Thursday, May 12, 2016

Alejandro Jodorowsky's Dune




I just realized that while I touched on this while discussing an issue I have with George Lucas, I haven’t actually written anything here specifically on this topic. That needs to change because Alejandro Jodorowsky's Dune was perhaps the single greatest film that was never made.

Yeah, you read that right. It was a film that was never made. Not a single frame of film was shot on the project, but it may have been one of the most influential film projects of its time in genre cinema. It was a film never made that changed the look of Hollywood’s science fiction films for more than a decade after the project fell apart. Some aspects of how the film ultimately did this was literally chance and fate.



First you need to know a little something about Alejandro Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky is a lunatic. Jodorowsky is a raving madman. In his prime he may also have been one of the filmmakers who most deserved being called a genius. The old saying about there being a thin line between genius and madness doesn’t apply here, because Jodorowsky stomped that line to death by repeatedly crossing it back and forth early in his career. This is the man who gave the world such films as El Topo, Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre. 

Dune would have come right on the heels of El Topo and Holy Mountain. The only way to truly describe these films is asking you to imagine turning a film camera on inside the mind of raving lunatic who is also the most gifted surrealist artist you can imagine. These were films that were hugely successful for what they were. Hell, El Topo is even considered the first “event” midnight movie. It would play midnight engagements in theaters in cities like New York, attracting large (often largely stoned) crowds showing after showing until it became something of a cult rite of passage in the way Rocky Horror Picture Show later became for others.

It was the success of these films, particularly in Europe, that opened the doors for him to do a larger project. When his agent asked him what he wanted to do, he suddenly answered that he wanted to make Frank Herbert’s Dune into a movie. The odd thing about that was, as Jodorowsky will freely admit to this day, he had never read the book. He had never cracked it open to so much as to the first page even. But he had heard about the story through friends. Amazingly, he was able to get the rights to it.

Jodorowsky became immediately obsessed with the idea of telling the story of a prophet- the coming of a god. So obsessed did he become that the project almost became a spiritual quest for him. He even set about finding only the right people, those who would become his “spiritual warriors” on the project to help him with his vision. Insanely, it seemed as though fate would act to reinforce this view more than a few times.

Jodorowsky now had the rights and the idea, but he was unsure of how he would set about creating the look of the film. He found his answer sitting on a magazine rack. He saw a striking cover on a comic book and picked it up, flipping through the comic with growing excitement. The genre was wrong, it wasn’t science fiction, but he fell in love with the eye of the artist. He decided that this artist must be his camera for him. This was the man who would storyboard his film and design every shot.


But he had a bit of a problem. This was the 1970s. It was a bit harder to look people up. He had a name, but he wasn’t sure how he could reliably get in contact with the artist. A short while later he walked into his agent’s office and, purely by chance, standing there was the artist. At the time he was becoming well known as a comic artist in France, but he was largely unknown in film. The name of the artist was Jean Giraud. You may be more familiar with him under the name of Moebius.

Jodorowsky worked with Giraud creating the storyboards and designs for Dune. But Jodorowsky wanted more. He wanted the different cultures of Dune to have their own distinct look. This led him to tracking down and convincing science fiction book cover artist Chris Foss to join his crusade to create Dune. A part of this, and this deal was struck with many of the others who would come to work on creating the film’s bible, was convincing Foss to move to Paris during the time he worked on the film. Foss went along with it and became a part of the team.


He now felt that he had two excellent artists working on his film, but he needed someone with both true vision and practical experience. For him, the only man for the job was the man behind the FX seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He decided he had to travel to America and recruit Douglas Trumbull.

He traveled to America with one of his producers and met with Trumbull. It was a meeting that quickly soured him on Trumbull. He was despondent. He had no idea where he was going to look for his spiritual warrior now. He and his producer were walking off their funk when they decided to step into a small arthouse theater showing what was basically a glorified student film. There, sitting in the darkened theater, he saw the work of the man he wanted. The film was Dark Star, and the man was Dan O’Bannon.

He tracked down O’Bannon, still largely a Hollywood unknown at the time, and convinced him (during drugged out discussions) to work on the film. This would entail moving to Paris and spending a year or more of his life there, but O’Bannon did it. Once there he set about creating still more designs for the film as well as figuring out how the practical FX would be pulled off.

As the storyboards and designs for the film grew, Jodorowsky decided he needed to start getting other ducks in a row. Some of this involved lining up the artist who would score the film. Just as he wanted different visual artists creating the look of the different cultures of Dune, so too did he want different musical artists scoring the scenes with the different cultures. He sought out and got commitments from Pink Floyd and Magma.

While seeking his cast of actors, fate once again played a role in his quest to create his vision for Dune. One of the people he sought out for his cast introduced him to artwork the likes of which he had never seen. It was dark, hideous, complicated, elegant, and beautiful all at the same time. He met with the artist and the two of them hit it off well. He recruited the artist to his cause, and the artist immediately set about designing things for Dune the likes of which no one else could have ever imagined. The artist in question, largely unknown at the time, was H. R. Giger.


With all of the designs coming together, Jodorowsky took photos of every design and every storyboard and put them together in a giant book. The massive blueprint for the film was almost a foot thick, but it told the complete story that he wanted to tell as he wanted to tell it. His producer made copies of the book that were sent to every major studio in Hollywood. Today, only two copies are known to still be in existence.

