In June 2018, Denis Villeneuve and his production designer Patrice Vermette were soaring through the sky in a rented helicopter, high above Jordan’s majestic Wadi Rum desert, when they spotted a caravan of black SUVs snaking through the vast, rocky landscape below them.
“Is that another scout?” Vermette remembers shouting as politely as possible over the helicopter’s roar. “No, no,” their guide, a representative from Jordan’s film commission, assured them. “No one else is shooting here now.”
Known in Arabic as “the Valley of the Moon,” Wadi Rum is one of the world’s great deserts, famous to film history as the principal shooting location for Lawrence of Arabia. Villeneuve had visited the desert a decade earlier, while scouting his breakthrough French Canadian feature Incendies (2010), which earned a foreign-language Oscar nomination and his unofficial entrée into Hollywood.
“It wasn’t right for Incendies, but I told myself at the time, ‘If I ever get to do Dune, I am coming back here,'” he recalls. At the time, adapting Frank Herbert’s sprawling, seminal 1965 sci-fi classic was nothing more than an old dream that he occasionally (and privately) revisited in his imagination — but the trip to the desert had stirred deep memories. “The rock formations are so strange and beautiful,” he says, “exactly as I imagined them when I read Dune as a teenager. And the quality of the light and the enormous scale of everything — you have an encounter with nature there that fills you with humility.”
Growing up in a rural Quebec village during the 1970s, Villeneuve was a cerebral, anxious child who found escape in reading, studying science and imagining his own worlds. He says he became fixated with the possibility of becoming a movie director, if not a scientist, at an improbably early age. But unlike many of the grown-up wunderkinder who have found their way to the forefront of Hollywood’s directorial ranks, Villeneuve had no access to a home movie camera. Instead, he and a childhood friend spent their summer afternoons drawing storyboards together of imagined films, actually parsing out sequences and picturing how they would frame each shot. Their most involved project was a visually ambitious adaptation of Dune, which they imagined as their would-be magnum opus. The book had hit Villeneuve, then just 13, with all of the gestalt-shifting weight of one’s first big adolescent art experience — the discovery of a serious work of adult complexity that nonetheless feels as if it were created expressly for you. “I was so obsessed, genuinely obsessed,” he says. Sometimes when he had trouble sleeping, which was often, he would play imagined scenes of his adaptation in his mind’s eye — the peregrinations of Dune‘s forlorn hero, Paul Atreides, seeking solace among the mystical desert and the culture of its native Fremen people.
From a distance, it can appear as if lightning eventually struck Villeneuve twice. Not only did he grow into one of the world’s most esteemed directors — among the exceedingly few in Hollywood today making unabashedly auteurist cinema on the biggest tentpole canvas possible — he later found his way back to the Wadi Rum, with a $165 million production budget from Legendary Entertainment and Warner Bros., to shoot the one movie he had dreamed of making since boyhood.
As they swooped from rock formation to rock formation, the mysterious cavalcade of SUVs, some 16 vehicles in array, had continued to concern Vermette. “That really looked like a big tech scout,” he remembers telling Villeneuve, who often can look like he’s wincing knowingly when he smiles. When the chopper was back on the ground, Vermette followed his instincts and texted a friend, Paul Inglis, who had worked on Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 and since had been hired as the supervising art director on J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, then in production. “Hey, man, random question. Do you happen to be in Wadi Rum right now?” Vermette recalls writing. Inglis texted back, “Yup, was that you who just flew over us?”
The Dune crew’s concerns were confirmed: Star Wars was there, shooting in Villeneuve’s dream desert location. Similar worries were already lurking in the thoughts of Dune‘s key creative team.
Over the decades after its publication, Dune arguably became the world’s best-selling science fiction novel of all time, but it also accrued a mystique of being potentially unadaptable. The story’s world was simply too big, its language too baroque, its thematic concerns too complex to boil down into a commercial movie. As Villeneuve excitedly describes it, “There are so many layers: a coming-of-age story, critiques of colonialism and capitalism, a philosophy of nature as a religion, a love story, a Shakespearean court drama, planetary ecology, and a warning about the savior complex.”
Cult Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky famously — or infamously — attempted the first big-screen adaptation of Dune during the mid-1970s, with a cast that was set to include Salvador Dalí, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, David Carradine and the director’s own son in the lead, along with a psychedelic soundtrack by Pink Floyd. When Jodorowsky estimated that the runtime would have to be more than 12 hours to encapsulate his take on Dune‘s story, financiers predictably fled. Later in the decade, Dino De Laurentiis acquired the rights, and Ridley Scott briefly worked on a script before bailing, at which point David Lynch fatefully signed on to direct. Lynch’s experience on the project — and his ensuing battles with De Laurentiis and Universal Pictures over the edit — were so painful to him that he disavowed the film and refuses to speak about it to this day.
“These two filmmakers are true masters, and I have nothing but the biggest respect for them,” Villeneuve says. “I think Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been an insanely great movie, but sadly he never got the money to make it. All of his pieces are so powerful. But would it have been a good adaptation of the actual book? That I don’t know.” Villeneuve remembers being thrilled when he learned in the early ’80s that Lynch was adapting the book he adored. “I was one of the first ones in the theater on opening weekend, and there are elements in his version that I really love, but I felt that he deviates too much from the book, and I was not satisfied.”
