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‘Dune’ 1984: Francesca Annis, The Original Lady Jessica, Lifts The Lid On Life Behind The Scenes Of David Lynch’s Epic, The ‘Heaven’s Gate’ Of Sci-Fi

As the world gears up to take in Dune’s anticipated reboot at the Venice Film Festival, I sat down with British actress Francesca Annis, star of the original Dune, to talk candidly about the ins and outs of working on one of the most fabled sci-fi films of the 1980s.  

Were David Lynch and Dino De Laurentiis really at loggerheads? What was the atmosphere like on set? How challenging was it relocating her family to Mexico for the shoot? And which hit movie was she promised during production?  

I should note at this juncture that Francesca Annis is my mother. I’ve never interviewed her before and doing so never crossed my mind in more than 13 years as a journalist. That is, until last month when I began thinking about our coverage of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, the year’s most anticipated movie.

You could say I owe Lynch’s Dune quite a bit.

Thirty-eight years ago, more or less exactly, I was conceived in Mexico while my mum was starring in the much-maligned epic.

In the 1984 film, mum plays Lady Jessica, mother to Kyle MacLachlan’s Paul Atreides (portrayed by Timothée Chalamet in this year’s reboot). She was on a hot streak at the time. Her star was never higher, in fact. She scored three of her six BAFTA nominations in the 1970s, winning one in 1979 for Lillie and the Comedy of Errors, and had played a number of leading stage roles including Juliet opposite Ian McKellen’s Romeo for the Royal Shakespeare Company [as fate would have it, more than 40 years on she and McKellen are currently together on stage again in new versions of Hamlet and The Cherry Orchard].

But Dune was a completely different animal. Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 novel was a beast that couldn’t be tamed. Countless tried, from Alejandro Jodorowsky to the great Ridley Scott.

Set in the distant future, Dune chronicles the conflict between rival noble families as they battle for control of the harsh desert planet Arrakis and its prized drug melange, which is vital to space travel.

Lynch gathered an eclectic band of actors including Patrick Stewart, Jurgen Prochnow, Sean Young, Max Von Sydow, singer Sting, Dean Stockwell, and newcomers Virginia Madsen and MacLachlan, the latter making his first-ever screen appearance.

The lineup of those who were said to have been considered for or turned down roles was equally intriguing.

At the time, the movie was one of the most expensive ever made with a budget in the $40 million range, making it more costly than any of the first three Star Wars films, and four times more pricey than box office sensation E.T. two years before.

The production crew came to 1,700. Eighty sets were built on 16 soundstages and 200 workers spent two months hand-clearing three square miles of Mexican desert for location shooting.

The production had to contend with cockroach infestations, Mexico’s byzantine bureaucracy, brownouts that necessitated having back-up generators on hand at all times, a primitive phone network, worse smog than Los Angeles, and dozens of crew going down with diarrhea.

The brilliant Lynch spent years making the film, but it became his Waterloo.

Critics were dumbfounded on the movie’s release. Roger Ebert voiced a familiar sentiment when he wrote: “It took Dune about nine minutes to completely strip me of my anticipation. This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.”

The film bombed, taking only $30M, and Lynch would go on to distance himself from the whole project, which was famously overshadowed by super-producer De Laurentiis, the neorealist pioneer and Hollywood mogul.

Some have called the Universal Pictures charge “the Heaven’s Gate of science fiction.” Not only because it flopped at the time and because of its auteur credentials, but also because like Michael Cimino’s masterpiece, time has been kinder to the film than its first audiences.

As the world awaits the make-or-break reaction to another epic Dune, here’s our chat with someone who had a front-row seat on the original. Even better than a front row seat, in fact.

(L-R) Francesca Annis, Kyle MacLachlan and Frank Herbert on the “Dune” set.

We’re on the eve of the new Dune’s world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Denis Villeneuve’s film is one of the most anticipated movies of the year. To what extent were you aware of the new film?

I had heard it was coming, but I didn’t know it had been made.

I did ask my agent to see whether they needed a “grandmother of the universe” type or something like that [laughs]. Of course, they don’t tend to go with the previous actors unless it’s a huge name. I asked tongue in cheek, of course. I knew it was a long shot…

How did you come to be in David Lynch’s movie all those years ago?

