It’s been 23 years since an Alejandro Jodorowsky film last hit theaters, but thankfully, the godfather of the midnight movie is returning in two distinctly different projects. In Jodorowsky’s Dune (out March 21) he tells director Frank Pavich about his failed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s science-fiction classic Dune for the screen in the mid-1970s. He spent two years on the project, attaching a dream team of idiosyncratic talent—or as he calls them, “spiritual warriors”—both in front of and behind the camera: comic-book artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud, special-effects whiz and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, artist H.G. Giger, and the bands Pink Floyd and Magma, with Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dalí rounding out the cast. Sadly, the studios passed on his 12-hour epic, though the ideas developed for the project inspired some of the seminal science-fiction movies that followed, including Star Wars and Alien.
Through filming Pavich’s documentary, Jodorowsky became invigorated enough to pursue filmmaking again, and re-teamed with his Dune producer Michel Seydoux to make The Dance Of Reality (playing at SXSW and opening in theaters May 23), an adaptation of his autobiography of the same title that looks back on his difficult childhood in Chile. Filled with classic Jodorowsky elements like a spiritual-awakening theme, full-frontal nudity, and biting black comedy, The Dance Of Reality is a surprisingly linear story (for Jodorowsky) about coming of age and the importance of family.
On his 85th birthday, Jodorowsky talked to The Dissolve from his Paris home about why he isn’t bitter about the Dune experience, whether we’ll ever see an El Topo sequel, and how movies are “the most complete art.”
The Dissolve: You haven’t made a film in a couple of decades—
Alejandro Jodorowsky: Twenty-three years.
The Dissolve: When The Rainbow Thief came out in 1990, what were your feelings about cinema?
Jodorowsky: [Laughs.] I realize it’s not that I didn’t want to make any more pictures, it’s that I wanted to make a picture only if I was free to do whatever I wanted. Because pictures are a business, and the most important part of the business is the producer, then the stars, and then distribution. Lastly comes the creator, the director; the poet who made the picture. In the industry, the director is only a component; they obey orders. You go to the movies, two hours of fun, and then you go out. [The director] is just a contractor. Nothing changes in you. I want to do something that opens the mind and gives a new vision of reality, to give something to you. A new way to see life.
The Dissolve: You’ve been successful in doing that through comics and books, so why return to movies?
“I'm tired of the success of a film being what it grossed. For mine, there's no price, we're going to lose money.”
Jodorowsky: That is because Frank Pavich came to my house. He wanted to speak about Dune. I thought he was mad. [Laughs.] He came and said, “I want to shoot in your home,” and I said, “Okay, do it.” And I could say anything I wanted to say. It was fun. So then he said, “I want to talk to Michel Seydoux,” who produced the script of Dune. And I said, “But he put in $2 million and the picture was never made because of me, because I was crazy, I wanted the impossible. He must hate me!” And so I was scared [to see him], but [Michel] loved me and said it was the most beautiful experience in his life, and we became friends as we were before the failure. Then we realized we had a compromise, and he said to me, “We have to make a picture now.” And I said, “Yes, an economical picture, say for like, $4 million.” And then he said, “Okay, I’ll give you $2 million.” So in five minutes, I had half of the picture funded. And during a dinner at a museum where I was showing my work, the director of the museum invited this young person, Moisés Cosío, and he came and asked me, “Why don’t you make pictures anymore?” And I said, “I have half of a picture funded, if I get the other half, I will do the picture, but I want to be free and do whatever I want.” And he said to me, “I’ll give it to you,” and I went and made The Dance Of Reality.
The Dissolve: Why did you choose the first few chapters from your autobiography as the basis for the film?
Jodorowsky: I was born in a little town, and I had never returned. I suffered a lot as a child there and I wanted to go back and heal my soul, to see what happened. And I knew this town, I knew the people who lived there. When I came back, the town was exactly how it was when I lived there as a child. The streets, the buildings, everything was similar. The only thing that was different was my father’s store, so I constructed that for the film. I remember, I was walking down the street that I always walked down as a child, and I saw the Japanese person that I always saw when I was younger. He was there! It was his son, not the same person, but everything was similar. And I knew I needed to have this experience. I wanted to do this because I could heal myself, and in some ways change my past.
The Dissolve: You’ve said The Dance Of Reality “is a picture I’m doing to lose money.” What do you mean by that?
Jodorowsky: You’ll hear about movies and, “It’s fantastic, it made $400 million or $800 million, fantastic! It made this much money, so it’s fantastic.” Everything in the industry is about money, so I say I’m going to make a picture to lose money. I’m tired of the success of a film being what it grossed. For mine, there’s no price, we’re going to lose money. [Laughs.] But it’s good, what we’re giving you, like a piece of sugar. And if it makes money, I’ll then make another. But not like the industry—
The Dissolve: The machine at work.
Jodorowsky: Yes. And I understand that this machine is necessary, like cigarettes are necessary, but they kill you.
The Dissolve: You have a lot of your family involved in the film, including your son Brontis playing your father. What was behind that decision?
Jodorowsky: I needed to make it a family experience. It’s like an evolution, my son is now my father! [Laughs.] All of the problems we have from one generation to another, we solved this problem. He was playing my father, but also playing his grandfather, so he was completely inside of the history of our family. And my other son did the music for the film, he feels the theme of the picture from the deepest senses of his soul. My woman, Pascale Montandon-Jodorowsky, she did the costumes.
The Dissolve: In doing this film, did you realize you have traits from your father that previously you didn’t think you had?
