The legacy of the Greatest Film Never Made: Director Frank Pavich on Jodorowsky's Dune

Some things are just too good to be true, like a Dune film starring Mick Jagger, Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles and David Carradine, directed by cult-film legend Alejandro Jodorowsky, with effects and art by Mœbius, H.R. Giger and Dan O'Bannon. Such a thing is clearly too awesome to exist, but in reality, this adaptation of Frank Herbert's cult novel almost made it to the screen, thanks to the incredible talent and will of Jodorowsky. The near-miss at what would have been one of the most insane sci-fi epics of all time is the subject of Jodorowsky's Dune, a new documentary from director Frank Pavich that delves deep into what's possibly the greatest movie never made. Before the film opens tonight at the Sie FilmCenter, we spoke with Pavich about the challenges of making the movie, getting H.R. Giger's last on-camera interview and the enduring legacy of a film that never existed.

See also: Dune: David Lynch's glorious mess of a movie

Westword: How did you come to make a documentary about Jodorowsky's failed Dune project?

Frank Pavich: I've known about the story for a while. It's kind of floated around in the ether, little articles on it here and there in science fiction magazines or on different websites. There's a couple of those "Fifty Greatest Movies Never made" books, and I think it was in one of those where I first kind of came across it. I came across it from the Jodorowsky side of things. I was a fan of his. I wasn't that familiar with Dune, certainly not with the novel, and only peripherally knowledgeable and interested in the Lynch film.

But being a fan of Jodorowsky, being a fan of El Topo and The Holy Mountain and learning, "Oh, his followup to the great Holy Mountain was going to be an adaptation of Dune" just sounded too crazy. The more I learned about it -- all the wild people he had involved, how much work he actually did on it, how fully realized this unrealized film is -- and the time period, pre-Star Wars, he was really trudging in new territory. It was too wild of a story. It seemed shocking that nobody had officially told the story yet. We took it upon ourselves to do it. [Laughs].

That's interesting that you would say that about not being a Dune fan -- Jodorowsky mentions that he had never read the book when he took on the project, and I remember reading that David Lynch had never read it, either, before he started his adaptation. Am I crazy to think that's an odd coincidence that these films adapting Dune, or about adapting Dune, are done by non-fans, given how big the book's fanbase is?

Certain types of things come to you. It's like [Jodorowsky] says, he hadn't read the book when he got the idea to make the movie. A few things kind of conspired, by something greater than him. Consciously or unconsciously, I approached it the same way. I didn't read the book myself until i was on the plane, flying from New York to Paris to do our very first interview with Alejandro. Maybe partially I wanted to approach it the same way he did, and maybe partially I didn't want to jinx the film by reading it too soon. I have a feeling that was in the back of my head. It is kind of weird. I never knew that about Lynch. It is really interesting. It's pretty wild -- history repeating itself over and over again.

Having gone through the process of making your movie and now that you've read the book, what do you think of Dune now?

It's amazing and beautiful and incredible. And it's huge! It's just such a massive book and it's next to impossible to make it into a normal size movie, for sure. We all know Alejandro had his troubles, and we know David Lynch had his troubles. It's an amazing world, that at this point has been taken from so many times and used in so many other films. How much direct influence comes from Frank Herbert's Dune that goes into Star Wars? Do you think Star Wars would have opened up on a desert planet if Dune wasn't set on a desert planet? In fact, those planets have two suns -- all these things come from the mind of Frank Herbert for sure.

Sometimes you even hear still, up until a couple years ago, there were people trying to make the definitive feature film version of Dune, and I wonder if anyone can do it at this point. It's been attempted so many times, and I don't think they ever got it quite right. I've never seen the SyFy miniseries, but some people really feel it captured the book perfectly, and other people feel it wasn't so great, that it was limited by budgetary constraints. In order to make Dune, it would have to be a really long movie, or a trilogy or a quadrilogy or whatever it would be. It would not be your standard, two-hour feature film. I can't even imagine such a thing. Keep reading for more from Frank Pavich. In the age of Game of Thrones, I can see it as a two or three season HBO series -- twelve to eighteen hours worth of it, with lavish budgets, would maybe be sufficient.

Probably. That's really the only way to do it, I think. I don't think there's any other way at this point to tell that story. I can't even imagine.

One of the striking things about Jodorowsky's version was what an incredible collection of talent and characters he had gathered, from Salvador Dali in an acting role to Moebius and H.R. Giger doing art. It's not an exaggeration to call it mind-blowing.

Yeah, it was completely.. blown away. Today, we're speaking on the day we all learned that Giger passed away. To have met with him, to have sat down and interviewed him in his museum, it's still shocking. It's still an amazing experience. And all the people! From Alejandro himself, all down the line. It was really kind of fascinating to really tell how much of an impact Alejandro had on all these people.

