Villeneuve: Dune (2021) | featured image
Timothée Chalamet in Dune (2021) | IMDB

Too Late to Be Afraid: Denis Villeneuve on ‘Dune’

Denis Villeneuve talks about how fear can “mind kill” directors. But creating the epic Dune for cinema wasn’t scary at all — that’s just creative pressure.

Denis Villeneuve
Warner Bros.
22 October 2021

Dune has been a notoriously difficult story to bring to the big screen despite the eminent popularity and rabid fanbase of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel. Chilean auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ambitious, ill-fated take on a Dune film never came to fruition due to the sheer scope of his concept – a 14-hour film was proposed, a jaw-dropping concept even by today’s standards, let alone back in 1975). And David Lynch’s Dune (1984) felt incomplete at best and, at the admittance of Lynch himself, didn’t do the original story, or his own vision, justice.

But when Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) was approached in 2016 by Legendary Entertainment to direct his own Dune, he wasn’t nervous or scared – he was supremely excited. Despite Dune earning a reputation as a “cursed” and even “unfilmable” adaptation over the years, Villeneuve felt confident that he could do the novel justice, simply because he loved Herbert’s masterpiece so deeply.

“It stayed beside me, and it has deep roots to my heart,” Villeneuve says of the novel, in an exclusive interview with PopMatters. “Every time I open it, I have the same joy, the same appetite to read it. I’m still mesmerized, I’m still seduced, I’m still deeply moved. I knew that it would be difficult, but I had a deep desire to do it,” he says.

“Fear is the mind-killer. It was too late to be afraid once I said yes to making Dune. I wasn’t thinking about what happened before with Dune [in the film industry].”

Villeneuve stresses that, while making Dune came with an enormous amount of pressure, he’s dealt with even greater pressure in the past. His 2009 film Polytechnique, a dramatization of a 1989 school massacre in his hometown of Montreal, covered serious, real-world subject matter and posed a much greater challenge emotionally.

“I had to take care of the families of the victims to make sure that I was respectful. That’s pressure,” Villeneuve explains. “When it comes to Blade Runner and Dune, that’s just artistic pressure.”

Still, the spotlight on Dune and Villeneuve is hot and bright, with legions of fans holding out hope that the film will finally bring Herbert’s classic to the cinema in the right way. From the arid, intoxicating expanse of Arrakis, to the political intrigue of the Great Houses, to the awesome desert power of Arrakis’ sandworms, the novel is notoriously complex and, to some, impenetrable to the casual reader, swirling with big ideas and philosophical nuances. For Villeneuve and his team, their greatest challenge was to make their Dune feel accessible not just to impassioned fans of the novel, but also to wide audiences who may not be familiar with the story.

“We wanted to make sure that an audience that would have never read the book would feel welcome,” says Villeneuve. “I tried to make a movie that is as visceral as when I read the book when I was a teenager.

“For me, it’s a very intellectual book, but it’s visceral. I was connected to Paul’s journey, of course, because I was thirteen. I wanted to be Paul Atreides. I wanted to be that guy who was finding comfort and solace and making peace with a part of his identity, being in contact with that beautiful culture of the Fremen.

“I tried to focus on Paul’s emotional journey. That was the key to opening up the adaptation for us, to focus on Paul and his relationship with his mother.”

Stepping into the role of Paul is the surging Timothee Chalamet, who is arguably the hottest young actor on the planet at the moment. Villeneuve was thrilled to work with the Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017) star and expressed how pleased he was with the cast from top to bottom.

“Timothee is so charismatic. He is a rockstar,” beams Villeneuve. “I never got tired of putting him in front of the camera. No matter how people feel about the movie, one thing I know I did right was the casting. All of the characters are very close to the descriptions in the book, and I’m very proud of the cast.” Indeed, Dune 2021 boasts a roster of incredible talents like Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgard, and Oscar Isaac.

Beyond its compelling characters, Villeneuve’s film conveys the rich, textured world Herbert imagined in the pages of his novel. World-building, imagery, and sound are all treated with obsessive attention to detail by Villeneuve and his team, and the result is a film that is cinematically potent and awe-inspiring. The dazzling presentation is largely inspired by Herbert’s commitment to realism in his book, which to Villeneuve feels tangible and real.

“When Frank Herbert wrote the book, he was inspired by science, by biology, by observation of nature,” Villeneuve explains. “One of the things that amazed me when reading the books was how he created the beautiful ecosystem of Arrakis. It felt so real because it’s grounded in elements that come from reality.

