It’s often referred to as the greatest movie never made. It is shrouded in mystery and enigmatic possibilities. Heck, we even had it at number one on our list of the best unrealized projects a few months back. So it’s safe to say that if director Alejandro Jodorowsky had found the money to make his version of Frank Herbert’s Dune, the debate today would be as lively and multifaceted as the approach the man responsible for the brilliant El Topo and The Holy Mountain would have taken with the beloved sci-fi subject matter.
Throughout the remarkable documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, our charismatic subject celebrates the fact that he wanted to make a “movie as prophet,” creating something unseen by filmgoers circa the pre-Star Wars era. For him, it was all about finding the spiritual within the material and finding “spirit warriors” to help bring it out. Of course, it was that seminal bit of George Lucas movie serial reconfiguration that doomed Jodorowsky’s vision, but for a while there, it looked like the inscrutable foreign maverick could actually realize his legitimately lofty aims.
For those who don’t know what’s being discussed here, Alejandro Jodorowsky was considered an arthouse phenomenon when, in the mid-’70s, producer Michel Seydoux approach him regarding his next project. Having achieved massive success with his Midnight movie staple El Topo (John Lennon was a HUGE fan), Jodorowsky replied with an enthusiastic “DUNE! ” Now, he hadn’t read the book, nor was he really familiar with the science fiction genre. But the filmmaker saw something in the source that inspired him. He wanted to tap into the tremendous sacred push he found in The Holy Mountain and make a movie that would elevate the audience in the same way. With its foundation in multiple philosophies and its own arcane mythos to dissect, Jodorowsky went about adapting the material.
His first step – find an artist who could help him visualize the film. Already an admirer of his work, Jodorowsky hired Frenchman Jean Girard, aka Mœbius, to start the process. Englishman Chris Foss was brought on to help shape the characters. After exposure to his work, Jodorowsky flew to Germany and recruited future Alien architect H.R. Giger. When it came time to work with the special effects, 2001‘s Douglas Trumball was approached. His arrogance rubbed Jodorowsky the wrong way, so he instead turned to Dark Star‘s Dan O’Bannon to bring the movie to life. Actors were considered, including Orson Welles and David Carradine, while such unlikely figures as Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali were pegged for important roles. Finally, with everything in place and a budget drawn up, Jodorowsky and Seydoux went looking for funding, a huge coffee table sized book in hand explaining the project to all who would listen. Sadly, their sales pitch fell on mostly deaf ears.
It’s intriguing to learn that someone with a track record as viable – albeit idiosyncratic – as Jodorowsky was actually considered the true liability here. Studio heads were impressed with the project, but unsure if this man could actually handle a “big budget” movie (the $19 million in 1976 dollars translates to about $90 million today). They admitted he had talent and vision, but no one wanted to bet on his ability to bring Dune to life. By comparison, George Lucas got $11 million to make Star Wars and even with the massive success of American Graffiti, he was still considered a major risk. Jodorowsky made weird, sometimes untenable films. From the interviews offered, it was clear few understood him, let alone supported him. Even with a massive tome filled with every imaginable (and according to the filmmaker) viable idea, it was obvious that it was destined to remain unrealized.
There’s also a sly shout-out to the Internet, with more than a couple talking heads pointing out that Jodorowsky got to experiment with Dune without having to suffer the numerous slings and arrows that come with the social media circus circa 2014. On the other hand, such aesthetics without public input clearly made Jodorowsky’s Dune a decidedly singular adaptation. There would be no filmmaking by committee. Everyone hired by the director shared his “spiritual” quest, with the end result being something that even today can be easily imagined without a single frame being exposed. In fact, Jodorowsky himself believes that someone could come along and, with his book as a guide, make a fantastic feature length animated movie out of it. He also doesn’t shy away from an A.I. -like repurposing at the hands of one of today’s young guns.
On the other hand, without his actual participation, it wouldn’t be Jodorowsky’s Dune. It would Steven Spielberg realizing Jodorowsky’s Dune, or Robert Zemeckis once again tapping his motion capture 3D gimmick to make Jodorowsky’s Dune. No, without Jodorowsky behind the lens. without the participation of those he specifically chose to underscore his ideas, you would have Dune. Just Dune. Interestingly enough, director Frank Pavich breaches the subject of David Lynch’s version of the property to the auteur. After admitting a solid admiration for the Eraserhead genius, he easily proclaims said movie “shit.” Seydoux is even more bitter. After Dino De Laurentiis came in a bought up the lapsed film rights, he flat our refused to see what Lynch came up with…and he’s never gone back on that rejection.
Another intriguing element discussed here was Jodorowsky’s Dune‘s apparent direct influence on sci-fi over the last few decades. Though the movie was never made, the filmmaker still feels that his elephantine book (which remained with several studio chiefs after the various pitches) was passed around and used by individuals looking to improve the look of their own efforts. While such a concept appears to be a reach, it also cannot go without mentioning. After all, if Jodorowsky and Mœbius and Foss and Giger and O’Bannon came up with its first, said copycatting becomes less “coincidental.” That’s the beauty of a documentary like Jodorowsky’s Dune. It does a fascinating job of playing “what if?” without ever having to fully give in and realize it. Instead, it predicates and pontificates, revealing its brilliance in a genuine appreciation of the man at the center of the maelstrom.