INTERVIEW: JODOROWSKY’S DUNE DIRECTOR FRANK PAVICH

Jodorowsky’s Dune director Frank Pavich discusses the greatest sci-fi film never made.

In 1974 the film rights to Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune were purchased from Apjac, the production company of late Planet of the Apes producer Arthur P. Jacobs, by a French group led by producer Michel Seydoux. The man chosen to adapt the epic and complex novel to the screen was Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who had set a new standard for surreal, experimental cinema with Fando y Lis, El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Jodorowsky spent two years developing his vision of the film, which he saw as a project that would change not just cinema, but human consciousness.

To achieve his ambitious vision, he enlisted artists Jean “Moebius” Giraud and H.R. Giger to help design Dune, hired future Alien writer Dan O’Bannon to supervise the visual effects, chased Pink Floyd to score the film and cast Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and David Carradine in key roles. Yet with all the pre-production done and Jodorowsky ready to bring Dune to the screen, the financial backing for the movie pulled out and Jodorowsky’s Dune ceased to exist.

Or did it? In his new documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune (out now in limited release), director Frank Pavich makes the case that the iconoclastic filmmaker’s Dune is alive and well – just not in the traditional sense. Through interviews with Jodorowsky himself, Seydoux, Giger and others involved in the film, along with contemporary filmmakers and critics, Pavich suggests that Jodorowsky’s Dune exists in not just the surviving amount of pre-production material itself (some of it brought to life in Pavich’s film via animation) but in the way the project influenced and impacted the artists involved in the movie, their subsequent projects, and sci-fi cinema as a whole.

It’s a fascinating concept, an inspiring story of creativity and a terrific documentary, and Den Of Geek was more than pleased to speak with Pavich by phone about his Jodorowsky’s Dune.

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Den Of Geek: What came first for you in this? Were you a Dune fan or a Jodorowsky fan first?

Frank Pavich: I came to it from the Jodorowsky side of the things. I knew his work for years. I’d been a fan of him for years. So then when I heard that he had this kind of lost film — he’s got several films which he tried to make but never actually succeeded fully. But never have I heard of a story of an unmade film that was so completely realized. Do you know what I mean? Usually there’s a couple of screenplay drafts or maybe it was an actor attached or an actor wish list but I’ve never seen an unmade film that on paper was completely realized from the first scene to the last scene. Everything was storyboarded: every sequence; every bit of action; every movement; every bit of dialogue; all the costumes; the vehicles; it was fully cast; it had amazing soundtrack musicians involved. I’ve never heard of anything like that. And the fact that it was going to be a Jodorowsky film even made it that much more exciting so it was just thrilling to learn that for the first time.

What fascinated you about the idea of this unmade film, and how did that fascination turn into the idea to make your own film about it?

I think just when you hear about the wild cast of characters that he had, it’s just no way you could kind of not be interested in it, I don’t think. But then what’s also so interesting is the influence that it had out into the world. I don’t even think we were fully aware of that until we were well into production and well into looking at the art book and stuff like that. But it’s not just -– what makes it interesting to us is not the fact that it’s just this unmade film, but it’s an unmade film that kind of exists in the public consciousness. You see aspects of it in so many other films. Films that we’ve all seen. Like who do you know that has never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark? I don’t think it’s possible to find anyone in the U.S. that has not seen that movie, Alien or any of these other films so those ideas are still out there and continue to appear in new films. It’s quite an amazing feat.

Was there a sort of a personal angle to this for you in the sense that this is your first full-length feature after years of developing other projects that didn’t see fruition? Was there sort of that personal sort of relevance to you in a way?

I think on both on a conscious level and on an unconscious level. As he talks about in the film, you know, just the idea of having this ambition and just never taking no and just chasing your dreams and all this stuff that he firmly believes in, that was the way that I was approaching this film without even being aware of it at the time. Just like he was going to go throughout every restaurant in Paris to go find Orson Welles because Orson Welles was the perfect person for that role in this film, I knew that I had to search out Alejandro Jodorowsky. He had no more contact or knowledge of Orson Welles that I did with him. What made me think that I would ever be able to get in contact with someone like him and meet with him face-to-face and to tell him that I want to make this film and to actually make the film? It’s just too incredible, but I guess on some level I was kind of following his methodology and the way that he makes his films and the way that he tried to make his Dune.

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Was it actually difficult to get hold of Jodorowsky?

