Time Out, November 15-21 1984, No.743, p.15-19
THE MOVIE THAT COST THE EARTH
By Richard Rayner
Late October: it´s a balmy evening in Los Angeles and David Lynch, most recent recruit to the top rank of Hollywood movie directors, is trying to calm himself. He´s not having much success. Just off Sunset Boulevard, in the square, undistinguished building which is the West Coast office of the Director´s Guild of America, the first sneak preview of Lynch´s new film is about to begin. For him, it´s a big night.
Lynch - late thirties, neat hair, scholarly glasses and a strange watch that seems to slide across his wrist like some Dali creation - is wondering whether he can go through with it. After 3 1/2 years playing with one of the biggest train sets in movie history, this is the moment when he has to put his toy on display in the shop window. That toy happens to be a $45 million science-fiction epic called 'Dune'. Understandably, he´s nervous as a kitten.
The decision to stage the preview in the heart of Hollywood increases the sense of tension. Most studios are unwilling to hold early previews anywhere around the Los Angeles area, reasoning that they´ll get a more representative audience reaction away from the cynical, hardened types who haunt L.A. screenings. To hold a screening here is cheaper (no hired jet to whizz a score of studio execs to Milwaukee or wherever)) but riskier as well. If the picture isn´t well received, in the jargon, it doesn´t play, then word will spread fast around town. To try and keep this under control the De Laurentiis Corporation, the film´s producers, and Universal Studios, its American distributors, have carefully selected the crowd so that, they hope, there´s no one from advertising, no one from media and, most particularly, no one from the business in attendance.
Lynch is looking at the audience as they file in, telling himself it´s only a preview. But it´s a preview of a $45 million movie, a movie which starts Sting, Jose Ferrer, Max von Sydow, Francesca Annis and Linda Hunt, among others, and features a hatful of Oscar winners on its credit list. The budget for 'Dune' is more than eight times the combined budgets of his two previous films, 'The Elephant Man' and the brilliantly-textured, atmospheric 'Eraserhead'. Lynch´s shirt is buttoned, as usual, to the collar; he says he feels insecure if he leaves the top button undone. Right now, the studio executives are milling round and he´s getting edgy as hell. 'I´d give a lot not to go through another night like that," he says the next day. 'I got real nervous, I don´t quite know why. After all, what´s at stake? Just a few years of my life. And my future career. And the careers of a lot of other people. And a lot of money.'
This screening has to go well. 'Turn it up LOUD,' one studio man whispers to the projectionist as the audience are seating themselves in the theatre. Sure enough, once the lights are dimmed and the credits begin to roll, the crashing guitar chords of the AOR (Toto) soundtrack positively thunder from the speakers.
On screen, the desolation of a windswept desert provides the backdrop for the narrator´s introduction to Dune, a world first created over 20 years ago by a then little-known science fiction writer called Frank Herbert.
The transition from the page to the screen is rarely a smooth one. In the case of 'Dune', it has been particularly fraught and elongated, involving not just the fraying of David Lynch´s nerves and a quantum leap in his career but also various failed attempts, the squandering of enormous bales of cash and names such as HR Giger, Orson Welles, Salvador Dali and Ridley Scott.
For well over 15 years 'Dune' was a bestselling book in search of an appropriate movie deal. Originally published in the SF magazine Analog in 1963, Herbert´s story first appeared in book form in 1965. 'Dune' is the opener in a sequence of novels set on a desert planet in a future galactic civilisation which has renounced the technology of machine intelligence and cultivated paranormal powers of the human mind. It tells how a young, charismatic leader is genetically created to seize control of this empire. An intelligent swashbuckler, 'Dune' won both the prestigious SF awards, the Hugo and the Nebula in 1966, quickly achieving cult status. Since then, it´s moved out to a wider constituency selling some 60 million copies worldwide.
