MY LOVE FOR ALL THINGS DUNE & HOW I SAW A CUT OF THE 1984 VERSION, THAT FEW OTHERS GOT TO SEE
With the impending release of Dennis Villeneuve's DUNE, (The epic Science Fiction Space Opera, adapted from the book by Frank Herbert) a director for whose movies I have great affection for, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the other versions that have been made in the past and my thoughts on them and the trailer for the 2020 version. But I had the oddest experience, the very first time I saw the original 1984 release of Dune. I have a particular fondness for David Lynch’s ambitious but ultimately flawed movie not least because my first viewing experience of it seems to have been somewhat different from everyone else’s in the UK. How so, you ask? Well, let me tell you the story, but before we get onto Dune, a little bit of background with my affair with Science Fiction.
I was a child in the late seventies and like so many of us (as my fellow director Simon Cox will tell you) my love affair with Science Fiction, and indeed one of the roads that led to me wanting to become a director began with that little known film STAR WARS, written & directed by a this American chap with a beard. Up until then Space Opera was the old repeated Flash Gordon cinema serials which during the school holidays and occasionally on a weekend, they would show the whole thing as a single black and white movie. They were fun, very dated, and cheap. So Star Wars with its epic sense of scale, vibrant colours, super cool spaceships and amazing blaster sounds was just on a whole other level. Every kid in the seventies remembers that year, because anyone who had a birthday party around that time took their friends to see STAR WARS, so you go to see it like seven or eight times and no one minded. We all loved it. Star Wars would spawn many imitators including Battlestar Galactica (both films and TV series) as well as Italian attempts at their own versions, which I also saw on the big screen. (like this one below)
The 1979 Star Wars rip or homage 'The Humanoid' felt very cool when I saw it at the time, until I rented it on video years later, and realised it wasn't as great as I remembered!
Notably, in the form of THE HUMANOID, which in the UK was released as a double bill with JASON & THE ARGONAUTS. I relished every single one of these movie experiences and by the time RETURN OF THE JEDI came out in 1983, I was going to the cinema every week to see whatever was on. Oddly in years to come, I personally was always drawn to writing about human interest stories, so until I started writing Diamonds in the Sky, I had never really written any Science Fiction myself. Odd to hear that I am sure but the desire just wasn't there until I came up with another reason to do it. (Saving the planet)
Dune 1984 has many brilliant shots, this is one of my personal faves.
Anyhow, so after Star Wars, some years later when I heard DUNE was going into production, it was the one Sci-Fi book that all my nerd friends had read. (All except me!) I was only familiar with it because guess what? There was a board game based on the novel which I had played a few times at a friend’s house. So I was reasonably familiar with the story key elements and found them very compelling. It very much reminded me of the TV series DALLAS, except the families were waging war over spice instead of oil. I knew if this story was going to be a movie, it would be very different in tone to Star Wars, much more serious, more political and I thought probably darker and more violent too perhaps. Like Lord of the Rings for Fantasy, DUNE was the novel that all those into Science Fiction had read. It had a huge established audience out there just waiting to buy tickets to go and see it. Could they make it live up to such high expectations? For many, not quite, sadly but they had one hell of a good go and it's still a film I love and personally have great affection for today because I loved its bold visual asthetic.
The 1980s, a great era for movies, The Last Starfighter was another favourite.
Fast forward to 1984. It was a great time for going to the cinema. (No bloody phones in the audience for one thing!) We had fantastic movies out that year like GHOSTBUSTERS, THE LAST STAR FIGHTER, THE KARATE KID, FOOTLOOSE and THE TERMINATOR (The latter of which I saw on the same day as DUNE) and if you went to an opening of a movie on a Friday or Saturday night, back then, it was always something of an event. The big screens were nearly always packed and there would be a great atmosphere, on Ghostbusters opening night everyone was singing that theme tune in the cinema, which was a source of no end of amusement for my Dad I can tell you. It was in this era that the first successful attempt to bring Frank Herbert’s complex novel was brought to our screens. Legendary producer, Dino De Laurentiis had purchased the rights, from a consortium who previously had tried and failed to produce the movie before (This attempt, now known as ‘The Alejandro Jodorowsky version’, it has recently been the subject of an interesting documentary and while it’s interesting to speculate what might have been, had it reached the screen, I am far from convinced it would have been any better than Lynch’s version.)
