"The Greatest Movie Never Made": Before Star Wars there Was Jodorowsky's Dune

By Gar Smith
Friday March 28, 2014 - 05:30:00 PM

Jodorowsky's Dune is a real treat for film buffs but it may prove a challenge for the average filmgoer. Director Frank Pavich sets out to tell the story of "The greatest movie never made"—a film that anticipated (and influenced) Star Wars and a generation of fantasy films that followed in its wake. The story is told by a half-dozen of the surviving principals—most notably the mercurial would-be director, Alejandro Jodorowsky. 



Jodorowsky is best known as the Chilean director/writer/composer/star of El Topo, a jaw-dropping, eye-popping, head-scratching, blood-soaked, corpse-strewn hallucinogenic cult film that exploded across movie screens in 1975. El Topo was followed by an even more (far-)out(-man-)landish feature called The Holy Mountain

Still charismatic and electric in his 80s, Jodorowsky is interviewed extensively in the film (occasionally in the company of his son and sometimes co-star Brontis). Fair to say that Jodorowsky dominates the film. Also fair to say: "Jodo," is a strange bird, indeed. 

As he explains it, his film was going to be more than a mere movie. It was designed to be a psychedelic intervention that would reshape world consciousness and usher in a new era of global awareness. As Jodo puts it: “For me, Dune will be the coming of a god. I wanted to make something sacred, free, with new perspective. Open the mind!” 

Pavich's documentary is plump with delectable insights into the alchemy involved in imagining and creating a film. The genesis was pure happenstance. After a friend praised Frank Herbert's best-selling sci-fi novel, Dune, Jodo pounced, declaring that this would be his next movie! Had he read Herbert's book? Well, no, Jodo confessed, but that was a mere detail. 

Jodorowsky details how he assembled his eccentric team of selected artistic "warriors"—ranging from costume designers and stage artists to an eclectic cast that was to including Mick Jagger, David Carradine, Orson Wells, and Salvador Dali. (The stories of wooing Wells with food and stroking Dali's prickly ego are delightful additions to Hollywood history.) Jodorowsky even recruited Pink Floyd to score the film. 

In order to promote the film to prospective studios, Jodo's team published a massive "Dune Book." A foot-thick tome that must have topped 20 pounds, it contained complete costume paintings and detailed storyboards for the entire shoot, first scene to last. The artwork was produced by France's Jean "Moebius" Giraud and Denmark's HR Giger, two rock stars from the world of underground comics and graphic novels. Thanks to Pavich, we get to see many of the surviving "warriors" wax nostalgic as they revisit an experience that consumed several years of their lives. 

Once the book (quite possibly Hollywood's largest-ever promotional package) was shipped off to the major studios, Jodo's optimistic crew had begun scouting locations in North Africa. It looked like years of preparation were about to pay off. 

But then it all fell wrenchingly apart. Studio after studio backed off, unwilling to entrust corporate bounty to such a wild spirit. In an eleventh hour switcheroo, Dino DeLaurentis' daughter somehow got involved and "Jodo" lost control of his "life's work." The project was taken out of his hands and given to David Lynch. Naturally, this was a major trauma for Jodo. All these years later, the pain is still evident. 

Lynch's attempt to do Dune was judged a critical disaster (an outcome that Jodo recalls with undisguised relish). 

There's a happy ending. Two, actually. 

With the ingenious assist of Emmy Award nominated computer animator Syd Garon, Pavich manages to bring several of the storyboards to life, providing a glimpse of what Jodorowsky's Dune might have looked like—complete with insect-winged aircraft darting over deserts as gargantuan dune snakes erupted from the sands to wreak devastation. 

As to the second happy ending: In the course of filming this documentary, Fran Pavich put Jodorowsky on the same Paris bench with Michel Seydoux, his old French producer. They got to talking and, despite not having been in touch for more than two decades, their passions reignited. As a result, Jodorowsky's first new film in 23 years—"La Danza de la Realidad" (The Dance of Reality)—which premiered to raves at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. 

Bonus clip: 

Cut Scene - Death of Thufir Hawat  

From the David Lynch film version of Dune. 


Rated PG-13 

Opens March 28, Embarcadero, SF. 

Opens April 4, Shattuck Cinema, Berkeley