A master of complex storytelling for the screen, visionary filmmaker Denis Villeneuve wanted to take audiences to places they’ve never been with Dune , just as the novel did for him as a young reader, tackling the daunting adaptation as director and co-writer with acclaimed screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth.
“I discovered the book in my teenage years and I remember being totally fascinated by its poetry, by what it was saying about nature—the true main character of Dune,” says French Canadian filmmaker Villeneuve , best known for having directed Blade Runner 2049, Arrival, Sicario, Prisoners and Incendies. His astute attention to detail and unique visuals have established him as one of the premier filmmakers working today.
While Villeneuve had seen Lynch’s adaptation of Dune and he respected both Lynch and the film, he does not expect to build upon any elements from that, saying that “I’m going back to the book, and going to the images that came out when I read it” when he was a teenager.
“At the time, I was studying science, I thought I could become either a filmmaker or a biologist, so the way Frank Herbert approached ecology in the book for me was so fresh, so rich, so poetic, so powerful. His view of nature was absolutely mesmerizing—all those beautiful ecosystems he created. His exploration of the impact and chaos caused by colonialism was a portrait of the 20th century that is still relevant today. And through all of this was a young man struggling with his identity, trying to find his way in the world, as I was doing myself. The way Paul discovers his identity through another culture was, for me, amazing.”
Villeneuve’s big screen adaptation fully immerses the audience in this profoundly moving story of Paul’s coming of age set against family rivalries, tribal clashes, social oppression and ecological disaster on the unforgiving, austere planet, creating a fantastical cinematic experience that is both epic and intimate.
Villeneuve did not want to incorporate concepts that Alejandro Jodorowsky had laid out for his attempt at a Dune film in the mid-1970s, as Villeneuve stated that “Jodorowsky is a very unique visionary. He has a very strong, unique vision. I am a totally different human being. It would be very presumptuous and arrogant for me to try”
With its awe-inspiring locations, momentous sets, thrilling action and compelling characters together comprising a gripping story of a young man’s coming of age in a world of social and political turmoil, Villeneuve and his many collaborators hope the film will have a wide appeal for both the fans of the novel and beyond, global movie audiences spanning nationalities, demographics and generations
“Dune, for me, is a love letter to the big screen. That’s the way it was dreamed, that’s the way it was designed, that’s the way it was achieved. But the story is too complex to be put into only one movie, so for me, as much a challenge as it was—it was by far the biggest movie I’ve ever made, the most challenging—‘Dune’ is an appetizer for the second part still to come, which is the main meal,” Villeneuve teases.
Planet Arrakis is a vast desert world of infinite horizons and desolate beauty. To capture Villeneuve’s singular vision, his creative teams—led by director of photography Greig Fraser and production designer Patrice Vermette—worked to capture as much in camera as possible. That meant foregoing a green screen and creating the director’s ideal DUNE on Earth, on the soundstages and backlot of Origo Studios in Budapest, Hungary and on location in Jordan, with about a week in Abu Dhabi before wrap.
When it came to structuring the screenplay, everyone agreed that to do the book justice would require more than one film.
“The story is massive,” producer Cale Boyter says, “so, the first thing that we thought about doing was dividing up the book. It made it a lot easier for us to figure out how to conform it into a screenplay format.”
Together, the filmmakers decided that there was one prevailing theme that would serve as the driving force behind the film. Boyter relates, “The book transcended science fiction. There is a father-son story here that came alive for all of us, and we wanted to put a lot of focus on the emotional underpinnings of the Atreides family, to see the story from each of the family members’ perspectives as they face their destiny, both emotionally and politically.”
Herbert himself had travelled the world and was a student of history who drew heavily from what was happening all around him. Villeneuve approached Dune in much the same way.
“This was a chance of a lifetime for me,” says screenwriter Jon Spaihts, a veteran screenwriter of high-concept stories and elevated science fiction, best known for Prometheus, Passengers and Doctor Strange.
“I first read Dune at probably 12 or 13, and at that age, I was struck by it almost like scripture; it felt like one of the most profound things that I had read and became one of my annual reads, like The Lord of the Rings and a couple of other pivotal pieces of fiction. I came to know it shockingly well, and a striking experience for me, working on the screenplay, was that all I really needed to do was start a scene and my brain would just lay out the dialogue. I knew exactly where it went line by line.”
“I was a fan,” Eric Roth states, who wrote the Academy Award-winning Best Picture Forrest Gump, for which he won the Oscar and the Writers Guild Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. His other films include The Horse Whisperer, The Insider, Ali, Munich, The Good Shepherd, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and A Star is Born.
“It was one of those books I knew particularly well as a teenager. I thought the world-building was pretty incredible, and also the glossary—the language—that came from Herbert’s imagination. And a major element for me was the social aspect and his view of environmental change. It has all the ingredients that come together to create wonderful alchemy of storytelling: what happens to planet Arrakis, the father-son and mother-son storylines, the fact that women are very powerful… It seems modern and all of a sudden very pressing, and he wrote it in the `60s.”
The Homeric novel’s timelessness and its author’s uncanny ability to forecast the future are undisputed
Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel is considered one of the most influential books of the 20th century and is credited with inspiring many of the greatest films of all time.
Set thousands of years in the future, Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides, a young man propelled by fate into an intergalactic power struggle. The son of beloved, embattled ruler Duke Leto and powerful warrior priestess Lady Jessica, Paul will be given the ultimate test: to conquer his fear when fate—and powerful unseen forces—pull him inexorably to the sands of the remote planet Arrakis, home to an indigenous human civilization called the Fremen and known to these natives as Dune—has been fiercely contested for generations. Humanity fights for control of the Spice, a rare, highly valued, mind-expanding natural resource upon which space travel, knowledge, commerce and human existence all rely. But those seeking to harvest the Spice must survive the planet’s inhospitable heat, hurricane-strength sandstorms, and monolithic sandworms that are justly feared with the kind of reverence usually reserved for gods.
