Filmmaker Interview: ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’ with documentary producer Frank Pavich

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Jodorowsky’s Dune now playing at the Angelika Theatre

Roundtable interview by: Gordon K. Smith

In 1970, a bizarre, X-rated surrealist western from Mexico entitled EL TOPO became the first midnight movie sensation.   Its star/director/writer, Chilean Alejandro Jodorowsky,  followed it three years later with the similarly trippy THE HOLY MOUNTAIN.  Also hugely popular at that time were the fantasy/science-fiction novels of Frank Herbert, Dune and its sequels.  It would have seemed a match made in pre-STAR WARS ’70s cinema heaven for Jodorowsky  (hereafter referred to as AJ) to make the movie version of Dune…and it nearly happened, years before David Lynch’s 1984 big-budget flop and the better-received Sci-Fi Channel miniseries 16 years later.   A new documentary, JODOROWSKY’S DUNE, from producer Frank Pavich, features AJ himself, with others involved in the aborted production plus fantasy film experts discussing this little-known story of what would have been the first big sci-fi epic. It would have featured such stars as David Carradine, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali, at a then-huge budget of $15 million.  What remains of the 2 ½ years of preproduction is AJ’s enormous volume of 3,000 storyboard and conceptual drawings by H.R. Giger and other top fantasy artists of the time.  The film illustrates how ’77’s STAR WARS, and the subsequent epics it made possible – ALIEN, TERMINATOR, etc.– evolved from this research.  At a March roundtable Pavich talked about finding the legendary AJ. (who, in the film, mixes Spanish and often-subtitled English). 

PAVICH:  It was hard.  Eventually found he has an agent in Spain for acting – I didn’t know he acted in films outside his own.  I sent him an email…woke up one morning, opened my email, and there was a message from AJ himself.  I was afraid to read it for a week, in case the answer was no, or worse, someone else is making this movie.  When I did, he said he was in Paris and we needed to meet face to face.  Fantastic!  We met in a regular old apartment, castle like.  It was magical…in comes this white-haired, beautiful wonderful man.  He’s a real person, lives and breathes.  Had the big DUNE book facing him, as kind of a tease.  He never asked me what I’d done before, and still hasn’t to this day.

He wanted to cast larger-than-life personalities, like Orson Welles (whom he promised personal catering by his favorite restaurant) for this role, Salvador Dali for that role.  Pretty hilarious – he was going to pay Dali $100,000 for each minute used in the finished film, even though he was told Dali would deliberately ruin every shot.

KNOWSHI: He could have asked Hitchcock about working with Dali.  He was still alive then.

PAVICH:  I would love to have been at that restaurant meeting!  I did my first meeting with AJ in 2010, then we shot our first interview in 2011, getting him back with the DUNE producer Michel Seydoux,  then we went back in 2012 and 2013.  Seven or eight interview sessions in all. We interviewed his son Brontis (who would have played hero Paul in the project) in 2011, and got them all together in 2013.  AJ was 82 when we started, and completely on point.

Pavich recounted the long history of attempts to film the novel.

PAVICH:  The first attempt was by producer Arthur Jacobs (famous in late ’60s for the PLANET OF THE APES series), with David Lean as director.  Jacobs passed away.  AJ optioned the rights for a  certain number of years…he was too far in advance of them. STAR WARS hadn’t come out yet, so the idea of a big budget sci-fi space opera epic hadn’t been proven as a box office moneymaker…when the film collapsed, after spending two million in two years, (the original producer) Michel Seydoux tried to get some back….After STAR WARS and STAR TREK started making money, they said ‘Let’s bring back DUNE, and who do they get to direct DUNE, the AJ of the ’80s, David Lynch.  Seydoux sold the option rights to Dino de Laurentis.  De Laurentis gave this huge contract to his daughter Rafaella and said, “This is for you”…which is how David Lynch’s DUNE (1984) got made…they thought they were going to make billions on toys, action figures and coloring books, cuz nothing says ‘kid’s movie!’ like Frank Herbert’s Dune!  But AJ doesn’t blame Lynch.  He blames De Laurentis.

KNOWSHI: Was AJ going to shoot in Mexico like Lynch did?

PAVICH: Yes, Mexico, Algeria – he was going to have the Algerian army be extras.  He looked at the deserts in Chile, scouted everywhere.

Pavich’s film features some stunning animation by Syd Garon based on AJ’s original visual concepts for DUNE.

PAVICH: As soon as we got the greenlight to do our film, I knew we were going to animate parts because there was no footage (done by AJ), nothing. But the reason this was such an interesting project is because it was so realized.  We could go in and bring it to life…a friend told me only one animator could do this – Syd Garon.  I looked at his reel and was blown away – a fantastic guy, an amazing artist, and he had the perfect touch for the film.  You gotta see those Sandworms!”

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