Well, I was doing a small TV drama in England called Shades of Darkness, playing a harassed housewife. I got a call from my agent Dennis Selinger at ICM to say that David Lynch and Dino De Laurentiis were interested in me for a part in the film. Ironically enough, I had just had dinner the night before with a well-known actor who was close to the casting of the project. He had told me who they wanted to star in the film, so I told my agent, “Don’t even think about it. I’m up here working, and I haven’t got time, and it’s fine anyway because I happen to know that there’s a big film star actress already in line for the part.”

I’ve seen it speculated that that might have been Glenn Close?

Glenn Close wasn’t the name I heard. But I told my agent to forget it and that was that.

About 48 hours later, he called me again, and he said, “Look, they are really, really interested in you, and they want to meet you.”

I said “That’s impossible, I’m in the middle of a job, I’m up early every day, in the north of England… .” It’s not like today where travel is much easier….

But they came back again and again. My agent told me that David and Dino were going to jump on the Concord from L.A. and come over to see me. I panicked. The last thing I wanted was for them to see me as a harassed 1950s housewife with rollers in my hair. So, I got the last train to London from Manchester after filming and I met David for an hour at 10 p.m. before getting the all-night train back to Manchester.

How was the meeting?

Well, it’s hard to recall exactly but I remember David being very enthusiastic and we had a good chat about the scale and scope of the movie.

Apparently, David had sat next to someone at dinner in Hollywood (it often goes like that) and David had mentioned that he couldn’t think of the right person for the role. That person said “Have you seen Francesca Annis who played Lillie in the series?” Lillie had been a big success in the ’70s.

And that’s how it happened. It was a little like that on Roman Polanski’s Macbeth too. I initially wasn’t keen to do it. But that’s another story…

Had you or your agent read the script for Dune at that point?

No…I hadn’t read the novel before. I’m not a big science fiction fan. I whizzed through it when it came through.

Dune, David Lynch and Rafaella De Laurentiis
David Lynch and Rafaella De Laurentiis
Everett Collection

It’s kind of funny. You were well known for doing a lot of well-received classical and period film, TV and stage work. But just before Dune, you’d also done Peter Yates’ Krull, which was another massive-budget sci-fi adventure movie. People don’t know the movie well these days but it was a big production. And sadly, another big flop…

Yes, it’s been a shame for me — or maybe it was a hidden blessing — that the few very big-budget things I’ve done didn’t take off, otherwise I would have risen with them…

When you first read the script for Dune did it seem complicated or convoluted? People have always said how difficult the novels would be to adapt…

I’ll tell you, when I first went to see the film at the premiere — and I’ve only seen it once – as soon as Princess Irulan started to talk in voice-over at the beginning, explaining the story, I thought “Uh oh, this film is in trouble.” Any Hollywood film that has to explain itself in detail at the beginning is in trouble…

My experience of working on Dune was that if David Lynch had been able to make his own film, it would have been brilliant, but unfortunately Dino oversaw every single tiny thing. Dino was already thinking about the video sales. David had wanted to make the scenes very dark, all the underworlds very dark and look very sinister. Dino wouldn’t allow it. It had to be lit brightly so that it would transfer well to video, where I think at that time things went down a shade. David and DoP Freddie Francis were constantly being hamstrung and I don’t think David made the film he wanted to make.

I was a big David Lynch fan. I thought he was terrific. But Dino was a huge personality. He had tapped David to do multiple films.

Yes, he was initially meant to do another two Dune movies…

I remember during Dune that David told Dino that he had a script for me. He wanted me to read it when we finished Dune. The script was Blue Velvet. But Dino wouldn’t let me read it. He said “No, that’s not a script for Francesca. She’s not that type.” That’s how I remember it, at least. So, I never even got to read it…

For the Isabella Rossellini role?

Yes. Can you imagine?… Anyway, Dune was not a financial success or any other type of success at the time. But Dino kept David hanging on. He could see he was an idiosyncratic and alternative director. I think David eventually went to Dino and said, “Look, please let me make Blue Velvet with my cast in a non-union state so I can make it for very little with my friends. I’ll do it, and then you’ll have the film, and I’ll be out of contract, and we’ll be done, and that’s it.” And I think Dino said yes. This was a couple of years after Dune.

Why did Dino get to have such a say in what movies you were going to make?

Well, that’s how controlling he was. I think he felt…he was so enamored by Lady Jessica that he was hugely protective. I think he felt I was a classy actress and couldn’t be in anything so dark.