Jodorowsky: Sure. My father was a very human person. I understand because we were in another country escaping from Russia, he lost his father, he was a boxer, he was like Stalin, and dressed like him. And my mother was an elegant woman, because she wanted to be a singer of opera, but my father wanted her to watch over the shop. I realized in the movie, I gave my father this humanity that he didn’t have, and I gave my mother this power to heal him. But mostly, seeing I separated from my father and mother, I gave to my father a family.
The Dissolve: You open the film with a poignant poem about blood and money. What’s its importance?
Jodorowsky: The United States is not separate of the world, so when the crash came in 1929, 70 percent of the workers [in Chile] were in the mines, and as they worked with dynamite, they would get into accidents and blow off their limbs. There was no other work for them, so they would end up in a town like the one I was living in, and would end up roaming the streets drinking the alcohol from the lamps. But you need to understand, it all came down to money, and all that came because of the crash in America.
Art is your history. And when I started out, I didn’t dare say, “That is my history,” but it is mine. El Topo is my father, and the little boy is me. The General, that is Stalin, Mao, the dictator, it’s one and the same. But in that time, I didn’t say, “That is my history.” So for The Dance Of Reality, I went straight to my history.
The Dissolve: With Dune, was it as simple as Pavich coming to you saying he wanted to tell the story? Had you wanted to tell this story?
Jodorowsky: I never thought I would get the chance to tell the intimate details about making Dune. Admitting that I never read the book, or the exchanges I had with Dalí, who would want to listen to that? But someone wanted to.
The Dissolve: You and Seydoux created a massive book that you gave to the studios, showing storyboards and special-effects designs. None of them came back and said, “We don’t want to do this picture with you, but we’re impressed and want to do something else with you”?
Jodorowsky: No. We made 20 books, and every one we made—they went to MGM, Universal, etc.—the answer at every one of them was, “Jodorowsky’s crazy.” Nobody back then would consider doing a 12-hour picture. No one thought about the trilogy until Star Wars came around. In that moment, it was impossible to make a space opera. It was only $7,000 for the rights to the book, it’s nothing, but still nobody wanted to do it.
The Dissolve: How did you feel when films were beginning to come out that had aspects you created for Dune?
Jodorowsky: Listen, I didn’t say anything. Failure doesn’t exist. Myself, I was doing comics, and they were a big success in Europe and other parts of the world. Everything I couldn’t do in Dune, I did then in comics. I have no bitterness. In fact, I really like David Lynch as a director, and he didn’t fail when making Dune, it was just poorly produced.
The Dissolve: You enlisted the talents of Dalí, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd, the prog band Magma… How were you going to manage all these egos if you ever got Dune off the ground?
“I want to do something that opens the mind and gives a new vision of reality, to give something to you. A new way to see life.”
Jodorowsky: Because I was inspired. In that time, Michel Seydoux put in all the money that was necessary to produce the picture, and we needed the assistance of
Hollywood, but they didn’t give. I realized I was trying to make the impossible dream, but for me, the whole idea was to make the picture as I wanted to do. But in some ways, I did do the picture in the two years of work I put into it. I have my prize, I did what I needed to do. And if it’s impossible, I make other things. I was fighting my whole life doing what I needed to do. My experience in life prepared me as a warrior. I was not beaten. And I told Pavich this: “I will speak to you [for your film], but don’t expect to talk to someone who feels beaten, or someone who has hate.” No, this was something that was very beautiful. It was a fantastic experience.
The Dissolve: The Dance Of Reality is very linear, which is uncommon for the films we know you for. Why did you do that for this film?
Jodorowsky: We are speaking about the world of a child, and every person can understand that. The symbolism isn’t hidden much, it’s easier to understand. Remember, I was searching to lose money, not gain it. I wasn’t going to make any concessions. Every millimeter of this picture, I did with every part of my being.
The Dissolve: Nicolas Winding Refn is featured in Jodorowsky’s Dune. Do you admire his work?
Jodorowsky: I adore his pictures, and I had the enormous surprise to learn that he started making movies at 15 because he saw El Topo. We’ve become very good friends, and I think he has a talent.
The Dissolve: Have you seen Only God Forgives?
Jodorowsky: Yes. I understand a lot of people were negative or mixed about it, but I love it. This picture, you need to digest it, you see it and you have the emotion that’s taken from being in the movie theater, then when you finish, you go, “What did I see? What is the problem? Why?” But then you begin to digest the picture, and then it becomes a piece of art. He is passionate at what he does.
The Dissolve: What’s next for you? Do you plan to make the El Topo sequel?
Jodorowsky: Good question. Nobody wants to make the movie, because they think it’s too expensive, it’s too risky. So now I’m going to do it as a comic. This week, I have done the drawing, I have a fantastic person doing it, so I’ve started to make it into a comic. But I’m going to make another picture, it’s called Juan Solo, a gangster/mystical picture in Mexico. I have half of the budget already.
The Dissolve: At this point in your life, what still interests you about making movies?
Jodorowsky: Today I turned 85. And what can I say? Looking back, I was known. I know a lot of people love what I do. Women? I can only have one. I can’t have more, even if I wanted. Can I eat more? No. My stomach is too big now. And I can’t drink. So what do I want? To have a lot of money? I have enough. So all that’s left is the love of the work. I love to make pictures. It’s an enormous experience to make everything work, it’s the love of the work, you love what you do; movies are the most complete art.
The universe is growing, my mind is growing, every day my creativity is growing, so I go as fast as I can. It’s all an adventure, a vital adventure. I want to go as far as I can without concession. That’s what I want. If I die, [The Dance Of Reality] is a testament. It is my last will. But if I continue to live to make another one, I take that back.