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Denis Villeneuve’s whole career has been leading up to Dune

We spoke to the Quebec filmmaker about his epic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic, finally coming to theatres this week.

Ever since he was announced as the director of the newest version of Frank Herbert’s Dune, Denis Villeneuve has not been shy about saying that adapting the classic sci-fi novel has been a pet project for years, if not decades. This is never clearer than when you actually watch the film, which seems very synchronous with the themes and visuals of Villeneuve’s previous films. Sand billows ominously; family relationships are tested by unimaginable forces and evil is difficult to snuff out using only good intentions. If no one really thought Villeneuve wasn’t a good fit for the material, it’s perhaps difficult to imagine anyone else’s career seeming so naturally poised for Dune.

“I discovered the book very young, as a teenager, and therefore it’s a book that stayed with me all these years,” says Villeneuve. “It’s a book that was always in the echo chamber, in the sense that it had such an influence that it almost certainly coloured some of my other films. There has to be some thematic and aesthetic connection, 10 movies later — I’m the same person, so there are those kinds of links between the films. I’m the accumulation of my work, and to be asked that question is a compliment. When I make films, I think I can do my job well if I’m 1000% invested and if I feel at home in the story. I want to describe a universe that’s mine and develop a great deal of intimacy with the story I’m telling. It’s one of my most personal films — if not the most personal — because some of the themes and aspects are a big part of who I am.”

Denis Villeneuve directs Timothée Chalamet on the set of Dune
Denis Villeneuve directs Timothée Chalamet on the set of Dune

A complex space opera with young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) at the centre, Dune is one of the most read and discussed science-fiction novels in history — and even that means most people haven’t read it. A foundational text of genre literature, it more or less splits audiences into two categories: those who know, love and understand the source material, and those to whom Villeneuve’s film (or, perhaps, the 1984 version directed by David Lynch) will be the first foray into the world of spice, sandworms and the grotesque Baron Harkonnen. 

“On one hand, Dune is the most read science-fiction novel in history,” says Villeneuve, when asked about the potentially hermetic nature of adapting a work so beloved and yet so specific. “But on the other hand, you’re absolutely right. There’s an important core of fans that exists, but it’s not something that many people have as part of their general culture. I approached this adaptation with the idea that no one watching the movie had read the book. I’m fairly certain that the majority of the audience who’ll see the movie won’t have read the book. It was important to me, therefore, to transpose as much of the richness and complexity of the novel to the film without making neophytes feel like there was something missing. That was the biggest challenge, because I also wanted fans of the novel to find the ideas, the colours, the flavours and the feel of the novel in the film I had made. When you adapt a novel, there has to be a transformation. But the challenge is to find the balance between those two poles of the audience.”

Finding the balance means, in this case, keeping as much of the rich lore as possible, but also tweaking some of the elements. Chief among the changes that Villeneuve has made to the script revolves around the character of Baron Harkonnen, played by Stellan Skarsgård. Descriptions of the character (and the depiction of the Baron in the Lynch film) illustrate a grotesque, larger-than-life character; a massively obese, pedophilic villain with a pustule-laden skin. Villeneuve’s version of Harkonnen is scaled-down to more human proportions — just as nasty, but more Captain Kurtz than Jabba the Hutt. 

Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Harkonnen in Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve
Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Harkonnen in Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve

“There are lots of elements of the book that I think have aged dangerously well,” he explains. “There are things that are as powerful and modern today as they ever were. One of the elements that I felt was weaker and had not aged as gracefully was the depiction of the Baron. In the novel, he’s a bit of a moustache-twirling villain who talks and talks and talks to the point where he becomes something of a caricature. It was a more delicate matter when it came to putting that character on-screen. He was written in the ’60s, and there were things that were synonymous with villany at that time that would seem totally out of step today. 

“I wanted to give that character a little love, in the sense that I wanted to make him dangerous and malevolent but taciturn — someone who is immobile, but not grotesque. He’s a mass of muscles, filled with danger and potential violence. I wanted him to create fear. I thought the scarier the Baron was, the stronger the film would be. It was a lot of work to find his silhouette, because the Baron needs to have an important corporal mass, and it’s canon that he needs a transportation device in order to float around. What we found out at this step is that he could very easily look like a giant floating baby! I wanted him to look like a gorilla.”

Dune Cult MTL October issue cover
Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson on the cover of Cult MTL’s October issue

In more recent years, the cultural cachet of Dune has revolved mainly around the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which depicts the long and ultimately unsuccessful attempt by cult Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky to adapt the film into a wildly ambitious and psychedelic opus that would have starred Salvador Dali and boasted a score by Pink Floyd. Between this and the psychedelic, Hipgnosis-inspired artwork that reprints of the book were given through the ’70s and ’80s, one might expect Dune to be a headtrip — but apart from the booming score by Hans Zimmer (which includes a significant amount of what I can only call “lysergic bagpipes”), Villeneuve’s vision isn’t so trippy.

“I’d say that when Frank Herbert wrote the novel in the ’60s, he was very much inspired by the world around him and all of the social upheaval of the period,” he says. “It’s a portrait of the 20th century that makes some projections about the future, and many of those projections turned out to be accurate. I think the novel is even more relevant now than it was at the time. It’s painfully pertinent, these days; it predicted the future and some ideas that it put across have only become crystalized by time. I do agree that there’s a psychedelic influence to it, and we had a lot of fun with that aspect of the book during the making of this film. I think the sound of the film — and the music, particularly — is very psychedelic. When I approached Hans Zimmer about the soundtrack, I told him it had to sound like prog rock from the beginning of the ’70s, with these great operatic swells. We were inspired by those sounds — I’d say the film is coloured by it, but it’s a modern film by every standard.” ■

Dune opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct. 22. This column originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Cult MTL. 

Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve

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