During the years he dreamt of his Dune adaptation, Villeneuve always resolved that he would “not think at all about what had been done before.”
Star Wars, however, would present subtler problems. “George Lucas never hid the fact that he took a lot from Dune, and you can see Star Wars as another adaptation if you want to,” Villeneuve notes. The list of similarities runs long. Dune‘s desert planet Arrakis is orbited by two moons; Luke Skywalker’s home planet, the arid Tatooine, has two suns. Both worlds are inhabited by giant mythical sandworms. Dune‘s universe is overseen by the evil imperium; Star Wars has the Empire. Dune has the Bene Gesserit, a secretive sisterhood whose members train their bodies and minds to wield a superhuman power they call “the voice”; Star Wars, of course, has the Jedi and the Force. The list goes on.
Despite his hard-core Dune allegiances, Villeneuve also is unequivocal in his love of Star Wars. “I’m probably a filmmaker because of Star Wars, and one of my favorite movies of all time is The Empire Strikes Back,” the filmmaker says. “Frankly, one of the biggest achievements of Star Wars was the design. What those guys did at the time was pure genius.” (Herbert was somewhat less charitable: “I’m going to try very hard not to sue,” he said in an interview shortly after Star Wars came out in 1977.)
The complicating irony that Villeneuve foresaw was that Lucas had borrowed from Dune‘s world so liberally, and Star Wars had become such a fixture of global pop culture, that if he were to stay true to Herbert’s novel, viewers throughout the world might think that he, in fact, was the one ripping off Star Wars. “If you think about trying to do your own space opera today, I’m sorry, you are fucked by the huge elephant in the room that is Star Wars,” he says, laughing.
Nonetheless, Villeneuve long had believed that it would be essential, as much as possible, not to approach his Dune adaptation in ways that were overly reactive, or implicitly deferential, to Star Wars. “I tried to focus on the emotions I had when I read the book, how images could create those feelings and how it would influence the world’s design,” Villeneuve explains. “There was so much rigor in how Frank Herbert approached his description of cultural history and the planetary ecosystems. I wanted to approach the design and the whole world of the movie in the same way. The book has fantasy elements, but I knew it would be helpful for the creatures, vehicles and technology to feel as real and grounded as possible.”
Back in Jordan, after confirming that J.J. Abrams had beaten them to the Wadi Rum with Rise of Skywalker, Villeneuve and Vermette arranged to meet with Inglis and others from the Star Wars team at a hotel bar. “We told them, ‘We don’t want to know anything about your story, but let’s protect both of us and make sure we don’t end up shooting the exact same areas of the desert,'” Vermette remembers. “It was all cool.”
For all of the accursed talk the past adaptation attempts had generated, Villeneuve’s project, when it finally came together, was the result of pure serendipity. You could even make the case that the most consequential location to his lifelong Dune quest was a place both opposite and apposite to so much the book represents: Venice, Italy, planet Earth’s own grand water city.
Villeneuve’s Dune premiered to a rapturous industry reception at the Venice International Film Festival on Sept. 3, and I met him for coffee the morning after. (From the Palazzo del Cinema’s main floor the night before, the voice of last year’s Oscar best picture winner Chloé Zhao could clearly be heard when she shouted, “Fantastic!” over the standing ovation’s roar, as she clamored through the theater’s upper balcony to greet Villeneuve with a big hug.)
Dune was the first major studio movie to make a red carpet premiere at a glitzy European festival since the start of the pandemic, and Warner Bros. had descended upon Venice with a full display of old-school Hollywood glamour. For the cast and crew’s comfort and privacy, the studio had rented out an entire luxury garden resort on a private island, la Isola delle Rose, which sits hidden out in the Venetian Lagoon some 20 minutes by private boat. It wasn’t long before the place had received the new, semi-paradoxical moniker of “Dune Island” from festivalgoers along the Lido.
If you were granted an audience on the island, as if by decree from Dune‘s Imperium, one of Venice’s beautiful, teak-lined vaporettos (low-to-the-water speedboat taxis with invariably tanned and impeccably dressed Italian captains) would find you at a point of your choosing on the mainland, glide you through some canals and go roaring out into the gleaming open water.
On the surface, Venice was an incongruous choice for Dune‘s debut, obviously — a desert planet in a watery world — but it was the perfect launchpad in every way that mattered: The layered crush of historic beauty; the constant, lapping encroachment of the natural elements; and that pervasive Venice feeling of doomed grandeur.
As I wandered through Dune Island’s gardens, wondering how I was going to find the one villa veranda where I was supposed to meet Villeneuve among dozens, the place gradually took on the character of some bizarro Italianate version of the Warner Bros. lot. The resort had its own looming water tower, only this one was covered blankly in beautifully aged brick. Studio staff seemed to appear around every corner — distinguishable from the Italians by their brusque but cheerful American busyness — often trailed by a movie star. Josh Brolin, ambling by in flip-flops and Marcello Mastroianni shades, laughing boomingly at something his companion had said. Right after alighting on the island, I had been hurried into a conference building to take a COVID-19 test (the pandemic was then in abeyance in Europe, but Warner Bros.’ insurance policies were not). As I stepped onto the upper deck that was temporarily serving as a very pleasant al fresco holding area, Zendaya was there, lounging sideways on a recliner in an Outkast hoodie, waiting for her own results. “Hey,” she said, looking up briefly. “Ciao,” I should have said, but only nodded.
