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Q&A: Frank Pavich and the tale of “JODOROWSKY’S DUNE”

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Cinema is full of devastating stories of films unfinished, abandoned or stolen. One of the most mythical of these is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s follow-up to his magical cult classics EL TOPO and THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, a proposed adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel, DUNE. The film was deep in pre-production in the mid-70s when financing fell apart, and boasted a crazy attached cast including Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, Gloria Swanson and David Carradine, production design by HR Giger and Jean “Moebius” Giraud, visual FX by Dan O’Bannon, and music by Magma and Pink Floyd. One can only imagine the stunning, mystical epic this would have been.

But thanks to Frank Pavich’s award-winning documentary JODOROWSKY’S DUNE, which begins its North American theatrical rollout today, we don’t have to. Using original storyboards, concept artwork and both original and archive interviews with all the key players (as well as an eclectic mix of cultural critics), Pavich brings the doomed tale of Jodorowsky’s DUNE to life. It was rightly suggested in the doc that had Jodorowsky’s vision of DUNE come to fruition, it would have changed history, that the brouhaha surrounding STAR WARS would have been much less pronounced; and indeed it did change history all the same – without Jodorowsky’s DUNE, we wouldn’t have ALIEN, whose creative team was largely assembled from the remnants of Jodorowsky’s aborted project.

We saw the film in its World Premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where it played in the Director’s Fortnight alongside Jodorowsky’s own new film, LA DANZA DE La REALIDAD, and caught up with Pavich at the Toronto International Film Festival, where JODOROWSKY’S DUNE had its North American premiere, followed by the most fun afterparty of the fest (for my money), at local comic shop The Beguiling Bookstore.

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FANGORIA:  Did you come to this project as a Jodo fan or as a DUNE fan?

FRANK PAVICH:: As a Jodo fan. I really didn’t know much about DUNE. I’d seen Lynch’s film 15 years ago or something, and I’d never read the book, so I kind of approached it like Jodo did. I didn’t read the book until we were ready to go, until I was on the plane flying from New York to Paris to do our first interview. But we came across this story, it’s kind of a famous story in that underground world. I think we first came across it in one of those books, you know, “the 50 Greatest Movies Never Made,” like Kubrick’s NAPOLEON and different versions of other films, like a Richard Dreyfuss version of TOTAL RECALL, and these other alternate-universe things. But the one that really stands out the most is Jodorowsky’s DUNE. It’s the most fantastical out of them all. I was dying to learn more about that.

FANG:  So what was it about his films that drew you to him originally, did you read his comics, or his books or anything like that?

PAVICH: I was not really aware of the comic thing. In starting to do serious research on his films and I learned about THE INCAL and stuff, and I bought a copy of it, read it, and the impact of what it meant didn’t really hit me until I started spending more time in Paris. Because coming from New York, coming from the US, I don’t have that same background. Comics to me are DC and Marvel and superheroes – they’re softcover and they’re disposable.

FANG: Well also, a lot of his comics when they get released in North America, they are released in these very niche markets, whereas over there it’s like everyone’s read them.

PAVICH: That’s the thing, you walk into a bookstore and there’s the romance section, there’s the cookbooks, and that huge wall? That’s comics, which are oversized, hardcover, and very expensive. They’re not disposable, they’re meant to be held forever, there’s a real reverence for the artwork and for the stories that doesn’t exist in the States, at least not in my background.  So once I was there and seeing this, it became a whole new facet to his life. He’s so multi-faceted, with the movies, the comics, the books, memoirs, the tarot cards, the “psychomagic therapy’. I didn’t realize how serious that was.

FANG:  So how did it go from you discovering the story and wanting to make it into a film to actually approaching Jodorowsky and getting him on board?

PAVICH: Well, I found he had an agent for acting in Spain. I found a website that listed his headshot among 20 or 30 others on the page!  I didn’t even know he was an actor really, so I thought, “what is this?” One more facet to his repertoire. So I just sent the agent an email and a few months later I get an email from Alejandro Jodorowsky.  So I open it up and it’s basically, “I hear you’re looking for me, you want to make this film, if you want to do something like this you need to come to Paris to speak to me face to face.”

FANG: So how did that go down?

PAVICH: It was great, and it was terrifying!

FANG: Did you feel like you were being put through a test of some sort?

