After receiving a favorable response from David Lynch in the Spring of 1982 to the draft of my Eraserhead article, I began to lobby for some kind of job – any job! – on his upcoming Dune project. At that time, he was still working on the script, no dates had been set for production … and it was still up in the air where the film would be made. Possibly at studios in England, with location work in North Africa.
I didn’t hold out much hope of getting involved – after all, I had virtually no filmmaking experience, and the still-unpublished article was my first piece of professional writing. And yet twice during the rest of that year possibilities arose – only to evaporate quickly. But then in early 1983, Lynch contacted me about something much more promising. By that time, the production was set for a Spring start and would be located at Estudios Churubusco in Mexico City, with locations on the outskirts of the city and a week of shooting scheduled in the desert outside of Ciudad Juarez (a less threatening place then than it is now).
Apparently an ambitious VP in the Universal promotions department had floated an idea to use Dune as a test case for creating more extensive behind-the-scenes material than was usually the case. It was normal at the time to have a crew drop in on a major production two or three times during principal photography to get a few interviews, shoot some B-roll, and generate what’s still known as an EPK (Electronic Press Kit). But this executive wanted to place a documentary crew with the production for the full duration of the principal photography, shooting interviews, behind-the-scenes material – documenting the day-to-day process of making what was, at that time, one of the most expensive movies ever produced. Faced with this prospect, Lynch responded by telling Universal that he would only consent if the omnipresent video crew consisted of people he approved of. Specifically, he told them that they would have to hire a cameraman from San Francisco who had been with Lynch at the AFI, Anatol Pacanowsky, and a writer from Canada – me.
And so, quite remarkably, I found myself hired by Universal Studios for a six-month job in Mexico for which I was basically unqualified. There was no interview, no negotiations; I was sent a ticket and told to report to the studio in Los Angeles on March 21.
Over the next six months, Anatol and I shot about 75 hours of videotape, only to find ourselves dismissed at the end of principal photography (we never did get a written contract from Universal). The tapes, in a format new at the time – a high-speed Panasonic VHS system – were shipped back to Los Angeles and disappeared into the “black tower”. Apparently there was a “making of Dune” shown on TV in 1984 which I assume used some of the material (there’s a very spartan listing on IMDb), and it seems obvious that it was used extensively by Ed Naha in preparing his Making of Dune book to give the impression (false) that he had been around for much of the shoot. But what happened subsequently to all that footage is a mystery. I’ve made numerous unsuccessful attempts over the intervening years to find out whether it still exists, possessed by a doomed-to-be-frustrated dream that one day maybe it would resurface and it would be possible to make a Hearts of Darkness-type documentary about the production.
Presented here is an edited version of the journal I kept that summer in Mexico and several galleries of photographs I shot – actually against the rules, though by the time I found the nerve to take my camera to set, no one seemed to care.
This journal is also available as an eBook, with the addition of transcripts of some of the interviews I conducted during the shoot. See the Cagey Films Shop page to order the book, as well as the companion volume about Eraserhead.