“So it started here, in Venice,” Villeneuve stated (once I finally found the right leafy veranda). Since we had both just been tested, the director arrived with an outstretched hand, his prior terror of catching COVID and missing Dune‘s premiere, at long last, moot. “I came here for Arrival in 2016, and I remember a journalist asking me what would be my dream project. If I had all the money in the world, what I would love to do?” Villeneuve explained. “I said, spontaneously, ‘Dune.’ It was one of my oldest dreams, but saying it created synchronicity.”
Mary Parent, vice chair of worldwide production at Legendary Pictures, and her producer partner, Cale Boyter, acquired adaptation rights to Dune in 2011 after keeping an eye on their availability for years. Following several twists and turns — including job changes, new legal representation and more mundane developments typical of high-profile adaptation deals — Parent finally cleared all rights for Dune in fall 2016. “That’s when it first felt like the movie gods shined on us,” she says. While drinking her coffee and perusing trade news one morning, Parent came across the article about Villeneuve’s Venice proclamation. “Denis was at the top of the very shortlist of directors I thought it could be right to go on this adventure with, and there he was in print, just declaring that it was his dream project. That had never happened to me and will probably never happen again, but I was just like, ‘Great, get Denis on the phone!’ ”
Villeneuve describes the call as the shortest business conversation of his career, while Parent says it was the easiest director hire she’s ever made. “Sometimes in early conversations, directors will come in and say, ‘I want to make a movie about this and here’s sort of what I see, but I need to think about it more,’ ” Parent says. “But Denis came in and sat on my sofa and was like, ‘Here’s what it would look like; here’s what it would feel like; here’s how I would handle the book; here’s what I think is most important’ — he had the full picture, from literally decades of thinking about it,” she says. “On top of that, he’s a really special, sensitive human being. I kind of felt like I had won the lottery.”
Villeneuve decided early on that he would take more time to develop Dune than he had on his recent blistering run of ambitious projects — Sicario (2015), Arrival (2016), Blade Runner 2049 (2017) — because he wanted to co-write Dune himself.
The first structural decision, which Villeneuve was adamant about, was to break the book into two films. The story and its world were too huge to fit into one movie while remaining faithful to Herbert’s vision. He briefly discussed with Legendary the idea of developing and shooting both films simultaneously, but the studio balked at the expense. “I’m so grateful they didn’t let me,” Villeneuve says. “I would not have had the stamina for two movies of this size back-to-back. It would have killed me.”
The fundamental script-writing challenge was to determine how to adequately condense an extremely dense novel. Dune, after all, is set in the distant future amid a complex interstellar society ruled over by an emperor, with various feudal houses vying for control of planetary territory.
“The movie could have easily collapsed under a tremendous amount of exposition,” Villeneuve says, “and there were some major decisions right at the beginning to deal with that.” Although Paul Atreides is the focal point, the book’s narrative jumps among several richly developed characters’ perspectives. Villeneuve decided early on that the script would hew close to Paul’s point of view, which he also would achieve visually by keeping the camera close to the character — the basis for the film’s distinctive use of extreme close-ups and extreme wide shots, which generate both an intimate, grounded storytelling perspective and an almost overwhelming sense of the vastness of Dune‘s world. The story’s key female characters — Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica; and Chani, a young Freman woman who illuminates the world’s politics and falls in love with him — would be elevated in the story, adding another layer of intimacy to Paul’s arc.
Something would also have to be done about the book’s highly affected dialogue, in which characters speak in a pseudo-antiquated sci-fi style. “There are lines in the book that are beautiful to read, but that don’t translate so well onscreen,” Villeneuve explains. “There are so many intellectual layers and so many things in the world to be digested, I felt it would be wise to keep the language as simple as possible, so that it would never get in the way of the emotions. I would say the book is more intellectual, and the film is more emotional — but that is cinema.”
Herbert’s narrative also contains great volumes of inner monologue, peering into the minds of the characters as they react and strategize in the midst of shifting circumstances. Lynch’s adaptation famously — or, again, infamously, depending on your appreciation for camp — tried to capture this dimension with character voiceovers. “With no disrespect to the master, I didn’t want to go that way,” Villeneuve says. “The idea was to use cinematic elements instead of having voiceovers, that by being close to their intimate moments, we will feel or have a glimpse into their emotional state.” He devised a sign language that Paul and his mother occasionally use to communicate to add another layer that showed how the characters are thinking strategically in tense situations. “I also had a conversation very early on with Hans [Zimmer] that the music should be a window into the mindscape of the character.”
Zimmer, who recently had scored Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, was among the first to join the key creative team, and although there would be many hard-core Dune fans among the production, the Oscar-winning German composer was probably the one who could come closest to rivaling the director’s mega-fandom.
“We were walking somewhere together, and Denis sort of whispered to me, ‘Hey, have you ever heard of a book called Dune?’ I think my reaction actually scared him,” Zimmer says. “The answer was very much a yes,” he says.
A few years earlier, Zimmer was heading off on vacation with his son when he spotted Dune in an airport bookstore. “I picked up a copy, thinking, ‘Oh, he’s a teenager now, time for him to read Dune,’ ” Zimmer recalls. “And I opened the page just before I gave it to him, started reading the first sentence and never gave him the book,” he says, laughing again. “I just sat on the plane reading; and then never left the hotel pool once — it was a miserable holiday for him.”
