The Story Behind the Greatest Movie Never Made

by David Thomson | March 20, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune (directed by Frank Pavich)

photo credit: Sony Picture Classics

Anyone who goes to the movies too much gets to know the feeling: You’re looking at a preview for coming attractions; you take it for granted that the preview is a grab-bag of lies and half-truths; but you suspect it is better or more suggestive than the whole, finished film you are about to sit through. That’s a problem with so many films: They’re finished before they begin. The smothering process of orderly progression has killed the dream. So the makers wrote a script and then they rewrote it; they cast and recast; they made the sets and costumes; they rehearsed until they knew it by heart. They shot the script, take after take, all carefully numbered so that the editing would be more efficient. It all worked, like clockwork—but that may be better for clocks than for movies.

Do I really believe all this, or hasn’t every critic sometimes begged the unrestrained vanity and prodigal impulsiveness of filmmakers to be more sensible? Well, yes, of course, common sense can be irresistible if you’re living in a madhouse. But common sense can be crushing, too. Case in point, Un Chien Andalou, made in 1929 by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, is savagely unordered and piercingly crazy. I think I’d rather see it tonight than the most sensible films of 1929.

And Dalí is a segue. In 1974, more or less, Alejandro Jodorowsky thought of making a movie of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune. Jodorowsky, Chilean by birth, had made El Topo in 1970, a surreal Western, which had become a favorite midnight movie in many parts of the world. It is “unforgettable”, though I have forgotten it; it is “spectacularly cinematic”, and I suspect it is awful. Never mind, no society has ever imposed a law banning awful films.

Somehow or other, Jodo had got hold of several million dollars of new budget. He talked of casting Dalí, David Carradine, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles in the film, and they all said “yes”, as if that meant very much. Saying “yes” is like I love you, without a deal. More practically he hired a number of graphic artists (Chris Foss, Moebius and H.R. Giger) and they accumulated a huge collection of artwork—fantastical, beautiful but expensive to make—that made up the book or storyboard for the film. It was all there, on paper, said Jodo. But when the financiers saw this plan and spent a few minutes talking to the hugely charming, effusively creative but head-in-the-clouds Jodorowsky, they turned all sensible. The film was killed. The rights to Dune moved on, and in a few years the property was made by Dino de Laurentiis, with David Lynch directing. What joy, says Jodo, to find that even the very talented Lynch had made a terrible film out of Dune.

A few years ago, Frank Pavich had the clever idea of making a documentary about “Jodorowsky’s Dune” under the rubric of “The greatest movie never made.” I’m sure he was inspired in this by the fact that Jodo, in his early 80s, with bright white hair, was still a volcano of ideas. He has made other movies over the years and he may have done his best work in the field of graphic novels. The film interviews the artists, his money man, Paul Seydoux, and a few others, though not the several actors who had agreed to appear. The documentary is vivid, vigorous, and fun, and it’s just 90 minutes, whereas Jodo’s version of Dune threatened to be four hours. One reason for that could have been that amid his torrential enthusiasm Jodo never seems to have got round to reading Dune. He’s cheerful about that shortcoming, for it matches his defense of his Dune—that you can’t see it!

This may come close to absurdity, but in an age when so many films—dull and delightful—are available (if seldom in the form of projected film), the lost or unmade films can acquire a special charm. Von Stroheim’s Greed is such a case, brilliant and pioneering, but kept alive by the fact that we have barely a quarter of what Stroheim intended. Then there is The Magnificent Ambersons, deprived of forty golden minutes from Orson Welles. And Jodorowsky’s Dune, which may have finally found its perfect form in Pavich’s documentary. For myself, I could have taken a lot more reporting on the money, on how it arose and then vanished. Moreover, it’s not clear how the rights to Herbert’s book moved around. It would be sweet indeed to hear Welles, Jagger and Dalí recollecting what they can of meeting Jodo—or not. He says he kept bumping into these casting coups with sublime luck. But I suspect he’s a man who has a very articulate explanation of why there is really no such thing as a lie.

The documentary makes another point. Jodo’s Dune storyboard undoubtedly circulated in Hollywood in 1975. As you may recall, that was just before the dawn of a great age of science fiction movies, not least the enterprise known as Star Wars. Pavich makes some telling cuts from moments in that film to drawings in Jodo’s big book. More to the point, a young man engaged by Jodo for special effects was Dan O’Bannon, who a few years later became the story source and screenwriter for Alien, the Ridley Scott movie that also delivered a lot of the drawings Giger had done for Jodo. O’Bannon is dead now, but the film has his widow and his voice on tape, and it all testifies to the remarkable ways in which “influence” can operate in the movie world.

It comes to this: I suspect that I would have lapsed into merciful sleep at some point in a four-hour Dune, but I had a very good time with Pavich’s documentary and I believe in its magical vision—that one day the dream of movies will be so radiant that we do not really need to make them. Wasn’t it Jorge Luis Borges who once offered a collection of reports on books never written—or am I imagining that?

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