The Dune in our Heads

A problem crops up when filmmakers try to adapt epic fantasy worlds to the big screen—particularly beloved, richly-imagined literary ones. Sacrifices must be made. Characters are cut, and plotlines are re-routed. Scenes and places don't match what readers have pictured with their minds. Fans of the original book cry foul.

In the case of director Alejandro Jodorowsky, he had a vision for Frank Herbert's masterwork Dune that was so over the top, so surreal (and, at times, so absurd), it probably would have blown the minds of critics before they had a chance to grumble.

That is, if Jodorowsky's translation and transmogrification of Dune had ever been made. It never was.

Finally, the story of the greatest science fiction epic never made has finally been told. Jodorowsky's Dune is a new documentary about that beautiful, crazy-ambitious, disaster of an adaptation.

"They did everything right, really. Maybe a little too, right, you know?" said director Frank Pavich, when I reached him earlier this week via telephone from New York City.

"They" were Chilean cult filmmaker Jodorowsky, the self-taught visionary behind El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), and his French producer Michel Seydoux. This was 1975, and Jodorowsky had assembled a dream team of actors and artists to bring alive Herbert's tale of a feudal-like interstellar culture driven by the market for a valuable substance caled the "spice." David Carradine was to play Duke Leto, Jodorowsky's 12 year old son Brontis was cast as Paul Atreides, Udo Kier (Andy Warhol's favorite actor) would be Piter De Vries, and Orson Welles was slated to play Baron Harkonnen. (Apparently, Welles was lured by promises of on-set French bistro food.)

Spacecraft concept art by British artist Chris Foss   

Jodorowsky's vision extended to the soundtrack. A different band or composer was to invent music representing each of Dune's major families. Straight off of their "Dark Side of the Moon" success, Pink Floyd would write and perform the House Atreides theme. The French prog rock band Magma would cover the House Harkonnen. The British avant-rock group Henry Cow and German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen were also approached  (Contrast this with the band chosen for the 1984 David Lynch version of Dune: Toto."I bless the spice down in Arrakis. Gonna take some time to do the things we never had…Ooh ooh ooh")

Even Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali had agreed to be in the movie.

Orson Welles was slated to play the antagonist, Baron Harkonnen (Photo: Gary Graver)   

Pavich's documentary focuses largely on Jodorowsky, now 85, who recounts his courtship of each of the film's key players. He spins one unlikely story after another. "Whenever you think that he's embellishing it, you kind of roll your eyes and think, 'Well, this possibly can't be true,' somebody else would back it up," said Pavich, whose previous feature was N.Y.H.C., a 1999 documentary about New York Hardcore music scene. "These stories really did happen like that. It was a weird time. I think that the circles [Jodorowsky] was travelling in—of course he would be at a weird party in Paris, where Mick Jagger would be."

Fanboys and girls would have drooled over the visual team. A then-obscure H.R. Giger designed the creepier Harkonnen settings. Dan O'Bannon, known at the time for his work with John Carpenter on the sci-fi film Dark Star, was brought on as the special effects wiz. (Jodorowsky rejected Douglas Trumbull because he found him too full of himself.)  British artist Chris Foss designed the space craft. And Jean Giraud, aka French comic book artist Moebius, brought Jodorowsky's dreams to life in some 3,000 storyboard drawings that perfectly capture a character or scene with a few quick pencil marks on the page.

Concept art by Swiss artist H.R. Giger   

These drawings showed every shot in the film, every composition, every angle and every camera movement, as well every line in the script. Along with concept art and sketches of costumes, spaceships, vehicles, palaces and landscapes, the storyboard drawings were then bound into a 30-pound book that Jodorowsky used to shop his mammoth project to financiers and Hollywood studios. Twenty copies were made.

At that point, two years of pre-production had run up a tab of $2 million. The overall budget has been estimated at $15 million, "because nobody really knew how high it could possibly get." Mind to you, this was 1975, two years before the success of Star Wars. Blockbuster sci-fi epics were hardly the slam-dunks they are today. In that era, a $15 million price tag would have been an "insanely huge," Pavich said. Amazingly, $10 million was raised from Jodorowsky's money and European backers. They needed the final $5 million, from "a studio partner, so they could get the film out on US screens."

That money was never raised.

Jodorowsky and Moebius   

Production was shut down just as filming was about to begin in Algeria. "They had the cooperation of the Algerian government," Pavich said. "The Algerian army was going to play Harkonnen extras."

