“I think Spielberg is the son from when Walt Disney fucked Minnie Mouse.”
Of all the announcements coming out of Cannes this year, the most unexpected and unlikely was the tantalising, not to say terrifying news that David Lynch has signed up as producer to finally bring to the screen King Shot, the long-rumoured, perpetually stalled movie that will mark the return to directing after 20 years in the wilderness by the 79-year-old Alejandro Jodorowsky.
The unexpected and the unlikely, however, have always been Jodorowsky’s stock-in-trade. Born in 1929 in the Chilean coastal town of Iquique, a place he remembers as overrun with sailors and prostitutes, his unique career has seen him going from staging Samuel Beckett for Mexican peasants to mounting radical theatre happenings in the streets of Paris;1 from creating mime routines for Marcel Marceau (he claims “trapped in a glass box” is one of his), to creating an entire universe in the arcane and loaded comic strips he has written since the mid-Sixties.
Jodorowsky made his first film, an avant-garde adaptation of the surrealist play Fando y Lis, on a shoestring budget in Mexico in 1967, but he earned his place in movie cultdom in 1971, when he arrived in New York carrying the single print of his second movie, the surrealistic Zen western bloodfest, El Topo.2
A low-budget art film he wrote, produced, directed, starred in, edited and composed the music for, El Topo was ridiculed by the Mexican industry while Jodorowsky was making it, but it became a must-see, word-of-mouth hit in New York. Following a debut at the Museum of Modern Art, El Topo played the graveyard shift at the funky, 600-seater Elgin Theatre for almost a year, becoming the first phenomenon of the Big Apple’s midnight movie circuit. Among the hardcore following of acid-heads, students, hippies, hipsters, freaks and faces who made a ritual out of the nightly screenings, its admirers included John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Bob Dylan, Sam Fuller, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper.
These are the films Jodorowsky’s legend rests on, and both are grotesque, haunted warehouses, stuffed with references to religion, the occult, philosophy, psychology, art history and other movies. They could be dismissed as merely addled, pretentious products of their time — were it not for a streak of cruel, ambiguous humour, and the undeniable power of Jodorowsky’s violent imagery and imagination. Whatever else they are, they’re unforgettable.
They have had to be. For decades, both El Topo and The Holy Mountain only existed in audiences’ memories (or in scratched and washed-out pirate prints on the bootleg circuit), as both were purposefully kept out of circulation, purportedly by Klein, following a raging fall-out with the director. The absence clearly helped enhance the films’ already sizable cult mystique, but that was of little comfort to Jodorowsky, who has rarely had easy dealings with the movie industry since.
After years of planning, a long-cherished adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi saga Dune fell apart in the late 1970s, but not before the mouth-wateringly fantastical ideas Jodorowsky pulled together planted seeds in both the Alien and Star Wars franchises.4 A children’s movie, Tusk, shot in India in 1980 was barely seen.5 1989’s Mexico-shot psychodrama, Santa Sangre6 marked a comeback of sorts, but it was short-lived; 1990’s The Rainbow Thief, starring Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif and Christopher Lee, wasn’t even granted a theatrical release.7
Across the following decade, there were the odd rumours of film projects — a sequel to El Topo was supposedly in the works — but nothing that ever got much further than storyboards and whispers. It seemed as if Jodorowsky had given up on film, to devote himself entirely to his comics. In 2007, however, he was suddenly, unexpectedly the talk of the movie world again when, having finally settled his differences with Allen Klein, El Topo and The Holy Mountain were given a splashy, pristine, overdue DVD release, and began to mess with the minds of a whole new generation.
I met the then 70-year-old Jodorowsky in London where, silvering, bearded, dressed in a black suit, black shirt and black shoes and radiating a benign, gentle intensity, he resembled an elegant cross between Klaus Kinski and Kenny Rogers. After the interview, he mentioned, in passing, that he planned to live to 150. Don’t bet against it.
DAMIEN LOVE: So, it’s been almost thirty years now since you made El Topo and sent it out into the world, and now it’s finally being re-released. Why now?
ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY: Until now, I didn’t have the rights. I needed to wait because Allen Klein, who was the producer in the United States, had all the rights, and he didn’t want to show this picture, because he had argued with me, and that was his weird kind of revenge. He closed the picture, and it was very difficult to find the negative. By a miracle, I found a negative that had been lying in a laboratory in Mexico for 25 years. So that is how we come to have the picture today. At the same time, I was also trying to find the negative for The Holy Mountain, and I did, and then I also found Fando and Lis — all my pictures came back suddenly. When I had the rights, all my pictures suddenly appeared, like they had been waiting for me.
