David Lynch’s Dune | How conflicting ambitions resulted in a flawed cult classic

Dune (1984) directed by David Lynch.
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To this day, David Lynch still regards his 1984 Dune film as a “sow’s ear”. We look back at why the cult film didn’t turn out quite as the director intended.

In March 1983, author Frank Herbert cheerfully posed for photographs with the cast and crew of Dune – the ambitious, expensive adaptation of his best-selling space fantasy novel. Director David Lynch, producer Raffaella de Laurentiis and young star Kyle MacLachlan all smiled as they held up a clapperboard emblazoned with the Dune title – ‘slate one, take one’, it read.

Herbert had good reason to be optimistic. After almost a decade of false starts, in which directors Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott all made doomed attempts at adapting Herbert’s voluminous, 400-page epic, filming on Dune was finally about to get underway at Mexico’s Churubusco Studios.

The $40m production would require the construction of around 80 sets, thousands of extras, some cutting edge special effects courtesy of John Dykstra, and the careful weaving of an epic plot that took in multiple distinct planets, warring families, gigantic sandworms, and a time, space and body-altering substance called the Spice Melange.

A little over a year later, however, and the initially cheerful relationships behind the scenes had long since soured. Amid reports of a troubled production, Dune emerged as one of the most high-profile box office failures of the 1980s – theatrically, it barely earned back the $40m it had cost to make. Lynch later called the production “a nightmare.”

In the 40 years since, Lynch’s Dune has been reassessed somewhat – and certainly, it’s possible to see the maverick filmmaker’s surreal, dreamlike style in just about every scene. In terms of structure, though, the film also has its unmissable flaws – ones that could, perhaps, have been avoided had everyone involved in the production agreed on what they were making at the start.

The first problem, perhaps, laid with producer Raffaella de Laurentiis’ understanding of Lynch and his work. When the then 30-year old producer – daughter of Serpico and La Strada movie mogul Dino – hired Lynch, it was because she was smitten by the filmmaker’s breakthrough 1980 film, The Elephant Man. It wasn’t hard to see why: beautifully shot in black and white, it was a tender, understated period drama (based on the life of Joseph Merrick) that earned rave reviews and awards all over the place, including a Best Director Oscar for Lynch.

As an indicator of Lynch’s more typical sensibility, though, The Elephant Man was something of an outlier. Before The Elephant Man, Lynch had spent years making 1977’s Eraserhead, a landmark of American surrealism that depicted fatherhood and adult commitment in nightmarish fashion. Tellingly, neither Dino nor Raffaella de Laurentiis had seen Eraserhead when they hired Lynch; they only caught up with the film later, and both of them were immensely disturbed by it.

There are more than a few hints of Eraserhead in Lynch’s gnarly depiction of Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) and his planet, Giedi Prime.

This might explain why Lynch and his backers’ vision for the film only ever aligned in the broadest sense. Raffaella de Laurentiis was an unabashed fan of the book, but she was also cognizant of how adapting it for the screen could go wrong. “To be honest, we’re still nervous about the script,” she told author Ed Naha for his 1984 book, The Making Of Dune. “I think we’ve been faithful to the book but I’m sure that of the millions of Dune readers there will be some who will think, ‘That’s not the way I think it should have been filmed.’”

Incredibly, she said this right as filming on Dune was about to get going in 1983.

Unlike Jodorowsky, who’d written an adapted screenplay so vast that the resulting film likely would have been about 12 hours long without cuts, David Lynch knew that Dune would require some condensing to make it into a palatable feature film. According to Naha’s book, Lynch and Herbert hit it off to such an extent that Herbert had helped the director tighten the screenplay up, with some 14 pages being trimmed from the final page count. Lynch’s shooting script comes in at just 120 pages – impressively lean, given the density of its source material.

Problems arose when Lynch got down to the business of turning that script into a filmed reality. The epic nature of Dune, with its huge battle sequences and slow pans across exotic architecture and desert landscapes, meant that Lynch’s 120-page script ended up as closer to four hours in its rough cut; even with some judicious trimming, the duration was around the three-hour mark.

Reams of plot were hacked down to a single opening monologue, delivered into the lens by Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen). Florence Pugh plays her in this year’s Dune: Part Two.

It’s here that visions for Dune misaligned once again. Distributor Universal Pictures, assuming that Lynch was making a fun, crowd-pleasing space opera to rival Star Wars, wanted the film kept to around two hours. Nor did Lynch have final cut, meaning he was eventually forced to trim out numerous scenes, simplify plotlines, and then add extensive voice-overs that make a flailing attempt to summarise Herbert’s fantastical world.