As Villeneuve prepared to plunge fully into the development work, he says the legacy of the past failed attempts didn’t much concern him, but fear would nonetheless occasionally creep up on him. “My love of the book is so unconditional; when I’m thinking about it I have the capacity to just completely focus and block out all other people’s thoughts and interpretations,” he says. “But there was a fear somewhere in there. Would I be able to honor all of my old dreams?”
Zimmer actually put the question to him directly once: “He said, ‘Is it a good idea to try to do this? To tackle your greatest dream? Because that dream is so beautiful in your mind, and what if you can’t reach it?'”
When discussing his lingering memories of reading the sci-fi masterpiece as a kid, Villeneuve describes an almost synesthetic inward experience. “It was like archeology, going back in time and finding those images mixed with emotions, and bringing them back to life and trying to honor them as much as possible,” he says. “I wanted people to feel like I put a camera in their mind back when they read the book.”
Villeneuve began Dune‘s visual development process with a deliberately tight team. First, it was just him alone with his storyboard artist and, later, with concept artist Deak Ferrand. “It was a small-unit process to try and define the visual language of the film, to make sure that the humans would feel crushed by the size of nature and the architecture and to bring a strong feeling of isolation and melancholy into the world,” Villeneuve explains. Once the key alphabet was in place, Vermette came on board to extrapolate the world.
A reworded version of a Dune catchphrase became something like the trio’s guiding principle for discovering design references: “The internet is the mind killer.” Villeneuve instructed his collaborators to avoid the internet at all costs — “to stay away from all influence and just try to mediate and dream,” he says.
“One of the problems right now,” adds Vermette, “is that if you go on the internet, it’s actually a very shallow pool of images, so everyone ends up being influenced by the same ingredients. That’s why you see a lot of similarity in design all over the world today.” Instead, the artists spent time in libraries, looking at vintage books.
The images that populated the team’s early mood boards were a mixture of ziggurat architecture from Mesopotamia, Egyptian references, bunkers from World War II, brutalist architecture from Brazil and the Soviet Union, and even some of the human-made megastructures dreamt up by the 1960s Italian design office Superstudio (dams and minimalist megastructures projecting into landscapes at impossible scale). “In the book, they say the residency on Arrakis is the biggest structure ever built by mankind, and it’s also an imperial presence,” says Vermette. “So I felt it had to be very imposing, the way colonial buildings and fortresses were — as if the incoming powers are telling the local people: ‘Here we are. We impose. Don’t mess with us.'”
Simply putting a high-walled caste of some kind in the middle of the desert wouldn’t have been plausible, though, given how Herbert described the hostility of the Arakine natural environment — “sandstorm winds that blow at 850 kilometers an hour, tearing through metal.”
“So it made sense that even the planet’s first imperialists would have used the mountains as a sort of first protection, building their fortress at an angle, so the sand wind could sweep over them.”
The much older history and culture of the native Fremen people would be indicated in details, such as the gold sandworm mural within the Arrakine residence. “Like in a church, the way you see a history in the stained glass, I thought maybe they had created murals telling the story of the colonizing of the planet — but those would probably have been created by Fremen artists, so the representation of the worm would be intriguing and mythological,” Vermette explains. “They’re not only scared of it; there’s a relationship — so we’re planting the seed for that.”
Jacqueline West, Dune‘s costume director, brought a similar depth to her department. West came to the project with no sci-fi background and was instead known for her deeply researched, Oscar-nominated work on period films — which was precisely why Villeneuve wanted her. She actually declined the director’s overtures twice, saying the film simply wasn’t her genre, before Parent, who had worked with West on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, intervened. Parent said, “Jacky, you just need to meet with him. Come to my office at Legendary alone; I’m going to put Denis on the big screen with you from Canada, and I guarantee you, once you hear his vision for this movie, you will want to do it.”
“So I did that,” West remembers, “and she was absolutely right.”
Although there was no direct history to be researched for Dune‘s world, West used her usual method, undertaking psychological studies of the characters and digging into the past for symbolic analogs to the various houses’ identities.
She started with the layered persona of Lady Jessica — “basically a concubine but a very intelligent one and a highly trained Benne Gesserit,” as West describers her. For the romantic side of the character, she looked to the paintings of Goya and Caravaggio, and for the “nun-like Benne Gesserit” dimension, she leaned on the late-Middle Ages Italian painter Giotto. “I had to embody all of those somewhat contradictory things in her costumes,” West says. For the Atreides armor and court costumes, she fixed on two historically doomed sets of references: the Avignon tapestries of the Knights Templar (“which were famously betrayed by the king and the papacy, as the emperor does to Duke Leto”) and the Romanov family just before the Russian Revolution (“which similarly had their whole world pulled out from under them, and then some”). For the Harkonnen world, she used “a lot of books of medieval drawings of insects, spiders, ants, praying mantises and lizards.”
Herbert’s book tends to be vague on how many of the costumes look, but West discerned hints here and there. “Like he aligns the Sardaukar with the planet Salusa Secundus, which is S.S. — and they were the Nazis of this universe,” she explains. “I felt like the Fremen were the French Resistance, so I felt like I had to camouflage them the way the resistance did in the South of France in the war. Every world had a symbol for me.”
