Frank Pavich interview: Jodorowsky’s Dune

Alejandro Jodorowsky never got to make his Dune movie. But he planned it. Extensively. A new documentary looks at what might have been...

The history of cinema is replete with stories of unfinished features that never graced the movie screen; movies that became legend for never having been made − movies like Tim Burton’s Superman Lives, Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, and Steven Spielberg’s Night Skies.

Film scholars will talk at length about such unfinished works. Simon Braund, author of The Greatest Movies You’ll Never See, devoted an entire book on some of the most notorious unrealized cinematic masterpieces. Filmmaker Frank Pavich elected to express his passion for one such unrealized gem, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, by making a film of his own documenting the making of arguably the most celebrated genre film that never made it to the screen.

If you’re a fan of genre cinema, you can understand Pavich’s fascination with the source material. The version of Dune we ended up seeing in 1984 was not all that Frank Herbert fans were hoping for, even though it came from the mind of David Lynch. Fans were treated to a televised adaptation of the book later on in 2000 that hit closer to the mark as far as Herbert purists were concerned, but a lot of fans still remember Jodorowsky’s attempt at bringing Dune to the big screen, and they continue to wonder what Jodorowsky’s take on Herbert’s seminal work would have looked like.

I had the opportunity to talk with Frank Pavich following the North American run of his documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune. Here’s what he had to say:

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There are so many movies that became notorious for not having been made. Why did you choose Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Dune for your documentary?

To me, this is the greatest unmade film. It’s the most fantastical. If you add up all those incredible personalities, Moebius, Giger, Chris Foss, Jodorowsky himself… and all those actors that nobody else had, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Dali. Add Pink Floyd on top of that for the music…

There are more unmade movies than there are made movies. To me, this one seemed the most complete. Jodorowsky made the movie. It’s done. He just didn’t shoot it. That’s all. He did all the design. He figured out every shot, every angle, and every camera movement. Everything was done. Everything was laid out. I don’t think you can say that about too many other projects. People compare this [movie] to Kubrick’s Napoleon, but that seems to me to be just a bunch of research. It never really became anything as fully realized as Alejandro’s vision.

Your poster says “The Greatest Science Fiction Movie Never Made.” For anyone who doesn’t know anything about it, that might seem overly grandiose, but a lot of people who have seen it seem to agree.

Absolutely true, in my opinion. I don’t know if everyone feels that way, but it seems that people who see it overwhelmingly love it. You cannot NOT fall in love with him. The film would have been incredible. The vision was unique and spectacular and ahead of its time. But [my documentary] is really a story about Jodorowsky, how amazing, charismatic and heart-warming he is. I think you have to have a stone for a heart to go see this movie and not be completely mesmerized.

Jodorowsky is a very emotional person. He has such intensity and interest for this material that you find yourself being swept up by his emotional dedication. There is this scene near the end, where you can see how profoundly sad he feels over the film not having been made.

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He’s a true, natural-born performer. Not only is he a director and an artist, but he’s also an actor. He was also a mime many years ago. He acted in films and in theatre. So he really is the perfect person to take you on this journey.

He would have taken some serious liberties with Herbert’s novel. Given how Herbert’s fans reacted to the ending of David Lynch’s version of Dune, how do you think those fans would have reacted to Jodorowsky’s proposed ending?

A book is a different work of art than a movie. If someone reads Dune and is inspired to make a painting, it’s not going to be the same. It will be something else, because a painting is different than a book. Let’s make a comparison with other movie adaptations. Look at The Shining. Kubrick’s Shining is very different from Stephen King’s Shining, but the movie became the more powerful work. It became the one that most people talked about. I think Kubrick was inspired by the book and took liberties with those incredible ideas from the pages and made them even more incredible for the screen. I think that’s what Jodorowsky was doing. I think he was taking his own ideas, his own beliefs and his own passions, and he put them into this work. He’s not a director for hire. I think he needs to be connected to his work, and in order to do that he must put himself into it, which is what he was trying to do.

I’m a big fan of Lynch too, but I feel that Jodorowsky’s vision would have probably engaged the interest of the fans even more.

I think so too. Frank Herbert was excited to have Alejandro make a film out of Dune, because he respected Alejandro as an artist. He respected his films, and they both came from that same world to some extent. Had Alejandro been able to make his film, he would have made it the way he wanted it to be, without input from studio people, from money people, and I think that’s part of what went wrong with David Lynch’s version. Herbert was also thrilled to have Lynch turn his book into a movie. He was a fan of Eraserhead. He saw this visionary artist coming to direct his film, but Lynch was not allowed to make his film, because the studio came in, and the producers came in, and that put a wrench in the works. I think all that made it into a film that was much different from what David Lynch had originally envisioned.