The cast he began to build was almost as insane as Jodorowsky himself. His young son Brontis Jodorowsky was cast to play Paul in the film, and Brontis was thrown into a tortuous training regimen of physical conditioning, weapons training, and martial arts. Others who came onboard included the likes of David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Udo Keir, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dali. Some, like Carradine, were just on the same wavelength of crazy as Jodorowsky and were more than willing to sign on. Others needed more coaxing, and some of their demands were… strange.

Orson Welles was at the stage of his career where he was done with acting. He wanted nothing to do with film and was spending his time eating his way through the finest restaurants in Europe. The deal he struck to get Welles onto the set was an interesting one. Jodorowsky would hire the chef from the restaurant Welles was regularly eating in at the time and have him prepare all of the meals Welles would have while filming as well as supplying the best wines. This came off as completely sane compared to the deal he had to strike with Salvador Dali.

Dali was as destructive as he was genius. He started issuing demands for his participation that would have driven away any sane filmmaker, but he was dealing with Jodorowsky instead. Dali was demanding insane things like burning giraffes as part of the set design, but that was nothing compared to his money demands. Dali wanted to be known as the actor with the biggest salary in Hollywood. He started throwing around numbers that would be seen as unreasonable even by today’s standards. Jodorowsky was crushed. He wanted Dali to play the emperor, but he didn’t know what to do.

Finally, his producer came up with an idea. He asked Jodorowsky how many minutes of screen time Dali’s role would actually have. Jodorowsky estimated no more than five minutes, and likely actually only three. He suggested to Jodorowsky that they make the official offer to Dali of $100,000 per minute and then film Dali’s scenes as quickly as possible. Jodorowsky made the offer and Dali happily accepted. They likely figured they had worked out a way to do it for less than Dali was demanding while still giving him his ability to claim his amazing salary, but people who knew Dali figured he’d have been blowing takes left and right on that deal.

Jodorowsky felt he had everything in place. He had a cast like no one else could have pulled together. He had a story bible filled with designs that were revolutionary when compared to anything else out there. He had a version of Dune that would have been one of the single most visually extraordinary science fiction films ever created. It was all of this that he took with him to get the final financing to move forward to the filming stage. 


The problems Jodorowsky ran into with Hollywood were on multiple levels. Jodorowsky’s Dune was indeed visionary. It may in fact have been too visionary for many in Hollywood. There was literally nothing else like it to point to. It was also viewed by many who looked at the storyboards and the designs as unfilmable. Few people who didn’t work with Jodorowsky could see how this thing could ever be turned into a film even as anyone who knew him felt sure he could have filmed it exactly as he envisioned it.

The bigger issues came in the form of the budget and the runtime. The budget was getting estimates of around $15 million or more. This was the 1970s. To give you a comparison, Star Wars was budgeted at around $11 million. The other issue was the projected 10-hour to 12-hour runtime. Jodorowsky refused to budge on that. He would make his vision as he felt it needed to be made, whether that was 7 hours, 12 hours, or 20 hours.

The project fell apart. Jodorowsky was angry and more than a little despondent over it for a time. 

Dan O’Bannon just about had a breakdown for a short while as well. He’d sold off a lot of what he owned and moved to Paris for this project, and now it was gone. He came home to America and left the project behind, but he didn’t leave the people he formed a creative bond with behind. It’s here where we have one example of how this failed project changed Hollywood.

Dan O’Bannon, still essentially an unknown in Hollywood, reached out to Moebius, Giger, and Foss, all also unknowns in Hollywood, to help him on a film project. Together, taking some designs they had from the Dune project while making many more original to their project designs, they, along with many others, created a film that was released in America in 1979 to great success with both audiences and critics. It was a film that changed the way Hollywood science fiction looked, spawning imitator after imitator in more ways than one. The film was the Ridley Scott directed Alien.

The less direct way it impacted Hollywood, the more speculation based way, was the books his producer created for the studios. The film project fell apart, but the books never returned to them. In the following years there were scenes in genre films that had striking resemblance to scenes in his story bible. Some may well have been coincidence, some may well have been from those books being passed around and seen by many in Hollywood. But, either way, there are many in Hollywood today who see the fingerprints of this unfinished film, its legacy, in the Hollywood genre films that followed its collapse.

I understand it’s hard to wrap your head around that on a purely academic level. I’ve known about the story for years now, but it wasn’t until only recent years that I could fully understand what I’d been reading about and hearing about for all those years. In 2013 a documentary was released, Jodorowsky's Dune, that covered the legend of this unfinished film with visuals pulled straight from Jodorowsky's story bible. When you actually see it, when you see the seemingly ahead of their time designs and the storyboards created for it, it’s almost an unquestionable argument for that point of view.

Jodorowsky's Dune can be found on a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack that’s well worth tracking down. At the very least, it’s a fascinating look at the intense, passionate creative drives of a genius and a madman like no other. The story he would have told in his Dune also later lived on in a series of graphic novels Jodorowsky wrote with Moebius and others illustrating.

Bonus bit- Listen to my friend Bill Mulligan discuss this unfinished film (and others) and the utter insanity around it and the view of the story Jodorowsky held here. Trust me, Bill's delivery was hilarious. You can stream it straight from the page or download it for more convenient listening. 

Jerry Chandler writes. He also watches a lot of documentaries. This is certainly one of his recent faves.


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