David Lynch’s Dune & the Case for Directorial Control

In 1984, David Lynch made Dune - a case study for how difficult it can be to jump from small films to major blockbusters...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK

It’s the age old tug-of-war between art and commerce: movie studios want products they can sell, but they don’t want them to look like something off a production line. They want movies that look and feel different, but not so different that audiences are too bewildered to buy a cinema ticket. In interviews, studio bosses and producers often talk about a filmmaker’s “unique vision,” and they often sound sincere while doing so. Yet the reality of spending huge sums on mainstream movies generally means that studios will often wind up feeling nervous when the cold reality of that vision becomes apparent.

To cite but one example, look at the fate of Josh Trank and his 2015 Fantastic Four movie. Trank was a young filmmaker who’d just come off Chronicle, a 2012 film about a group of teenagers initially thrilled but ultimately torn apart when they’re granted telekinetic powers. Fox, who’d bankrolled the film’s tiny budget, were clearly thrilled with the movie and, in particular, how well it fared critically and financially. Within months, Trank was given the opportunity to make a new Fantastic Four movie.

Now, while we certainly weren’t present when Trank pitched his vision of Fantastic Four to the studio, it’s at least safe to assume that Trank was hired because Fox liked his ideas. Trank mentioned his appreciation for the films of David Cronenberg, and cited such films as Scanners and The Fly as representative of the tone he was going for. Whether you think the body horror stylings of Cronenberg are correct for the Fantastic Four franchise or not, it was presumably this idea that Fox greenlit when Trank started shooting the movie.

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You’re probably aware of what happened next: news emerged that the relationship between director and studio was souring behind the scenes. Word got around that Fox wasn’t happy with the film’s tone, and that a round of extensive cuts and reshoots had been ordered. Fantastic Four eventually emerged in an evidently sorry state, and critics duly did their worst.

Again, the question of whether Fantastic Four would have been a great film even without Fox’s late alterations isn’t the point here. Ultimately, Trank was given the greenlight based on the idea of a movie about young scientists whose bodies are stricken by disturbing powers, but according to reports at the time, the studio cut three major action set-pieces mere days before filming, and later changed the entire third act.

Trank and Fantastic Four highlighted the limits of creative freedom that can emerge while making blockbuster movies. Studios may think they want directors with creativity and an interesting, maybe even eccentric edge, but when they’re presented with the reality, they retreat from it and begin to pray for something more conventional instead.

As an apt case study from further back in cinema history, just take a look at David Lynch’s Dune

From Jodorowsky to Lynch

For years, Dune refused to be made. Planet of the Apes producer Arthur P. Jacobs was the first to attempt an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s voluminous sci-fi fable, but that fizzled out in the early 1970s. Maverick director Alejandro Jodorowsky came next. He got as far as putting together a screenplay the thickness of several telephone directories and amassed some astonishing concept art before the project’s financing ultimately collapsed. Ridley Scott initially thought about making Dune after making Alien, but went on to direct Blade Runner instead.

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When Scott exited stage left, producer Raffaella De Laurentiis – 30-year-old daughter of movie mogul Dino – was still determined to get one of her favorite books on the silver screen. Reluctant to wait for two or more years before Scott finished Blade Runner, the producers turned their attention instead to director David Lynch. Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man had just been released to huge critical acclaim (it was nominated for eight Oscars), and the De Laurentiises were struck by the strength of Lynch’s visuals – all stark black and white and oppressive Victorian smog – and his evident skill with actors. All qualities, they thought, that were perfect for their Dune project.

At the time, however, neither Dino nor Raffaella had seen Lynch’s debut film, 1977’s Eraserhead: a surreal, uniquely disturbing nightmare that could be interpreted as a horror story about sex and fatherhood. In a later interview, Lynch said that, when Dino finally got around to seeing Eraserhead, he’d hated it. Raffaella admitted to Starlog magazine that she didn’t see Eraserhead until after Lynch had already been hired either and that, “If I had seen it without knowing him, I probably would have walked out.”

The Modern Surrealist

Had the De Laurentiises seen Eraserhead earlier, they may have had a better idea of who they were hiring: a director unafraid to go against the grain of conventional storytelling; a filmmaker who carried his interest in dream images and spontaneous ideas over from his earlier life as a painter. Indeed, the reason Lynch agreed to take on Dune – having rejected the sure-fire commercial future of Return of the Jedi – was because of the promise its allegorical saga offered. Where George Lucas’ Star Wars sequel was pre-packaged, Frank Herbert’s Dune suggested riskier yet attractively uncharted territory. Its 400 pages were crammed full of power struggles, allegory, death, and strange creatures. Lynch hadn’t read the novel until it was offered to him by the De Laurentiises, but he recognized the creative possibilities when he did.

