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It was the eyes that drew Denis Villeneuve to “Dune.”
Long before he’d decided to become a filmmaker, he was just a teenager browsing a bookstore when he spotted the cover of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel. But it wasn’t a hard sell for the biology obsessed 14-year-old who had already learned that science fiction was a way to dream on a grand scale.
Then he read it and was mesmerized by the poetic, atmospheric story of a young man’s heroic journey that dealt with religion, politics, destiny, heritage, the environment, colonialism and giant space worms.
“It became an obsession,” Villeneuve, 54, said.
And it was just the beginning of a decade-spanning dream that is finally coming to fruition as his own version of “Dune” makes its way to North American theaters Friday.
Villeneuve is not the first filmmaker who has dared to fantasize about making “Dune,” but he’s the first to see his vision realized in a way that might satisfy both fans and novices. For a book that has inspired so much science fiction over the past 50 years, from “Star Wars” to “Alien,” filmed adaptations have proved difficult. First there was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s near-mythic movie slash 14-hour event that would have starred Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson and Salvador Dalí (chronicled in the 2013 documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune”). Then David Lynch’s swing was a critical and commercial flop when it was released in 1984.
“Dune” seemed cursed until producers Mary Parent and Cale Boyter acquired the rights through Legendary and found out that Villeneuve, who had established himself as a filmmaker with that rare ability to make large scale films that are cerebral and commercially viable, was a lifelong fan. Plans were set in motion to try to make “Dune” once more — with a $165 million production budget.
“My movie is not an act of arrogance,” Villeneuve said. “It’s an act of humility. My dream was that a hardcore fan of ‘Dune’ would feel that I put a camera in their mind.”
The book was his bible and compass throughout the process. He kept it close on set so that the spirit of it was always nearby and encouraged his crew and cast to read it closely as well. And he wasn’t daunted by the outsized expectations. He’s the one who made a sequel to “Blade Runner” after all (although that is a whole different story and one that he still thinks was a bad idea even though he’d do it again in a heartbeat).
“I will not say ‘Dune’ is an impossible task. I think it’s a difficult one,” Villeneuve said. “Creativity is linked with risk. I love to jump in with no safety net. It’s part of my nature.”
Part of that difficulty was homing in on a film that would appeal to die-hards and newcomers. The first step was convincing the studio that he’d need two films to complete the story. Although they agreed, the second has yet to get the official “go.”
He and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth simplified the structure to focus on Paul Atreides, the young aristocrat whose family takes control of the dangerous, desert planet Arrakis, home to the universe’s most valued resource, as an intergalactic power struggling between ruling families heats up. He had only one name in mind for the part: Timothée Chalamet.
“There’s not a lot of actors like Timothée in the word,” he said. “Timothée has an old soul. For a young man of his age, he has a really impressive maturity. At the same time, Timothée looks really young on camera.”
And there’s that “rock star” charisma that would lend credence to his evolution into a messianic figure that “will lead a world into chaos.”
The film is packed with lauded actors, including Rebecca Ferguson as Paul’s mother and Oscar Isaac as his father. The movie also has Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Javier Bardem, Charlotte Rampling, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Zendaya, whom he led on a globetrotting journey to Hungary, Jordan, Abu Dhabi and Norway.
“I’ve been in these adventure films that really try to add a lot of emotion. But there’s something that is so poetic in the way that Denis approaches this massive film and the scale of it,” Isaac said. “Even if there’s explosions, even if there’s giant worms, he’s just always looking at it through his poetic lens, which for me is totally, totally unique.”
It was especially important to be in the desert to film the Arrakis scenes, which meant harsh conditions and sand getting, well, everywhere. But it was vital to do it on location.
“It would have been impossible to do on the stage or on a backlot,” Villeneuve said. “Maybe I’m too old fashioned but that’s the way I work.”
“Dune” was originally slated to come out last year before the pandemic upended most theatrical releases. Villeneuve used that time to his film’s advantage.
“It was very nice for me to have the chance to let the movie sleep a little, coming back to it, sizzle it,” he said. “If people don’t like the movie, I have no excuses because I had the time to do it and the resources.”
But as welcome as the added time was, the pandemic also led to the decision to release all of Warner Bros. 2021 slate simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. Villeneuve responded at the time with a strongly worded open letter that ran in the trade publication Variety, that wasn’t just about his film but the implications for the future of cinema.
Ten months later, the pandemic is still going and the release strategy has held its course, even as theatrical attendance ramps up.
“We are in a pandemic and that reality is twisted right now, and I totally understand if people can’t go to the theater or people are afraid of the theater. I respect that and that’s the priority. Health is the priority,” Villeneuve said. “But the movie has been made, designed, dreamed to be seen on a big screen.”
The film has made $129 million so far during its international roll out. Now comes the test of the North American audience, who will have the option to go to the theater or watch it on HBO Max. Hanging on the line is the sequel — or, more accurately, the conclusion to the first film.
“I don’t know when it’s going to be decided, but it will come down to if the movie generates enough enthusiasm, if there’s enough passion about it. We’ll see. I’m at peace with that. I hope there will be a Part 2,” he said.
Villeneuve’s grateful that he gets to show the world at least part of what he’s been dreaming about for almost 40 years.
“I had the time of my life making ‘Dune,'” Villeneuve said.
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