PAVICH: You know, he’s so open, that no—unless I was just so unaware of it, which is quite possible. I guess it was all based on my enthusiasm and my personality, because he never once asked me what I had done before, or to show him an example of my other films or my IMDb page or anything like that. I spoke to him for 15 minutes that day, and he was like, “Okay, sounds great, but you need to go find Michael Seydoux and talk to him because he has the artwork, he was the producer of DUNE, and if he says no then you have no movie, because if there’s no artwork, there’s nothing there.”

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Art, by H.R. Giger

FANG: The artwork as in the storyboards?

PAVICH: Yes, the storyboards, and all the artwork that was created when they were doing it.

FANG: I thought Jodorowsky had all that stuff in that book…

PAVICH: He has the book, but the originals, the rights to that artwork, the original pieces of paper are sitting in Cabinet One in Michel Seydoux’s production company. And that’s a huge stack, Moebius’ hands touched it, it’s his pencil on paper, it’s incredible. And Seydoux has the rights to all that, he paid for it, so I had to go meet him next and pitch him the same thing. And he was just as excited, he said “Whatever you need, no problem, you have full access, what’s mine is yours, and let’s go make this!” It was really simple. I almost wish that I had a more dramatic story, about him reading my tarot cards or something!

FANG: Did he not read your tarot cards?

PAVICH: No, no. Now I would feel comfortable asking, but before the film was finished I was too nervous. God forbid there was something in there that he didn’t like, or saw something in me he didn’t like, I didn’t need any complications. I don’t know what could possibly be in there. Death! “I’ve never had four death cards!” [Laughs]  But now the film’s finished, now he’s seen it…

FANG: And he likes it?

PAVICH: He loved it, yeah. He was crying. He saw it in Cannes and was completely overwhelmed. He and his wife were wiping away tears, and I tuned to him and said “So, what do you think?” And he said, “It’s perfect.” Which is all I really could ask for. I also feel very proud to have made a documentary about somebody and I was not sued by the subject afterward! That’s a very rare occurrence when it comes to documentaries! No one’s trying to kill me, which is good.

FANG: So the producer had the rights to all the Moebius artwork, so you did not have to deal with Moebius’ wife or anything?

PAVICH: No.

FANG: For some reason I thought Moebius’ wife would have been a holdup.

PAVICH: She’s always a holdup, but it’s been proven just recently that she does not have any rights to anything. She tried to cause some trouble for us, but from my perspective I was like “Look, Michel Seydoux paid for it, I made an agreement with him, and he’s the producer of the film and he owns it all. And that’s what the courts have said over there. I know Jodo and her have had some issues, as have a lot of people.

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Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jean Moebius Giraud

FANG: Were you trying to get an original interview with Moebius?

PAVICH: We were, but we couldn’t get an interview with Moebius because he was so sick and then he passed away, so I was talking to Hasko [Baumann, who made the 2007 documentary MOEBIUS REDUX: A LIFE IN PICTURES] to see if he had any footage he didn’t use that we might be able to use. And he said if it was up to him, absolutely, but the deal was that it could only be used for this purpose and Moebius’ wife would never allow it.

FANG: So did you plan for Jodo’s new movie and your movie to be premiering at the same time?

PAVICH: It was totally kismet. This year at Cannes was the year of Jodorowsky—there was our film, we premiered at 7:00, his new film LA DANZA DE LA REALIDAD premiered at 9:00, and then Brontis’ [Jodorowsky’s] daughter Alma, Alejandro’s granddaughter, was in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, and Refn had his new film there, ONLY GOD FORGIVES, which is dedicated to Jodorowsky. So it was like a four-way Jodo fest, it was really crazy.

FANG: And RITUAL: A PSYCHOMAGIC LOVE STORY was playing in the market, which Jodorowsky appears in as an actor, so that’s five!

PAVICH: It was really the year of Jodorowsky. It was quite a Jodo renaissance, A Jodo-ssance!

FANG: But do you feel weird that it seems like your movie is getting more attention than his new movie?

PAVICH: If that is the case, it doesn’t really surprise me. Because his film is very specific, while he himself is so universal. So our film has the universal Jodo, which everyone can fall in love with, you don’t have to be a fan of avant-garde films, you don’t have to be a fan of science fiction, you don’t have to be familiar with DUNE or any of this stuff.

FANG: Yeah, because you could just follow that story in terms of the tragic elements of it, anyone can relate to the idea of working so hard on something and then having it all crumble.