Hollywood was interested from the first. The film rights were snapped up quickly by Arthur P Jacobs, producer of 'Planet of the Apes'. 'I sold them for a song,' Herbert says, 'very little indeed. Plus a percentage if the film should ever get made'. Now in his sixties, and possessing that earnest seriousness seemingly endemic in the American bestselling writer, Herbert has learned to love the movie world but not to trust it. 'I only believe a movie is actually being made from one of my books when the movie house goes dark and the opening sequence appears on screen. I´ve learnt that much from the saga of "Dune".'
Jacobs sat on the rights for several years, advancing propositions then withdrawing them, and then ... died. In 1975 Chilean-born director Alexandro Jodorowsky secured the rights for considerably more than a song, $100,000, and got backing from two French producers, the Seydoux brothers. A man known for his grandiose ambitions - he had directed the overblown 'El Topo' - Jodorowsky enlisted the artistic talents of Chris Foss, HR Giger, Ron Cobb and Jean Giraud and started laying out the cash. Orson Welles, Charlotte Rampling, David Carradine and Salvador Dali were tentatively pencilled in on the cast list.
'It was a wildly ambitious project,' Herbert recalls. 'If the script I saw had been filmed it would have been 20 hours long. Minimum.'
Jodorowsky had spent $2 million on the preproduction when the money ran out; the plug was pulled and the rights went to the Seydoux brothers. Enter Dino de Laurentiis, stage left with a fat cheque book.
'Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads.' The quote is from Scott Fitzgerald´s unfinished Hollywood novel 'The Last Tycoon' and it has a particular application to Dino de Laurentiis. First, with over 100 production credits to his name, de Laurentiis could reasonably claim to be one such man; second, he has been touted as a latterday equivalent of Fitzgerald´s Monroe Starhr, a producer of enormous capability, resource and power who has no qualms about balancing exploitation and arty risk and who prides himself on his cooking almost as much as his movies. He even opened a delicatessen, 'The Dino de Laurentiis Food Show', in West Side New York.
'I went there once,' says Jewish novelist Joseph Heller, author of 'Catch 22'. 'I mean, an Italian opening a deli in New York. This I had to see. I´m glad to say it flopped.'
Born the son of a Neapolitan pasta manufacturer, de Laurentiis has achieved almost legendary status in movies. The world´s most influential independent producer, he is short and energetic, with an Italian accent almost as impenetrable as a slab of mozzarella cheese. When I spoke to him in London in September he had just returned from his film studios in North Carolina where he and an entire movie crew had been trapped for several days by a force beyond his control - a hurricane. 'The hurricane it was beautiful,' he said. 'Quite frightening as well, but not too much. Movies are much more dangerous.'
It´s the kind of self-advertisement one might expect from a man whose career in film embraces over 40 years, two continents, marriage to one of his own stars and alleged links with the Mafia. His credits include classics ('Bitter Rice', Fellini´s 'La Strada'), out and out potboilers ('Mandingo', 'Amityville 2'), big hits ('Conan the Barbarian'), monster flops (the recent 'The Bounty'), overblown epics ('War and Peace', 'The Bible') and underrated gems ('Barabbas', 'Three Days of the Condor').
'The producer is the key to a picture,' he says with a typical immodesty. 'My philosophy is that if a picture is a flop it´s the producer´s fault. The producer select the story, select the script, select the director, see the dailies, approve the final cut. Vice-versa, if the picture is a success, the producer deserves some credit.'
Whoever eventually claims the credit, de Laurentiis´s insistence on maintaining a tight control over his projects doesn´t always lead to equable relationships with his directors. John Milius, who was hired to make the first 'Conan' movie, says: 'I hated him. He´d come to Spain every other week, tell everyone he was gonna fire me and then try to fire me. I´d stand over him and growl. He´s a big shot. I can´t stand big shots.'
Lynch, predictably enough, given the imminent release of 'Dune', tells a different story. 'He´s a man who´s so powerful he can admit he´s wrong. We´d have arguments from time to time, nothing too serious. Basically, we got along fine. He was everything I could dream a producer would be. Supportive when I needed it.'
