The Almost Version of Dune.
Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 novel “Dune” gave rise to many things that influence sci-fi fantasy cinema this day; its terminology (“spice mines”) and trappings have been seen in popular franchises like “Star Wars” and later space operas. Herbert’s book is a dense, complex allegory of western colonialism, with various powerful dynasties all vying to control a resource native to the planet Arrakis (aka “Dune”) called “spice,” which makes interstellar travel possible, and which has health benefits as well as psychotropic properties. Spice is a metaphoric combination of crude oil and opiates, with wars fought over its control and distribution. The core of the story involves young heir, Paul Atreides, who becomes a demigod/prophet to the native Fremen of Arrakis, promising to liberate them from generations of outsider rule. Despite the book’s complexity, images from the book (and its sequels), such as the giant, leviathan-like sandworms plowing through the sand dunes of Arrakis, like great whales in an ocean, are deeply cinematic. “Dune” is a “Lawrence of Arabia” to the stars…
The recent “Dune: Part One” (2021), directed by Denis Villeneuve, is inarguably the most faithful, successful (albeit incomplete) adaptation of the novel to date. However, there were other attempts, such as director David Lynch’s 1984 version. Lynch’s “Dune” featured an intriguing production design, but was hampered by a labyrinthine narrative squeezed into a limited running time, as well as major liberties taken with the ending. It wasn’t quite the “Dune” that fans of the book had been waiting for, to put it mildly. There were also the more literarily-faithful miniseries produced by the SyFy channel (2000’s “Dune” and 2003’s “Children of Dune”) but these productions were limited in scope by the production values of early 2000s television; a real shame, since the line between movies and TV shows has now blurred to insignificance (see: “The Mandalorian”).
Before these various versions of “Dune” all got their respective green lights, there was another “Dune” that would’ve been made in 1975 by an eccentric, passionate Chilean-born filmmaker/actor named Alejandro Jodorowsky (“El Topo” “The Holy Mountain”) who wanted to adapt Frank Herbert’s novel in a style that could best be described as an LSD trip safely captured on film without hallucinogens. Hiring a team of genius visual artists (Moebius, H.R. Giger), musicians, would-be actors and other “warriors” for this bold production, Jodorowsky (“Jodo” to his friends) came very close to making this film happen–even going so far as to publish a thick book of storyboards and glossy production paintings for the film, which he sent to all the major studios. Executives were very impressed by the book, but not quite enough to trust the unconventional filmmaker with the money needed to make the movie.
Short of someone getting one’s hands on one of the two known surviving copies of Jodorowsky’s self-published book, the 2013 documentary, “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” directed by Frank Pavich, is the closest we can come to seeing just how this un-produced (yet still influential) version of “Dune” would’ve been realized.
This 2013 documentary is largely subtitled since the principals involved speak a variety of languages (Spanish, French, German) and, like Jodorowsky himself, even several at once within the same sentence. This only adds to the cosmopolitan flavor of this would-be sci-fi classic, which has become legendary in the universe of great movies-that-never-were.
Jodorowsky achieved some measure of cult popularity with his surreal western “El Topo” (1970) after years of directing experimental theater. The director then parlayed the success of that film into making more personal projects, such as “The Holy Mountain” (1973), an unconventional art house movie tackling religion (with all its symbolism) which starred Jodorowsky himself in the lead role, along with his then-7 year old son, Brontis.
Later, Jodorowsky decided to tackle science fiction by adapting Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” a novel he admittedly never read, but was turned onto by friends. As Jodorowsky expresses in the documentary, he never sought to make a faithful adaptation–there’s Frank Herbert’s book, and then there is his own “optical” version of the story. Jodorowsky changed the entire ending of the book, with the sentient planet of Arrakis becoming a terraformed paradise that leaves its own orbit in order to make paradises of other planets in the universe. Herbert’s sequels be damned! This almost-ending was like the Lynch version’s rain-soaked “Dune” finale, but on steroids. Jodorowsky compared the book to a pristine virginal bride who must ultimately be defiled in order to bear children… in this case, the child being a film born of the book.
The wily, unbridled filmmaker then went about the business of actually making “Dune.” The first step was securing French producer Michel Seydoux (1990’s “Cyrano de Bergerac”), who staunchly believed in Jodorowsky’s vision for “Dune,” and stood by the director’s side until the bitter end.
Note: In the closing moments of the film, we learn that loyal producer Seydoux and director Jodorowsky reignited their friendship during the making of the documentary, and have since worked on new projects together.
