Before 'Star Wars' and 'Alien,' there was Alejandro Jodorowsky's 'Dune'
In the late 1970s, science fiction and cinema changed forever. Star Wars helped usher in the era of the outer-space blockbuster, while Ridley Scott’s Alien crystallized a sinister vision with some of the most horrific creature design ever seen. But as the new documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune argues, neither may have become the classics we know today were it not for another epic film — one that nobody has ever seen.
Alejandro Jodorowsky is the avant-garde filmmaker behind cult classics like El Topo and The Holy Mountain, and in 1975 he began work on a surrealistic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. His vision was trippy and fantastic — "I did not want LSD to be taken, I wanted to fabricate the drug’s effects," Jodorowsky says. To bring it to life, he assembled a legendary creative team, including artists Jean “Moebius” Giraud and H.R. Giger, with future Alien writer Dan O’Bannon handling visual effects. Jodorowsky convinced everyone from Salvador Dalí to Orson Welles to star in his epic. Then the filmmaker assembled a series of books containing every storyboard, ship design, and piece of art — and sent them off to the major studios to help get funding.
Nobody took the risk, but with a riveting mix of interviews and gorgeous animated storyboards, Jodorowsky’s Dune makes the case that the film changed the world anyway — its influence popping up in everything from Star Wars to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Part celebration, part cinematic whodunnit, it’s one of the most engrossing films in recent memory, and we spoke with director Frank Pavich about bringing the unique tale to life.
How did you first hear about Jodorowsky’s version of Dune?
I think the first time I heard about it was in one of those books, you know, like The 50 Greatest Movies Never Made kind of a thing. And his [Dune] was always the coolest one. The one you’re dying to see. For an unrealized film, as he says, it’s there. He feels that he made the movie. I don’t think there’s really anybody else out there with an unmade film who truly believes that and can pretty much back it up with all the work that was done.
All of the artists and producers seem genuinely excited to talk about the film. How did they react when you started reaching out? They were immediately on board. They all still have nothing but good thoughts about Alejandro. There’s nothing but good experiences on the film. And they were thrilled to get to tell their part of the story, because he really changed their lives. None of them had worked in film — Moebius, Chris Foss, and Giger, none of them had worked in film before — and Alejandro just saw something special in them.
The team helped influenced an entire generation of filmmakers. What is it about this group of artists, and the work they did together on Dune, that’s had so much resonance?
I think it was what Alejandro gave them, which was this total freedom. He would kind of inspire them, he would go in and say, "This is what we need today, we need you to design a ship like this." But then he left them to create. And I think that he had enough confidence in himself and in his team to allow them to do that.
You know, there’s a bunch of those [storyboard] books that were never recovered. I think they made twenty, and there’s only two in existence now. So did they get passed around? Did people see them and sort of get inspired by them, either consciously or unconsciously? And just like Alejandro used his ideas in other projects — his other comics, his other films — the other artists did as well. So this incredibly fertile two-year period really birthed so much amazing creativity.
You highlight some striking echoes in other films. Did you find any smoking guns, where you knew a certain filmmaker had seen Jodorowsky’s plans?
We knew that the whole team went on to do Alien. Alien might not have happened if these people had not met in Paris under Jodorowsky. Dan O’Bannon never would have suggested to Ridley Scott, "Hey, you need to hire this guy H.R. Giger, his work is amazing." They never would have brought on Foss, never would have brought on Moebius … But that was all we knew. But once we had the storyboards and we really went through them, then certain things popped out. "Look at this opening shot, that sounds familiar from Contact," and "This scene looks a lot like Raiders," and so on and so forth. So we were kind of discovering it as we were going along, and they were these amazing revelations that we would come across.
At one point Jodorowsky says his version could have run 12 hours, or even 20 hours. How long was the version he pitched to the studios?
I don’t think they actually knew. Because the first thing Alejandro did was he wrote the script, and then he brought on his "spiritual warriors" to draw the whole thing out. And if you look at the screenplay, and if you look at that storyboard book, they’re quite different. There’s many things that exist in the book that don’t exist in the screenplay, and there’s many sequences in the screenplay that are not in the storyboard book.
But it’s interesting too, because people laugh at that a little bit — yeah, a 20-hour movie, who’s going to watch 20 hours — but how many people do you know that sit at home on a weekend and binge-watch an entire season of a TV show? ... I think people are looking for longer narrative, a longer story that they can become completely immersed in. And maybe that’s what he was going for.
Alejandro gets visibly angry when talking about how the project fell apart. Do you think the loss still weighs on him?
I don’t think it really weighs on him, because he honestly feels that he made the film. He feels that it’s a success. When he’s talking about drawing the storyboards, he doesn’t say, "We drew the pictures," he says, "We were shooting. Moebius was my camera." So in his mind it’s really done, and that’s kind of what you’re left with at the end of that project. There’s that book. It’s not a failure because they never went out to the desert with their cameras and their crew and their cast. So it stopped at this kind of perfect moment of closure with that book. And maybe that’s as far as it was supposed to go. He said he wanted to have the film be a prophet, that he wanted the film to change the world. I mean what happens to prophets? Prophets are killed.
Jesus Christ, 33 years old — killed. The legend goes on. The ideas get out into the world. Martin Luther King, Jr., killed as a young man, but those ideas are out there. Those ideas are out there and they change people’s minds, and they inspire new people. And maybe those legends are more powerful in that iteration. So maybe he really was making a prophet. Maybe that’s what Dune became.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with more cities coming this weekend. Lead artwork by Chris Foss. All images courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.