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It’s been adapted twice now, the David Lynch version in 1984, and a televised version in 2000. In this age of remakes, Dune should be about due for the reboot treatment. What do you think are the chances of it being picked up again and made into something as grandiose as Jodorowsky’s version would have been?

I wonder. Hollywood likes to go back over things, over and over again. It’s a tough question. Could Dune be made again? I think one of the problems with Dune today is that so many people have picked through it and taken inspiration from it, taken ideas from it, and not only from Alejandro’s version, but also from the source material. I think so many other science-fiction movies have taken inspiration from that. Star Wars is an example. Do you think Star Wars would have opened on the desert planet of Tatooine if Arrakis were not a desert planet? They also both had two suns. There are so many things that come from there. So I wonder if Dune would be made again into a film. People might feel they have already seen it. It’s sort of what happened with the John Carter Of Mars film. It was a movie that had not been made before, but it was a very old story that people have taken from. People said it was too familiar, that they had seen that before, but it’s actually the source material where other things came from.

Dune is such a massive story. I don’t know − I think it would have to be made into several films. It would have to be a Lord Of The Rings type of thing, with a film being released every year or so, or an HBO mini-series kind of thing. This would be getting close to what Alejandro wanted to do. It would have to be something massive, because the source material is so massive.

If Jodorowsky were to show up in Hollywood today with his Dune production book, do you think he could convince the studios to let him shoot the movie?

I think he’s still too strange for the studios. He’s still too out there. He’s not going to play their games in order to make those franchise movies that the studios like, those superheroes movies. That’s simply not how Alejandro works. He’d rather have a smaller budget and complete freedom. Today’s movies require $100 million budgets. I don’t think anyone would put him in charge of such an amount to make a movie. I’d love to see him do it. It would be incredible to see it, but I have my doubts.

There are instances of off-the-beaten-path and independent movies that became a success − take Monsters, for example − and after seeing your documentary, I like to imagine someone eventually digging up Jodorowsky’s Dune preproduction book, showing it to the powers-that-be and convincing them to finance the movie.

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It could be. A month ago I went to see Noah. I was completely floored and amazed by what I saw, because not only did I love the film, but also because to me, Noah is to Aronofsky as Dune is to Jodorowsky. Aronofsky was allowed to make this movie, a multi-million dollar biblical epic. It’s shocking, it’s incredible, and this world that was created is massive. He went from doing The Wrestler and Black Swan to doing that mega-film.

Same thing with Monsters. The director went on to make Godzilla. So, Hollywood does take chances on some people. Noah was one thing, but Godzilla is a franchise, so I can see how they would let that guy make it. Noah is crazy, and absolutely phenomenal. So yeah, Hollywood sometimes gets behind something. So you never know.

You interviewed Jodorowsky over a three-year period. When were you able to say, “This is a wrap”?

We could have made our own fourteen-hour movie if we wanted to, for sure. But I think we needed to keep it from point A to point Z. It’s a smaller, tighter version of that. You do the interview, and you have an idea of what the story is. Then you take it back to the editing room and you start working with it. You find what works and what doesn’t work, and what line to follow. So we would interview him, then go back over a year or so, and we’d end up with more questions for him, on other topics, and we’d go back again for almost another year. When we had about 90% of it done, we still had a few more things we wanted to touch up on. And that’s how it sort of went about.

There are a million interesting stories that happened during his production period. We needed to keep it to a tighter story. What made that 90 minute documentary fly by for some people was like a train that doesn’t stop. It’s a straight story. Funny things happened along the way, sad things, amazing things. But you can’t take too many detours. There is this editing term, which is called “kill your darling.” There are so many darlings that we had to kill, so many great sequences, great segments, great things that he said that just couldn’t make it into the film.

Of course, there are many additional things that we can put in when the DVD gets released. There’s artwork, extra footage, all sorts of great stuff. It could easily have been a twenty-hour long documentary. It never gets boring, for sure.

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I keep coming back to that production book. Someone has to publish that. There are some copies left, right? Because this is the most impressive archive of unreleased Moebius, Giger and Foss artworks out there. It’s as thick as three phonebooks. It would be very costly to print, but I’d love to see that in bookstores one day.