De Laurentiis commissioned Herbert himself to write the screenplay, which initially was 175 pages long. Now keeping in mind that we’re now only just into the era of sequels becoming a thing, and they were not yet guaranteed Box Office. If this had been even just a decade later, De Laurentiis might have had the confidence to say then and there: ‘Well, let’s do a Star Wars, this should be two movies…’ but back then shooting two movies back to back was unheard of and in fact, this wouldn’t happen until sometime later when the Back to the Futures sequels were shot primarily together five years later. A longer cut could have been released, but three-hour-long movies, while not unknown, were also not popular with cinemas or distributors. A longer film meant fewer time for screenings and so it was really never on the cards in 1984 that we would get a movie with a running time that would have properly served Lynch’s vision. His personal cut of the movie was three hours plus. So when it was cut to two hours and twenty minutes, many scenes ended up on the floor as a result and there were some very expositional re-shoots to get the story to work. I won’t labor the point but the script went through a lot of hands before it finally got to the shooting stage (Including Ridley Scott’s) and lots of cuts and re-cuts before the version which was ultimately released in a form that Lynch was extremely unhappy with.
The production design and look of Lynch's version was just fantastic.
David Lynch was chosen to shoot the film because Raffaella De Laurentiis was impressed with his recent turn on THE ELEPHANT MAN (starring the late, great John Hurt) which garnered much praise at the time. But Lynch was still a relatively inexperienced director and perhaps an odd choice, not only because of the productions epic scale but because he admitted he cared little for Science Fiction as a genre and had never read Herbert’s Novel, so was completely unfamiliar with the original source material. Never the less he got the job and the film went ahead to shoot entirely in Mexico, with 80 sets being constructed, for a budget of 40 million dollars, which back in 1984 was top-end, budget-wise. These days that’s a mid-budget movie for most Hollywood productions or in my case enough to make ten awesome movies. I took a huge interest in the film and those days that meant eagerly pouring over those few limited film magazines that were available for snippets of information. Then, literally the week of the films release, I found the ‘The Making of Dune.’ a meaty paperback tome written by Ed Naha, which read more like a Director's Diary than anything else. It was a brilliant book and worth tracking down if you have an interest in this.
Here were the most incredible insights into the building of the sets, the design of the fantastic costumes, and all the preparation that had gone into Lynch’s vision for this monumental undertaking to bring the book to the screen. There were tales of everything from buying up all the condoms in one local town to use for constructing sandworm innards to extensive details of scenes filmed with actors and characters that would largely be omitted from the version that went on general release (Until longer cuts subsequently would become available) Most people that was except for myself, my friend Martin and the one hundred or so others who went to see Dune that Friday at the Odeon Cinema Richmond, Screen One.
So here it is: For some reason, we got to see a different print (and cut) of the film than anyone else and why and how this happened, is still something of a mystery.
Martin and I went to see The Terminator earlier that day at our local in Kingston, Surrey (Both lying about our ages and remembering false dates of birth in order to successfully gain entry!) We could have easily waited and seen Dune at the same venue, but Dune was only showing on a small screen in Kingston, but in Richmond, it was on in the far larger screen one, so we went there. So it was we finally got to see Dune and about halfway into the film, which didn’t appear to be anywhere close to finishing, Martin got concerned we were going to be home even later than expected, so he had to go and make a phone call to update the olds. (His Dad was a Policeman, they like to know where their kids are at all times) The film was indeed long, well over two hours and forty-five minutes. (Yes, I know, the running time of the released cut was 136 minutes, let me explain...)
