"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Mook Musicals: Mean Streets/Saturday Night Fever

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Double Bill-a-Thon
being coordinated by Gautam Valluri at Broken Projector.

In their own way, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever (1977) are gritty musicals set in and around New York City. Both films take the notion of the American success story and reduce it to almost nothing. The characters that inhabit these films are small-time hustlers and punks with no real direction in life and no future.

Set in "Little Italy," Scorsese’s film introduces us to most of the main characters in the opening moments of the film. Each one is given his own little scene in order to showcase his distinct character-defining obsession. We first meet Tony (David Proval), the order-obsessed owner of a local bar, as he throws out a junkie and then chastises his bouncer for his lack of initiative. Next, is Michael (Richard Romanus), a serious looking loan shark who ineptly tries to sell a man a shipment of German lens only to be told by the customer that they are actually Japanese adapters. This is followed by the explosive Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a happy-go-lucky punk who gleefully blows up a mailbox and then runs off. Finally, we meet the film's protagonist, Charlie (Harvey Keitel), an ambitious young man who is embroiled in conflict – both personal and external.

Charlie is torn between two worlds: the static isolation of his uncle's environment and the constricting chaos of Johnny Boy's lifestyle. He must make a choice between the two, while trying to exist in both. Conflict occurs when these two worlds inevitably collide and Charlie is left to pick up the pieces. This revisionist approach is in stark contrast to the traditional gangster film which almost always follows a curve that traces the criminal's rise and eventual fall. However, Scorsese disrupts this notion by having no rise and leaving the fall unresolved. The only thing that is truly alive and vital in the film is Scorsese's camera which dollies and tracks all over the place with incredible energy and enthusiasm that is truly infectious.

It was one of the few gangster films, at the time, to use a personal, almost home-movie view of its subjects. The settings and situations are so intimate and personal that you almost feel embarrassed, as if you are intruding on someone's actual life.

Harvey Keitel's strong performance is one of the many highlights of Mean Streets. He manages to convey the inner turmoil that threatens to consume Charlie's character as he struggles to save everyone around him and ends up saving no one. It is incredible to see how much energy Robert De Niro instills in Johnny Boy – the embodiment of the film's frenetic force. He is the unpredictable element in Charlie's otherwise, structured world. Whenever Johnny Boy is on-screen the camera mimics his furious pace that absolutely bristles with intensity. Scorsese reinforces this energy in an early scene where Johnny Boy enters Tony's bar to the strains of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" by the Rolling Stones. Even though the entrance is captured in a slow motion tracking shot, De Niro's character is so energetic that not even this technique can slow him down.

The characters inhabit a world of smoky, dimly-lit bars with an amazing classic rock soundtrack to compliment the proceedings. Scorsese's camera is restless and frantic as it moves in tight, narrow spaces that lead to dead ends. This is done to convey the destiny of the characters. They are full of energy, but are going nowhere in life. Scorsese also used a hand-held camera to create a jerky, off-balance effect that conveys the sensation of disorientation. There is no center of power. No other scene demonstrates this effect more than the famous pool hall brawl where Johnny Boy, Charlie, and Tony go to collect some money from the owner. A fight breaks out when Johnny Boy's bravado insults the owner. Scorsese uses a hand-held camera to convey the constant confusion of the fight. The camera darts and weaves all over the place seemingly in time with “Please Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes. Scorsese follows one fight for a while before shifting to another brawl in an indiscriminate fashion. This effect raises the fight to a frightening level as the audience is drawn right into the middle of the pool hall melee and yet is offset by the music. The violence has no meaning or nobility and no one becomes a hero or succeeds as a result of using excessive force. After the pool hall fight is broken up, the conversation continues as if it never happened. The fight served no purpose and achieved no real end, except to enliven the characters' mundane existence for a few minutes. The camera, and by extension, the viewer enters the fracas, which creates a sense of danger not only for the characters but for the audience as well.

