Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune (2014) and Three Other Famous Unmade Films

Every year, there are tons of films that go unrealized. Filmmakers talk about potential projects, only to select one and leave others by the wayside. Eventually, they may revisit the idea years down the line. For example, Steven Spielberg first began work on Lincoln as early as 2005, with Liam Neeson in the lead, before finally getting the film made in 2012 (with Daniel Day-Lewis in Neeson's place). Others are never heard from again. Quentin Tarantino is perhaps the most famous director today for all of the projects he's said he'd make but has yet to break ground on, including The Vega Brothers and Kill Bill Volume 3.

But every once in a while, there's an unfinished film that becomes legendary. A film that seems so wild, so ambitious, so revolutionary that of course there's no way it could ever be made. Jodorowsky's Dune investigates one such film: the big-budget adaptation of Frank Herbert's seminal sci-fi novel by midnight-movie maestro Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo).


As director Frank Pavich pieces together Jodorowsky's insane vision through interviews with the director himself and his collaborators, it becomes clear that this film was always going to be far too ambitious. Jodorowsky sought out a creative team that was well-known within the artistic counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of whom signed on without ever reading Herbert's novel (that includes Jodorowsky himself). Austrian conceptual artist H.R. Giger, British designer Chris Foss, and French comics artist Moëbius all contributed concept art for the film's spaceships and creatures; Moëbius even storyboarded the entire film. Dan O'Bannon, who had worked on John Carpenter's cult sci-fi flick Dark Star (1974), was brought on to handle the complex special effects. Pink Floyd and art-punk band Magma were in negotiations to provide the film's musical score. Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, David Carradine and Mick Jagger were hand-picked by Jodorowsky for roles, despite their expensive egos and difficult behavior. Overall, Jodorowsky wanted to create a film that would transcend every conventional notion of what cinema could do, all while mimicking the effects of hallucinogenic drugs.

Concept art by H.R. Giger

Naturally, every studio in Hollywood balked. As Pavich's documentary notes, the only key problem that each studio found with the film was Jodorowsky himself. They loved the concept, but the director was considered too much of a firebrand to take a risk on. The film never went before the cameras. But Pavich's film does a terrific job at showing how the film - or, rather, the massive book of concept art by Moëbius presented to the studios - would go on to influence some of the biggest sci-fi films of the past 40 years. For example: most of the crew would go on to work with Ridley Scott on 1979's Alien, which was written by O'Bannon with creatures designed by Giger. As it turns out, Jodorowsky's vision of making the most influential sci-fi film ever wasn't all that far off.

Of course, Dune did end up making it to the silver screen. Producer Dino De Laurentiis managed to procure the rights, and went with the "safe" choice of director David Lynch for his would-be blockbuster (this was easily the only time in history Lynch could be described as a "safe" choice). The 1984 film flopped, being considered by most to be a Star Wars ripoff (Lynch himself has publicly disowned the film). It's actually better than its reputation suggests, but it certainly pales in ambition to what Jodorowsky dreamed up.

So, since we're on the topic, here are three other famous unrealized films, and where they stand today:

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (late 1990s-present day)

Terry Gilliam's loose adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes' novel Don Quixote is probably more famous for its litany of biblical-scale setbacks than anything else. Originally conceived as the tale of a 21st-century man thrown back in time as Don Quixote's new sidekick, the film originally began shooting in 2000 with Jean Rochefort as Quixote and Johnny Depp as the time-traveller. However, the production was cancelled after a number of problems, including Rochefort's declining health and floods that destroyed sets and equipment. This production was immortalized in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha. Since then, Gilliam has attempted to get the film off the ground multiple times, with Robert Duvall replacing Rochefort and Ewan McGregor subbing in for Depp. Funding continued to collapse, the film became embroiled in legal issues with the insurers for the original production, and Gilliam had to nearly cut his requested budget in half. Gilliam has recently stated that he would like to start production again soon - now with a drastically different plot - but it remains to be seen if he'll ever actually get it made.

Napoleon (late 1960s/early 1970s)

It's possible to create this list just from the projects that Stanley Kubrick never brought to fruition. But among them all, his epic biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte is perhaps the most famous. After the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Kubrick had done extensive research on the infamous French emperor, putting together a preliminary screenplay that covered the majority of Napoleon's conquests, and scouted locations throughout France and Romania. He had even secured the services of 50,000 Romanian soldiers for the film's major battle sequences. However, the failure of other Napoleon-related films at the time prevented studios from taking a risk on the project, Kubrick's research informed a significant portion of his 1975 film Barry Lyndon, and Napoleon was put on the back burner. Steven Spielberg has since stated that he would like to finish the project as a television miniseries, though little else has been heard about it since.

Superman Lives (mid-1990s)

Following the successes of Batman and Batman Returns, Warner Brothers was eager to pair director Tim Burton with another major DC Comics superhero: Superman. Kevin Smith was brought in to write the script, while Nicolas Cage was signed on to star as the Man of Steel. Screen tests were conducted, costumes were designed, and a teaser poster was even drawn up. The film was set to have the villain Braniac unleash a beast called Doomsday - most famous in the comics for killing Superman in their showdown. However, financial troubles dragged the production out, and when Burton left to do Sleepy Hollow (1999) instead, the film began to fall apart. There's a documentary about the film's fate currently in the works.

Jodorowsky's Dune: A-

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