Denis Villeneuve mixes the sophisticated sensitivity of an artist with the drive of an ambitious A-list director who loves big-scale epics — even when they don’t love him back. He still feels the disappointing box office of 2017 “Blade Runner 2049” ($260 million worldwide). “It’s one of the most beautiful, worst ideas,” he told me before his New York Film Festival showing of “Dune.” “We were making something that was very special. And it was a privilege, but it made no sense in a way! I’m just happy that I’m still allowed to make movies.”
This also means that, unlike David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky before him, Villeneuve can’t afford to divebomb his $165-million “Dune.” Over the four years that he developed with Legendary Entertainment Frank Herbert’s otherworldly 1965 saga (which he had adored since his early teens), he wanted to ensure his big-screen adaptation was much more audience-friendly than his “Blade Runner” sequel.
“I wanted to make sure that people that were like 13 or 14 years old would have fun watching the movie,” he said. “When I read the book, I had images that came up, and I wanted to please that teenager inside me. Right from the start I agreed to make a PG-13 movie, [in] the way the story is told, and the rhythm. I wanted this movie to be my best pop movie. And I say that with great joy. It was not for me any compromise. To make an obscure version of ‘Dune’ that would appease only the hardcore fans would have been more easy. To make the movie accessible was the big challenge, while still keeping deep roots into the novel.”
Thus, Villeneuve made an early decision to hang the movie on boyish noble scion Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his journey from square-jawed youth in training to a broad-shouldered leader, warrior, and possible messiah for the indigenous people of his new home, the desert planet Arrakis. His ambitious mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) trains him in the magic arts of the powerful female mystical order the Bene Gesserit, while his father, sword-wielding military leader Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and his trusted lieutenants (Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa) teach him the art of war.
“There is a strong brotherhood that is not afraid to express itself,” said Jon Spaihts, who wrote the “Dune” screenplay with Villeneuve and Eric Roth. “But Paul is also the heir to a great house, a strategic target. It’s not safe for him to move openly in a world filled with intrigue and assassins.”
“Paul is a lonely kid. His only friends are his teachers,” said Villeneuve. “And he grew up in a world of adults. That’s probably why dreaming about a girl from another planet is so attractive for him. Timothée is very masculine. But yes, he was dead perfect for Paul [because of] that powerful hypersensitivity and fluidity inside him. Paul Atreides brings a kind of equilibrium between both genders.”
Finally, this “Dune” centers on a mother-son story. “Of course, the father figure is important,” said Villeneuve, “but for me at the heart is the mother-and-son relationship and to see a man being possessed by a strange female power. That’s the element that I tried to enhance with the voice of Hans [Zimmer’s] score. And Timothée embodies that beautifully, a bit like David Bowie. I love him, he is free.”
When Villeneuve shot the early pivotal scene when Paul stands up to a dangerous Bene Gesserit mind-over-pain stress test, the director knew he had picked the right star. Did Chalamet feel the weight of carrying the movie? “He did,” said Villeneuve. “As we’re shooting, he’s the same age as my kids. So I became, and my partner/producer [wife Tanya Lapointe] on the movie too, we became like, parental figures. He’s very mature, but often I was feeling that he was only 23 years old. I mean, that massive thing was on his shoulders. I felt the pressure, yes, but he dealt very beautifully with it.”
Early on, the director decided to split Herbert’s sprawling narrative into two parts. It was on Villeneuve to make the first part so compelling that audiences would demand a second. When Spaihts came on board, “the decision had already been made to do two films,” the screenwriter said, “which was tremendously wise. Even slight novels have more in them than a movie can hold. And ‘Dune’ is a massive novel dense with world building and specialized language, mythology, and plot. It was a constant process of winnowing.”
“Dune” also carries the burden of 56 years of Herbert’s influence on other writers, including “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, whose desert child Luke Skywalker owes much to Herbert’s novel, just as Herbert mined material from T.E. Lawrence’s autobiographical “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” which was the basis of David Lean’s 1962 classic “Lawrence of Arabia.” When the audience first sees Arrakis (shot in crystal-clear IMAX in the same Wadi Rum Jordan desert as Lean’s movie), Zimmer pays homage to Maurice Jarre in his Mideast-tinged score.