Saturday Night Fever also introduces its protagonist in an exciting and dynamic way as we see Tony Manero (John Travolta) strutting down the streets of Brooklyn, paint can in his hand to the strains of “Stayin' Alive” by the Bee Gees. He is a young man who works at a hardware store during the day but at night he hangs out with his buddies at the local dance club, 2001 Odyssey. Tony hopes to win the club’s dance contest but needs to find the right partner. At first, he teams up with Annette (Donna Pescow), a neighborhood girl who has a crush on Tony but whom he tells flat out that she’s not his “dream girl.” That would be Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) whom Tony spots cutting a very impressive groove on the dance floor and later at the dance studio where he practices at.

Tony falls hard for her but she initially rebuffs his advances, interested only in dancing, getting out of Brooklyn, and living in Manhattan. Even though Tony is the king of his neighborhood, he wants out too because he’s tired of living at home (arguing constantly with his father) and sees that his friends (like Charlie’s in Mean Streets) have no future – they are going to spend the rest of their lives in their neighborhood. This is symbolized by the character of Bobby C (Barry Miller), the dumb one of Tony’s gang who has gotten his girlfriend pregnant and spends the film trying to figure out what he’s going to do about it. He tries asking for help but no one listens to him because they don’t take him seriously.

Saturday Night Fever is beautifully photographed, especially the dance club scenes with the garish reds and vibrant, atmospheric lighting (Christmas lights and disco balls) that is epitomized in the sequence where Tony struts his stuff on the dance floor while everyone watches admiringly. Director John Badham frames Travolta in long shots so that his entire body is visible and as a result there is no question that he’s really doing all that incredible dancing. Because Saturday Night Fever has been parodied many times over people forget what an amazing dancer Travolta was, but watching him cut loose to “You Should Be Dancing” is one of the best dance sequences ever put to film. The choreography is astounding and Travolta moves to the music perfectly. It is easy to see how this film transformed him into a cultural phenomenon. As his brother tells Tony, he’s exciting to watch. Truer words were never spoken.

The comradery between Tony and his buddies feels authentic much as it does between Charlie and his friends in Mean Streets. It really seems like they’ve been friends forever. They act like goofballs around each other but not to the point of caricature. It never feels false. This is exemplified in the scene where they go for burgers at White Castle with Stephanie and Double J (Paul Pape) makes a joke about Tony eating like a dog. Double J begins barking loudly freaking out the employees and other customers but it is funny as opposed to being threatening.

People often forget how gritty the film is. If Martin Scorsese ever directed a dance movie this would be it. Tony and his gang are a tough bunch of guys who aren’t above taking on a rival gang who jumped one of their own. It’s a chaotic, messy fight reminiscent of a similar skirmish in Mean Streets. In fact, it often feels like Tony and his buddies could exist in the same world only a few miles away.

The true test of a film’s staying power is if the characters still resonate years after you first saw it. This special quality is very subjective. When enough years pass any film will inevitably viewed through the lens of nostalgia, representing a specific time and a place that doesn’t exist anymore except in our memories. This is the power of cinema – to capture a moment in time forever and allow you to revisit again and again like an old friend. Mean Streets and Saturday Night Fever do this and that is why both have endured for over 30 years and will continue to do so.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Brain Donors

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Slapstick Blog-A-Thon being coordinated by Thom Ryan at Film of the Year.

There’s a good reason why there have been so few attempts to copy the Marx Brothers. Not only did they do their own unique brand of anarchic, slapstick comedy so well, but it is also very hard to pull off so that what few attempts there have been failed miserably. That didn’t stop the Zucker brothers (of Airplane! and The Naked Gun fame) from trying in 1992 with the underrated film, Brain Donors. It was originally called Lame Ducks (a nice nod to the Marx Brothers) and Paramount Pictures, the studio that backed it, was gearing up to give it a huge promotional push. However, when the Zuckers left for another studio, Paramount decided to punish the film by withdrawing the publicity campaign, changing the title and pulling it from theaters after a brief run. It’s a shame because Brain Donors is an excellent example of a modern slapstick film.

