Denis Villeneuve on Dune: ‘I Was Really a Maniac’

Both Blade Runner 2049 and Dune are wildly ambitious undertakings. Dune, especially, almost feels unfilmable in its scope. Was there ever any pushback to you taking this on?

Life is short! We are bound to try to do the impossible. That’s the beauty of art. I try to push myself to the limits. I knew that I was ready to tackle this, but yes, it’s a big challenge. You know what the biggest challenge is? It’s to be able to reach the level of passion and the image I had as a teenager. To please that teenager is very difficult. [Laughs.] I was surrounded by people who were very enthusiastic from the beginning, but I remember a conversation I had with [composer] Hans Zimmer when I was talking about it and saying, “Dune is one of my biggest dreams. It’s the movie I’ve wanted to make for such a long time.” And Hans looked at me with very serious eyes and said that it is dangerous to try to go so close to the sun.

The book is an allegory for religious themes, for political themes. As you were adapting it, were you trying to update it so that it could apply as much to our world as it did to Herbert’s world?

Good question. All the things—the political themes, religious themes, and environmental themes—need to be there. But the most important thing for me is to keep the sense of adventure and that sense of an epic. I didn’t want the complexity of the story to be in the way of the entertainment value, of the power of the movie, the emotional value of the movie. I wanted the movie to be quite a ride.

What’s an example of balancing theme and storytelling?

When I started to work with Eric Roth, he said, “What would be the most important thing that we should bring upfront in this adaptation?” And I said, “Women.” In the book, Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother, is a very, very important character, a character that triggers the story. Paul Atreides is the main character, but very close to him is Lady Jessica. To guide him, to help him. I would say that the movie is designed—structured—on those two main characters. That would be my biggest angle to bring Dune into the 21st century. You need to make sure that there’s equality between the voices of genders.

Also, the planetologist Liet-Kynes, who’s male in the book, is now being played by a Black woman, Sharon Duncan-Brewster.

I already had three strong female characters: Lady Jessica, the Reverend Mother [Charlotte Rampling], and Chani [Zendaya]. But I felt that I needed more. So with Jon Spaihts, we had this idea to take a character and change it. And it works. I mean, I think it’s something that could’ve been thought of by Frank Herbert himself, if the book had been written today. It’s very close to the spirit of the book. Of course, when you make a movie adaptation, you make decisions, but these decisions are made in deep relationship with the book. This idea of making Kynes a woman makes the most sense and doesn’t change the nature of the book.

And what about the depiction of Baron Harkonnen? I feel like that character is sort of a caricature villain. He doesn’t actually have a mustache, but in the book he’s kind of portrayed as this mustache-twirling stereotype.

It’s true. The book is probably a masterpiece, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. [Laughs.] It has some weaknesses, and it was a space for me to explore. Baron was one of those elements. I wanted to make sure that it was not, as you said, a caricature or a goofy bad guy. I wanted the Baron to be threatening, to be intelligent, to be sophisticated in his own ways. He has radical views about the world, but the more we are impressed and mesmerized by the Baron, the more powerful he will be. That’s why we took great care to keep the essence of the Baron, but bring him into the 21st century. That’s why I went for Stellan Skarsgård. Stellan Skarsgård is a brilliant human being. He has this intelligence in the eyes, and he has that depth. We talked a lot about the character. It was a great joy to work with him.

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