Q&A: 'Jodorowsky's Dune' Explores the Unmade Space Epic That Paved the Way for 'Star Wars'

Director Frank Pavich explains how the trippy and artful masterpiece would have changed the course of Hollywood blockbusters forever.

It's hard to imagine any producer today watching Alejandro Jodorowsky's bizarre and formally experimental El Topo and The Holy Mountain and thinking he would be the perfect candidate to direct a big-budget version of Frank Herbert's sci-fi classic novel Dune.

But that's exactly what happened when Jodorowsky's producer Michel Seydoux made a profit off Holy Mountain, which caught the drug-fueled midnight-movie craze of the early 1970s. For two years, Jodorowsky courted an eclectic crew of collaborators, including Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, and Pink Floyd. He also gathered a collection of lesser-known visual artists (Chris Foss, Jean 'Moebius' Giraud, H.R. Giger and Dan O'Bannon) in Paris to design every shot, costume, spaceship and special effect.

Although this work never made it to the big screen, it was collected in an enormous book that Jodorowsky and Seydoux brought to Hollywood to pitch their movie. Later, the legend of Jodorowsky's unmade Dune grew when his team went to Hollywood to make Alien.

Frank Pavich's new documentary, Jodorowsky's Dune, chronicles the quixotic venture of exhaustively prepping a film that never got made. It's not a depressing tale of failure, however, but rather a surprisingly inspirational tale of creativity, moviemaking and dreaming big.

Pavich talked to The Hollywood Reporter about how he tracked down Jodorowsky, the influence the filmmaker had on Hollywood and how blockbusters of today would have been different had it ever been made.

How did you first hear about Jodorowsky's failed Dune project?

The fact of this amazing lost film has always been floating around in the ether. Probably the first time I ever heard of it was in one of those 50 Great Films Never Made books, all these alternate universe movies. Like Richard Dreyfus was going to be in Total Recall and Raiders of the Lost Ark was going to star Tom Selleck. You kind of flip through those things and the one that always stands out the most is Jodorowsky's Dune because not only is it a lost movie, but it also is the one that is still alive. People say [Stanley] Kubrick's Napoleon is the greatest movie never made, but when it didn't happen the road kind of ended there. While with Jodorowsky's stuff we can see that it still lives on into 2014 and beyond.

How'd you go about chasing down the story?

I started with the top guy. I said, if I can't get Jodorowsky then there's no point in anything. I started searching around online until I found out he has an agent in Spain. I had no idea where he was living. I knew he was Chilean and spent time in Mexico and spent time in Paris and in New York. So I sent out this email and a few weeks later I received an email, not from the agent, but from Alejandro Jodorowsky! Which is terrifying and exciting, so much so that I left it closed for a week. He could have been saying, "No, leave me alone," or the worst thing, "I'm already working with someone." I left it closed for a week and lived in my fantasy world that I was going to meet him and make the film.

After a week, I opened it up and it was a very short message from him, basically saying, "I understand you are looking for me, I live in Paris and if you want to speak to me about this project you need to come to Paris and we need to meet face-to-face." What's better than getting an invitation to Jodorowsky's home? So I went right to Paris and sat down with him and excitedly, and probably overenthusiastically, pitched my idea to him. He was into it right from the start.

One of the most entertaining parts of the film is when Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) talks about Jodorowsky personally walking him through the famous Dune book and says that he felt like he'd watched the movie. Did you ever get walked through the storyboards and drawings and have that kind of experience?

I don't think that my walk through the book was like Refn's. We sat with the book and he'd show us certain things, and we had plenty of time to ourselves to photograph it and study it and decide what we were going to animate, but I don't think our walkthrough was as magical as Refn's sounds like.

But did you walk away from this project feeling like you had experienced the movie?

For sure, probably more than anybody besides the key collaborators, because we had so much time to study it. We studied the screenplay and compared it to the art work. It was in our deep study of it when these ideas started to pop out: "Oh my god, this scene is familiar from this famous movie, this scene ended up in that film." We never would have had those revelations had we not had the time and full access.

How narrative was the film going to be? Considering he has this surrealist background and certainly some of the visuals are far out there, is there a backbone in this script of a fairly standard narrative?

Yeah. I suppose it sort of depends on how narrative you feel Dune the book itself is. I know some people like to say, "Oh he was just taking the name Dune and making his own film," but that's not true. You look through the screenplay or the storyboard book, it's the novel Dune, it's completely that story, with some Jodorowsky flourishes of course -- cameras going through vaginas -- which just kind of adds to the story. But it is the real narrative structure of the novel for sure.

The doc posits that, with all the work Jodorowsky did with his collaborators, this film was fully realized in a way that other unproduced movies aren't. From a filmmaking standpoint, what were some of your challenges in trying to bring that to life and letting your audience experience this realized movie world?

Films fall apart every single day -- that's certainly nothing new and nothing special. But the fact that this was fully realized, that they told and designed the entire story, that's what was special and made us feel we could tell this story. While they never rolled any film or got to set, the movie existed on paper, so we knew if we could get inside that book then we could show everybody what the film would have been like.

