When Denis Villeneuve was a teenager living in Montreal, he was desperate to see David Lynch’s 1984 spectacular Dune. A huge fan of the source material – Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel, describing a political and spiritual battle of wills in a galaxy far, far away – he was ready for whatever the surrealist director threw at him. In the end, he left “half-satisfied”, mesmerised by the opening scenes but disappointed by an increasingly disjointed film that even Lynch rarely talks about in interviews. A box-office failure, Dune remains hugely divisive, even among the director’s loyal followers.
Now, Villeneuve, 54, has grasped the chance to make his own mark on Herbert’s book, the anticipation for which has swelled over the year-long pandemic-induced delay. “I felt there was still space to do something with my own sensibility,” he says. “It was not for me to compare or compete. I don’t have that arrogance. Lynch is a master. He’s by far one of the best filmmakers of the past 50 years. He’s one of the biggest masters. So it’s not in my mind [to compare their films]. It’s about that book that’s been by my bed for 40 years.”
Lynch’s effort, which starred Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides, the son of an aristocrat who journeys to the arid planet of Arrakis in the far-distant future, wasn’t the only failed attempt. In the Seventies, Herbert’s book defeated cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo), whose version with Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dalí never got off the ground despite the glory of such an insane cast. The less said about Frank Herbert’s Dune, the TV miniseries from 2000 with William Hurt, meanwhile, the better.
Villeneuve is no stranger to blockbuster sci-fi, having made Arrival (2016) with Amy Adams, and the 2017 sequel to Ridley Scott’s classic, Blade Runner 2049, a risky proposition he aced (even if the $259m box office didn’t thrill the studio). Both were dry runs for Dune, a book so rich, complex and lengthy that Villeneuve cleaved it in two. The film that thunders into cinemas next week only covers half the book; Villeneuve is praying it will make enough money to tempt studio backers Warner Bros to bankroll Dune Part II.
At the top of his cast, he has young, handsome, potentially bankable star Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) as the callow Paul, heir to House Atreides, the clan that has been put in charge of harvesting “spice”, a drug with remarkable properties that has become the most valuable commodity in the galaxy. What’s stopping them? Giant Sandworms that burrow under the surface of Arrakis, rising occasionally to consume all in their path.
The terrifying sight of the Sandworm alone, accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s ground-shaking score, justifies the price of a ticket to see Dune in IMAX. But as Chalamet says, Villeneuve’s film is far more than just heady visuals. “This is my impression,” says Chalamet, when I speak to the cast over Zoom at the Venice Film Festival. “It feels like an arthouse film in some moments; it feels like a spectacle like Lord of the Rings in some moments; and then sometimes, somehow, it feels intimate too.”
Certainly, the intimacy comes in scenes depicting Paul’s relations with his father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), his concubine mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and, later, Chani (Zendaya), a young warrior of the native Fremen people. Yet much of it came from Villeneuve’s spirit. “I felt like we were doing an independent movie,” says Spanish star Javier Bardem – which is all the more novel in a world of Marvel-fuelled excess – “because Denis will just go to you and ask you, or share with you his idea, what he proposes. And also let you go free and experiment and try your thing, try what you want to try, without the pressure of time, or without the pressure of money.”
There’s nothing like the theatrical experience
Bardem plays Fremen tribal leader Stilgar, joining the likes of Josh Brolin (as loyal House Atreides warrior Gurney Halleck), Jason Momoa (hotshot pilot Duncan Idaho) and Dave Bautista (ruthless enemy Glossu ‘Beast’ Rabban) to flesh out an impressively deep support cast. “Seriously,” says Chalamet, “without blowing smoke... people like Zendaya, Javier Bardem, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, who I was working with a lot up front, and Jason Momoa [were amazing].”
When Dune was first published in 1965, it was a sensation. “I know nothing comparable to it except Lord of the Rings,” remarked pioneering science fiction author Arthur C Clarke after the book was released. Winning awards and inspiring Herbert to write five sequels, the book has since gone on to become the best-selling sci-fi novel of all time – not to mention one of the most influential, including on the Star Wars saga (everything from desert planets to the relationship between Paul and Duncan was filched by creator George Lucas).
