Interview: Frank Pavich on Letting the World See “Jodorowsky’s Dune”

On the challenge of recreating the most influential unmade film in history and the inspiration of Alejandro Jodorowsky....Read More
Sketchbook from "Jodorowsky's Dune"

In the opening minutes of “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” Nicolas Winding Refn describes seeing Alejandro Jodorowsky’s take on Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic after a dinner with the Chilean-born, Parisian-based filmmaker. Of course, Refn didn’t see it with his eyes exactly since Jodorowsky’s epic vision was never committed to film, though a bible full of storyboards, character sketches and production design schematics was provided as a visual aid, but instead in the tradition of the filmmaker’s other works such as “El Topo” and “Holy Mountain,” Refn opened his mind to watch the adventure of spice hunter Paul Atreides on the planet of Arrakis unfold with a cast that Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and David Carradine all set to an original score composed by Pink Floyd in a galaxy created by legendary Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, the French cartoonist Moebius and British sci-fi artist Chris Foss.

Although Refn takes pride in believing he’s the only one to actually see the film in that way, it’s to the great credit of Frank Pavich that the rest of the world can now pull a chair up to the table with “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” a movie that arguably may be more satisfying than whatever Jodorowsky could’ve made since unlike fellow luminary David Lynch’s version of the material it exists enough in the abstract to allow the audience to create their own perfect version. Still, what Jodorowsky was setting up remains one of the greatest “what ifs?” in movie history, with its influence felt throughout pop culture as collaborators such as Giger and screenwriter Dan O’ Bannon ultimately would tap into some of their unused work as the basis for “Alien” and the passed-around bible would inspire dozens if not hundreds more within the industry in the design of many of the biggest blockbusters we know today. Budgeted at $15 million, an unheard of figure for 1974, it proved too ambitious an undertaking to actually put in front of cameras and yet in corralling all of the major players involved, Pavich does something nearly as daunting in restoring the unmade film to its rightful place in history, recounting a story that’s every bit as thrilling and inspiring as the source material.

During last year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin where the film made its U.S. premiere, Pavich, an American filmmaker who currently resides in Switzerland, spoke about how he came to learn about Jodorowsky’s Dune himself, the four-year process of making the film and the pleasure of premiering at Cannes at the same time Jodorowsky unveiled “The Dance of Reality,” the auteur’s first film in 23 years.

Alejandro Jodorowsky in "Jodorowsky's Dune"You’ve said your producer Stephen Scarlata was the one who dug up the story on this, but what was it that got you interested in it?

I come more from the Jodo side of things. I was less familiar with “Dune,” but more familiar with Jodo, being a fan of his work and loving “The Holy Mountain” and “El Topo.” When you start to learn about the “Dune” story, you start to learn that the guy who directed “The Holy Mountain” was going to do an adaptation of “Dune” which was going to star Mick Jagger and David Carradine and Orson Welles and Salvador Dali and have a soundtrack by Pink Floyd and all these artists working on all these crazy designs — that’s the greatest movie never made. That’s the one you want to learn about. And it’s the most influential one.

There’s other great films that never happened. Kubrick’s “Napoleon” was a big one. It had that big Taschen book that came out recently and you can go through it and see all his research and that’s a great story, but it kind of ends there. That work didn’t influence anything else as far as I know. Jodo’s film was never realized as a film but everything still went out into the universe and all these people’s careers and lives were changed for the better. All those ideas still made it out into other films and comics. So that’s what made it interesting, it’s that “Is it a failure or is it not?” I don’t know. Maybe this was what was supposed to happen.

Since there’s no final product to analyze, did you find this was actual the perfect adaptation of “Dune” since no amount of special effects would likely do it justice anyway and there’s just enough for the audience to create it in their own minds?

Frank Pavich: That was it, you know? We’re taking this artwork, which is mostly storyboards, essentially pencil sketches with somehow a lot of emotion and beauty in it and I don’t know how Moebius could [achieve that] with a couple of little lines, but he would draw everything and tell you everything you’d need to know. So we would take that artwork and animate it, but you don’t want to animate it too much. You don’t want to computerize it and make it something else. You want to take that piece of paper, blow a little bit of life into it and then let your imagination fill in the rest and how really incredible it would have been. Again, you just want to spark that imagination in the audience.