“Lawrence of Arabia” is one of Villeneuve’s favorite movies. (He wrote a college thesis on the British epic.) As a teenager in Montreal, he recalls the impact of seeing a brand new 70mm print in a big theater. “Some movies like that are a master class in classical filmmaking,” he said. “I was blown away by the purity of cinematic language, the use of landscape, the use of space.” Like Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence, Paul Atreides feels like he somehow belongs in the desert even though he comes from another world.
“It’s the story of someone who falls deeply in love with another culture and finds home in a foreign land,” said Villeneuve. “And by trying to help a culture, will become a traitor to it. That’s the tragedy of T.E. Lawrence and of Paul Atreides, these two are both the unknowing instruments of colonialism. That’s what makes the books still contemporary today.”
The filmmaker wanted to use IMAX to capture the full impact of the natural desert landscape in “Dune” as well as Paul’s prophetic dreams. “I wanted the nature to tower over the humans,” said Villeneuve. “I wanted to bring back humility into the humanity, put them back into the ecosystem, like Frank Herbert did writing his novel. Humans are not in control of nature. And IMAX creates that insane verticality that really can crush you or create vertigo. What amazed me the most about IMAX is the intimacy that it does create with characters in close-up. You know when a human being is too close to you, you get this impression that you’re suddenly in a very intimate, private space? That contrast between the impact of the landscape and that intimacy for me was what I was trying to do with ‘Dune,’ which is following the introspective journey of a young man discovering a new country.”
The production invested a month in the Jordan and Abu Dhabi deserts in order to shoot as much on the ground as possible, always a risk. “The desert was very generous with us,” said Villeneuve. “The sky was as we wanted, and the wind was strong. The problem with the desert was time; we had so many things to shoot that I shot non-stop for 30 days in a row without breaking with several units because we wouldn’t be able to bring back everything we needed. Greig Fraser and I were calling it the Jordan battle. I took it upon my shoulders that I will do a lot in the desert instead of shooting in the back lot on stage.”
For the score, which could yield Oscar-winner Zimmer (“The Lion King”) his 11th nomination, the composer created original sounds via new instruments and ethereal female voices, which pushed against pandemic protocols and post-production deadlines. “To see a master having anxiety, trying to get out of his comfort zone,” said Villeneuve, “and trying to create something new, he was obsessed with this idea that the music had to come from another world. And he created instruments and it took a long time. Hans was like a mad scientist doing an experiment, creating a library of sound. He created wind instruments with friends. Hans knew the novel most among my collaborators. He knew how to bring out the subtext of some scenes, a bit like in the book when you hear the thoughts of the characters.”
Villeneuve always revels in the fine details of world building and gadget creating, and a lesson he took from “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049” was to go slow. “There was something that I did not have on ‘Blade Runner,’ which is time,” he said. “I was doing ‘Arrival’ coming out of ‘Sicario,’ and during ‘Arrival’ I was starting to dream about ‘Blade Runner.’ It was a lot going on at the same time. You need for the roots of the idea to go deeper in yourself. I decided with ‘Dune’ to have pleasure, cinematic pleasure.”
Monumental, Brutalist stone edifices and heavy geometric spaceships dominate Patrice Vermette’s production design, but Villeneuve does not scoot past telling details such as watering the line of Arrakis’ sacred palm trees or gauging the scale of the giant sandworm by the way it displaces huge volumes of sand. “The humans are trying to survive the pressure of the ecosystem, of the environment,” said Villeneuve. “To survive space and the desert, they need to create, in any way they can, monstrous vehicles and architecture. It’s that feeling of isolation and vulnerability. They don’t have the choice but to build things that can endure the shock of nature.”
