Fantastic Fest Review: JODOROWSKY’S DUNE Makes Tragedy Uplifting

A documentary about the greatest science fiction film never made. 

99% of documentaries about films follow a pretty standard template: we start with a roundup of all the participants offering a cryptic or jokey comment about the film as a whole, then dip into the project's genesis, pre-production, shooting, post and finally the aftermath - if it's a beloved film, everyone talks about how great it is to be a part of something so legendary. And if it's a bomb/cult film, they talk about that with a sense of pride. But what if the movie never even got made?

Such is the case with Jodorowsky's Dune, an account of cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky's ambitious attempt to film Frank Herbert's classic novel in 1975 that sadly never even got into the set-building stage. Unlike some other "film that fell apart" docs such as Terry Gilliam's Lost In La Mancha, which includes on-set filming and even a bit of footage, Jodorowsky and his band of "warriors" sadly never got that far. After putting together a Bible-sized screenplay/storyboard package and agreements for most of the cast and crew, Jodorowsky hit a major hurdle: no studio wanted to pony up the final five million dollars (of an estimated fifteen) as long as he was the director.

At this point I should note that I know very little about Jodorowsky's films; I saw part of El Topo at a party and know that his movies will never be playing in multiplexes, and that's about it. But the doc does a great job of getting newcomers like myself up to speed - a few clips from Topo and Holy Mountain (one featuring Jesus Christ passing gold excrement) are enough for us to understand why a studio might be hesitant to stand behind him with a huge (for 1975) budget, especially for such a strange property at a time when sci-fi films weren't exactly in vogue - this was two years before Star Wars would change the genre forever.

Because the irony is, Jodorowsky may have been the perfect choice for Dune, which is nearly incomprehensible anyway. Our own Devin Faraci is on hand to sum up the story for non-readers, and I found myself getting lost even in his 30 second description - and I should note I've seen the eventual version directed by David Lynch (and part of the later Syfy Channel attempt). There are certainly elements of traditional hero-centric science fiction involved - a "chosen one" leading his people, giant monsters (sandworms), a villain with a penchant for wearing ridiculous headgear - but even the most commercial-minded filmmaker might have trouble turning the whole story into a "traditional" big screen crowd-pleaser. And even if he did, the sheer length would still be an issue - another issue on which Jodorowsky had no interest in compromising ("It could be 12 hours! Who cares?").

So basically the film is a full length version of that first act of the usual movie doc, and in place of the production we are treated to animated versions of the storyboards that were put together by Chris Foss. Interestingly (and hilariously), Foss is one of many people that Jodorowsky put together that never actually read the book - including Jodorowsky himself. After the success and acclaim of his first two films, producer Michel Seydoux asked him what he'd like to do next, giving him free reign to choose his project, and Alejandro, a sci-fi fanatic, chose Dune based solely on the recommendation of his friends. Casting choices, design work, etc all get more time than they would had the film ever been made, offering the viewer a thorough look at this process that they're not usually afforded.

What I loved about the doc was how little of it was spent on "woe is me" material about the part of the project's history where it all fell apart. Mirroring their own huge undertaking only for it to fall apart in the blink of an eye, if you didn't know that the film never got made you can be just as stunned and saddened as they were when they got the word it wasn't going to go forward. And even knowing it never happened doesn't make it less depressing when you hear of their plans - hiring different bands (including Pink Floyd) to record music specific to each of the film's planets, hiring Mick Jagger to play Duke Leto, and planning a lengthy opening shot designed to top the one Orson Welles' (also cast as Baron Harkonnen) Touch of Evil.

But there's a silver lining, and a pretty spectacular one at that. Thanks to fair use laws, director Frank Pavich is able to show how the project lived on thanks to the fact that every major studio had a copy of the package they put together. Star Wars, Alien, The Matrix, Contact... all of these films and more clearly had some influence from Jodorowsky's concepts for the film, as we will see Foss' storyboards laid against clips, where you'd have to be blind not to notice the striking resemblance. So even if Jodorowsky's Dune never got made, Jodorowsky's Dune proves that it didn't actually die - making this one of the most uplifting (and surprisingly funny - wait until you hear Jodo's thoughts on Lynch's film) docs about filmmaking ever, despite the lack of an actual film.