‘Embrace the desert’: Denis Villeneuve on Dune (2021) first published by Little White Lies
Denis Villeneuve loves a challenge. The Quebecois filmmaker has turned a horrific real-life misogynistic massacre – the sort of material that would normally yield only the lowest form of exploitation – into the sensitive Polytechnique(shot twice, in French- and English-language versions, 2009). He has adapted José Saramago’s unfilmable novel The Double into the sublimely singular Enemy (2013). He has taken on a belated sequel to Ridley Scott’s much loved Blade Runner – an enterprise that most would regard as a poisoned chalice – and crafted from it an extraordinary, soulful epic of humanity’s evolution.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and the excellent Arrival (2016) before it, marked Villeneuve’s own evolution towards science fiction, and now he is characteristically essaying another impossible work, Frank Herbert’s expansive 1965 novel Dune. Shot in IMAX, the first part of this sprawling space saga, with its internecine, interplanetary dynastic struggles, its desert uprisings and its gigantic worms, is now complete. Villeneuve talks us through the collision of this arid alien world and his own wildly fertile imagination.
Anton Bitel: From your feature debut August 32nd on Earth (1998) to Incendies (2010), Sicario (2015), Blade Runner 2049 and now obviously Dune, you have often been a director of deserts. What keeps drawing a filmmaker from cold-climate Canada to the dry sandy wastelands?
Denis Villeneuve: I have been raised by the St Lawrence River, and I was someone who spent a very meditative childhood looking at the horizon. There are similarities, in wintertime, with the horizon. It’s like something that has an impact on the soul. I think that my deep attraction to the desert is that the emptiness – the infinity – of the desert is like a kind of mirror of yourself. It’s like an inner journey, being in contact with infinity. It’s bringing you back to your own humility, your own place in the world, your own singularity. Its silence is my best friend, my companion, silence is like a comfort for me. It’s a mirror of your own inner soul. The magnitude is like a magnifying glass. I’ve been driven to bring characters into that space so that they are naked spiritually, and psychologically naked, and you can explore, like under a microscope, and magnify their inner journey. It’s like a quest for purity.
Your brother Martin’s film Mars et Avril (2012) is also science-fiction. Was there a lot of SF in the Villeneuve household when you were growing up?
I have been attracted to science fiction since my very early age. My father was obsessed by technology, and all those scientific magazines about new scientific discoveries, magazines like Popular Mechanic or Science et Vie. So in daily life there was that presence of how the world could evolve with technology – of what the world of tomorrow could be. And I must not underestimate the presence of a nuclear power plant that I could see from my kitchen. I was raised in the atomic age where the big fear of the time was not climate, it was the atomic bomb. And to know that you had that power just a few kilometres from home – I think it’s something that sparked a lot of the imagination. You eat your cereal in the morning and you look at the nuclear power plant.
Could you have managed to make something on the scale of Dune without having first made Arrival and Blade Runner 2049?
No. All my filmography has been built like bricks. I’m thinking projects that are more and more technically complex, and bigger challenges. I would never have been able to do Dune without doing Arrival or Blade Runner. I would not dare to say that they were rehearsals, but definitely I was able to do Dune because I did Blade Runner. I learnt so much doing it about world building, and about VFX. It’s accumulative.
At what point did you first encounter Frank Herbert’s novel Dune? and did you immediately think: “One day I will make a film of this”?
I read Dune when I was very young, specifically at the moment when I was starting to dream big about cinema, following filmmakers, starting to be very interested by what a director was doing, being drawn to the filmmaking process. And I remember starting to do storyboards and early drawings of Dune with my best friend at the time who wanted to be a director as well. We were obsessed with this world. I’m not saying that I was dreaming to make a movie about it right away, but definitely I was deeply inspired by it. It’s something that stayed in the back of my mind for more than 35 years. For me it was one of my big dreams. If you had said to me, “Ultimately what would you like to do as a filmmaker?”, I would have said, “Dune.” When I landed in Hollywood, and people were asking me, “What would be your dream?”, it’s always those four letters that were coming out of my mouth. It’s a book that stayed with me through the years for several reasons, and still today every time I open it, I’ve got the same kind of deep joy reading it.
Dune is a mind-bendingly complex novel which famously foiled Alejandro Jodorowksy‘s attempts to make it, and led to David Lynch’s most compromised production. Were you anxious about Dune’s perceived brand as a film maudit?
