How Denis Villeneuve Turned Dreams Into Reality With ‘Dune'

“There’s a lot of ideas that came from dreams that are in the movie right now," says Denis Villeneuve, the Quebecois director of sci-fi blockbuster Dune.

Director/co-writer/producer DENIS VILLENEUVE and TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET on the set of Dune
Warner Bros.

Image via Chiabella James

Director/co-writer/producer DENIS VILLENEUVE and TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET on the set of Dune

“Dreams are messages from the deep.”

Before we get to Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya, giant alien sandworms, a brooding Oscar Isaac in full-on space zaddy mode, trip-inducing sand dunes, mystical mind-control tricks, or any of the other hallmarks of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s iconic sci-fi novel Dunebefore we get to the production company logos even—that’s the proverb that comes rumbling out of the dark, accompanied by a theatre-rattling drone courtesy of Hans Zimmer.

Dreams feature prominently in Villeneuve’s Dune, a galaxies-spanning epic tale of political intrigue as rival houses fight over the right to control Arrakis, home to a precious (and psychoactive) natural resource called “Spice” and locals known as the Fremen, all while a teenage lord (Chalamet) struggles to make sense of prophetic dreams that feel increasingly like flash-forwards, visions of a possible future yet to be revealed. (If that all sounds a bit like Game of Thrones-meets-Star Wars, it’s not a coincidence—both George R.R. Martin and George Lucas were heavily influenced by Herbert’s seminal sci-fi tome.)

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And it’s especially fitting, seeing as how it was a dream that led Villeneuve to make Dune in the first place. Talking to Variety in 2016 while in the midst of filming another major sci-fi feature, Blade Runner 2049, the Quebecois director mentioned Dune as a dream project, saying, “​​I’m always looking for sci-fi material, and it’s difficult to find original and strong material that’s not just about weaponry. A longstanding dream of mine is to adapt Dune, but it’s a long process to get the rights, and I don’t think I will succeed.”

Villeneuve was right; he didn’t get the rights. But the interview ended up catching the eye of someone who did: producer Mary Parent at Legendary Entertainment, who quickly reached out to the Oscar-nominated filmmaker.

“It was trying to find a balance between people who know nothing and the hardcore fan. That was not easy.”

Dune is the most beloved sci-fi novel of all-time,” Villeneuve told me when we spoke over Zoom, the day after Part I of his two-part vision for the book premiered at TIFF, pointing out that while Herbert’s book was a “true phenomenon” when it was first released in 1965, its themes—of colonialism, environmentalism, and prophets and messiahs—feel even more relevant today. “It’s a very powerful novel.”

Describing his approach to adapting the source material, Villeneuve makes it sound like he approached the text with the sort of reverence typically reserved for scripture. “It was almost like an act of humility to try to make sure that it will be very close to the atmosphere, the spirit of the novel,” he explained.

One of the first orders of business, then? Learning from those who came before him.

Herbert’s book has long been deemed “unfilmable”—a notion that wasn’t quieted any by David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation, which attempted to cram all 400-plus pages into a single movie, and was disowned by the director after bombing at the box office.

ZENDAYA as Chani in Dune movie

A decade earlier, Alejandro Jodorowsky had gone in the complete opposite direction, envisioning a 14-hour version of the bestseller starring Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. The wildly ambitious aborted production would go on to become the subject of the 2013 documentary, Jodoworksy’s Dune. After that, the project went to Ridley Scott, who’d planned to split the book into two halves, before dropping out to direct Blade Runner instead. (In a fun bit of coincidence, Villeneuve has done almost exactly the reverse, going from Blade Runner sequel to his own planned Dune two-parter.)

“I would not dare to say that I had prophetic dreams. I would be put in an asylum.”

The decision to divide Dune into two parts was a practical one, according to the director. Given the dense source material and all the world-building that comes with it, there’s simply too much story here to jam into one movie. As is, Dune Part I’s runtime clocks in at 155 minutes, or 18 minutes longer than Lynch’s single-serve option. And while the movie certainly gives audiences a satisfying character arc—following Chalamet’s Paul Atreides as he grows from young man to potential Chosen One—it’s very much intended to leave viewers wanting more. Villeneuve’s compared it to an “appetizer,” with Part II being the main course. And even though Warner Bros. hasn’t officially greenlit the sequel yet, preferring to take a wait-and-see approach, if all goes well, Villeneuve has told CBC Radio he would love to adapt Dune Messiah, the second of Herbert’s six Dune novels, to create a de facto trilogy.

TANYA LAPOINTE and Director DENIS VILLENEUVE on the set of Dune

It’s all in service of doing justice to the mind-expanding experience Villeneuve had as a kid growing up in Bécancour, Quebec devouring Herbert’s novels. “The idea was to try to make sure that the hardcore fans like me will feel that I almost put a camera in their mind as they were reading along,” he shared. “And at the same time, making sure that someone that knows nothing about the novel, someone who’s never heard of the novel, will totally embrace the journey, will understand what it’s about and will not feel lost in the complexity of it.” In other words, the same people who are just there for Dune’s thirst trap of a cast list.

“It was trying to find a balance between people who know nothing and the hardcore fan. That was not easy,” Villeneuve said of the main challenge he had making the film. While the director has called Dunehis “pop movie” in interviews and Warner Bros. is treating the property as a potential multi-part franchise, the end result is a meditative sci-fi movie that owes more to grandiose epics like Lawrence of Arabia than its modern blockbuster counterparts. Dune may have the extended runtime of a Marvel movie, but anyone expecting a swashbuckling space opera will be sorely disappointed. (Although, to be fair, Jason Momoa does make at least one quip about Chalamet’s muscle tone, or lack thereof).

TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET as Paul Atreides and REBECCA FERGUSON as Lady Jessica Atreides in movie Dune

Villeneuve’s ability to infuse blockbuster franchise filmmaking with more intellectual, arthouse-leaning sensibilities has made the Academy Award-nominated director Canada’s hottest directorial export—and Dune sees the filmmaker at the height of his powers.

His talent for making big movies about big ideas is what helped Villeneuve land this dream job in the first place, and he praised Legendary for empowering him to bring that vision to life, saying the company has a well-deserved reputation for putting filmmakers first: “That was at the very core of the process—to make sure that I will make this movie with people that will respect me and protect me.”

So, given the significant role dreams play in Villeneuve’s films—not just Dune, but his earlier ones as well – I asked the director if he experienced any revelatory dreams of his own during filming. “I would not dare to say that I had prophetic dreams. I would be put in an asylum,” he laughed. Still, Villeneuve admitted, “There’s a lot of ideas that came from dreams that are in the movie right now.”

“Meditation, awakened dreams, and real dreams are very important in the creative process,” he explained, comparing the process of making movies to translating one’s dreams into art. “We spend half of our lives dreaming, and dreams are a powerful message—a poetic message coming from somewhere that we still have difficulty to understand.”

Whether audiences receive Villeneuve’s message or not, we’ll have to wait and see. But for now at least, Dune represents a dream come true for the French-Canadian filmmaker.

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