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Since his American debut in 2013, no other filmmaker has risen to prominence as quickly as Denis Villeneuve. From Prisoners and Sicario to Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, each one of his films has been met with widespread critical and audience acclaim, as well as admiration from his peers. The 54-year-old Villeneuve is routinely mentioned in the same breath as Christopher Nolan, and he’s one of the few contemporary filmmakers that Nolan himself has openly championed. In 2016, this accumulated cachet paved the way for Villeneuve to fulfill a lifelong dream: adapting Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965).
Fast forward to October 2021, after the dual threat of the COVID-19 pandemic and WarnerMedia’s day-and-date release plan, Villeneuve’s Dune achieved the best domestic opening weekend of his career with $41 million. Thus, the French Canadian filmmaker quickly received the green light for Dune: Part Two from Legendary and Warner Bros., with a guarantee of an exclusive 45-day theatrical window.
“For me, it was a non-negotiable condition,” Villeneuve tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I love streaming. I use streaming all the time. But I still think that contemporary movies need to have their chance. All movies need to have proper time in theaters. The theatrical experience is at the very heart of the cinematic language for me.”
The announcement of Dune: Part Two also included a release date of Oct. 20, 2023, and Villeneuve estimates that the earliest he could begin shooting would be in the fall of 2022.
“It’s fantastic news, but it’s also kind of a burden. The good news is that a lot of the work has been done already regarding design, casting, locations and writing,” Villeneuve shares. “So we’re not starting from scratch. It’s not a long period of time, but I will try to face that challenge because it’s important for me that the audience sees Part Two as soon as possible. It’s not a sequel where it’s another episode or another story with the same characters. It actually has direct continuity to the first movie. It’s the second part of the big, huge movie that I’m trying to do. So, the sooner the better.”
Villeneuve has also set his sights on a third Dune film based on Herbert’s second novel in the series, Dune Messiah (1969).
“If things go well with Part Two, I could foresee the idea of maybe doing … Dune Messiah. That would make sense to me,” Villeneuve says when asked about his career plans. “After that, I think that I will make some other movies — let’s call them big movies, regarding their ambition and scope. And later on, when I’m too tired to do that, I will go back to some smaller projects. But for now, I have the energy to do this.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Villeneuve also addresses the Nolan comparisons, Quentin Tarantino’s retirement talk and his own endearing catchphrase.
Well, Denis, to borrow your catchphrase, I deeply love Dune: Part One, and congratulations on a much-deserved Part Two. How are you feeling right now after the best opening weekend of your career?
Relieved. We had a lot of challenges. The pandemic. Day-and-date releases. There were a lot of obstacles, but to see that people went in great numbers to the theater, it just brings a pure joy to my heart, frankly.
Were you ever truly worried that Part Two may not happen?
I knew that Warner Bros. and Legendary really believed in the project, and then we did great numbers in Europe. It would have needed to do something catastrophic. (Laughs.) But to know that people are enjoying the movie and that the movie has created enthusiasm, it does give me the necessary energy to do Part Two. Even from a very egocentric point of view, that joy gives me energy. That’s what I will say. If it was the opposite and nobody had shown up to the theater, I don’t know where I would find the necessary stamina to face the challenge of Part Two.
And Part Two received an exclusive 45-day theatrical window. Are you thrilled that you no longer have to worry about a day-and-date release?
For me, it was a non-negotiable condition. But again, I love streaming. I use streaming all the time. I think it’s a fantastic way of revisiting movies or discovering movies from the past that are not accessible in theaters anymore. But I still think that contemporary movies need to have their chance. All movies need to have proper time in theaters. The theatrical experience is at the very heart of the cinematic language for me. There’s something about committing. The act of going to the theater means you’re totally committing yourself. You’re engaging in the process of receiving a movie with a different rhythm, a different approach and a vision. For that, you have to be fully committed. It’s part of the ritual to receive cinema. At home, you’re in front of your computer, you’re taking the dog outside or you’re answering your phone.
While Part Two‘s green light is amazing news, you now have a release date in less than two years. So how far along are you?
It’s fantastic news, but it’s also kind of a burden. The good news is that a lot of the work has been done already regarding design, casting, locations and writing. So we’re not starting from scratch. It’s not a long period of time, but I will try to face that challenge because it’s important for me that the audience sees Part Two as soon as possible. It’s not a sequel where it’s another episode or another story with the same characters. It actually has direct continuity to the first movie. It’s the second part of the big, huge movie that I’m trying to do. So, the sooner the better.
Could cameras start rolling in the spring, potentially? Or is that too soon?
No, that’s too soon. We still have a lot of work to do. It’d probably be more toward fall, and even that would be fast. (Laughs.)
You probably learned a lot on Part One about how best to make a Dune movie. Will you change the process for Part Two at all based on what you learned from Part One?