Maybe Dunes producers shouldn’t have been too surprised, therefore, when Lynch’s film emerged from a long and difficult shoot in Mexico as a serpentine and baroque fantasy saga. Lynch had never been let loose on a movie with anything like this kind of budget before, and he used the De Laurentiises’ estimated $40m investment to bring some uniquely odd images to the screen. Lynch may not have been particularly into science fiction, but he clearly revelled in depicting the grotesque Harkonens and their hellish industrial planet. Alternately baroque and pulpy, Dune – for better or worse – was a sci-fi fantasy that only Lynch could have made. If distributing studio Universal was hoping Dune would be its own Star Wars franchise, capable of selling toys and sticker albums, they must have been more than a little disturbed by the gory, downright weird genre opus Lynch served up. 

A struggle for those who’d been attracted to Dune was the difficulty of adapting its huge narrative into a satisfying movie. Lynch wrote seven drafts before he finally came up with a 120-page screenplay. The added problem Lynch faced, from the very beginning, is that he didn’t have final cut. Dino De Laurentiis was willing to spend generous sums on producing the movie, but he was adamant that Lynch deliver a two-hour picture. When Lynch finished working on an edit that reflected the final draft of his 120-page script (albeit with certain revisions during filming), the cut weighed in at nearly three hours long. De Laurentiis, determined that his demands for a two-hour Dune be met, had the film cut by almost a third, with new scenes shot to either simplify or help explain the plot. The result was indeed a shorter movie, but one that opened with almost half an hour of bewildering exposition, some of it delivered direct to camera by actress Virginia Madsen.

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Dune’s making was punctuated by numerous stories in the Hollywood press, from illness and cost overruns to clashes between director and producers. Looking back at interviews from the period, it’s not too difficult to see how Lynch’s indie sensibilities might clash with the expensive realities of making an expensive movie:

“I like to go off the track,” Lynch said of editing Dune. “I haven’t really been able to do that here. But there are still many things in the film that are strange and exciting. We haven’t started doing montages. […] I don’t even really know what’s going to be in them. There are some images that I want to work with. I can picture things in my mind. But it’s not the same as when you have the film right in front of you. Sometimes in fiddling around, by accident, the problem opens up, and it just leads to a solution to everything.”

December 1984 – The Release

Sensing that another Heaven’s Gate might be in the offing, critics rounded on the movie when it emerged in the winter of 1984, most deriding it for its arcane plot, dour tone, and uneven visual effects. (To be fair to Lynch, visual effects supervisor John Dykstra left the movie while it was still filming, leaving Raffaella with the unenviable task of heading up a team of effects technicians herself. Coupled with rising costs, this goes some way to explaining why Dune‘s visuals look spectacular in some scenes and shaky in others.)

Lynch, who seemed so upbeat and excited when interviewed on set, was left reeling from the experience of making Dune. One later discussion with the director aptly illustrates his feelings towards the movie. Lynch, his grey hair gelled back in a style that implies he’s just stepped off a rollercoaster, looks dazed and exhausted at the thought of the production.

“I loved Dino and Raffaella,” Lynch says, his eyes downcast, “but it was a nightmare.”

He pauses, as though he’s trying to think of better words to describe his emotions, but instead he just nods slightly and says again, almost to himself, “a nightmare.”

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Lynch was left so downtrodden by his first experience of making a major movie that he never made another one. He remained on good terms with the De Laurentiises, and even made his next film, Blue Velvet, with their production company two years later. But even then, with the benefit of a little critical distance, his disappointment at the movie was still evident. Journalist Bruce Bayley remarked at how candid Lynch was about Dune,even when standing next to Dino De Laurentiis at 1986’s World Film Festival.

“It’s a horrible experience when things don’t go well,” Lynch said. “With Dune, it was a Titanic, a gigantic thing, trying to compact everything within a single time frame. It began to be impossible. But once you’re committed, you have to see it through.” 

Since Dune, Lynch has studiously avoided the mainstream that once courted him. From 1986’s Blue Velvet to Inland Empire, his most recent film completed in 2006, Lynch has stuck to budgets of around $15m and frequently less. If he hasn’t felt like making feature films, he’s made shorts, TV shows, or commercials. At other times, he doesn’t make movies at all. He creates music, or paints, or makes furniture. In that old Starlog interview, Lynch said that when he wasn’t making movies, he enjoyed designing and building garden sheds. It’s now clear he wasn’t kidding.

Lynch’s restless creativity and the making of Dune say a great deal about the trials of willing a huge, multi-million dollar movie into being. Producers and studio heads may want unique artistic visions, but those visions often have to fit within uncomfortably narrow boundaries. Some filmmakers, such as Safety Not Guaranteeds Colin Trevorrow, have the style, the temperament, and the element of luck needed when turning from indie films to huge movies like Jurassic World. For others, making blockbusters can be a trial by fire, and it can take years to recover from the psychological burns.

“That’s the big lesson,” Lynch said, more than a decade after he first signed up to direct Dune. “Don’t make a film if it can’t be the film you want to make. It’s a sick joke, and it’ll kill you.”