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Spot on Directors: Frank Pavich


Alejandro Jodorowsky is a name that brings excitement to the ears of any hardcore film nerd. His psychomagical masterpieces are leave viewers awestruck, and our film of the month reveals to audiences everywhere that one of these masterpieces never saw the light of day – unless of course you consider the tremendous impact its conception has had on the sci-fi genre ever since. Ever seen Alien? How about Star Wars? This documentary will convince you we ought to be tipping our hat, in part, to Jodorowsky for their aesthetics. JODOROWSKY’S DUNE shines a light on the inspiring brilliance, and madness, of one of cinema’s greatest minds and we had the pleasure of interviewing director Frank Pavich discussing his portrait of the greatest movie never made.

What is it that draws you to documentary film? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

For me, a documentary film seems a more feasible way to go. I can have an idea or find a story that is compelling, and very quickly, with a small crew, can start working on it almost immediately. The nature of documentary film allows for a more hunt-and-peck method of work as opposed to necessitating a screenplay to be written and roles to be cast, for example. We can explore as we shoot and edit, finding the story as we progress along.

For a pre-scripted film, everything, including the money, needs to be lined up before the first frame is shot. So making a documentary feels like a more realistic way for me to be able to work.

How did you find out about the story of “Dune”? And what ultimately led you to Alejandro Jodorowsky? Is the story of how you met anything as random and fantastical as the many introductions Jodorowsky describes in the film?

It’s a story that has obviously been around for a while, mentioned in books here or there, but it was not terribly well-known. There was a documentary made about Alejandro many years ago called CONSTELLATION JODOROWSKY and that’s where I first saw a glimpse of his famous DUNE book. The DUNE story was only touched on for a few minutes, but it was fascinating.

I’m not sure if there was anything exactly magical about that first meeting – aside from the fact that I was in ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY’S HOUSE! The whole thing was all very Jodorowskian of course. I think he had fun torturing me by placing that huge book on the table between us, but never inviting me to open it. So mean!  

As you can tell from what he says in the film, he makes his choices based on his instincts. We can see it in how he chose his Spiritual Warriors.  And I think it was the same way between us. To this day he has never asked me what other films I’ve made and he has never asked to see any work of mine. He made his decision purely on that meeting.

Then again, he also now says that he agreed to sit for my interviews because he simply never thought that I would complete the film! So he thought there was no harm in laying himself out there for something that would never see the light of day anyway!

Jodorowsky is an incredible storyteller, and at every turn the story of the pre-production of “Dune” becomes increasingly extraordinary. How much of the story do you think has become mythologized, if any at all?

That’s a good question! It’s funny, but every time I was about to hit my limit of belief, there would be someone else to corroborate his tales. For example, the story he told about meeting Pink Floyd, where he yelled at them for eating their lunch as opposed to speaking with him, was almost too hilarious to have actually happened. But then we spoke with his co-producer, Jean-Paul Gibon, who was there at the meeting, and he could verify that it was in fact all true!  

The same goes for the Dali stories. Michel Seydoux verified all of that craziness. And in fact, it’s an even wilder and longer tale.  Michel told us about how they had to bring Dali gifts with representations of hippopotamuses for some unknown reason. They also once got stuck in a rowboat, being towed around a lake by Dali’s larger boat, with black smoke spewing into their faces and choking them for the whole ride. Seydoux said that he almost died that day while Dali and his wife sat comfortably in their lounge chairs aboard the larger boat.

So the reality is that there are even weirder tales that we just couldn’t fit in our film.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people having around the film?

Well, there’s obviously the surface-level story of the never-made film. So naturally, people quite often express their disappointment that his DUNE was thwarted. But what’s really interesting to me is that so many people find the documentary to be inspirational.  

I see it all the time on Twitter or on blog postings or even articles here and there. A big conversation is about how after watching the film, people find themselves inspired to go further. And really, what’s better than an outcome like that?

Often after watching documentaries, people want to take action. JODOROWSKY’S DUNE is not a social impact film, but as you say many people walk away from the film inspired. How would you recommend audience members harness the inspiration they feel after watching the film?

That really comes down to the person. Alejandro is an artist, so I assume that many artists may be inspired by his words. But I hope that his thoughts and ideas go further than that. Artist or not, I believe that everyone can take something from his endless supply of positivity. Hopefully the common thread is that viewers walk away feeling that they can do anything, and then they try. That’s the moral to the story, right? It all comes down to Jodo’s final words about DUNE, where he says, “We have to try.”

What would your documentary playlist consist of? 

Hmmm, interesting!  Well, I always thought that JODOROWSKY’S DUNE would be a great film to screen on the first day of film school.  

But everything needs a counterbalance, so taking that into account, I would say that OVERNIGHT (2003) is the great cautionary filmic tale of our time.  It’s a story about the ambition but with none of the self-awareness, none of the artistry and none of the humility (or humanity) that Alejandro possesses.  It’s truly a remarkable film.

To stick with some of those same themes, I might suggest two of the obvious ones, HEARTS OF DARKNESS (1991) and BURDEN OF DREAMS (1982).  These are two wonderful documentaries about two fantastic films that were completed against unimaginable odds.  

To take a left turn, I might suggest THE TARGET SHOOTS FIRST (2000).  It’s a really great and not terribly well-known film made by a guy who used to work at Columbia House Records in the mid-90s.  He would go onto work every day with a video camera and he would just film his day and his coworkers.  It’s amazing look at a world that no longer exists.

And maybe I would take a further left turn with HATED: GG ALLIN AND THE MURDER JUNKIES (1994).  There is no one like Alejandro Jodorowsky and there was certainly no one like GG, although I do not think that the two of them would get along!  This is the first film by Todd Phillips who went on to make R-rated comedies like OLD SCHOOL and THE HANGOVER, which is sort of wild.  If you can make it past the opening image, you’ll in for a ride.  

Lastly, I would have to list GIMME SHELTER (1970), perhaps my favorite documentary film of all time.  There is a slight connection to that film as when I started working on DUNE, I was living in NY, in an apartment previously occupied by the great Charlotte Zwerin, a frequent collaborator with the Maysles and the editor and co-director of GIMME SHELTER.  Perhaps her spirit embedded itself into my work?

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Jodorowsky’s Dune s Influence Film Club’s featured film for December 2016. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletters and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by Isis Graham