‘Morally depraved’ or misunderstood masterpiece? How Dune drove David Lynch to despair

Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides in David Lynch's Dune
Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides in David Lynch's Dune - AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

Early in 1981, director David Lynch went to see a man about a movie. The project was a science fiction extravaganza that opens on a forbidding desert planet. There was a scheming Emperor, hand-to-hand combat involving anachronistic medieval weaponry, star-hopping space mystics and misunderstood natives who, assisted by the heroes, rise up against the invaders.

The film was called Return of the Jedi, and Lynch turned it down, having experienced a crippling migraine when producer George Lucas gave him the grand tour of his collection of Wookie costumes.

But if Lynch was done with Star Wars, he wasn’t finished with science fiction. Even as Lucas tried to woo him to the dark side, extrovert Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis had an alternative proposal. He wanted Lynch to oversee a $40 million adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, one of the greatest ever sci-fi novels and a text widely seen as influencing Star Wars – not least by Herbert.

Lynch had little interest in science fiction, and Dune, to be shot at Mexico City’s sprawling Churubusco Studio complex, was a leap into the unknown. Seduced by De Laurentiis’s sales pitch, he took the jump anyway. That plunge would end badly for everyone involved. Lynch disavowed Dune – it’s the one movie he wishes he had never made. He wasn’t alone: Dune was regarded as a baroque disaster for years: unintelligible and absurd. If spoken about at all, it was in the context of the notoriously camp scene in which Sting, playing villainous dandy Feyd-Rautha, romps around in a codpiece. Audiences had no idea what was going on. Nor, it would transpire, did Sting.

That, at least, was the received wisdom around Lynch’s Dune, which was planned to be the first entry in a trilogy (Lynch started the work on a sequel before the wheels came off the entire endeavour). But as the second half of Denis Villeneuve’s slicker, sleeker take on the Herbert novel dominates the global box office, it is fair to say that the 1984 movie is no longer perceived as a disaster for the ages. Many have a sneaking fondness for it, blemishes and all. These include its star Kyle MacLachlan, who plays the Timothée Chalamet role of boy prophet Paul Atreides. “I look at it as a flawed gem,” he told IndieWire in 2020. “It’s stunning in so many ways.”

Another fan is movie journalist Max Evry, who has written a riveting oral history of Dune’s making and legacy – A Masterpiece in Disarray: David Lynch’s Dune. He even tracks down Lynch, who speaks about the project for the first time in decades.

“Dune being so clearly flawed was an excellent reason to write the book in and of itself,” Evry tells me. “That meant there was a thread to follow: How did it become so flawed, especially with so many resources and such a brilliant young director behind it? The title A Masterpiece in Disarray is very literal, in that I truly believe a masterful film was left on the cutting room floor and could still be pieced together either by Lynch himself, à la [Ridley Scott’s directors cut of] Blade Runner, or years from now sans Lynch, à la Touch of Evil [re-edited in 1998, 13 years after the death of director Orson Welles]. As it stands, I believe what currently exists is still a fascinating movie worthy of more recognition.”

The story Evry tells in A Masterpiece in Disarray is often rollicking, sometimes hilarious and at moments unbelievable. Though MacLachlan was always first choice to play Paul, we discover Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise were also in the running to portray the saviour of humanity (as was a boyish Kenneth Branagh). Kilmer wanted the gig. Cruise, though, was taken aback when he found himself screen-testing opposite Sean Young’s Chani – Zendaya in the Villeneuve film.

“Tom wasn’t on his best game,” Young reveals to Evry. “I just remember him not really having a footing. I was a little bit taller than Tom and I think that bothered him. He didn’t want to audition opposite somebody that was looking down.”

Deeply weird: Kenneth McMillan as Baron Harkonnen in Dune
Deeply weird: Kenneth McMillan as Baron Harkonnen in Dune - AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

If casting Paul was a drawn-out process, finding an actor to play musical warrior Gurney Halleck proved an even bigger headache. Josh Brolin is a commanding Gurney in Villeneuve’s Dune. Lynch initially went with the veteran Aldo Ray. The problem was that Ray was a hopeless alcoholic, as quickly became clear: “His first day of shooting, he didn’t come out of his dressing room,” Dune producer Raffaella De Laurentiis (daughter of Dino) tells Evry. “We couldn’t get him out.”

Ray had arrived in Mexico early and hit the town with a vengeance. He got drunk, became involved in a brawl and was arrested. When the police came, he scrapped with them too. And then, when he did make it to set, he kept drinking. He was put on a plane back to LA without filming a single reel.

With his Gurney going, going gone, Lynch was close to panic. Wracking his brains, he said, “How about that actor we met in London?” That actor was Patrick Stewart, whom the Dune producers had seen in Henry IV. Stewart flew straight to Mexico. But when he arrived, Lynch didn’t recognise him: Stewart had sported a vast beard on stage in London. Shorn of the shrubbery, he looked entirely different – initially, the director had no idea who Stewart was or what he was doing on his set.

Stewart had much the same reaction to Sting. A ripple of excitement had passed through the production as The Police frontman arrived to play Feyd-Rautha. Stewart, however, was oblivious to the fuss. He asked Sting what sort of band he played in. “The Police,” said the singer. “You play in a police band?” replied an incredulous Stewart.

Stewart would presumably have been likewise unfamiliar with Los Angeles soft-rockers Toto, who had taken a break from massaging the ears of FM radio to compose the dreamy, doomy Dune soundtrack (the clever-clogs power trio Brian Eno, Roger Eno and Daniel Lanois was parachuted in to compose the additional track, Prophecy Theme). Dune was Toto’s only movie soundtrack and it is fair to say they did not love the experience.

