BY BRIAN BELAK
The 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, showing at Doc Films at the University of Chicago on Saturday, August 2, is an account of the greatest sci-fi movie never made, or at least, that’s what it wants you to come out believing.
The story goes that in 1973, fresh off the success of surrealist hit The Holy Mountain, director Alejandro Jodorowsky embarked on the major project of adapting Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel Dune to the screen. With the idea that his film could change humanity, Jodorowsky assembled a team of “spiritual warriors” – artists, visual effects specialists, musicians, actors – and began developing the storyboards and script. However, when it came time to actually sell the movie to get it made, no studio wanted it, and Jodorowsky’s Dune died unrealized.
What’s most interesting about the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune is the level of mythmaking involved in building up the movie that could have been. From the very start of the movie, an energetic Jodorowsky, now 84, holds fast his belief in the grandeur of his Dune, saying it would have been a “god” and something “sacred.” It doesn’t take long before a string of talking heads – including Dune producer Michel Seydoux, directors Nicolas Winding Refn and Richard Stanley, film critic Devin Faraci, and Dune designer Chris Foss – chime in agreement. One muses, what would the world be like if Jodorowsky’s Dune had been the first big sci-fi movie instead of Star Wars?
As it turns out, by the end, it’s no longer necessary to wonder that question, as the documentary posits that even the concept art of Jodorowky’s Dune was so influential that it shaped the development of all sci-fi movies to come afterwards. Juxtaposing Dune art with similar scenes in other movies, the thread of Dune is shown to spread through everything from Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark to Flash Gordon and Masters of the Universe. In fact, the four core artists on Dune moved on to make Alien together in 1979, considered one of the greatest sci-fi movies made.
In between the brief introductory history of Jodorowsky’s career and this final claim to Dune’s longevity lies the meat of the Jodorowsky’s Dune: the story of how Jodorowsky got as far as he did into making the movie. Before taking on the project, Jodorowsky had never actually read the book (only trusting a friend that it was good), so the first step involved immersing himself in the script and seeking a “spiritual meaning” inside the novel.
With the script completed, Jodorowsky then recounts his step-by-step process finding his “spiritual warriors” to realize his vision. In his agent’s office, Jodorowsky bumps into cartoonist Jean “Moebius” Giraud, whom he hires to draw storyboards. After a fruitless visit with 2001: A Space Odyssey special effects artist Douglas Trumbull, Jodorowsky wanders into a cinema showing Dark Star and hires its writer and effects designer Dan O’Bannon. Soon after, the whole art team also includes sci-fi book cover illustrator Chris Foss and surrealist painter H.R. Giger, all producing concept art and designs that the documentary lovingly shows off in all their brilliance.
The process of collecting the actors to play in the film is no less fantastic. To play the lead role of Paul Atreides, Jodorowsky enrolls his son Brontis in a strict training regimen of various martial arts. After a strange deal that involves agreeing to pay a large sum of money per minute of screen time, Jodorowsky then secures Salvador Dali to play the emperor. A chance encounter with Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones gets another actor on board, and finally, Jodorowsky succeeds in hiring his idol, Orson Welles, after bribing him with wine and the promise of gourmet food on set.
Each story of collecting another piece of the puzzle becomes more and more outlandish that it becomes a little hard to imagine everything playing out the way Jodorowsky describes – another element of the mythmaking building up his Dune. However, the veracity of Jodorowsky’s descriptions ends up unimportant, as the main point is that this is the way Jodorowsky fondly remembers it all happening. Just as his Dune was truly his, Jodorowsky’s Dune is truly Jodorowsky’s Jodorowsky’s Dune.
Jodorowsky’s Dune loves imagining the immense scale and possibility underlying the project so much that its becomes a bit of a weakness when recounting what happened when it came time to actually sell the movie. The general opinion of everyone interviewed seems to be that Jodorowsky was misunderstood by the movie studios who wouldn’t let him pursue his great vision, but it’s more than likely that had Jodorowsky’s Dune actually been made, it would have been a mess and failed upon release, just like David Lynch’s mid-80s adaptation (which Jodorowsky takes great delight in describing as “terrible”). As long as it lives only in concept, the myth of Jodorowsky’s Dune can only grow in power and potential.
For more information about Doc Films, visit docfilms.uchicago.edu.