H.R. Giger's illustrations for "Jodorowsky's Dune"It’s interesting you’re working with tools now that weren’t available then in recreating some sequences from the film. Was it difficult to bring it to life while remaining true to the era?

We did some computer-type stuff for the Chris Foss paintings, just as a way of bringing a little bit of life into it. My animator was a guy named Syd Garon, based in LA, and we really had a lot of discussions before we ever really got to work. We looked at movies like [René Laloux’s] “Fantastic Planet” and that style of animation, which was part of that Jodorowsky world. Those guys all came up with him, they all knew each other, so we were trying to make the animation and the soundtrack part of that time period without making it cheesy ’70s. Yes, we have more tools at our disposal but we don’t need to use every one because every tool just because it exists. It’s like Louis CK [says], just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you need to. We let Jodo do the magic. Literally.

It was interesting that everybody speaks about this in such enthusiastic terms onscreen when even after all these years, there must have been a little anger and some disappointment about the fact it wasn’t made. Was that actually an obstacle you had to overcome?

Sure. Partially they were excited to talk about it because its being recognized. It’s one thing if it exists in that book, of which only two exist. Maybe a third. But now for someone like Chris Foss to be able to sit down to tell this story or H.R. Giger, it’s probably a great opportunity for them which they normally wouldn’t have. And they really love Jodo. They’re so grateful to him for the opportunities and for how he affected their lives in a positive way. Once I contacted them and said, “My name is Frank. I’m making this documentary. I’ve spoken to Alejandro…” “Oh, you’ve spoke to him? He’s on board? Great. I’m on board too.” Everybody would jump at the chance. There was never any push-back from anybody. Everybody was totally excited, like, “When can we do it? When can we do it? When can we do it?” So that was a good sign.

Did you do an initial interview with Jodorowsky to cover the general story and then have it sprawl out?

Our first trip we went to Paris for three weeks and we interviewed Jodo a bunch of times. We interviewed Michel Seydoux. We went to England to interview Chris Foss. Went to Switzerland and got Giger. We really got the bulk of the interviews then. We got Amanda Lear, Jean-Paul Gibon, the co-producer, [Jean-Pierre] Vignau, the stunt coordinator, Brontis, Jodo’s son. We got the core stuff then. Then every time we’d go back, we’d get a little bit more with Jodo and then we did other interviews elsewhere. Refn we did in New York. Devin [Faraci] and Drew [McWeeny] we did in LA. Diane O’Bannon was in LA. Richard Stanley, we went to Barcelona. So we were all over, really piecing it together, realizing what kind of voice do we need. “You know who’d be great? Gary Kurtz. He’d be great.” So we were talking about track him down. I must have called him a hundred times before he finally answered. I was like, “A-ha! I got you.” And he was great. We went to London to interview him. It was just non-stop.

Chris Foss illustration for "Jodorowsky's Dune"The interesting thing about the Kurtz interview is you talk about “Dune”‘s influence on “Star Wars,” noting some pretty striking similarities and yet I was surprised he never appeared in that section to talk about it, despite producing that film.

He was familiar with the story and he remembers reading about it, but he doesn’t recall ever seeing the book or anything like that. Was Star Wars influenced by Jodorowsky’s “Dune”? I think that “Star Wars” was influenced by Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” There’s no way that “Star Wars” would have started on the sand planet of Tatooine if “Dune” wasn’t a sand planet. I don’t think that Tatooine would have had two suns if Arrakis didn’t have two suns in Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” But “Star Wars” takes its influence from so many things.

It’s just like anything else. If you look at “Flash Gordon” scene, Dino De Laurentiis had that hook and he produced Lynch’s “Dune” and “Flash Gordon.” In my opinion, those come from Jodorowsky’s “Dune.” “Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” the opening shot of “Contact,” these things undeniably come from that [development process]. But what’s great is no one’s like. “You stole my ideas.” Everyone’s like, “It’s great. It’s out in the universe. That’s what we wanted to do.” Jodo wanted to make a film that would be prophetic, that was going to change the world. And he did. Without making the film, he changed the world.

