Quebec’s modernist sci-fi maestro talks big screens and small gestures, and how he brought the arid world of Arrakis to life.
Denis Villeneuve loves a challenge. The Quebecois filmmaker turned a horrific real-life misogynistic massacre – the sort of material that would normally yield only the lowest form of exploitation – into 2009’s sensitive Polytechnique (shot twice, in French- and English-language versions). He adapted José Saramago’s unfilmable novel ‘The Double’ into 2013’s sublimely singular Enemy. He took on a sequel to Ridley Scott’s much loved Blade Runner and crafted from it a soulful epic of humanity’s evolution.
Blade Runner 2049, from 2017, and 2016’s excellent Arrival, marked Villeneuve’s own evolution towards science fiction, and now he is characteristically essaying another impossible work: Frank Herbert’s expansive 1965 novel ‘Dune’. Shot in IMAX, the first part of this sprawling space saga, with its internecine, interplanetary dynastic struggles, its desert uprisings and gigantic worms, is now complete. Villeneuve talks us through the collision of this arid alien world and his own wildly fertile imagination.
LWLies: From your feature debut August 32nd on Earth to Incendies, Sicario, Blade Runner 2049 and now Dune, you have often been a director of deserts. What keeps drawing a filmmaker from cold-climate Canada to the dry sandy wastelands?
Villeneuve: I was raised by the St Lawrence River, and I was someone who spent a very meditative childhood looking at the horizon. There are similarities, in wintertime, with the horizon. It’s like something that has an impact on the soul. I think that my deep attraction to the desert is that the emptiness – the infinity – of the desert is like a kind of mirror. It’s like an inner journey – being in contact with infinity. It’s bringing you back to your own humility, your own place in the world, your own singularity. Its silence is my best friend, my companion. Silence is like a comfort for me. It’s a mirror of your own inner soul. The magnitude is like a magnifying glass. I’ve been driven to bring characters into that space so that they are naked spiritually, and psychologically, and you can explore, like under a microscope, and magnify their inner journey. It’s like a quest for purity.
Your brother Martin’s film Mars et Avril is also science fiction. Was there a lot of SF in the Villeneuve household when you were growing up?
I have been attracted to science fiction since a very early age. My father was obsessed by technology, and all those scientific magazines about new discoveries, like Popular Mechanic or Science et Vie. So there was that presence of how the world could evolve with technology – of what the world of tomorrow could be. And I must not underestimate the presence of a nuclear power plant that I could see from my kitchen. I was raised in the atomic age where the big fear of the time was not the climate, but the atomic bomb. And to know that you had that power just a few kilometres from home – I think it’s something that sparked a lot of imagination. You eat your cereal in the morning and you look at the nuclear power plant.
At what point did you first encounter Frank Herbert’s novel? And did you immediately think, “One day I will make a film of this”?
I read ‘Dune’ when I was very young, specifically at the moment when I was starting to dream big about cinema, following filmmakers, starting to be very interested by what a director was doing, being drawn to the filmmaking process. And I remember starting to do storyboards and early drawings of ‘Dune’ with my best friend at the time who wanted to be a director as well. We were obsessed with this world. I’m not saying that I was dreaming to make a movie about it right away, but definitely I was deeply inspired by it. For me it was one of my big dreams. If you had said to me, ‘Ultimately what would you like to do as a filmmaker?’, I would have said, ‘Dune.’ When I landed in Hollywood, and people were asking me, ‘What would be your dream?’, it’s always those four letters that were coming out of my mouth. It’s a book that stayed with me through the years for several reasons, and still today every time I open it, I get the same kind of deep joy reading it.
‘Dune’ is a mind-bendingly complex novel which famously foiled Alejandro Jodorowksy’s attempts to make it, and led to David Lynch’s most compromised production. Were you anxious about the novel’s perceived brand as a film maudit?
I always related the birth of my relationship with ‘Dune’ with the love for a book – with the sensations, the images, the inspiration coming out of the pages. So I would have done Dune even if it had not been attempted by anybody at all. I think it would have been complicated if I had discovered ‘Dune’ through David Lynch’s eyes, or through Jodorowsky’s eyes. Then it would have been more difficult, maybe. But I have my own very pure, intimate relationship with the book. My roots were deep into the book, so I didn’t mind about the wind.
In a weird way, even your Dune is a film maudit, in the sense that it was originally scheduled to come out in late 2020, but then was delayed by Covid. As the director, did you regard this as a frustration, or an opportunity to do more post-production tweaking?
I will not say that we changed the movie, but I had more time to make sure that everything was perfect, that it reached the quality that I was looking for. I would have done it before the pandemic, but it was like a race, and then, instead of running, it became more like a grounded walk. Also I feel that it brought things to the movie – it forced us all to do things a little bit differently – and more specifically the music. I think Hans Zimmer was kind of destabilised by the pandemic and, in a good way, I’m sure the score is different to it would have been had he been more in his usual environment. I’m talking about Hans because he was obsessed with ‘Dune’ for decades. It was one of his big dreams to do a ‘Dune’ score. When the pandemic landed and time was stretched, it gave him more time to experiment, definitely. I’m all good with the movie right now.
What kinds of liberties have you taken, through adaptation, with the original text? Is this a close adaptation?
Yes, it’s a close adaptation. The first liberty that I took is to make the movie in two parts. The story is so rich, so dense; ‘Dune’ is all about details. It’s so sophisticated and there are so many rich cultures that are described. There is substance to make tonnes of movies. There’s so many things that I needed to approach, to describe, to shoot and to bring to the screen, that I thought it would definitely need a minimum of two movies. And I think that, by doing so, there are things that I did explain in the first movie, [but] there are also things that I didn’t tackle, that I didn’t describe, I just skimmed the surface of some ideas that will be approached deeper in the second movie. I need to find the equilibrium between both movies. So the first one is just like opening the door on a world.