What is your relationship with El Topo now?
When I make a picture, I don’t make a picture like a moviemaker, I make a picture like an artist, or like a human being. For me, back then, it was very important to do it. And now I have changed, it’s not the same. But I still respect that picture completely: it is what it is — but it is not me anymore. When I made the picture, I felt as though the picture was my father, and now I feel as though the picture is my son. I am here to speak about a son — but it is not important for me now. The umbilical line has been cut, it is not me anymore. But I like it, I am not ashamed of it.
Watching the film again so many years later, was there nothing you thought you would liked to have changed about it?
No, it’s impossible. Because when I did it, I was like that. I did not make it with my brain, I made it with my unconscious. It is like a dream, you cannot change a dream. I would change nothing.
Did you ever dream that the film would have the life and impact that it has had?
When I went to the United States, I needed to sell it, because I needed to recover the money; if you don’t recover the money you go to jail, because I made the picture on credit. But when we sold the picture, we didn’t sell to the big industry, we sold it to Alan Douglas, who was a hippy producer who had Malcolm X and Jimi Hendrix and who wanted to have El Topo. He knew John Lennon and Yoko Ono, too, and one day he said to John Lennon: “See the pictures you like, show them to your friends.” And John Lennon saw my picture, he liked it, and that was my luck. He showed the picture to the New York intelligentsia, and that was the start of El Topo. But I didn’t know that. One day they invited me to the Bangladesh concert. I went there and after the festival I realised the Beatles liked it . . . I don’t remember all of the names of the people I met there. Sly and the Family Stone were there, too, and they wanted to see me. All them, I became some kind of guru, like some kind of . . . I dunno what. So. Bueno. Now I speak a little English: then I didn’t speak a lot. I was astonished. I didn’t make that picture in order to get famous. I made it because if I didn’t make it, I would die. I needed to do it.
How do you remember John Lennon?
He was a very nice person. And he gave me the money to make The Holy Mountain, through Allen Klein and Apple. He didn’t want anyone to know about it, he did it anonymously. He was a fantastic person, and he really liked what I was doing. One day with John Lennon, he invited me to take tea . . . but, later, when I was shooting Holy Mountain, a Rolling Stone journalist came to interview me on the set. And we were eating and he asked to me — not as part of the interview — “What do you think about the short films John Lennon made?” And I said, “Listen, I don’t like that. To see three hundred asses walking, or a fly going from one part of the body to another for half an hour, that’s not a movie for me.” Bueno. They published that and John and Yoko Ono both got angry. And then I sent them flowers, I said, “I never wanted to suggest . . .” But that was it broken. Our history was broken there. I’ve never told this story, but I am sorry about it. But it was the journalist, so, what can you do? But, still: if you ask me do I like their short pictures, I say . . . No! They are awful! I don’t like them. What can I do?
I believe you had some dealings with George Harrison, too?
With George Harrison, I had an interview in the Plaza hotel in New York, he wanted to play the thief in The Holy Mountain. Bob Dylan also; but at the same time Dylan was also offered Peckinpah, and Dylan said “I feel more Peckinpah.” But Harrison was interested. He read the script and said: “The script was very good, but there is a shot I don’t want to do: You show my bottom on screen, and they are cleaning my bottom. I don’t want to do that.” And I said: “You don’t want to show your bottom? Then I cannot do the picture with you!” And I take a guy, an unknown person from Mexico, and he played the part. Maybe I made the mistake of my life, I don’t know. But at that time I didn’t want to make one single concession, I really wanted to do what I wanted to do. And it was there that my fight with Allen Klein started. He said: “You’re crazy! If Harrison does it, we will get millions! All for one shot!” And I said no, I cannot. And so then he started to hate me.
El Topo became a cult hit, a phenomenon on the late-night New York circuit, and you were soon being approached by all these sorts of people. Were you ever tempted to next make a more commercial kind of film?