It took a while. As he says in the film, when he was looking for Moebius, how am I going to find this person? There was no Internet back then. But luckily I had the Internet. So it was definitely easier for me than it was for him in a lot of ways. But still it was difficult. I eventually found an agent that he had in Spain. So I sent an email to his agent and I said is it true that you represent Alejandro Jodorowsky? And if so I’m looking to speak with him. I would love to speak with him about possibly making a documentary about his experiences with Dune. And then a few weeks later, I woke up one morning and there was an email, an unread message from Alejandro Jodorowsky himself, which is terrifying to wake up to. Can you imagine? I didn’t want to open it the whole week. I just left it unread because I was too scared — what if it was him telling me, “Get out of here kid” or something? What if it was him crushing my dreams? I wanted to at least live for another week pretending that I would be able to make this film and pretending that I would be able to meet him.

So the week passed and then I finally had the guts to open it up. And I opened the message and it was a short message from him just saying, “I understand you’re looking for me. I live in Paris. And if you want to speak to me about this project you need to come to Paris and we need to meet face-to-face.” Which was fantastic. So I got an email from him an invitation to come and see him in person. How are you going to beat that? I went right away to Paris to go and meet with him. And to this day, all these years later, he’s never asked who I was or what kind of projects I had done in the past. He never cared about that. He’s a good reader of people and I think that for whatever reason he thought that I would tell the story properly, I would tell the story with respect and I like to think that maybe he saw in me that I was another spiritual warrior perhaps. And that I was destined to kind of do this film. Or maybe he saw just that kind of blind ambition that he has when he’s making his projects. But whatever it was that he saw he was very accommodating and agreed to work together on it.

Meeting with him in person and sitting down to interview him, what kind of impression does he make?

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I mean the first time it was incredibly intimidating walking into this apartment of this guy who’s not even a human being. He’s like a myth. Does Alejandro Jodorowsky really exist? Does the guy that made El Topo and Holy Mountain actually breathe the same air that we do? Does he bleed red blood? How is this possible that I was admitted into his apartment and was seated? Then a minute or two later he came shuffling into the room. It was the guy. It was the real live guy and it was an incredible moment to get there to meet him. And it was wonderful. It was a short meeting the first time but I kind of made my case as to why I was the person to do this film. And he was very accommodating. He’s a wonderful, incredibly giving, incredibly gifted human being.

He eventually gave you complete access to his materials and the script and the famous book that we see in the film? (The mammoth book is the complete production breakdown for Dune, including script, storyboards, production and costume designs and more.)

Oh, definitely, although that wasn’t offered on that first day for sure. We were seated in these two chairs were facing each other and in between us there was an ottoman. And on the ottoman he placed that Dune book, but he had it placed facing him. So I wasn’t invited to look into it and I think it was just his way of teasing me a little bit to see what I would do. But there it was within reaching distance, within my grasp but I still couldn’t quite grasp it yet, which was hilarious. But then as we got into production then everything was open to us completely. He said whatever we need was ours. (Producer) Michel Seydoux said whatever we need was ours. Everybody was completely supportive of the project, H.R. Giger, everybody. Once we had Jodorowsky involved it was quite easy to get the other people involved because they all love him so much that as soon as you can say I’m telling the story with the full involvement of Alejandro they were jumping at the chance to be able to tell their story because they all had a wonderful experience working on this project and they’re all very grateful to Jodorowsky for seeing something in them that nobody else had at that time. So they were all thrilled to be involved. Just thrilled.

I was going to ask you specifically about getting hold of Giger because he also seems like this kind of myth living in a castle in Switzerland somewhere…

No, again he was completely thrilled. He is so incredibly accommodating and the people that he works with are so incredibly accommodating in giving us all this artwork. We had all his Dune artwork and we were working with it for a couple of years as we were editing and animating…We filmed in his museum. You know, he’s got a museum in Gruyeres and we filmed there. And when we were done with the interview as we were wrapping up was when the museum was closing and the museum personnel gave us the keys. They were like, “Okay, when you’re done just be sure to turn off the lights and lock the doors and we’ll be at the café across the street, just bring me the keys.” Fantastic. This is H.R. Giger. This is not the some joke. This is like the man, the guy, the myth as well so it was some crazy experiences like that, completely unexpected.

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Did you try to get in touch with anyone from Pink Floyd about their possible involvement in Dune?