First of all, I learned so much on Part One. It was almost like going back to film school again, which is what I love about my job. Every film becomes a massive learning experience. Of course, everything I learned during Part One will tremendously help me on Part Two. One of the challenges will be to try and stay in the same spirit as Part One, while still trying to bring something new to it, cinematically. [Cinematographer] Greig Fraser and I don’t want to have the impression that we are just repeating ourselves, but I cannot talk about it yet because it’s something that I’m still in the process of brainstorming with myself. I usually don’t talk that much about upcoming projects that are a massive work in progress. Dune: Part Two is a baby that has just been conceived. We don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl yet. (Laughs.) There’s a lot of challenging work ahead of us, but it’s exciting.
In 2013, you released Prisoners, your first American movie, and just 8 years later, you and Chris Nolan are mentioned in the same sentence as two of our greatest living filmmakers. What does it mean to you to be acknowledged in that regard?
Frankly, I don’t pay a lot of attention to those kinds of statements because they are statements that can change. I mean, I will say that I’m a massive fan of Nolan’s work. He’s a master, but I don’t consider myself at the same level. (Laughs.)
Well, you are!
(Laughs.) No, but it’s not false humility, and I must be careful with what I’m saying here. It’s just that I like to think that I’m still learning my craft and that every movie is a learning experience. If one day I feel that I’m in control and that I’ve totally mastered the tools, then maybe I could be called a master, but it’s not the case right now. I’m learning too much. (Laughs.) I think that Chris is a contemporary master, and each time he raises the bar so high. So to answer your original question, it’s a beautiful compliment to be associated with a filmmaker of that caliber, but I don’t listen to that, frankly.
Since directors are known to be perfectionists, do you look at all your films and say, “I can do better”?
Definitely. It’s one of the many things that fuels my creativity, and I think it’s like that for everybody. When you look at your last work, you see the victories and you also see the failures. It’s part of the process. Cinema is a very complex art form, and there are things that I was able to do on Dune that I had not succeeded with before. So I know that I still have things to learn, which is where the fun lies. That’s where it’s exciting. One of the things that will give me energy to do Dune: Part Two is to try to make a better film. So I don’t think that any filmmaker or artist can look at their work and be totally, fully satisfied. I wish I could. (Laughs.)
You told Roger and James Deakins that you aren’t yet ready to revisit Blade Runner 2049, but are you at the point where you can comfortably rewatch Sicario or Arrival or Prisoners?
I had a nice screening of Arrival two years ago in my village. It was before Dune. So it was a nice experience to watch the movie with people from my community in Quebec and receive the movie with them. It was nice. I recently watched one of my early works, Maelstrom. It’s one of my first movies, that was shot at the end of the 20th century. It was released in 2000, and it took me 20 years to finally be able to watch that movie. Each movie has its burdens and carries its joys, its angers, its victories, its failures. So it’s tough for me to rewatch my own work without going through all of those emotions again, and it takes a lot of time for those emotions to fade. So it was a nice experience to watch the movie and finally be able to watch it for what it is. But it’s not that I don’t like my work; it’s just that it’s carrying a lot of ghosts.
Quentin Tarantino has been saying for a while that he’s going to retire after his tenth film. While I hope that you make movies for another 30-plus years, do you have any grand plans for your career? Do you see yourself working at age 78 like Martin Scorsese?
It’s a very good question. Frankly, I admire Tarantino for saying this. Do I believe him? (Laughs.) When people try to stop and stay home, it’s unbearable after a few months. They want to go behind the camera again. It will be sad, frankly, if Tarantino stops making movies, but I understand the logic. For myself, I’ve never had what I would call a career plan. I go one movie at a time. It’s like a relationship. Each project is a love story. I fall in love with a new story and give everything I have to it. I give a few years of my life. Like the great Guillermo del Toro says, “For you, it’s a filmography. For me, it’s a biography.” You choose how you will live your life and who you will live with for a few years. And by the way, each movie is a tattoo on your face and it will stay with you forever. And I feel that now that I’ve had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to bring one of my oldest dreams to life, which is Dune. If things go well with Part Two, I could foresee the idea of maybe doing a third movie, Dune Messiah. That would make sense to me. After that, to answer your question, I think that I will make some other movies — let’s call them big movies, regarding their ambition and scope. And later on, when I’m too tired to do that, I will go back to some smaller projects. (Laughs.) But for now, I have the energy to do this. I think it was Ernest Hemingway who said that the biggest challenge for an artist is to last and to endure the test of time. But it’s not just the art one produces. Can an artist stay pertinent and relevant through society and not die out? Can you last? And as you rightly said, some of them are succeeding, like Scorsese and Ridley Scott. That will also be an ambition of mine, but we’ll see.
In your early days, you made a short film involving your relationship to beetles in the desert. Was Duncan Idaho’s (Jason Momoa) moment with the beetle an homage to yourself at that time?
(Laughs.) I’m not too self-referential, but yes, there’s maybe a hint of that idea coming from my subconscious. It’s also an homage to one of my favorite scenes of all time in film history, which is a scene from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. There’s a samurai sitting at the base of a tree, knowing that there are thieves coming his way, and the scene is seen through the eyes of a young servant watching him in the distance. And there’s massive tension coming from immobility and the way that it’s edited. It’s pure cinema. The samurai is looking at a flower and admiring the beauty of that flower, even though he knows that tremendous violence is coming toward him. Frankly, I was just trying to humbly pay homage, in a playful way, to one of my favorite moments.
