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Chilean-born artist Alejandro Jodorowsky has worked as a poet, a mime, a comic-book writer, a magician, a therapist, and an actor in a theater of the absurd, but he’s made his greatest impact as a filmmaker. Jodorowsky’s 1970 psychedelic Western El Topo became a big hit on the midnight circuit, giving the director the confidence (and funds) to follow it up with the bizarre, brilliant 1973 religious satire The Holy Mountain. Now, after a long tangle over home-video rights, Jodorowsky’s 1989 horror film Santa Sangre—about an armless woman whose son murders on her behalf—is finally available on DVD and Blu-ray from Severin. When Jodorowsky spoke with The A.V. Club, he was struggling with the flu, but he worked through his coughing jags and limited English to discuss Santa Sangre, the sources of his inspiration, and why he was disappointed in David Lynch’s version of Dune.
The A.V. Club: When you made Santa Sangre, you’d had a long layoff from filmmaking—almost 10 years. Were you developing other projects during that decade?
Alejandro Jodorowsky: I don’t see myself as a moviemaker only, you know? When I can do a picture, I do. But I don’t work like a business, in pictures. I am not obliged to make one picture after the other in order to live. I write books, I write for comic books, I give lectures… I live. And when the opportunity comes to do a picture, I do a picture.
AVC: Your films are known for their vivid imagery. Do these images come to you unconsciously, or do you have specific meanings tied to everything?
AJ: I am an artist, you understand? For me, a picture is like poetry. When you make art, this is not coming from an intellectual place. It’s coming from the deep side of your unconscious, your soul. And you are like in some kind of possession, where you are doing anything to get the visual. You become another person. You’re becoming an artist in action. And then a lot of miracles come. A lot of discovering. It’s a very complicated thing.
AVC: So, for example, in Santa Sangre, you couldn’t pinpoint exactly where the image of the armless mother came from?
AJ: For a lot of years, I did pantomime with Marcel Marceau. I was a writer for him and got to know very well how to use the body for illustration. I wanted to do a mother without arms, but using the arms of her son, do you understand? I did not imagine a mother alone without arms; I imagined a mother using the arms of her son in order to kill. I think always that tragedy starts with fantasy. And then, in some ways, it’s very funny, this woman with the arms of a man. It’s maybe, in some ways, comic. The tragedy should always have something funny. Something weird.
AVC: That’s true of most of your films, that they’re both funny and shocking.
AJ: I don’t want to make a style. Not tragedy, not comedy. Life is a mixing of all kind of things: comedy and tragedy going together. Santa Sangre is the picture I love the best, myself, because El Topo and The Holy Mountain I made with my head, and Santa Sangre I made with my feelings, with my heart. It’s an emotional picture. And it’s more real for me, that picture.
AVC: You had your biggest success in 1970 with El Topo. Were you surprised by how popular that movie became?
AJ: Yes. I never know if my picture is a good picture or a bad picture, because I’m not making pictures thinking of the public, I’m making pictures to realize myself. And then I was not searching for an economical success. I was wanting to be understood. So I was very happy to have some people who understood my picture. I did not have a lot of security about the destiny of my picture. I was very surprised, yes. Still I am surprised.
AVC: Did that success allow you to go bigger and realize an even grander vision with The Holy Mountain?
AJ: I didn’t have too much. I only had $1 million to make The Holy Mountain. For El Topo, I had $400,000. Not too much. I was very poor, but I knew Mexico. I knew I could use the people there in order to do things. I came to a street, I’d shoot, without permission.
AVC: For a long time, you were involved with developing Dune into a feature film, before the project fell through. Did you ever see David Lynch’s Dune?
AJ: Yes, I’ve seen it. I was very scared when I saw it, because Dune was for me very important in my life. I was very sad I could not do it. When I saw that David Lynch would do it, I was very scared, because I admire him as a moviemaker, and I thought he would do well. But when I see the picture, I realize he never understood this picture. It’s not a David Lynch picture. It’s the producer who made that picture, no? Who made this horror. For David Lynch, it was a job. A commercial job. It never was that for me.
AVC: Here in the U.S., anyone who studies film is familiar with the cinema of France, Italy, Japan, etc., but we’re rarely exposed to the cinema of South America. What did you grow up watching in Chile?
AJ: I cannot tell. In Chile they have no movies. They have awful popular movies. I am not a Latin American creator. I shoot in Mexico, but I can shoot in India, anywhere. I have no nationality myself. My nationality is the planet. I grew up in the north of Chile, and this is why there are a lot of religious symbols in my pictures, because the Catholic Church in Latin America is very strong. If I was born in Japan, I would speak about Buddhism, but I was born in South America.
AVC: Did the church take the place of the movies for you as a child, as a kind of entertainment?
AJ: Well, it’s a kind of oppression, I think. It’s very difficult to live with religious ideas, yes? I can’t compare religion to the movies. I can fuse them, yes, but I can’t say that what you are saying is true.
AVC: You mentioned your work with Marcel Marceau, and your comic-book writing. You’ve also been involved with various theater movements over the years. Do you see all of this as connected? As one art?
AJ: They are different ways of expression. The connection is the mind of the artist. It is the same artist, but they are not the same thing. They are different ways to express yourself. Movies are movement. A comic is immobility. From one still picture to another, but no movement. You need to make the movement in your head. In the movies, you see the movement. It’s different. What is the same is the mind of the creator.