Against all the odds, Denis Villeneuve has delivered the definitive adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 classic novel Dune. But a complex narrative and the difficulty of shooting a blockbuster in the scorching deserts of Wadi Rum, Jordan became the least of the challenges when a global pandemic threatened to disrupt the movie’s chance to screen in theaters. Villeneuve, Mary Parent, and the rest of the cast were able to wrap up the film with an announcement of a sequel. DuneTell Joe UtichiWhy the trip to Arrakis was worthwhile.
Few weeks ago, the domestic release of DuneDenis Villeneuve is in reflective mood. It’s not quite that he can finally relax—in fact, he says, he’s already deep into prep on the second chapter of his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi tome—but rather that the many dice he’s been rolling for the better part of the last five years have finally come to rest and he can be reasonably confident in declaring victory. Part 1: Dune became the biggest opening of his career, Warner Bros’ biggest opening of the pandemic era, and a reminder for audiences the world over of the power of cinema.
“I felt the appetite for people to go back to the theaters, to be together and to watch movies, to go back to the theatrical experience,”He said it now. “We made the movie for that kind of experience, and people really embraced it. People were moved to tears to be back in theaters. It was really touching.”
It’s a victory for Villeneuve—and for Legendary Pictures, which set the course for a new adaptation of Dune by picking up the rights only a short while before appointing the director—not just because DuneIt has had a turbulent history on the big screen. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to adapt the book resulted only in a definitive documentary about the folly of it all some 40 years after the fact, and David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation is much-maligned, especially by the director himself. It’s also a victory because of the landscape cinema found itself in when the pandemic shuttered theaters the world over, and Warner Bros announced its entire slate would stream on HBO Max concurrently with a theatrical release—if the latter was even a possibility at all.
And it’s especially a victory for the 13-year-old kid from Quebec who first read DuneHe could not believe that he would one day be able to combine his love of movies and his passion for the sport. “Reading the book was a visceral experience,”He recalls that first encounter. “I devoured it. I devoured the entire series. As I grew up, I rediscovered it through the years, because it’s the kind of book where every time you read it, you discover something new according to your life experience.”
Villeneuve had seen Lynch’s version of DuneHe read the book for the first time shortly after its release. Although he enjoyed parts of the book, he was disappointed by the lack of consistency with the source material. “I remember coming out and telling myself somebody will do it in the future again.”He waited, listening to rumors about failed attempts, but nothing ever came of it.
It might have been the end. But Villeneuve may be the Kwisatz Haderach of this story—the chosen one sealed by fate—because in relatively rapid fire in 2016, the planets aligned to put him in charge of his dream project. He revealed that he was a “Kwisatz Haderach” in an interview. Dune He had made the film he wanted to make. Mary Parent, a local woman, had just brought Legendary rights to her. She would later join Legendary as its vice-chair of worldwide production.
“It never happened like this before and it probably never will again,”Parent said it now. It was a chance that she had read the interview and reached out to Villeneuve. “We hadn’t even started to develop the script. I didn’t want to develop a script because I wanted it to be the filmmakers’ vision. And then in the third paragraph of this article, Denis had said it was his dream to direct this movie. It did feel fated.”
Villeneuve had to face the challenge of succeeding in a place where others had failed. His first roll of the dice was the decision to split Herbert’s first DuneNovel was split into two movies. This was based on the possibility that the first movie would be a success and the second would not.
Part of the struggle to adapt the project—and Villeneuve notes that writing the script was the hardest part of the process—was how much depth and definition there was in the world Herbert had created. Villeneuve worked with Jon Spaihts (Eric Roth) for months to find the right formula to get the audience acquainted to the themes, characters, and politics that make up this game of space thrones. “The novel starts with the phrase, ‘Beginnings are very delicate times,’”Villeneuve laughs. “It’s true. You could make the movie for hardcore fans, and if everybody had read the book, that would be easy, but to make sure that everyone who saw this would feel welcomed, that was the biggest challenge.”
