Dune: Director Villeneuve Discusses Challenges of Making his Epic Movie

“It’s the biggest challenge of my career,” says Canadian-born director Denis Villeneuve about his new movie, Dune.

World premiering at the Venice Film Festival to great critical acclaim, Dune has been one of the most eagerly-awaited movies of the year for a number of reasons.

Villeneuve’s version of the Frank Herbert’s seminal bestseller is the second Hollywood effort to translate the cult book into the big screen. The first, David Lynch’s 1984 attempt, was an artistic disappointment and commercial flop.

Villeneuve: Sci-Fi Director of the Twenty-First Century

Villeneuve, who has earned a Best Director Oscar nomination for the sci-fi Arrival (starring Amy Adams), says he had felt similar, but not as strong, pressures when he helmed Blade Runner 2049, a follow-up to Ridley Scott’s cult picture.

Dune is slated to be released in the U.S. in select theaters in 2D and 3D and IMAX and on HBO Max on October 22.

A mythic and emotionally charged hero’s journey, Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides, a brilliant young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding.  Villenueve says he was “lucky” in getting Timothee Chamalet to play the lead.

One of the most versatile actors of his generation, Chamalet is riding high right now, after appearing in Call Me by Your Name, which earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination, Greta Gerwig new version of Little Women, and the upcoming The French Dispatch by Wes Anderson (opening the same day as Dune).

Paul is tasked with traveling to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people. As malevolent forces explode into conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource–a commodity capable of unlocking humanity’s greatest potential–only those who can conquer their fear will survive.


Discovering Herbert Book

Herbert’s 1965 novel is considered to be one of the most influential books of the 20th century, and it is credited with inspiring many of the greatest films of all time.  Villeneuve co-wrote the screenplay with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth (Oscar winner for Forrest Gump).

“I discovered Herbert’s book in my teenage years and I remember being totally fascinated by its poetry, by what it was saying about nature—which is the true main character of Dune,” Villeneuve relates. “At the time, I was studying science, I thought I could become either a filmmaker or a biologist, so for me, the way Herbert approached ecology in the book was so fresh, so rich, so poetic, so powerful.”

He elaborates: “Herbert’s view of nature was absolutely mesmerizing—all those beautiful ecosystems he created. His exploration of the impact and chaos caused by colonialism was a portrait of the 20th century that is still relevant today. And through all of this was a young man struggling with his
identity, trying to find his way in the world,–as I was doing myself at the time.  The way Paul discovers his identity through another culture was amazing for me.”

Nominally, the book is set far in the future, amidst sprawling feudal interstellar empires, entire planets are controlled by noble—and ignoble—houses. Yet, for Villeneuve, “Dune is grounded in human relationships and struggles. It’s about real people and deals with complex themes like ecology, evolution and survival, and the daily battles humans face surrounding love, loyalty and duty, betrayal, power. Ultimately, Dune holds a mirror to the society we live in today.”

Villeneuve says: “there are many ways to approach Dune, but one of the main angles is the very human story of the Atreides family that falls into the trap set by the Emperor, who’s getting increasingly more jealous of their growing popularity. And so the Emperor sends the Atreides to a new planet in the galaxy, which is Arrakis, where you can find the Spice, the most precious substance in the universe.”

Villeneuve’s goal was to “fully immerses the audience in this profoundly moving story of Paul’s coming of age, set against family rivalries, tribal clashes, social oppression and ecological disaster on the unforgiving, austere planet, creating a fantastical cinematic experience that is both epic and intimate.

Producers Mary Parent and Cale Boyter had been working to secure the rights to the novel for some time—finally finding success after arriving at Legendary production company themselves. “This was fantastic!’ says Parent, “It had never happened to me before, reading that the director you would dream of for your project really wants to do it.”

Parent reached out immediately and the two met. “It was an incredible connection, right out of the gate,” Villeneuve says. “Our vision was incredibly similar. That was the easiest, fastest meeting I’ve ever had with a producer.”