The eye catching opening credits, rendered in Claymation (by Will Vinton no less), establish the film’s zany, free-wheeling attitude right away. In typical Marx Brothers fashion, pretentious high society types are taken down a notch. Lillian Oglethorpe (Nancy Marchand channeling Margaret Dumont) is a wealthy widow whose husband recently died. His final wish was to use half of his vast fortune to assemble a ballet company and find the best male dancer to front it. Enter attorney Roland T. Flakfizer (John Turturro), an ambulance chaser with his eyes on Oglethorpe’s money. Standing in his way is her snooty attorney (“As your trusted attorney,” he huffs pompously at one point, to which Roland replies, “You gonna use those words together?”) but once Roland teams up with Jacques (Bob Nelson as the Harpo surrogate) and Rocco (Mel Smith as the Chico archetype) much screwball insanity ensues.

Brain Donors turns into a riff on A Night at the Opera (1935) as the evil attorney convinces the conceited Volare (George De La Pena) to head the company while Roland and the boys get up-and-coming dancer, Alan Grant (Spike Alexander). In keeping with Marx Brothers tradition there is even a love story between a good-looking but bland couple that serves as a breather between manic comedic set pieces. Fans of the Marx Brothers can go through this film with a checklist of scenes and bits that were lifted from their films. As Chad Plambeck’s review points out, the emergency room scene is taken from A Day at the Races (1937) and the garden party is reminiscent of the one in Duck Soup (1933).

Brain Donors takes the slapstick film to absurd levels. One only has to look at the scene where Roland, Jacques and Rocco disrupt Volare’s performance at the ballet to see how this film employs the genre’s conventions so well. It starts off modestly as Roland stands in front of the orchestra pit offering a crazy play-by-play analysis of Volare’s performance. Pretty soon, they are throwing oversized toothbrushes and teddy bears at the egotistical dancer. Then, Jacques arrives on stage dressed as one of the ballerinas and proceeds to disrupt the performance by physically injecting himself into the proceedings. If that weren’t enough, Roland comes flying in on wires like some kind of demented Peter Pan only to be followed by Jacques, Rocco and Roland (still on wires) interrupting the performance for an impromptu game of basketball. As the scene continues, the humor gets more and more ridiculous.

John Turturro, known at the time for his intense roles (Five Corners and Do the Right Thing) is cast wonderfully against type as the Groucho Marx surrogate. Up until that point, only the Coen brothers had successfully tapped his comedic potential but not quite to the extent that he does in Brain Donors which allowed him to finally cut loose and show an unseen, wackier side. With his recent stint in Adam Sandler films (Mr. Deeds and Anger Management) one wonders if the comedian was a big fan of this film. It makes sense seeing as how Dennis Dugan, who directed Brain Donors, went on to direct Sandler in Happy Gilmore (1996) and Big Daddy (1999). Roland is, literally, an ambulance chasing lawyer. You have to admire the balls the filmmakers have for showing Turturro actually running after an ambulance. In the film he is still sporting his Barton Fink (1991) quaff — it’s almost as if Fink finally went completely insane somewhere in Hollywood. Turturro’s handling of a simple car accident that introduces his character is a wonderful bit of comedic timing as he motormouths his way through the scene, completely exploiting the situation.

Bob Nelson’s Jacques leads a kind of Pee-Wee Herman existence. This gives the filmmakers an excuse to employ all sorts of visual gags, including one where he takes a scrunched up table cloth and unfolds it to reveal a full breakfast setting. He is the anarchic, physical comedy portion of the three-man team while Mel Smith plays Rocco with just the right amount of surly charm. With Turturro they make a good team and the interplay between all three is excellent. Clearly, they look like they’re having a ball with the material and it feels as if they’ve been together as a comedy team for years.

And why not? Penned by Pat Proft (Bachelor Party, numerous Police Academy movies, and Hot Shots!), the script follows the Zucker brothers’ comedic philosophy of machine gun jokes: if you fire enough of them at the audience some are bound to work. Surprisingly, quite a few of them do (lines like, “These seats are dreadful! They’re facing the stage,” Roland tells an usher at the opera) and this is due in large part to how the dialogue is delivered, especially by Turturro who rarely seems to take a breath in the entire movie. He makes the film infinitely more watchable whenever he’s on-screen.

