The Oscar nominations are out, and the content devils are already busy typing webpages upon webpages of armchair analysis on who will win, who got snubbed, and other “hot takes” designed to feed the tyranny of “trending topics.” And so here I am, doing my part in the “content wars” — though in this case, whipping up some hot Oscar content is also a chance to discuss one of the most creatively inspiring films I’ve seen in years.
Getting snubbed by the Oscars is hardly some grave injustice. When you consider how safe and tiresomely desperate for prestige the films that generally win Oscars are, having the Academy ignore your picture is — in the parlance of Silicon Valley — a feature, not a bug. But by identifying what the Academy got wrong, one can draw attention to the kind of awards-adverse films that make “going to the movies” (read: hunching over a laptop in bed) such a joyous experience.
So it is with Jodorowsky’s Dune, a 2014 documentary about experimental filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt in the mid-1970s to adapt Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel. The film announces early on why we should care about a movie that was never made, bringing on Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn to recount how Jodorowsky recently shared with him a storyboard “the size of a telephone book” of the doomed Dune adaptation, describing in detail each scene as he thumbed through the pages.
“I’m going to tell you something,” Refn says. “It’s awesome.”
By the time Jodorowsky began pitching the film to studios, he had convinced a murderer’s row of actors, artists, and designers to join the production. Surrealist painter H.R. Giger, who went on to design the creature from Alien, would design the sets and characters. Dan O’Bannon, who later wrote the screenplays to Alien and Total Recall, would handle the special effects. (It’s not a stretch to say that Alien would have been a very different film had Jodorowsky not introduced Giger and O’Bannon). The cast included Orson Welles, whom Jodorowsky convinced by promising that the chef at Welles’ favorite restaurant would live on set, and Salvador Dali, who agreed only on the condition that he be paid $ 100,000 for every minute he was onscreen. As for the soundtrack? None other than Pink Floyd had signed on to write original music for the film.
So why did the studios balk? In many ways it was a matter of bad timing. This was a couple years before Star Wars invented the modern science fiction blockbuster, which prompted every studio on the planet to want its own big budget space opera. Indeed, in 1984 a major studio did take on Dune with another experimental filmmaker at the helm, David Lynch. While visually stunning, that film is a glorious fiasco, with Lynch torn in half by his desire to make an art film and the studio’s desire to make “the next Star Wars.” With this in mind, maybe Jodorowsky’s vision would have never made it to the screen even if the film had been funded.
Nevertheless, Jodorowksy is heartbroken that his film was never made — but he’s not bitter, which is surprising considering that, as the film’s closing minutes show, countless scenes from films like Blade Runner, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and, yes, Star Wars, bear a striking resemblance to scenes from his storyboard, which circulated throughout Hollywood in the mid-70s. When taking into account the professional partnerships Jodorowsky forged, and the visual and conceptual DNA of the project itself that made its way through some of the most popular and acclaimed films of the following two decades, the Dune team is like the PayPal Mafia of science fiction cinema.
But the director of the documentary, Frank Pavich, didn’t make the film as an attack on the Hollywood squares who refused to greenlight Dune, but as a celebration of the collaborative process and the capacity for human imagination. And any creator, whether they work in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, or a New York artist enclave, can gain inspiration from it.
To wit: There’s a line Jodorowsky repeats variations of throughout the film about finding his “warriors.”
“Any person who will work on this picture will be a spiritual warrior,” he says. And while he doesn’t define precisely what that means, he knows a “warrior” — and thus a potential collaborator — the minute he walks into a room. For example, Jodorowsky initially sought out Douglas Trumbull, the visual mastermind behind the special effects of the most ambitious science fiction film ever made at that time, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Speaking in charmingly broken English, Jodorowsky recalls, “We went to see Trumbull, but he think of himself such big importance. He picks up the telephone 40 times — the telephone, 40 times. I saw him speaking, the vanity of himself. He was big technician, but to me was not a spiritual person. He had nothing to do with the creation of the film who was a profit.”
When asked how he could turn down the premier visual effects artist in the world, Jodorowsky said, “It is like that. He is not my spiritual warrior.” In short, anybody who placed more importance on his or her own prestige and reputation than the film itself, would not cut it. (Are you listening, potential cofounders?)
That the Academy’s overlooked Jodorowsky’s Dune can’t be chalked up to ignorance. It landed on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary but lost a place to, among other films, the Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour, which Eileen Jones eviscerated in a review for Pando. But history and good taste have proven the Academy wrong time and time again. Watch Jodorowsky’s Dune. And then make your own Dune, whatever that means to you.