Denis Villeneuve has been dreaming of Dune since he was a child. Growing up in Quebec, Villeneuve was obsessed with Frank Herbert’s landmark sci-fi novel, and as the filmmaker has grown into one of Hollywood’s giants of epic cinema, bringing the world of Dune to the screen became something of a dream project. Never mind the fact that Dune had become a graveyard for cinematic ambition: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version never made it past preproduction, while David Lynch’s was an infamous critical and commercial flop. (Though it has its defenders.) For a time, it seemed like Villeneuve’s Dune might be equally cursed. Originally scheduled for the fall of 2020, the film was delayed multiple times because of, well, you know. But now his Dune is finally able to be seen, both in theaters and, to Villeneuve’s slight chagrin, HBO Max. It’s only the first half of the story, and if you want to see the second half some day, he encourages you to see it on the largest screen possible (so long as you feel safe, of course). “It’s a movie that has been designed to be as immersive as a cinematic experience as possible,” he says. “It has been made from the beginning as a love letter for the big screen.”
Before the film’s release, Vulture spoke to the very patient director about knowing when the film was done, his hopes for Dune: Part Two, and whether “Duncan Idaho” is a cool name.
(Spoiler warning: This post discusses broad elements from future Dune novels.)
My first question is a tough one: What is your favorite spice?
Definitely coffee. Because without coffee, I don’t speak English. First thing is the coffee in the morning to wake me up. It’s probably my favorite moment of the day when I switch on the coffee machine. I love anything dark and strong.
You’ve said that this Dune is your attempt to bring to life the images in your head from when you first read the book as a kid. Which images from the movie made their way from your youthful imagination intact?
I would say the stillsuit, everything involving the Fremen culture. And the Bene Gesserit. I would try to channel the image I had in my mind when I imagined them: the Reverend Mother, the Gom Jabbar scene.
Including Charlotte Rampling’s iconic veil?
It’s something that creates a religious feeling, a distance. A veil creates a beautiful mystery. And I love the way we have glimpses into Charlotte Rampling’s eyes. It makes her character even more powerful and frightening. Very Bene Gesserit–like.
One of the underlying themes in the entire Dune saga is about the idea that history is cyclical. It repeats on these thousand-year cycles. Is that something you personally ascribe to?
I’m obsessed. I think that as human beings we are bound to revisit the same things over and over, and that we have to find a way to freedom. In general, societies are facing the threat of repeating the same mistakes, and I think probably the ultimate human journey is to break those cycles.
In the novels, the ultimate answer is not very happy — the way to break the cycle is to have a giant worm ruling over everyone.
It’s a tragedy. It’s a dark, ominous book, but I think Frank Herbert wrote it as a warning. And sadly, the book became more relevant as time went by. It was very prophetic in terms of the oil in the Middle East and the political squabbling, polarization. And the blend of the very dangerous cocktail that is religion and politics.
Because of the pandemic, the movie got delayed by a year. You suddenly had more time to work on it. What sort of tinkering did you do?
When the pandemic hit, the movie was not finished. Instead of running for a release date, we walked. I took part of that year to finesse, to make sure that everything was according to my dream. We were working a lot on the sound. Now the movie has been finished for several months. But still, I love the fact that the studio said, “Take your time.”
After you’d gotten that extended grace period, was it hard to then put the movie to bed and say, “This is it, I’m done”?
That’s not the way it works: I don’t decide; the movie decides. It’s very weird. You wake up in the morning and you try to make a new cut, and the movie bites you. There’s a certain moment where, it’s not that the movie is perfect, it’s that the movie is finished. The movie can walk by itself. It’s alive now.
I want to talk about two stylistic elements that mark your Dune as different from versions that have come before. The first one is the sandworms. On the cover of the book and in the Lynch version, the sandworms have these three jaws. In your version, the sandworms are gigantic gaping holes.
I kept saying to Patrice Vermette, my production designer, “I want the worm to be like a prehistoric creature, something that has been living and evolving for 100,000 years.” We needed a beast that can survive a harsh and brutal environment. We were thinking about how thick the skin should be, how the mouth should close to travel in the sand. But more important, we were talking about, how does it feed? We had the idea that it would be a bit like a whale: It would need some kind of filter system to be able to capture nutrients in the sand — this idea of the baleen. I fell deeply in love. It’s an anatomic detail that’s very grounded in the world and in the ecosystem. And it also allowed me to create this idea that when you look into a worm’s mouth, it looks like an eye. It has this feeling of the presence of a god.
The other thing is the Harkonnens, who in your version are all pale and bald, like a villainous Humpty Dumpty.
The description in the book is that the Harkonnens were coming from a world totally disconnected from nature. They have destroyed the ecosystem of their planet. Their planet would be a plastic planet, where the atmospheric pollution would be so high that these guys would be living without almost any sunlight. They would be very pale, closer to vampires.
So both of them were shaped by their environments. How were you, Denis Villeneuve, shaped by your environment?
First of all, I was born by the St. Lawrence River, which was very wide near my village. And so I was born with the horizon. I was born with skies; melancholic skies that are bigger than us. That sky brought a lot of humility. And I was born in a place where there were two permanent buildings: the church and the nuclear power plant. Those were the two forces that I dealt with in my life, religion and science. And both were linked with faith. The idea that I had to trust engineers, and I had to trust the priest. [Laughs.] Both were initiating some fear, you know? I was born from that contrast.
Help me settle a debate: Is “Duncan Idaho” a cool name?
Personally, I deeply love it. I love that Frank Herbert gives hints of Earth culture. You have links with the Catholic religion, or Middle Eastern cultural elements. They are hints that these people were coming from Earth, and then they expanded into the galaxy. And “Duncan Idaho” roots it to Earth. So personally, I don’t know what your position on it is, but I love it. I think it’s the best.
At the moment, it seems like Dune: Part Two is possibly going to happen, but it’s still up in the air. Is that the right read on the current status?
I cannot talk about the current status. But I’m very optimistic. It’s getting great reviews, and Warner Bros. and Legendary love the movie. Everybody is wishing to make a second one. If there’s enough enthusiasm at the box office, it will happen. [Note: This interview was published before Dune: Part Two was officially greenlit.]
If you do get to make the second one, which sequence from the second half of the book are you most excited to shoot?
The thing about Dune was, it was the first movie that every day was a challenge. I was waking up excited every day about what I was about to shoot. It’s a book that I could pore into the details of. Each scene had something that excites me, and I will say the same about the second one. But I mean, there are some scenes involving worms that I can’t wait to shoot.
Speaking of worms, the protagonist of the fourth book, God Emperor of Dune, is a 3,000-year-old human-sandworm hybrid who rules the galaxy with an iron fist. Hypothetically, in the best-case scenario — in which Dune becomes a cinematic sensation and they let you do the whole series — do you make the human-sandworm hybrid practical effects, or do you use CGI?
That’s a tricky question. I go one movie at a time. Making the first one took all my stamina, my energy, and my creativity. And my dream would be to make a Dune part one and two. And maybe there’s another possibility to make Dune Messiah, because I think that Messiah could be a fantastic movie. That’s already a lot of work, so I don’t allow myself to think further than that. But yeah, just the thought of designing that creature is daunting. But you know what? If ever I have to face that challenge, it means that life is fantastic.
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