Experiencing Jodorowsky’s Dune

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Knowing what I did about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune,” I thought that Jodorowsky would come off as a blowhard lunatic in the 2013 documentary that covered both him and that particular film subject.  Instead, the man turned out to be a visionary who somehow pulled together an impressive collective of highly-influential production design people.  Jodorowsky was in his mid-80s while being interviewed for the documentary and he looked at least ten years younger.  He still had a twinkle in his eye and was very well spoken.

There were just so many crazy aspects to the story of Jodorowsky’s “Dune” that it was hard to know where to begin.  Perhaps one could start with the fact that Jodorowsky never bothered to actually read Frank Herbert’s book “Dune.”  That tidbit of intentional disconnect set the stage for what followed.  Most of the documentary involved surreal stories about Jodorowsky bringing together his team, referring to those joining him as needing to be like ‘warriors.’

Douglas Trumbull, the special effects genius behind “2001” was not deemed to be a warrior early on in the pre-production process.  Jodorowsky cut ties with Trumball after their initial meetings went poorly.  Jodorowsky had sought out Trumbull to work on the effects of “Dune,” but he simply wasn’t a good creative fit with the controlling Jodorowsky.  Jodorowsky instead ended up with John Carpenter collaborator Dan O’Bannon after seeing O’Bannon’s work on “Dark Star.”  That was Carpenter’s USC short film that became a feature, a parody of “2001” and O’Bannon had handled the special effects amongst other roles on the production.

The French artist Moebius did all of the sketch-style storyboarding for Jodorowsky’s “Dune.”  Moebius later had a long history of collaboration with Jodorowsky, although the two apparently had a brief falling out over a lawsuit against producers of the mid-1990s film “The Fifth Element.”  Most notably, the duo would collaborate throughout the 1980s on a series of comic books entitled “The Incal” that would use many of the visual creations from Jodorowsky’s “Dune.”

Chris Foss, who was called in to handle specific vehicle and building design, was an English artist whom I’d not heard of by name but his work appeared to be amazing.  A simple of his name revealed his wide array of work as a science fiction book cover art.  Foss seemed to have a heck of a good time on the project, gleefully telling stories with a large glass of wine in hand.

Jodorowsky’s son Brontis was cast in the lead role of Paul in “Dune” and apparently spent two years undergoing intensive martial arts training, with claims that the training lasted for hours per day.  Brontis came off as mildly amused by his upbringing and seemed oddly well adjusted decades later given how strange it must have been having Jodorowsky for a father.

A good example of Jodorowsky’s charisma came when he somehow managed to get Pink Floyd to commit to doing the film’s music.  He apparently crashed their recording of “Dark Side of the Moon” and was initially ignored by the band members.  Jodorowsky became upset by the band’s snub and, as he was storming out of the studio, he declared that the band would be missing out on the most profound story in the history of humanity.  That statement apparently gained their attention and they eventually agreed to handle the film’s music.

H.R. Giger did a few production paintings that were stunning and focused on the bad guys of “Dune” – House Harkonnen.  They would remind people of Giger’s later aesthetic for “Alien” and a particular building design was later re-purposed for Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus.”

One of the stranger casting stories involved Jodorowsky’s insistence that Salvador Dali play the emperor of the universe in the film.  Jodorowsky faced hilarious demands by Dali, such as being paid more than any other movie star in the world.  To get around those demands, a certain absurd game ensued where Jodorowosky would agree to Dali’s needs but then work with his production partner to get around them.  An example of such antics involved Dali requesting to be paid $100,000 per hour and Jodorowsky countering with an offer to pay $100,000 per minute of screen time.  Jodorowsky only intended to use Dali for a couple minutes though.  Further, he justified writing Dali out of much of the film by having his character replaced by a robotic emissary due to the emperor being an assassination target.  One could call that out-of-the-box thinking regarding the potential for budget overruns.

Mick Jagger was cast as the Harkonnen nephew Feyd-Rautha, a character played by Sting in the later David Lynch “Dune.”  Jodorowsky’s meeting with Jagger was typically bizarre, with Jodorowsky happening across Jagger at a large party in Paris and Jagger randomly crossing the room to accept Jodorowsky’s equally-random offer to be in “Dune.”

When Jodorowsky needed someone of large girth to play the flying Baron Harkonnen, who would he cast for that?  When he said Orson Welles, I laughed out loud.  It was a good fit but also in keeping with the ridiculously lofty ambitions of the film.  As with others, Jodorowsky knew how to land Welles and did so by playing to Welles’ appetite.  After offering to get a favorite chef of Welles’s on-set, Jodorowsky had his man for the part.

The only time that Jodorowsky seemed to lose his mind a little was near the end of the documentary when he said his adaptation of the novel “Dune” was a ‘rape’ of the book.  Oddly, he called it a rape several times but added that his raping of the book was a ‘loving’ one.

After this whole package was assembled with Jodorowsky’s crazy ideas, it wasn’t a surprise that no studio in Hollywood would fund the film.  Nicolas Winding Refn makes some odd comments about feeling that the executives were simply afraid of such a mind-expanding film.  In reality, they were probably prudently questioning how this film could ever come together without costing all of the money in the world.  Jodorowsky’s history as a surrealist and the film’s narrative not being a conventional book adaptation would have raised some huge red flags and I can’t see how the film would have amounted to more than a cult classic if it had ever gotten produced.

The rights to “Dune” moved into the hands of others and director David Lynch eventually finished an adaptation of the book in the mid-1980s.  Jodorowsky seemed genuinely concerned that Lynch would do a better job than him with “Dune” and respected Lynch’s talent.  Brontis drug his father to see Lynch’s “Dune” and Jodorowsky was relieved to find that the film was a disaster.  He admitted how that revelation helped him hold out hope that his vision might still someday be realized.

The filmmakers behind the documentary tried to draw some connections whereby the Moebius storyboards from Jodorowsky’s “Dune” were swiped for films like “Contact” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”  I’m not sure how far I’d go with those claims though as they often seemed coincidental.  That said, it was undeniable that the core team working for Jodorowsky was responsible for “Alien.”  As much as Ridley Scott received credit for that film, the brain trust behind that story and the designs on “Alien” were actually the core people who had worked for Jodorowsky on “Dune.”  For that reason, I can agree with the film’s assertion that without Jodorowsky’s “Dune” there would be no “Alien” and then no “Blade Runner,” no cyberpunk, and no “The Matrix.”

Jodorowsky’s “Dune” was probably best being what it ended up being – a collection of exquisite pre-production art and a behind-the-scenes story worthy of a documentary.  I do hope that someday the compilation pitch book that Jodorowsky refers to repeatedly in the documentary is made available to the public in a reprint format.

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