Dune Oral History

Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s star-stocked adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic 1965 sci-fi novel, opened to wide acclaim in the fall of 2021, clearing the way for a sequel due this November. But the first filmed version of Dune, written and directed by David Lynch and released in 1984, was considered a failure in almost every regard: It disappointed at the box office and earned pans from influential critics including Roger Ebert, who called it “a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realism of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.” 

It was a rare failure for Lynch, who told The Onion’s AV Club in 2022 that he “sold out” by acquiescing to the desires of uncredited Dune producer Dino DeLaurentiis: “I was so depressed and sickened by it, you know? I want to say, I loved everybody that I worked with; they were so fantastic. I loved all the actors; I loved the crew; I loved working in Mexico; I loved everything except that I didn’t have final cut. And I even loved Dino, who wouldn’t give me what I wanted. And Raffaella, the producer, who was his daughter—I loved her.” 

Lynch speaks at length about the making of the film in filmmaker and journalist Max Evry’s nearly 600-page book A Masterpiece in Disarray: David Lynch’s Dune — An Oral History. The following excerpts don’t feature Lynch’s words — you’ll have to buy the book to see them in context — but our first excerpt does feature insights into Lynch’s state of mind when he made Dune, between 1980’s The Elephant Man and 1986’s Blue Velvet, which reunited him with Dune (and future Twin Peaks) star Kyle MacLachlan. A second excerpt details the Dune casting process, in which eventual Top Gun stars Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer tried to land the lead role of Paul Atreides that eventually went to MacLachlan. A Masterpiece in Disarray is now available September from 1984 Publishing.—MM

(L-R) Dune producer Raffaella De Laurentiis, editor Antony Gibbs, production office assistant Craig Campobosso, an unidentified friend, and writer-director David Lynch.

Excerpt No. 1: The Chicken Kit

Continuing to hone the Dune script over several drafts as the film struggled to get a green light, Lynch made a peculiar impression on Ned Tanen, then president of Universal’s film division.

Thom Mount (former Universal executive): Ned’s a complicated bundle of snakes, but a smart guy. He thought this was a good idea as long as Dino had responsibility for overages beyond a certain point. That was really the caveat for all of us. Ned, at a certain moment, said, “You know, I’ve never met David Lynch.”

We hadn’t started shooting yet. David was working in an office on the lot, so I called David and said, “Listen, Tanen’s never met you, I’m going to bring him over there if it’s cool with you to just say hello. Tell him he’s a wonderful guy, and we’ll get out of your hair, but at least that way he’s met you.” 

David said fine, and 30 minutes later, I drag Ned over to the Producers’ Building up to the third floor, and we find an office that says “David Lynch” on the side of the door. We go in, and there’s an empty office and no David Lynch. This doesn’t make any sense. I walk through the office, and I see that Lynch is holed up underneath his desk, in the footwell of the desk, writing. He’s got a bunch of yellow paper, and he’s writing away underneath this thing. I guess he felt comfortable there, which is fine. This did not seem particularly insane to me, but I dragged Ned around and said, “Ned, David Lynch.” David stuck his hand up out of the footwell and shook his hand and blah, blah, couple of sentences, nothing lengthy at all. Ned said, “You know, this is a difficult movie . . .” The standard speech. 

David said, “Yeah, I’m just doing some rewrites right now, I think everything’s going to be fine and blah, blah.” We left and David was still under the desk. This later came back to haunt me because I think Ned fixated on the idea that David was some kind of kook, as opposed to a guy who has a tremendous creative burden and needs to find his platform, his methodology, whatever that is.

Bob Ringwood (Dune costume designer): I myself am about a third of the way up the autistic scale, and I’m sure David’s autistic or at least has Asperger’s. He does have these obsessions, which he uses wonderfully.

Also Read: An Oral History of American Psycho

Richard Malzahn (Dune visual effects graphics, storyboard artist): David’s a scary dude. Not scary in a mean way, but he comes up with ideas that I don’t ever want to live. He did the fish kit and the chicken kit, these little pictures where he took apart these animals and put them on a board, put little tags on it like a model kit. “Here’s the heart. Here’s the . . . It’s all pieces that you need to make a chicken.” It’s like, “Really? This is who we’re dealing with?”

Jane Jenkins (Dune casting director): 

He would always have bizarre little art projects in his office. There would be rocks on the wall with strings coming down from the rocks. There were photographs of him dissecting a chicken and all these weird David Lynch things.

Penelope Shaw Sylvester (Dune assistant editor): David gave me a print for my 30th birthday . . . it’s a chicken kit! It says, “To Penny, Happy Birthday. Chicken Kit.” He told me it was unique because he put his thumbprint on it. He would get dead chickens, or he would ask people to collect roadkill for him. Then he would spread it out. It says, “Warning: Do not set fire to your chicken or people will eat him. Please follow instructions carefully . . . Mexico City generally has a mild climate. However, the late nights and early mornings can become chilly and uncomfortable . . . You may wish to purchase feathers for your chicken. They can be attached as per instructions.”

