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Interview: Denis Villeneuve Talks ‘Dune’, Assembling The Cast, Hans Zimmer’s Score, Hopes For Part Two & More

Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated film Dune is almost here. And Although it doesn’t hit theatres until October, it has already started making its wave across film festivals. You can expect a review from us during TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), but for now, we have a special chat with Villeneuve himself. 

Earlier this week, a group of journalists had the chance to attend a screening of Dune followed by a small exhibit with costume and behind-the-scenes photos from the set. We also had a chance to do a roundtable interview with Villeneuve to discuss what it was like bringing the book to life.

Check out the interview with Denis Villeneuve below:

Denis Villeneuve and Timothee Chalamet on the set of Dune.
Director Denis Villeneuve and Timothee Chalamet on the set of Dune. (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

What was it like breaking the first book into two parts and when do you think you would be ready to film the second part?

Villeneuve: When you make a move into parts, necessarily, when you do the first part, you have to know what you’re going to do in the second part. I mean, it has been structure, it has been a dream, it has been mostly designed in a way that there’s a lot of elements that are so I would say that I will be fairly ready to go quite quickly now. We are talking about months. If there’s enthusiasm and the movies are greenlit,  I will say that I will be ready to shoot in 2022 for sure. 2022 for sure.  I would love it because I am ready to go. And I will say that I would love to bring it to the screen as soon as possible. But we know the first thing that really had time to make sure that it was exactly the way I wanted it to be. And I would love to have the same feeling when I make the second part. So that would be the priority. More quality will be the priority.

One of the things that really struck me about the movie, also as a fan of the books, is just how truly alien and otherworldly it is. It’s not like your movies we’re used to. Obviously, you had the book as inspiration for some of the designs of the ships and the costuming, but what were other major inspirations for creating such an alien world?

Villeneuve: I said to my crew at the beginning,  ‘I would love for you guys to stay as much as possible from the internet, I would love you to meditate, I would love you to dream. I would like this movie to come from inside us, not from other influences outside. I would like for us to find our own path into our mind to try to bring something.’ We wanted to try to bring something new and there are a lot of sci-fi movies made before us, but we really wanted to try to be as close to nature as possible.

You know, to be frank, when I saw the very first Star Wars in 1977, my favourite scenes were the ones that felt the most natural; the one when we see the droids at the beginning. There was something about the strength of nature and I’ve been raised doing documentaries where nature is your most powerful. And I try to bring that in to do, strangely. I tried to do a sci-fi movie a bit like a documentary – using nature as a strong ally instead of fighting against it. 

I wanted to talk about the merge of music and the soundscape you’re going for or working with Hans Zimmer and how that came about and what you’re kind of looking to achieve with that.

Villeneuve: Right from the start, Hans was very, very ambitious, with the score, because it was like me, one of his oldest dreams. I remember he was the first person I talked to about making the adaptation. I remember having dinner alone with Hans, it was his birthday and we were alone in a Montreal restaurant. And I said Hans,  ‘I would love you to do the dual scoring’ and he said, ‘Denis this is my oldest dream. And I will say yes.’ But he said, ‘I’m just afraid that maybe it’s a very dangerous idea to tackle your oldest dream. But let’s try it.’ And the thing is, that for that he decided right from the start that he will not use any instrument that we could recognize. Mostly they will be like an instrument that either he will create himself or use an instrument in a way, trying to distort the sounds. We will not recognize the source and use as much as possible the power of female voices to enhance the idea of humility. That was so important to me and so important to Hans as well.

We both agreed that the sound design and the music should be blended, and right at the beginning of the conception, the music process, Hans and my sound designer worked very close together. It’s not like sound design was man-made on one side and the music on another, they all work together to try to bring this specific score to life. So, Hans will not be in competition with sound effects. You know, when you put Hans Zimmer on the score, it always takes a lot of space. So there was a way to try and find a balance with sound design, and it was a beautiful artistic dance between the sound and music. It was not ever a conflict, it was more design.

Dave Bautista as Glossu Rabban in Dune. (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

I’m curious, how did you approach bringing some of these more villainous factions in the movie like the Harkonnen and the Sardaukar to life from a narrative standpoint?

Villeneuve: The thing is that for me at the Sardaukar needed to be like soldiers that will have equipment, that will be designed to fight under any conditions. So they are at night astronauts. You can launch the Sardaukar army on any planet at any time, and they are ready to go in any kind of environment – this was the idea of their armor. It’s an exploration that we started to try to bring an idea of total artificiality, total disconnection from nature, a world that will be totally artificial, and badly about the exploitation of natural resources.

Thanks to my production designer, but he’s very much that push push push to make sure that I will be happy at one point with the result. It was like a long exploration to find a balance, and I will say that it was an old dream of mine to work with a world that will use only the colour black and do the exploration. I really love the Arrakis world, it’s so stinking beautiful. 

