Documentary explores movie version of Herbert novel that never was
May 8, 2014 12:00 AM
Alejandro Jodorowsky in "Jodorowsky's Dune."
By Tony Norman / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Frank Herbert's seminal science-fiction novel "Dune" is such a staggering feat of imagination that it even influenced the imagination of those who never even bothered to read it.
After the success of "El Topo" and "The Holy Mountain" in the mid-1970s, avant-garde film director Alejandro Jodorowsky had carte blanche to make the kind of films that came to him in surrealistic visions.
Despite his well-chronicled disinterest in conventional film narrative, the Chilean filmmaker was promised a lot of money to work on as large and as weird a canvas as his imagination could handle.
It didn't take him long to settle on a cinematic adaptation of "Dune" as his next project even before he had read the book. Mr. Jodorowsky wanted to translate Herbert's visionary novel into the visual and aural equivalent of an acid trip without the need of hallucinogenic drugs to jump-start it.
"Jodorowsky's Dune," director Frank Pavich's personable and affectionate documentary about the famed director's attempt to bring "Dune" to the screen, is a fascinating look at the creative process of a director who had the charisma and persuasive abilities of a cult leader.
Now in his 80s, Mr. Jodorowsky recounts his attempts to enlist artists from various disciplines to work on the project. They were famous men whose creativity and wildness matched or exceeded his own, prompting him to compare their association to a spiritual brotherhood.
Mr. Jodorowsky recruited Jean "Moebius" Giraud, arguably the most acclaimed European cartoonist of the past century, to provide thousands of storyboard panel breakdowns of every camera angle.
The director then recruited Dan O'Bannon, whose paintings adorned the covers of classic science-fiction novels to help define the look of "Dune."
The actor David Carradine was then brought in to play the movie's spiritually oriented hero while the legendary Orson Welles, after initially turning down the role, agreed to play the film's corpulent villain because Mr. Jodorowsky promised to have his favorite chef on set.
Mr. Jodorowsky was also able to persuade the surrealist painter Salvador Dali to take a minor role in the film in exchange for a promise of "$100,000 a minute" and a guarantee that the artist would share the screen with at least one of the iconic burning giraffes from his paintings.
Mr. Jodorowsky recalls being put to the test constantly by Dali, who told charming stories about hanging out with Picasso when they were both young. Compared to Welles and Dali, Mr. Jodorowsky's wooing of Mick Jagger to play a major role in the film went off without a hitch.
Mr. Jodorowsky tells a hilarious story about confronting Pink Floyd about members' aloofness because they barely looked up from their hamburgers as he pitched film score duties to the band. Pink Floyd was in the process of finishing "Dark Side of the Moon," but agreed to provide songs for "Dune's" soundtrack.
The filmmaker also recruited the revered science-fiction artist Chris Foss and HR Giger, the artist who established the look of the creature in "Alien" and its sequels. It was a murderer's row of visionary talent in the 1970s.
"Jodorowsky's Dune" is the story of a director's quest to stay true to his vision no matter what happens. It is also a cautionary tale that illustrates how even a collaboration by some of the most talented artists in the world can die on the vine once those holding the purse strings withdraw their support.
Early on, one of the producers Mr. Pavich interviewed admitted that it takes "a touch of madness" to attempt to make a novel with the complexity and influence of "Dune."
Though his films generated critical buzz and made money, especially with the midnight movie crowd, Mr. Jodorowsky always strove for a visionary integrity that defied mass consumption. His vision for "Dune" would be no different. He was a surrealist director with a multimillion dollar film budget.
When Mr. Jodorowsky lost financing for "Dune" he walked away from the film business for many years because his humiliation was so deep. After all, he had recruited some of the finest artists of that era to work with him and they were willing to do so.
All that remains of that failed project are the film's legendary storyboard panels. Many of the film's collaborators look back on that period with gratitude despite the fact the movie Mr. Jodorowsky envisioned didn't get made. Still, its influence on films like "Star Wars," "Alien" and "Blade Runner" is obvious.
Idiosyncratic director David Lynch got the green light to make his version of "Dune" a few years later. Mr. Jodorowsky's reaction to his much respected rival's version is worth the price of admission. Let's just say that no one does schadenfreude like a Chilean.
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