Final day at the Toronto International Film Festival (2013) and I found myself sitting at a tiny back table across from documentary director Frank Pavich whose film Jodorowsky’s Dune had been one of the first films I slotted onto my screening schedule as soon as its announcement was made. I’m a Frank Herbert fanatic from way back and I’ve seen all of the live action takes on the Dune series, but the idea of a version by Alejandro Jodorowsky is the great white whale of a project out there that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around.
It is fitting, I suppose, that while searching for an image to accompany this piece, I stumbled across one featuring Pavich alongside Jodorowsky because as quick as many of us are to label the surrealist “a genius,” we would not be wrong to affix the tag to Pavich. His brand of genius though is quieter, less intimidating. It is more blind naiveté mixed with a refreshing honesty and openness. He attentively listened to my opening diatribe about the state of Young Adult fiction translations into Hollywood franchise set-pieces without rolling his eyes at my zealotry, I would like to think because there’s a bit of that kindred spirit in him (minus my journalistic cynicism).
terrencetodd: What drew you to the project?
Frank Pavich: The scope of it is what drew me to it. It’s just so fantastical. It’s so massive. You start rattling it off – it’s directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, it’s an adaptation of Dune. It’s going to star his (Jodorowsky’s) own son. It’s going to star David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, Salvador Dalí with Pink Floyd doing the soundtrack. HR Giger doing production design. Where does it end, you know? There’s nothing else like, I don’t think, and it’s not like a weird hodgepodge where its a stunt casting kind of thing. I think in anyone else’s hands it might have been, but this quest to put everybody in there had a specific reason and the person really seemed to fit the role perfectly. It just happened to be that they were the giants of giants, I mean Orson Welles, Dali, Pink Floyd, it’s just crazy. It’s a crazy amount of things.
So, everyday films collapse, but usually there isn’t this kind of material left behind. Maybe just a couple of screenplay drafts, a casting wish list. Maybe somebody’s attached. Maybe you have a letter of intent from somebody. But you don’t ever have, you know, here’s the entire film, image by image, everything that’s supposed to happen in these 3,000 drawings and in storyboard sequence, head to tail, costume designs, everything. Here it is, all in a book. You just didn’t get to roll the cameras. Now, I don’t know – Michel Seydoux says it in the film – of another film that was taken so far, only to not get made, and then have somebody else come and make it. And that’s always the interesting thing. Not only the what if with this film, but you also see it end up in the hands of somebody else. How devastating that must be. Or the weird what if’s, like what if Total Recall had been made with Richard Dreyfuss instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I wonder what that movie would have been. I would love to see it. How cool would it be to have a DVD with those two different versions of that film? It would be fascinating. Just the exercise, you know.
terrencetodd: And that’s the crazy thing that comes out in your film. It’s even funny to hear him (Jodorowsky) talk about the David Lynch version (of Dune)…
Pavich: You can’t ignore it.
terrencetodd: To be quite honest, what your film shows is that with all the work that went into it, his film would have been completely different than the David Lynch film. It would have been completely different than the book. And that’s the other fascinating thing for me, again, being someone who grew up in that science fiction/fantasy world, that book is a weird bible for me. I don’t remember, even as a critic, lines from films necessarily or from other great books that I’ve read and loved, but they don’t stick with me in that way. But, that idea, at the beginning of the story where Paul is meeting with the Bene Gesserit and he’s reciting the fear mantra…
Pavich: Fear is the mind killer…what a great line that is…
terrencetodd: Yeah…that sticks with me…
Pavich: That’s worthy of a tattoo. I don’t have any tattoos, but that’s worthy of a tattoo.
terrencetodd: I just got one before I came here, and you’re right, I wish I had gotten that.
terrencetodd: That’s why the stuff today, it’s so weird, because we have these stories today where young adults are wizards and vampires and whatnot, but that story (Dune) for its time was sort of a young adult story but not really.
Pavich: That’s the thing. I’m not sure it was a young adult story. It just happened to have a young protagonist. But it wasn’t written for kids. Even though, when they made Lynch’s version, for some crazy reason, the studio thought it was for kids and produced children’s bed sheets. It’s not a kid’s movie! Paul Atreides action figures, little Kyle MacLachlans. This was not Star Wars and Luke Skywalker.
When it came out I was eleven and I was a big Police fan. I was like, ‘Oh, Ma, I can’t wait to go see this movie,’ and she read the review and was like, ‘No way are you going to go see this.’ I remember very vividly. I should find it. I grew up in New York, so it was probably Newsday that she was reading and she was like, ‘Apparently there are aborted fetuses on the ground. You are not going to see that film.’ And I didn’t see it until years and years later. I was a child. I was a kid and it was not meant for me. So, you know, Harry Potter has a young protagonist, but its made for kids, young adults.
terrencetodd: I can tell now that I’m a few years older than you, not too many, but we didn’t have Young Adult fiction at that time. I remember I read Dune. I read Stephen Donaldson, Michael Moorcock. That was the stuff I cut my teeth on…
Pavich: That’s advanced.
terrencetodd: Yeah, it was, but I didn’t need to have a story geared towards me. There was this crazy fantastic world that in my head I was already playing around in, so why sugar coat it or dumb it down. But now we’re getting these books that we’re getting, it’s these films too, and your documentary shows that, even though it didn’t get made, there was someone out there who was like, ‘Screw dumbing this down. Let’s go big, go bold. Let’s go crazy with it.’ In ways that it would have been interesting if some visionary had decided to do that with Twilight maybe. There’s the seed of an idea here, let’s take that and run with it, do something else.
Pavich: Something different.
terrencetodd: You know, sure, you’re going to lose a few of the faithful readers, but you might gain something more.
Pavich: People complain that something’s not faithful to the book, but its a different art form. If I’m going to make a painting based on Dune, it’s not going to be faithful to the book exactly. It’s a different art form. And so, a movie is very different than a book. And he (Jodorowsky) really believes that. He changed that book.
terrencetodd: I’ve got to ask – you’ve seen the book (Jodorowsky’s collection of art and storyboards for the film)?
Pavich: Oh yes, many times.
terrencetodd: Just in this moment, outside the film you’ve made. What’s your impression of the book? What does it do for you?
Pavich: It’s incredible. It’s…how do you put it…how do I put it into words…that’s the question? That’s tough. Wow, I don’t know how to answer that. What does it do for me? It makes me…I have a very different vantage point than anyone else, because I’m allowed to see it…so, had I been watching (and seeing that book) as a viewer of the film (his documentary), I would have been wistful and sad that I didn’t get to see it, because as a viewer you want to see and get inside it. I think we show quite a bit of it in the film, but you want to get your hands on it. And I feel fortunate…maybe I feel empowered by it, in a sense, because I’m one of the few people in the world who have gotten to hold that book and see everything, not just pick and choose pieces, a couple of scenes here or a couple of images there, but to really sit down and flip through all of it and see the entire story. And see how this guy took this one book and created another book out of it. A visual version, using visual storytelling. It represents so much ambition. Of course its going to happen. Of course you’re going to make this film. Why wouldn’t you? Just get your team and do it. That’s what we did with this documentary.