Evil Ash checking in again.
Let’s dive right into Part IV of this ongoing series of films that never were.
Besides Orson Welles’ Don Quixote, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune is probably cinema’s most legendary unfinished film. Frank Herbert, the author of this epic tome, was already a veteran novelist, journalist, and political speechwriter, and wrote Dune in 1965. The genesis of this sprawling novel stemmed from a magazine piece he was researching in the late 1950’s, on how to control the flow of the sand dunes in Oregon. Herbert had amassed a mountain of research, and had exclaimed to his literary agent that the moving dunes in Oregon could:
“…swallow whole cities, lakes, rivers, and highways…”
While Herbert’s article on the moving dunes was never completed, this research ignited a spark in him that would lead to five years of intense research, and a three-part serial that would be published in ANALOG Science Fact & Science Fiction pulp magazine, starting in 1963. Herbert would go on to have a further five-part serial published a year later called The Prophet of Dune. This would eventually become expanded, and published as Dune in 1965 by Chilton Books, a publishing company known for its auto-repair manuals.
Considering that Dune is widely considered to be one of the greatest “science fiction” novels ever written, its incredible how little “science” (and action) there actually is in Herbert’s novel. This was done on purpose as in the novel, and centuries before the events described in the first Dune book, humans revolted against technology, and destroyed all thinking machines. As Herbert would state in an appendix:
“The god of machine-logic was overthrown, and a new concept was raised: ‘Man may not be replaced.”
This life-altering moment was known as the “Butlerian Jihad” and resulted in a spiritual awakening; an awakening which would put into place the religious structures that would ultimately produce Dune’s protagonist, and Christ-like figure, Paul Atreides. Herbert wisely downplayed technology in his novel, and put the main focus back on people, religion, and mysticism, which is not a common theme among science fiction novels. This type of science fiction would later become known as “soft” science fiction, a sub-genre of science fiction which tends to focus on psychology, sociology and anthropology. Herbert’s writings were also heavily influenced by religion, and specifically Zen Buddhism; this shows up numerous times throughout the text of Dune.
In 1966, Dune tied for the prestigious Hugo Award, which is given for best science-fiction or fantasy work; as well as winning the inaugural Nebula Award for best novel. Dune went on to sell over 20 million copies worldwide – becoming the greatest selling science-fiction novel of all time – and has been translated into dozens of languages. Herbert earned widespread praise from the titans of the science fiction industry, including Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Carl Sagan, and many others. He would go on to pen five sequels, all of which are now considered science-fiction “classics.”
In 1974, Jean Paul Gibon had purchased the film rights to Dune, and producer Michel Seydoux approached Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) about bringing Herbert’s epic novel to the big screen. For those that don’t know who Jodorowsky is, he is the absolute definition of a “renaissance man” and has dipped his toe in just about every genre there is. He was, and at the age of 91, still is: a poet, actor, comic-book writer, editor, director, musician, puppeteer, sculptor, psychologist, composer, mime, philosopher, and about a dozen other “professions.”
Jodorowsky also has a strong claim to being called the first “cult” director, as his 1970 film El Topo basically was the first “acid-western” to be released, and also became the first film to hit the midnight movie-circuit in the United States. John Lennon was so impressed with the film (of course he was), that he convinced Beatles manager Allen Klein to put up $1,000,000 for his Jodorowsky’s next production, 1973’s The Holy Mountain. Regarding the controversial rape scene in the desert that takes place in El Topo – which, for years Jodorowsky stated was not simulated (it should be noted that actress Mara Lorenzio gave her consent to the scene) – he would state in 2019:
“They were words, not facts, Surrealist publicity in order to enter the world of cinema from a position of obscurity…I acknowledge that this statement is problematic in that it presents fictional violence against a woman as a tool for exposure, and now, fifty years later, I regret that this is being read as truth.”
When Alejandro Jodorowsky met with Gibon and Seydoux, and agreed to undertake the massive project of adapting Herbert’s novel for the big screen, he didn’t just want to merely adapt Herbert’s novel; rather, as Jodorowsky would later state in the fantastic 2014 documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune” he would spend the next two years of his life with the goal in mind to:
“change the public’s perceptions… change the young minds of all the world”
Jodorowsky’s Dune project began to take on a “mystical tone,” which was typical for most of his film projects. Seydoux had rented a castle outside of Paris for Jodorowsky to isolate himself, and work on the script. When the script was completed, the director began to recruit his team of collaborators – or his “spiritual warriors” as he referred to them. The first of these warriors recruited was Jean “Moebius” Giraud, who was arguably France’s most prolific comic-book artist. Giraud quickly mapped out Jodorowsky’s vision and screenplay into storyboards, that were composed of over 3000 drawings. Below is the trailer to the 2014 documentary referenced above, that if you are a fan, I highly recommend you watch:
Jodorowsky had gathered his troops in Paris to begin work on the project. The artists that he assembled included visual effects guru, and screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star, Alien, Heavy Metal), legendary Swiss artist H.R. Giger (greatest album covers ever and Alien), who was recruited to create the visuals for the villain’s home planet, and British artist Chris Foss, hired to create the film’s spacecraft. Additionally, Jodorowsky had lined up progressive-rock icons Pink Floyd (hot off the success of Dark Side of the Moon) to compose the film’s musical score, along with French progressive-rock cult band, Magma.
