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Documentarian Frank Pavich talks Jodorowsky’s Dune

Jodorowsky's Dune artwork
Artwork for Jodorowsky’s Dune

So does Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unreleased film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune deserve its reputation as the best unreleased film of all time?

Documentarian Frank Pavich attempts to set the record straight in Jodorowsky’s Dune, a riveting look at the man’s life from childhood to his cinematic grand folly.

“Jodo” had arranged for some of the biggest names in music (Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd) acting (Orson Welles), artists (Salvador Dali) and comic book artists to help him build his outrageously expensive masterpiece until it all came tumbling down. What a story!

M&C spoke with Pavich in Toronto.

M&C: Your documentary is about the supposed greatest unmade sci fi film ever but it’s really about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s personality. Is that what you expected when you started?

Pavich: To be honest, I really wasn’t 100% sure what it would turn into. How could I be? We were learning more and more as we went along so every day it was evolving.

I knew that it needed to be more than a ‘DVD extra’, which is something that this story very easily could have been made into.

And what a waste that would have been! Once we started shooting and spending time with Jodo, his charisma is just undeniable.

He’s just truly amazing and I think anyone who sees the documentary will see that charismatic personality shine right on through. He is one of the most unique and inspirational people I have ever met.

M&C: Jodorowsky believed he could do anything. As you show in the movie, he spurred his “spiritual warriors” to do their best. He is a hero. Why isn’t he better known?

Pavich: I agree, he is absolutely a hero! I’m not sure if it’s exactly true that he’s not well known. What’s so interesting about him is that he is an artist with so many facets.

Film director, comic book writer, tarot card expert, psychomagician, painter, poet, novelist, composer and on and on.

I have friends who are only familiar with his movies and who are not aware that he does anything else. And I have other friends who are only familiar with his books.

And then other friends who only know of him from his comic book work, never having seen or even heard of El Topo or The Holy Mountain.

I’m sure there are others out there who only know him as a tarot card guru or as a psychomagician therapist. Totally fascinating, no?

He has an extremely popular comic book in France and Europe; there are museum retrospectives and all sorts of accolades.

Jodorowsky is one of the best known comic book artists in that world. It’s quite eye-opening.

M&C: He’s considered an underground filmmaker. How so?

Pavich: First of all because of the subject matter and secondly because his films were simply unavailable for so many years. In the 1970’s, pre-Dune, Jodo and his producer, Allen Klein, had a major falling out and Klein pulled all of Jodo’s films from the market.

All the prints were confiscated and nothing could be shown anywhere for 30 years. So in the 80s and 90s, the only way to see anything was via a 6th or 7th generation VHS tape, most likely without subtitles, or at best, a Japanese laserdisc.

So the weirdness of the films was compounded by the manner in which you had to search for and watch them.

Those who were willing to work for it were richly rewarded. But it wasn’t like you could walk into a Blockbuster and see his stuff.

We look at how his documentary influenced other films and had never even been made.

The influence of El Topo and The Holy Mountain have hit across so many levels of films and music and art. It’s extraordinary.

M&C: Jodorowsky’s Dune was meant to star Orson Welles, Pink Floyd, Salvador Dali, and H.R. Giger and cost nearly 2M in pre-production in the mid-seventies. That was a lot of cash.

Pavich: But how could he not? As he says in the film, he had the ambition to make the greatest film ever made.

He surrounded himself with a great collection of artists and those people happened to be some of the greatest in the world and he has a producer who believed in him and was willing to finance this adventure.

So was he stretching things too far or was he just doing what was natural for him to do given those circumstances?

M&C: He was of his times, experimenting with hallucinogens and mysticism and counter culture and comics. Was that the problem for conservative Hollywood?

Pavich: Yes, I think he was of his time but he was also largely responsible for creating those times as well. For example, El Topo was the first midnight movie, right?

So he was not just a part of that particular subculture but rather he was responsible for it as well. As Refn says in Dune, “All reads lead back to Jodorowsky.”

I think the problem that Jodo encountered with Hollywood was probably also due to his non-American sensibilities.

The 1960s and 1970s were full of counterculture films. Look at Easy Rider as the perfect example and the start of that era of filmmaking. It was full of drugs and experimentation and had an avant-garde aesthetic, but it was also completely and utterly American.

And when a team from outside that of that POV comes in, with French money nonetheless, I think that was the real turn off to these studios. In our interviews, Jodo told us, “If I was an American, the picture would have been made”.

And I think there’s a certain amount of unfortunate truth to that.

M&C: The animation and onscreen transcription of interviews is stunning. Is it meant to reflect his imagination?

Pavich: We tried to capture what he was trying to do while maintaining the style of the time. But that balance requires you to not veer off into a cheesy and false style of the 70s.

I wanted the animation to be of its time, and not so digitized-feeling. And we limited ourselves in the fact that we were animating the original artwork, we were not adding anything to it.

Our animator, Syd Garon is a genius. The same with our composer, Kurt Stenzel. Kurt perfectly captured a feel for the era and he never went over the top. Much like Jodo, I had my own spiritual warriors!

Everything that we did was in service to Jodo and the story. My DP, David Cavallo, and I purposefully came up with a plan to shoot the film in a respectful manner.

So many people liken Jodo to a ‘madman’ and they like to shoot him with a harsh key light and make it all look ‘crazy’, maybe even psychedelic.

But Jodo is deserving of much more respect than that and should be treated in that way. He is a very well-thought out artist and we consciously presented him in that light

M&C: Jodorowsky’s personal films were part of a wave of ground breaking seventies films. Do you miss that?

Pavich: Perhaps personal films were more widely received before. Taking the classic example of looking at the Oscar nominees of the 70s compared with today is pretty scary. B

ut those personal films are still out there, there’s just a whole bunch of other stuff blocking the view.

But for every bunch of big studio superhero and/or franchise movies, there are plenty of personal films. I think Refn is a perfect example of that.

Leos Carax, Gaspar Noe, Harmony Korine, even these films with the unfortunate label of ‘mumblecore’.

These are just a few examples off the top of my head of people who do whatever the hell they want and are not blindly going after the almighty dollar.

But on the flip side, with so much financing and control being under the thumb of studios and companies who are controlled by mega-corporations, the majority of films may indeed be under some sort of consensus-rule which is trying to tie in toys or Happy Meals.

So in that case, so much of the personality is gone.

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