Today, of those 20 original bibles, only two remain. Seydoux has one. Jodorowosky kept another copy all these years in his Paris apartment, where much of the Jodorowsky's Dune takes places.

"I wanted to make something sacred," Jodorowsky says during one of his many bombastic moments. "Dune will be the coming of a God." When he tries to persuade Pink Floyd to come on board, he describes his project as "the most important picture in the history of humanity." Modest, the man is not. But shining through Jodorowsky's often poetically-broken English are his indefatigable spirit and enthusiasm, which win you over in the end.

Alejandro Jodorowsky (Photo: David Cavallo)

"He speaks whatever he feels like. Sometimes he doesn't even know. It's in French, and English, and Spanish – he kind of goes all over the place," said Pavich. "He doesn't have a self-censor button." In between the interviews with Jodorowsky (whose intimates call "Jodo"), we hear from producer Seydoux (also a producer of Pavich's documentary), Giger, Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz, Nicolas Winding Refn, and others.

All the while, that tome gains psychic weight. Its pages which we occasionally glimpse become more poignant, and more pregnant with possibility. Why? Because Jodorowsky never shot one foot of film for his adaptation of Dune.

Storyboard of Dune (Photo: David Cavallo)   

"As we were making the film, we learned there was nothing. Nobody had any record of anything." Pavich found no photographs of the artists at work, nor of the location scouting in Chile, Mexico and Algeria. Jodorowsky's document was all that remained.

"What an amazing object that is," said Pavich. Between its covers, in these drawings, the film still lives.

Pavich brings some of that imagination to life by cleverly, but not obtrusively, animating Moebius's pencil sketches. "I didn't want to sort of CGI-ify the whole thing. Because then it becomes someone else's vision—my vision, or someone else's—when it really should be Alejandro's." His approach, via the animation of Emmy Award-nominated Syd Garon, was to take the original artwork and "just breathe enough life into it" to "lift it off the page." The viewer sees some movement, and a glimmer of what Jodorowsky's film would have been like. "Then hopefully your imagination carries it the rest of the way, because that's where the movie exists—in his imagination, and yours, and all the viewers'."

As Jodorowsky rails against those who got in the way of his vision, the documentary becomes as much about an unmade movie as it is a meditation on hope and hubris. "Why will you not have ambition?" Jodorowsky admonishes the viewer, Yoda-style, towards the end of the film. "If you fail, it is not important. You need to try."

David Carradine and Jodorowsky   

As for those 18 other copies of Jodorowsky's Dune, they disappeared. As Pavich conjectures, the drawings and designs could have made the rounds in Hollywood. George Lucas might have seen the book. Steven Spielberg might have seen it. Ridley Scott, too. Or their minions. After all, O'Bannon, Giger, Foss and Moebius went on to work on Alien. O'Bannon was also writer for Heavy Metal, Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars, Total Recall and other films, and even did a little computer graphics for Star Wars. Chris Foss did design work for Superman, Flash Gordon, and the Kubrick version of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. A comic called "The Long Tomorrow," written by O'Bannon in 1975 and illustrated by Moebius, was said to influence Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. And so forth.

Concept art by Chris Foss   

From that design team, and sprouting from Jodorowsky's psychedelic brain, came a hundred science fictional ideas, aesthetics, and family trees. But Pavich doesn't think Jodorowsky's Dune inspired thievery.

"I don't think that they're pillaging it and stealing ideas. I think they're taking it and they're being inspired by it," he said. "Sometimes things seep in and you don't even realize it." That's what makes Jodorowsky's Dune an interesting story, Pavich added. "It's not an unmade film that just ended, it's an unmade film that just keeps on living. And you see its children in other films."

Concept art by Giger   

As for Dune, Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights and hired David Lynch to direct it. Which Lynch did. Fans of the original book cried foul. Dune also became a three-part TV mini-series in 2000.

As for Alejandro Jodorowsky, he went on to direct a few other films, including last year's The Dance of Reality. But thinking about his Dune, I wonder how all of Jodo's wild images would have been captured by circa 1975 technology. Probably poorly. In a way, I'm glad the film was never made.

The best version of Dune is the one still in my head. Or, I should say, in all of our heads.

Giger in his studio   

Concept art by Foss   

Concept art by Giger   
All photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics