French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, 54, has been nominated for an Oscar and BAFTA and is best known for directing science fiction movies Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival.
Now, he’s taking on his biggest challenge – bring Frank Herbert’s epic ‘unfilmable’ novel Dune to the big screen. Filmed for IMAX with an hour of footage shot specifically for the expanded format, Dune is in cinemas and IMAX now, but's it only Part One of the story. With screenwriters Jon Spaights and Eric Roth, he's split the massive 1965 novel — often called the Lord of the Rings of science-fiction — into two parts.
Part Two as yet to be officially greenlit by the studio Warner Bros., but Villeneuve tells Yahoo work has already been done for the sequel by the art and production teams, but he's glad he didn't try shooting the two parts back to back like Peter Jackson did with his Middle Earth trilogies.
Read more: The many failed attempts to make Dune
"These movies are gigantic," Villeneuve told us this week. "Frankly, I don’t know how Peter Jackson did it."
We sat down with the filmmaker to talk about his latest epic.
David Lynch’s 1984 Dune was a legendary flop. Did you worry about taking on something with such baggage?
I will sound either a bit arrogant or stupid. It never bothered me. Why? Because I was seeing a movie. There’s a ton of things I’m reading, or great screenplays [that are] fantastic, but I don’t see the movie. I don’t feel it and I don’t know how to find my way.
I did Dune because I was seeing the path. When you make a movie, it’s like doing a tattoo on your face. It’s something you’ll have to carry the rest of your life, attached to your identity. Guillermo del Toro said something interesting, it’s not a filmography it’s a biography. [A movie] becomes a part of your journey. It’s a full commitment. Those voices didn’t exist inside me and if people were talking around me about that, I wasn’t listening. I didn’t care.
How did you make your design feel authentic to the book, but also fresh and new?
The idea was to go back to the images that I saw when I read the book first when I was a teen. I call them uncorrupted images, primal images. As you read a book, you make your own film. I was trying to go back to these images I’d seen before all the movies that have been inspired by the book.
I tried to avoid the references from the Internet, or references from other movies. There is so much beautiful artwork that has been made through the years. If you type Dune on Google, you will see a crazy amount. I wanted to try to go back to those old images.
In the beginning, I was alone with the storyboard artist and then another artist came on board. I wanted a very small unit… and time.
There is already a spin-off series planned and obviously you want to make Part Two. Not to mention all of Frank Herbert’s other Dune novels. Were you thinking about the ‘Dune universe’ when you started this?
I was focusing entirely on the feature film. Now I know the team that will design the [TV] series will be directly in contact with my designers. There will be a continuity all across the board to my great relief.
Read more: Dune TV spin-off announced
Of course, when I was designing the first one, we were thinking about what the second one could look like. There is a lot of artwork that has been done. Patrice [Vermette] was on fire, my production designer. He almost designed both movies.
There’s already work that’s been done for Part Two.
But you did initially want to shoot both movies back-to-back?
Yes, that was my first idea… I suggested to shoot two parts back-to-back, [but] it was too expensive. Because of the nature of the source material, the reputation of the book [it was like], ‘okay, let’s do one, see what happens.’
Frankly, I’m grateful it happened this way. Shooting in the desert, the shoot was exhausting. [The film shot in Wadi Rum, Jordan, and Liwa Oasis in the United Arab Emirates]. My team and I were very tired when the shoot finished and I think it would have been pretty exhausting to try to do another. These movies are gigantic.
Frankly, I don’t know how Peter Jackson did it.
But have you contemplated the idea that you might never actually get to make Part Two?
I thought about that. I remember doing some shots sometimes, saying to myself, if it’s my last movie, or if I do only one, I will put enough of my own dreams and desires on the screen. I remember doing specific shots saying, I’m doing that right now, at least I will have done that.
Watch the trailer for Dune
Of course, it would be strange for me to stop right now, but I’m at peace with it. If someone tells me that’s it, I would be sad, but I would not be destroyed.
This may seem like a strange question, but watching it, we thought you had a secret celeb cameo in there. The voiceover of the videos Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) watches sounds an awful lot like Bill Nighy?
[Laughs] You’re the first one asking me this question. The truth is, I did a temp [track] with someone and I loved it so much. I was so much in love with the voice and the way this person was doing the voice that I asked his permission to use his voice. It’s the voice of my editor, Joe Walker.
I was looking for a voice like the old documentaries by the BBC that I was watching as a kid. There’s something so soft and warm in his voice, so gentle the way he described things. The plan was to re-record it, but everyone agreed it was great.
You’ve recently talked with Chloé Zhao (Nomadland) about how you want a kind of ‘IMAX Club’ where filmmakers come together to make sure their films are seen on the biggest screen possible. Has anyone else signed up?
Chloé and I are dreaming about something like that. We had some conversations about the big screen and how to take care of the theatrical experience as filmmakers. It’s in talks…
I cannot comment, I will just say that I deeply love Chloé Zhao, I love her enthusiasm.
There are reports the film has already been pirated – how does that make you feel?
When you watch something without paying, you steal something. It’s like going in the store and stealing shoes, it’s the same thing.
Dune is in IMAX and cinemas now. Watch a behind-the-scenes look at the film below.