I always related the birth of my relationship with Dune with the love for a book – with the sensations, the images, the inspiration coming out of the book. So I would have done Dune even if it had not been attempted by anybody at all. I think it would have been complicated if I had discovered Dune through David Lynch’s eyes, or through Jodorowsky’s eyes. Then it would have been probably more difficult, maybe. But I have my own very pure, intimate relationship with the book. My roots were deep into the book, so I didn’t mind about the wind.
In a weird way, even your Dune is a film maudit, in the specific sense that it was originally scheduled to come out in late 2020, but then its release was delayed a year by Covid. As the director, did you regard this as a frustration, or an opportunity to do more post-production tweaking?
I will not say that we changed the movie, but I had more time to make sure that everything was perfect, that I will reach the quality that I was looking for. I would have done it before the pandemic, but it was like a race, and then, instead of running, it became more like a grounded walk. Also I feel that it brought things to the movie, it forced us all to do things a little bit differently – and more specifically the music. I think Hans Zimmer was kind of destabilised by the pandemic and, in a good way, I’m sure the score is different than it would have been if he had been more in a usual environment. I’m talking about Hans because he was like obsessed by Dune since decades. It was one of his big dreams to do a Dune score. When the pandemic landed and time was stretched, it gives him just more time to experiment, definitely, more time to experiment and to bring a score that is so unique and powerful. I’m all good with the movie right now.
What kinds of liberties have you taken, through adaptation, with the original text? Is this a close adaptation?
Yes. it’s a close adaptation. The first liberty that I took is to make the movie in two parts. The story is so rich, so dense. Dune is all about details. It’s so sophisticated and there are so many rich cultures that are described. There is substance to make tonnes of movies. There’s so many things that I needed to approach, to describe, and to shoot and to bring to the screen, that I thought it would definitely need a minimum of two movies. And I think that by doing so, there’s things that I did explain in the first movie, [but] there’s things that I didn’t tackle, that I didn’t describe, I just skimmed the surface of some ideas that will be approached deeper in the second movie. I need to find the equilibrium between both movies. So the first one is just like opening the door on a world, you know.
The protagonist of Dune, Paul Atreides, will eventually lead desert-dwelling religious fanatics in a jihadist crusade that inevitably evokes the iconography of al Qaeda or Daesh. Is it your intention to subvert the conventional Hollywood notion of the hero, and to reject seeing ideological struggle in black-and-white, us-vs-them terms?
Very early in my filmmaking life I’ve been in contact, in a very beautiful and powerful way, with the complexity of the world. I started my career by making documentaries alone around the world, in most of Asia, Middle East, Europe, I’d been travelling to the States, I’d been travelling to most of the parts of the world, Northern Africa. At a very young age I was in contact with tonnes of different views of the world where everybody thinks they have the right answer. And it brought so much doubt and humility inside me, seeing how grey is the world, and it’s all about points of view and perspective – on which side of the fence you are standing. As a filmmaker I think I have a responsibility to try my best to bring that complexity, and to build bridges. I don’t like black and white. I don’t like the way the world is brought to the public by the politicians right now. Polarisation is dangerous. I like complexity and dialogue, yeah.
With its evocations of Greek myth and of Lawrence of Arabia and its protagonist who can see into the future, Dune seems as interested as, say, your previous films Enemy and Arrival were, in the collapsing of time and the circular repetitions of history. Is this how you see your role as an artist: to present, in the myths you realise on screen, echoes of past, present and future, and to reflect who we are and how little we change over endless transfers of power?
I’m deeply obsessed by the idea that we can change, that we can evolve, as human beings – the idea that we are struggling with the burden of genetics, education, family, the past, politics, religion – all the influences as a human being. Really, I think that these movies have that in common: this quest to free the soul from that heritage and this relationship with the past. That’s what brings me hope for humanity as well, that I think we can evolve. But if we are not aware of it, we are condemned. Hell is repetition. Also, you can break the cycle.
How much do you see your Dune as looking back millennia to our own imminent future of harsh climatic conditions and depleted resources? Is this an environmentalist call to arms?
When Frank Herbert wrote the novel in the Sixties, he was inspired himself by the new current of ecology where people were trying to use nature to control nature and he was into that idea that the sake of humanity could be by a dance with nature instead of the domination of nature, and there was already a seed of that in the novel that is very important. It was written 60 years ago – but he was already foreseeing the forces that were about to clash together between extreme exploitation of natural resources and climate change. You know, Roger Deakins and I sometimes talk together and say, “My God, it’s like we are getting closer to [Blade Runner] 20-fucking-49.” It’s crazy! I think I always saw one of the ideas of making this movie was to bring eyes back on the novel, and as a call to arms to the younger generation to react and to move forward to try to build a world where we are not into domination, but more into symbiosis with nature.