“Mother nature is probably the main character of the book. I directed the movie following the same path as Frank Herbert, which is to put nature at the forefront of the design. Everything, from the architecture to the costume design, to the vehicles – everything was designed with the relationship to the ecosystem in mind.

Everything needed to feel real and obey the laws of nature, gravity, physics. Dune is fantasy, but I tried to bring it closer to science. I wanted it to feel familiar so that the drama and tragedy of the characters felt more grounded and visceral.”

To illustrate just how much love and care went into the film’s art design, Villeneuve cites the ornithopters, flying machines that operate more like birds or insects, with large, flapping metal wings in place of propellers. “I kept telling the design department that I wanted it to feel like if we opened a window, we could see one flying by,” Villeneuve says of the ornithopters. “I wanted it to look like a real flying machine, not some fantasy ship. We worked hard on that.”

Played by the great Stellan Skarsgard, Baron Harkonnen is one of the most imposing figures in the novel. It was important for Villeneuve to capture the Baron’s otherworldly grotesqueness.

“I wanted the Baron to look like a threat, to look like a menace,” says Villeneuve. “I wanted him to be frightening and not look like a caricature. My storyboard artist and I drew dozens and dozens of sketches to find that shape that would translate the emotion I was looking for. Once I found it, I knew that I had to put Stellan Skarsgard into that prosthetic suit that took eight hours to put on every morning.”

It was anything but a certainty that an actor of Skarsgard’s caliber would agree to sit still for eight hours while makeup artists heaved layers and layers of heavy prosthetics upon him to start his workdays. But luckily, the Swedish icon was more than willing to match Villeneuve’s commitment to make the Baron an unforgettable onscreen presence.

“When I called Stellan at first, he said to me, ‘How do you want to do it?’ There was a silence because I wanted to tell him the truth,” Villeneuve recalls. “And then I said, ‘Stellan, I would love to use prosthetics.’ And he said, ‘I’m in. That was my only condition, that I didn’t want to do CGI.’

“It was a lot of work, but it was the genius of the make-up artists. The first time I saw him, my jaw dropped. I loved the suit so much that I rewrote the first scene because my favorite costume for the Baron is when he’s naked. He looks so powerful. I created that steam bath scene because we had to introduce the character in all his glory.”

Fans of Villeneuve’s work can appreciate just how much his film’s sound design adds to the experience. Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 are both sonic powerhouses, with atmospheric soundscapes and chair-rattling booms that elevate those films to new heights. Dune is no different. According to Villeneuve, it was of utmost importance to him that the film’s sound design be an integral part of the production from start to finish as opposed to a rushed, last-minute phase of post-production.

“When I was doing indie movies, that was something I became really frustrated with,” says Villeneuve of his previous experience with sound design in his early work. “The sound design was coming at the very end of the filmmaking process and we had very little time to do it because of money, of course. We were screenwriting for years, shooting for a long period of time, editing for a long period of time. And then decisions for sound design were made very quickly and I remember being very frustrated by that. Sound is a big part of the theatrical experience. It’s a big part of cinematic language.”

Villeneuve decided that he would do sound design the way he thought would best suit his movies, by creating his films’ sonic language from early on in the filmmaking process. “For the past few movies I made, I was able to hire the sound guys to work on the movie as we started shooting. When my editor was starting to cut the movie, he was already aware of the nature of the sound, to get him inspired and help him cut the film.

“It’s not sound that is applied to the image at the end – it’s sound that dances with the image from the start. The sound is embedded in the DNA of the movie.”

Dune is undoubtedly going to be one of the biggest theatrical releases of the year, and Villeneuve knows that generations of fans eagerly anticipate his adaptation of Herbert’s work. Fans have lofty expectations and rightfully so, which means a lot is riding on Dune being really good. It’s part one of a two-part saga, and part two being green-lit fully depends on the success of part one. But as he was making his dream movie, Villeneuve wasn’t worried about satisfying the fans, or his studio, or even his crew.

“I was focused on pleasing one audience member, which was me,” he says. “I was trying to remember the emotions, the images. When I read the book when I was thirteen years old…

“I made contact with that teenager, who was an asshole [laughs]. I was very arrogant, very pretentious. A big dreamer. When I made Dune, I was trying to please that guy. I thought, if I could please that part of myself, then hopefully other hardcore fans would respect it.”