Could you have managed to make something on the scale of Dune without having first made Arrival and Blade Runner 2049?
No. All my filmography has been built like bricks. I’m thinking projects that are more and more technically complex, and bigger challenges. I would never have been able to do Dune without doing Arrival or Blade Runner. I would not dare to say that they were rehearsals, but definitely I was able to do Dune because I did Blade Runner. I learnt so much doing it about world building, and about VFX. It’s accumulative.
The protagonist of Dune, Paul Atreides, will eventually lead desert-dwelling religious fanatics in a jihadist crusade that inevitably evokes the iconography of al Qaeda or Daesh. Is it your intention to subvert the conventional Hollywood notion of the hero, and to reject seeing ideological struggle in black-and-white, us-vs-them terms?
Very early in my filmmaking life I’ve been in contact, in a very beautiful and powerful way, with the complexity of the world. I started my career by making documentaries alone around the world, in most of Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Northern Africa. I travelled to the States, I travelled to most parts of the world. At a very young age I was in contact with tonnes of different views of the world where everybody thinks they have the right answer. And it cultivated so much doubt and humility inside me, seeing how grey the world is. It’s all about points of view and perspective – on which side of the fence you are standing. As a filmmaker I have a responsibility to try my best to bring that complexity, and to build bridges. I don’t like black-and-white. I don’t like the way the world is brought to the public by politicians right now. Polarisation is dangerous. I like complexity and dialogue, yeah.
With its evocations of Greek myth and of Lawrence of Arabia, and its protagonist who can see into the future, Dune seems as interested as, say, your previous films Enemy and Arrival were in the collapsing of time and the circular repetitions of history. Is this how you see your role as an artist: to present, in the myths you realise on screen, echoes of past, present and future, and to reflect who we are and how little we change over endless transfers of power?
I’m deeply obsessed by the idea that we can change, that we can evolve as human beings, the idea that we are struggling with the burden of genetics, education, family, the past, politics, religion – all the influences as a human being. Really, I think that these movies have that in common: this quest to free the soul from that heritage and this relationship with the past. That’s what brings me hope for humanity as well: I think we can evolve. But if we are not aware of it, we are condemned. Hell is repetition.
How much do you see your Dune as looking back millennia to our own imminent future of harsh climatic conditions and depleted resources? Is this an environmentalist call to arms?
When Frank Herbert wrote the novel in the ’60s, he was inspired by the new current of ecology where people were trying to use nature to control nature. He was into the idea that the salvation of humanity could be by a dance with nature instead of the domination of nature, and there was already a seed of that in the novel that is very important. It was written 60 years ago, but he was already foreseeing the forces that were about to clash together between extreme exploitation of natural resources and climate change.
You know, Roger Deakins and I sometimes talk together and say, ‘My god, it’s like we are getting closer to [Blade Runner] 20fucking49.’ It’s crazy! I always saw one of the ideas behind making this movie was to bring eyes back to the novel, and as a call to arms to the younger generation to react and to move forward to try and build a world where we are not into domination, but more into symbiosis with nature.
You shot Dune in IMAX, but there must have been conversations during the 2020 lockdown about releasing it direct to streaming. As you make a film, do you have to think about all these different formats of reception, or is your eye always on the biggest form, in this case the IMAX version? Do you lament what a grand interplanetary epic loses to the small screen?
Dune is very epic, but at the same time it’s an introspective movie. I mean, we are very close to a young man who is defining his identity, finding his space in the world and being in contact with a new environment, and the impact of the landscape and environment on his soul. Really early on, I remember talking with Greig Fraser, the cinematographer, and the first thing we talked about was IMAX, that this movie will need [IMAX]. That was my aim. It was to embrace the desert. Also, it was interesting to approach the desert in a more vertical way. We have seen the desert – very often, in my own films – as a landscape. I wanted to approach that landscape with a different scope, and be more epic and more immersive. So we designed the movie for IMAX right away, and it was the first time that I was shooting a movie on purpose knowing that some elements will be in IMAX and others will be in 2.35 in the movie, which was not something that we could decide in post-production.
It’s a new language, it’s a new way to create impact, to destabilise the audience, to create emotion on the screen. I deeply love it. I think IMAX is the future of cinema. I want to go full IMAX on the next movies that I do. I think it’s a very powerful format. And I think watching Dune on a TV screen or at home is, to use an analogy, like driving your speedboat in a bathtub, or trying to use a motorbike on your driveway. I mean, there’s no… you will never have have the real Dune experience if you watch it on the small screen. It’s a movie that has been designed, dreamed, thought, built and done for a full IMAX and widescreen experience, so I will not recommend watching this movie on a small screen. It’s like a waste of time for me.
Has there been discussion around continuing the story with Herbert’s subsequent novels? Or are you moving on to something completely different and putting this world behind you once you’ve completed your adaptations of the first novel?
Right now I’ve done half of a movie, and I have to finish for my mental sanity, and I think also for the audience we have to finish it. There will be a Dune: Part 2, and I can foresee making a Dune 3, which would be ‘Dune Messiah’ from 1969. That has a very powerful ground to make a very important movie. That’s like three movies. And those movies will take a very long time to make. But that was the initial movement, the initial dream: to make a kind of trilogy. After that, we’ll see where we go.
Published 19 Oct 2021