PAVICH: While LA DANZA is amazing as it is – it’s absolutely stunning and beautiful – it’s his most personal film, it’s his youth growing up, his issues with his father, played out in a very strange way, because his own son Brontis plays Alejandro’s father. He plays his own grandfather in the film. So it’s really weird, Brontis is so amazing in it.

FANG: One of the things I found surprising about your film is that I’ve seen some interviews with Jodo where he gets very aggressive, he seems very angry, he has no patience for the people interviewing him. So how did you get around that? Because he’s so charming in your film.

PAVICH: For the most part, I think a lot of that may be a bit of an act. I think the real Jodo is the sweet guy. I think people want him to be crazy so he says these crazy things in interviews, and sometimes there is this harsh key light on one side, and he looks like a monster! We wanted to treat him with more respect, we wanted to treat him like a professor. He’s a renaissance man and we wanted to show that. And maybe my questions just didn’t antagonize him. But also if he would ever get cranky it didn’t bother me. Maybe it’s the same feelings he had, when he was making DUNE, whatever the issues were, you just have to keep going. Keep persevering, keep making it. Without even realizing it, I approached it the same as him, I had the same ambition, and I was determined to make it happen. We had access to one of the greatest minds that I’ve ever come across, as well as all these people who were part of this amazing story, who love him so much. You know, but he was always wonderful to me, he was always sweet. He’s very much in tune with the universe, and cosmic consciousness and all these ideals; that’s who he is.

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H.R. Giger

FANG: So how did you put your team together?

PAVICH: My ‘spiritual warriors’?

FANG: Yeah, including those you chose as interview subjects. People who were involved with the film itself are obvious choices, but guys like Richard Stanley…

PAVICH: Richard Stanley was kind of a great choice for us because not only does he make interesting avant-garde films himself, and he holds Jodo in such high regard, but he has a similar background, and similar experience. Jodo made HOLY MOUNTAIN, EL TOPO, these small underground films, went on to make a big-budget adaptation and all does not go as planned. Richard Stanley makes HARDWARE, makes DUST DEVIL—two independent, off the beaten path films—has great success, he’s going to go make his giant big-budget adaptation of DR MOREAU, things do not go as planned at all, and it really wounded him. So he can kind of speak to the feelings that Jodo can’t or won’t admit. Jodo does not view DUNE as a failure, and I agree with him, but I’m sure that took a little work to come to that. I’m sure in 1976 when it all collapsed, I’m sure he was devastated.

FANG: Especially seeing the team that he put together getting academy Awards for ALIEN.

PAVICH: You go to the Giger Museum in Switzerand and there’s the Academy Award, sitting there in a case. And Jodo can’t even make it into the main competition in Cannes. Like, what the hell? But the two of us were in the Director’s Fortnight together, so that was fantastic.

FANG: What kind of lessons do you take away from this movie? And hearing the story of all these experiences as a filmmaker yourself, is it frightening?

PAVICH:  I think what I learned is what maybe what I already knew but didn’t realize it. Which is, that you have to have that drive, and you have to have that belief in whatever it is you’re doing. My vision was a lot smaller than his, but like he says, why try, why do anything if it’s not going to be the best? Make it the greatest, and if you fail, it’s really not important. Because it’s not just about the end product, it’s about the journey. It’s about who you come across and what you learn in that process. Maybe his DUNE was meant to end at that point. Is it a failure? I don’t know, he wasn’t rolling cameras, it’s not LOST IN LA MANCHA. He’s not in the desert and his shoot gets shut down. Maybe it was just meant to go up to that point, his ideas go out into the universe, and maybe this is exactly the way it was supposed to be.

FANG: It was because of your movie that he and the producer reunited to make a new movie.

PAVICH: Yeah, they spoke for the first time in 30 years. We just facilitated communication between these two guys who loved each other and missed each other, and wanted to be together. But they were both hurt by the experience, and afraid that they had hurt the other person more than they were hurt themselves. There really couldn’t be any better ending.

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JODOROWSKY’S DUNE is now playing in select cities. Photos courtesy of H.R. Giger and Sony Pictures Classics. 

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About the author
Kier-La Janisse http://www.big-smash.com
Kier-La Janisse is a writer and film programmer based in Montreal, Canada. She is the Founding Director of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies and a film programmer for Fantastic Fest, POP Montreal and SF Indie. She has been a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, founded the CineMuerte Horror Film Festival in Vancouver and co-founded Montreal's Blue Sunshine Psychotronic Film Centre. She is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB Press, 2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012).
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