Within the various factions in the Dune universe are the Mentats, who are like human computers; the Navigators, who can predict the alignment of the stars in order to determine space travel; and the Bene Gesserit, women who represent the more religious aspect of humanity and are able to influence events as well as make decisions that help maintain balance in the universe.
Then there are the Great Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen, who are battling over control of the Spice—a magical and addictive resource that allows people to see the future and is the single most powerful and treasured element in the Dune universe, and what makes Arrakis itself so valuable. Finally, the Fremen are the tribal inhabitants of Arrakis who respect the land. They’ve been relegated to the status of second-class citizen status, yet Paul, a noble son of House Atreides, is somehow spiritually drawn to one of them, Chan.
The Human Story
Far in the future, amidst sprawling feudal interstellar empires, entire planets are controlled by noble—and ignoble—houses. Yet, Dune is grounded in human relationships and struggles. It’s about real people and deals with complex themes like ecology, evolution and survival, and the daily battles humans face surrounding love, loyalty and duty, betrayal, power… Ourselves. Dune holds a mirror to the society we live in today.
Villeneuve found “there are many ways you can approach Dune’s story, but one of them, one of the main angles, is the very human story of the Atreides family that falls into the trap set by the Emperor, who’s getting more and more jealous of their growing popularity. And so the Emperor sends the Atreides to a new planet in the galaxy, which is Arrakis, where you can find the Spice, the most precious substance in the universe.”
Beyond fear, Paul Atreides’ destiny awaits. The son of a great man and royal heir to the noble House Atreides, he has spent his entire life preparing for the heavy mantle that comes with his family name, training with masters and mentors to hone his combat skills and intellect. Now, on the verge of manhood, he is haunted by visions of a mysterious young woman and an inevitable future, just as he is called to leave his childhood home on Caladan for a new life. Once he reaches Arrakis, the most dangerous planet in the Known Universe, Paul will confront his innermost fears in order to realize his true destiny.
Taking Paul on this ultimate hero’s journey is actor Timothée Chalamet, who was thrilled to be given the role.
“It was an awesome opportunity to play someone so lost, someone so conflicted, but with so much responsibility at a young age,” says Chalamet. “I thought that was a kind of beautiful dichotomy and rare to see as a lead of a movie. Paul is not the everyday romantic protagonist and I relished the idea of this being a character I could really play with.”
Chalamet happily views Paul not as a saviour or messiah but as a reluctant hero with power thrust upon him at a time he is still learning who or what he is destined to be. Surrounded by adults, Paul is the only child among them. “We’re introduced to him when he is just 15 years old,” he says, “and he has to embark on a journey to save his people from genocide. He comes from a moral and dignified people known for their honour and their valour. It’s a proud warrior culture, in contrast to the greed and deceit of the Harkonnen.”
Not having read the book prior to reading the screenplay, Chalamet was nevertheless well aware of the substantial opus. Completely drawn in by the script, he says, “I was really impressed with how they managed to condense it. It didn’t read like a big film script; it read like a grounded, human story—one that very subtly and cleverly integrated all the technology and gadgetry.”
Villeneuve says, “The process of choosing Timothée Chalamet was very simple: there was no process. There was only Timothée. I had no plan B. I mean, I was making ‘Dune’ with Timothée Chalamet, that’s it, that’s all. And fortunately, it was not difficult to convince him because he loved the script and we wanted to work together. Paul is an intellectual, and we need to feel that throughout the movie, he is someone that has doubt, that will re-imagine the world around him and embrace a different reality and adapt to a new reality. That takes a lot of intelligence, the capacity for adaptation, and it’s something that I wanted to see in Paul Atreides.”
Oscar Isaac plays Duke Leto, a man who must take his people in an exodus to a new world and protect Paul as malevolent forces gather, threatening to permanently erase the Atreides name from the pages of history. Isaac was drawn to the tragic nature of his character, noting, “There is something incredible about his being able to walk towards his fate. There was something that struck me as very human about that. How do you face that? When we first meet him he has unease but is feeling optimistic and he wants to infuse his son with strength. That was also intriguing to me: the idea of what you want to leave to your kids, what lessons you want to teach them, and what kind of ethics you want to pass on to them, particularly when the easiest option is to do things against your principles.
Isaac found inspiration not only in the novel but in real life and in the cinema as well. “I looked at the different ways leaders I find inspiring talked and I watched a lot of Toshiro Mifune movies. There’s something about him…he’s just such a powerful and strong figure.”
Rebecca Ferguson portrays Lady Jessica, who shares the burden of House Atreides’ leadership with her beloved Duke Leto, and an unbreakable bond with their son, Paul.
“I didn’t have time to read the book before filming started,” she confesses, “but I read it after reading the script. I realized how well Denis had brought the spirit of the book to the screen; the script has such a huge sweep, it’s larger than anything that I’ve read before. It’s about politics, philosophy, characters and emotion. It explores the reasons and reactions and consequences behind the things that happen.”
Josh Brolin plays the trusted advisor to Leto as irreverent and quick-witted, an artist with a sword who is equally skilled at wielding his chosen instrument, the baliset—a little-known stringed instrument. I had read a bit of the novel and when Denis described it as sci-fi-meets-medieval, I thought that was extremely accurate; there’s something very primitive about the story and yet it is sci-fi.”
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