At Fantastic Fest 2013, a certain film captivated crowds, winning both Best Documentary and Audience Choice Award. Directed by Frank Pavich and produced by Pavich, Stephen Scarlata, and Travis Stevens (among others), Jodorowsky’s Dune reads as the ultimate heartfelt love letter to filmmaking. Watch the doc and discover what might have been: a cast including Mick Jagger, Sting, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dali…with key art and design by HR Giger, storyboards by Moebius, and a soundtrack by Pink Floyd.
We recently spoke with Scarlata on how his journey to make Jodorowsky’s Dune transformed from a literal heart-pounding obsession to an impossible dream, and finally into a beloved documentary that both film lovers and Jodorowsky aficionados drool over worldwide. I dare you to watch it and not become instantly smitten with the passion bubbling over from the people that were tied to the project, as well as from fans, writers, and directors.
Diabolique: Tell us how Jodorowsky’s Dune began.
Stephen Scarlata: The project pretty much started off with me. I was a reader of Fangoria and Starlog when I was a kid growing up in the 80s, and I was really obsessed with Star Wars. After Return of the Jedi, David Lynch’s Dune was supposed to be the next big science fiction movie. Surprisingly, I became obsessed with Dune at an early age. Dune would be on the cover of the Book-of-the-Month Club ads, with those the giant worms, and I would rip them out and hang them on my wall when I was a kid. Being a horror fan, those worms drew me in.
I was so excited for Lynch’s Dune. I even had a full-length comic of the film before it came out. It ends up that I missed Dune in the theaters, but I rented it as soon as it came out on VHS and dubbed it to a beta tape; and, to be honest, I didn’t really like it when I first saw it. I was really confused by it. It wasn’t anything like Star Wars. It was strange. Even the actors looked weird to me. But that didn’t stop me from watching David Lynch’s Dune over and over and over again so I could understand it. I didn’t get it, but for some reason I needed to get it. So I watched it every time it was on HBO with my dad. I ended up falling in love with Lynch’s Dune. It’s still, to this day, one of my favorite films.
Fast forward to film school in the early-to-mid 90s. I ran out of Dario Argento movies to rent from my local video store, where I found a copy of Santa Sangre. It had Claudio Argento’s name on it; fiending for a new Argento flick, I rented it. That film changed my life. I’d never seen a film like that before. It pulled emotions from me that I’ve never felt before. I ended up showing it all my friends every time they came over. “You got to see this,” I would tell them. That started my obsession with Alejandro Jodorowsky.
It took me forever to track down Jodorowsky’s other films. In the 90s, they were so hard to find. Of course, I was doing it all wrong. I was calling and driving to every video store trying to track down his work. Looking back on it now, I’m really happy it took a long time to track Jodorowsky’s films down, because when you eventually found them it was like you found gold. It was worth the search.
It was really difficult to find anything about Jodorowsky online back then, too. There was IMDb and a website called the Symbol that Grows. That’s where I first learned about Jodorowsky and his attempt to make Dune. I cannot describe the emotions that went through my body. My chest caved in, my head almost exploded. ‘WTF, he was going to make Dune, he was going to make a movie with giant worms. WHAT?!’ I was losing it.
I couldn’t get it out of my head, so I started researching Jodorowsky’s Dune out of curiosity because I needed to know more about it. I was obsessed. There was nothing else on the Internet about it at that time. The incredible website DUNEinfo wasn’t up yet. I started going to the cinema library to research it. That’s when I found out that Dan O’Bannon was attached—in old copies of Hollywood Reporter and Variety.
It was a natural high to find out that this existed. I started to then track down old Starlog magazines from the late 70s, Frank Herbert’s bio, and started piecing things together. I was trying to find whatever I could. I also found some fifth generation storyboards from a 70s fanzine called Phobos; one was of the Ornithopter. I was losing it. Around that time, it started to infect my brain that this could be an interesting documentary. A few years later I found the Unseen Dune website; that was when I first saw the character designs Moebius drew, and that’s when I knew I needed to make this documentary.
So, in 2008, I brought the project to Frank Pavich. We previously made a documentary in the late 90s called NYHC. Then we spent a number of years after that trying to get a straight-edge film off the ground, but it never worked out. He was getting ready to leave LA for NY at the time but he was interested in being a part of it. I spent the next few months mailing him all my research and what ever DVD extras I had, like Constellation Jodorowsky. Then the journey to make Jodorowsky’s Dune began.
Diabolique: When did Travis Stevens come onboard, and what did he bring to the project?
Scarlata: I met Travis in the 90s. It’s hard being a fan of genre films. You can’t really watch them with everybody, so I was lucky enough to know Travis. He was one of the rare friends that wouldn’t constantly rip a movie apart if it wasn’t good. So when I found films like Deadbeat at Dawn and The Pit, I would go to his house and watch them with him.
With Travis, it was kind of like the summing of The Warriors in our doc. Travis happened to be visiting the set of a show I was working on the day Jodorowsky agreed to do our documentary. I immediately approached him on set and told him about it, and he was interested. It worked out perfectly. We had Jodo and Travis the same day.
Travis helped us out a lot. It wasn’t easy getting people to interview for our film. We were constantly being turned down. He helped get other voices for our film. He’s pretty much the main reason we have Refn and Richard Stanley in our film, in addition to Devin and Drew. I can’t imagine the film without them.
