In 1984, more than a decade of development hell culminated in the release of Dune, the long-awaited, big-screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel about a messianic figure rising from a desert planet where a mysterious spice was harvested. After several different filmmakers tried (and failed) to bring it to the screen, Dune finally arrived via David Lynch, a then up-and-coming filmmaker who’d never been tested on a film of that size and scope.
The result was one of the most fascinating cinematic messes of the 1980s, the product of a tricky adaptation process, editorial clashes, and a filmmaker who never felt satisfied with the work he was doing under the watchful eye of his producers. As fans await the release of Denis Villeneuve's new adaptation, here are a dozen facts about the making of Dune, from last-minute casting choices to battles over the final cut.
1. It took years to get Dune made.
Though Dune didn’t make it to the big screen until 1984, the journey from page to film actually began more than a decade earlier with producer Arthur P. Jacobs, best known for science fiction hits like Planet of the Apes. Jacobs announced his production of Dune in 1972, seven years after Frank Herbert’s novel was initially published. Jacobs’s production eventually unraveled and the producer passed away in 1973, leading to an effort from French producers to get the film made. That, too, eventually fell apart, leaving the rights to be claimed by yet another producer.
By the late 1970s, producer Dino De Laurentiis had purchased the rights to Dune, hoping to make the film with his daughter Rafaella, who adored Frank Herbert’s original novel. Then came the problem of finding a director, which Dune had struggled with before.
2. Several directors tried to make Dune.
Back in 1972, when Jacobs was working to get his adaptation of Dune off the ground, he announced that director Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool) would direct the film. Ultimately, the adaptation proved too unwieldy and costly for Jacobs to mount, and the rights were passed along to French producers who’d purchased them for director Alexandro Jodorowsky, best known at the time for his surreal Western El Topo.
Jodorowsky launched an extravagantly ambitious plan to adapt Dune into something that was very much his own vision, conceiving the project as an epic that would run as long as 14 hours, with a soundtrack by Pink Floyd and a cast including everyone from his own son Brontis as Paul Atreides to Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí as the Emperor. After three years in pre-production, Jodorowsky had already burned through much of the film’s budget, and the project stalled while gaining its own legendary reputation. Jodorowsky’s vision for the project was ultimately immortalized in the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune.
In 1980, with De Laurentiis now driving the project, the director’s chair was offered to Ridley Scott, then fresh off his own sci-fi success with Alien. Scott was interested, but several factors—including Universal Pictures’ anxiety over the project’s budget—led him to ultimately walk away in favor of yet another sci-fi project: Blade Runner.
With Scott out, Dino and Rafaella De Laurentiis went searching for another director. That’s when they saw a new historical drama called The Elephant Man.
3. David Lynch was hired for Dune because of The Elephant Man.
At the end of 1980, David Lynch only had two feature films to his name: The experimental nightmare Eraserhead and the acclaimed historical drama The Elephant Man, both of which were black-and-white films that showcased Lynch’s knack for striking visuals. The Elephant Man catapulted Lynch into mainstream visibility and critical acclaim. The film earned eight Academy Award nominations, four Golden Globe nominations, and won three BAFTAs, including Best Film. It also drew the eyes of Dino and Rafaella De Laurentiis, who saw Lynch as the perfect up-and-coming visual stylist to tackle Dune. Despite their love of The Elephant Man, the De Laurentiises did not go back and watch Eraserhead until after Lynch was hired.
“If I had seen it without knowing him, I probably would have walked out,” Rafaella De Laurentiis later said of Lynch’s debut feature.
4. David Lynch turned down Star Wars to make Dune.
After The Elephant Man became a massive critical success, Lynch began work on the film that would become Blue Velvet, but at the same time other filmmakers were looking at the director to take on more commercial projects. According to Lynch, he was at one point considering working on an adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon (which was finally adapted as Manhunter by Michael Mann in 1986), but an even bigger offer had also arrived on his table. George Lucas was looking for a filmmaker to take on directing duties for his third Star Wars film, and wanted Lynch.
“I went to meet George Lucas, who had offered me the third Star Wars to direct, but I’ve never even really liked science fiction,” Lynch later recalled. “I like elements of it, but it needs to be combined with other genres. And, obviously, Star Wars was totally George’s thing.”
So, Lynch turned down what would become Return of the Jedi, ultimately in favor of taking on Dune.
5. David Lynch hadn’t heard of Dune before he was offered the film.
David Lynch, despite his leaning toward various genre quirks in his works, was never a particular fan of science fiction, which put him in an interesting position in the early 1980s when he was offered two major science fiction projects in the wake of The Elephant Man’s success. He was so out of the loop on major sci-fi stories, in fact, that when Dino De Laurentiis called him, he had a difficult time understanding exactly what he was being offered.
“And Dino says, ‘I want you to read this book, Dune,’” Lynch recalled. “I thought he said ‘June,’ you know, and I said, ‘June’? He said, ‘No, Dune.’ And so then a friend of mine said, ‘Man! That is a great science fiction book,’ and I said, ‘I know, that’s what I heard.’ So I started reading it.”
Lynch went on to get so deep into Dune that he wrote half a dozen drafts of the screenplay, and consulted frequently with author Frank Herbert.
6. Kyle MacLachlan was cast in Dune because he was an unknown actor.
When it came time to cast Dune, Lynch and Rafaella De Laurentiis knew it was important to strike the right tone with the actor who would play the film’s hero, Paul Atreides. To do this, they decided that instead of pursuing a known star, they would seek out an unknown young actor who could lend a somewhat mysterious presence to the film. De Laurentiis sprang into action and organized casting agents for a nationwide search to find the film’s Paul. While casting scout Elizabeth Leusting was combing the Pacific Northwest for talent, she came across a 25-year-old actor who’d been performing in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Kyle MacLachlan was nearly finished with school and was already planned to make a move to New York City to begin auditioning on his way to an acting career. Instead, he was put on the fast track by winning the lead role in Dune.
