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With Warner Bros.’ Dune, producer Mary Parent has earned her second Academy Award nomination for best picture (following 2015’s The Revenant). The vice chairman of worldwide production at Legendary Entertainment, whose producing credits include the similarly large-scale adventure films Pacific Rim (2013), Kong: Skull Island (2017) and Godzilla vs. Kong (2021), says that the ambitious task of adapting Dune was an arduous process that faced a lot of industry skepticism.
That is, until director, co-writer and co-producer Denis Villeneuve came on board. Like Parent, Villeneuve had read Frank Herbert’s beloved novel in his youth, once confessing to a reporter that a film adaptation was his “dream project.” Impressed with the director’s 2016 best picture nominee, Arrival, she was confident that he could tackle an intimate character drama wrapped in an epic sci-fi adventure. Parent spoke with THR about the biggest challenges behind Dune‘s development and making big, theatrical films in the streaming era.
What was your relationship to the source material?
I was an avid reader [growing up], and I loved the book. It popped back into my head again, sort of randomly, much to do with the fact that it felt more relevant in the last 10 years. Frank Herbert was incredibly prescient, when you think about his themes of ecology, the cautionary tale of power, the importance of collaboration for survival and, of course, young people trying to navigate their way in a broken world. It really spoke to me in a different way. Sometimes you love something, then time goes by and you see it from a completely different perspective. That’s what had happened to me with Dune.
I started really tracking the rights and watching what was happening. It’s definitely a very ambitious project, so it wasn’t a total surprise that they became available again. Then it was a long process of getting the [Herbert] estate to trust us, that we were the right people. Fate and destiny are also a big part of Dune, but a lot of people passed [on the project].
What were some of their reasons for passing?
Too hard and too ambitious. It’s a very complex book. It’s a very dense book, and like many books, it can be internal. There are many characters and there’s tremendous world-building — which, done right, as Denis and all of our incredible craftspeople have done, it’s incredible. On one hand, it’s a very intimate character drama. And on another hand, it’s this big epic — the kind of film that Hollywood is known for but hasn’t done in a while. And there are also giant sandworms.
When did you realize that Denis’ vision made him the best fit to tackle Dune?
Ironically, as hard as the first part of the mountainous climb was on Dune, it got really easy. Denis was one of just a handful of people that I immediately thought of. First of all, he’s never made a bad movie. I really, really loved what he did with Arrival in terms of making [it] feel so real. We have seen many, many films about an alien invasion, and I was so blown away by how real he made it — how he dramatized the aliens and the emotionality of it. Because again, this film has to work on two levels. There are other filmmakers who can do the intimate character journeys, there are other filmmakers who could do massive scale. There are very few that could do both.
I literally read an article where he said, “Dune is my dream project.” We sat down, and it was clear right away that he had a burning desire and a very clear vision of how he was going to approach this. [The book] is very spiritual and at times almost psychedelic. He had such a vision of who these people were, what this journey was, the world-building, how all of that intertwined and how he was going to actually realize this in a way that was accessible. It’s very difficult to approach world-building like this and still have it feel grounded and accessible.
How did assembling the cast add to the world-building? It’s an incredible ensemble of actors, especially for this kind of epic film.
There were many things that were challenging and difficult about making this film, but casting was not one of them. It’s great when you’ve got a filmmaker like Denis, because everybody wants to work with [him] — in this case, you’ve got a world-class filmmaker. Timmy [Chalamet] was the first person that we approached. It was clear he’s one of the best actors of his generation, and he was able to capture the essence of Paul. Fortunately, he had been a huge fan of Denis. The most difficult aspect was — because we had such a big, star-driven cast — the schedules. Everybody that’s in this film is at the top of their game and, for the most part, very established people. Trying to maneuver those schedules was not easy.
I was thrilled to see Dune on the big screen, but many people may have watched it when it premiered on HBO Max. As a producer known for making big-screen spectacles, what are your thoughts about streaming? Do you consider the streaming audience while making a movie like this? Could you imagine someone watching this epic film on their phone?
First of all, I believe in all mediums, and I’m glad that all mediums exist. The more storytelling and the more things that can get made — and particularly the harder projects and the stories that people are afraid of — I’m glad that there is an outlet for that. I don’t believe there’s anything that replicates the theatrical experience, and Dune obviously was made for the big screen. But stories have to work regardless [of the medium], and if you’re telling a good story — whether you’re watching on your phone or in the theater, they’re going to be different experiences — hopefully it’s going to hold up. I don’t ever think, “How will this look on a phone?” I think about how to make sure that we’re putting forth something that’s worthy.
By the way, I’m guilty of watching some things on my phone, too. There are just certain things that I don’t want to watch on my phone. I think we saw that with Dune. While certainly there are many, many people that watched it on HBO Max, I know there are a lot of people who saw it on the big screen, came home and watched it again on Max. I had people tell me that they saw it a few times on Max, and then they went to the theater.
The bar is higher, no doubt. People’s time is too valuable. There are too many other forms of entertainment where you don’t have to make that investment. We have to make sure that we are delivering great stories.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a March stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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