'We-eell,' says Milius. 'Maybe, Dino´s changed. Maybe I softened him so up Lynch had an easier time on "Dune". Maybe.'
It was in the mid-´70s that de Laurentiis became interested in 'Dune'. Noting that 'Star Wars' was about to launch science fiction as a real commerce force in Hollywood for the first time, he remembered the Herbert novel which he had read, and indeed tried to buy, some years before. He approached the Seydoux brothers. By this time the price had risen to $2 million for the movie rights.
De Laurentiis shelled out the cash and commissioned a script from Herbert himself. It didn´t work. In January 1980 he hired Ridley Scott, riding high on the triumph of his Jaws-in-Space movie 'Alien'. Scott in turn selected Rudolph Wurlitzer, writer on Peckinpah´s 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid', to do the adaptation and set to work.
Eight months later, both Scott and Wurlitzer were out. The initial disagreement had been about the look of the film. Scott wanted HR Giger and hi-tech, which didn´t comply with de Laurentiis´s vision at all - he wanted something which would stand apart from the current spate of SF movies. There was a further row about an incest scene between the young hero and his mother, not in the novel, which Scott and Wurlitzer wished to introduce into the story.
Even the memory of it stirs Herbert to something approaching anger. 'It was a dumb idea even if you´re being crassly economic about it,' he says, pointing out that such a scene could have prevented the film getting the all important PG rating. 'It goes without saying that I hated it.' Scott himself, however, denies that any of this happened, saying he left for personal reasons.
De Laurentiis merely shrugs. 'Ridley and me, we disagree about many things,' he says. 'So he go.'
By now de Laurentiis had laid out several million dollars and Herbert was beginning to wonder whether, like Jacobs and Jodorowsky before, he would in fact fail in his attempt to bring 'Dune' to the screen. The main problem as Herbert saw it was in boiling down the massive original to something approaching acceptable movie length while still maintaining the book´s sense of adventure and intelligence. Then, in March 1981, de Laurentiis called him, virtually foaming into the phone he was so excited.
'Frank, I think we´ve found our director,' he said. 'I´ve just seen this beautiful picture called "The Elephant Man". Made by a great young director. David Lynch.' Herbert replied, 'David Who?'
De Laurentiis then called Lynch. After the critical success of 'The Elephant Man' Lynch was being sought by many producers, among them George Lucas who wanted him to direct 'Revenge of the Jedi', the third episode in the 'Star Wars' saga. Lynch was aware that the whole Star Wars circus was very much Lucas´s show; but he also knew that 'Jedi' would make him very rich. He was tempted.
'David,' said de Laurentiis. 'I want you to forget Lucas. How would you like to make "Dune"?
The line was bad and, in any event, Lynch was having trouble unscrambling the mozzarella cheese accent. "'"June",' he said. 'I don´t think I ever heard of it.'
By now, however, the making of 'Dune' was becoming something approaching a mission in de Laurentiis´s mind; this was to be the movie of his career if he had any say in the matter, and for the next three years Lynch was to hear of little else but 'Dune'.
Hired as writer / director, Lynch moved into an office on the Universal lot, just over the hill from Hollywood in Universal City, in May 1981. He began work on the script. And worked on it and worked on it, pushing it through seven drafts before arriving at a version with which de Laurentiis was satisfied. Cinematographer Freddie Frances, who had worked with Lynch on 'The Elephant Man', agreed to do the camera-work. The movie was to be shot, of course, in colour but that in itself was a departure for Lynch whose previous films had been in black and white.
'I had a lot to learn,' says Lynch. '"Dune" was so different from my other work, both in scale and conception. I´d always hoped there´d be a place for me in Hollywood. I could make films in 16mm in my garage but my attraction of making a big budget feature is you have the money to do things, create images that will end up on a big screen with great sound. I was learning new things all the time on "Dune". Meanwhile time and money were zooming by. My movies feel as though they only take a year of my life. Then I look up and nearly four have gone by.'