No, listen. I don’t have a musical ear. I’m writing all the time, and for twenty years I was listening to the same music, the same record — Celtic harp. So when the Beatles came to me, for me none of that was important. Rock music was not important to me, and all of that “phenomena” thing, that was just all show business. I didn’t want to do that. I think of myself as an artist for the museum. I was very happy when they showed El Topo in the Museum of Modern Art: that was for me. Still, when they were showing El Topo in the Elgin theatre, I wanted to go there, and immediately the owner said, “Jodorowksy’s here” — and there was a cloud of marijuana smoke in there, a cloud, and when I was walking between the public, they were putting marijuana cigarettes in my hand, I took to the stage full of these cigarettes. I put them in my pocket, I spoke with them all, and I went out. But at that time I never smoked anything. But it was very funny. I was suddenly some kind of figure, a maximum figure for the stoners. They actually thought they needed to smoke marijuana to see my picture. It was very funny.
To go back, why did you make El Topo?
Where did the story of El Topo come from?
In the beginning it was a fairy story, in the beginning. It is a master who wants to make a tunnel. But it also comes from the success that cowboy pictures have had. But I had been meditating for five years with a Japanese monk at that time, and so I decided not to make a Western but an Eastern, you know, to have a kind of a laugh about the Western, and to give to the Western the style of a fairy tale. When I was a child and I was going to see cowboy pictures, I never felt that I was seeing the history of North America. I thought that the cowboy’s country was a fairy country. I wanted El Topo to be like this: it’s not in the United States; it is a fairy tale; and it is an Eastern. That is what I wanted to do. And have a little laugh also, because for me it is funny sometimes. I make little jokes. I make the cripple — everyone who knows the film knows this story now — but I take two cripples and make one John Wayne out of them, I give them the pants of John Wayne in order to laugh at John Wayne. But in some ways I was making something deeper than that. I was very influenced by the orient at that time.
In the film there is comedy and there is cruelty — does it trouble you if people confuse these two, laugh at the wrong time?
No. Art needs to have ambiguity. I expect every person who sees the picture to have a different reaction. Somebody can be horrified and another can laugh, and at the same time another can experience sorrow. I don’t like pictures that say “This is a comedy; this is a tragedy.” Life is not like that. In life you can laugh in a funeral, you can laugh and you can see how ridiculous a war is, and at the same time you can be affected by this war. I mixed all the styles. This is what I call the Panic Aesthetic, it was very conscious to do that. Also, I was aware of not making an industrial picture. And another thing is, I didn’t want to address myself to the intellect of the viewer, I wanted to go directly to the unconscious. This is what I wanted to do. But for me it was not important, it was fun, it was happiness to make that picture. To make a picture is a big happiness.
What do you remember most about the filming?
That I didn’t have money. I went to someone who rented theatre and opera costumes, and then I took every bandit outfit and I made the costumes there, putting one thing with another. I constructed, I invented as I was shooting. On one hand there was the script, but then I also wanted to find the places that were like in a dream. I travelled through Mexico for a month finding these nice places that were like a dream. Every place in the film was like a dream for me. And then I put the character there, and I started to invent the actions there. The creation happened there, because I didn’t believe in respecting the script as a machine. Because the day of shooting changes the picture, because, you know, another light suddenly appears, something you want to put inside the picture appears, a cloud, something you want. It becomes different. Today, producers are trembling because, today, the picture is really there only to realise a script, that is what a picture is now, and it’s not realised until it is realised by the special-effects people, the company of cars, the coach director . . . In the end, today, the director is like an agent who leads this cargo: when the light is red, he says, “stop,” and when the light is green he says, “go.” It’s a diplomatic job now, being the director. The producer makes the picture and the star makes the picture, and in the end you have a very fun industrial product. But it’s not deeper. It’s an amusing thing. It’s like a cigarette, you smoke it, and then you forget it and you have another cigarette. And then you die of cancer. If you see only that kind picture, you end up with spiritual cancer, because they don’t help you. But you have a lot of fun. Myself, I like a lot the Hong Kong pictures now. Because they are idiots — but they are so fantastic, so different. Sometime they have no limits: no limit in cruelty, no limit in sex, no limit in violence, no limit industrially. They are fantastic idiots.
El Topo is stuffed full of symbolism, it seems practically to beg interpretation and analysis. Is there a danger, though, of over-analysing, missing out by using too much conscious thought and not just going with it?
There’s a Stanley Kubrick quote along the lines that the meaning of a film should only begin to become apparent in the hours and weeks after you’ve left the cinema. This is something you’d agree with?