You know, we thought about it and we reached out a little bit but then at a certain point it kind of comes down a little bit to too many voices in the film. I’ve never been a fan of a 90-minute documentary with 90 different interviewees and you don’t even know who you’re looking at after a while because everybody’s flying past so rapidly. So we just wanted to keep it to a very limited number of participants, like the core, core people. I definitely would not have passed up an opportunity to speak with any of them, but it just wasn’t in the cards.

In your opinion was Jodorowsky’s Dune actually filmable? Could it have been made? Jodorowsky envisioned this as a 12-hour film on an astronomical-for-its-time budget of $15 million…

Even the producer says it was “estimated” at 15 because who really knew what it was going to be. It was going to be as long as it was going to be and it was going to cost whatever it was going to cost. It was just going to be what it was going to be. I wonder what it would be like because looking at the technology, looking at all these things, how would they have crafted it? But it’s also kind of the evolution of the project. It started as the novel and then Jodorowsky went into his castle for two months and wrote the screenplay. And then once he got his team of spiritual warriors, then they started crafting all the storyboards. And if you compare the screenplay, the actual script, to that book of artwork and storyboards they’re very different. Many, many changes, many ideas evolved in the translation from script to artwork. So I’m sure that once again on set the film would have been dictated by some of the realities of the situation and it would have evolved once again. Jodorowsky talks about these little miracles. He calls them little miracles that happen when you’re on the set. And sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re bad. Sometimes they work for you and sometimes you need to find a way around them to make something new. So I think there would’ve been maybe different then what he had put down on paper, but it still would have been a unique Jodorowsky-ean vision.

Do you think science fiction cinema would be different today if his Dune had come out and not Star Wars?

Think about it. We know what this timeline looks like when Dune was not completed. But those ideas still got out there and, you know, the fact is that Star Wars was completed. Now let’s say that Jodorowsky’s Dune did make it up onto the big screen. And let’s say that it was a huge success, it proved everybody wrong and it was the biggest movie of that year. What would that have meant? Would these studio money people have taken a look at more avant-garde cinema and more auteur voices like his and seen value in them and seen the moneymaking value in them, because that’s really what they care about? So maybe we would have seen more big budgeted, interesting, artistic art-house style films — you know, more unique voices being given more chances as opposed to the kind of committee methodology of filmmaking.

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And then on the flipside, what if Jodorowsky’s vision of Dune had made it to the big screen and been a disaster? Let’s say it was the biggest disaster in the history of mankind and it completely sunk a studio. It put thousands of people out of work. I mean think of the worst case scenario. What would happen? Because right after that or at that time more or less there was George Lucas and Gary Kurtz making Star Wars and they were making it for 20th Century Fox. And 20th Century Fox was not supportive of the film. They thought it was silly. They thought it was stupid. So if Jodorowsky’s big budget science-fiction space opera had collapsed in a financial disaster I’m sure that Fox would have taken that opportunity the next day to go and pull the plug on Star Wars and we never would’ve had Star Wars. And without Star Wars where do you end up? What kind of films come after that without that blockbuster mentality, without these sequels, without these franchises? And if Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been completed, then perhaps Alien would not have been completed, at least in the same way. And if Alien‘s not completed in the same way then maybe that wouldn’t be successful. And then if that’s not successful you don’t get Aliens and Alien 3. And then you don’t get the early films of David Fincher or James Cameron who all started out in that franchise. So it’s really like everything that we know completely changes, completely for better or for worse. It’s really an interesting set of parallel universes.

And then without the success of Alien you don’t have a Blade Runner potentially because Ridley Scott doesn’t have the leverage to do that.

And where does Blade Runner come from? We don’t even talk about in the film but during Jodorowsky’s Dune obviously that’s when Moebius and Dan O’Bannon met and together they wrote a comic book called The Long Tomorrow. And if you look at The Long Tomorrow it is exactly the production design from Blade Runner. Exactly. It is that world. Moebius and Dan O’Bannon showed that to Ridley Scott and he thought it was fantastic. And then he and Syd Mead kind of ran off with it and made it into reality with Blade Runner. And what science fiction films are more influential than Alien and Blade Runner? I mean all these worlds directly lead back to Jodorowsky and his project of Dune. It’s just really astounding. It’s just really incredible.

In the end, your film is incredibly optimistic it’s all about  the idea that you have to try to do something, and that trying to do something is better than not doing it at all, which I think is probably the basis for all art in a sense.