In the end, Brain Donors plays out like a Marx Brothers highlight reel but does so in an entertaining and engaging way. The film has gone on to enjoy a modest new life on home video and television with a small cult following. Fans of this underrated film can now finally enjoy it on DVD. Sadly, there are no extras. This is a shame — one would like to have seen an audio commentary by the filmmakers, but I guess the fact that it has even surfaced at all on DVD is a miracle.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

“Lady, I don’t have the time.”: Lee Marvin in The Killers

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Lee Marvin Blog-A-Thon being coordinated by Richard Harland Smith at Movie Morlocks.

“The current cycle of crime films is a vicarious way to participate in the crime wave without committing a crime. That feeling is latent within each of us. Everybody wants to get even with somebody.” – Lee Marvin in a January 1969 interview with Playboy magazine

The first feature-length adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's short story, "The Killers" was directed by Robert Siodmak in 1946 and featured a young Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner as the two leads. It was a simple tale of a man who had hit rock bottom so badly that he allowed two hitmen to kill him. The doomed man was the focus of Siodmark’s film while, on the surface, it may seem that Don Siegel’s 1964 film version is all about doomed race car driver Johnny North. After all, he is given the bulk of The Killers’ screen time through flashbacks by the people that knew and loved him. However, Siegel drops in subtle visual clues throughout the film to suggest that the film is actually about the two professional killers as with an emphasis on the elder more experienced one, Charlie, played by Lee Marvin. It is interesting to note that the first and last image of the film is of Charlie – the first tip off that this is his story and not North’s.

A great, menacing soundtrack by John Williams plays over the opening credits and immediately establishes the tough tone of Siegel’s film. Charlie and Lee (Clu Gulager) are ultra-cool, well-dressed hitmen that have been hired to kill ex-race car driver Johnny North (John Cassavetes) — now working as a teacher at a school for the blind. Even though he’s warned in advance, North does nothing and just lets the two men kill him. Afterwards, Charlie is bothered by the job. Something just does not feel right. And so, he and Lee decide to track down the people that knew North and find out why their victim didn’t run when he had the chance.

Along with Point Blank (1967), The Killers is one of the finest performances of Marvin’s career. He exudes a calm, malevolent nature through the simplest gesture or look and has a deep, weathered voice that conveys a lifetime of experience. For example, in the opening scene when Charlie and Lee question the receptionist at the school for the blind about North, the younger hitman fidgets with the furniture, taking some flowers out of a vase, sniffing them while pouring the water out onto the desk. The veteran killer concentrates on the frightened woman. Marvin uses that great voice of his to get the information he wants, uttering the immortal line, “I’m sorry lady, we don’t have the time.” This won’t be the last time he says that line. This scene is simultaneously funny and filled with tension in the way that the two men carry themselves. And yet we never lose sight of the fact that Charlie and Lee are there for only one reason: to kill North. Nothing is going to get in their way.

After they kill North, we see a more relaxed, casual side of Charlie. He and Lee are traveling on a train. The younger hitman still has his tie, vest and sunglasses on while the elder killer looks much more relaxed with the top button of his dress shirt undone, his shirt sleeves rolled up and his tie and sunglasses removed. However, something is bothering Charlie. Why didn’t North try to make a run for it? Charlie and Lee got paid a lot of money for a simple hit. They also find out that North was part of a million dollar heist – where’s the money? They don’t know who hired them but Charlie wants to find out. He wants that million dollars as he tells his partner, “But me, I’m getting old. My hair’s turning gray, my feet are sore and I’m tired of running.” It this slight admission that he’s getting older that humanizes Charlie for a brief moment and provides motivation for their quest. Half of a million dollars would certainly allow Charlie to retire in style.

Charlie and Lee decide to track down the other accomplices in the heist. In order to do so, they find North’s mechanic (played with blubbery bluster by Claude Akins). As Charlie puts the pressure on him, he says once again, “We don’t have the time.” There is now a bit of urgency in Charlie’s methods. As he said earlier, he’s tired of running and it is this urgency that motivates him to track down the money.

