The Inside Story of One of the Greatest Movie Failures of All Time

Legendary director Alejando Jodorowsky's Dune has built up a multi-decade reputation as a great production that never was. Now, thanks to Frank Pavich's documentary on the subject, we can see as complete a picture as possible of what could have been—a brilliantly insane undertaking.

Jodorowsky's Dune is structured as a series of wildly amusing anecdotes about eccentric famous people. The doc tells the story of legendary director (sorry, make that Kanye West-approved legendary director) Alejandro Jodorowsky's attempt to adapt Frank Herbert's towering feat of imagination, the sci-fi novel Dune, into not just a movie but a Jodorowsky movie.

Flying high off the acclaim of his 1973 masterpiece, The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky's envisioned Dune film took considerable creative license and assembled an all-star team to ensure this would be one of the most insane undertakings in cinema history. Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, and the incomparable Amanda Lear were attached to star. H.R. Giger and Mœbius worked on design. Dan O'Bannon (Alien) was to handle special effects. Pink Floyd were to contribute to the score.

Jodorowsky storyboarded the entire movie, had a slew of conceptual art made, and shopped his movie around Hollywood in vain—it didn't secure adequate funding and a Dune movie seemed flat-out impossible until legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis' snapping up of the rights led to David Lynch's much-derided (though still plenty charming) 1984 flop adaptation.

The film about the film is surprisingly triumphant and joyous, due in no small part to the enthusiastic recollections of its primary subject, Alejandro Jodorowsky. I discussed the making of Jodorowsky's Dune, in theaters today, with its director, Frank Pavich via Skype. Below is an edited version of our chat.

Gawker: How did you come to make this movie?

Frank Pavich: There's a couple of books out like The Top 50 Greatest Movies Never Made. That kind of stuff. But those books only have a page or two per all the would-have-beens and could-have-beens like the Tom Selleck version of Raiders of the Lost Ark or the Richard Dreyfuss version of Total Recall and all sorts of weird alternate-universe possibilities. [Jodorowsky's Dune] was always the coolest one. This one's always the most, you know, the craziest. And then I saw a documentary about Jodorowsky called Constellation, and it goes through his whole life and there's a good five-minute section on there where he's talking about Dune and he pulls out this bound book [of all the progress he made on Dune]. It's like, what the hell's that? Once you kind of learn a little about it, you just want to learn more and more.

Was Jodorowsky easy to get in contact with? Was he approachable?

He was not. It took a little while for me to find him, I have to say. I [eventually] went to Paris [where Jodorowsky lives], and it was a very short meeting the first time, and just kind of sat down with him, told him what I wanted to do. I guess I was obviously enthusiastic about it. He was into it. What's interesting about him is he never asked, "Who are you? And what have you done before?" Never. To this day. He has no idea if I've ever made anything else, what's going on, he just said, "OK." And I don't know. I wonder why, to this day. I think a certain part of him thought that we would never complete the film.

Do you have any theories, or do you know for sure, why it took 40 years to tell this story this completely?

It's shocking, because it's not a terribly original idea. Our first shoot with him was in February 2011. In January 2011, I found out about two other documentaries that were going to be based on the same subject that were trying to get made. So that was three of us at exactly the same time. I can't imagine that we were the first three. Maybe the other people got intimidated, or they couldn't reach him, or I don't know, any number of reasons. But it is shocking that it took this long to tell. In that kind of Jodorowskian thing, maybe that's how it was meant to be, you know? This is the perfect time for it. And the way everything kind of coincided, and him and [producer] Michel Seydoux being estranged for so long, and we kind of just happened to get them together and hey! We got a new Jodorowsky movie [The Dance of Reality, to be released later this year] out of it!

Is there anything specific about the concept of spectacular failure that interests you?

Of course. To really reach for the highest level and not making it, that's a fascinating story. One of the things that originally struck me was, here's this guy, he spent two years trying to adapt this book, and he doesn't get to do it. But then a bunch of years later, somebody else comes and gets to do it. I mean, what is that? What's that like? I cannot imagine what it was like when he first heard that David Lynch was going to adapt Dune.

The ultimate conclusion in your film is that Hollywood was too afraid of Jodorowsky's creativity to co-sign his vision for Dune. And I wonder if there are any alternate explanations. I mean, maybe people saw what he was offering and legitimately thought, "Oh, no, this isn't going to work." Or, "This is going to suck."

Oh, sure! I mean, first of all, you have to think of the time period. There's nothing to compare it to. When George Lucas and company were making Star Wars, Fox thought it was the biggest piece of shit ever. They thought it was stupid, you know. "Oh, merchandising? You can keep those merchandising rights. This movie's going to be worth nothing, no one's going to buy any toys," you know. There was nothing. Pre-Star Wars, there was nothing to compare it to. So here comes this crazy Chilean guy from France with this giant book of storyboards and a crazy cast and wants to make this insane 1,000-page book into a movie. "Oh, and you want to see my previous work? Yeah, it's called The Holy Mountain." And I'm sure that the studios had no idea what to make of it.

What was it like to spend the time you did with Jodorowsky to make this movie? How is he as a human being?

We did interviews with him in 2011, 2012, 2013 – and it was fine. It was a little bit removed. We weren't exactly friends. Because I think, again, he was like, "I don't know who this is going to be. Who are you, coming into my house all the time? You're annoying me. You're making this movie. Come on, make the movie, finish it up."

On our first trip to Paris in 2011 for the interviews, we sat with him three times, plus we shot with him when we reunited him with Michel. I've been to his house several more times to go over things and stuff like that. So there was all this communication, seeing him, interviews, emails back and forth. At the end of the last interview with him on that first trip, we had a very small crew and we each had something we'd like him to sign. I had this big hardcover copy of the complete Incal [a comic book series Jodorowsky wrote]. I was like, "Oh, would you mind signing this?" And he's like, "Sure." And he sits down, he opens it up, and he takes out his pen, and he looks at me and he goes, "What was your name again?" Any amount of ego that I may have had in that moment was completely destroyed.

Did you try reaching out to David Lynch?

You know, we thought about it, but it would kind of be weird. If bothered him and got him to agree to do an interview and then, in the film that he'd so graciously given his time for, we have the main subject of the film talking about how horrible his film is, that just felt disingenuous. I don't want to be that guy.

Have you received any backlash from Dune purists?

Very little. Out of all the festivals, we screened in so many festivals so far, and out of all the festivals, only one time did someone have anything negative to say. And it was at Cannes, at our premiere screening. I was like, "Oh, God, is this how it's always going to go?" One guy stood up, and his question was, "How do you feel about being part of the continual rape of Frank Herbert? And I was like, "I don't think that that's exactly the case." I kind of made my case, and then the whole time he was just shaking his head, shaking his head. And then when I was done answering he turned around and stormed off.

The way Jodorowsky puts it is that he raped Frank Herbert "…but with love."

I think that Jodo has a good point: everything is different. Every work of art is different. A book is not a movie, is not a painting, is not a poem. You can't make an exact version. But also, you know, a Dune movie that would be true to your experience with the book is totally different than would be my experience or that person's experience or your English teacher's experience. A book is so completely subjective. An experience of reading a book, what is a true representation of that? And there was a part in the interview that we did not use with Jodo, a little clip where he says, you look at plays and there's different adaptations of ballets, of Swan Lake or Hamlet or whatever. And it's always different adaptations but it's always the same masterwork. But everybody does it differently. He says that's exactly what Dune was. "I made my version of Dune." Coming from Herbert's version, but it was his own vision, his own creation. And that's what I think Frank Herbert would have wanted.