All these years later, 35 or forty years later, I could reach out to H.R. Giger to Chris Foss, to all these people, and once I told him that I was making this film about Jodorowsky's attempt to make Dune, with his full cooperation, all of these other people jumped on immediately. Even though it was so many years ago, they all have the fondest memories [of it]. It was this amazing time for all of them. An amazing time of intense creativity and intense freedom that Alejandro really provided to all these people. He didn't hire these people to make them do exactly what he wanted. He hired them because he saw something in them that could help him realize his vision and they could add their own creativity into it. So, to this day, they all feel very grateful to Alejandro for that experience. How many times do you hear something like that? Usually you hear people complaining after the fact -- "This was a bad experience. This didn't work out, that didn't work out." Yet when it comes to Alejandro and his version of Dune, everybody was just completely enthralled and has the greatest memories of it. It's quite unique in that way, I think.

Given his recent death, the interview with Giger in the film must be one of the last he ever filmed, right?

I believe it is actually the last filmed interview. His health has not been great for several years now and I think it sort of took a turn for the worse soon after our interview with him, back in February 2011. We were the very last on-camera interview he ever did, which is wild.

Was it difficult to get Jodorowsky's cooperation? Was he reluctant to talk about it?

He was fine to talk about it. If you ask him now about it, he says the only reason he said yes to doing the film is he never thought we would finish it. He just thought it would be another lost Dune project. He's done a couple of interviews lately where he says the first time I came into his apartment, he thought I was a crazy person. I walked in and I was talking about Dune and wanting to make this documentary and he thought I was mad. It's kind of incredible to be called mad by Alejandro Jodorowsky. It's really the highest compliment, I feel.

He didn't think we would finish it, so he said, "Yeah, sure, I'll sit down and talk and tell you these stories." And he really didn't censor himself, because he thought nothing would ever come of it. Lo and behold, it actually was completed! It didn't take too much convincing. It took me a while contact him and hear back, but once we met it was quite fast moving. Keep reading for more from Frank Pavich. Were there people you wanted to talk to for the doc, but you just couldn't get?

I don't like documentaries where there are too many voices. It gets very confusing to me. I was conscious to keep it to the core team, as well as a couple of outside voices that could add certain bits of perspective to it. But I hate stunt casting -- Mick Jagger was not a huge part of this, so why go to him for an interview? If he was the only actor from the film that I interviewed, it would be weird and kind of lopsided -- aside from Brontis, Alejandro's son, of course. I hate documentary stunt casting like that. It always just feels cheap and awful.

The only people that I wished we could have had in the film are the people who had passed away -- Dan O'Bannon and Moebius, who was alive when we started but was in very poor health and actually passed away during the production. Those were the only two we couldn't speak with. In regards to O'Bannon, we were lucky enough to locate that old audio interview from that time period, just after that, '77. It's a young Dan O'Bannon's voice speaking freshly about his experience on Dune, so that was fortunate. Then with Moebius, we just kind of let his plethora of artwork be his voice. Everyone sort of speaks about him in the film and how incredible he was, then you see so much of his storyboards and his concept designs that it really feels like he's a part of the film.

For science fiction fans who come at this, who aren't familiar with Jodorowsky or are only familiar with him by reputation, do you consider this film to be a good introduction to the man and his work?

I think it's a good introduction for all of it. I didn't make it for Jodorowsky fans or for Dune fans or for science-fiction fans or for anybody in particular. I think that anybody can step into this film and everything you need to know is contained within it. You don't have to read Dune, you don't have to have seen Lynch's film, you don't have to ever seen El Topo or or anything. I think that everything is fully represented. It's a story about this man -- this incredibly talented, charismatic person. It's a story about ambition, and it's a story about trying and I think that's something that everybody can relate to.

He says in the film,"If you're not going to have the ambition, why would you try?" You have to go for the greatest thing you can do, otherwise what's the point? And I think that's a beautiful thought, a beautiful way to live your life, and I feel like people who see it are really feeling inspired, really feeling alive. He says the films that he makes, and the ones he's interested in seeing, are the ones that transform the viewer. He says there's nothing that's a bigger waste of time than going into a movie and coming out two hours later as exactly the same person. He wants you to come out of the theater, and he wants himself to come out of the theater, a different person, fully transformed. Otherwise, why bother?

Film has a real power. It's a real art that has the power to change people and his goal was to do that, to literally change the world. And he was successful in that, even though his film wasn't made. He feels that he still changed the world, through his artwork and his ideas for the film, and through this documentary, seeing him speaking and see what kind of person he is, they come out of it transformed. They come out of it a different person, thinking different thoughts.

Dune opens today at the Sie FilmCenter. Find showtimes and more information here.

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