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.”
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.