Craig Campobasso (Dune production office assistant): He always talked like he was from the ’50s: “Peachy keen. Neato keeno.” He was extremely nice to work with. David’s office was cool. He had a black couch, things on the wall, he had Woody Woodpeckers lined up.

Jenkins: Woody Woodpecker. He was very much into Woody Woodpecker and Bob’s Big Boy.

A Bob’s Big Boy figurine created by the Dune art department.

Ringwood: David, when I first started to work with him, insisted we eat at Bob’s Big Boy every single day at lunchtime, at the same time. He always had to have the same meal, some hamburger thing. He’d eaten there every day and always had the same meal at the same time, a strange artistic obsession.

Campobasso: David loved Bob’s Big Boy. He and Raffaella and I and some other girls from the office would go to Bob’s Big Boy every day, right? Almost every day. The guys in the art department made him a Bob’s Big Boy with a Dune suit on it. They made it out of plaster, and it had blue-within-blue eyes and the little nose thing. They signed it on the bottom.

Ringwood: After a month, I rebelled, and [production designer] Tony Masters said, “Thank God.” I said, “I’m never going to eat at Bob’s Big Boy ever again. I’m sorry.” Tony had been going to Bob’s Big Boy for months and was so sick of it. There was a French restaurant, and Tony and I insisted that David go there for lunch with us the next day. He’d never eaten anything. He’d never eaten garlic. He’d never eaten anything that was foreign food. He was hugely American, obsessed with cheese. I think he was a bit staggered by suddenly being introduced to European food and French food and garlic and all these extraordinary things. I don’t think he liked it very much.

Excerpt No. 2: The Search for Paul Atreides

Jenkins: I think the biggest shake-up early on was that we were going to go with Val Kilmer for Paul. I had done a huge search around the country. I’d gone to Chicago, New York . . . There were a handful of actors that we talked about.

Campobasso: We screen-tested Michael Biehn, Kevin Costner, Lewis Smith. There were a few others. Val Kilmer, of course, because Val was actually the number one choice up until Kyle did his screen test.

That was a very hard screen test to do. Paul-Muad’Dib is not an easy character. Timothée Chalamet made it look easy. Kyle made it look easy, but if you saw all the other actors struggling . . . Michael Biehn did not live up to it. Kevin Costner did not. It’s not that they’re bad actors; they just didn’t fit the criteria for Paul-Muad’Dib because you’re looking for this inner strength. Kevin Costner wasn’t known at that time, and I do remember him being nervous because I helped him get into the costume of Paul-Muad’Dib and I could feel his sense of nerves about it. I would be totally nervous if that were me.

Sean Young (Dune star): I auditioned with Val Kilmer, and I auditioned with Tom Cruise. I was there in Mexico City when they were there, and they were auditioning people. When I got there, I went to this hotel and these people don’t speak English. I’m thinking, “Oh my God, I don’t f—ing know how to even call out.” So, I went upstairs to the lobby and Val was there wearing a baseball cap, and I thought, “Oh, an American crew member. I’ll ask him.” I walk up and I’m about crying, and then I realized it was Val, who I had met on auditions several times in New York. He says, “It’s okay, all you have to do is dial this and this, get a front line out this and that. Let’s go to lunch.” We go to lunch, and the next day at the studio, we audition.

We had three or four meals together during the audition, and then he’s leaving and he goes, “Do you wanna switch numbers?” I’m like, “What for? You’re dating Cher! Why would I need your number?” I saw him sometime after, and he said, “I really respected when you did that.” I was like, “Oh dear…” [laughs]

Jenkins:Certainly, Tom was in that group of boys. I met Rob Lowe when he was barely 18 years old, and he keeps talking on his podcast now about the fact that he’s 56 years old. I keep on saying, “No!!! That’s not possible!” Kevin was right in that group of kids. It would have made sense for him to come in. We gave him his SAG card. He was an extra in the movie Frances with Jessica Lange. I think the director asked him to say something to Frances and that upgraded him. Then I hired him for Night Shift, Ron Howard’s movie where he’s one of the frat boys. I hired him for Table for Five with Jon Voight where he was a permanent extra. Half the movie was shot on a cruise ship going down the Nile. Kevin had a nice trip to see the pyramids. Val came in early on and met with David. They were negotiating his deal.

Raffaella De Laurentiis (Dune producer): We did tests, so many tests, and I remember really liking Tom Cruise’s. He came to Mexico and he was great.

David liked him, too. I think the studio didn’t like him, and Dino wasn’t so sure. They were all concerned that his smile would light up the screen, which of course, it was proven that it did. I sometimes wonder what would have become of the movie if Tom had been in it.

All images courtesy of A Masterpiece in Disarray: David Lynch’s Dune — An Oral History, from 1984 Publishing, by Max Evry.