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Alejandro Jodorowsky and ‘Dune’: The Story Of The Greatest Sci-Fi Film Never Made
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Jodorowsky's Dune

The long and storied history of cinema is one to be studied, admired, and treasured for the many timeless classic feature films it has brought to our astonished eyes. But beneath that history lies buried a mass grave of unrealized films that were either killed at the treatment or script stage or were permitted to proceed in front of the cameras before being shut down and virtually forgotten about for the remainder of time infinite. In an alternate universe many of those unmade movies completed the journey from random idea to the new release section of your neighborhood Target and irrevocably changed the face of cinema forever.

This is the story of one of those great unmades. This is the story of Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s Dune.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when my fear is gone I will turn and face fear’s path, and only I will remain.”

I remember a time several years ago when I finally gave up on the Star Wars movies. It was not an easy decision for me to make but I had reached the end of my rope with George Lucas’ little series of overblown B-movie laser blasting adventures among the stars. There were many reasons for this decision: the undeservedly successful prequel trilogy was a miasma of bad storytelling and even worse visual effects; the legacy of the original films were being tainted by cynical marketing ploys and subpar animated follow-ups like the goddamned Clone Wars movie and series (not the hand-drawn animated series of shorts released between Episodes 2 and 3); and worst of all, Lucas’ continued disrespect of his ever loyal fan base by refusing to acknowledge the existence of the non-tampered original editions of the first trilogy, the best entry of which (The Empire Strikes Back) Lucas neither wrote nor directed (Jealous much Georgie?).

Alejandro Jodorowsky's Dune
Sandworm of Arrakis, as designed by H.R. Giger.

I obviously wasn’t alone in my decision to walk away from Star Wars, and yet the appeal of the Star Wars movies up to a certain age isn’t impossible for me to understand. As kids most of us fantasize about engaging in missions of heroism and foolish aplomb across the galaxy, to battle the villains and win the heart of the universe‘s most beautiful lady all in the grandest way possible. But once you become an adult you find that it’s time to put away childish things and for the first time in your life grow the hell up. You have to expand your mind and embrace new ideas and concepts in the fictional entertainment you devour on a regular basis. You must evolve.

That’s when I discovered Dune.

“The sleeper must awaken.”

Frank Herbert’s sprawling science-fiction adventure was first published in 1965 and the book soon became a favorite of readers and critics. The success of the book guaranteed Hollywood would soon come calling. Arthur P. Jacobs, producer of the Planet of the Apes, was the first to option the rights to Dune and planned an epic production with David Lean, the brilliant maestro whose blockbuster award-winning epics The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia are often cited among the most important films ever made, in the director’s chair and Lean’s frequent collaborator Robert Bolt assuming scripting duties. Those plans fell apart with Jacobs’ untimely death in 1973. The Dune film was now in limbo. Enter Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Alejandro Jodorowsky's Dune
Pirate ship, as designed by Chris Foss.

Jodorowsky is the Chilean surrealist filmmaker whose first three films can easily surpass, even victory lap it a few times, David Lynch’s Eraserhead when it comes to sheer mind-bending strangeness. His debut Fando & Lis almost got him strung up by his nutsack by a raging mob at the 1968 Acapulco Film Festival. By the time his second film El Topo came along it was embraced by open-minded audiences when savvy theater owners decided to position the film as a midnight movie (an honor Eraserhead would later achieve) the freaks and stoners could enjoy and the critics could almost unanimously praise.

El Topo brought Jodorowsky international acclaim and launched his own prominent filmmaking career and it also brought him into contact with a producer named Allen Klein thanks to John Lennon, a fan of Jodorowsky’s films whose band the Beatles were managed by Klein. Klein purchased El Topo, helped increase its U.S. distribution, and agreed to finance Jodorowsky’s next film The Holy Mountain provided the iconoclastic director would make a film version of the erotic novel The Story of O.

