“For me, Dune will be the coming of a god. I wanted to make something sacred, free, with new perspective. Open the mind!” ~Alejandro Jodorowsky
The Incredibly Strange section of the NZ International Film Festival is always worth a look. You never know what oddity you might find in the selection of films, but you can be sure that it will break the rules of traditional cinema and be a mind-bending experience. When I saw Jodorowsky’s Dune on this years list I was instantly intrigued – surely it didn’t mean that Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of the famously bizarre films El Topo and The Holy Mountain, had intended to make Frank Herbert’s genre defining novel into a film? And if this really was the case, how had I never heard about it?
Well, it turns out that Jodorowsky’s Dune is possibly the most famous film never made. This documentary of its short almost-life, and the repercussions that it has had on the film industry since then is one of the best films I have seen all year.
Since Dune’s publication in 1965, it has been considered one of the best books ever written in science fiction, and even those who dispute that can’t deny the impact it had on the genre. It has won both the Hugo and the Nebula, and been remade into a film and a mini series. However the most interesting of its adaptations is the one that never made it to the screen – Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune.
When Jodorowsky – affectionately called Jodo throughout the documentary – first conceptualised the film, he hadn’t even read the book. His intention was never to stay true to the plot but rather to be inspired by it and create a unique masterpiece based on Herbert’s work. More important to Jodorowsky than following a formula was that he found like-minded “spiritual warriors” for the film, people who worked with passion and wanted to make art rather than money. Somehow, through a combination of charisma, genius, and sheer determination, he collected an incredible team of people. The on-screen presence would have been outstanding, had the film been completed – Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, David Carradine, Gloria Swanson all signed on, and even Salvaor Dali himself was to be the Emperor of the Universe. Pink Floyd were committed to the soundtrack, but from a film/art perspective it was the behind-the-scenes workers who were truly stellar. Dan O’Bannon, Chris Foss, H.R Giger and Moebius all were deeply involved with the film, and when everything fell apart they went on to have huge roles in the creation of films such as Star Wars, Total Recall, Alien, and Prometheus.
Jodorowsky’s passion is clear from the moment he begins to speak. This, much like other Incredibly Strange films, is not a man to whom the usual rules seem to apply. He clearly lives in a world of his own, and for 88 minutes we – the audience – are drawn into this bizarre world. The most jarring moments in this vivid documentary are not, in fact, the parts where the strangest elements of Jodo’s film-making are shown (and anyone familiar with this director will know how strange that is). Even when he talks about the lengths he was willing to go to to make Dune, including putting his son through two years of intensive martial arts training and saying, quite honestly, “if I need to cut my arms in order to make that picture, I will cut my arms. I was even ready to die doing that.” – these moments make sense in his world. No, the most jarring moments are when the more traditional film industries collide with Jodo’s vision, when the Hollywood film studios turn down Dune because of the risks involved, when things such as “profit” and “feasibility” are mentioned.
It is no spoiler to say that Dune was given to another director, and that the eventual film was far removed from the Dune described in this documentary (though possibly more true to the source material). The heartbreak felt by the crew was immense, and Jodorowsky gave up film-making altogether to focus on comics with French Dune artist Moebius, though it is mentioned at the end of the documentary that last year Jodo once agained joined forces with French producer and long-time collaborator Michel Seydoux to create the autobiographical film The Dance of Reality.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is beautifully put together, combining interviews with people who worked with Jodorowsky, archival footage and even beautifully animated pieces of the original storyboard, which we get glimpses into as we are shown through Jodorowsky’s immense screenplay/book, lovingly collecting every piece of conceptual work from the film’s production. The film may have never made it to screen, but this book and this script circled through Hollywood and inspired many of the past century’s most iconic films: Star Wars, Blade Runner, Alien, The Matrix, to name a few. It is hard not to leave Dune’s world without feeling inspired, despite the outcome. To watch any artist with the passion documented here cannot help but inspire the same passion in others, and it truly shows that sometimes success does not always come from completion but rather the attempt and the process. A must-see film for anyone interested in science-fiction, art, film-making or simply in the creative act.