He had a simple goal. “I wanted to make the movie to please myself as a hardcore fan, but also to make sure that my mother, who had not actually read the book, would understand the story and not feel alienated.”
Villeneuve and his company were able to cut the story at the middle so Villeneuve and co could concentrate the narrative on Paul Atreides, the 15-year old wide-eyed boy whose fate is tied with Arrakis’s. This story gives its title. From Paul’s perspective, we are introduced to the power struggles between rival houses over access to the Spice Melange, the natural resource of Arrakis that makes the planet a highly contested landscape. We also meet other marginalized groups that are affected by the fight for supremacy through Paul. They include the Fremen, Arrakis’ native population whose world is being decimated by spice mining, and the Bene Gesserit, a female-led order who appear to be the puppet masters behind the patriarchies that fight over political power and territory.
It was difficult to find elements that could be removed. Each thread in the plot has an impact on the overall narrative. Splitting the story in two not only meant an opportunity for a longer overall runtime (Parent notes that she expects theaters might want to treat the separation point as an interval for the inevitable double bills of both chapters), but also that an audience wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the information dump of exposition required to cram it all into a single movie.
“There’s so much worldbuilding, but it’s completely accessible,”Notes Parent for the script Part 1: DuneAs the project progressed, that was what emerged. “The worldbuilding is simply hard to hide in this movie. But Denis is precise about that, and he makes it as intimate as it is epic. There’s only a few people that I think of who could pull that off, and Denis is at the top of that list.”
Just as Villeneuve was given this project by fate, so it was that finding an actor young enough to carry the burden of worldbuilding proved to be less difficult than it might have been. Not only had Timothée Chalamet set up a Google news alert for DuneVilleneuve told Villeneuve that he was adapting the book. Villeneuve however, disagreed. “there was no other candidate, frankly.”Chalamet was just coming off his Oscar-nominated breakthrough. Call me by your nameYou can also find a variety of other great notices about work such as Lady Bird Beautiful Boy. To prove his worth as a movie star, he was ready to take on his first blockbuster role.
“What he has is a very rare talent,” Villeneuve says. “You see actors like that come by once in a decade. He’s a profound thinker and a skilled actor, and I needed someone who had that. And yet, on screen, Timothée looks really young, and I also needed that youth. I wanted Paul to be close to the description in the book, where he is a teen with a lot of maturity.”
Parent said that Chalamet brought more to the film than just being an actor for hire. Along with Zendaya, cast as Chani, whose narrative will dominate the second chapter of Villeneuve’s adaptation, the film’s two leads fully immersed in a collaboration with their director. “Timmy and Z aren’t just legitimately two of the best actors of their generation and movie stars, but they are in full command of what they want their careers to be,”Parent tells. “They take charge, and they drive decisions about the filmmakers they want to work with and the kinds of material they will do.”
They are surrounded by a cast of supporting players that includes Javier Bardem, Javier Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson and Jason Momoa, all franchise-commanding stars. “One of the big challenges of the film is getting all these people assembled,”Parent is keen to see how she can bring them all back together, says Parent. Part two of Dune. “It’s a high-class problem to have, but they’re all so busy and at the top of their game that figuring out how to schedule the movie was not easy.”
Hence the biggest of all the movie’s rolls of the dice. Because Part 1: Dune—thus titled on screen, with a definitive ellipsis at the film’s conclusion—had been constructed specifically to play as a first chapter and not a stand-alone picture. Warner Bros. was not as committed to shooting back-toback like they had with the first chapter. Matrixsequels, or like New Line had done with The Lord of the Rings. The second part of the challenge is a chance to win DuneWe would always trust that the first part will succeed.
In late 2019, principal photography was completed. Dune, conversations about the survival of cinema—about its viability and its definition—had started to rage. While streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have gained popularity, they also offer in-home convenience. However, they aim to make both movies and TV shows, blurring the distinction between the two formats. The most popular tentpole films seemed to be from one studio: Disney with its consolidations of franchises like Marvel and Star Wars.