Villeneuve considered becoming a biologist before filmmaking won out and his love of insects infuses the designs, from the whirring winged ornithopter to the lethal poisoned drone that aims for Paul’s head. “‘Dune’ uses biology and ecosystems as a backdrop for this insane, beautiful story,” he said.
The “Dune” designers also had to make Stellan Skarsgard’s bloated Baron Harkonnen villain, who is so fat that he doesn’t need to walk, but hovers in the air. “The challenge was not to create a fat baby or someone that would look like a caricature, or grotesque,” said Villeneuve, who led extensive brainstorming and drawing sessions with his designers and storyboard artists. “To try to find this shape, it came at one point with muscularity, to feel the power.”
Villeneuve even shoots Skarsgard’s head emerging from a dark pool like Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in another film favorite, “Apocalypse Now,” one of the film’s many cinematic homages. “That’s a movie that is a love letter for the big screen,” the director said. “It’s the first time I do that. In this structure, you have a character slowly going down inside, deeper, deeper, deeper and into a landscape, into a country and finding things about himself, the deeper he goes into it. Kurtz was an inspiration for the Baron.”
Editing the two and a half hour epic was a struggle, from daunting plot points to alternating scale with close-up intimacy. Oscar-nominated Joe Walker (“12 Years a Slave,” “Arrival”) has been Villeneuve’s editing-room ally since “Sicario,” and they created a bubble that allowed them to finalize the edit during the pandemic. “When you deal with lyrical moments with visions of the future, to find the balance so the visions will be emotional and give proper information was not easy,” he said. “The challenge was to try to minimize exposition at the beginning so the movie will be as visceral as possible — but at the same time, we have to follow the story. Otherwise, the movie became too abstract.”
The spiritual, mystic realm emerges in Paul’s dreams, which may be versions of the future, but do not necessarily come true. And several characters often quote scripture. “Paul’s character has visions that are flash forwards,” said Villeneuve, “like vivid dreams that he has to decode and that he doesn’t really understand. It’s like trying to construct the mental journey of the character. It’s a part of the movie that is more experimental. The deeper I was going, the better the movie was, frankly. The use of dreams in a movie is something that I do a lot. And I’m questioning it, because it’s like putting the dream inside a dream.”
Villeneuve is ahead of the game when it comes to “Dune Two,” as Arrakis has been established and some elements have been shot. “There was a lot of stuff that I shot for ‘Dune One’ and it became a bit fat and I had to make choices,” said Villeneuve.
One leaves audiences hankering for Two, which is Villeneuve’s intent. “Frankly, if I had to do it again, it’s exactly where I will stop the movie,” he said. “If you look at Paul’s trajectory, which is a boy that is trying to find his place in the world and at the end becomes finally an adult by being able to step in front, it’s a very important moment in a young man’s life to stake his ground. Paul’s arc is complete for that first part. Now the fact that people are coming out saying, ‘I wanted more,’ is a total victory!
“There are tons of moments where I was making sure that if ever there were no Part Two, I would not be destroyed,” he said. “There’s moments in the movie that are close to the original dream. Frankly, I don’t doubt the fact that we will make the second one. It’s strongly a work in progress.”
Villeneuve and Spaihts’ script exists in some form, even if they have to wait for stateside opening numbers to know its fate. (Worldwide box office currently stands at $129 million.) “Physically, I would not have the stamina to go to two movies of that size back to back,” Villeneuve said. “I’m happy to have time to recover. I learned so much during this movie that it’s going to be more fair for the second part to have made it this way.”
As for his strained relationship with Warner Media over Jason Kilar’s abrupt unilateral decision to open all feature films in 2021 day and date with HBO Max, Villeneuve remains “deeply sad”(“it’s a model that was designed to please Wall Street because they like stability”). “It’s a bit like a relationship in a couple where someone cheated on the other,” he said. “The cheating one needs to come back and prove themselves. So they did a lot of work. So my relationship with several people at Warner is very good. I’m still disappointed about the day-and-date release, but one thing that is important to say is that at the end of the day, the enemy is the pandemic.”
Warner Bros. will release “Dune” in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on Friday, October 22.