Alejandro Jodorowsky on Reality, Bad Dads and the Right Amount of Drugs

March 18, 2014 | Rhett Jones

“One day I say, I need to make the most mystical scene, a scene that will be very heavy because you are dying, and your woman will ask you to allow her to send the water of faith through her body and she will PISS IN YOUR FACE!” Dressed in layers of black, Alejandro Jodorowsky sits on the edge of a velvet couch in a Midtown hotel room and explains the process of directing The Dance of Reality, his first feature in 23 years.

It’s two days before his premiere at the Museum of Modern Art and Jodorowsky is surprised to hear that his El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) still pack frequent midnight screenings around New York. His myth has only grown in the absence of new films, but legend or not, getting an actor to be mystically pissed on is a delicate endeavor. It’s extra touchy when that actor is your son, Brontis Jodorowsky.

The Dance of Reality (2013)

“He looks at me with his blue eyes and he says, ‘How can you ask that of me?’ I say, ‘I’m not asking that of you. I’m asking that of the actor I need.’” Special effects were out of the question. “I could, but it will not be real. And we will see it is not real. And then it will become sexual. Then it will become ugly. Then it will become bad taste. I need him to be in a trance, a mystical trance.”

Jodorowsky is not a squeamish man. His films are filled with blood and spunk, guts and gore, nudity and sex, actors deformed at birth and copper-mine explosions, terrifying visions, tortured anarchists, deities, despots and dying animals. He’s the kind of man who is only offended by that which doesn’t speak the truth.

Once, Jodorowsky fired George Harrison from acting in The Holy Mountain because he’d backed out of the scene “when the thief shows his asshole and there is a hippopotamus.” Jodorowsky pleaded, “It would be a big, big lesson for humanity if you could finish with your ego and show your asshole!” but Harrison said no. (“Stars are good for business but not for art. They kill the art.”) So, Jodorowsky fired him. (“I can’t use you, because for me this is a sin.”)

His way of seeing the truth just happens to be from the perspective of a man who has lived numerous lives in one. Above all he has been a filmmaker and a mystic.

The Holy Mountain (1973)

With The Dance of Reality, set and filmed in his home-village of Tocopilla, Chile — “a scrap between the ocean and the mountains” — Jodorowsky is sculpting with his psychological baggage. His son plays his father. His mother is played by an opera singer. It’s an autobiography, a cathartic hallucination. It’s also very funny.

“Listen…” he says, pausing, leaning in. “I feel reality as a whole, not parts. To me, it’s terrible. It’s beautiful. It’s mystical. It’s funny. It’s art. It’s a Totality. Then, when I make a picture… It’s about how you see the picture. I don’t direct the mind of the public. I make the accident.”

The Dance of Reality may flow lucid and wild, but from casting his three sons to the perpetually singing Sara, nothing feels like an accident. Reality is complicated. And funny. And terrible.

Jodorowsky was born a Ukrainian Jew and raised in Chile by Jaime (an oppressive Communist father, wrought with crises of heritage) and Sara (his religious mother, Jaime’s “slave… humiliated for years.”)

Jaime was obsessively preoccupied with masculinity, assassinating Carlos Ibáñez and ending the Jodorowsky bloodline. Alejandro was married for ten years without conceiving a child — the last Jodorowsky, just like Jaime wanted — until fate stepped in, as it always seems to do for him.

“I made love with an admirer, one time, and she says she was pregnant! ‘It’s not my son, because I cannot have a child after one time. It’s not possible,’” he told her. But the child’s mother left for Africa with another woman “to make theater” and left the six-year-old Brontis with Jodorowsky, who promptly put him into a film. “Exactly as you see in El Topo. He has a photo of his mother. And I say, forget your mother. You are my child.”

Brontis Jodorowsky in El Topo (1973)

It wasn’t until 25 years later that the two sat down and acknowledged the looming shadow. (“I believe you’re not my son.” “I believe that as well, but you are the only father I have!”) Gesturing triumphantly, Jodorowsky recalls those DNA test results. “He was my son, 99%!” Now, they needed to heal, so he cast Brontis in The Dance of Reality, pulling him into a deeply-rooted and tautly-knotted loop. “Being my father in the picture, being his grandfather… My father was my son. We were really together… It was a psychological explosion.”