“We’re not a Marvel movie and we didn’t have a Marvel budget,”Parent tells. “At $165 million we’re on the smaller side of a big movie. I’ve never made anything of Marvel size, but I’ve certainly made movies for $10 million or $15 million more, and by the way, that would have been great. But we were helped by Denis knowing exactly what he wanted to shoot.”
$165million is not a small loss leader for an indie. Marketing the movie would be difficult, even with a dedicated fanbase, given that Herbert’s ideas are so numerous. DuneIt was later adopted by other space-bound franchises. The global pandemic caused theaters to close down. Dune All of these challenges multiplied as we neared the finish line.
It wasn’t that Dune It was not the first to be affected by the pandemic or the lockdowns that started in earnest in early 2020. Every studio—streamers included—has had to reckon with a new paradigm for releasing movies… or risk letting them rest on shelves indefinitely, incapable of recouping their production costs. But more than many—perhaps even most—DuneThe big screen was demanded.
Warner Bros. said that its slate would be streamed on HBO Max, along with all other theaters. It was revealed that Warner Bros. had not discussed the plans with its filmmakers. Christopher Nolan was a longstanding supporter of the theatrical experience and would lose his loyalty to the studio. OppenheimerUniversal Pictures will release the film instead. Legendary stood up for its projects and was close to taking legal action.
For DuneThe compromise was reached. “We had already sat on the movie for a year, so thinking about sitting on it for another year was very stressful,”Parent tells. “Faced with holding the movie longer, I think we made the right decision.”
The announcement from Warner Bros might have blindsided its filmmakers, but it wasn’t without precedent. Studio executives began exploring the possibility of transforming movies originally meant for theaters into streaming runs. This was as early as March 2020. Theater operators had enjoyed exclusive rights to the theatrical windows for many years. Exhibitors, who were forced to close their venues, had little to no leverage to protest.
Although streaming was easy and available, the rapid arrival of new studio movies piped into homes made a significant cultural impact. However, this effect took longer to manifest. However, there have not been any outbreaks of Covid linked to movie theatres. The audiences seem to be eager to return. When Dune finally premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August, critics who suggested the film belonged on the big screen encountered the ire of social media users who had come to see theatrical cinema as a frivolous—even dangerous—pursuit, when safer home distribution models had been applied to other releases.
“There’s a level of engagement [to a theatrical release],”Villeneuve now says that he is determined to find the best way to watch his movie. “If you’re at home watching it on your computer, you are less committed to the experience. There’s something about the power of the big screen and the sound system that you cannot find at home. It becomes almost spiritual, because with an audience suddenly you become one together, which is something humans need. I think we are not meant to be isolated. We are meant to share together. And cinema really is one of the last places that can happen.”
He isn’t ignorant to the notion that most audiences, in the lifespan of a movie, will experience it first on the small screen. “That’s how I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time,” he notes, while insisting, humbly, that he isn’t comparing his own movie to Kubrick’s classic. “You can still have a strong cinematic experience at home. But when you watch it in 70mm in a theater, the difference is emotional. I cried when I watched 2001 again in a movie theater. I realized how much I had missed when I watched at home.”
What about the Twitterati who tweet teed off? “A platform like Twitter is just polarizing and everything will become hostile. There’s no more place for nuance,”He said. Villeneuve understands that people want to feel safe. This may mean avoiding the cinema. “It’s delicate because of the pandemic, and I respect that. But it’s not the ideal way to see the movie, and the movie was not meant to be seen on a TV screen,”He said it simply. “It was shot and edited and designed for the theater.”
In the end Dune’s release proved that there was still an appetite for theatrical. After premiering at Venice, the film rolled out internationally as a cinema exclusive before opening day-and-date with HBO Max in the U.S. At the time of writing, it has made $350 million globally; numbers that may have felt modest pre-pandemic, but that suggest Villeneuve’s adaptation has given post-pandemic audiences an excuse to emerge.