As for the actors that Jodowrowsky had planned to star in the movie, it was basically a who’s who of actors, actresses and celebrities that you would bump into on any given Saturday night, while getting your groove on at Studio 54. David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Udo Kier, Gloria Swanson, and even Orson Welles had all signed on to appear in Jodorowsky’s film. For Welles, he only agreed after Jodorowsky had promised to by him dinner every night in Paris during the film’s production shoot. Most incredible was that Jodorowsky had coerced legendary Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali to appear in his film; portraying – of course – The Mad Emperor Of The Galaxy. Below is a photo of Moebius and Jodorowsky getting friendly with an alien.
While getting the unusual Salvador Dali to perform in front of the camera for the first time was a great get, Dali’s list of demands was excessive and…surreal. First, Dali demanded to be paid $100,000 per hour, which Jodorowsky agreed to; working with his cast and crew to make sure all of Dali’s scenes were filmed in one single hour. Dali also wanted to have a throne that was made up of a toilet with two intersected dolphins on top. Dali’s dream of being the highest paid actor in Hollywood was about to become a reality. Jodorowsky had also intended his then 12 year old son Brontis to play the lead character, Paul Atreides; Brontis began to undertake extensive martial arts training, in preparation for the role.
While Hollywood had always intended Jodorowsky’s version of Dune to come in at around 2 hours running time, it’s director had a much different vision, and saw the film being 12-14 hours in length. While there was already a completed screenplay, a significant amount of financing secured, and the film was well into pre-production, this drastically different vision of the final product was clearly going to be a problem. When Jodorowsky and Seydoux flew to Los Angeles in 1975 in order to secure the film’s final $5,000,000 in financing, there were already rumblings that things were beginning to go South. Regardless, Jodorowsky refused to budge on his vision. He would later say:
“For me, movies are an art more than an industry…for Dune, I wanted to create a prophet. Dune will be the coming of God.”
Below is a fantastic clip from the 2014 documentary where Jodorowsky explains that Orson Welles was the ideal choice to play the slovenly and vicious Baron Harkonnen; complete with anti-gravitational implants!
Because Jodorowsky would never relent in his Ahab-like obsession in making Dune the 14 hour vision that he wanted it to be, you really cant blame the studio executives who decided to pull the plug on the director’s production. After almost three years of pre-production development, and a script that was the size of a phone book, Jodorowsky and Seydoux were unable to raise the final $5,000,000, and production in Algeria ground to a halt. As Jodorowsky would later reflect:
“Almost all the battles were won, but the war was lost…The project was sabotaged in Hollywood. It was French and not American. Its message was not ‘enough Hollywood.’ There were intrigues, plundering. The story-board circulated among all the large studios. Later, the visual aspect of Star Wars resembled our style. To make Alien, they invited Moebius, Foss, Giger, O’Bannon, etc.”
What Jodorowsky says here is important and on point. While we never got to see the directors vision come to fruition back in 1975, it served as the embryo and starting point for other sci-fi classics; classics such as Alien, Blade Runner and Star Wars. What we got instead 9 years later, was a misguided abomination of a film in David Lynch’s vision of Dune, released in 1984. With a budget of $40,000,000, Lynch’s film was a disaster at the box office as well as with critics. Lynch disowned the film, and in some cuts, Lynch’s name has been replaced in the credits with the name “Alan Smithee”
Alejandro Jodorowsky is still going strong in his 90’s, and trying to secure financing for his long rumored sequel to El Topo, entitled The Son of El Topo. The time and effort that was spent on Jodorowsky’s version of Dune did not go to waste, as the director and Moebius used much of their designs, drawings and concepts to create the French graphic novel The Incal, which was published between 1980 and 1988. There is also a plethora of stuff online relating to Jodorowsky’s version of Dune: interviews, journals, photos, animation, pages of script (that may be fake), etc. You can go down a deep rabbit hole researching all of this stuff.
With a planned release date of October, 2021, Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve is undertaking a massive production, and attempting to finally bring justice to Frank Herbert’s vision. While Legendary Pictures has not officially green-lit the sequel, Villeneuve’s plan is to tell the story of Dune over two movies. Brian Herbert, son of author Frank Herbert, visited the Budapest set of the upcoming adaptation and stated:
“I was very impressed by the trailer, and I was thrilled to actually be on the movie set in Budapest last year, where my wife and I watched the filming of several scenes…This is a really big movie, a major project that will forever be considered the definitive film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic novel. Fans are going to love this movie. Denis Villeneuve is the perfect director to do ‘Dune.'”
While this seems a bit like a “canned” statement by the younger Herbert, I think we all hope that he’s right. As fans of the book, we have been waiting for over 50 years for a faithful adaptation of Dune to finally come to the big screen. We shall see in about a year if this comes to fruition or not.
Next week, we travel to Mexico City for the definitive film that never was…
Sound off Outposters and let me know what you think about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unfinished vision of Dune!
Hugh “Evil Ash” Feinberg