This role stopped Patrick Stewart from quitting Hollywood and led on to the casting of Captain Picard
I will come on to what my first impressions of the film were in a moment. But let me tell you what happened next:
So here’s the thing – the next day I decided to go and see it again, only this time at Kingston Granada, as it was back then. But about twenty minutes in, I realised something is off with this version. There are scenes missing! How can that be? Is this a different cut? As the film progresses I know this is a much shorter edit of the film. Whole scenes I saw only the previous day, do not exist in this version at all. One such scene which would turn up later on the laserdisc extended cut in the 1990s, were the scenes involving Paul Atreides fighting a Fremen called Jamis (Judd Omen) and later scenes between Paul and Jamis’s widow, Harah (Molly Wryn) Wryn, who was especially affecting in her scenes and one of the reasons I knew to look out for them was because of reading about them in the ‘Making of’ book which I completed reading only the day before I saw the film. WTF!!!! WHERE HAD THEY ALL GONE?
David Lynch on set with actress, the excellent Molly Wryn, whose scenes I vividly recall from the first screening of Dune I went to see at the Richmond Odeon in 1984.
Additional scenes that I recalled very clearly from the cut we had seen in Richmond which were not in the version that I saw the next day in Kingston (which was the version that went on general world-wide release), included: a conversation between The Reverend Mother Ramallo and Gaius Helen Mohiam and other characters. The fight scene between Freman Jamis & Paul. A dialogue scene between Paul and the widow of Jamis (Molly Wryn) and a funeral scene with the same actress. Other scenes with the Fremen Reverend Mothers, discussing Paul. There was an additional scene with Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart) and then, there was another extended battle sequence, which took place during Paul’s time with the Fremen, which was not part of the battle montages which were seen in the two-hour 20 minute version of the movie but ultimately used some of the same footage. These were not the only scenes that were missing when I went to the cinema again on Saturday, but they were the ones I could most clearly remember later. When I told my other friends this story, some of them thought I was making it up and it wasn’t until the extended cuts turned up sometime later and it was revealed these scenes did indeed exist that people had to eat some very humble pie.
A still from a scene that was not in the general release of Dune, but was in the first screening I saw, the fight between Paul and Freman, Jamis.
I actually called The Richmond Odeon that week to find out how it was, I had seen this different cut of the film. All I was told (From a staff member who evidently didn’t want to elaborate too much on the subject) was that the wrong print had been delivered to the cinema and it had since been sent back. The cinema only came to realise this on Saturday when the film was coming out some thirty minutes plus later than intended. So, I guess I was lucky, in the sense that I was one of only a handful of people who got to see this version of the film back in 1984. I perhaps thought more positively of the movie than many others did as a result, even if this cut did not ultimately resolve many of the film's issues, it did flesh out some of the characters and was certainly stronger than the version on general release.
But who cut this print? The print was also perfect, there were no scenes with a lower quality. How did it end up in the UK and why? Was this an earlier cut of Lynch's that was sent somewhere for a special viewing in the UK, but was rejected and then somehow got mixed up and sent to the wrong place? We will probably never know. So what did I actually think of the movie?
(Below, the late amazing RICHARD JORDAN, as Duncan Idaho, who passed away from cancer in 1992, a man very much missed from our screens.)
We left the cinema and concluded that while the film had some great moments, several good performances, and absolutely superb production design, it had some major flaws which were the source of the deluge of bad reviews which ultimately would cripple it at the box office. Overall, the look of the movie was amazing, it made the worlds feel not only completely alien but from a different time and each had their own distinctive sense of style and culture. This was and still is, in my view, the film's greatest pillar, and those elements still stand up well today. But some of the VFX work felt a little undernourished and in need of more advanced techniques. (Though oddly is now superior to the VFX work on the Sci-Fi channel version) The biggest problem with the film, however, was the narrative. The script had huge sections of expositional dialogue, spoon-feeding, or explaining plot elements to the audience, rather than getting to the emotional core of the character's needs and desires with a greater degree of subtlety. There wasn’t much room to breathe with the performances either and while some of the cast were really strong and well suited to their roles, others were less so and the film occasionally suffered from those less seasoned actors as a result. But overall, I liked it. It was great to see something that was so different. This world felt richer than the Star Wars universe somehow and the characters were more complex and there was a real sense of history between these great family houses at war and underhand universal politics, all brought so well to life by the superb Production Design, Costumes, and Art Direction. I should also mention the score for the film, which was fantastic by TOTO. I bought the vinyl soundtrack to the film before I even saw the movie. It’s an epic score that realises the world so beautifully and it's on all my playlists. I still own the album, currently residing in a box in the garden shed.