Yes, completely. Completely. Or some years after. Because that is art. But Kubrick made very expensive pictures. This is his way. My way was to make very non-expensive pictures. That is my way. I don’t want millions to do it, I cannot handle the consequences — if you have millions, you have to compromise in the image, don’t you think? I love Kubrick, but sometimes his image is too industrial for me. In another way, I love Fellini, but in the image. I mean, I love how Kubrick is strong, formidable. But I love Fellini in his form because every time the form is so personal, so artistic, so beautiful, because it’s a poor image.
Can you tell me a little about the way you used music in El Topo? There’s the scene where the Colonel is killed, for example, where there’s this very sweet, sad musical theme, completely at odds with what the scene seems to be about.
Tell me about El Topo’s underwear.
Hah. That came about because . . . all the time in the film, I have black silk underwear. And this is because there was a moviemaker, Erich Von Stroheim you know, and he spent a lot of Hollywood’s money once to assemble an army for a film. And they asked him, “Well the army is good. But why do you have them all in silk underwear? Why spend all this money on something that’s inside their army trousers, that nobody will ever see?” And he said, “Well, yes, but the soldiers feel it.” So from that, I always say that you need to construct a character from the interior. For all the characters, I construct the interior of each person also.
Talking of other infamous moviemakers, is it true that you worked with Dennis Hopper on the editing for The Last Movie?
Yes that’s true. I don’t know how. I had showed El Topo privately around the studios, I showed it to Metro Golden Mayer, Universal. And, all the time, the people at the screenings were enthusiastic, but then, when the salesmen came along, they would say, “We don’t know to sell this picture.” And Dennis Hopper was at one of these private shows, and he liked El Topo a lot. And so he invited me to come to Taos. And in Taos, he had four or six editing machines and twelve editors working. At that time, he didn’t know what to with The Last Movie. And I saw the material, I thought it was a fantastic story. And I said, “I can help.” I was there for two days, and in two days I edited the picture. I think I made it very good. I liked it. But when he went to show it to Hollywood, they didn’t want it, because by then he was in conflict with them. Later, I think that Dennis Hopper decided that he couldn’t use my edit, because he needed to do it himself. And so he destroyed what I did, and I don’t know what he did with it later. I never told that to anybody through the years, but I am sure that if, one day, they found my edit, it was fantastic. Because the material was fantastic. I took out everything that was too much like a love story or too much Marxist politics. For me it was one of the greatest pictures I have ever seen. It was so beautiful, so different. I don’t know what it is like now, how it has been edited, the final thing, I don’t know if he conserved anything of mine. But it was a fantastic film. One thing I do remember from back then, though, was how strong the smell of Dennis Hopper’s underarm perspiration was. It was so strong, and one day — he had I think ten women there — and I put everyone in a line in order for them to smell the perfume of Dennis Hopper. Because he never changed his shirt, for days upon days. He smelled very strong. That I remember.
You said that, for you, the most important thing was the shooting of a picture, and not the picture itself. Does that still hold?
The shooting of the picture, yes. Why? Because that is the most painful and most dramatic moment. Because, how I was doing it back then — and maybe how I will do it again if I make another — the shooting is an adventure. Because I have some kind of structure, I have some kind of system, but then I have the actors, and then I have place, and then the place starts to affect the scenes. For example, in Santa Sangre and The Holy Mountain, I filmed those in reality in the town — I went there, I shot the picture, and then I had to escape because the police came. We bought a police officer to protect the shoot, and he pulled his gun on me while we were shooting, and so then we ran away. But always in shooting, you are mixing dream with reality. In Santa Sangre, there is a person who eats the flesh of an elephant. In reality it was the meat of a cow, and in reality the guy was fighting in order to have these pieces of meat, because where we filmed was among some really poor, poor people. The only thing I put on that actor’s costume was mud, that was all. Everything else was just what it took for him to go and take the meat. I shoot like that. In those kinds of moments, you cannot act as a normal industrial photographer. You need to go to the action, as though you were shooting in a war. It needs to be beautiful, but it needs to be quick, because this scene will happen only once. Also in Santa Sangre, they showed me a person without an ear. He had a false ear. And immediately I invented something there. When you are shooting out in the world, those things are offered to you. And when that happens, it is a very dangerous and very dramatic, marvelous moment. The editing is completely technical. By then you are sure, you have your material, you have nothing to lose.