Films like Last Tango in Paris and Emmanuelle were hot button topics at the water cooler and big business at the box office, but Jodorowsky couldn’t see getting himself involved with a creatively-restraining enterprise that would’ve filled his pockets with cash but drained the energy he could be directing at a film he may actually want to make. Thus Jodorowsky refused to make The Story of O and Klein fumed hardcore, pulling both El Topo and The Holy Mountain from theatrical distribution for the next three decades merely to spite the filmmaker.

During that time the home entertainment revolution kicked into high gear but poor quality bootleg copies of the films were the only way anyone could experience the stunningly offbeat film work of Alejandro Jodorowsky. I myself first saw El Topo in 2004 when I rented a badly worn, English-dubbed VHS copy of the film with burned-in Japanese subtitles from a small video store in downtown Richmond that specialized in hard-to-find titles. I found it to be a bizarre yet extremely watchable and wholly unique work of cinematic art that officially made me a convert to the cult of Jodorowsky.

Alejandro Jodorowsky's Dune
Castle Harkonnen, as designed by H.R. Giger.

Then Alejandro Jodorowsky discovered Dune.

Following the death of Arthur P. Jacobs, a French consortium led by Jean-Paul Gibon quickly snapped up the film rights to Dune from Herbert and enticed Jodorowsky, who had proposed the book to Gibon and producer Michel Seydoux (the French distributor of The Holy Mountain) as a potential movie project, to the director’s chair with the promise of total control on the production.

Jodorowsky’s control over Dune extended to completely reinterpreting the book’s characters and themes as he saw fit. “I did not want to respect the novel,” the filmmaker said, “I wanted to recreate it.” He felt no obligation to keep his adaptation faithful to Herbert’s writing because in his view, “Dune did not belong to Herbert as Don Quixote did not belong to Cervantes, nor Edipo with Esquilo.”

The director incorporated many of his own ideas into the narrative, including redefining the spice melange that has multiple applications and is the impetus of the entire story as, in Jodorowsky’s words, “a blue drug with spongy consistency filled with a vegetable-animal life endowed with consciousness, the highest level of consciousness. It does not stop taking all kinds of forms, while stirring up unceasingly. The spice continuously produces the creation of the innumerable universes.”

He also replaced Herbert’s ending with one he had devised that hewed closer to his own style of storytelling. Jodorowsky describes it as such:

“At the end of film, the wife of the Count Fenring leaps towards Paul, who has already become Fremen, and she slices his throat. Paul while dying says: “Too late, one cannot kill me… because…

Because, Jessica with the voice of Paul continues, to kill the Kwisatz Haderach, you would have to also have killed me… “And each Fremen, each Atreides speaks now with the voice of Paul: “I am the collective man. He who shows the way.”

Reality changes quickly. Three columns of light spout out of the planet. They mix. Plunge in the sand of planet: “I am the Earth which awaits the seed!” the spice is desiccated. The ground trembles. Water drops form a pillar surrounded by fire.

Silver filaments emerge from spice. Create a rainbow. They form in a water cloud, produce a red “lava”. Then vapor. Clouds. Rain. Rivers. Grass. Forests. Dune becomes green. A blue ring surrounds planet now. It is divided. It produces more and more rings. Dune is now a world illuminated, which crosses the galaxy, which leaves it, which gives it light – which is Consciousness – to all the universe.”

The filmmaker quickly set about assembling a once-in-a-lifetime creative brain trust of fellow “warriors” (Jodorowsky’s word) to help him realize his vision of Frank Herbert’s novel, which promised to be faithful in tone to the book but radically different in plot and structure: Chris Foss, a British artist famed for drawing the covers for paperback sci-fi novels, would design spaceships that in Jodorowsky’s words were “semi-alive machines which could be metamorphosed with the color of the stones of space… thirsty battleships dying century after century in a star desert awaiting the alive body which will fill their empty tanks of subtle secretions of its heart”; Ron Cobb, a former Disney animator and political cartoonist for the underground newspaper Los Angeles Free Press who worked on the production design for John Carpenter’s feature directorial debut Dark Star (he designed the titular spaceship‘s interior on a Pancake House napkin, so the story goes); Dan O’Bannon, a up-and-coming screenwriter who also got his start on Dark Star, co-writing the film as well as working on the visual effects and playing the role of the goofy Sgt. Pinback, was drafted by Jodorowsky to design special effects on a somewhat higher budget that he had on the Carpenter film; Jean “Moebius” Giraud, a French artist best known for his Blueberry and Airtight Garage comics and his work in Metal Hurlant, the original French version of the magazine Heavy Metal; and H.R. Giger, a Swiss surrealist painter whose visions of deeply sexual, mechanized horrors made him a cult figure in the international art world, would design the depraved visuals of the Harkonnen family and their home planet Giedi Prime.