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Was it easy for Villeneuve to dissociate his version from the myriad movies that had borrowed from Dune? “So many people stole from it and took from it… I understand. It’s such an inspiring masterpiece,” the director says. “The only way to deal with that is to go back to the book. I kept the book very close to me and tried to stay true to its spirit.” Villeneuve deliberately stayed away from films that took from Herbert. “The influences in the movie are not sci-fi influences. I tried to go back to the visions I had as a kid when I read the book, and to stay true to those visions.”
Timothée Chalamet: ‘It feels like a spectacle like ‘Lord of the Rings’ in some moments; and then sometimes, somehow, it feels intimate too’
Over the years, Herbert’s book has become more prescient, dealing with issues of eco-catastrophe, religious conflict, and the dangers of messianic figures. “It just felt more and more and more and more relevant,” says Villeneuve. Chalamet, 23 when he shot the film two years ago, and seemingly undaunted by fronting his first major blockbuster, also tapped into themes of love and fear. “I think love is the opposite of fear, without sounding cheesy,” he says. “To be open-hearted. That litany of fear is so beautifully written [in Dune]. I wish we could ask Frank Herbert: ‘How? What was the origin of that?’”
The original book was penned amid Sixties counterculture and Vietnam war protests. “It is written by a guy who smoked a lot of pot and took several LSD trips, and who also had read Machiavelli and he covers so many subjects in this novel,” says Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård. “It’s not only about relations between mothers and sons, and fathers and sons… but it’s also about politics, tribalism, and the struggle between clans. It’s about colonialism; it’s about our relationship to nature, and how we are depending on nature, and how we destroy nature at the same time.”
Skarsgård, whom Villeneuve had wanted to work with ever since seeing him in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, is one of the standout performers, as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a corpulent villain who organises a coup against House Atreides. The character’s original look was going to be an armoured outfit, but Skarsgård insisted on silk pyjamas – a direct nod to Marlon Brando’s despotic Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. “That’s much more frightening,” says Skarsgård, “because you feel his physical presence and he’s so powerful he doesn’t need any armour.”
It’s just one of the many masterstrokes in Dune, which will surely consign Lynch’s noble failure to the cinematic landfill. The costumes alone saw Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan come up with over 1000 looks. The stunning desert footage, meanwhile, was shot in Abu Dhabi and Jordan (and with temperatures pushing 50 degrees, filming had to take place at dawn and dusk). “It’s like a dream, an ocean of sand,” notes Bardem. “And you feel very little, very humble, very limited. It puts you right where you belong as a species. You can worship nature even more when you’re in a place like that.”
Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in ‘Dune’
The minimalist sets are by Patrice Vermette, a production designer from Villeneuve’s native Montreal, who has worked with him four times previously, including on 2013’s Enemy and Prisoners, his first two English-language films. Nearly everything was practical, adds Chalamet. “I think I shot two scenes on a green screen, and they weren’t in front of me, they were behind me.” Even the big mural of the Sandworm featured in the Atreides residence was designed for real. “I asked Denis, I said: ‘Where’s that mural of the Sandworm? I hope it’s at your house!’”
If there has been any issue, it’s that in some territories Dune is being released simultaneously on Warner’s streaming service HBO Max. Like other filmmakers who found their work suddenly available for home consumption, Villeneuve was not best pleased. As he said in one interview: “Frankly, to watch Dune on a television, the best way I can compare it is to drive a speedboat in your bathtub.” He’s not against streaming – he uses the platforms regularly, he says. But? “There’s nothing like the theatrical experience.”
The cast are all desperate to reunite for the second part, especially those, like Bardem and Zendaya, who only visited the shoot briefly (with their roles liable to be more extensive in a sequel). “It will be very, very exciting to have the chance to do Part II and finally finish what I started,” says Villeneuve, knowing full well that shooting “half” a movie, effectively, without a definitive deal to get a follow-up made, is a gargantuan risk. “I think there was something interesting about that gamble,” he says. “I hope I will have the chance to do Dune Part II.” The fanboy campaign starts here.
‘Dune’ opens in cinemas on 21 October