As production approached, Dune took over Origo Studios in Budapest, Hungary, one of the largest film studios in Europe. Villeneuve and Vermette were determined to build as much as possible, using very little set extension and no greenscreen at all. “The sets were of quite large scale, and we wanted them to be as immersive as possible, like we did on Arrival and Denis did on Blade Runner,” Vermette continues. “It’s realism for the actors and for the light, and it’s also for the ambiance, like the whole crew feeling, ‘We’re in this world together.'”
With Dune‘s big budget, Villeneuve and his director of photography, Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Lion), could take their pick of any potential camera and film options they desired. The duo spent considerable time weighing whether to go film or digital, Fraser says, testing all kinds of combinations. “When we projected film, it just didn’t give us the feeling that we were after,” he says. “It felt, as Denis put it, a little bit nostalgic, like we were watching something that has happened in the past.” The digital, particularly when projected in Imax, felt more contemporary, “but it was a little too crisp.” So they attempted a novel technique Fraser had been experimenting with for some time: shooting with an Alexa LF, ARRI’s large-format digital camera, but then transferring the image onto 35 mm film, which was then scanned back into digital. “It was an involved process that hasn’t really happened before in commercial films,” Fraser explains. “But it gave us the feeling we had been picturing — a certain texture that’s painterly but feels timeless.”
The movie gods continued to shine on Parent and Villeneuve as they began the casting process: The director essentially assembled his entire wish list without a single “no” or insurmountable scheduling conflict, creating one of the most talent-deep ensembles in recent movie memory. Crucially for the film’s commercial prospects, the world’s two most in-demand young stars and red carpet fashion icons of the moment, Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya, would be at the center, playing Paul Atreides and Chani, the young Fremen woman who anchors the film and becomes his enigmatic love interest.
“The cast itself kind of felt like an event,” says Parent. “There’s really something for everyone.” Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson star as Paul’s parents, Duke Leto and Lady Jessica; Josh Brolin as the gruff weapons master Gurney Halleck; a swashbuckling Jason Momoa as swordmaster Duncan Idaho (the character many believe inspired Han Solo); Javier Bardem as Stilgar, the mercurial Fremen tribal leader; the great Charlotte Rampling as the powerful Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother; Taiwanese actor Chang Chen, a favorite of many of Asia’s great auteurs, playing the multilayered Dr. Wellington Yueh; and, of course, Stellan Skarsgard as the villainous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, with Dave Bautista as his brutal nephew, Glossu Rabban.
“It sounds dramatic, but I don’t know if we would be here today talking if Timothée had said no,” Villeneuve says. “I mean, there was no plan B. But it’s nice to make radical choices like that and say, ‘It’s either him or nothing.'”
The young actor embodied all of the qualities Villeneuve was looking for: “That combination of high intelligence, innocence and youth and that old-soul quality mixed with his insane charisma. Timothée has something aristocratic about him also, which is just perfect for Paul. And he grew up between the United States and France, so he has a worldly quality.”
He continues: “I needed an actor that had the skills to go deep and to express inner conflict and psychedelic experience and who would be able to carry the whole movie on his shoulders.”
But for all his indie film acclaim and skyrocketing stardom, Chalamet never had carried a movie anywhere close to Dune‘s scale. “I think I got pretty lucky working on a movie of this size for the first time with Denis because he’s still very close to his indie sensibilities,” Chalamet says. “He’s in that rarefied Christopher Nolan space, where he gets to work on what he wants and execute it exactly how he wants on the highest level. So I felt very much like I was stepping into familiar territory, and I think that was a major plus because there are certain challenges of working on a movie of this size.”
Whereas the independent movies Chalamet had starred in often entailed 25 consecutive days of emotional intensity, Dune‘s production would last months. “We had conversations right away that this would be a marathon, not a sprint,” says Villeneuve.
Adds Chalamet: “I felt us get closer throughout the whole project. Denis wears his passions on his sleeve and is unafraid to do so, and that vulnerability was super inspiring to me. I would say it’s actually a marker of confidence because he always knows once he’s gotten it right. I was super humbled by his commitment to the material.”
One surprise asset that emerged between the director and his star was their shared comfort in the French language. Villeneuve is fluent in English, but he’ll often pause to search for a word. “It was so great to go back to French with Timothée for several reasons,” he says. “I could be more intellectually precise with him, and it also gave us a bubble on this huge American movie.” When Dune began shooting, Chalamet was just 23 years old, “and suddenly he has this huge blockbuster machine around him,” Villeneuve continues. “We developed a very close friendship, but Timothée is the age of my kids, so I had a very paternal relationship with him as well, which I thought was totally appropriate for this movie. The French bubble was very useful and precious to us — to build intimacy among the madness.”
Isaac already was among the Dune converted when he arrived on the project and had personally pursued Villeneuve for his role. “We had met a few times and just become friendly, so when I heard he was doing Dune years ago, I wrote to him and said, ‘Hey, I am a huge fan of the book and just wanted to let you know.’ And then Denis wrote back, very enigmatically, ‘Ah, so you’re a fan of Dune, good to know …'”
Two years later, Isaac received Villeneuve’s script, with a note that he wanted him in it. “I was thrilled,” Isaac says.
