It’s billed as “the greatest film never made”, the movie that, despite not existing, gave birth (so myth has it) to Alien, Star Wars, Blade Runner and a lot more besides. It is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s fabled 1970s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic Dune (a film eventually, and in many minds appallingly, made by David Lynch in 1984) and it is now the subject of a riveting and hilarious documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune.
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A documentry about Jodorowsky's plan to adapt Frank Herberts Dune and how the film never came to be.
“I was in my house, a young person calls me, says, ‘I want to speak to you about Dune’. I say, ‘Come to my house’,” the 85-year-old Chilean-born Jodorowsky recalls in his heavily accented English down the phone line from Paris, where he lives. “I don’t know from which country he came. I think, ‘He’s a crazy person; he will never make a picture with that’.”
The young filmmaker, Frank Pavich, took his chance, and Jodorowsky was happy to talk about his ghost film. And why not? He’d been doing so for years, and he certainly had the material – primarily a massive and lavishly illustrated flipbook he had touted around Hollywood in the mid-’70s as he tried to raise finance, and a bagful of anecdotes that had lost none of their lustre with repeated telling.
Among them is the tale of Jodorowsky’s wooing of Salvador Dali to play the Emperor of the Universe. The painter had just one condition: that he should be the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. They couldn’t afford that, but his producer asked how many minutes Dali would be on screen, and when Jodorowsky said “five at the most, more likely three”, they had a deal: Dali would be paid $100,000 a minute (of screen time).
To lure Orson Welles they used a different bait: food. Jodorowsky tracked the enormous American to a restaurant in Paris, where he was gorging himself. He offered him the role but Welles declined. What are you interested in, Jodorowsky asked him over a fifth bottle of red. “Food.” “What if I get the chef of this restaurant to do the catering?” “I’ll do it.”
The stories are wonderful, and the talent Jodorowsky assembled – including the artist Moebius, writer Dan O’Bannon and sculptor H. R. Giger (those last two would go on to play crucial roles on Ridley Scott’s Alien), with Pink Floyd agreeing to record the soundtrack – are testament to his vision, or at least his ability to sell it.
But how good would the film really have been?
Jodorowsky is best known as the creator of two of the trippiest movies ever made, El Topo (1970) andThe Holy Mountain (1973). John Lennon was such a fan of the former that he convinced Alan Klein, the manager of the Beatles in their final days, to buy the distribution rights. Through midnight screenings in New York and eventually around the world, the films became money-makers and practically created the whole cult-film phenomenon.
But mass market they weren’t, and it’s not hard to see why Hollywood baulked at putting such a massive and risky project – estimated budget $15 million, a fortune by the standards of 1975 – in the hands of such a maverick, who says in the documentary that he wanted his film to “give the people that took LSD the hallucinations you get with that drug, but without hallucinating”.
Ah, yes, LSD. Though his films were dubbed “acid westerns”, Jodorowsky says he in fact only took the drug twice – and even then it was only to prepare for an acting role.
“When I made The Holy Mountain I needed to play the master, but I was not a master,” he says. “But I had a master, a guru, in New York. He came to Mexico and I paid him $17 to enlighten me. He sit in front of me and gave me a powder and it was LSD; like this he enlightened me. We met for eight hours, we opened the consciousness.
“We are like in a cage," he continues, "made by the society and the family and the culture. We have an ego, a personality, but that is not our complete personality; we have a big part of us that is unknown. And that is the goal of art also, the art will show to you who you are really, the unknown part of you.”
Had Jodorowsky managed to make his mad, ambitious movie, it may or may not have been great but it almost certainly would have forced those watching it to think differently, if only for a few hours. But, he happily concedes, maybe the imaginary Dune of myth casts a far longer shadow over the imagination than any finished film ever could.
“It’s better,” he says, that “a fantastic picture you never do it, [rather] than a picture you do it and the public will see and forget.
“You know, the Jewish people for 5000 years are waiting for the Messiah,” he goes on, warming to the theme. “That’s good, it’s a fantastic religion. But when the Messiah comes it will be terrible!”
Not making Dune doesn’t mean he failed in his ultimate ambition, he says cheerily. “To fail is only to change the road.”