That would be incredible. I know I’d be the first in line to buy a copy. I want it on my shelf. I don’t know what the plan is. I don’t know if they’re thinking about it. I think they have a desire. I think they’d like to put it out. I don’t know if there is a hold-up, but I assume they would have to re-option Dune and sort of get them involved. It would be fantastic if it could be shared with the world.

I was amazed to hear Jodorowsky say that he was the one who put Giger on the path to making movies. Giger wasn’t involved in movies back then, and Jodorowsky’s Dune was the first movie he ever worked on. I wonder how different movies like Alien would have been if Giger had not been inspired by Jodorowsky to get involved in movies.

All these roads really lead back to Jodorowsky, because that entire team went on to making Alien. It was Dan O’Bannon’s idea; it was his script, and when Ridley Scott came on-board, he said “Hey, I was working on this other film, and there is this amazing artist named H. R. Giger, and you need to see his stuff. I think he’d be perfect for Alien.” And then they brought Moebius and Chris Foss on-board. So these four visionaries went on to make Alien, and we all know how influential that movie became. What would science fiction look like today without that look? Not just the monster, but also the overall feel of everything. The ship is not new; it’s not pristine. It’s like a beat-up tanker floating through space. It’s worn and rusty and dirty − like life. And that look, that motif clearly comes out of these guys. And this certainly leads back to that two-year period they all spent working [on Dune] together in Paris.

There are mentions in your documentary of Jodorowsky’s influence on George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and Robert Zemeckis. Do you think those filmmakers ever got their hands on Jodorowsky’s production book, and it influenced them when they designed the lightsaber duels in Star Wars and the opening sequence in Contact, for example?

It does sound like it to me. I don’t know if they got it from reading the book. Who really knows? But some of those shots looked like they were picked straight from the pages [of Jodorowsky’s book]. It would be interesting to hear what they’d say after they saw the documentary. It would be an interesting conversation.

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What is your next project? How do you follow up on something so huge and important?

That’s the question. I’ve gotten a few things off the ground, and I’ll see what feels right. But what do you follow that up with? It’s tough. This movie did phenomenally well. It started at Cannes. How can it get better than that? And it went on from there to all those incredible film festivals. It was released in North America and it played in New York for ten weeks. It’s been out for three months and it’s still playing in theatres. It’s crazy. I’m not 100% sure what has to come next, but I feel it has to be something that would make Jodorowsky proud. And I don’t mean I have to make a Jodorowsky-style film, because I am not Jodorowsky, because I make my own films. I didn’t make a psychedelic documentary. I made it the way I wanted to tell it, and he loves it. He absolutely adores the film. But he gave us a gift. A gift of the story and let me, who contacted him out of the blue, tell the story that I wanted to tell. So he really gave me something incredible, something that has completely changed my life. And I respect it in this film, and I want to continue respecting it in my life. I really cherish him as a great artist, and I cherish him as a friend now. So whatever comes next, I think it has to be something he would approve of.

I heard you actually went online to confront someone who uploaded a torrent of your film and that you actually managed to get him to remove it. Now how did you manage to do that?

It’s just common sense. You can get everything for free, movies, albums, software… Everything is available for free now. This shouldn’t be. And people need to understand that people worked hard on these films. I’m certainly not making Captain America 3, so I’m not making a lot of money from this, and it’s costing me some of my own money to make. So when people take a creation and put it out there, and they think they are making something great – they really aren’t. They are taking someone else’s thing and putting it out there. Go do something positive.

And I think that as long as people are not jerks, and as long as you approach them as human beings, they will really love the fact that they need to support those things, because those things are not forever. If those little movies, and those little bands can’t survive, we’ll be stuck with only those big guys − and who wants to only see Captain America 6? I don’t want to live in that world. I want to see Captain America 6, but I also want to see the little documentaries, the little indie films, the little bands, and I think people need to support those things.

I think a lot more people will buy the DVD now. I certainly want to buy it, even though I’ve seen the movie in a theatre already.

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We’re really proud of the film, and we haven’t seen the DVD yet, but I think it will be great, and the extras will be interesting, the kind of things we wish we could have put in the film − good for the people who saw the film and wanted more. Thanks to the magic of DVD and Blu-ray that can offer additional features. Hopefully, more people will be inspired by this amazing man and his amazing words.

Thank you very much, Frank Pavich.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is out on DVD now in the US; a UK release has not been confirmed.