With the visionary backbone of this massive undertaking in place Jodorowsky began scouting locations and talking up prospective cast members. He planned to cast cult film actor David Carradine as Duke Leto Atreides, British actress Charlotte Rampling (who had come to Jodorowsky’s attention when he saw her in John Boorman’s 1974 sci-fi camp classic Zardoz) as Lady Jessica, Rolling Stone Mick Jagger as Feyd Rautha, German horror star Udo Kier as Piter De Vries, filmmaking outlaw Orson Welles as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, French silver screen icon Alain Delon as Duncan Idaho, American silent movie legend Gloria Swanson as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, the director’s own son Brontis Jodorowsky as the main character Paul Atreides, and the famed surrealist painter Salvador Dali as the villainous Emperor (at a reported salary of $100,000 per hour).

Alejandro Jodorowsky's Dune
The Emperor of the Galaxy Padishah Shaddam IV, as designed by Jean “Moebius” Giraud.

Jodorowsky desired to film Dune in the Tassili n’Ajjer mountains located in the Algerian section of the Sahara Desert, with the tacit support of the Algerian government. He consulted a South American expert in guerrilla warfare who had fought all over South America to consult on grounding the war between Paul and the underground Fremen army and the Harkonnens in a “martial reality.” To play Paul, Brontis had been training from the age of nine in knife fighting, karate, and archery with the legendary bodyguard Jean-Pierre Vigneau.

Dali, whose deal with Jodorowsky was made when the director gave him a tarot card of the Hanged Man in lieu of a legally-binding contract, wanted his character’s imperial throne to be a toilet made up of two intersecting dolphins – an odd fixture of the artist’s own design. “The tails will form the feet and the two open mouths will be used,” Jodorowsky said, “one to receive the ‘wee,’ the other to receive the ‘excrement.’” Dalí thinks that it is of terrible bad taste to mix the “wee” and the “excrement.” In order to circumvent Dali’s outrageous salary demands the decision was made to film with the artist for seven days, for only one hour a day, and the rest of the time the character of the Emperor would be portrayed by an elaborate robot duplicate.

The soundtrack of Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been provided by the British progressive rock group Pink Floyd, hot off the success of their album Dark Side of the Moon, and the French rock band Magma. Jodorowsky had the idea for the two groups to separately compose different music for each of the four planets on which the story of Dune takes place. Pink Floyd’s involvement was almost scuttled when Jodorowsky arrived in London with Gibon to meet the group at Abbey Road Studios where they were recording new material and was less than enthused by what he saw. “While arriving, I did not see a group of large musicians realizing its masterpiece,” the director recalled, “I see four young people guys devouring steak and chips. Jean-Paul and me, standing in front of them, were to wait until their voracity is satisfied. In the name of Dune I was taken of a holy anger and I left while slamming the door.” Fortunately guitarist David Gilmour caught up with Jodorowsky and the two soon made their amends, thus sealing the deal for Pink Floyd to work on Dune. The band’s soundtrack, upon completion, would be made available to stores as a double album.

However, the production was shut down just as filming was gearing up to begin. Nearly 20% of the film’s allotted $9.5 million budget had already been spent on pre-production costs and it looked like what money remained would not nearly be enough to film Jodorowsky’s ambitious script, which would have translated to a 14-hour film and was described by Frank Herbert as being “the size of a phone book.” Dune fell apart fast and the creative brain trust Jodorowsky had painstakingly assembled was soon disassembled and sent on their way to destinies unknown. It was all not in vain though.