How did the film’s structure come about? Because as Devin [Faraci, who moderated the post-screening Q & A] pointed out this could’ve just been two hours of Jodorowsky talking to the camera and no one would’ve complained. Then “Dune” itself has such a rich history of people wanting to tackle it. How did you narrow it down?

We figured it out as we went along. We didn’t know exactly what it was going to be. We went in with some of the facts of the story, but the more we learned about it, the more we learned about Jodo, which is really what became the driving throughline of the story. It’s about this man, his philosophy, his outlook on life and maybe this documentary in the hands of somebody else would be a very negative thing. Maybe it would be a very sad story. Maybe it would be a DVD featurette — “Hey, I got some artwork. This is what ‘Dune’ could have been.” We tried to make it a film for everybody where you don’t need to know about Jodo coming in or anything about “Dune.” It’s really for everybody because to me, his appeal is so universal and you can’t help but fall in love with him. You just go in there, having no knowledge or real interest in any of these topics but he will still grab you because he is such a natural storyteller. That’s what we learned as we kept shooting more and more is this guy is the most amazing guy in the world.

Was there something that really surprised you during shooting?

It’s hard to say because we knew so much of it going in. I don’t think we learned any fact that was like, “Oh that’s crazy.” Maybe when it came to doing that influences section where we finally came up upon “Raiders Of The Lost Ark.” That still blows my mind when you really start thinking about some of the sequences, like when they’re torturing Leto and cutting off his arms, and it’s amazing because when you think about that scene, that’s Udo Kier cutting off the arms and legs of David Carradine and then Orson Welles comes and cuts off his head and it’s all to the soundtrack of Pink Floyd. So when you think, “Wow, they did that?” It’s amazing. Once you put all the pieces together, it’s like, “Holy shit. How could that be? It’s crazy.”

But probably the revelatory moment for us was spending that time with Jodo and seeing how someone can take a potentially negative story and have such a positive outlook on it and try and take that feeling and apply that to your own life. “How can I be more positive? How can I have more ambition?” “How can I take these lessons and put them out into the world?” Like he did.

He’s such a natural storyteller, it’s just amazing. He was a mime. He did comics when he was a kid in Mexico, he directed so many plays and he’s done so many films. Storytelling is just what he does and he’s just the best at it — what’s true, what’s not true, what’s embellished. Does it matter? No. It’s just so entertaining and you hopefully get inspired by it.

Frank Pavich and Alejandro JodorowskyHow did you get interested in filmmaking?

I just stumbled into it. When I was in high school a friend of mine showed me “Taxi Driver.” He had like these two S-VHS machines and he was kind of taking it and re-doing things and making a little montage out of it and I was just like, “What the hell is this? This is like the craziest thing ever.” That was maybe one of the first sparks. You know, “I can do this.” Not that I would look at “Taxi Driver,” and say,” I can do this,” but more along the lines of “I would be interested in doing something like this and being in this world.” It just happened. I went to film school for a little while which was kind of a waste of time and then I just started working.

You were both able to premiere a film at the same time at Cannes. Was that especially meaningful to you?

The most meaningful thing to us is that we were partially responsible for helping that happen. It’s been 23 years since he made a movie and it’s been 35 years since he had contact with [producer] Michel Seydoux, so for us to help repair that relationship between the two of them was amazing. You couldn’t ask for anything more. But then the bonus is they started to work together again and made another film together. So the world has a new Alejandro Jodorowsky movie an at Cannes, we premiered at 7:00 on Saturday and at 9:00, his film premiered. So boom-boom, one after the other – that’s two Jodorowsky movies, then the third one is “Only God Forgives,” [Nicolas Winding] Refn’s film, which was dedicated to Jodo. And there was even a fourth movie — Brontis’ daughter Alma is a co-star in “Blue Is The Warmest Color.” She’s not one of the two main girls but she’s the friend. So look at all the stuff that was going on at Cannes 2013. I’m like, “That was the year of Jodorowsky and Seydoux.” Go figure.

“Jodorowsky’s Dune” opens on March 21st in Los Angeles and New York.

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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