One of the most important scenes in Part One is the scene in the tent between Paul and Jessica as he’s horrified by the impending war that will be fought in his name. For the uninitiated, does this scene show that this is not going to be your typical “chosen one” story? Is being “the one” a nightmare in a lot of ways?
Frank Herbert wrote Dune as a warning toward those messianic figures, those chosen ones, those savior figures. It’s about how dangerous those kinds of figures can be. It’s a criticism of the messianic figure. That’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie, and it solely relies on Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson’s shoulders and their talent. These two actors were trapped in that very tiny space with an implosion and then an explosion. So a lot of things are happening in that scene. The main character is becoming more and more obsessed and haunted by those visions, and then he finally confronts his mother. But at the same time, he’s also grieving his father. So a lot of things are happening. It’s a kind of cinematic rebirth for the character, and Timothée gave a performance there that still moves me every time I watch the movie.
I’ve talked to many of your actors over the years, and they all strive to hear you say your catchphrase, “I deeply love it,” about a take. That’s when they know they’ve done well. Are you aware that they’re looking for you to say it now?
Maybe it’s too late, but I’m very afraid to become a caricature of myself regarding how I speak English. Through the years, I’ve known that I have a limited English vocabulary, but I’m trying to improve. I’m trying to learn. But still, there’s something linked with emotions. When I’m a director on set, the truth is I become very close to 5 or 6 years old, if not 4. (Laughs.) There’s a pure joy that is linked with the act of cinema, and my way to direct actors is to totally let go of any kind of self-conscious ego. I just become totally open to them and present. So that’s what comes out of my mouth very often. I’m aware of it. It probably makes no sense and can be very repetitive. (Laughs.) But I don’t care, frankly. It’s just that it’s pure joy and it has to express itself in order to fuel the actors and their creativity. Yeah, the phrase, “I deeply love it,” seems to have become a tagline. Amy Adams made a lot of jokes about that, but it’s coming from a good place. (Laughs.) As long as I don’t do it consciously, I think it’s OK.
Stephen McKinley Henderson told me the origin story behind Thufir Hawat’s parasol and how you asked him if he would be willing to use it in the movie. He also said that’s when he knew you were a special director. You’d been dreaming about making a Dune movie your entire life, and you were still open to changes or adjustments on the day.
These visions have to evolve. There’s something about inspiration in the moment that I’m trying to protect, as every filmmaker does. I try to create something new, something that will have some kind of visual or aesthetic resonance, presence and meaning. I’m trying to bring something fresh to the screen. And some ideas pop up a few seconds before, and you know, deep in your heart and in your intuition, that it’s the right idea. It will bring something, a color, perhaps. You can do that when the vision is very clear and solid, and that’s when you become totally free. That’s why prep is everything. The preparation for a movie like Dune was very long. There were, of course, those years where I dreamed about it, but then there were all the design barriers. But we also had time. We had a beautiful amount of time to create this project, and I’m still very grateful that we had it.
I never read Frank Herbert’s Dune, and I’ve never seen David Lynch’s Dune. But your film has made me interested in reading Herbert’s book, and I know I’m not alone. Have you realized that your movie is going to usher in a whole new generation of Dune fans?
I’m not aware of it, but if it sparks their curiosity enough to open the book, that would be amazing. The reason why I’m doing these projects is because I love the books so much. These books are masterpieces. They are a work that can transcend time, but they tell us things about ourselves, as human beings. The problem with our societies. Our relationship with nature. The danger of mixing religion and politics together. There are so many layers, and I think that it’s going to be very interesting if people see the movie and then read the book. They will discover the beauty and the power of Frank Herbert’s writing. I did my best to be as close as possible to the spirit of the book, but the books are actually different in a fantastic way. Would I encourage everybody to read the book? I will say that you don’t need to read the book to watch the movie, but if you ever want to go deeper, the book is absolutely amazing.
Getting too close to something you love can sometimes lead to disappointment. So has making the movie helped you fall in love with the material even more?
It’s a good question. I think that my love was already quite vivid. (Laughs.) It just allowed me to dive even deeper. When you’re doing an adaptation, you have to go where Frank Herbert put the pipes and the electricity. (Laughs.) You have to go into the entrails. You have to go into the guts of the book to see and to study the structure in a way that I had not done, of course, as a reader. So yeah, in a way, I just have more admiration for it.
In 30 years, when you tell your family stories about making Dune: Part One, what day will you tell them about first?
That’s a beautiful question. There are so many of them, and that was the thing that was so singular about this experience. There were new challenges on a daily basis. There were constant challenges. But the most beautiful memories are probably linked with the desert and bringing the crew deep into the deserts of Jordan and Abu Dhabi. There were moments that are very precious and very important memories to me that I can only, at best, describe. They had to be experienced in order to fully understand the beauty of what we went through. So it will definitely be a desert story.
Dune: Part One is now playing in movie theaters.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival