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Documentary 'Jodorowsky's Dune' argues case for lost masterpiece

Director Alejandro Jodorowsky gestures in this undated handout courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. In 1974, cult director Jodorowsky set out
Director Alejandro Jodorowsky gestures in this undated handout courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. In 1974, cult director Jodorowsky set out

By Jeffrey Hodgson

TORONTO (Reuters) - In 1974, cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky set out to make a film of the science fiction novel "Dune," with music by Pink Floyd, a cast that included Mick Jagger, and the goal of letting the audience experience an LSD hallucination without drugs.

The movie was never made. But "Jodorowsky's Dune," a documentary shown at the Toronto International Film Festival on Tuesday, argues the film is not only a lost masterpiece, but that it helped spawn the popular "Alien" movie franchise and left its mark on many science-fiction film classics.

The idea for the documentary was sparked when Frank Pavich, an American filmmaker based in Geneva, saw a list that ranked the greatest movie projects never made.

"It's interesting to think of this alternative world of films that could have been," he told Reuters.

"(Jodorowsky's "Dune") is always the story that jumped out to us because it's the most fantastical out of all of them. It's the biggest by far."

Jodorowsky, a Chilean-born filmmaker with roots in avant-garde theater, had gained fame with the 1970 release of his surreal western "El Topo." That was followed by "The Holy Mountain," which was financed partly by John Lennon and became an underground favorite.

The now-octogenarian director recounts in the documentary that when asked then what his next project would be, he replied "Dune," a book he had not read but only heard about from a friend.

One of the best-selling science fiction novels of all time, "Dune," written by Frank Herbert, is an epic story about the battle for control of a desert planet that produces a spice essential for space travel.

Jodorowsky, not overly concerned with sticking to the source material, saw it as vehicle for raising the consciousness of moviegoers.

"I wanted to create a prophet to change the young minds of the world. Dune would be the coming of an artistic, cinematical god," he says in the documentary.

DALI, JAGGER AND SPIRITUAL WARRIORS

After holing up in French castle to work on the script, Jodorowsky began recruiting a team of what he called "spiritual warriors". They included special effects expert Dan O'Bannon, who would go on to write "Alien" and "Total Recall," Swiss painter H.R. Giger, and French cartoonist Jean "Moebius" Giraud.

The director also began assembling a cast that included Jagger, David Carradine, Salvador Dali, and Orson Welles, who was lured to the production with the promise of his own chef.

"It's like a who's who of weird choices and weird mixtures," Pavich said. "To me there's nothing as fantastical as Jodorowsky's vision ... and this is one of the peaks of it."

Much of the documentary focuses on the Jodorowsky team's elaborate film proposal, which they made into a book that ran hundreds of pages. It had drawings of every scene with dialogue, as well as lavish illustrations of the sets, costumes and spaceships.

The book, of which only a few copies exist, "contains an unseen movie, complete," Pavich said.

SOARING BUDGET, RUNNING TIME

While other filmmakers interviewed about the unmade "Dune" heap praise on Jodorowsky's vision, they also acknowledge it may have been overly ambitious and even technologically impossible in the mid-1970s.

Hollywood studios at the time were skeptical the movie could be brought in at an acceptable running time and balked at an estimated $15 million budget. Jodorowsky himself talks about the idea of a film running 12 to 20 hours.

Jodorowsky's team scattered when the money ran out. Shortly after, O'Bannon would write the screenplay for the original "Alien," with Giger helping to design the unique look of the creature in the film. Other members went on to work on such movies as "Superman," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Tron," and influenced the look of "Blade Runner."

"Dune" was eventually made into a film in 1984 by David Lynch, but did poorly with critics and at the box office, a failure that Jodorowsky admits delighted him.

By contrast, the documentary "Jodorowsky's Dune" received strong reviews when it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where Jodorowsky watched it for the first time.

Pavich said the director was in tears when the screening ended and has helped support it since. It will be distributed in the United States early next year by Sony Corp's movie arm.

In the film, Jodorowsky expresses the hope that his version of "Dune" might one day be made by another filmmaker, possibly as an animated movie.

Jodorowsky has since been approached by at least one director about this idea, suggesting the so-called lost masterpiece might one day hit theaters, a possibility Pavich relishes.

"Anything that can bring more Jodorowsky into the world, I'm totally thrilled to be behind," he said.

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Galloway)

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