Jodorowsky’s casting tales are both hilarious and unique; the filmmaker didn’t seek actors so much as living, breathing incarnations of Dune’s characters. For the massive ego of the Emperor he sought the equally egocentric Spanish surrealist Salvadore Dali, and his ‘muse’ Amanda Lear as Princess Irulan; these two would typify Jodorowsky’s aptyical casting choices. For the corpulent Vladimir Harkonnen, Jodorowsky sought the overly indulgent Orson Welles. For Harkonnen henchman Feyd, he chose young rockstar Mick Jagger. Finally, for the young ‘warrior’ Paul, he chose his then-12 year old son Brontis, who had to go through extensive martial arts training for the role, on his father’s insistence. Jodorowsky also chose contemporary rock for the musical score; choosing Pink Floyd, among others. To secure these handpicked talents, Jodorowsky wielded a genuine talent for appealing to each choice’s unique vanities; offering them budget-busting salaries, favorite chefs, helicopters, you name it. Jodorowsky’s seductions of his chosen talents amounted to clever exercises in manipulation and ego placation.
Note: David Lynch would also cast a rock star for the role of Feyd in his 1984 film, the talented singer/actor Sting, formerly of The Police. I went to a Sting concert at the Hollywood Bowl about eight years ago, and it was one of the greatest live shows I’ve ever attended. Lynch’s version would also include music from the rock group Toto as well. It’s arguable that Lynch’s film may have borrowed a few random ideas from Jodorowsky’s version.
Some of the most inspired choices made for the film were in choosing the artists for preproduction artwork and production design. Jodorowsky didn’t just choose good craftsmen–he wanted “warriors”; people who shared his zeal and vision. He rejected Oscar-winning visual effects artist Doug Trumbull (“2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Silent Running,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) as too much of a “technician” (a term Jodorowsky uses dismissively). Instead he chose Dan O’Bannon (1946-2009) who was later known more for his writing credits (“ALIEN,” “Blue Thunder,” “Return of the Living Dead”) than his early FX work, as used for the low-budget 1974 John Carpenter sci-fi comedy “Dark Star.” Jodorowsky was more interested in achieving a dreamlike reality instead of the photo-crisp realism of Trumbull’s meticulous work. As stated earlier in the documentary, Jodorowsky wanted to let his audience experience an LSD trip without the drugs. O’Bannon’s work in “Dark Star” (often described as a ‘stoner sci-fi comedy’) was not exactly up to the realism of Trumbull’s work, but it got the job done (more or less).
Of more importance to Jodorowsky was the fact that O’Bannon spoke his language; they were both warriors willing to make great sacrifices in their personal/professional lives for the sake of the project. O’Bannon even sold his home and left for Paris to work with Jodorowsky. When the film eventually fell through, O’Bannon returned to the US broke and without a place to stay, crashing on a friend’s couch for two weeks.
British sci-fi illustrator and cover artist Chris Foss was famous for his wildly unorthodox spaceship designs, which broke away from traditional dull gray cylindrical rocket-ships, and embraced a wider color palette of bright golds, pinks, oranges, greens, and blues. These ships would also include bold patterns on their hulls as well, with bright checkerboarding, bright striping, etc. The shapes of his vessels were also loosely (and closely) inspired by real-world insects, birds and other creatures. There was an organic, fluid quality to these designs that Jodorowsky very much wanted to see in his version of “Dune” and he secured Foss’ talents for the film as well.
Foss designed an ornate, golden Imperial palace on the planet Kaitain, with large, protruding pyramidal shapes on its top-heavy sides that seemed to defy gravity. Foss generously provided notes in his production art for future set builders on how to construct his creations relatively inexpensively, using fiberglass and other low-cost materials to will his creations into concrete, practical reality. Given the fact that this film was planned for shooting around 1975, it’s difficult to see just how Foss’ wildly imaginative designs could’ve been realized using the visual effects of the mid-1970s. George Lucas’ “Star Wars” had yet to begin the revolutions in filmmaking technology that would lead to computerized motion-controlled cameras and later pave the road for modern computer graphics. However, as Jodorowsky notes, being able to finish a film is not so important as having the ambition–the hunger to will a vision into existence through sheer tenacity.
As Jodorowsky’s talent pool continued to grow, another influence on the production would be the Swiss surrealist and architect of nightmares, H.R. Giger (1940-2014), who was brought to Jodorowsky’s attention over dinner with Salvadore Dali. To those not in the know, Giger would become a name in sci-fi film production a few years later for his work on Ridley Scott’s “ALIEN” (1979), where his fusion of biomechanical horror and dark erotica would become his signature style.