Jodorowsky continued to make films in the years that followeed, although it wasn’t until 1989’s Santa Sangre that he had finally regained creative control behind the camera and was no longer beholden to avaricious producers. The result was a classic of world cinema that showed a master of the moving image back in charge and ready to continue creating on his terms and his alone.

Dan O’Bannon went on to write the script that would become Alien and later made his directorial debut on the cult classic horror-comedy The Return of the Living Dead. The Crohn’s disease that had plagued him throughout his life finally claimed it on December 17, 2009.

Dan O’Bannon discusses his brief involvement in Jodorowsky’s Dune adaptation in a 2003 interview from the Alien Anthology Blu-ray set.

Ron Cobb would hone his artistic skills doing design work for films like Star Wars, Alien, Conan the Barbarian (his first credit as a production designer), The Last Starfighter, Back to the Future, Aliens, The Abyss, Total Recall, and Southland Tales. Chris Foss also worked on designing spaceships for Alien.

H.R. Giger’s original painting “Necronom” would be one of O’Bannon’s inspirations for writing Alien and earned the Swiss artist the job of designing the iconic Xenomorph and the alien planet the crew of the Nostromo make a doomed journey to in the original film.

Moebius has contributed design work to films like Alien, Tron, Masters of the Universe, Willow, The Abyss, and The Fifth Element, and later collaborated with Jodorowsky on a comic series entitled The Incal that is based on many of the original ideas and plot points developed during pre-production on Jodorowsky’s unrealized Dune.

As a final postscript to this chapter in the making of an impossible dream, Jodorowsky and Allen Klein finally ended their three-decade-long feud in 2006 and the following year both El Topo and The Holy Mountain were released to DVD and Blu-ray for the first time with freshly-remastered prints courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment.

In the years since the collapse of his valiant attempt at making Dune into a feature film Jodorowsky would speak in interviews about how his experience on the unmade project ultimately changed his life for the better. Though that pronouncement still doesn’t quite completely dull the pain of knowing that the most unique science-fiction film in the history of cinema almost made it to the screen, at least the preparation that went into this version of Dune that was not meant to be help shape the future of fantastic cinema.

Jodorowsky may not have been able to make his Dune a reality but he did benefit greatly from the wonderful pre-production, and in the end so did we all.

In the meantime a brand new documentary appropriately entitled Jodorowsky’s Dune that purports to tell the entire, uncensored story of the project’s ascension and tragic but highly beneficial downfall recently premiered to rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival and will hopefully see a domestic release later this year.

In the following clips from the documentaries La Constellation Jodorowsky and Moebius Redux, Jodorowsky and Moebius discuss their unrealized adaptation of Dune.

  • bengil

    Awesome!
    I noticed the excerpts from the article from Mètal Hurlant #107
    by Jodorowsky himself, the main source for the ‘legendary’ aspects
    of this still-born epic for many years… ‘Legend’ emphasized as, for instance,
    it was way after the release of Dark Side of the Moon in ’73 when Jodo met the Floyd (circa ’75); if he really listened to any ‘final mix’ with them at Abbey Road (as he recounts in said article) it wasn’t DSOTM, but Wish You Were Here…
    as in, ‘if at all’. This, just one among other ‘romantizations’ of this journey through pre-production hell, with his ‘seven samurai’ warriors.
    Don’t get me wrong, it’s in Jodorowsky’s nature to overdecorate his memoirs with this kind of details in storytelling, so, no ill will at all.
    ‘Met with the Floyds’ is what us fans have to keep.

    And man, is this a legend I’ve treasured for quite a while… we all have.
    Well, Sony has acquired the distribution rights for the documentary,
    just over a week ago ! The ultimate retelling IS COMING !! :D

  • Bob Singer

    This sounds like the most insane attempt to make a movie ever. Who would go see such a film unless they were on LSD?

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