However, Charlie and Lee hit a dead end with the mechanic and go out for dinner. An interesting thing happens during this scene. At first, a mildly depressed Charlie is unable to eat his “fine steak,” but after he gets an encouraging call and a tip on the whereabouts of another one of North’s accomplices, his mood changes instantly and he happily begins cutting into his food. Charlie has become reinvigorated and tells Lee that it just isn’t the money that he’s after: “But I gotta find out what makes a man decide not to run. Why all of the sudden he’d rather die?” (Incidentally, this question is what also convinced Marvin to do the film) However, it is this curiosity that will ultimately be Charlie’s undoing.

Marvin delivers an economic performance which helps convey the all-business attitude of his character. He belonged to a dying breed of actor that you just don’t see anymore. Most actors today, if they’re lucky, take a whole film to convey the kind of toughness that Marvin has naturally. “Tough guys” of today – Russell Crowe, Jason Statham, Clive Owen, et al – don’t even come close to someone like Marvin. You can just tell from the way he looks and acts that he would kill you if you ever got in his way. And this kind of hard living attitude carried over into the actor’s real life as he alluded to in a 1969 interview with Playboy magazine and in Don Siegel’s memoir, A Siegel Film. The director recalls how Marvin showed up drunk the first two days of principal photography. The actor became such a disruptive influence on the set that Siegel had to intervene. Instead of dressing him down in front of everybody, he talked to Marvin in private. According to Siegel, Marvin never showed up to work drunk again.

When Charlie and Lee finally confront the film’s heavy, Jack Browning, played by Ronald Reagan in an inspired bit of casting. It was the first and only time that he played a bad guy in a movie. Browning would also be his last film role before he went into politics. It’s great to see a casually intense actor like Marvin square off against a limited one like Reagan. Charlie paces back and forth across the room with a gun in his hand while Browning sits there stiff as a board playing dumb while he’s accused of ordering the hit on North. Marvin does an excellent job working the room and questioning Reagan’s character. He clearly owns this scene.

Charlie shows just how brutal he can be when he questioning North’s girlfriend, Sheila (Angie Dickinson), and doesn’t like her answers. So, he and Lee hang her out of a window high above the street, scaring the answers out of her. Sheila pleads for her life at the end of the film putting all of the blame on Jack who says nothing, grimly accepting his fate at the hands of the uncompromising Charlie. Even after Charlie shoots and kills Jack, Sheila continues to pathetically plead for her life and Charlie utters that immortal line, “Lady, I don’t have the time,” before shooting and killing her. He kills her last because it is revenge for North's death. Through flashbacks we learn that she not only double-crossed the doomed race car driver but she broke his heart too.

However, the damage to Charlie has been done. He has been mortally wounded by a sniper rifle at the hands of Jack earlier on. Charlie staggers out onto the front lawn of Jack’s house just as the police arrive. In a haze, he points his right hand like a gun and collapses dead, the precious money he spent the entire film pursuing fluttering all around him. Siegel then cuts to a long shot of Charlie’s dead body with the money lying in the heart of suburbia with its manicured green lawns and tract houses.

Siegel’s film takes place mostly during the day with a bright color scheme. This is due largely because the picture was originally intended to be a made-for-television movie (the first of its kind) but the harsh depiction of violence was too much for NBC and it was eventually released theatrically. The artificial T.V. look, with its extensive use of rear projection, gives The Killers an almost surreal kind of feel that works surprisingly well. Even though it is bright and colorful, the attitude of the film is pure, gritty film noir. Life is cheap and the film concludes on an uncompromisingly nihilistic note as Siegel ends things with a hell of a final image that underlines the very thing that resulted in everyone’s demise: money.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Dune: Its Name Is A Killing Word

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Ambitious Failure Blog-a-Thon being coordinated by William Speruzzi at This Savage Art.

