In every generation of movie moguls, there’s always one project which is both feared & revered as a sort of cinematic ‘white whale’: The one story which is considered ‘unfilmable’… until someone finally films it.
For this current generation the white whale was The Lord of the Rings, until Peter Jackson & Weta brought Middle Earth to life. But before the Tolkien trilogy there was the futuristic universe conceived by Frank Herbert in his lauded Dune saga. The race to film Dune began as early as 1971, and eventually culminated in the 1984 film directed by David Lynch & produced by Dino De Laurentiis, which received poor reviews & flopped in the US box office.
If there was one person who was happy at Lynch’s failure though, that was surely filmmaker/Tarot card reader/psycho-mage Alejandro Jodorowsky; for it was he who struggled with the Dune whale – or should we say worm? – since 1974, when a French consortium led by Jean-Paul Gibon purchased the rights to the movie and chose him as director.
If you’ve ever seen one of Jodorowsky’s films – El Topo, Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre – then you’re more than aware that his is not exactly the most conventional approach to movie-making. The Chilean artist could very well be referred as one of the last surrealists, and for his version of Dune he was clearly seeking something more than a typical Sci-Fi blockbuster – back in the pre-Lucas days when there wasn’t even such a thing!
Rather than an adaptation, his re-imagination of Dune would be nothing short of a complete psychedelic & mystical journey.
For starters, Jodorowsky intended to seriously deviate from Herbert’s original story, since in his eyes all artists are nothing but ‘conduits’ by which the artistic piece chooses to manifest into this world:
There is an artist, only one in the medium of a million other artists, which only once in his life, by a species of divine grace, receives an immortal topic, a MYTH… I say “receives” and not “creates” because the works of art its received in a state of mediumnity directly of the unconscious collective. Work exceeds the artist and to some extent, it kills it because humanity, by receiving the impact of the Myth, has a major need to erase the individual who received it and transmitted: its individual personality obstructs, stains the purity of the message which, of its base, requires to be anonymous… We know whom created the cathedral of Notre-Dame, neither the Aztec solar calendar, neither the tarot of Marseilles, nor the myth of Don Juan, etc.
Jodorowsky wanted Pink Floyd to compose the soundtrack(!) and he intended the movie to last 10 hours(!!); he also sought the help of high-caliber illustrators & designers to help him concrete his vision: He hired French artist Jean Giraud – better known among comics fans as Moebius – who was in charge of character design, British sci-Fi illustrator Chris Foss for the design of the various space-ships, and an obscure Swiss painter, sculptor and designer by the name of H.R. Giger, who was asked to create the backgrounds and settings for the Harkonnen world of Geidi Prime.
Lastly, Jodorowsky wanted a truly unique cast to give life to the characters. And who better to play the part of the Emperor of the Universe than the Emperor of the Art World himself, Salvador Dalí? Dali accepted, on the condition that he’d be paid the obscene sum of US$100,000 per hour – it’s not that he was that desperate for money, the ‘maestro’ simply wanted to go into history as the most expensive actor of all time.
Alas, after 2 years of intense conceptualization – and some intense fights with Dali! – the whole thing fell apart faster than the fall of the House Atreides. The movie rights were sold, and the world was devoid of the chance to see Dali taking a dump on a throne/toilet made up of two intersected dolphins.
Dune’s loss was somehow a strange blessing, as several of the artists involved went on to take part in other equally important projects: After De Laurentiis secured the movie rights for Dune, he initially hired Ridley Scott as director; however, after 7 months Scott abandoned the project, but not before taking an eye on Giger’s work though… which would prove instrumental for the movie he’s perhaps most famous for: Alien.
I personally think Jodorowsky made a grave mistake in conceiving Dune as a live action motion picture. If he had made an animation film instead, making Moebius’s gorgeous illustrations come to life, then perhaps the project would have been completed – somehow I suspect Jodorowsky realized this as well, which is perhaps why he later decided to partner with Moebius for the creation of their critically acclaimed graphic novels The Incal.
So, is that it? Are Alien and The Incal the only glimpse we’ll ever have of Alejandro’s white whale? Not quite: A new documentary titled Jodorowsky’s Dune, directed by Frank Pavich, will give us a rare glimpse into one of cinema’s greatest “what ifs”: The vision, the drive & the madness behind the movie that never was.