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Film lovers and sci-fi aficionados the world over have found common cause in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, celebrating the film as that rarest creature of the multiplex: a megabudget tentpole that feels like a work of pure, auteurist passion, rather than yet another all-too-competent exploitation of studio-owned IP.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that the filmmaker most commonly identified with nonconformist, high-concept spectacle would reveal himself to be an ardent Denis Villeneuve and Dune fan.
Over the weekend, Christopher Nolan sat down with Villeneuve to discuss the making of Dune for an episode of the Director’s Cut podcast, recorded after a screening at the DGA Theater in Los Angeles. Throughout their chat, the director of The Dark Knight, Dunkirk and Tenet was effusive with his praise of Villeneuve’s handling of Frank Herbert’s endlessly influential sci-fi classic.
“It’s one of the most seamless marriages of live-action photography and computer-generated visual effects that I’ve seen,” Nolan said. “It’s very, very compelling at every turn.”
He went on: “I think this film is going to introduce a whole new generation of fans to Dune who have never read the book and perhaps will go and read it now. I think it’s an extraordinary piece of work. I’ve had the luxury of seeing it a couple of times now, and each time I watch it I discover new things, new details to the world. The way in which it’s made is absolutely for the big screen. It’s a real pleasure and a real gift to film fans everywhere — and thank you very much for that, Denis.”
Produced by Legendary Entertainment and Warner Bros., Dune is currently riding high at the North American box office after opening last weekend at the top end of forecasts with $40.1 million. Globally, the film, which cost $165 million to make, had earned $220.2 million by the end of Sunday.
Villeneuve’s film covers only the first half of Frank Herbert’s book, however, and the director had been very public about his ambitions to complete the story with a carefully planned big-budget sequel. Legendary and Warner Bros. greenlit the sequel Tuesday, Oct. 26, after the successful opening weekend.
Dune‘s box office success had been hard to predict, since Warners released the movie simultaneously over HBO Max, as it has with its entire 2021 theatrical film slate.
Nolan and Villeneuve briefly became public allies last year when they excoriated Warner Bros. for its shocking streaming decision — particularly the way the studio blindsided its creative partners, many of whom, like the two directors, had designed their work expressly for the big-screen experience. Nolan blasted Warners in the pages of The Hollywood Reporter, and Villeneuve wrote a strongly worded editorial in Variety.
During their DGA chat, Nolan was quick to query Villeneuve over his decision to split the book into two films.
“It’s something I proposed to the studio right away, because I was feeling that to try to put that huge story into one movie would be a mistake,” Villeneuve said. “It was not a discussion; they agreed spontaneously.” Villeneuve added that he had originally hoped to film both installments of Dune back to back, or simultaneously, but the studio balked at the expense of the idea.
“I should say that you’re always as good as your last movie, and you bring that reputation to the table,” he added. “And I think that Blade Runner 2049 just wasn’t a major blockbuster success, so they were a bit cold at the idea of investing in two movies right away.”
Nolan said he felt Villeneuve was being too hard on himself. “I think that was a negotiating tactic on the studio’s part,” he replied, “because I think Blade Runner  is a very successful film and an incredible piece of work.”
But Villeneuve said he’s actually relieved that he didn’t attempt the enormous task of making two Dunes at once. “I would have died,” he added, laughing. “I’m so happy that we didn’t. I would not have had the stamina to do that. Frankly, the truth is that I’m grateful that it happened this way.”
Nolan was particularly curious how Villeneuve approached Dune’s computer graphics work, given how seamlessly CGI shots are integrated into the film’s highly accomplished cinematography.
“The same way that you do it, I think,” Villeneuve replied. “I think you shoot as much as possible in real locations, and you try to embrace reality. There are some shots in truth that are pure CGI, but I tried to avoid those as much as possible.”
“The whole movie, to shoot with real environments,” he continued, “it’s all about light at the end of the day. I had a master class on how to light a shot on doing Blade Runner with Roger Deakins. Because Roger supervised all of the VFX with me, so I spent a year listening to him on every shot. I learned so much on how to work with VFX with Roger, and that helped me tremendously on how to direct the team here.”
In regard to locations, Nolan instantly recognized one of Dune‘s primary desert sites. “One of the most spectacular locations you used in the film is Wadi Rum in Jordan, which some of you may know from Lawrence of Arabia,” he explained. “A lot of films have shot in Wadi Rum since Lawrence, but for my money this is the first time I’ve seen it used in as expressive a way. The sense of place is extraordinary.”
“When [DP] Greig Fraser and I were brainstorming the film, for us it was like a kind of love letter to the big screen theatrical experience,” Villeneuve said. “The book was calling for that — the landscape and the story of a boy who will slowly remove the burden of all his heritage and make peace with a side of his identity as he goes deeper and deeper into the landscape.”
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