The critical and commercial failure of David Lynch’s Dune (1984) is the kind of cautionary tale that Hollywood never learns from. Case in point: the ego-ravished train-wreck that was Waterworld (1995) and the mind-boggling act of John Travolta-fueled hubris that was Battlefield Earth (2000). How did this classic science fiction novel by Frank Herbert pass through the talented hands of H.R. Giger, Ridley Scott, and Lynch only to leave behind a trail of defeated creative minds and a compromised movie that pleased almost no one. It is an epic struggle that lasted thirteen years and cost millions of dollars. And yet, the story of the movie that could have been is as interesting as the one about the movie that was eventually made.

Herbert’s massive 500+ page manuscript, complete with complex characters and story-lines, was published in book form in 1965 and became hugely successful. It concerns an epic, interstellar struggle for the desert planet known as
Arrakis. The planet is the only source in the galaxy for the precious commodity known as the spice of Melange which is necessary for interstellar travel and endowing psychic powers. A power struggle erupts between the current rulers of the planet, the vicious Harkonnens and its new caretakers, the House Atreides. Amidst the conflict, Paul, the son of Duke Atreides is left on Dune to die but instead discovers and leads the Fremen, an underground guerrilla army that has a direct connection to the spice.

The first attempt to make Herbert’s book into a film was in the summer of 1971 when producer Arthur P. Jacobs optioned the novel. The budget was projected at $15 million and Jacobs planned to begin filming after completing
The Planet of the Apes series of movies. The production languished for a year while he was busy producing the Apes sequels and the option for the book was about to expire. Filming was finally to begin in 1974 with David Lean directing and Robert Bolt as the screenwriter. The two men had worked together previously on Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). However, on June 27, 1973, Jacobs died of a fatal heart attack and the film option for Dune was tied up in his estate until 1974 when his production company, Apjac International, had to decide whether to renew it or let it expire. And so began the "Dune curse" that would affect subsequent filmmakers attempting to tackle this tricky novel.

The next try was in December of 1974. A French consortium, led by Jean-Paul Gibon, purchased the movie rights for Dune from Jacobs’ estate. Chilean born filmmaker
Alejandro Jodorowsky, the mad genius behind cult classics El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), was chosen to direct. The budget was reported to be anywhere from $9.5 to $20 million. Jodorowsky began to assemble an impressive team. Michel Seydoux was a French millionaire who was to finance and produce the movie. Legendary comic book creator and illustrator Jean “Moebius” Giraud was brought on board to storyboard the entire script. Chris Foss was a British artist who designed covers for science fiction periodicals and was brought in to design the spacecraft. Swiss designer and artist H.R. Giger was hired to work on the Harkonnen home-world after Salvador Dali showed Jodorowsky one of his catalogues.

Impressed by his special effects work on
John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974), Jod brought Dan O’Bannon on board after failing to get Douglas Trumbull who did the SFX on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). O’Bannon moved to Paris for six months to work with Euro Citel, a French special effects company. Jod met with Pink Floyd in London and they agreed to score the movie. Famous Surrealist Salvador Dali agreed to play Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV for $100,000 an hour. For his cast, Jod planned to have David Carradine and Charlotte Rampling with rumors that Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson were being considered for roles.

O’Bannon introduced Jod to the concept of storyboards, necessary for planning elaborate special effects shots. Moebius was already designing characters and creatures and was given the task of storyboarding the entire movie. Giger started designing the Harkonnen Castle based on Moebius' storyboards.

Things started to go wrong. Dali and Jod began quarreling over money and just as the storyboards, designs, and the script were finished (resulting in a reported 14-hour long movie), the financial backing dried up. Jodorowsky had spent $2 million and over two years in pre-production alone. The financers got nervous and pulled out, forcing the filmmaker to abandon the project. O’Bannon returned to the United States around Christmas 1975 to look for VistaVision equipment and received a telegram telling him that the project had been cancelled. He went on to write the screenplay for
Alien (1979) with Ron Shusett.

The next person to tackle Dune for the big screen was producer Dino De Laurentiis in 1978. He bought the rights to the book from the French Consortium with part of the deal involving Frank Herbert to be appointed technical advisor and commissioned to write the screenplay. However, the producer rejected Herbert's 175-page script because, according to legendary science fiction/fantasy writer Harlan Ellison, it was "by all reports, utterly unworkable. Unshootable because of Frank's inability to prune it, trim it, straightline it, free it of the endless distractions of subplots and minutiae.”

