple of festivals, and people were like, “Oh, did you try to get Mick Jagger?” That’s not really interesting, because he didn’t have such an integral part. If David Carradine was alive, that’d be different. Or Orson Welles, or Moebius, or Salvador Dali, or Dan O’Bannon (who is present via recordings), people that are much more integral. To do some sort of weird stunt casting, “Oh, let’s get Mick Jagger,” that seemed kind of empty. I also don’t like documentaries with too many voices. Sometimes you see a documentary that’s 90 minutes and there are 90 people interviewed. I can’t figure out what the hell is going on at that point. Let’s get a couple people, the main guy can tell the story, we’ll get a couple of supporting voices, and that’s all we really need to tell the story. Otherwise it gets to be sort of overwhelming, I think.
How did you decide on the supporting voices, with people like Devin Faraci and Drew McWeeny?
We had our core people with Jodo, Michel Seydoux, Chris Foss, H.R. Giger, people like that, and then we just needed a couple of outside voices to put things into perspective a bit as to where this artwork sits in history. That’s why Devin and Drew were good, because they’re younger, they’re my age, they came up with “Star Wars” and stuff. They could really feel the ramifications of that era. And then we had people like Nicolas Winding Refn, who’s Jodorowsky’s spiritual filmmaking godson, and Jodorowsky’s called him the greatest filmmaker alive, and they know each other very well, so he was a good voice. And Richard Stanley is a Jodo acolyte and has a very similar experience with “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” I mean, that’s a crazy, amazing story in and of itself. He can speak, if not directly stating it, he can speak from the perspective and point of view of how painful this experience can be. Because he really had a rough time and was out there shooting when he was fired and replaced by John Frankenheimer. And then he went to live in the woods and wear an animal costume to spy on the production. How incredible! He’s a character-and-a-half, so we had to have him.
You spent years editing this. Were there any stories or bits that you reluctantly had to cut in order to shape the film?
Oh, so many. The structure, we really just had to keep the freight train rolling down the tracks. Too many anecdotal stories that don’t have any real purpose would just sort of slow it down and make it feel weird. We have a lot of good stories, but each story leads to the next one, to a greater idea, to a greater topic. So we just tried to keep it as trim as possible. I don’t really think documentaries should be too long, either. This one’s 90 minutes, which is the perfect length for me.
What would be one story that you almost kept in, but you had to cut it for the sake of the film?
Jodorowsky was going to shoot part of the film in Algeria. They spoke to the Algerian government, and the Algerian army was going to play extras. Jodorowsky was looking for who was going to play Jessica, and he wanted a strong, beautiful woman, not a weak dainty woman. Someone with a real spiritual strength. He saw a movie with Charlotte Rampling, and thought she would be perfect. They sent Charlotte Rampling the script, and she agreed to meet with Jodo before she had read the script, and in the script, there is a scene where a character named Rabban the Beast, part of the Harkonnen army. In order to insult Duke Leto, David Carradine, Rabban the Beast gets his army, the Algerian army, to pull down their pants in front of the palace and shit. So there’s going to be a scene of 2,000 extras defecating at once. So here’s Charlotte Rampling, she agrees to meet with Jodo, she gets the script, she reads the script, and she says, “I can’t be in a movie where there’s 2,000 extras defecating on screen! I need to be in a movie that people are actually going to see! Who the hell is going to see this movie?” Jodo said, “It was a great disappointment for me. A great disappointment.” It’s kind of fantastic.
Nicolas Winding Refn has seen the whole book of storyboards, have you?
Oh yeah. I’ve gone through the whole book, the original actual boards, inside and outside scanned them in quadruple high-resolution. I’ve got full access.
It’s bigger than a phone book. What are the odds of it being published.
I don’t know. I guess it comes down to the rights as well, because it’s not just Jodo’s, it’s Frank Herbert’s, so you’d have to go back to his estate, so I don’t know. I just did an interview a little while ago, and for the first time I realized, maybe it shouldn’t be published. Because he was trying to make a movie. This book with pictures, a couple inches by a couple inches is not the widescreen epic he wanted to make. Maybe the documentary with the scenes we bring to life is more representative, and a better representation of his ideas and his dreams for “Dune.” Maybe if you see it in the book it doesn’t have the same impact as when you see it on the giant screen brought to life. I wonder what will happen. If it’s available, I’ll see you in line, I’ll be in line to get a copy. Whatever the price is, $1,000. It should be something like $1,000. It should be limited edition, replicated exactly the same method that the original is, 1,000 copies, take it or leave it. Keep it as a work of art. I would hate to see it come out as a paperback or something. That would be distressing. It should be revered, I think.
Jodorowsky has a unique spiritual worldview. What would separate his version from, say, the version almost made by Ridley Scott, or David Lynch’s original vision?
I think we see it in the storyboards. If you look at the storyboard book, you see “Dune,” it’s obviously “Dune.” Some people like to think, “Oh, he didn’t keep anything, he changed it completely,” and that’s not true. He was just making a movie. He was just making something different that would also reflect not only the source material and Frank Herbert, but Alejandro Jodorowsky and his vision, and what would make something interesting visually. A book is words. A movie is visual pictures. So I think his spirituality and worldview permeates everything, much like David Lynch’s worldview permeates everything…except for “Dune,” of course. Because if you look at all of Lynch’s films, which one is not like the other? That’s definitely “Dune.”