David Lynch wasn’t happy with the version which ultimately went on general release and would ultimately disown it, which I understand (and can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for him at the time) but I hope he looks back on it differently now. He should be incredibly proud of the film, because for all its flaws, it’s an incredible achievement with some beautiful shots and ultimately, it’s the director who brings all the different creative elements together as one vision, and limited VFX aside, the film still has a great look which I think holds up well today, even if some other aspects of the film do not. The struggle with the narrative meant the film failed to find its pace and tonally, it was a little inconsistent but it was gutsy and worked really hard to be its own entity at a time when such risks were rare.
In 1988 a longer version of Lynch’s film was shown on American television, one of many different versions of a longer cut that would surface over the years. I never saw this edit, but am told it’s not dissimilar to the laserdisc version which came out in the 1990s, which I did view. That version contained some (BUT NOT ALL) of the scenes that had been in this unique print I had seen at the Richmond Odeon back in 1984. Several other edits of the film have emerged over time, including fan edits and some with different endings. Personally I like the ending where it rains in the final act. (Not in the book though, so I am very aware it was very unpopular with the die-hard fans of the novel, works for me though!) There were however, more versions of Frank Herberts Dune to come.
Ian McNiece, completely stole the 2000 version in his portrayal of Baron Harkonnen.
Then in 2000, we got the Sci-Fi Channel’s answer to Dune. Adapted as a three-part mini-series with a total running time of 265 minutes, (a longer version exists too, nearly six hours) this version had the space to be far more faithful to the book. I didn’t have access to the Sci-Fi channel, but as soon as it came out on DVD, I bought it and watched the whole thing in a single day. While film technology, as a medium, had not yet gone completely digital and no one had even heard of Blu-Ray yet, Computer Generated Imagery or CGI, as we would all come to call it, was all the rage in the VFX world. If the new Star Wars prequels were using it, then the new Dune would do the same. Early CGI FX would not age well over time and shows that pioneered their use, such as Babylon 5, look terribly dated nowadays and those Star Wars prequels, if you watch them now, you'll be surprised just how awful they look.
Actor James Watson (left) as Duncan Idaho in the Sci-Fi Channel 2000 release of Dune. I would direct James in a play just after he did Dune, which ironically was also to have starred Sharon Duncan Brewster, who would go on to be cast in the 2020 version of Dune, but whom we lost due to scheduling conflicts.
The 2000 version of DUNE would also employ some interesting filming techniques with the use of large photographic backdrops, which would be cleverly lit by Academy Award Winner Cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro. The sand dunes of Arakis would be filmed this way, with large prop and set elements in the foreground. It saved the production vast sums in terms of desert location filming (The series was shot in Prague) and looked good at the time, but some shots now suffer greatly on unforgiving digital televisions and even more so with Blu-Ray, which at times can be distracting. But there was a great effort here to make something special and it showed, with complete commitment from all the cast involved, especially Alec Newman as Paul, (whom I would later go on to meet several times, the first being when he came to see a play I was directing, in which one of his co-stars, James Watson, was appearing.) James was a character and had lots of stories to tell me about how the Dune series had been shot which I devoured with great interest. The play James and I worked on together was a real tough nut and he was good enough to invite me up to Scotland for a few days afterward, which was lovely of him, even if I was really down for most of that trip because I lost so much money on that theatre production. I digress.
Again, a great effort went into the design of the production of this version, especially with the costumes of the Atredies and Harkonnen and it’s interesting to hear about the thoughts behind those concepts on the DVD commentary extras.
The very cartoonish CGI sandworm from the 2000 version, has really not aged well.
