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What if a Chilean surrealist filmmaker had directed 'Dune?'

Filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky being interviewed for the documentary
Filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky being interviewed for the documentary "Jodorowsky's Dune"
Filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky being interviewed for the documentary
A page from the storyboard for Jodorowsky's Dune
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky being interviewed for the documentary
Artist Chris Foss' rendering of a pirate spaceship from Dune
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky being interviewed for the documentary
Artist H R Giger's rendering of a villain's palace from "Jodorowsky's Dune"
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

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"Dune" was a weird, sprawling movie made by David Lynch in 1984. But if an eccentric and iconic Chilean-French filmmaker had had his way, it would have been weirder and more sprawling, and quite possibly, better.

In the mid-1970s, Alejandro Jodorowsky, best known for the bizarre cult film "El Topo," started planning to film sci-fi author Frank Herbert's classic, "Dune." It never got made, but it turned out to be influential anyway. And Jodorowsky's plans for the film were bizarre, wonderful, grandiose, and probably ruinous.

Although shooting never began, Jodorowsky's creative team drew storyboards for the entire film and estimated the running time to be between 12 and 20 hours. 

A new documentary called "Jodorowsky's Dune" is playing at Cinefamily in LA, and filmmaker Frank Pavich talked with John Rabe from his home in Geneva.

On why Jodorowsky decided to make "Dune"

"If you ask him, I think it was divine intervention. He had not read the book when he came up with the idea to make the film. But a French producer named Michel Seydoux asked him 'what do you want to do next?' And this was after Jodorowsky had made 'El Topo' and 'The Holy Mountain.'

"Alejandro just said 'Dune.' A friend of his at one point told him that it was a very good book and that's how he got the ball rolling."

On how Jodorowsky cast "Dune"

"He was going to have a cast that included his own 12-year old son, whom he put into training for two full years to learn how to fight, sword fight, karate, jiu-jitsu. And he was trained every day, six hours a day, seven days a week. In his cast he had Orson Welles, David Carradine, Mick Jagger, he had Salvador Dalí, who was going to play a character called the Mad Emperor of the Universe. And this was all going to be set to the score of Pink Floyd."

On how Salvador Dalí was brought into the film

"It took a long time, and they basically had to chase Dalí around the globe. But it basically came down where at the very end, Dalí said 'Yes, I will be in your film.' But Dalí wanted to be the highest paid actor in Hollywood. So he was demanding $100,000 an hour.

"And they came up with this idea of figuring out how many minutes would Dalí be in the film—and Alejandro though 'oh, maybe three, maybe five minutes." And so they went back to Dalí and they said we will pay you $100,000 per used minute and that allowed Dalí to kind of stand from the rooftops of Paris, or Spain, or New York, and say that he is the highest paid actor in the world."

On "Dune's" influence on filmmaking

"It's really the greatest film never made, and it's also the most influential movie never made. He hired this team of artists — fine artists — painters, comic book artists, most notably there was his core group of three: Moebius, who was probably the most famous French comic book artist. There was  Chris Foss, who was the British science fiction pulp paperback cover designer. And then he had H. R. Giger, who's this sort of dark, surrealistic Swiss artist that we all now know as being the man to create the look for 'Alien.' And those three guys all went to go work on 'Alien' because Jodorowsky's special effects person, Dan O'Bannon, wrote Alien." 

On "Dune's" potential success

"Going into the film, we didn't know what it was going to be. All we knew is that we wanted to see his 'Dune.' And I would still love to see his 'Dune.' There would have been nothing like it, for sure. And people sort of laugh at him, and people sort of laugh at 'Oh, your film would have been 12 or 20 hours. Who wants to watch something like that?'

"But now we're an era where there's six Star Wars films, soon there's gonna be three more. How many Harry Potter movies are there? Six or seven? We love to stream. How many people do you know that will sit and watch an entire season of Breaking Bad? How many hours is that?

"I think that the public wants to be involved and wants to be immersed in worlds like Alejandro Jodorowsky can create."

"Jodorowsky's Dune" is at Cinefamily this week; for times and tickets, check their website.