When Villeneuve reached out to Rebecca Ferguson, best known for her work on the Mission: Impossible franchise, about the role of Lady Jessica, the actress bluntly told the director that she felt it might be boring for her to play another regal character (she had made her breakthrough in 2013 in The White Queen, the hit BBC historical drama series). Ferguson got off the phone regretting her candor and fretting that she had blown the opportunity. But she was delighted when he called back a few hours later to say she had gotten the part — and even more so when she began to better grasp her character’s complexity.
A figure of conflicting allegiances — as Duke Leto’s concubine, Paul’s mother and a loyal member of the Bene Gesserit, a secretive order of mystical and political machination — Lady Jessica has a broader knowledge than the characters around her throughout the first half of the film. Villeneuve uses Ferguson’s impressively fraught performance as a sort of emotional portal into the story’s complexity, with her visceral but coiled reactions serving as hints about the import of situations that other characters don’t yet fully grasp. “You just have to decide which side of the character comes at what point,” Ferguson says of playing the part. “She’s a woman with extreme powers in relation to a sisterhood that can manipulate and control the entire universe, so it’s about sedimenting that and pushing it deep inside your body, so that it’s kind of your fundamental state of being. If you could read everyone in a room, you need to be a listener, which means you’re not on your tip toes, and eager; but you’re constantly leaning back and letting information come to you — prepared with a sharp comment or physical action.”
“And then at other moments,” she adds, “Jessica is just a mother who is worried or pissed off with her rebellious teenager, which kind of normalizes the hugeness of the story world.”
In its latter half, Dune‘s plot shifts into the mode of a mother-son adventure story — a rather original dynamic for a tentpole Hollywood action movie — as Paul and Jessica are expelled into the desert and forced to fight side by side. “I feel like Jessica goes through some form of a Benjamin Button experience in the second half,” Ferguson observes. “She starts quite poised, otherworldly and older, and then she kind of gets younger and younger. She’s taken out of control of her moment, and put into an environment she can’t control — Mother Nature, basically — and the power dynamic with Paul begins to shift.”
If Villeneuve borrowed anything directly from Stars Wars, it was an element of tone: some of the dark grandeur of The Empire Strikes Back. “Something I loved about that movie as a kid was the gravitas of it, the darkness of it, and how there was something more grounded and serious about it,” he explains. “After that, [the franchise] became more comedy. I probably shouldn’t say this, but it’s like I was saying to myself that I wanted to make the movie I was dreaming of seeing after Empire Strikes Back.”
Much of the grandeur of Villeneuve’s filmmaking stems from the uniquely sensuous visual language he employs, even in the creation of cataclysmic action. Unlike the mechanistic CGI action that characterizes so much of contemporary tentpole filmmaking — picture superheroes and machines viscerally colliding in space, in the video game-like demonstrations of cause and effect that one has seen countless times onscreen — Villeneuve’s approach is impressionistic and immersive, often about withholding as much as showing.
When I asked Villeneuve in Venice about the intentions behind his style — a rhythmic building toward crescendos of emotion, rather than the usual Rube Goldberg-like chain-reactions of action — he abruptly decided he needed more coffee. Clearly he strives to avoid visual cliche, but in what ways does his style connect to his thematic interests, I had asked him. “That’s an interesting question, but my brain doesn’t work in English until I’ve had my second espresso,” he said, looking pained. Dune had premiered less than 12 hours prior and it wasn’t clear if he had even slept. As he got up to disappear down a garden path, he added: “These issues are difficult to talk about in a way, because it’s instinct, you know?”
When he returned, espresso in hand, smiling and apologetic (Villeneuve has a charming way of apologizing often, despite his always-evident intellectual poise), he said: “OK, one of my favorite movies of all time is Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, and there’s a scene that for me is the best action scene of all time. It’s this moment where a samurai is sitting at the base of a tree, and we see the scene from the point of view of a young servant who is watching. We know that the bad guys are coming because we see them running through the forest — but the samurai is just sitting there, looking at a flower. There’s something about the stillness of it, and the way the music is used; it’s so powerful, even though nothing happens. You’re riveted, knowing that there will soon be a very sudden burst of violence — but it’s all about expecting something and waiting for it. That scene blew my mind when I first saw it, and it still has tremendous influence on me — on the way I shot Sicario and the way I did Dune.”
As Parent points out, “Part of what makes his action feel different is that it’s always really informed by character.” Dune‘s largest and most CG-driven set piece comes when House Atreides has been caught off guard and an insurmountable armada of Harkonnen ships has descended upon the Arakine fortress to unleash hellfire. The awesome spectacle of the attack is seen primarily from the point of view of Gurney Halleck (played by Brolin), House Atreides’ weapons master and loyal military leader, who rallies the surviving troops out into the melee, to all but certain death. “In other movies, you’d be cutting to inside one of those ships to show some random Harkonnen pilot you’re never going to see again, just because it looks cool,” says Parent. “But Denis doesn’t do that; he keeps you right there with Gurney’s view, and it just kills you, because you feel how they’re going to get demolished, and yet he’s giving his speech and charging right into it with only a sword,” she adds. “It’s all about feeling the scale of the destruction from the point of view of this badass character.”