Undaunted, De Laurentiis re-read the novel three times and decided that he needed a director with a strong visual sense. He hired Ridley Scott, fresh from his success on Alien, to make the film. Scott teamed up with H.R. Giger and together they began working on storyboards for the film with pre-production beginning in July 1980 based at Pinewood Studios in London, England. The director asked Ellison to write the screenplay but he turned him down. Scott then hired novelist
Rudolph Wurlitzer (who penned the existentialist road movie Two-Lane Blacktop) to write the screenplay and have a workable draft by eight months. After three drafts, one involving a "sexual liaison between Paul Atreides and his mother, the Lady Jessica,” his script was discarded.

Herbert read Wurlitzer’s first draft in August 1980 and did not like it because the plot of his book was simplified. The third draft angered the author and by September 1980, Scott left the project because of personal reasons. His older brother, Frank, died from cancer and he was understandably distraught. He also realized that the film needed a lot more work and left to eventually make
Blade Runner (1982). The escalating budget of $50 million and the numerous script difficulties shut the production down.

Faced with the option rights expiring, De Laurentiis renewed his option in 1981 for Dune and its sequels. After seeing
The Elephant Man (1980), he and his daughter, Rafaella, chose David Lynch to direct their movie. The filmmaker was originally approached by George Lucas to direct Return of the Jedi (1983) but turned him down because he didn’t want to conform to Lucas’ vision and so he agreed to make Dune. Lynch remembers:

"Dino's office called me and asked me if I had ever read Dune. I thought they said 'June.' I never read either one of 'em! But once I got the book, it's like when you hear a new word. And I started hearing it more often. Then, I began finding out that friends of mine had already read it and freaked out over it. It took me a long time to read. Actually, my wife forced me to read it. I wasn't that keen on it at first, especially the first 60 pages. But the more I read, the more I liked. Because Dune has so many things that I like, I said, 'This is a book that can be made into a film.' I became real excited about it and had a couple of meetings with Dino...He wanted a science fiction film that was about people, not about a bunch of space machines."

In the initial stages, Lynch talked extensively with Herbert about the book. Lynch began working on the screenplay with his writing partners on The Elephant Man, Chris DeVore and Eric Bergren, but as they started putting it together, Lynch remembers that, "Dino didn't like what we were doing." The director found himself, "in the middle of these two different Dunes...We were in sync in some ways, but they wanted to go in different directions. Other aspects of the novel were more important to them." And so DeVore and Bergren were dropped from the project – a move that created some bad blood between them and Lynch. He proceeded to work on the script himself but spent too much time running around scouting locations for the film, visiting De Laurentiis in Italy, and not enough time writing.

By December 1982, the production moved to Churubusco Studios in Mexico City on eight large soundstages with 1000+ cast and crew. Lynch’s 135-page script was given the green light and principal photography started on March 30, 1983 and ended on January 27, 1984. The production was far from a smooth experience for Lynch who had several problems with what was happening. Lynch told Chris Rodley in Lynch on Lynch, "For one thing, the film had to be a PG. You can think of some strange things to do, but as soon as they throw in a PG, a lot of them go out the window. And, you know, I kinda like to go off the track, to go off in a strange direction, but I wasn't able to do that."

The second problem was the length of the movie. Lynch was contracted to make a film that had to be no longer than two hours and 17 minutes in length and as a result, "a mound of stuff had to go. And the rest of the stuff had to go into a garbage compactor to push it together. You'd have a line instead of a scene and the line would be in voice-over. It's not a way to go." Lynch was not allowed to have control over the final cut of the film and as a result his over four hours of footage was whittled down by the studio. Lynch remembers, "There were some interesting characters. But there were so many of them that it was very hard to get them all into one film. If you had a mini-series or three or four films, you could really get into it. What made them do what they did? When you push it all together, you just get the surface."

