In some sense, Denis Villeneuve has been preparing to direct Dune since the first time he read Frank Herbert's seminal tome as a teenager. In actuality, he learned his craft at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and then, spent years directing taut thrillers before pivoting to science fiction films like 2016's Arrival and 2017's Blade Runner 2049 – both Oscar-winning films – to ready himself to adapt Dune. And even all of that experience may not have sufficiently prepared him.
"It was like going back to film school," Villeneuve tells A.frame. "Every movie is a learning experience – you learn as an artist, as a filmmaker, as a human being. You're always pushed toward your limits, and definitely Dune: Part One was the biggest challenge of my life so far."
Villeneuve is not the first to bring Dune to the screen, although the revolving door of directors who've attempted and failed to do so has become the stuff of filmic infamy. Villeneuve knew the biggest challenge to overcome was adapting the seemingly-unadaptable text for audiences who don't know their Shai-Hulud from their Kwisatz Haderach, their Muad'Dib from their Gom Jabbar.
"To make a movie for our core fans, it would have been difficult, but it definitely would have been easier if everyone had read the book – which, of course, is not the case," Villeneuve says. "To make sure that someone like my mother who didn't read the book would feel welcome in the world and would understand the main geopolitics of the world, that was the big challenge."
The first order of business was splitting Herbert's 800-page unabridged novel into two movies. Dune: Part One, as it became, follows Paul (Timothée Chalamet), heir of House Atreides, as he and the royal family arrive on the desert planet of Arrakis to oversee the all-powerful spice trade. There, Paul unwittingly finds himself on a messiah journey with the fate of the universe in the balance. (Villeneuve wrote the screenplay with Jon Spaihts and Oscar winner Eric Roth.)
On set, Villeneuve found himself facing the biggest technical undertaking of his career and a production so imposing that it mandated that he employ a second unit for the first time. "I've always worked with one single camera and one unit shooting everything," he explains. So, along with director of photography Greig Fraser shooting the film, cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi was brought on to shoot second unit, with Villeneuve overseeing both.
"I had to learn how to be at several places at the same time, which was very challenging for me because I'm very monomaniac. I had to learn how to supervise another unit and even a sprinter unit at one point," Villeneuve says. With a laugh, he adds, "I didn't sleep a lot during this shoot. I was shooting every day. But I didn't have the choice. Otherwise, there would be no movie. So, I did it. And, I learned a lot."
The idea was to try to disconnect ourselves from cinematic influences and try to reconnect with the images that I had when I was 13 years old.
Dune shot for four months across Hungary, Jordan, Abu Dhabi and Norway. For Villeneuve, the North Star on the shoot was capturing that feeling he had the first time he read the book. "The idea was to try to disconnect ourselves from cinematic influences and try to reconnect with the images that I had when I was 13 years old," he says. Villeneuve credits David Leans' Oscar-winning 1962 epic adventure drama Lawrence of Arabia as a major influence on his Dune, as it was on Herbert's novel.) He remembers one day in particular when everything came full circle. "At the end of the movie, I brought the unit deep in the desert, and we were shooting very early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day, because it was too dangerous to be outside then," Villeneuve recalls. "And, to be in the desert with Rebecca Ferguson and Timothée Chalamet and a small unit, shooting two people doing the sandwalk and wearing stillsuits, that was like a very, very old dream coming true. I was still pinching myself."
Through the long process of post-production, a global pandemic, and Dune's eventual release, the significance of the experience was never lost on its director. Despite having seen his movie at various stages of completion a thousand or so times ("I'm barely exaggerating"), Villeneuve still manages to feel awe upon seeing onscreen what he once only imagined in his mind. How could one not when gazing at a sandworm?
"Each shot, there's some victories and some pain, because you know as a director where you can evolve, you know what you got wrong and where you succeeded," he says. Yet, "There is still a 14-year-old inside me who gets shivers when I see the sand dunes starting to shift in the landscape, because we know there's something under that is coming forward. There are some moments like the battle between the Sardaukar and Duncan Idaho or when Paul gets inside the ornithopters for the first time where I feel like the teenager inside me is quite pleased."
That in itself is a measure of Dune's success. As was when his mother finally saw it, having been made her son's arbiter of non-Dune devotees. "My mother is my toughest critic," he laughs. "Of course, she loved it." Then, there were the compliments he received from the directors he admires, though Villeneuve declines to reveal names. "I will not dare to say, because it would be name-dropping! But I will say that I was very pleased."
Commercially, Dune was hugely successful, having now crossed $400 million worldwide. Warner Bros. has greenlit Dune: Part Two, which is scheduled to be released on Oct. 20, 2023.
At the upcoming 94th Oscars, Dune is nominated for 10 Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, and Best Makeup and Hairstyling.)
"It's a beautiful recognition. The thing that is nice about the awards is that it puts the spotlight on people that are usually in the shadows. People know that I am the director, they know the actors, but all of the artists that are working in the dark – like the editor, the cinematographer, et cetera, et cetera – I'm grateful their work has been beautifully recognized by the Academy," Villeneuve says. "It's a massive honor."
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