Like Jodorowsky, Giger was a dedicated eccentric, and he was immediately commissioned to visualize Castle Harkonnen, which Giger saw as a giant living monument to the Baron Harkonnen himself; its tongue would even roll out of its mouth to receive incoming aircraft, which would then be ‘consumed’ by the castle itself. Because the Harkonnen homeworld of Giedi Prime was supposed to be harsh industrial planet choking on its own toxic wastes, Giger’s style of biomechanics fusing into living flesh was perfectly fitting. If you look at other samples of Giger’s designs for the film, you can see other elements later reused for ALIEN (such as the smooth, elongated head of the creature), fused into Harkonnen technology and architecture. It’s speculated in the documentary that Giger might’ve come to the attention of Ridley Scott from the suggestion of “ALIEN” cowriter Dan O’Bannon; a fellow surviving ‘warrior’ from Jodorowsky’s “Dune.”
Note: The gray, hairless skin and black clothing of the Harkonnen House members in Denis Villeneuve’s version of “Dune” seem to have some of H.R. Giger’s influence in their stylings, since the Harkonnens of the book (and previous versions) were famously ginger-haired.
Jodorowsky also sought legendary French sci-fi illustrator/graphic novelist Moebius, aka Jean Giraud. Giraud, it turns out, was exactly on Jodorowsky’s wavelength, and he would go on to do the greatest amount of work for the movie, creating the look of the major characters and their costumes (which were a fusion of Feudal Japan and contemporary comic book characters). Giraud would also create the extensive scene-by-scene storyboards, which would eventually form the basis of Jodorowsky’s thick, self-published pitch book for the film. The book chronicled the entire film in Giraud’s storyboards, punctuated with glossy production artwork from Giger, Foss and others. This book would make the rounds of each and every studio before the movie was ultimately rejected. Within its pages is the entire illustrated screenplay of Jodorowsky’s unmade “Dune,” and according to the filmmaker, there are only two surviving copies in existence, with one of them being in his possession (oh, what I wouldn’t give for this book to be published en masse…).
Jodorowsky’s collaboration and friendship with Giraud would outlast their aborted version of “Dune”, with the two of them collaborating on a series of graphic novels, including “L’ Incal” in 1988, which used many of their abandoned ideas from their version of “Dune.” It’s safe to say that Alejandro Jodorowsky found his creative soulmate in Jean Giraud, aka Moebius.
Despite the formidable artistry assembled for this would-be version of “Dune,” the beancounter executives at the studios were not convinced that Jodorowsky could deliver on his promises. These execs loved the storyboards and artwork seen in his book–and were eager to make the movie–but they lacked faith in Jodorowsky as director. As a result, the director was unable to secure the rest of the $15 million price tag needed to complete his opus. A heartbroken Jodorowsky couldn’t bear the thought of abandoning the project that he so painstakingly collected his team of artists and talent for, so he withdrew his proposal. Ultimately, the rights for Frank Herbert’s “Dune” would fall into the hands of Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis (1976’s “King Kong” remake), who would hire director David Lynch (“Blue Velvet,” “Twin Peaks”) to make the film. Jodorowsky had to be visually dragged by his family to see Lynch’s film, which ultimately cheered him up, since he saw it as a dismal artistic failure (as did many others at the time).
Nothing quite as sweet as the taste of schadenfreude…
Note: In 1975 dollars, $15 million was roughly four million more than Lucas’ “Star Wars” or Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (and roughly three times the production cost of Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Planet of the Apes”).
Jodorowsky’s “Dune” could’ve been as influential as Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), or George Lucas’ “Star Wars” (which it would’ve beat to the cinema by a year or two). The cadre of talent assembled for this production all shared a passion for Jodorowsky’s “Dune”, and they each carried aspects of that unmade movie into their later works. Never before (or since) has an aborted film been so seminal to future science-fiction and fantasy filmmaking as Jodorowsky’s “Dune”.
Oh, and if any talented animators with connections to Warner Bros Studios have seen the documentary? Jodorowsky’s own idea of making an animated feature film based on Moebius’ storyboards remains a lower-risk, practical option of realizing Jodorowsky’s vision while he’s still around to act as consultant. Just saying…
For fans of “Dune,” science fiction artwork, and film production, Frank Pavich’s documentary of “Jodorowsky’s Dune” is not to be missed.
Where To Watch.
“Jodorowsky’s Dune” is available to rent/purchase/stream on Amazon’s Prime Video, as well as iTunes and Vudu. The film can also be ordered on BluRay/DVD from Amazon.com and from your local Barnes and Noble booksellers (where I purchased my copy). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current COVID crisis. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are now over 750,000 as of this writing (with over 5 million deaths worldwide), so please continue to wear masks in public, and get vaccinated as soon as possible to minimize risk of serious infection. Take care!