You shot Dune in IMAX, but there must have been conversations during the 2020 lockdown about releasing your film direct to streaming. As you make a film, do you have to think about all these different formats of reception, or is your eye always on the biggest form, in this case the IMAX version? Do you lament what a grand interplanetary epic loses to the small screen?
Yeah, I remember when we shot Blade Runner, Roger and I were shooting two formats, 2.35 and IMAX for the 1.9 at the same time, and we were aware that there would be two formats – but myself as a filmmaker, I remember really being entirely focused on the 2.35 – I was like, really, for me, that was the format that the movie will be released in. Of course, I was paying attention, but my priority at the time – like all the movies I’ve done before – was for the widescreen panoramic. And I remember when I did the IMAX version of Blade Runner, being struck by how you receive the movie. I was really impressed by how IMAX creates intimacy, how you feel closer to the character, and also, how I felt that, when I was seeing landscape, I was falling into the landscape, I was not just embracing. I felt IMAX [was] more immersive. I think that the IMAX Blade Runner version is far more intimate and immersive than the regular version.
So Dune being a very epic, and at the same time introspective, movie – I mean, we are very close to a young man that is defining his identity, and finding his space in the world and being in contact with a new environment, and the impact of the landscape and environment on his soul – so I, really early on, I remember talking with Greig Fraser, the cinematographer, and the first thing we talked about was IMAX, that this movie will need [IMAX]. That was my aim, it was to embrace the desert. Also it was interesting to approach the desert in a more vertical way. We have seen the desert – I did it, very often, in my own films – so I wanted to approach that landscape with a different scope, and being more epic and more immersive, that feel[s] more the presence of the desert, the impact of infinity on the soul. So we designed the movie for IMAX right away, and it was the first time that I was shooting a movie on purpose knowing that some elements will be in IMAX, and others will be in 2.35 in the movie, which was not something that we could decide in post-production, we shot part of the movie in 2.35 and other parts in the full IMAX format too.
It’s a new language, it’s a new way to create impact, to destabilise the audience, to create emotion on the screen, and I deeply loved it. I think IMAX is the future of cinema, I want to go full IMAX on the next movies that I do, I think it’s a very powerful format. And I think, watching Dune on a TV screen or at home, I use the analogy, it’s like trying your speedboat in your bathtub, or to try to use your motorbike on your driveway. I mean, there’s no – you will never have have the real Dune experience if you watch it on the small screen. It’s a movie that has been designed, dreamed, thought and built and done for a full IMAX experience, and widescreen experience, so I will not recommend watching this movie on a small screen, it’s like a waste of time for me.
Your films often involve conversations across borders and cultures, with a focus on linguistic understandings and misunderstandings – and Dune, with its many invented languages, is no exception. Does this interest go back to your own bilingualism? Is it part of a broader interest in alienation and empathy?
Since a very young age, I have been attracted by other cultures, other languages. There’s something about the other – l’autre – the other culture. Maybe because I was trying to define my own identity and that’s maybe something that deeply touched me in Dune the book, is that Paul will find solace, will find his ground, will find his roots, in the culture that is not his. He finally becomes himself as a Fremen. And that deeply touched me. As a kid growing up beside the St Lawrence River, looking at the stars. I was dreaming about space. There’s something about the connection, the deep human connection with another culture and the common grounds with other culture, and at the same time the beauty of other culture, that I’m deeply attracted by, and it is slowly reflected in my movies, yes. That’s why it’s strange for me, because I feel that I have made only one French-Canadian movie so far, which is Polytechnique. All the others are about that massive attraction towards the outside.
Has there been discussion around continuing the story with Herbert’s subsequent novels? Or are you moving onto something completely different and putting this world behind you once you’ve completed your adaptations of the first novel?
Definitely right now I’ve done half of a movie, and I have to finish for my mental sanity, and I think also for the audience we have to finish it. There will be a Dune Part 2, and then I think I can foresee easily making a Dune 3, which would be Dune Messiah (1969). That has a very powerful ground to make a very important movie. That’s like three movies. And those movies will take very long to make. But that was the initial movement, the initial dream: to make a kind of trilogy. After that, we’ll see where we go.