Jodorowsky’s “Dune”: The 70s Hallucinatory Fever Dream That Never Was

By on April 2, 2015

The documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune tells the story behind Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ambitious but abandoned plans in 1974 to film his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune.

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Director Alejandro Jodorowsky in his study with his Dune storyboard tome.

David Lynch eventually directed his version of Dune, in 1984, and it failed pretty spectacularly, but Jodorowsky had planned to do his more than a decade earlier.

In the film’s trailer, Jodorowsky says “I wanted to make a film that would give the people who took LSD the hallucinations that you get with that drug, but without hallucinating. My ambition with Dune was tremendous. I want to create a prophet, to change the young minds of all the world.”

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By 1974, Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky had already directed two masterpieces of cult cinema – El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Both films are hallucinatory fever dreams filled with nudity, violence, Eastern mysticism and pungently surreal images. Jodorowsky himself is what they call in Los Angeles a spiritual wanderer. He threw himself into every variety of religious experience that he could – from shamanism to the Kabbalah to hallucinogens. In preparation for shooting Holy Mountain, the director and his wife reportedly went without sleep for a week while under the care of a Zen master. Not surprisingly, leading figures of the counterculture were big fans. John Lennon personally kicked in a million dollars to finance his movies. When French producers asked Jodorowsky to adapt Dune, he was at the peak of his prestige.

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The back story for Jodorowsky’s Dune is incredible:

Jodorowsky: I needed a precise script… I wanted to carry out film on paper before filming it… These days all films with special effects are done as that, but at the time this technique was not used. I wanted a draughtsman of comic strips who has the genius and the speed, who can be used as a camera and who gives at the same time a visual style… I was by chance with my second warrior: Jean Giraud alias Moebius. I say to him: “If you accept this work, you must all give up and leave tomorrow with me to Los Angeles to speak with Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey)”.

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Moebius asked for a few hours to think about it. The following day, we left for the United States. It would take too a long time to tell… Our collaboration, our meetings in America with the strange ones illuminated and our conversations at seven o’clock in the morning in the small coffee which was in bottom of our workshops and which by “chance” was called Café the Universe. Giraud made 3000 drawings, all marvelous… The script of Dune, thanks to his talent, is a masterpiece. One can see living the characters; one follows the movements of camera. One visualizes cutting, the decorations, the costumes…”

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From The New York Times last year: “With the backing of a young French oil heir named Michel Seydoux, Jodorowsky worked feverishly for two years, creating storyboards with a team of artists and assembling a cast that included David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí (who insisted on a salary of $100,000 per minute of screen time). Pink Floyd and the French prog-rock band Magma signed on to provide scores for two of the warring planets. After burning through more than $2 million of Seydoux’s money and never shooting a frame, Jodorowsky could not find additional backing. While he believed his Dune would mark the arrival of an ‘artistical, cinematographical god,’ Hollywood saw a money pit.”

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H.R. Giger

The doc’s director Frank Pavich enumerates the many ways that Jodorowsky’s unmade Dune had a huge impact even thought it wasn’t lensed — the swordfights in Star Wars, the cyborg POV in The Terminator, the galaxy-spanning opening shot of Contact — all were prefigured in the massive Dune storyboard book that circulated through studio suites in the mid-1970s.

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Jodorowsky’s Dune includes interviews with Jodorowsky, H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, Michel Seydoux, and the surviving original team, the production heads to the U.S. to conduct interviews with industry executives, filmmakers and film critics who help to put the vision of Jodorowsky’s Dune film into perspective.

Writer Dan O’Bannon and visual consultants Chris Foss, Jean Moebius Giraud, and H.R. Giger all went on to work on 1979’s Alien, directed by Ridley Scott.

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Recently, there was some initial excitement when an eBay auction listed what was “assumed” to be an “early draft” of Jodorwrsky’s Dune script. We ended up feeling apprehensive, because based on what the drawings looked like, we didn’t think the quality matched what we were seeing in the documentary.

The listing’s description said this (typos included): It is NOT the “phone book size” script as seen in the documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” but appears to be an earlier/shorter version. There are about 300 pages in total, including illustrations. While the script mostly resembles the plot of the book, there are some obvious, distinctly Jodorowsky-ian touches – like Jessica’s remembering being inseminated with a drop of blood, the Emperor’s strange upside-down throne room, the weird dog-alien framing device (see photos above), the Emperor’s statue with a slide emerging from it’s anus, Pardot Kynes’ revelation about the nature of the spice, Jessica’s trial by the Water of Life (seemingly administered by enema), etc.

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The following was written up over at John Coulhart’s wonderful feuilleton blog:

Currently racking up the bids at eBay (again) is an early draft of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s script for his ill-fated film of Dune. Aside from some diverting glimpses of dialogue and plot elaboration, what’s most interesting about the draft is the character and scene sketches, some of which are sampled below. I’ve still not seen the documentary about the unmade film so I can’t say whether any of these have appeared in public before but if they have they’re new to me. No artist is credited but the naive style rules out both Moebius and HR Giger (who arrived late to the project in any case). Best bet is either Jodorowsky himself—in 1967 he was writing and illustrating a comic strip, Fabulas Panicas—or Jodorowsky’s colleague from the Panic Movement days, Roland Topor. In the early 70s Topor was working with René Laloux on the animated SF film Fantastic Planet.

However, there was an update from Jodorowsky himself, who posted a comment on Twitter saying “it’s a fake script with stupid drawings.” Back to the drawing board.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • JoeS

    Not only one of the best Documentaries of last year, but, one of the best movies period. Doesn’t just wonderfully tell the tale of the unmade DUNE, but, it says a lot about the tension between art and commerce. It also serves as a wonderful tribute to Jodorowsky himself – with the maestro taking center stage to boot.

    I think you might deduce that I highly recommend it.