Universal’s desire for its own Star Wars beater didn’t exactly chime with Lynch’s own dreamlike sensibility, either. “If David sees anything that looks in any way normal, he wants to change it,” production designer Tony Masters told The New York Times while the film was shooting in 1983. ”He hates anything that looks like Star Wars or any other movie ever made. He comes up with weird ideas that make no sense. When we put them in, they do make sense in the overall scheme. That’s what people like Picasso do.”

As a result, Dune was a production at odds with itself from the beginning. Lynch had embarked on the filming of a story that would always have struggled to fit into the template of a two-hour blockbuster; the director’s fascination with the more baroque, grotesque elements of the source novel ran entirely counter to its distributor’s desire for a space opera that would sell sticker albums and action figures.

There were all kinds of other problems during Dune’s filming, too. John Dykstra’s sudden departure left Raffaella de Laurentiis with the job of supervising the film’s 500 optical effects shots herself. There were also bouts of illness, seemingly brought about by poor catering; ‘You do not meet anybody here who isn’t ill, about to get ill, or just over being ill,” actor Francesca Annis told The New York Times at the time. Another incident saw several thousand tonnes of spaghetti, destined for the studio, locked up in customs for three months.

The quality of Dune’s visual effects varies, but its production design is consistently fascinating.

When the newspaper caught up with the production towards the end of its shoot in September 1983, the cast and crew were sitting through the latest of several power cuts – this one lasting about three hours. “We can’t sew with the sewing machines, can’t make the props, can’t use the Xerox machine or the typewriters,” De Laurentiis sighed from her desk at Churubusco. ”Imagine making a picture like Dune with no electricity and one telephone, making the most technical picture ever in a country without technology.”

Really, though, Lynch – and Dune – probably could have weathered the storm of its tricky production had everyone involved agreed on a script and then stuck to it. Indeed, the problem of keeping Dune’s duration reigned in could have been solved had Lynch gone with an earlier idea he had: split the story in two, and release Dune as a pair of separate films.

It’s an idea Ridley Scott had when he spent several months working on the project in 1979 (he later abandoned it and made Blade Runner instead). According to The New York Times, Lynch toyed with the same idea, before deciding to condense Herbert’s opus into one film instead.

Admittedly, splicing Dune in two causes its own problems – Denis Villeneuve’s spectacular 2021 film ends with the story mid-flow, forcing audiences to wait three agonisingly long years for the pay-off (Dune: Part Two is out in March). Nevertheless, a two-part Dune would have helped solve the pacing and storytelling issues that hamper Lynch’s film almost from the start; there are long sections of Dune where it feels as though we’re racing through a Cliff’s Notes version of the plot rather than settling down and properly getting to know its characters.

Dune’s cast is starry if a bit oddly cast in places. Yes, that’s a pre-Trek Patrick Stewart with a pre-Quantum Dean Stockwell, with Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides and Freddie Jones as the family Mentat (a type of clothed computer).

In the years since Dune’s release in 1984, various alternate cuts have emerged, including a three-hour TV version Lynch evidently didn’t like (he had his name taken off the credits) and several fan edits. In a 1986 interview, meanwhile, Lynch suggested that he was planning – or at least contemplating – a four-hour version of Dune for release on VHS.

“When I finished Dune I thought it was what I wanted,” Lynch told The Sacramento Bee. “Now I think it should have been four hours instead of two and a quarter. I shortened it because hardly any very long films have ever made money. But by shortening it we took out the moods of the different planets and wound up over-explaining the unexplainable. When the video version comes out, maybe we’ll make it four hours.”

Lynch has seldom discussed Dune much in interviews since, however, and when the subject of a director’s cut has come up, he seems dead set against returning to the world he made 40 years ago.

“People have said, ‘Don’t you want to go back and fiddle with Dune?’” Lynch told The AV Club in 2022. “It’s not like there’s a bunch of gold in the vaults waiting to be cut and put back together. It’s like, early on I knew what Dino wanted and what I could get away with and what I couldn’t. And so I started selling out, and it’s a sad, sad, pathetic, ridiculous story […]I don’t think it’s a silk purse. I know it’s a sow’s ear.”

As harsh as Lynch is on his own work, it’s arguable that Dune remains a fascinating counterpoint to the more restrained adaptation more recently brought to the screen by Denis Villeneuve. Where Villeneuve tones down some of the more out-there elements of Herbert’s novel, Lynch goes all-in on the weird creatures and grotesque characters – not least the unforgettably pustulant Baron Harkonnen. Compromised though Dune is, Lynch’s off-kilter sensibility still shines through.

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