Dune Resurrection - Re-visiting Arrakis

by: Faisal A. Qureshi ©

"I think the world catches up with David ten years later and it's his curse." - Patricia Arquette star of Lost Highway.

No other statement is needed to explain the desertion and eventual resurrection of Lynch's most infamous film Dune. Adapted from the best selling novel by Frank Herbert, various attempts had been made to translate it too screen. The corpses of noble efforts littered the wake of this behemouth's path.

Alexander Jacob, instigator of the Planet Of The Apes planned to get respected cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler to helm it in the '70s. The project died when the producer suffered a heart attack in 1973.

Cult film maker Alejandro Jodorwosky came to it in '75. Fresh from the success of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Jodorwosky felt Dune was the perfect vehicle to showcase his talent and sizeable ego. A 12 hour script was written, artists such as Chris Foss, H.G. Giger and Jean 'Mobeius' Giraud were hired and Pink Floyd contracted to the soundtrack. With $2 million already spent, it was felt that this time Dune would happen. Unfortunately the French production needed a strong co-partner and no studio was willing to sign up to it. The project quickly collapsed, now it looked like no one was going to touch Dune. Herbert, seeing how far Jodorwosky diverted from his book was determined that he had to have a say if the film was going to get picked up again.

"While he was selling the movie rights," commented Larry Caldwell a friend of Herbert's, "Frank was very concerned that Hollywood would butcher the film. At the time he was insisting that he came with the book as technical advisor for the movie."

That was until the De Laurentiis [Dino and daughter, Raffella] bought the rights. They quickly commissioned Frank Herbert to write a screenplay - it was quickly rejected. Instead the De Laurentiis' went for Ridley Scott who hired Rudy Wurlitzer to come up with the script. Then personal tragedy struck, Scott's brothers death caused him to jump to another project leaving Dune in the lurch. Scott didn't want the hassle of working another couple of years on pre-production, he went for Blade Runner while De Laurentiis went to search for a new director.

And what a choice Raffella De Laurentiis made. Instead of going for a director with a already established commercial track record, Raffella chose a young film maker who had just had box office and critical success with a low budget film set in Victorian London. His adaptation of The Elephant Man garnered him an Oscar nomination and the attraction of Hollywood.

"The book was a very big best seller and David Lynch was hot from Elephant Man," said Raffella De Laurentiis. "Many studios had tried to get the project going for a long time."

Fast forward through shooting to post production. Five hours of footage had been shot. During shooting Lynch had improvised and had come up with more scenes to shoot. He stayed within the parameters that the De Laurentiis's had given him to come up with his vision of Dune. Now it looked like a lot of it wasn't going to end up on screen.

"It was intended from the start to be approximately three to four hours," commented production illustrator Ron Miller, the artist responsible for the renaissance look of the film. "Long before the editing process was completed, Universal lost its nerve and ordered that Dune be cut to no more than two and a half hours. Their rationale was that there would be more screenings held in a day with a greater audience turnover."

Freddie Francis, cinematographer on Dune added "I think we started the film without David having any real idea what it would be but intending it to be two hours. But it worked out to be much, much longer."

While Raffella De Laurentiis only had this to say about the subject, "the film was never intended to be a three hour film."

Still, a lot of footage had been shot but Lynch didn't have final cut on the film. That belonged to Universal, Lynch was contracted to bring a film that they requested. As he would later comment in interviews on the subject: "I started selling out on Dune". He blamed no one but himself.

Ron Miller provided more detail: "What [the studio] wanted cut was plot development, character development and exposition in favor of action, there was little left that made sense ... Once David handed over the final cut of Dune, he washed his hand of the entire project being understandably disappointed and disgusted."

This was the impression another un-named source had, "Lynch simply tore into the film himself, cutting out footage with the tears still in his eyes."

Dune was released in the US on December 14th 1984. Rumours of the films reception at test screening quickly swept through the industry. Critics screenings were frequently cancelled until a couple of days before the films release. But the damage had already been done - a hostile press was waiting for it. After five weeks on release, it had earned only $27 million.

Plans to restore the excised footage came to nothing when Dune was quickly released onto video. There it quickly established a cult reputation that continues to this day. In 1987 Universal, noticing the popularity of Dune, commissioned Harry Tapleman, vice-president of special projects for MCA TV to come up with a extended TV cut. Wasn't this a good opportunity for Lynch to come up with the film he wanted to show?

"When my wife and I had dinner at his house about a year later, he [Lynch] flatly refused to discuss the film," said Ron Miller. Lynch was already trying to forget what to him was the most painful experience in his career.

"Universal asked David and myself to work on a 'long' version of Dune to be prepared for television," revealed Raffella De Laurentiis, "At the time David was busy and not prepared to go back to work on Dune without further financial compensation. He and Universal could not reach a financial arrangement so Universal went ahead without him and David's name is not on the long version."

Instead the film that Lynch adapted and directed is now credited to Alan Smithee with screenplay by Judas Booth. Fifty minutes of extra footage was haphazardly edited with additional videotaped material to create a product that has politely been described by fans as "bastardized".

In 1993, Ridley Scott released the directors cut of Blade Runner to critical and financial success. In 1997 George Lucas re-released Star Wars to massive success. Even with the recent success of Dune wide-screen prints on video has shown there is still a large fan base. Is there now time for Dune to be re-assessed in the form that Lynch wanted?

Universal is now eager to sponsor a restoration of Dune but only with Lynch's involvement. That is unfortunate for them as Lynch appears not to be interested in re-visiting Dune. He is a different film maker than he was over ten years ago. Even Raffella De Laurentiis is pessimistic about Lynch re-visiting Arrakis: "I think a re-release could be possible with David's involvement and I don't see that happening."

Freddie Francis was more succinct "I think, using an English expression, its flogging a dead horse. The film is dead and I'm sure that David would agree."

Fans of the novel can now look forward to another adaptation of Dune, a six part TV series being produced for the Sci-Fi channel by New Amsterdam Entertainment with a probable transmission date of late 1999. It is unfortunate for film connoisseurs though that one of the most adventurous SF films ever produced can only ever be seen in an eviscerated form.