Lynch and Francis worked on the mood of 'Dune', how it would look. 'I wanted something dark, not as nightmarish as "Eraserhead" or "Elephant Man" but something which kept some of my interest - like industrial landscape - and looked different to contemporary science fiction. The result is something like Buck Roger meets the Elephant Man.'
By the winter of 1982 de Laurentiis, his daughter Raffaella (who was to be the on-set producer, Dino´s woman on the spot) and Lynch were ready to start casting. All agreed that an unknown should play the young hero, Paul; the 25-year-old Kyle MacLachlan was selected. Like many de Laurentiis productions´ the cast has a distinctly cosmopolitan feel to it and doesn´t feature an established star.
Then there was the row about Freddie Jones. Lynch wanted Freddie Jones. De Laurentiis said no. Lynch said he had to have Freddie Jones, he´d been so good on 'Elephant Man'. De Laurentiis backed down, hoping to be able to get rid of the actor when he saw the first dailies. At which point de Laurentiis did an about face, called Freddie Jones, saying that he´d wronged him, Freddie Jones could play anything and from now on Freddie Jones was be in every de Laurentiis picture. 'Strange,' admits Lynch.
Which left only one major role uncast; Jessica, Paul´s mother, for whom an older, but ideally still glamorous woman, was required. Just about every leading American contender was considered, before de Laurentiis remembered an English actress he´d seen in a TV series about Lillie Langtry: Francesca Annis.
At the time Annis was up to her knees in snow, making a TV film in Manchester. The first thing she heard about the whole shooting match was when an actor she was working with at the time told her his girlfriend, a major American star (Streep? Annis isn´t letting on) was up for the part of Jessica in some science fiction bonanza called 'Dune'. 'Very interesting,' Annis said. 'What´s "Dune"?' And the next night her agent is on the line saying Hollywood want her for the part and that the de Laurentiises and David Lynch were flying over on Concorde the next day to meet her.
Annis took the train to Euston and arrived for the interview at Claridges at 11.30 in the evening. They said they wanted her for the part. Annis asked whether another actress was under consideration. Lynch and de Laurentiis answered in unison, like a vaudeville act: Lynch said 'No', de Laurentiis said 'Yes'. Annis got the contrac and the next day the major American star (Keaton? Winger? Annis still isn´t letting on) was on the phone to the actor, saying 'I hear your leading lady just got my part.' For Annis, it was all like something out of a movie.
With an original budget of around $38 million, 'Dune' was ready to roll, and the heavy action was about to start.
'At various stages "Dune" was going to be shot everywhere,' says Lynch. 'Rome, London, Spain, Yugoslavia, Australia, Tunisia, the Sahara.' Raffaella and Dino de Laurentiis finally settled on Mexico, currently undergoing a movie boom with the devaluation of the peso and the presence of an enormous, cheap labour force. Production designer Tony Masters was able to construct hugely detailed and elaborate sets - over 70 were required for 'Dune' - for a quarter of what they would have cost in the US.
Mexico seemed perfect. The de Laurentiises hijacked Churubusco Studios, a vast complex with the eight sound stages considered necessary for the production. The facilities and the labour were there and there was even a convenient desert nearby, where location sequences could be shot. Mexico had everything they wanted.
Unfortunately, it also had a byzantine bureaucracy, an erratic electric system, a Third World phone network (there was only one direct line to the production office), cockroaches like gunboats, smog that made LA seem like some green earther´s paradise and a wide variety of stomach ailments. A month or so into shooting half the Europeans on the 750-strong crew were laid low with some infection or another. Principal photography began on March 30, 1983 and continued for six months, an exceptionally long shoot. The state of chaotic tedium always evident on a movie set was heightened. While Rafaella was dealing with a succession of crises - finding generators for emergencies, getting the crew back to something approaching fitness, rearranging schedules when Francesca Annis blew herself up with a roge gas oven and was hospitalised for several weeks, Lynch was having a ball.