But he didn’t set you up with an alternative film after that?

No. I wasn’t under contract to him. The film wasn’t a success and producers move on.

What do you remember about the filming process? Obviously you were in Mexico for a long time working on a big set. Was it obvious there was tension between David and the studio?

No, there wasn’t a bad feeling on set from my perspective. David doesn’t project that. He’s such a professional and obsessed with his work that he never brought that with him onto set. I remember hearing about the lighting and how David was trying to give it a different look. David – and I felt this about Roman Polanski too – was an artist, but he had incredible technical skills and vision.

Anyone can shoot a film because technology is at such a high standard now, you can just point the camera somewhere. But to actually know about lenses takes years and years and it takes a real eye to know how to draw your audience into a person or into a scene, as we know very well from David’s films that came after and indeed before. Eraserhead is completely brilliant.

Dune
(L-R) Kyle MacLachlan, Patrick Stewart and Sting in “Dune”
Everett Collection

Yes, and The Elephant Man, of course, which he’d also made before… . So, was there a good camaraderie on set? It was a very eclectic and disparate group of actors…

It was sort of an eye-opener for me because I hadn’t been on one of those big American blockbuster films. I felt it was very disparate. I got on well with Sean Young on the movie. Sean taught me an important lesson that I had to come to terms with on Dune. In England at the time you were taught to be part of a whole when you worked on a project as an actor or actress, and you got to know people, and you worked together to make the whole work. On Dune, I had an experience on set with an actor who was absolutely appalling to me and verbally abusive in a particular scene when I was just standing next to the camera. I wasn’t even in the scene with him. It was his close-up, and he just went completely berserk at me, and then after he had verbally abused me for however long it was, he suddenly said the one line that he had to say. We took the scene about 30 times and I gradually got used to his method of being insane and then just saying his one line.

But I said to Sean that evening, I said “What on earth was that?”

She said to me, “Oh no, where I went, we are taught it doesn’t matter what anybody else is doing around you, you have to make your mark, all that matters is you make your mark.”

I said “So, why was he doing it 30 times?”

“Because David wanted him to do something else, and he was doing what he wanted…what he thought would make his mark, so David waited 30 times.”

I said “So, what does that mean?”

“It means either it will be brilliant, and everybody will notice his one line, or he’ll be on the cutting-room floor.”

And that was a real eye-opener to me. That is often how people work. They work for the camera, and what they think their area of expertise in acting is. In fact, now, I’ve seen that in films. Sometimes someone will be picked out for saying three lines as a waitress, or selling a newspaper, in their insane way. They’ll get completely noticed by all the reviews, and I always think of what Sean said when I see that.

Quite amazingly, it was Kyle’s first-ever screen role. He had never been in anything before. Virtually no studio these days would put a complete unknown in a massive budget movie. How much of a weight do you think was on Kyle to try and deliver this movie as its lead actor?

I don’t remember it being an issue. I always got on with him, but everything is so separated. You do your scene, then go to the trailer. But I don’t remember any angst on the set with Kyle, let’s put it like that. Some actors bring so much baggage onto the set, and you’ve got to get through all that, and maybe he didn’t have any baggage, maybe that’s why David really liked him. David was a very straight guy, he was often laughing, he was having a good time.

So, there was no sense at all that it was a sinking ship while you were doing the movie?

No. I didn’t hear anything about it in the editing or cutting phases, but I did hear about the lighting at the time. Dino would be down there every day. You know, he was a very strong, tough producer. That’s what they do. But I wasn’t party to any of those discussions. David was always great with me.

You never know with these films. That’s one thing I have learned. You have no idea when you’re making something whether it’s going to be successful or not. Lillie was a phenomenal success. People still go on about it. We had no idea at the time, but it’s amazing how things get taken up by the public.

Dune
“Dune”
Everett Collection

Did you do much press for the movie at the time?

I don’t remember any huge junkets or anything.

Which is strange…

Well, they must have known way before it came out that it was in trouble. They might have thought they’d spent enough money on it already.

Most of the actors playing members of the House of Atreides in the movie went on to be in David’s hit TV series Twin Peaks. All of the members apart from you. Was there any reason for that?

Twin Peaks was a quintessentially American project and David is an all-American guy. I wasn’t a big star, so there was no reason for me to be in it. The casting on Twin Peaks was great, and I was thrilled just to have been cast as Lady Jessica. Likewise, Isabella Rossellini was perfect in Blue Velvet. So, he was right on it, David.

