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Happy ‘Dune’ Day!

Production of David Lynch’s 1984 sci-fi epic kicked off 30 years ago today


Exactly 30 years ago today, “Dune” began production in Mexico City. David Lynch’s “Dune” might very well be the most controversial science fiction film ever made. It certainly is one of the most expensive for its time, costing something like $45 million. It also remains one of the greatest big-budget flops of all time, essentially bankrupting Dino DeLarentiis.

Critics were merciless in their hate — Roger Ebert said it was, “A real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.” He later said it was the worst movie of the year.

Yet those criticisms seem completely blind to the majesty of the effort put forth — and difficulty — of shooting the greatest sci-fi novel ever written. It’s only real equal in fiction is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. And those books were given three films — each over three hours long — that had the ability to use computer graphics. Universal would eventually cut Lynch’s final film down to about two hours.

Simply put, “D’une” is the most romantic sci-fi film ever made and one of the most compelling. It’s compelling — in part — because in some ways it is a failure. Lynch more or less ditched any chance for gritty action scenes and instead used huge set pieces that delivered little emotional punch. While the on-set special effects remain impressive (as they should — Oscar winner Kit West designed them), the space bound effects are shaky at best. Of course, there’s not many of them as Lynch choose the lyrical over the action packed.

But that too is why the film is so magical. “Dune” is strange book. Set 10,000 years into the future — long after Earth is made a waste land via a war with intelligent robots — humanity has spread through the cosmos because of the discovery of a spice only found on one planet, nick named Dune. Humans have also segmented into highly specialized castes, all of which have pseudo super powers. One of those sects has been trying to create a super human for centuries. “Dune” is the story of what happens when they succeed.

So, a weird tale. And in Lynch, producers Dino and Raffaella De Laurentiis, found a weird guy to make it. Lynch had just gotten huge over-night fame for “Elephant Man.” His only other flick was “Eraserhead,” a bizarre student film that went on to great success on the midnight-movie circuit. Neither movie had a lick of traditional special effects, and he had never read the book, so he was a strange man to choose.

But they had to choose someone — Ridley Scott almost directed, but then nixed at the last minute, perhaps foreseeing the madness of the coming shoot. Years before Scott was involved, Alejandro Jodorowsky (the insaneo director of “Holy Mountain”) was slated to helm. He had hired the noted Heavy Metal artist Moebius to create production sketches, and Dan O’Bannon for special effects. It’s said the pressure was so great on O’Bannon that he would check into a madhouse, where he eventually kicked out 13 scripts. The 13th was “Alien,” which of course would eventually be directed by Scott and gain world wide fame. Small world …

Dino was about to lose his rights to “Dune,” and in Lynch he could see an obviously skilled, out-of-the-box director unafraid of challenges. It should be noted that Lynch tuned down “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi” to shoot “Dune.” But by the end of shooting, Lynch would never again direct a large-budget film and Dino would be broke.

Part and parcel of hiring Lynch was accepting his screenplay. Dozens had been tried over the years — including by Herbert — only to be deemed unfilmable. Lynch’s script emphasized the weird and the romantic, leaving it to the viewer to figure out what was going on and largely omitting chances for action. Contrast that with someone like Peter Jackson who’s second Lord of the Rings movie, “The Two Towers,” essentially invents an hour-long battle barely mentioned in the book (it does happen, but is not described in great detail).

Weird too was the decision to shoot in Mexico City. In Mexico, they had deserts and a giant film studio in the form of Churubusco, as well as an army of cheap labor. But the desert was often times also used as a dump, the labor had never worked on a film of this scope, customs would often keep large containers of materials for months on end, and the studio itself was totally out of date.

Even at the end of the year long production, the studio would lose power. Dino essentially had to completely update the entire giant structure — obviously an expensive prospect. Since “Dune,” dozens of Hollywood films have been shot there, perhaps one of “Dune’s” longest-lasting effects on the biz. In any case, by all accounts “Dune” was a brutal movie to shoot (in no small part because of stomach flu everyone seemed to catch at one time or another).

The other worldly atmosphere of Mexico City (the thin air and notorious water supply plagued the production from the start) helped get the international cast in the mood. The cast itself ranged from Max Von Sydow, the world famous movie veteran, to Kyle MacLachlan,who had never been in a film prior to shooting “Dune.” By all accounts, the strange working conditions helped bond the cast together — and to Lynch. The cast in any case all brought their A-games to the film, in particular Kennith McMillan, who delivered a virtuoso performance as the evil Baron. Herbert said that “The characters are exactly as I envisioned them … sometimes even better.”

And while the set builders often overbuilt things (often times building the sets as real building as opposed to movies sets, who’s walls and ceilings can easily be moved), their ability to do woodwork made for some of the most beautiful sets of all time. The costumes — provided by Bob Ringwood — all looked the part; although, the black-rubber-faux still suits worn by the Freman warriors caused lots of woe in the very real desert heat.

The production also choose Mexico City as the place to achieve all the special effects for the film. In terms of physical effects, they succeeded to a great degree (the worms still look awesome). The space effects are, however, pretty much laughable — yet somehow it adds to the over all effect of strangeness. Still, it’s the one concrete thing a critic can point to as a fail.

The music, provided by the ’80s rock band Toto and U2 music producer Brian Eno, remains true to the epic romantic nature of Lynch’s vision and remains one of the great movies scores ever recorded for sci-fi film.

Yet for all brilliant results on screen, for all the time and effort and forethought by hundreds of talented people, “Dune” would bomb at the box office.

I think in large part this was bound to happen. The world wanted another “Star Wars,” and that’s something no true “Dune” adaptation could be. There were McDonald Happy Meals for this flick if you can believe it — imagine the shock of an unknowing parent when the fetus of Alia is born early. This sort of misguided marketing (which would happen again with eerie similarities for Paul Verhoven’s adaptation of “Starship Troopers”) did much to sink the film. “Dune” in many ways is a huge art film meant only for those people who read — and understood — Herbert’s masterpiece.

Of course two hours isn’t nearly long enough for such a book either. It really should have been a three-part movie (and indeed Lynch was already prepping a second “Dune” movie before it flopped). At the very least, it should have been longer — as it was, entire characters and subplots were cut from the final version (some of which can be seen in the bizarre television version sometimes shown on the Syfy channel).

By all accounts, Herbert seemed to have loved Lynch’s vision of his book. There are several interviews and quotes where he all but raves about the film. I know I loved it — I named my first child, a daughter, Chani. As for Lynch, he largely refuses to speak of the movie, and when he does it’s usually negative. That is too bad because “Dune” remains one of the grandest, most spectacular — and bizarre — science fiction films of all time.

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