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Storyboarding 'Dune' since he was 13, Denis Villeneuve is 'still pinching' himself

Rebecca Ferguson is Lady Jessica, mother to Paul Atreides,  in <em>Dune: Part Two.</em>
Niko Tavernise
/
Warner Bros. Pictures
Rebecca Ferguson is Lady Jessica, mother to Paul Atreides, in Dune: Part Two.

After much anticipation and delay, Dune: Part Two is in theaters March 1. It's been a long time coming for Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who remembers reading Frank Herbert's 1965 sci-fi novel Dune for the first time when he was 13.

"The idea that a boy finds home in another culture, that he feels comfortable in a foreign country — that really moved me at that time," Villeneuve says.

As a kid, Villeneuve dreamed of making Dune into a movie. He and his best friend would write and draw stories from the book. Then, in 1984, David Lynch's adaptation of Dune came out, and Villeneuve felt excited — but also slightly unsatisfied.

"There were some choices that were very far from my sensibility," he says. "I remember watching the movie, saying to myself, someday someone else will do it again."

Villeneuve went on to become a filmmaker himself, with a string of successful hits, including Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 and Sicario. He was drawn to science fiction, which he describes as a "very poetic way" to digest and explore reality.

Throughout his career, Villeneuve kept expecting someone to revisit Dune — he just never imagined he would be the filmmaker tasked with the project.

"I'm still pinching myself," he says, of making Dune: Part One, which came out to critical and commercial success in 2021, and now Dune: Part Two.

Villeneuve describes Dune: Part One as a meditative film, centering on Paul Atreides, a young man (played by Timothée Chalamet) who finds himself stranded on a strange planet after his father is murdered by a rival family. In Dune: Part Two, the character becomes more active, taking control of his own destiny. "The second movie was meant to be more of an action movie," Villeneuve explains.


Timothée Chalamet and Denis Villeneuve confer on the set of <em>Dune: Part Two.</em>
Niko Tavernise / Warner Bros. Pictures
/
Warner Bros. Pictures
Timothée Chalamet and Denis Villeneuve confer on the set of Dune: Part Two.

Interview highlights

On why he prefers as little dialogue as possible

If I could've made movies without any dialogue, it would have been paradise. Dialogue for me belongs to theater or television. I'm not someone who remembers movies because of their lines. I remember movies because of their images, because of the ideas that unfold through images. That's the power of cinema. For me, it's not about dialogue. I hope one day I will be able to make a movie with as little dialogue as possible. That's why silent movies were so powerful and ... still today, the best movies. Normally, a great movie — you should be able to watch it without sound. And that's the ultimate goal.

On the complications of shooting in the desert with hundreds of crew members

The heat was our enemy. I mean, there was a period of time in the middle of the day where it was the soup mode, you felt that your brain was cooking.

The heat was our enemy. I mean, there was a period of time in the middle of the day where it was the soup mode, you felt that your brain was cooking.I had to bring the crew away from the sun in the middle of the day. ... I wanted to shoot the movie as much with natural light as possible. We shot exclusively with natural light in the desert, which meant that, in order to make no compromise aesthetically, it drove my first assistant crazy because it meant that you had to, according to sun positions, deconstruct the whole shooting schedule according to the sun's position. And that was for my senior cinematographer and for the actors [and I] quite a crazy puzzle.

"I was in love with the idea that you could know the presence of the sandworms just by seeing suddenly the landscape shifting in the distance," <em>Dune</em> filmmaker Denis Villeneuve says.
/ Warner Bros. Pictures
/
Warner Bros. Pictures
"I was in love with the idea that you could know the presence of the sandworms just by seeing suddenly the landscape shifting in the distance," Dune filmmaker Denis Villeneuve says.

On figuring out how to portray the desert tribespeople known as the Fremen riding sandworms

I was in love with the idea that you could know the presence of the sandworms just by seeing suddenly the landscape shifting in the distance. You didn't hear [anything], but just suddenly a sand dune appeared. I absolutely love how it's more frightening not seeing the beast than actually seeing it. Jaws was a very important reference for the sandworm.

This moment where someone rides a sandworm, it's a very important moment in the book, but it's kind of suggested. ... [But it's] quite vague how you actually get on the worm. So that was one of the first things I had to do [was] decide how I will make this believable. ... First of all, I had to decide to think about the behavior of the beast. For me a sandworm is a powerful creature, but it's a very shy creature ... it's a creature that doesn't want to be at the surface ... a creature from the underground. It wants to expose itself as little as possible. ...

I studied extreme sports, like people who are jumping on skis ... or a motorbike racer. And so I designed the way someone could jump on a worm. I did the diagrams, and I explained that to the crew. [It] was like a seminar where I explained to my crew how to ride the sandworm.

On the sandworm riding scenes requiring their own film unit

I didn't want to make any compromises. I wanted to be as real as possible. And in order to do that, we had to use the most powerful tool that we had in our hands, which is natural light. It meant that this sequence would be shot over the course of many weeks. In order to do so, I had to figure out a way to split myself, because if I had [filmed] that worm ride myself, I would still be shooting right now. So it meant that I would need to be at two places at the same time. I was directing my main unit [and] there was what we called a worm unit. ... That was the most difficult thing for me to do. Because cinema is an act of presence. I'm used to working with one camera at a time. I'm very old fashioned in that regard. And [having] to split myself in two was the most difficult thing I've ever done.

On how Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Duel inspired him to become a filmmaker

There was always a name attached to these movies and this name was Steven Spielberg. And then I started to be more interested about what it meant to be a director. At 13 years old or something like, absolutely fascinated by the idea of, the power of, the tool of the camera. I didn't have any camera in my life, but I was fascinated. There was something so romantic, so powerful about making movies. I became obsessed with the idea of [becoming a] filmmaker

Heidi Saman and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Sam Briger