Healing has become the core of Jodorowsky’s life. Since the death of his son Teo in 1995, he has practiced as a shamanistic healer and claims to have cured many people with various ailments using a process he calls Psycho-Magic. Now he seems to want to use this practice to heal his own life, through a work of art.

“I made my father become a person. In reality, my father was terrible all his life,” Jodorowsky shakes his head. “I took my book of addresses and threw it away, when I was 23. I went to Paris with $100 dollars in my pocket. I say, my father, my mother — they are monsters. I killed them… Later, I learned you cannot do this. You cannot finish with your parents, you need to order your parents inside you. They are always there.”

El Topo (1970)

Since Jodorowsky hadn’t seen his father since he was 23, I ask if, maybe, he’s combined the character of his father with his own, his father’s life with his. For the first time, Jodorowsky seems taken aback by a question. “Yes. Yes, in the end…” Maybe, he’s uncomfortable that they are in any way compatible constructs, in any way similar people. “Yes and no. Yes and no.” He’s quiet for a moment, contemplating. He’s cast his son as his father; he’s made his father from a part of himself; he and his son have become one and the same.

That Oedipal tangle of art and life wasn’t Jodowsky’s only overdue healing. To even make his next film, professional healing would be necessary.

Jodorowsky’s work had never been a particularly easy sell, but in the ’60s, his knowledge of the occult and his experimental style gave him a cultural cache. He had all the answers. He moved in the right circles. One year, his fan Dennis Hopper — “a very good person,” who saw El Topo before it opened in theaters – invited Jodorowsky to a festival in Yugoslavia.

Jodorowsky went along as Hopper’s astrologer. Hopper picked him up in Mexico and stopped in London at occultist/filmmaker Kenneth Anger’s house for drugs.

“The house was incredible. Furniture of Aleister Crowley. There was a curtain, very well arranged.” Jodorowsky lowers his voice. “Anger went out and I move the curtain, just a bit. He comes in and serves the tea. He sees the curtain. He arranges the curtain. He went out. I moved the curtain. He comes back. He arranges the curtain… Fourteen times, I did this!” Jodowsky bursts, laughing. “Fourteen times he arranges the curtain, without saying nothing! I don’t know why he was so concerned with this curtain. He is obsessive, just like his pictures.”

After the trip, Hopper invited Jodorowsky to the set of the film he was directing. Hopper was one of the hottest filmmakers in the world, just coming off Easy Rider. The Last Movie was supposed to be Hopper’s masterpiece. He was struggling with editing and he asked Jodorowsky to go to Taos and help him. “He was always on drugs. I never saw him not,” Jodorowsky recalls. Hopper had been working for months.

“I did it in two days. I’m sure I made a good picture, but I think it shocked him and he didn’t accept. I don’t know if he preserved any of it but it was very, very nice material.” Not only is Jodorowsky’s cut unavailable and by all accounts lost, but Hopper’s career was destroyed and the film was considered a disaster.

Donald Cammell, Dennis Hopper, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Kenneth Anger Cannes, 1973

Jodorowsky says that he can immediately read whether a person is inherently good or bad, so I asked what he thought of Dennis Hopper.

“He was a really enthusiastic person, an artist, but he was just too much in drugs,” he says. “It was difficult. When I went with Dennis Hopper and [Easy Rider co-writer, co-star and producer] Peter Fonda, in the night, Peter Fonda would call me, ‘Come to see me, Jodo! A serpent is around my body! I want to be free!’ But it was the times. The parties. A guy would come with a paper bag full of pills and just put pills in peoples’ mouths, you know? But… Dennis Hopper was fantastic in Blue Velvet. And he loved my picture. He really loved my picture.”

I asked him if he was ever into drugs. He’s always had an army of psychedelics-enthusiasts for fans. His films are very trippy. Jodorowsky shakes his head, “No, no, no… The only I thing, I needed to sell El Topo and in that time if you didn’t smoke marijuana, you were nobody. I needed to smoke marijuana for a year or two, while I was selling El Topo.” He laughs. Then, he remembers.

“For me, it was very useful to take a tablet of LSD. And mushrooms. One or two times. Twice.”

He nods. “It showed me the possibilities I have, but it did not give me those possibilities. And I realized if I do it all the time, I will burn my brain. My plan was to live 120 years. All my friends died already. I am like a turtle. I can wait 20 years to make a picture. Whatever I need.”