“It was a one-and-done for us, as far as I was concerned,” Toto guitarist Steve Lukather told Evry. “It’s very difficult tedious work, and I just want to run and stage and play my ass off and get paid and go home.”

The boy in iron pyjamas: Sting as Feyd-Rautha
The boy in iron pyjamas: Sting as Feyd-Rautha - Entertainment Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

As all this was happening, the budget was spiralling, and Lynch was coming under pressure to wrap the shoot. He was naturally avuncular – as cheery and straightforward in person as his movies are strange and ominous. But even he started to wobble. One flashpoint came when Sean Young invited her sister to set. In the middle of a scene, she flashed her sibling a playful glance. Lynch snapped.

“Knock it off or get the f___ off my set!” is what Lynch said, according to Molly Wryn, who played the Fremen Harah (her role was cut from the theatrical release of the movie). “David said f___. The horror! We were all frozen in shock and perhaps fear. If David – the sweetest man on the planet – lost his temper what could be next? The set became deadly silent.”

That Dune would be an ordeal was probably written in the stars. Before Lynch, several filmmakers had taken a tilt at the project – including Ridley Scott, courted by De Laurentiis only to drop out when Scott’s older brother, Frank, died suddenly from cancer at 45.

In the early Seventies, a French consortium acquired the rights to the novel and hired avant-garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky to direct. As recounted in 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, his film would have rivalled Lynch in his prime for out-of-body weirdness. He planned a 14-hour long feature with his son Brontis as Paul, artist Salvador Dali as the scheming Emperor Shaddam IV, Orson Welles as corpulent villain Vladimir Harkonnen and Mick Jagger as Feyd – with a score by Pink Floyd.

Iconoclastic beauty: one of HR Giger's designs for Alejandro Jodorowsky's Dune
Iconoclastic beauty: one of HR Giger's designs for Alejandro Jodorowsky's Dune - Alain JOCARD / AFP

Jodorowsky’s take could have been the best or worst blockbuster of all time – potentially both simultaneously. However with $2.5 million of the $9.5 million budget already spent on pre-production, financing dried up. The film was destined to exist only in the artist’s imagination.

“His version of Dune would be a thing of iconoclastic beauty to behold,” says Evry. “I still hope someone can make an animated movie from [French comic book artist] Moebius’s storyboards someday. In all likelihood, his expansive vision for the project may have wound up compromised even worse than Lynch’s on the road to being realised.

“But so many other brilliant films pillaged from his abandoned Dune project that in some ways it gave birth to sci-fi cinema as we know it today, from Star Wars to Blade Runner to The Fifth Element. Even a Marvel movie like Guardians of the Galaxy took inspiration from Chris Foss’s illustrations for Jodo’s Dune, so in some ways, it was better as a seed movie for so many others to grow out of. Would the world be better without those films if we had Jodorowsky’s Dune instead? Would science fiction have gone down a more psychedelic path? Who knows.” 

A scene from David Lynch's Dune
A scene from David Lynch's Dune - Alamy

Lynch somehow got his movie over the line. Sadly, it was a huge bomb, bringing in just $31 million off that whopping $40 million budget ($8 million higher than Return of the Jedi’s budget). More hurtful to Lynch were the vicious reviews.

“A real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time,” said Roger Ebert. There were also accusations of homophobia – referencing a scene in which Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) sexually assaults and kills a young orderly by bleeding him to death, film scholar Robin Wood accused Lynch of “managing to associate with homosexuality in a single scene physical grossness, moral depravity, violence, and disease”.

But, as already pointed out, its reputation has improved over the years. One reason is its sheer weirdness – never before or since has so strange a sci-fi blockbuster reached the screen. There is also Anthony Masters’s extraordinary production design – rich and extravagant in a way Villeneuve’s more minimalist Dune does not even try to match.

Blot on his legacy: David Lynch with Dune author Frank Herbert
Blot on his legacy: David Lynch with Dune author Frank Herbert - Alamy Stock Photo

“Dune is what Guillermo Del Toro would call ‘eye protein’ as opposed to eye candy, in that it is not only like a blast of visual stimulation but every set and costume tells you something about the culture of where you are and who you are with at any given time,” says Max Evry.

Evry finally tracked down Lynch – who continues to see Dune as a blot on his record. “For me personally, Dune is a failure,” he tells the writer. “The reason is I didn’t have the final cut. I didn’t have creative freedom.”

Lynch never got over not having final cut. He had pushed for a three-hour run-time. Dino De Laurentis, mindful of the realities of the cinema business, insisted on two hours, and the movie that reached the screen in a truncated 137 minutes. It’s widely regarded as incomprehensible to those coming fresh to Herbert’s intricate universe. Still, Dune 1984 remains singular – only Lynch could have made it.

“Writing the book heightened my appreciation not only of the movie itself, but also made me realise it has a real, devoted fan base that unironically appreciates it as a work of art. There are so many assembly line tentpoles these days like The Marvels or Fast X that have no identity of their own, no authorial signature beyond the brand they exist in,” says Evry.

“Even though it is catastrophically compromised, Lynch’s Dune carries the director’s essence in every single scene. The more I dug into it, the more I realised that Lynch was incorporating so many personal elements as well, including his own spirituality. Modern audiences have largely been programmed to overlook directors and stars in favour of brands.

“Even with the recent two Dune films – where Herbert’s intention is honoured – I don’t get much of an impression of who Denis Villeneuve is from them. Watching a movie like Lynch’s Dune is so refreshing.”

A Masterpiece In Disarray: David Lynch’s Dune – An Oral History is out now; further details at maxevry.com. Dune: Part Two is in cinemas now