Although greatly appreciated by me upon its release there were some elements of this new version that I struggled with. A few of the subplots were slow and ponderous and this universe somehow felt more confined than the 1984 version, which given it had half the budget of Lynch’s (20 million) and that it was shot almost entirely on sound stages was not completely unsurprising. Some of the casting was great, but some felt tied to funding requirements. Even William Hurt, an actor I very much admire, felt very miscast and uncharismatic as Duke Leto and several of the Czech cast really struggled to make an impression on me at all, especially compared to their 1984 counterparts. Lynch’s version had some of the best actors in the Freemen roles, here they had nowhere near the same presence or gravitas. I found Barbora Kodetova, while being a competent actress, miscast as Paul’s love interest in the role of Chani, and her and Alec Newman had zero chemistry. (The choice of Zendaya to play Chani in Dune 2020, is an excellent one.) The show would, annoyingly, frequently re-use several of the same shots in several different action sequences. The bomb exploding in the storage area, which sends several Harkonnen troops into the air was used in no less than five different scenes (and the later series) – I guess they got their money out of that stunt! I re-watched the first mini-series again before writing this and the CGI effects now look like something from a 1990s Sega video game and really look terrible, whereas the VFX on Lynch’s version look quaint and charming, and ultimately more effective. It’s odd that the more advanced visual effects dated so badly with the advance of the digital technology while this only makes the model sequences and matt paintings of the 1984 version look far superior.
Still, the series was one of the most successful shows of all time for the Sci-Fi channel which I thoroughly enjoyed at the time. It spawned a sequel that had many of the same cast but the fact that I can recall almost nothing about it suggests it didn’t hold my interest and as I recall I only got to watch it once because then the DVD got stolen and I didn’t get it back.
The Rooster rocks it in DUNE (2020) my good friend Sharon Duncan-Brewster or Rooster, as I affectionately call her.
So now we finally have the new version, DUNE (2020) which covers roughly the first half of the book, and although I had believed they were shooting both parts together, apparently this was not the case, so let’s hope everyone makes it back for part two eh?
The trailer, which dropped last week, certainly looked interesting. Apart from the stellar cast line up with a list of names struggling Indy directors like myself can only dream of, this version is being handled over two movies, the way it always should have been in the first place, to be honest (Hell, make it three, I am all in for that!). In the hands of this director, it should be the epic Science Fiction film of the decade.
Quite possibly the coolest thing I have ever seen Sharon wear. I think it should be her go-to outfit for dinner parties, weddings and bar-mitzvahs.
There are some elements of the 2020 trailer that do give me a little cause for concern. I really didn’t like the music, (the song in the trailer second half, sounded like something from an X-factor final and tonally was completely wrong for this type of movie) but then I am not even sure if it’s from the film at all. Some of the design elements of the film are a little too clean for my tastes. This Dune looks firmly set in the future, Lynch's Dune, somehow felt set in the past. Again, as I say, these are just my first impressions. But, that said, loads of elements about it look totally awesome and I think Timothy Chalamet will be the best Paul we've seen yet. And the most awesome thing of all is that my good friend Sharon Duncan Brewster got cast in it, as Doctor Liet-Kynes, which was a male role in the book and previous versions. I don’t really think the sex of this character is important and the fact that Sharon is said to have nailed the part is a testament to the solid and versatile actress that I know she is. Nothing makes me happier than to see friends of mine who are really good, lovely people get the karma they deserve. Sharon is definitely one of those.
BRING IT ON! CAN’T WAIT TO SEE THIS MOVIE.
As for me, and my own Science Fiction saga, book two of Diamonds in the Sky is nearing completion and during LOCKDOWN I wrote among other things the entire television series of book one, or what would be season one of the show. I've written parts for Sharon (above) in three screenplays of mine now. I will happily settle for working with her on just one of them, in my lifetime. Hopefully this time the planets will align, if I can pay the SPACING GUILD their fee, that is. Watch this space.
Working cover for book two in the series, which I hope will be available on Amazon before the end of the year. (Ideally much sooner!)