Interview: I Am DUNE - Frank Pavich on Jodorowsky's Unmade Masterpiece
Jodorowsky's Dune -- a film that was supposed to have starred the likes of Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Sting, Dali, and David Carradine, with a soundtrack by Pink Floyd, art by H.R. Giger, storyboards by Moebius, effects by Dan O'Bannon, and directed by psychedelic cult auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky -- never got made. But is it any surprise?
With all of these heavyweight egos involved, it's not terribly difficult to see that if the smallest thing went wrong -- if one person didn't approve of the script, costume, co-star, etc., or if one was offended by the slightest provocation -- that it could all fall apart.
Which it did. However, director Frank Pavich took all that might have been and crafted a hilarious (hear Richard Stanley describe his own un-made film The Island of Dr. Moreau as The Hobbit meets The Killing Fields), enthusiast, and often poignant love letter to cinema. I spoke with him about his documentary at the 2013 edition of Fantastic Fest, where just a day after, the film won both the Audience Award and Best Film in the documentary category. Producer Travis Stevens (Cheap Thrills, Starry Eyes, We Are Still Here) was on hand to accept the awards in Pavich's absence (he had to catch a flight back to Geneva earlier). Here's to an unsung opus and the mesmerizing story behind it.
ScreenAnarchy: The titular film that your documentary is about was supposed to have been made in the 70s. Why JODOROWSKY'S DUNE after all these decades? Why now?
Frank Pavich: Why NOT now? Once you learn the story and hear about Jodorowsky and hear what was going to be included in this film -- it's the greatest movie never made. It's Jodorowsky, and his talent, unique vision, plus all of the great artists he had. He was so eager! And his cast -- Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, Dali, Carradine, and his own son Brontis -- with Pink Floyd doing the soundtrack! What's cooler than that? Can you imagine what it would have been like? Holy smokes! Jodorowsky was reaching for the stars!
Do you think that Jodorowsky's film fell through because he wanted to be a god-like figure and attracted other personalities of that magnitude?
I don't think that it went that far; it was the time. If you put it into perspective of when this was -- pre-Star Wars. When Star Wars was being made, Fox didn't believe in it, they thought it was silly, that it was the dumbest idea, and that was half the budget of Dune. Seven million dollars, from what I remember, to do Star Wars. In that landscape, no one thought that a science fiction film had any power or ability to be successful, so why bother? 2001 was science fiction, but a totally different thing; it's not a trippy space opera. There was nothing to compare Dune to, and that's also a reason Lynch's Dune was made; the studio said, "science fiction makes so much money -- we're gonna be just like Star Wars!" Oh no, you're not! No, no, no.
Do you know why those studio executives went to Lynch and not back to Jodorowsky instead?
I think at that point, Jodorowsky wasn't interested anymore. He'd done the work. He didn't want to go back and re-do something that he'd already made in his mind. It was done, it was in the book.
It just seems from watching your documentary that he's still so passionate about it that he could have done it easily.
He could have, but I just think at that point, he was so over it. "Oh, now you want it? Why? Now you're going to come crawling back to me? For what?" I think his vision was very specific. The people that he chose for that vision... He would have had to start all over again; it was ten years later. It would have been a different film, and not one he wanted. By the time Star Wars came out, I don't think he wanted to jump on that band wagon. He marched to the beat of his own drummer. He doesn't make movies to make money, but to make art. For him to be asked, "let's go make a big movie and make a lot of money," he'd be like, "screw you." He certainly didn't want to be in business with an American studio. If they were going to partner with him later on, fine. He wanted to make a movie with his people, like Michel Seydoux (producer on Jodorowsky's Dune), you know? Seydoux believed in him, not some corporation in West L.A.
What made you get involved? Did you meet somebody in particular, or did you always have a burning desire to tell this story?
The original idea that we found interesting is that there are movies that don't get made--every day. The original spark was that here was this movie that wasn't made, and yet, here was all this work that was put into it -- all this preparation, the ideas, all of this creation... And it didn't happen, but then it was made by somebody else. What's that feeling like for an artist, for a creator, for a director? And like you said, there were all those people! But David Lynch, out of everyone, was the only that could do it, and maybe better than him (Jodorowsky). That's a horrible feeling!
That was the initial spark, and an interesting thing to think about. And then the more you learn about Jodorowsky and what the project was -- it's perfect for a film. Let's bring the story out there. Not enough people know about it. How do we share this with the world?
It's certainly fascinating. Do you think that now the lengthy book Jodorowsky made from his work -- including the costume sketches, story boards, set design, and script, all painstakingly illustrated by Moebius -- will be published?
