How ‘Dune’ almost never was — but coulda been better
If you’re a gay man of a certain age, you surely have memories of Sting’s appearance in the David Lynch film Dune, clad only in a lightning bolt-shaped codpiece, sweating his way across the galaxy in search of spice. But if Alejandro Jodorowsky had had his way, you would never have seen that. But then again, you might have seen something much, much better.
In some ways, you already have. If you’ve seen Alien, you’ve seen Jodorowsky’s vision for his Dune, a massive boondoggle of the 1970s that derailed his budding film career for decades but in the process invented out modern concept of sci-fi.
At least, that’s how Frank Pavich sees it.
Pavich’s new documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune, gives Jodo the forum he’d long sought, and perhaps the credibility (and credit) he’s long deserved.
It began in the 1970s, when Jodorowsky was making weird, experimental films in Mexico, most notably El Topo, a Zen-like shoot-’em-up that started the midnight movie craze.
“He told me he wanted to make a Western, but ended up making an Eastern,” Pavich says over dinner during a recent visit to Dallas.
The mojo that Jodo got from that film opened doors for him, and when a producer offered Jodo carte blanche to make a movie, he blurted out, “I want to adapt Frank Herbert’s novel Dune” … even though he’d never even read the book. And so began a mythic journey in Hollywood.
“I’d heard the story about 10 years ago,” Pavich says of the “legend” of Jodo’s Dune book — a massive tome containing storyboards, sketches, outlines, even fabric samples of the elements he planned to turn into the greatest science fiction film of all time. It ended up being one of the most famous films even not to be filmed … until, of course, Lynch’s 1984 version, considered by many to be a disastrous flop of epic proportions, notwithstanding Sting’s abs.
But what made Jodo’s effort noteworthy, as opposed to a footnote about an obscure filmmaker unable to get a greenlight from the tight-fisted money-men in Tinseltown, was what Jodo introduced to the world of filmmaking.
He was the first person to hire H.G. Giger, the futuristic Swiss artist, to work on a movie (Giger later won an Oscar for his concepts for Alien). He envisioned a mind-blowing tracking shot that went from a single atom outward to the totality of the cosmos (later cribbed for the opening of Contact). He imagined a huge film — 12, even 20 hours long — that seems unsustainable at the time … until Peter Jackson stole the idea for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
“Stole” may be overstating it. But Pavich — and many other folks, including director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) — firmly believe Jodo’s ideas helped push the boundaries of what film could do by seeing something grander than had ever been attempted. This kind of drink-the-Kool-Aid fascination with Jodo is usually accompanied by words like “prophet” … and occasionally, “kook.” But always with respect.
“What makes Jodorowsky different … yes, he was weird, but there’s real meaning behind it,” he says. “Scenes that would be grotesque or seen for shock value [from another director] in his hands seem beautiful. It makes you see his perversity.”
Pavich agrees that Jodorowsky was psychedelic madman, a visionary filmmaker and a quirky character, and that those characteristics make him funny; you’ll laugh a lot in Jodorowsky’s Dune. But Pavich would be horrified to think anything he did caused you to laugh at the man.
“I hope you never laugh at him but with him,” Pavich says.
You may be tempted to do both, such as when you see what Jodo put his 12-year-old son through in preparation to play the lead, Paul Atreides (eventually portrayed by Kyle McLachlan). But it was the freedom he afforded his creative team that helped build the legend.
“He was [working out these ideas] way before other sci-fi films,” Pavich says. When he conceived of Dune, “there was 2001, and there were B-movies, and that was it. The Dune project was the first film many [artists like Giger] worked on — they didn’t realize how great the experience was until they started working on other movies.”
Pavich clearly respects Jodorowsky’s artistic temperament — something as hard to find now as it was 40 years ago.
“He rails against money — he thought 90-minute movies were about theaters controlling how many [screenings a day they could squeeze in],” Pavich says. (For the record, Jodorowsky’s Dune clocks in at exactly 90 minutes — pure coincidence, Pavich assures me.) “He doesn’t do anything to get rich, he doesn’t do it for the glory. He wants to help people — he developed his own kind of therapy he calls ‘psycho-magic.’ He was an artist more than a filmmaker. All he wants to do is change the world.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 11, 2014.