Before Denis Villeneuve, director David Lynch had also envisioned his Dune 1984 to be a two-part film. Doomed from the start, the second part’s screenplay never made it off the storyboard.
In 1981, director David Lynch was introduced to Frank Herbert’s Dune by his CAA agent Rick Nicita. First published in 1965, Dune is set in the year 10191 and deals with the saga of monarchies at odds with each other to control a desert planet called Arrakis. Dune is believed to be one of the greatest science fiction novels, ever written – with the right mix of fascinating characters, epic storyline and a world never imagined before. The book crossed many hurdles before it finally landed on Lynch’s desk.
Before Denis Villeneuve, Dune has had many admirers but most failed to live up to the demands of the intensive project. The rights to the book were first optioned in the 70s by Arthur Jacobs, an independent Hollywood producer behind films like Planet of the Apes and Play It Again, Sam. But Jacobs was not destined to see the film and its production because of his untimely death. Then it was the turn of Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. The rights were bought by French businessman Jean Paul Gibon and Jodorowsky was tasked to make a film out of the book. So immersive was Jodorowsky’s plan for the film that the pre-production itself took two years and close to 2 million dollars were spent even without a single frame being shot.
Finally, it was the famed Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis who bought the rights to bring Dune to life on the silver screen. Having bought it for 2 million dollars, he then assigned Frank, the original author, to write the screenplay. Unfamiliar with the medium, he delivered a screenplay that was way too exhaustive. This forced Dino to bring in a new screen writer. By this time the project also had a director. Fresh from the success of Aliens, Ridley Scott was brought on board to helm the project. A few months later, he deserted in favor of Blade Runner. At this juncture, Dino’s daughter Raffaella took on the project and decided to approach David Lynch after having seen his film The Elephant Man.
Dune 1984 – What went wrong?
The project completely consumed the director. Filming began on 30th March in Mexico with a crew of 1700. The mega project had names like Anthony Masters (production designer of 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Carlo Rambaldi (designer of the creatures in Alien and ET). Nothing was spared in its allocated budget of 40 million dollars.
Lynch’s first rough cut of the film was five hours long and for theatrical purposes, he intended to bring down the length of the film to three hours. But studio powers forced him to trim the length further and eventually the final cut had a length of two hours and seventeen minutes. Lynch was forced to delete many scenes that he wanted to retain in the film and till this date Dune happens to be the only film in his catalogue where he had no control over the final cut. In the book Room to Dream, David Lynch mentions that Dino had admitted in a 2001 BBC documentary that Dune was ‘destroyed in the editing room’.
It is believed that Universal also wavered in showing the film to critics. The screening suffered several postponements and by the time critics finally saw the film, there were rumors floating that David Lynch had made a sub-par and flawed film. When reviews came out, the film was butchered by most critics. Roger Ebert even went to the extent of calling the film ‘the worst film of the year’. When Dune was released, Lynch had already completed half of the script to its sequel. The film also saw a screening at the White House attended by then president Ronald Reagan.
Watch: David Lynch: Dune Interview
Can Denis Villeneuve break the curse?
Dune remains a sore point for the director in his film career, so much so that he avoids any mention of it. To the present day, Lynch rues over the fact that he parted with the final cut rights of Dune in favor of Dino. The carrot that was dangled before him was a three-film deal before the filming of Dune began. Lynch has always maintained that Dune remains the only film on which his final authority was compromised as he surrendered his right to final cut of the film. Later, after the dust had settled, he was approached to edit a TV version of Dune but was so bitter about the failure of the film that he declined immediately. Lynch is yet to see the TV version of Dune, which had many added scenes missing from the feature film.
Dune is considered a ‘different’ film in Lynch’s filmography as it was an event film as opposed to his other masterpieces which carry a personal flavor. Lynch had originally brought in his regular collaborators – Eric Bergen and Christopher de Vore (both were part of the script of The Elephant Man) but Dino felt unhappy with their contributions. Dino believed that the script was not true to the book. Later, Dino suggested Lynch keep the credits for the screenplay himself and collaborate with Frank Herbert, author of the book. The entire chain of events left a bitter taste.
Unsurprisingly, Dune is believed to be a cursed project by many in the corridors of Hollywood. The lore about the film is such that a documentary on Jodorowsky’s vision of the film titled Jodorowsky’s Dune was screened at Cannes Film festival in 2013. Interest about the film has been such that it has remained at number one spot for the past year in the list of most awaited films on Rotten Tomatoes. Denis Villeneuve’s three-minute trailer of Dune promises to deliver on the spectacle and drama of Lynch’s original vision. The movie is scheduled to release on the 18th of December.