Everybody asks for it; EVERYBODY. But I guess it's a rights issue. Isn't the documentary enough? (laughs) Why do you people always want more? Didn't we give you enough? This is horrible!
As a documentarian, you wanted got to talk to so very many amazing people--I could ask the same of you.
It's MY fault!
It is your fault! Now you've stoked the flames--you're making people hungrier!
But you've done your job by keeping the dream alive. At one point in the film, many of the interviewees say, "I am Dune. I am Dune."
Was there anyone you wanted to interview that you couldn't get ahold of, or who didn't want to speak to you?
Not really. We got the core team. I've never been a fan of documentaries where there are too many voices. I don't want to talk to 110 people. If I can't follow a doc, I lose interest immediately. I'd rather talk to 20 people and get to know them and their personalities. I don't want just facts given to me by someone who may not be credible. If you've only given them two lines, they haven't proven their credibility. We really limited this to the core team, with a couple of outside voices like Drew McWeeny, Nic Refn, Richard Stanley, and voices like that.
Which feels more like home to you -- making a narrative feature or a documentary.
Documentary. In a narrative production, your script can take forever, but once it's locked, you go and shoot and edit. With a documentary, it can go in a million different directions. You do your interviews, transcribe, and then you find your story. There are a million iterations of how it could go -- it's difficult and challenging, but it's so rewarding to me. I love it. It's a great process of discovery.
Do you have any plans for future documentaries, or is it too soon to think about that?
I have a couple of ideas here and there, but this is one is all-consuming. We're still tweaking it (as of September 2013). But this is essentially the final product. Just a couple of subtitles have changed and real minor things like that; nothing you would notice consciously. But to here from Cannes, it changed significantly.
What were the biggest changes?
Before sending the doc to Cannes, we didn't have time to extend the comparison section, so some of that wasn't in the cut for Cannes. We also fixed the flow of some things, and all the animation wasn't quite there yet -- like the fonts didn't match -- little things. What we have now is a much cleaner version.
The film has been getting a lot of great reactions. What's the most satisfying thing you've heard about it?
With audiences, it's great to see how they react, whether they clap or laugh, but the most rewarding thing after working on this for so long, has been that some people say that after watching this, they're inspired and want to go create something. They want to step it up.
Would you say that even Alejandro and Michel were inspired to work together again after seeing this documentary?
It's interesting that they haven't spoken in so long, but they really missed each other. It was more out of fear that they didn't contact one another. Jodo thought he was responsible for Michel Seydoux losing a bunch of money, thinking that, "if I was a better director, none of this would have happened." And Michel thought, "Jodo must hate me, because he worked so hard to make this movie. I wasn't a good enough producer to make this happen."
Once I explained to each of them what the other had said, that no, this person really wants to see you, misses you, and considers you an extremely important part of their life... It was "Really? REALLY?" Yes, really! Once we reunited them, it was just two best friends who hadn't seen each other in awhile. It was an immediate connection.
What does Jodorowsky think of the doc?
Jodo has been so thrilled. We played at Cannes and he was wiping the tears away. I asked him, "what you think?" He turned to me and said, "perfect. Perfect."
Did that make you tear up too?
Immediately. It was overwhelming. People were applauding at Cannes, and I completely broke down. They didn't know it was my first screening or that it was the first film I'd seen at Cannes. I didn't know how it worked. It was a completely amazing, out-of-body experience.
One unintentially funny running gag in the doc is that no one who worked on this massive project had read DUNE, the book by Frank Herbert. Did you?
I read the book, but I approached it like Jodo. I read it on the plane to interview him. I was paranoid and I didn't want to jinx it by reading it too soon. "Argh, I'm not gonna make the movie." But for the people who worked on what would have been film who didn't read the book, it didn't matter, because they weren't making the book. They were making Jodo's film. They just needed to listen to him and do what he needed him to do. A movie is a different art form from a book -- what works on the page doesn't always work onscreen, and vice versa. A novelization of a movie isn't going to be the movie -- it's a different thing.
Frank Herbert wanted a creative person to make something different. That's why he was behind Jodo and of course, behind David Lynch. He didn't want a TV director coming in to make the movie, he wanted some one to add something to the story and make it the greatest thing they could do.
What do you hope people get out of watching JODOROWSKY'S DUNE?
When it's released, I hope that people realize that this is funny and entertaining. So many documentaries are on such serious topics, that some people stay away from them, but this is a great, inspiring, laugh-out-loud movie.
Via Sony Pictures Classics, the film is now playing in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles. It opens in other California cities and in Chicago and Evanston, Illinois on Friday, March 28, and will expand wider in the coming weeks. Visit the official site for locations, dates, and more information.