The Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky had already made three bizarre, hallucinatory movies — Fando and Lis, El Topo and The Holy Mountain — when the French producer Michel Seydoux, impressed by the commercial success of the films around the world, offered to help make him whatever movie he wanted to do next. Jodorowsky chose Dune, Frank Herbert’s classic (and unfilmable) sci-fi epic, even though he hadn’t read the book yet. But he knew the novel’s reputation as the bible of science-fiction, and he intended to turn it into something “sacred and free, with a new perspective” that would forever change the way we view films.
First-time director Frank Pavich’s grandly entertaining documentary about Jodorowsky’s struggle — and ultimate failure — to film Dune is as close as we’ll ever get to seeing what might have been. Jodorowsky, who is 85 but has the vigor and energy of a man half his age, relishes the opportunity to recount all the wild things he had in store. He convinced Salvador Dali to act in the film, but the painter insisted he be paid $100,000 per day, so he could claim to be the world’s highest-paid actor (Seydoux outwitted him by offering to pay him $100,000 a day without telling him his scenes would only take a few hours to shoot). David Carradine, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles also accepted roles. He got Pink Floyd to agree to work on the score.
Jodorowsky cast his son Brontis in the lead role of Paul Atreides and subjected him to two years of intense physical and martial arts training, so he would be convincing as the hero. He hired Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger to work on the film’s visual designs (they would later go on to work on Ridley Scott’s Alien), and after meeting Douglas Trumbull, who was considered the king of special effects at the time for his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jodorowsky rejected him, claiming Trumbull was too full of himself and not spiritual enough.
After holing himself up in a castle to write the screenplay, the director put together a massive book of storyboards and designs that he could use to show studios exactly what the film would be like. Only two copies of the book still exist (Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn had an opportunity to have dinner with Jodorowsky and read the entire thing, and he says the film would have been “awesome.”)
As envisioned, the movie would have also been 12 hours long, which is one of the many reasons why no Hollywood studio was willing to take the gamble. But Jodorowsky doesn’t seem bitter or disappointed. Instead, he seems enthusiastic and proud of his ability to adapt the novel in his inimitable way. The film wasn’t made, but it exists in his head.
Jodorowsky also continues to work, having recently completed a new movie, The Dance of Reality. Dune was eventually adapted into film by David Lynch in 1984, an infamous bomb that suggests maybe the novel is unfilmable after all. But Jodorowsky’s Dune gives you a good sense of what might have been, and judging by what we see, the picture might have accomplished what the director ultimately intended: “To mutate young minds.”
With: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Michel Seydoux, H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, Brontis Jodorowsky.
Director: Frank Pavich.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 90 minutes. Brief graphic imagery. In English, Spanish and French with English subtitles. Opens Friday April 25 in Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Living Room.