'It´s some weird place down there,' he says. 'I love it. The texture of the place, the feel of it. Steam rising from the garbage in the streets. Dead animals just swept to the side of the road and left. I´d love to shoot a love story there. "Romeo and Juliet" in Mexico City. As it was I was there with the biggest train set in the world. I loved it.'
Turn an art movie director loose with millions of dollars, allow his extraordinary visual imagination to roam across a project as ambitious as 'Dune' and he´ll almost certainly come up with some scenes which don´t dovetail with the producer´s commercial considerations. Lynch is cagey about this, though he admits that the necessity of attaining a PG rating was a factor of which he was constantly reminded.
One crew member goes further: 'David is a brilliant film-maker,' he says, 'but to some extent a minorities film-maker. There were scenes that were taken out of the script, really great stuff, because they were minorities scenes. And there were other scenes which I´m sure will be left on the cutting room floor, stuff which they let him shoot, just to indulge him a little, knowing that they´d never use them.'
At one point, months into shooting, Lynch was behind schedule. He was over budget. The de Laurentiises decided it was offer-you-can´t-refuse time. Lynch was summoned to Raffaella´s office for a meeting. The situation was simple, she explained. Here was the script and here was the budget and here were the schedules for the remaining days of shooting. For every day you run over budget, she told Lynch, a page will be ripped from the script. At random.
Things tightened up after that. 'Dune' was finally delivered somewhere between $4 million and $7 million over budget, not an enormous percentage of the intended outlay, but still enough to finance a couple of British movies or, for that matter, ten or so 'Eraserheads'.
'$4 million over, $7 million over. It´s not so bad,' says de Laurentiis. 'I´m delighted with "Dune". It´s not only the greatest motion picture of my career, it´s one of the greatest motion pictures ever made.'
At the Director´s Guild 'Dune' is coming over; rather, it´s playing, but it´s not exactly going down a storm, certainly not like the greatest motion picture ever made. On occasion there is laughter where laughter is not supposed to be. At the back the studio executives squirm in their suits a little. Lynch can hardly bear to look. Afterwards the audience fill in their preview cards which ask whether they consider the film a) Violent; b) Romantic; c) Spectacular; d) Corny or hokey. The consensus seems to be that the movie is ambitious, but a little confusing.
'I think some changes will be made,' says Herbert, 'particularly in the opening half-hour.'
After four years, $45 million and a lot of sweat and toil, everyone involved - de Laurentiis, Lynch, Herbert, the cast - is agreeing that 'Dune the Movie' is as faithful a rendering of 'Dune the Novel' as it would be possible for any adaptation to be. There´s a reason for this, and it´s not just that Lynch and de Laurentiis want to massage Frank Herbert´s artistic ego. Perhaps as many as 150 million people have read the novel; and de Laurentiis wants every one of them to go and see the movie.
If 'Dune' is to make money they´ll have to. It´s not the single most expensive movie ever made but it´s certainly up there in the top five or six and once promotion and distribution costs are added in, 'Dune' must take around $100 million in rentals before it breaks even. 'Raiders', the most successful movie ever, took $115 million while 'An Officer and A Gentleman' business would be a disaster. 'Dune' has to be a monster smash.
Which is why, the day after the first preview in LA, Lynch is saying, which just a hint of unease in his voice, 'It went well, but they didn´t exactly take the roof off.' For the next two months he´ll be touring the world non-stop promoting the movie, trying to help 'Dune' become the hit it needs to be.
With 'Dune' already sold worldwide, de Laurentiis probably has his investment covered. For him it´s business as usual, ie five or six multi-million dollar projects on the go at once. 'Whether this movie is a hit or a miss it´s still a great movie,' he says in a reflective moment, adding: 'But it´ll be a hit.' The wagon rolls on.
The Royal Charity Premiere of 'Dune' in aid of MIND is on Thursday December 13. Details from Alex McCandish on 637 0741. The film opens to the public at the Empire Leicester Square on December 14.