Diabolique: It sounds as though you had a huge amount of material. What happened then?
Scarlata: Yeah, we did. Frank ended up tracking down Jodorowsky’s acting agent of all people in ‘08. He wrote an email to Jodo, who didn’t get back to us for about a year. When Jodorowsky got in touch with Frank, he invited him to Paris to meet in person. It was crazy. We couldn’t believe it. So Frank went to Paris to see Jodo in person, to explain the project in depth to him. Soon after that, Jodorowsky came on board. It was amazing.
Diabolique: Did you stay deeply involved in making the documentary?
Scarlata: Oh yeah, from the conception ‘til the end. I was the one mostly in charge of all the research and going through the 3,000 storyboards, finding the influences in other films. I was obsessed with Dune. So it was a treat to have these storyboards in front of me. I still can’t help to go through them.
I was there for most of the interviews. It took a while to research all our subjects to make sure we cover everything. We’re interviewing people who are sharing stories over 40 years old. We had only one shot with most of these guys. I had to dig out every interview from the 70s I could find and go through them carefully not to miss anything for the questions. We needed to cover every basis.
It was heartbreaking that we didn’t have Dan O’Bannon present in our film; we needed him somehow. I kept digging around trying to find old rare interviews we could possibly use. It took a while, but I eventually tracked down an old fanzine interview with Dan O’Bannon from the late 70s recorded on a cassette tape, which we ended up using for the “trip out” interview. I am really happy he is a part of our film and that a new audience is discovering him.
Lots of library trips and research turned into dead ends as well; there was lots of stuff we couldn’t use. I found boxes at LMU of the old producer Arthur Jacobs’ attempt before Jodo. We couldn’t use any of it. We also did a lot of David Lynch Dune research.
Diabolique: For the uninitiated, who was Arthur Jacobs? Did he try to make Dune, too?
Scarlata: Yeah, Arthur Jacobs was best known for producing the Planet of the Apes films. According to Daily Variety, Roger Corman had the rights to Dune in 1971. In 1972, Arthur Jacobs acquired the rights, but was tied up with Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and a musical adaptation of Tom Sawyer; He had to put Dune aside.
Jacobs picked up the production again in late 1972-73. From what I dug up, he had a budget of $7 million. Jacobs was going for more of a sprawling desert epic, like Lawrence of Arabia. He described the space sequences as the best parts of 2001: A Space Odyssey and he also wanted elements of King Arthur in it.
The cast would have been British theater and television actors. A few names were Rick Lester (The Message) and George Camiller (Dr. Who). A lot of the names attached I couldn’t even find on IMDB.
From what I read in his treatment, it would have been dialog heavy and extremely slow moving. They were going more with the idea of interplanetary commerce. Dealing more with the galactic civilization and its political social system, not so much with the sci-fi elements. The Atreides family lived in a castle with great stonewalls, with red and black banners hanging from them. The Paul Atreides training sequence takes place in a castle room with them using rapiers. The space scenes would have been more operatic, like 2001, slow moving through space. If any description of the spacecraft is mentioned, there’s a white, antiseptic feel to them, with lots of robed costumes being blown by the desert wind.
Jacobs was in talks with David Lean to direct, and Dale Hennesy (Sleeper, Logans Run) was attached as production designer. Frank Herbert was really excited about all the progress and the choices Jacobs was making for his adaptation. They were gearing up to shoot in Goreme, Turkey when Jacobs suddenly passed away in 1973.
Diabolique: Did you discover anything new about the Lynch version of Dune?
Scarlata: Just mostly about the nightmare it was to make that film. David Lynch’s Dune is a documentary onto itself. One thing we found out, when we interviewed H.R. Giger, was that he was disappointed that he wasn’t asked to be involved with Lynch’s Dune. Giger designed the Harkonnen furniture a few years after working on Jodo’s Dune. He became really obsessed with the Harkonnens and their lifestyle. So much so that the Giger bar is strongly influenced by the Harkonnens.
It was strongly hinted that Dino DeLaurentis had Jodo’s Dune storyboard book. It’s apparent when you watch Flash Gordon. There are a few shot-for-shot sequences in his Dune, like the riding of the worms, and some of the sequences with Paul and Jessica escaping the worms—those shots are almost identical.
I also remember reading that a double VHS tape edition of the four-hour Lynch cut was supposed to have been released in the mid 80s. I would have loved to see that. It would have been different than the Alan Smithee three-hour television cut. I can only hope that Jodorowsky’s Dune brings more awareness to Lynch’s work. I really do believe it’s an under-appreciated film. We are coming up on David Lynch’s Dune’s 30-year anniversary this December.
In Frank Herbert’s book, the Lady Jessica is related to the Harkonnens; in Lynch’s version, the Harks all have reddish hair, and so does Lady Jessica. I always wondered if they were going to touch on that.
Diabolique: What’s next for you? Are you producing or directing anything on the horizon?
Scarlata: I have a few film documentaries I’m putting together right now. Just trying to find some funding. People thought I was talking in another language when I was trying to pitch Jodorowsky’s Dune. I can only hope they have more faith in my projects now. I also have some scripts making the rounds. One is called Fan Girl, a cosplay horror film in the vein of Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill. I’ve just been writing and creating as much as I can.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is available on DVD, blu-ray, and iTunes digital streaming now.