Some Kurosawan poetry in action occurs right at the start of Dune‘s first major action sequence, as well, when Duke Leto and Paul undertake a rescue mission for the crew of a spice harvester that’s been stranded and lays in the path of an approaching sandworm. As the rest of the Atreides soldiers rush off to the rescue, the camera stops to linger on Paul as he steps into the Arakine desert for the first time, reaching down to touch the sand — a hint of the deep connection he’ll one day develop with this uniquely forbidding landscape. Later in the sequence, as the action is truly building, Paul breathes the spice in the air and has his first psychedelic vision, kneeling still in the sand as the enormous worm bears down upon them.
Another key formal strategy that Villeneuve and Fraser devised was to play with space and time so that objects often appear at the edge of the frame and quickly disappear. Sometimes they used the technique to create tension, “like that feeling of a nightmare, where your eyes see part of something coming into the edge of your field of vision, and you feel its presence, but you never completely see it,” Villeneuve says. Many times, it was simply about awe.
Some of the most spectacular sets and ships Vermette designed are seen only briefly, or in part; and nearly every glimpse you get at a sandworm — Dune‘s mighty demigod, the Shai-Hulud — leaves you wanting more. “We really worked on this idea that the world was bigger than our lenses, like the camera is struggling to capture what’s there — either it’s too big and we cannot embrace it all or the camera doesn’t have time to capture it all,” Villeneuve says. “Why? It’s just to, again, bring back this idea of humility — the humility of human beings in the face of nature.”
A classic Romanticist streak has coursed through Villeneuve’s work from the beginning — the recurrence of flyover shots of staggering landscapes; the awesome (in the old sense of the word) scores from Jóhann Jóhannsson and Hans Zimmer; the preoccupation with solitary individuals staring down immensities. But it has found its most fervent expression in Dune, which could be described as a cinematic exercise geared expressly toward generating the Romantics’ classic notion of “the sublime experience” — with a whiff of the psychedelic culture from which Herbert’s book emerged in 1960s California. (“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment,” wrote Edmund Burke in his 1757 treatise on the sublime and the beautiful. “And astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.”)
“In the book, the Fremen embrace this idea that God is nature, that the desert itself is their religion,” Villeneuve explains. “So, that’s the idea. The cameras are always trying to capture the essence of something that is too big to be embraced — the idea that life is bigger than cinema.”
West recalls that one of Villeneuve’s biggest concerns from the costume department was how the character Baron Harkonnen would look. In the book, the Baron is described as a 400-pound man who is so obese he can’t carry his own body weight and relies on suspensors to hover above the ground. “Denis was concerned that he needed to look strong and menacing; he couldn’t look silly,” West remembers. “I suggested that maybe Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now would be a good place to start — and that he could wear some kind of long black silk, almost diaphanous, muumuu. Denis really flipped out over that idea. I think he actually had been thinking about these Brando-inspired references himself, because he said, ‘Exactly!'”
“The book is filled with fantastic characters,” says Villeneuve, “but with the Baron, there was the danger that he could easily become a caricature if we weren’t careful.” Villeneuve’s solution was to make him less loquacious than he is in the book, more of a more taciturn, highly intelligent, darkly threatening figure. “There was something about Kurtz that was a nice inspiration, and Stellan handled it masterfully. It’s one of the first times that I’ve allowed myself to have the pleasure to make a little homage like this.”
Apocalypse Now, perhaps cinema history’s most storied attempt to swallow the messy immensity of real life, was Villeneuve’s touchstone for how to reshape Dune‘s sprawling narrative into a tighter focus around Paul Atreides’ perspective. Villeneuve says he’s watched the Francis Ford Coppola classic more than any film besides 2001: A Space Odyssey — “and Blade Runner, of course.”
“Apocalypse Now is a very internal movie, where you’re diving deeper and deeper in the character’s psyche, the further he goes up the river,” he explains. “One of the core ideas of [Dune] the book is that as Paul goes deeper into the desert, everything is gradually stripped away from him — his family, his friends — and he slowly reveals his true identity, and becomes an adult before our very eyes, and finds solace and comfort in the landscape in the strangest way.”
Villeneuve’s film not only hews close to Paul’s perspective but actually enters it via the recurring device of dreams and waking spice visions. I observed to Villeneuve that one thing he shares with the earlier Dune adaptors is a preoccupation with the power of dreams.
“It’s true. Jodorowsky tries to actually shoot dreams, and Lynch tries to create tension with dreams,” he replied. “Cinema, for me, is like a bridge between reality and dreams. Dreams are insanely powerful — how disorientating, beautiful and terrifyingly close to truth they can be, with no filters.”
“What is terrifying,” he adds, after a pause, “is to think that when we die, we won’t be in contact with reality anymore, only with dreams. Yeah, cinema is a way to try to make peace with this idea.”
Villeneuve had exhaustively storyboarded every shot in Dune — except for the dream sequences, which were left for the editing room.
“I would turn a page [in the script] and there would be gap, like a blank page,” says Joe Walker, Dune‘s twice Oscar-nominated editor, who also cut Villeneuve’s Arrival and Blade Runner: 2049. “They were loose lines of material, and there were dozens of folders of potential footage that sat on my drives waiting for a place.”