The big, real work then began. Says Villeneuve: “We knew it would be a major undertaking to capture the wealth of hidden mysteries within the story, and the dichotomous vulnerabilities and strengths of Herbert’s characters, which make them so relatable within a tale of such grand scale.”

When it came to structuring the screenplay, they all agreed that to do the book justice would require more than one film. “The
story is massive,” Villeneuve says, “so, the first thing we thought about doing was dividing up the book. This choice made it a lot easier for us to figure out how to conform it into a scrip format.”

“We decided there was one prevailing theme that would serve as the driving force behind the film. The book transcended science fiction. There is a father-son story here that came alive, and we wanted to put a lot of focus on the emotional underpinnings of the Atreides family, to see the story from each of the family members’ perspectives as they face their destiny, emotionally and politically.”

Herbert himself had travelled the world and was a student of history who drew heavily from what was happening all around him. A master of complex storytelling, Villeneuve approached Dune in much the same way: “My goal was to take audiences to places they’ve never been before, just as the novel did for me as a young reader.”

Villeneuve states, “It was one of those books I knew particularly well as a teenager.  I thought the world-building was pretty incredible, including the glossary—the language—that came from Herbert’s imagination. A major element for me was the societal aspect and his view of environmental change. It has all the ingredients that create a wonderful alchemy of storytelling: what happens to planet Arrakis, the father-son and mother-son storylines, the fact that women are very powerful. It seems modern and all of a sudden very pressing, and remember, he wrote it in the 1960s!”

Villeneuve emphasizes the timelessness of the Homeric novel’s and its author’s uncanny ability to forecast the future: Within the various factions in the Dune universe are the Mentats, who are like human computers; the Navigators, who can predict the alignment of the stars in order to determine space travel; and the Bene Gesserit, women who represent the more religious aspect of humanity and are able to influence events as well as make decisions that help maintain balance in the universe. Then there are the Great Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen, battling over control of the Spice—a magical and addictive resource that allows people to see the future and is the single most powerful and treasured element in the Dune universe, and what makes Arrakis itself so valuable. Finally, the Fremen are the tribal inhabitants of Arrakis who respect the land. They’ve been relegated to the status of second-class citizen status, yet Paul, a noble son of House Atreides, is spiritually drawn to them.

When it came to casting, Villeneuve assembled an astonishing list of actors, including Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem. “To my great pleasure, most of my first choices were available and willing to embark on this journey with me,” Villeneuve says.

Once he had a blueprint that captured the breadth and depth of the story, Villeneuve engaged a first-rate creative team to accomplish the feat of putting it all on film. “Dune has all the elements of a big and historical epic: It has warfare, intrigue, oppression and manipulation on a mass scale, power struggles and the boundless possibilities of human potential–and yes, massive sandworms.”

Early on, Villeneuve determined not to rely too heavily on visual effects, except where they are absolutely needed: “We have those effects, but my approach was to get as much in camera as possible, with real light, real reflections and shadows, and real interaction with the Earth and the sand and the dust.”

That meant shooting on location in Hungary, Jordan, Abu Dhabi and Norway, where Villeneuve and his crew of artisans, including director of photography Greig Fraser and production
designer Patrice Vermette created the distinctive planets.

Oscar-winning and multiple Oscar0nominated composer Hans Zimmer (Blade Runner 2049, Gladiator, The Lion King) created the evocative score.  Zimmer, himself a longtime, equally passionate fan of  the book, went back into the deep desert to immerse himself, or as Villeneuve puts it, “to dream about the score.”

The director gave Zimmer one piece of advice, which appeared simple but was actually complex: “I told Hans to think of Dune as a psychological thriller, an adventure, a war movie, a coming-of-age movie, and a love story.”  The director relates with a smile how, at the end of their conversation, Zimmer asked, “anything else the movie is about?”

“I felt that we all had to be united in our ambition to fulfill a lifelong dream of bringing a landmark work with its complex mythology to life,” Villeneuve says. “It’s as if I wanted to explain to myself the reason why the book has stayed on my shelf, beside my bed, all those years.”