One of the challenges was how do we tell the story as a worthwhile feature documentary and not a DVD extra? I think if we had concentrated on, "Oh, how cool his Dune would have been," then that's a DVD extra. But when you add his personality, the story becomes bigger. It becomes about ambition. It becomes about this spiritual quest. So when we went through the book and decided what to animate it wasn't just simply picking the wildest scenes, but also picking scenes that would work with our narrative structure. Each scene we chose had to represent something bigger, it needed to represent something of the greater quest of what he was going after.

Was there something from the start that was a little unrealistic about this venture, in the sense that this was a big-budget sci-fi movie being made by a surrealist director?

I think that's really interesting because people kind of snicker at it and say, "Of course, the guy who made El Topo and Holy Mountain walking into Warner Bros and Fox with this giant book of art, trying to make this big-budget space opera, of course they said no." But he was truly ahead of his time. At that time, what was there in the realm of science fiction? There was 2001 and schlocky B-movies and that was it. It wasn't the world we live in now. This is all pre-Star Wars. You have to remember when George Lucas and Gary Kurtz were making Star Wars at Fox, Fox wasn't really behind the film. They didn't understand who was going to see a science fiction movie. That of course is how Lucas got to become a billionaire, because he was like, "Oh, I want to make toys, I want to market this," and they were like, "Great, take the rights, knock yourself out, no one is going to buy this garbage." Who knew that when Star Wars came out it would change the film culture and create a whole new thing. Suddenly, science fiction became financially viable.

So then less than 10 years after Jodorowsky walks in with his version of Dune, the studios say, "We need another science fiction movie, let's go back to Dune." And who do they get to direct it? Not the equivalent of Michael Bay of the mid-80s, but the equivalent of Alejandro Jodorowsky -- they hire David Lynch, whose film credits essentially at the time were The Elephant Man and Eraserhead. So they went back to this weird, surrealistic source material and found another weird, surrealistic, off-the-wall director, but they think, "Oh, this will be fantastic, and let's make action figures and Topps trading cards and coloring books for kids because nothing says a movie for kids like David Lynch's Dune." What colors came with that coloring book? Three shades of brown? The were blinded by money. When Jodorowsky first tried to make Dune they thought they'd lose all their money, and then in the mid-80s they were blinded by the idea they could make millions of dollars.

What if Jodorowsky had made Dune and it came out before Star Wars, what do you think would have happened?

Let's say that if his Dune had been completed and had been released, for better or worse, for success or for failure, it changes everything. If a big-budget, surrealistic science fiction film is a success then I think the studios and people with money say, "Oh, this is worthwhile." Just like when Star Wars was a success, everyone wanted to make a sci-fi film. Maybe had Jodorowsky's film come out and been a success everybody would have wanted to do a weird, psychedelic space movie. Maybe those would be more popular today. Maybe the big studio tentpoles would be weird, off-the-wall films.

But had Jodorowsky's Dune come out and been an abysmal failure -- let's say it didn't make any money and sunk a studio -- then you have Fox, who was working with Lucas on Star Wars, they of course were already not really behind it and looking for any excuse to pull the plug on that film. Once you pull the plug on Star Wars and that never happens, then what happens to the film landscape? What are we looking at today? Who knows what the big tentpole films would be? Maybe they wouldn't be aimed at kids as much as they seem to be now.

The end of the doc addresses the influence this unmade film did have. There's the obvious connection between Jodorowsky's collaborators going on to make Alien and working in Hollywood. The film, though, also draws a direct connection between conventions and film language that were in Jodorowsky's storyboards and a dozen of the biggest Hollywood films (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, The Matrix) of the last three decades. Is this speculation on your part or have you talked to people who say Jodorowsky's Dune book was floating around in the late '70s and '80s and having an influence in Hollywood and on filmmakers?

They made 20 copies and only two exist for sure -- Seydoux has one and so does Jodorowsky. That means there are 18 that were out there floating around. Are they still out there floating around? I'm sure it got passed around.

I mean here's George Lucas, who didn't start out making things like Star Wars, he started making things like THX 1138, which is really bizarre, really out there, so I'm sure he was well aware of Jodorowsky's filmography and who he was, and, "Hey, here comes Alejandro over from France with his own big-budget science fiction film." I'm sure Lucas would have sought out what it is this guy is doing. Not to take it and to copy from it -- I don't think anyone did that -- but it became influential. I think it becomes influential from the book. I think it become influential just from the ideas that these other collaborators took with them to other projects. I know for a fact in talking to [Star Wars producer] Gary Kurtz, and he says it was years later, but he says he saw about 50 pages of the Dune book. It was photocopied and stapled together and passed around. It's kind of a beautiful thing and Jodorowsky's thrilled with it, because the ideas were just so powerful that they couldn't not become realized. It had an influence just like a great film would have.

Jodorowsky's Dune is currently screening in New York and Los Angeles, and will expand to theaters across the U.S. in the coming weeks. A full release schedule is available here.