I think we’re already wanting to see the second part immediately and there have been talks of not only a part two, but whispers of a possible prequel or trilogy. Can you talk about your current vision for the future of the Dune

Villeneuve: I’m going to be very honest. The thing I envision is the adaptation of two books, Dune and Dune Messiah, that for me I said, ‘Okay, that I as a filmmaker, I know as a screenwriter, I know how to do this.’ So we decided to split the first novel in two. So now we have two or three movies – those movies are very long to make. So for my mental sanity, I decided to just dream about three movies. After that, because I am a big fan of all the novels, after that I see where I am. I want to focus on these three movies right now.

But by the way, I’m not dreaming about doing Messiah and now I’m focusing on launching a new part one, hoping that there will be a part two, and that that’s my main goal and that’s enough. I mean, doing the first one was by far the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. And I think that we were able to bring it to life because we all, me and the team, just did that for two and a half years. Full time, 24-hours a day, seven days a week, we were dreaming about Dune part one. That’s the way I make cinema. I cannot start to have a long term. I need to be there now. And not think too much about the future. 

Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, Zendaya as Chani, Javier Bardem as Stilgar, and Timothee Chalamet as Paul Atreides in Dune. (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Can you talk a little bit about assembling that cast? 

Villeneuve: I had a list, a secret list and most of the people that you are seeing on-screen were on that list. There was this amazing level of enthusiasm that the actors and actresses had with the book with the source material. There’s a lot of love for Dune out there, and it’s a project that really brought a lot of passion to the actor’s community. I remember sitting in Mary Parent’s office, and we were like, ‘Okay, who should play Paul?’ And both of us said, ‘It’s Timothee, it has to be Timothee.’ There was no plan B, that was true. I didn’t say that to Timothee, of course. But I wanted to for so many reasons. He was for me, Paul. For three days, he was the incarnation, the physical incarnation of what could be the most fantastic but polite release ever. 

And the next decision was to cast his mother, and Rebecca Ferguson came to mind because I was always mesmerized by what I was seeing on-screen. But then she had all the qualities I was looking for as an actress. And physically too, I felt that she looked like Timothee and there was something in her eyes. And I truly believe that she had that regal quality, that mysterious quality that she could bring all the complexity, all the layers, to one of the most complex characters. And in this story, I wanted an actor that would be able to bring all the layers upfront and to play with them. And it’s what I think is most probably the most difficult part to play.

Once I found my Jessica then my body relaxed, my soul relaxed, and we brought in Oscar Isaac. Oscar fit the description of the Duke when you read the book, it describes Oscar. So for me, I wanted to work with Oscar for a long time. And by the way, he sent me a text message one day saying, ‘Hey, by the way, I love Dune.’ It was an exhilarating, exciting process the casting on this movie, because there was so much enthusiasm coming from the acting side.

Zendaya as Chani in Dune. (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Can you talk about what it was like making it accessible for fans who maybe haven’t read the book versus being super faithful to the actual novel?

Villeneuve: That was the big challenge, my friend, that was the challenge. Because I’m me, I know the book, read the book – I don’t know how many times. It’s been beside my head for the past 35 years. But I had to make the movie for other people, people that were not familiar. So it’s how to introduce this world without being too didactic that it becomes like a lesson or that becomes almost like homework for the audience. So that’s where we had to find ways that will feel respectful to the book, but kind of a little bit different. So it’s all about choices, and sometimes tough decisions. It was not something that was done in five days. It’s something that evolved as we wrote the film and as I shot an edit. It’s something that evolves as a sculpture will evolve. And for me, it was a very fascinating filmmaking process that I really enjoyed from that space, to explore, to make sure that I would find the right path to tell that story, but it was not the path I found very quickly.

I love that you love nature. How did that come about? 

Villeneuve: I was raised in a small village. I was in a relationship with the horizon and the St. Lawrence River, and it was like that line and those massive skies. Skies that bring humility, you know? You’re so small as a human being and when you have that kind of horizon around you…and I was raised also by a grandmother that taught me to be mesmerized by nature, by a flower, by everything. It was something that I once asked her. I said, ‘Grandma, you go to church’ and she said to me, ‘I pray every time I’m in my garden. To be in relationship with the plants and nature, that’s where I feel the most power of others. If God exists, that’s where I feel this power.’

And that’s something I was a kid hearing as a true, sacred relationship with nature. It’s something that really mesmerized me and I became fascinated with biology. One of my favorite books is the book about the human body. I mean, that’s sci-fi, when you look at just what your brain does and do that and this with your finger. I mean, that’s where it’s biology. For me, it was like was one of my first biggest loves with cinema. And at one point, I had to decide where either I would become a biologist or a filmmaker. And it was really a very important moment in my life. And I just love nature, deeply at heart.

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune will hit theatres on October 22.

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