Jodorowsky incorporated a lot of his ideas for “Dune” into his comics. Had you seen them beforehand.
No. I grew up here, so my experience with comics is stuff like Marvel and DC. In researching, I knew he had made comics like “L’Incal” and stuff like that, and I didn’t understand. “Comics? Why is everyone making a big deal about this? Moebius? Who is this?” And the more we researched, the more I understood that French comics are completely different. Going to Paris, you walk into bookstores and go, “Oh, these are French comics.” They’re, you know, large, oversized, hard-cover, expensive works of art. They’re not the disposable newsprint comics that we are accustomed to here. It was a whole revelation to me, this whole other side. And that’s the thing about Jodo, he’s such a fully formed, multifaceted artist. I don’t know anyone like him. I personally come to him from the movies. There’s a young comic book artist name Gus Storms who helped us with some of the animation of the storyboards. He’s not our main animator, but he helped us with some issues. He was coming to Jodorowsky from the comic side. He knew “L’Incal,” he knew “The Meta-Barons.” Did not know that he made films also. He had absolutely no idea. There’s a friend of my wife’s who came to Jodorowsky through his books on psychomagic, which is this therapy he’s invented and has written about extensively. Had never heard of any comics, had never heard of any films. Who else can you say that about? Maybe David Lynch makes paintings, but everyone knows it’s David Lynch, the filmmaker, and those are his paintings. No one just sees the paintings and goes, “Oh, fantastic.” Tim Burton, whoever you have. Everyone always knows them as being a film artist. Julian Schnabel is a painter, he also makes movies, but people come to him knowing he’s a painter first. I don’t know of anyone else who’s so complete an individual on so many sides of their artistry. It’s completely unique, as far as I know.
Watching the film, I can’t think of anyone who could be more joyful about the experience. And yet he was elated when David Lynch’s “Dune” was a failure. I can’t think of anyone who’d say that but still sound sweet.
I read an interview once where he said he was so nervous about watching Lynch’s “Dune” that he broke out in eczema. He was so nervous, and as he was watching the movie, his eczema went away. “The movie was so bad, it cured my eczema.” He’s looking at it like he says, he admits it’s not a beautiful thought to be happy that it’s bad, but it’s a human reaction. At the end of the day, I’m human. And he doesn’t fault the artist, he doesn’t fault David Lynch, because it’s the producer who did that. To have a track record of “Eraserhead” and “The Elephant Man” and then to get the biggest movie in the history of the world, $50 million, that takes a very specific skill that David Lynch doesn’t have. Which is completely fine. You lose your voice by having that skill, and he lost his voice. How do you control 500 technicians running around the desert, trying to shoot this movie and still be David Lynch? You can’t. It’s impossible with the producer hounding you. It just can’t be.
Is there a concept or a story within Jodorowsky’s “Dune” that encapsulates the whole worldview of the project?
I think that the scene that really encapsulates the whole film is his final scene. Speak of being a prophet, that’s the most prophetic thing. Dune leaves orbit, the planet Arrakis flies out into the world to spread its consciousness everywhere. That’s Jodorowsky’s “Dune.” It broke its orbit, it couldn’t be contained in a movie, and yet it’s everywhere. It’s in his comics, it’s in other people’s films, it’s in other people’s art. It’s still out there changing the road. All he wanted to do was change the world, and he did it.
Does he have a view of modern sci-fi, post-“Dune?” “Alien” and “Star Wars,” for example?
I don’t really know. I know he watches everything. He watches all kinds of movies. I don’t know that he’s ever been a big sci-fi fan.
Right. I know he hadn’t read the novel beforehand.
Right…you’re the first person to get that. Everyone’s always like, “Oh, he didn’t read the novel.” No, he didn’t read the novel before. He obviously read the novel. He talks about it in the movie. He’s very specific. “I was in a castle for two months adapting, it’s a very dense book, the first 100 pages you don’t understand it.” Everyone always jumps on that, “He never read it. He never read it.” He clearly read it! He just didn’t read it before he agreed to make the movie.
He was fascinated by the story without having read it.
Exactly. You’re the first guy to get that, and it’s on tape! Give him a raise!
Did anything surprise you when you found out about the project, the film, or Jodorowsky?
It’s all kind of surprising. I certainly didn’t know how positive he was going to feel about it all. That’s for sure. Everything was a surprise. Everything we went through in the storyboards, to see the final scene, to see this, to see that. Oh, look at this idea in the storyboards, or look at it in “The Meta-Barons.” It’s one thing to see that online somewhere, it’s another to have him show me, “This means this.” It’s so exact. If you see his new film, there’s a scene from “Dune” that we animate that’s very similar to a scene in there. So he keeps taking these ideas and reworking them, making sure they get out there into the universe, into the popular art, into the cosmic consciousness, as he calls it.
Something else that fascinated me is that up until the point where Jodorowsky had to ask for funding, it wasn’t a Gilliam-esque thing where everything went wrong.
Everything was going great. But he’s also very adaptive. “I really wanted Douglas Trumbell. Trumbell won’t work, so how about Dan O’Bannon.” He’ll go with the flow, he doesn’t need it to be exactly one way. Who will be the next spiritual warrior?