There’s so many limitations put on all of us by the real world and by real world realities. Why would we ever want to limit ourselves? You should never tell yourself no because everybody else is going to tell you no anyway. And if you tell yourself no then you’ll never do anything. You just have to keep moving forward, keep trying. And it’s not about the success that you envision. It’s not about the failure that you think it might be. Nothing is going to turn out exactly the way you think it’s going to be, but everything has its value. Everything has its value and you learn from the process, you learn from the end result and everything has a reason. There’s intrinsic value in the entire process of whatever it is you’re doing, whether it’s making a movie, whether it’s writing this article. Whatever it is, you come out as a different person. In making this film I get to share this vision with the world. I get to speak on the phone and meet people like you who I probably would never meet otherwise. It’s all fantastic and every day you learn more and more.

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It’s like (Jodorowsky) says in the film, the mind is like the universe and every day your mind’s expanding just like the universe is expanding because your experiences are expanding. You’re meeting new people. You’re thinking of new ideas, new creations. And it all depends on your perspective. You can be miserable. You can go, “Oh, I didn’t make my film or it didn’t come out the way I wanted it to and everything sucks,” or “Hey it’s fantastic. Hollywood used my group. Isn’t that amazing? Look at Giger, look at his career. Look at Chris Foss. Look at Moebius. Look at Dan O’Bannon, that’s incredible.” And that’s the only way to be. That’s the only way that you can live otherwise you’ll shrivel up and die. There’s a reason that Jodorowsky is 85 years old but comes across as a young man, because he has that youthful spirit, that positivity which really means so much.

Have you seen his latest film (La danze de la realidad/The Dance of Reality)?

Oh, I’ve seen it several times. It’s amazing. The film is incredible. If you haven’t seen it yet it’s totally amazing. And you can see there’s a sequence in the new film, which also comes from Dune. You can see a similarity from one of the scenes that we animated to one in his new film. So he’s still taking those ideas that he’s struggling to get out into the universe and putting them out in the universe. It’s amazing.

We had the David Lynch version, we had the SyFy Channel miniseries and then recently Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) was trying to do a new theatrical version and that went belly up. Do you think there’s a definitive version of Dune that can be made?

I wonder at this point. I mean I think there is the Lynch version, which is the really unique vision of it. Then there’s the SyFy one, which I have not seen the SyFy one but a lot of people like it and people say it’s a very true page to screen adaptation. So I guess that kind of satisfies the people looking for that. But I mean what would the next version be? Is it possible? Can you tell that massive story in a film version? I mean maybe it would have to be a miniseries or an HBO type series or a Netflix series or something like that. But those are difficult because so many of those ideas have been taken, I think, already — not just from Jodorowsky’s version but from the novel. I mean would Star Wars have opened up on the desert planet of Tatooine if Dune was not based on the desert planet of Arrakis? Probably not. And then people say, “I’ve seen this before.” It kind of happened with John Carter.

So I don’t know if Dune could ever been made again. It’s interesting because people also make fun of Jodorowsky too and it’s like of course you couldn’t make this film. Who’s going to make a 20-hour –- nobody wants to watch 20 hours. He said recently the public, the viewers, they have an urge to see longer stories. This whole idea of short attention spans was maybe not completely true. People binge watch series on Netflix or on DVD and they watch a season of a TV show, which is anywhere between 12 and 20 hours, exactly as long as he was thinking his Dune might be. How many Harry Potter movies were there? Seven, nine? We’ve already had two Hunger Games films and six Star Wars films and people want to see these longer more involved tales in these universes that exist within each of these stories. So once again it’s an example of how I think he was ahead of the times.

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Are there any other great unmade films, sci-fi or otherwise, that fascinate you in this way?

There are lots of great unmade projects of course, but nothing that really captured my interest like this, nothing that I know of that lives beyond that unmade project. If this was just an unmade project, who would really care? But it’s an unmade project that lives, that still exists. You can see in so many places. It’s like Kubrick’s Napoleon. People consider Kubrick’s Napoleon to be the greatest film never made. But I disagree. I think it’s Jodorowsky’s Dune because it has the power to keep living. Kubrick’s Napoleon was fascinating, looking at all his research, it’s an amazing thing, but does it go beyond that? Did it still get out into the universe? Jodorowsky’s Dune is so powerful that it can’t be contained in that book. It has to get out there.

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