The Holy Mountain (1973)

That plan turned out to be wise because he would soon find himself incapable of making films. Meanwhile, popular culture was about to become much more conservative. People stopped doing drugs in the street. Rock ‘n’ roll stopped mattering. AIDS hit. Republicans ruled the ’80s. Greed was good. Everybody who was cool started to suck.

Jodorowsky’s celebrity connections led to him selling El Topo and The Holy Mountain to John Lennon (who was on a crusade to spread the films around the world) and, ultimately, to a long, acrimonious rift with Lennon’s business manager, Allen Klein.

Klein wanted Jodorowsky to direct an adaptation of the notorious 1954 BDSM novel The Story of O. Jodorowsky agreed, but his star was on the rise and another producer approached him to adapt Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel Dune. Dune was going to be a blockbuster. Jodorowsky could feel unlimited power and creative freedom within his reach.

“I am guilty. It is my fault,” Jodorowsky says, sadly. “I was making this picture with Allen Klein, but I ran. I thought, I will spend six years with this, and then I will be a Spielberg!.. Allen Klein was a businessman. He had a very good business. And I deceived him. For what?.. I never make Dune.”

Jodorowsky had brought together some of the most creative people in the world — H.R. Giger, Pink Floyd, Orson Welles, Salvador Dalí – to make, what would have been, one of the most expensive films of all time. Shit happened. The financing fell through. Now, Jodorowsky had both Allen Klein and Dune’s producer Michel Seydoux as enemies and was a persona non-grata to his most powerful former allies.

Allen Klein buried El Topo and The Holy Mountain, refusing screenings and distribution for 30 years. The films became highly-sought-after works for cinephiles, geeks and stoners who had to make do with cruddy bootlegs.

That all changed recently when he was approached by Frank Pavich. Pavich wanted to make a documentary on Jodorowsky’s Dune and its stunning preparatory materials, to bring the extensive work that was done on the film to the screen in some way. He was working with Michel Seydoux (who still owned the rights to Dune’s production materials) and approached Jodorowsky to participate. 

In the end, the documentary lead to Seydoux more than just burying the hatchet with Jodorowsky.

“Pavich, he comes to me, and I think he was a crazy person,” Jodorowsky recalls, excited. Pavich reconnected Jodorowsky with Seydoux. Seydoux then funded The Dance of Reality. “In the end, we make something!.. I’m an artist. This is what I do. My joy of life is to create. The only thing I can do is make art, but with dignity.”

It turns out that Seydoux wasn’t holding a grudge anymore. “It was something in his heart,” he told the New York Times. “I said yes.. To help him to repair, to give him another chance — it’s important in life. Even if you are 84, you must have a second chance.”

The Dance of Reality (2013)

Jodorowsky also made up with Allen Klein and his finest films have finally been released in pristine transfers on DVD and Blu-Ray. Klein’s ABKCO is now distributing The Dance of Reality. In one remarkable stretch of time, Jodorowsky had healed his professional ties, unearthed the unfinished Dune, fully accepted his son and exorcised his familial issues through making a new film. He says, “It’s very magick!”

I asked if he has a favorite work. “They are part of me,” he says. “It is like asking if you prefer your heart or your liver. They are part of me.”

Navigating the waters of realizing a new film project, while trying to make graphic novels out of the un-filmed and the un-makeable, Jodorowsky seems hopeful, invigorated and a little nervous. “Every picture is a fight. It’s a lot of work. We need to fight against business, because business swallows you.”

The Holy Mountain (1973)

This is his step back into the role he’s most suited for, but money will always be the deciding factor. Appropriately, The Dance of Reality begins with a monologue: “Money is like blood. It gives life, if it flows… Money enlightens those who use it to open the flower of the world, and damns those who glorify it, confounding riches with the soul…” Perhaps Jodorowsky’s reconciling with money too.

After an hour, we part ways. Jodorowsky stops answering questions and asks one. “Tell me now, do you think people will see my picture? Do you think Americans will see my picture?” I tell him I think they will.

“We will see. I was not searching for audience in the ‘6os, but I am here! I don’t know how, but I am here, in the moment.”

The Dance of Reality opens in the US on May 23rd from ABKCO Music and Records Inc, founded by Allen Klein. (Lead photo: Marina Galperina/ANIMALNewYork)