Leading on from killing Steven Spielberg, has your opinion of David Lynch’s Dune changed at all?
I think David Lynch is a fantastic moviemaker. I was so ill when he made Dune. But when I went to the theatre to see it — always I tell this with great happiness, because I was so jealous — I was dying. I was grey. But then when I went to the theatre and saw the picture, I was so happy, because the picture was so bad! And then I could live again! Because if David Lynch had been able to make Dune as David Lynch, I think I would have died. But when he made a bad Dune, he saved my life. And I love David Lynch, because he saved my life. Also, I love Cronenberg, because he is an auteur, he has his obsession. I like him. He is honest. There are a lot of moviemakers I like, and there are others I hate. But what I hate the most is Spielberg. And second Walt Disney.
Didn’t you used to hate Walt Disney above all others?
Yes. But now it’s Spielberg. I think Spielberg is the son from when Walt Disney fucked Minnie Mouse. And then there was Spielberg. But in terms of industrial pictures, there is a picture that I think is a masterwork, and that is Starship Troopers. That, for me, is the most beautiful cowboy picture I ever seen. It’s fantastic.
Where do you live these days?
In Paris, near the Arc of Triumph.
Is that where you call home?
The only home I have is my shoes. I have no more home. I never feel at home. Or I always feel at home.
- It’s perhaps worth noting that, as part of a 1965 performance in Paris entitled “Sacramental Melodrama,” Jodorowsky stood inside a giant plastic vagina, throwing live turtles at his audience. [↩]
- El Topo is difficult to summarise. It starts out like a Sergio Leone rip-off, with Jodorowsky’s black-clad gunslinger coming riding in from the desert with his young son. By the time he sets out on a quest against four mystic gun gurus, however, it’s like Fellini making a Buddhist parable with food poisoning. By the final section, when Jodorowsky’s hero has been transformed into a humbled, bald albino messiah, tunnelling his way through a mountain to save an underground town full of deformed outcasts, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. [↩]
- Armed with the bigger budget, The Holy Mountain (right) saw Jodorowsky set his visions free in a fried New Age fable, shot like a Technicolor comic-book. Set in a fetid South American dystopia, Jodorowsky plays guru to a group of would-be immortals — including, apparently, Christ — seeking to scale The Holy Mountain and replace the illuminati at the top. It’s doubtful whether anyone watching this film for the first time has ever had any idea what is actually happening in it, but there’s plenty to see, including a scene depicting a cast of toads and lizards re-enacting the Conquistadors’ conquest of Latin America, in costume. [↩]
- A loose adaptation of Herbert’s epic, budgeted at $20 million in 1975, Jodorowsky’s Dune was to have featured Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Alain Delon and Mick Jagger among the cast, and a score by Pink Floyd. Dan O’Bannon worked on the script, while the artists H. R. Giger and Jean Giraud (the comic-book artist better known as Moebius) developed designs for the film. O’Bannon and Giger were only the most notable of the aborted Dune talent to reconvene for Alien, and there are persistent rumours that several of the set designs were eerily similar to some later used in Star Wars. Jodorowsky and Moebius themselves recycled and developed elements from the Dune project in their 1980s comic strip saga, The Incal. To Jodorowsky’s anguish, Dune itself was, of course, finally brought to the screen by David Lynch, an avowed fan of Jodorowsky’s work. [↩]
- A tale of girl-meets-elephant and discovers they share an entwined destiny, adapted from Reginald Campbell’s 1930 novel, Poo Lorn of the Elephants. [↩]
- A fever dream of a film, Santa Sangre stars Jodorowsky’s son, Axel, as the son of a circus knife-thrower and female trapeze artist, who gets locked in a Mexican asylum after seeing dad hack off mum’s arms. Escaping twenty years later, he “becomes” his mother’s limbs in her new magic act, but also in her after-hours sex-and-religion-driven murder sprees. A proper Jodorowsky movie: beautiful, grotesque, hypnotic and stomach turning in about equal measure. [↩]
- The result of a particularly fraught shoot (Jodorowsky on O’Toole: “I hated him”), The Rainbow Thief is a whimsical, only slightly unsettling and demented knockabout parable, about a maverick prince (O’Toole) and his sidekick, a thief (Sharif), who live in the city sewers. [↩]
- There are an awful lot of dead rabbits in El Topo. [↩]