Jodorowsky: He’s Come Un-Dune

The 2013 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) ran from September 5th to 15th, and one of the highlights was a documentary called Jodorowsky’s Dune. It has garnered raves and won the Audience Award at Fantastic Fest. It makes a fascinating counterpoint to the film we discussed a few weeks ago, Persistence of Vision. In many ways, they tell similar stories. Both films document men who at early peaks in their careers, embark on epic (but ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to make epic films.

In 1975, Alejandro Jodorowsky optioned the film rights for Dune, and the documentary chronicles his labours to bring his vision of Frank Herbert’s critically acclaimed science fiction novel to the screen. Dune, the novel, was published in 1965, and by 1975 both it and LSD were part of the culture/counter-culture. Jodorowsky wanted to bring a mind-blowing ‘acid trip without the acid’ movie to the masses, and to say his vision was expansive is an understatement. He proceeded to professionally woo the likes of Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, and Orson Welles to act, French comic book artist Moebius (Jean Giraud) and artist H.R. Giger to design the look and draw the storyboards, the bands Magma and Pink Floyd to create parts of the soundtrack, and Dan O’Bannon to supervise special effects. Jodorowsky became something more than a director. He drew people into his vision and motivated them to put incredible work into a shared creative endeavour.

Unfortunately, despite ample initial funding, a finished script, a massive and meticulously illustrated storyboard, enthusiastic and legendary cast and crew, the film ballooned to a vision that broke with cinematic convention: filmed, it would likely have been more than 14 hours long. That was a film length that no studio would even consider and naturally, required a bigger budget. Ultimately, the producers could not raise the extra money they needed, and eventually the film rights expired.

But instead of focusing on the failure of the film to reach completion, director Frank Pavich focuses on the incredible power of Jodorowsky’s vision to inspire countless other visions beyond his film. From the talented group he assembled, came, for example, the O’Bannon script and Giger designs for Alien, and influences have been noted in Star Wars, Tron, and other films, not to mention albums and comic art.


The film’s poster by Mondo artist Killian Eng

So why is the documentary post-mortem on Jodorowsky’s Dune so different from Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler? Here are our observations:

1. Both directors were organized, but Jodorowsky completed his vision on paper. It was a massive tome, likened to a phone book, but it was organized and complete. Williams never finished his storyboard. Jodorowsky’s vision lived on perhaps because it was fully imagined in each of his crew member’s heads. Williams’ crew, in interviews, seemed to get eventually disillusioned by the lack of vision or coherent direction.

2. Jodorowsky had more practice in feature-film directing. He had a complete vision that he could inspire people with and adhere to. He hired people to do the things he couldn’t do. While Williams was a highly regarded animator and masterful animation director, he had no experience in helming a feature film alone. This seems (to us) to be the reason that he won an Oscar when he led a crew within someone else’s parameters (or vision), as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.

3. Jodorowsky, while bombastic enough to call the movie he wanted to make “a prophet”, never called it a masterpiece. Williams’ insistence that he was working on his masterpiece prevented him from seeing that his great strength was in animation directing rather than feature-film directing, and also set-up enormous pressure on himself as he suddenly had a proclaimed masterpiece to live up to. His reaction seems to be, understandably, bitterness, and yet, Jodorowsky’s apparent lack of bitterness seems to have freed him to continue working on other things, including non-film projects.

4. Jodorowsky accepted his un-movie and moved on. He had projects that were considered successes and projects that were considered failures, but he did not go into hiding. While we can hardly judge the need to slink away and lick one’s wounds after the public pain of a failed masterpiece, perhaps it’s best to get back up and start-and-finish something new and put it out in the public eye right away.

Perhaps what is most inspirational about Jodorowsky’s Dune is seeing how powerful a creative vision can be. From a novel initially rejected by 20 publishers, came a director’s vision that inspired other scripts, other films, music, art, design, and illustration. It is a reminder that while obsessiveness and perfectionism can be harmful to a creative person’s health, dedication, passion and collaboration can be nourishing, even when the project seems to bear no fruit in its season.


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