Interview: Denis Villeneuve on the legacy of ‘Dune,’ casting Timothée Chalamet and the future of cinema
Denis Villeneuve is more humble than you might think for a filmmaker about to release one of the most anticipated films of not just this year, but of last year.
Although his career of late has been stacked with huge space epics, he cut his teeth on intimate, female-driven dramas before bursting onto the scene with 2010’s Incendies, which was nominated for the (then called) Foreign Language Film Oscar representing Canada.What he’s never lost is that intimacy. Through Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario and into his sci-fi era of Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 and now Dune, Villeneuve is merging the experience of his early career with the confidence and ability (“I would have never been able to do Dune 15 years ago,” he says) to pull of what others have failed to achieve.
For his newest epic, Villeneuve directed and produced Dune (Part One) from a screenplay by Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth and himself based on the sprawling novel of the same name written by Frank Herbert. The film stars Academy Award nominee Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Academy Award nominee Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, Chang Chen, David Dastmalchian, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Academy Award nominee Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa and Academy Award winner Javier Bardem.
From David Lynch’s esoteric 1984 take on the material to the 2000 television miniseries (and its 2003 follow-up) or the failed version from Alejandro Jodorowsky, no one has quite been able to capture both the scope and the intimacy of Herbert’s expansive tome until now. Villeneuve’s astute attention to detail and unique visuals have established him as one of the premier filmmakers working today and make him one of the few directors ready to take it on and have the financial backing and technological breakthroughs to do it.
A mythic and emotionally charged hero’s journey, Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides (Chalamet), a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, who must travel 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 in existence—a commodity capable of unlocking humanity’s greatest potential—only those who can conquer their fear will survive.
I sat down with Villeneuve last week during the Mill Valley Film Festival where he received the fest’s Spotlight Award. We talked about the weight and responsibility of such a project, why his wife and executive producer Tanya LaPointe is his rock, how Timothée Chalamet was the only choice for Paul Atreides and the future of cinema as he sees it.
Erik Anderson: I just saw the movie yesterday and it was incredible, in Dolby Atmos too.
Denis Villeneuve: Yeah, thank you. Thank you.
EA: There’s really nothing like this year. How does it feel to finally have it be seen by audiences and in theaters, no less?
DV: Listen, it’s a massive relief and it feels like, in the current time, a victory. For me, it’s like a victory on the virus. I remember the festival in Paris when we had those two first screenings, sitting in audience, we’re seeing the movie, I was like, “Oh, thank you, gods of cinema. Finally, we are back.” And I insisted that everybody will watch the film. There would be no links available. It would be just in a movie theater. The movie was really designed, dream shot, to be seen in a movie theater. When Greig Fraser, the cinematographer and I, we designed the film, it was really like a love letter for the theatrical experience. Having those conversations, saying it needs to feel like something you see in the… Because it’s a movie about landscapes, about the impact of the desert on somebody’s psyche. So it’s like you need to have the most immersive experience. And then the pandemic hit. It was very cynical. So yeah, it feels great right now. And I thank you very much having taken the time to watch it in the theater.
EA: Absolutely. And speaking of the time between last year and this year, has that extra year given you time to fine tune it or has that been a good or a bad thing?
DV: When the pandemic hit I was deep into visual effects. I was planning to do some little additional shooting that I wanted to do that was planned. So it was really something that cut the grass under our feet, do you know what I mean? And the way we deal with it is, and I’m so grateful that Legendary had this attitude, which is, “Instead of running, we will walk.” They said to the producer, “You’ll have just more time to finish the movie and instead of rushing it, we will…” And I think that the movie frankly benefited from that time.
EA: I think so, too. It’s one of the most beautiful looking, completed films. Oftentimes if you’re watching something epic with a lot of visual effects, you start looking for things, cracks, and there’s nothing, there are no imperfections.
DV: Thank you, it’s like we had the time to really finish every shot as I was wishing. And it gave us more time for our music too. And everybody had more time to think and it meant that the roots of our ideas were deeper. If such a thing makes sense in English?
EA: Yes, I completely understand. I’d love to talk about the casting for a bit and why Timothée Chalamet was the perfect choice for Paul Atreides.
DV: Well, first of all, I was looking for an actor that will have the strength to carry this movie on his shoulders in that we wrote Dune focusing on Paul. Of course the book is about Paul but there’s a lot of other characters. And I tried to really stay as close as possible to Paul’s experience so I needed a strong actor. And right now, today, I will say that Timothée Chalamet is a talent like you see every decade. He is by far one of the best actors of his generation. And he had several qualities that I was looking for. First, he looked very young. There are some shots when you look at the movie, specifically at the beginning, when he looks like 14-years old. He looks so young. And that was very important because in the book we are talking about a young man of 15-years old, 16-years old character that has a lot of maturity. Very mature, but very young. And that Timothée indeed has.
He has also beautiful aristocratic features and he also has the charisma of a rock star so the camera loves him. I need that charisma because later on if ever we do Dune Part Two, the audience will need to believe that this guy has enough charisma to fool the whole planet and bring them into war. And yeah, he was just perfect, dead perfect, for the part.
EA: I couldn’t agree more. Yeah, he does have that place where he can exist in this man-boy look and charm and…
DV: Yeah. Yeah, I needed someone that you understand that it’s going from a boy to a young man. And Timothée, he is at the time in his life when we can embrace that range.
