How sci-fi film history could’ve been very different
by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


filmJodorowsky’s Dune
May 8-11
RPL Film Theatre

About 20 years ago, I was an eager college student in Santiago, Chile. I was running late for a class when I ran into Alejandro Jodorowsky, the foremost surrealist filmmaker this side of Luis Buñuel. The director of El Topo and The Holy Mountain was hosting an impromptu master class open to everyone. Those listening seemed mesmerized by Jodo’s war stories. I should have stayed, but I didn’t.

I can’t remember the class I was in such a hurry to get to, but to this day I regret missing Jodorowsky’s lecture.

Jodorowsky’s Dune takes full advantage of the Chilean’s storytelling abilities. Before David Lynch and Dino de Laurentiis, Jodo was the one with the rights to tackle Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune. In 1974, the last great surrealist put together a dream team to bring the film adaptation to fruition: Moebius, David Carradine, Dan O’Bannon and H.G. Giger were all committed. Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí were expected to portray the warring emperors. Pink Floyd was set to do the soundtrack. It was going to be wonderful.

But Jodo came up short and Hollywood refused to pony up the rest of the budget (about $15 million). All that remains of the project is a stunning book filled with designs and detailed storyboards by the most avant-garde artists of the ’70s.

Jodorowsky’s Dune chronicles this magnificent fiasco, with testimonies of the man himself, some of his associates and a few of his devotees — including director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive), who would love to adapt one of Jodo’s unproduced scripts.

I had the opportunity to talk to the director of Jodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich, during last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival. The filmmaker — a pleasant individual in the intense world of documentarians — dedicated three years on this movie.

Did you know Jodorowsky before you started this movie?

I knew his films, but not him personally. I reached out to him completely out of the blue, as a fan. Told him I read what he wanted to do with Dune and I thought it would be a great story to share. Not only he is a great storyteller, but all the material is there, ready to have life breathed into it. The artwork is contained in a book that sits on his shelf. How does the world get to see it? Let’s put it into a film, and let’s have him walk us through it.

Did he lend you the book to digitalize?

He wouldn’t, because it’s too rare, but Michel Seydoux – the would-be producer of Dune — has all the original storyboards. We had access to them, all hand-drawn by Moebius. We scanned each image and turned it into a hi-res file to pass it to our animator. In the film, you can see the paper texture, the human touch, everything is there. Yet Jodorowsky is so fascinating, you could just have him talking. Every day films collapse, but it’s rare to have 3,000 images, a team of artists that worked for two years, complete casting and a special effects person on board. They were ready to go.

I found interesting that among your interviewees, Gary Kurtz (the producer of Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back) becomes the voice of the industry and in some ways the villain of the piece.

I really appreciate Kurtz’ taste and sensibility. After Empire, he didn’t like the direction Lucas was going, didn’t care for the Ewoks. He wanted to kill Han Solo. He is the voice of the industry, but also the voice of what happened with science fiction after Dune collapsed and Star Wars changed the scope of everything.

I wasn’t aware Nicolas Winding Refn was such a fan.

And Jodorowsky is a huge fan of him. He practically christened Refn as his spiritual filmmaking godson. In turn, Refn dedicated Drive and Only God Forgives to Jodorowsky. He wants people to recognize Jodo as a great artist.

How did the failure of Dune affect Jodorowsky’s career?

I don’t think it broke him, but it changed the path. When Dune collapsed, he started working in French comic books. It’s a huge industry, I wasn’t even aware until I went to Paris: Big books, hard cover, very expensive. Jodo is also a psycho-magician therapist, a painter, a poet… Just because he doesn’t make a film in 20 years, it doesn’t mean he’s not creating. He never, ever stops.

At some point in the film, the camera pans over Jodorowsky’s unmade scripts. Sons of El Topo catches one’s attention immediately.

He tried to make it and he couldn’t get the funding. Same happened with King Shot, another surrealistic western: It was going to be produced by David Lynch, starring Marilyn Manson. Now he wants to adapt his [and Moebius’] comic book, The Incal, with Nicolas Winding Refn.

In fact, he told me he wanted to give Sons of El Topo to Refn. He thinks it’s perfect for him: It has Mexican gangsters and is set in the desert.