Tell me about the accident with the oven in Mexico during the shoot. I vaguely remember you telling me about that when I was a kid…

Yes, I learned a lot from the very famous makeup artist Gianetto De Rossi on Dune. I had worked with his father on Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor 20 years before.

We had a house in Mexico and the owners told us whatever happens not to use the second oven. But, of course, I was desperate one day to make an English roast lunch. Your father said, whatever happens, don’t light the second oven, but I was desperate to have this meal. We got into an argument and your sisters came running in confused by the shouting. I was completely stupid and arrogant. I lit my match, turned on the gas, I could hear it going ssssss, but I couldn’t find the source…there was a huge bang.

Patrick [my father] and your sisters were absolutely horrified when they saw me. I stood there, and I said “I’m fine. It’s fine. I’m absolutely fine.” I didn’t feel anything, and then I went to the bathroom, and I looked at myself, and I thought ‘Oh my god.” I had had a permed fringe at the time and it was standing right up at right angles, right up into the sky, completely white. My hair was burned white, and as I bent forward, it all fell into the sink, and then I started to feel the burn of my face. I looked up, and it was like the atom bomb going off. My skin started to raise up and up and up and it started going a deeper and deeper red, and everything had gone: my eyelashes, my eyebrows, my hair all around the front, and then, of course, I started to have terrible pain. They called an ambulance. Long story short, I was put into hospital.

I was extremely lucky. A few years previously, there’d been a terrible plane crash in Mexico, and the Americans had sent this miracle cream down for their passengers on this plane in the crash. Dino had me sent to the American hospital, and they still had a little of this cream left, and they put it on my face. By this time, my arms were burnt and everything. They put it on, and it saved my skin on my arms. Anyway, I was off the film for a bit, not very long, but when I went back, I went back without eyebrows and eyelashes, and Giannetto said “Right, now we can paint on the eyebrows and the eyelashes and everything that you should have,” not the tawdry ones that I had before, and he taught me how to makeup properly.

Did that have anything to do with your character in the movie being bald?

No. All the Reverend Mothers in the film were bald…

That must have been quite a headache creatively for them, for you to lose all your hair mid-shoot…

Well, we must have used wigs and lots of makeup. I remember the makeup stinging as it went on. It couldn’t have happened at the beginning of the movie otherwise they probably would have replaced me.

‘Dune’ 1984: Francesca Annis, The Original Lady Jessica, Lifts The Lid On Life Behind The Scenes Of David Lynch’s Epic, The ‘Heaven’s Gate’ Of Sci-Fi
Francesca Annis and Kyle MacLachlan in “Dune”
Everett Collection

What else do you recall about the conditions on set?

A lot of the U.S. crew were very neurotic about bugs! I always remember David used to shower with vodka in his mouth in case any water got into his mouth. But I understand that. You can’t take time off of a big project like that as the director.

Also, I remember the corruption. They had big problems getting the rushes in and out from customs. Everybody had to go down with bribes to get anything in. I went down once to get something that had arrived for me and I had to take like eight bars of chocolate to help me get out what had been sent for me.

And all the while, you were there with dad and my sisters? For six months…

Yes, they came out for quite awhile. The idea was that your sisters would join a local kindergarten and be immersed in Spanish but after two days they hated it and wouldn’t stop crying so we had to take them out and Patrick looked after them!

And when all was said and done, that was your last big Hollywood movie. Was that your choice?

No, I think it was more fate…

So you weren’t put off by the experience on Dune?

No, no, I just moved on. I’m very proud of the experience in hindsight. It was terrific working with David. Directors like David and Roman don’t hold their cards close to their chest. They’re too confident for that. They both would sit there and would discuss what they were trying to do, and if you happened to be around, you could listen in, and there was no issue. No problem. You could see they knew how to create an illusion on celluloid, and that’s the trick of wonderful filmmaking.

Will you go to see the new movie?

Well, I may at some point. Yes. But it’s not a priority. Things come and go so quickly now and I always prefer to see things in the cinema. There’s so much talk about streaming, but it’s not for me.

I will always lament that “the big Dune” wasn’t “the big David Lynch Dune,” that he wasn’t able to make the film he really wanted to make. But then that’s life, and it certainly didn’t deter him or restrict his success, so that’s OK. He found his genre and has been phenomenally successful.


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