One of the elements in Walker’s folders was a lens flare that Villeneuve had discovered during a camera test. “It has a feeling almost like when you’re in a hot summer and your eyes are half closed and you’re looking through your eyelashes, with striations coming from the top of the frame,” Walker explains. “Denis said, ‘I’ve been dreaming about this flare for 30 years,’ and he shot an hour of this material, just pointing a camera lens at the desert sun. I knitted them into all of the visions, as a means of editing from one thing to another and bringing in some of the hallucinatory quality.”
The hallucinations were vital not just to the interiority Villeneuve wanted to capture, but also the progression of the story. “They are helping you and pushing you forward, because there are little clues and mysteries threaded throughout them,” Walker adds. “I’ve observed before that my career, for what it’s worth, is based on a really simple trick, which is, if you have a person that looks very intent, and then you cut to something, you can suggest that’s what they’re thinking of. The visions in Arrival were built around this trick, but with Dune, I feel like I’ve earned my master’s degree in it.”
Although Dune‘s world is complex and the film runs two hours and 35 minutes, Villeneuve wanted the viewer to emerge from the film feeling awestruck rather than that the whole thing could have wrapped up a bit sooner. Overall, the editing process entailed a very rhythmic take on the story, with a steady but imperceptible acceleration of pace. “There’s surface pace to scenes, and then there’s deep tectonic pace,” says Walker. “We worked very hard to get that tectonic flow so that the story is moving quite slowly at the beginning, actually, as you get to know the characters and the world is set up on very firm ground; and then everything kicks into higher gears as the action sequences begin.”
Dune also benefited from a longtime creative shorthand that Walker and Zimmer share. The two have known each other since 1988, when they found themselves working together in London on the improbable BBC television hit First Born, “a crazy series about a half man, half gorilla,” says Walker, who calls Zimmer his “oldest friend in the business.” They’ve since collaborated on Blade Runner 2049 and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Widows.
Walker says he and Zimmer often have discussed an additional, more intangible pace that is called for in a Denis Villeneuve movie, which exists somewhere between the editing and the music. It’s an element that’s somehow integral to the sublime and immersive qualities of his filmmaking, he says. “It’s very hard to describe, but there’s a sort of secret, or inaudible score,” Walker says. “We keep talking about this tread of a piece that always seems to be called for in a Denis film. It’s got this steady, ominous pace — like a step toward fate. I don’t know that we’ve quite grasped it yet, but we’re getting very close. People talk about the hypnotic quality of his films; but this tread is more inexorable than that.”
Dune originally was scheduled to be released Nov. 20, 2020, and as the date approached, the postproduction team was feeling the heat. Walker and Villeneuve were working through enormous amounts of material and waiting on music from Zimmer — and the clock was ticking. Then the pandemic arrived, and the film, along with all of Hollywood’s release schedule, ground to a halt. A succession of lengthy postponements would follow.
Walker himself studied classical music and began his creative career as a composer, and thanks to the pandemic delays, he occasionally had time to chat with Zimmer about his methods. “Sometimes I’d see him working on a piano, going through the permutations of a pattern. He would be building a little brick that could be used in any edifice of his music. It could end up supporting Chani or Paul or even an encounter with a giant sandworm. And I asked him once, ‘What are you looking for right now?’ He said, ‘I’m looking for a musical phrase with the efficiency of the word fuck.’ I was blown away by that because it’s so true,” Walker says, his eyes widening. “You know, fuck is a powerful word, but it can be used in any context. I can say, ‘I fucking love you,’ or I could say, “I fucking hate you.” It’s totally transmutable. And that’s the way Hans starts.”
The pandemic eventually separated the collaborators as they each were forced to retreat to their home studios and continue their work remotely. Villeneuve has bemoaned the difficulty of editing without being able to share the energy of the room, and Walker agrees that the transition was jarring. “Denis has been right next to me editing films for five years, and the right-hand side of his face was like the dark side of the moon to me — I’m not even sure I knew what he looks like,” he says, laughing. “Now, suddenly, I’ve got somebody staring straight at me into his laptop camera. It was a bit weirdly confrontational.”
The added time generated by the pandemic undoubtedly proved an asset, though. Altogether, Villeneuve and Walker had 20 months to edit the film, far longer than is usual. “The pandemic gave us an ability to dream deeper and play with the film,” Villeneuve says.
As they worked outside of the usual studio office structure, the director and his editor developed something they called “the whisky pass.”
“Sometimes if the day was ending and we were feeling a scene just wasn’t quite there, Denis would say, ‘I think this needs a whisky pass,’ ” Walker explains. “That just meant me, sitting there in my home cutting room until the wee hours with a whisky, feeling more and more uninhibited about how to change things. Then I’d show him the cut in the morning, and usually he’d go, ‘Great!’ But if not, we’d just keep at it.”
Says Zimmer, “I think all of us, as we were working on the film during those long months of the pandemic, we were hoping that it would be something that could bring people back together at the end of it. That if we just worked long enough on this, COVID will have stabilized to a degree that people can see it on a big screen and feel something. We all wanted to make more than just a movie — we wanted to give you an experience.”
Adds Villeneuve: “When I made this movie, the idea was, right from the start, to make it for a broad audience. I said to myself, ‘I would love if I could make a movie for the teenager I was back then.’ And it was such a relief to do that, to let go and just embrace cinema as spectacle. I deeply loved it, and I will keep doing it as long as they let me.”
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.