MacLachlan’s casting wasn’t just the launch of his screen acting career. It was also the beginning of a lengthy collaboration with Lynch which included Lynch’s follow-up to Dune, Blue Velvet, as well as the iconic cult TV series Twin Peaks.
7. Helena Bonham Carter was Dune’s original Princess Irulan.
As the cast of Dune was coming together and preparing to begin production on the film in Mexico City, the producers ran into a major obstacle. Helena Bonham Carter, the original choice to play Princess Irulan, had a scheduling overlap between Dune and A Room with a View, which she was already shooting. Because the schedules conflicted and A Room with a View “wouldn’t let her out” of work on that film, there was what Virginia Madsen later called a “mad scramble” to find a replacement actress.
Madsen, then a relative unknown, went in to audition in an all-white outfit which David Lynch later saw a Polaroid of. Based on her “classic look,” he chose her as Princess Irulan, which she later called her “big break.”
“Really all I had to do was that monologue, and I was really a glorified extra,” Madsen said.
8. David Lynch and Dino De Laurentiis clashed over the edit.
Dune is a massive, densely detailed novel that establishes a vast sense of place and continuity, which made it a particular challenge to adapt. Once Lynch had a usable screenplay to make the film, the massive scope of Dune translated over into production in Mexico City, where 75 sets and thousands of costumes were made to bring Lynch’s vision of Herbert’s universe to the screen. By the end of production, Lynch had put together a work print that was 4-5 hours long, and eventually trimmed that down to a cut of the film that was somewhere near three hours.
De Laurentiis was having none of that. The producer believed the film needed to be closer to two hours in order to be theatrically successful, and set about condensing Lynch’s original cut down to his preferred runtime. Sequences were cut or heavily abbreviated, and De Laurentiis even oversaw reshoots to add certain elements, including the opening in which Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) speaks directly to the camera to set the stage for the story. The additions were made after test screening audiences complained the film was hard to understand, but they arguably only muddied the waters even more.
Though he was dissatisfied with his lack of final cut on the film, Lynch has resisted any opportunity to go back and recut Dune, so much so that when the film was expanded for a television release, Lynch asked that his name be replaced with “Alan Smithee,” the traditional pseudonym for directors who don’t want to be credited on films they’re unhappy with.
9. David Lynch learned a valuable filmmaking lesson from Dune.
Dune was David Lynch’s third feature film, and it turned out to be his first and, to date, only exercise in big-budget franchise filmmaking. Ever since Blue Velvet his career has been marked by smaller budget, often downright experimental, feature films so singular that they’ve earned their own adjective: Lynchian. There’s a reason for this, even beyond Lynch’s pursuit of his own particular filmmaking interest. On Dune, he learned a very specific lesson that would help to define his future as a director.
“When you don’t have final cut, total creative freedom, you stand to die the death, die the death. And died I did,” he recalled. “When you have a failure, like they say there’s nowhere to go but up. It’s so freeing. It’s beautiful, in a way.”
10. Dune helped get Blue Velvet made.
David Lynch has come to look back on Dune as a disappointing exercise in compromise, but he also acknowledges that making the film was “both great and horrible, side by side.” Though he clashed with De Laurentiis over the cut of the film, he did still find a kinship with his producers that went beyond the difficulties of making the film.
“I love Dino and I love Rafaella and I loved working with them,” he later said. “We were like a family. I just know the way they are and they know the way I am. We loved each other in spite of it.”
De Laurentiis obviously loved Lynch back, and had faith in what he could do if he was granted more artistic freedom on a smaller film, because the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group financed Lynch’s follow-up to Dune, Blue Velvet. That film, a nightmarish mystery that once again starred Kyle MacLachlan, is still considered among Lynch’s greatest artistic successes.
11. There were big sequel plans for Dune.
At the time Dune was in production, Frank Herbert had already published four novels in his Dune series, with two more – Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune – set to follow in 1984 (the year Dune was released) and 1985. That meant there was a vast sandbox of intellectual property for De Laurentiis and company to play in if the film was successful, and the producers certainly intended to keep going. After completing work on Dune, Lynch went right into working on the screenplay for a sequel, and MacLachlan was contracted to return for up to four more films if Dune proved a success. Years later, Virginia Madsen recalled that her own contract for Dune was for three movies, as the producers “thought they were going to make Star Wars for grown-ups.”
Of course, Dune ultimately grossed a little more than $30 million worldwide on a budget of at least $40 million, so no sequels were in the cards.
12. Frank Herbert enjoyed David Lynch’s Dune.
Nearly two decades passed between the time Frank Herbert published Dune and the release of David Lynch’s film adaptation. Along the way, Herbert saw the many different attempts to bring his story to the screen, and he spent a good deal of time in consultation with Lynch as the director developed his version of the Dune screenplay. So, when it was completed, how did he feel about the film?
In an interview with Lynch from around the time of Dune’s release, Herbert seemed quite pleased with the film, particularly the visuals.
“I get asked a specific question a lot of times, if the settings, the scenes that I saw in David’s film match my original imagination, the things I projected in my imagination. I must tell you that some of them do, precisely,” Herbert said. “Some of them don’t, and some of them are better. Which is what you would expect of artists such as David and Tony Masters. I’m delighted with that! Why not take it and improve on it visually? As far as I’m concerned the film is a visual feast.”
Additional Source: Lynch on Lynch, Revised Edition (2005), edited by Chris Rodley