The cruel irony of working on Dune was that the exact reason Lynch turned down Lucas is what happened to him on Dune as De Laurentiis exerted his vision of the movie on the filmmaker. The director commented in an interview, "I didn't really feel I had permission to really make it my own. That was the downfall for me. It was a problem. Dune was like a kind of studio film. I didn't have final cut. And, little by little, I was subconsciously making compromises."

Long-time friend and collaborator,
Jack Nance sums up some of the problems Lynch faced the best in an interview with Starlog magazine:

"I thought Lynch's script was just great. It read so beautifully. It was so tight and well-paced and told the story. Unfortunately, the final edit was taken away from him and you don't really know what's going on in the final film. There were armies of studio guys going down there looking over David's shoulder all the time, and David doesn't work that way. He was under a lot of pressure. I don't know what the politics behind it were, but I do know that David doesn't like to talk about Dune – and we don't.”

In Harlan Ellison's book of film criticism, Harlan Ellison's Watching, the veteran writer gives his account of why Dune failed. He is of the opinion that Lynch's film was set up to fail even before it was released in theaters. In October of 1984, Ellison was approached by USA Today to write a visiting critic's review of Dune. The film was due to be released on December 14th, 1984. Ellison figured that he had plenty of time to do a review of the film seeing as how he was on amicable terms with both Universal Studios (who was distributing the film) and Frank Herbert. And then something happened within Universal Studios:

"It was widely rumored in the gossip underground that Frank Price, Chairman of MCA/Universal's Motion Picture Group, and one of the most powerful men in the industry, had screened the film in one or another of its final workups, and had declared – vehemently enough and publicly enough for the words quickly to have seeped under the door of the viewing room and formed a miasma over the entire Universal lot – 'This film is a dog. It's gonna drop dead. We're going to take a bath on it. Nobody'll understand it!' (Now those aren't the exact words, because I wasn't there. But the sense is dead accurate. Half a dozen separate verifications from within the MCA organization.)."
Paranoia swept through Universal and screenings were canceled or rescheduled with rumors fueling the fire. Ellison mentions a meeting between the film's producer, Dino De Laurentiis and the owner of a big chain of multiplex theatres that did not go well. This repeated itself in another screening in New York City.

As a result, Universal got very nervous and said that there would be no screenings of any kind for anyone until the release date of December 14th. Ellison goes on to recount a screening for the film that he tried to attend on the November 30th but was not allowed entry after speaking to Frank Wright, National Publicity Director for MCA at the time. Even after telling Wright that he was not going to pan the film and getting USA Today's West Coast entertainment editor, Jack Matthews, to talk to Wright, Ellison was still denied access to the screening. Ellison recalls, "But if that was what happened to a reviewer from something as important to Universal as USA Today, do you begin to understand how, before the film ever opened, the critical film community was made to feel nervous, negative and nasty about Dune?"

Two days before Dune opened in wide release, Ellison saw the film and ironically gave the motion picture one of its few positive reviews. The entire experience was a negative one for Lynch to say the least and one that he continues to feel strongly about even to this day (Universal has approached him several times to work on a special edition DVD and he’s turned them down each time). He elaborated in an interview with Vogue, "I really suffered a huge...you know, kind of...depression, and filmmaking was no longer fun at all. It was filled with fear and I questioned everything. All the great things you have with success, I felt the opposite in every category and it was bad news. You don't trust yourself. You don't trust anything. It's very bad.” However, he learned from that point on to have final cut on every film he made and it did lead to his next film, and arguably his best effort to date,
Blue Velvet (1986).

How did Herbert feel about Lynch’s movie? "It begins as Dune begins, it ends as Dune ends and I hear my dialogue throughout. How much more could a writer want? Even though I have quibbles – I would've loved to have had David Lynch realize the banquet scene – do I like it? I do. I like it. Very much.”

Further reading:

Unseen Dune: an excellent website devoted to all aspects of the Dune films (and mini-series).

The Movie You Will Never See: Jodorowsky's account of his attempt to adapt Dune.

This article originally appeared on the Erasing Clouds website.