EA: Exactly. It’s funny; while I was sitting in the waiting room before our interview, your wife, Tanya [Lapointe], followed me on Twitter and I already had a question specifically about her, which was really kind of wild. She’s an executive producer on Dune and has worked her way up through Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. I want to ask how is it working with your spouse and what does she bring to the projects?
DV: I would say that it’s very uncommon that people ask me a question about her and I’m very pleased that you do, it means a great deal. I will say that Tanya is a rare talent. She’s someone that came from a background of journalism, art world because she was known in Canada to be one of the best journalists regarding culture. That’s how we met. And for several reasons she wanted to change career; she has always been very attracted by the idea of being part of the filmmaking process. She’s a very, very hard worker and she became fundamental to my creative process because she’s someone that… She’s my rock. She’s my ground. She’s a reference for me. She has a lot of wisdom and she’s a force of nature. So as a producer, she definitely helped me to bring my visions to life, mainly with organizing with the crew and everything. She’s essential to my film process now.
Okay, I gave you a long answer. I will give you a shorter answer. I would have not been able to do Dune without her. That’s the truth. Because she is there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, helping me to bring my vision to life. She’s my most precious ally, I would say.
EA: That’s really beautiful. Speaking of vision, I was going to just jump right off of that and ask when you’re managing cult material like Blade Runner or Dune, where is the line for you between fan service to the material and your own vision for it?
DV: But the thing is that my vision will necessarily come to the surface because I am who I am. But the goal with Dune was… I kept saying to the crew that we were not there to express ourselves but to try to bring Frank Herbert to the screen. We always went back to the book, the description to the book. I had the arrogance and the pretension to dream… I wanted the hard core fan, like I am one of them, to feel that we think through their mind as if they were reading the novel. It’s very arrogant, but that was the goal. To try to be as close as possible to the spirit of the book. But again, it’s probably one of my most personal movie, if not my most personal film, because it’s deeply linked with the part of me that I’ve been living with since 40 years. That teenager that read the book 40 years ago and I loved it so much that I spent four years of my life trying to bring it to the screen.
EA: Tell me a little bit about, because we know this is part one and part two is coming, about-
DV: I hope it’s coming.
EA: I hope it’s coming too. We all hope it’s coming. About your decision of where to end this and how that gets decided?
DV: Jon Spaihts and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where to finish the first part. And then there was a strong temptation to, because there’s a time jump in the book, and at first we said, “It’s very simple. We’ll just back jump.” But then what happened is that when Paul and Jessica meet the Bremen, then it really felt like the beginning of a new chapter, the beginning of a new story. Then trying to get accepted by the Bremen, and then learning the Bremen ways then. And so what happened is that when we wrote the script is that when we were finishing the movie a bit later, we were feeling like suddenly after two hours and a half, we were starting a new story. And that felt unbearable and that felt rushed and I felt unfair for the book.
So once we find a way to finish it, where it’s finished for now we both felt that we were talking right. I think it’s great that when the movie finished people are wishing to see more. The opposite would be a disaster. I will say that I am aware that it finished and then you wish to see what’s happening after, but that’s the nature of the story and that means that we did our job right. That’s the truth.
EA: What is the main goal that you want to then accomplish in adapting the rest of the novel for part two?
DV: By giving justice to the book. In a way, in doing part one, we set the table. We invited the audience to discover a new world. The goal in part one was to make sure that people will be hard core fan of the book, will recognize the elements or the color or the sensation or the poetry of the book. But at the same time that people who knew nothing about the book would feel welcome. I wanted the movie to be for everybody. And that was the main challenge of part one. Now in part two that job has been done. The table is set. So I think that part two will be a movie that will probably be more cinematic and be more fun to do because I would like to deal less with the moment of education to understand what this world is about. Yeah, that is what I say.
EA: Yeah. No, I understand that. Your film trajectory over the last five years has gotten bigger and more epic and larger in scope. Is there still a place in your future for Prisoners or Enemy or something like that?
DV: The truth is that I have no career plan. I would say that the only thing that drove me through the years is inspiration and also I would always be careful to do a project that I was feeling that I was ready to do technically. I would have never been able to do Dune 15 years ago. I would have died. Doing it, it’s like I needed it… Right now I have the energy to do big projects and those projects require a lot of stamina, a lot of energy. I have that energy now. Maybe later I will go back to smaller projects.
EA: Denis, I have a confession. I kind of had a slight ulterior motive with that question because I wanted to ask about Jake Gyllenhaal. Is [the limited series] The Son in a pre-production?
DV: (laughs) It’s not in prep yet, but it’s definitely in the writing process and it’s very exciting. The screenwriters are insane and it’s a very exciting project. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I would deeply love to work with Jake again. Frankly, I’m a hundred percent positive that I will work with… Jake is a close friend, but he’s also one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with by far. And I think that I cannot wait to be with Jake in a room with a camera. Yeah, but I have an idea. I have a great idea.
EA: So just one final question and it’s a small question. What is the future of cinema to you? What does it look like?
DV: Big screen. I think that the cinematic experience, the theatrical experience, is deeply linked with the language. I think that as humans, we need communal experience. We need to share emotions together. We need to feel that we are one together, emotionally, sometimes and there’s something about… And I think that there’s nothing like the theatrical experience to bring that feeling. And I believe totally in theaters.
EA: Excellent. Denis, thank you so much.
DV: Thank you. Great questions. That was really interesting.
Dune will be in theaters from Warner Bros in 2D, 3D and IMAX and on HBO Max October 22.