When: October 27, Part two of Dune was officially announced, Villeneuve’s victory was complete. Villeneuve had been optimistic about his chances. “When Warner Bros finally saw the movie, they did express to us loud and clear that they loved it and were very proud of it. And of course, I have had the full support of Legendary from the beginning,”He said. “Nobody wanted the journey to end there. It would have needed a catastrophic opening to end that journey, I think. But until the light goes green, you really don’t know what can happen.”
“You can’t take anything for granted,”Parent adds “Hollywood doesn’t make these kinds of films anymore, these big epics. It’s a film that’s a mix of new and old, because it’s cutting edge and very timely, but it was made in the tradition of old Hollywood, with not a lot of CG and as much practical as possible. People really did appreciate that, and it gives you hope.”
“The worms were visual effects, though,” laughs Villeneuve. “No worms were harmed in the making of this movie.”
DEADLINE – How was it to premiere this film in Venice after more than a year of pandemics?
ZENDAYA: Timmy, I looked at Timmy like that. “You know what, let’s really take this moment in, because this is so special.”Very few people get the same view as we do. I believe we were simply reminding one another that this is real-life and to enjoy it as much possible. This was also a moment I felt extremely grateful to have shared with a dear friend.
DEADLINE: Chani is an imposing presence in this film, but her story really will be told in Part 2. How was it to find her, when you were joining the established ensemble late in shooting?
ZENDAYAI WasIt was late to the party. It’s interesting because I pursued it quite early. Before casting was announced, I heard about it and was excited. “Hey, I’m here, I just want to put my name out there, can I get in the room?” At the time I hadn’t done Euphoria yet, so I knew I didn’t have anything to prove it.
However, I was cast and arrived in Jordan with a set family. It was cool to see everyone dressed up when I arrived. I was able to meet everyone in their stillsuits. That was a great way to introduce everyone to each other, almost in their own character.
Even though I was only there for a short time, Denis is able to give you structure and then allow you to be free within that structure. For me, it was easy to get there with a sense who Denis is. I don’t feel like she’s too much of a departure from who I am, though the circumstances may be different. You find your parts that match the character’s and build from them. I felt instantly connected to her. I wish I could have more time with her and with everyone. I didn’t want to leave.
DEADLINE – What are you most excited for? Part two of Dune?
ZENDAYA: I can stay there longer. That’s cool. [laughs].
I want to be able to grow alongside the characters that I play and the people I learn from. Anybody who has read the books knows there’s so much more to explore and deal with. What was cool for me having not been around for much of the first shoot was getting to see the movie from a completely fresh perspective, because I hadn’t seen the sets and the scenes for most of the movie. It felt like the beginning of this story, watching it.
Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Dr. Liet Kynes
DEADLINE: What were your impressions of the project’s scale? You were in Rogue OneIt was only a brief moment, but it must have been different.
SHARON Duncan-BREWSTERFor Rogue OneWhile I was able to complete a bazillion costume fittings in my time, I only managed to film two-thirds of the day. This is compared to getting out of your car in Wadirum in Jordan and seeing hundreds upon hundreds of crew members reeling cables all around, as well as trucks being driven across the dunes. That was it. Star WarsNot by me, but by God!ThisIs Dune. It completely blew my mind, but for all the right reasons.
DEADLINE: Dr. Lietkynes is a character in the books. How helpful was the conception of the character on Frank Herbert’s page to you as you figured out how to play your own version?
DUNCAN-BREWSTER: One thing I have held firm to is that stories can still function if the gender of many characters in the best stories is removed. We live in a time now where so many young people are defining their own gender identities, or not defining them at all, and this fluidity of identity means that we’re starting to look at identity in a whole new way. You can still see the other aspects of the character if you remove the idea that it is a male. I still have the chance to tell all of those truths.
DEADLINE: What is it that excites you most about acting?
DUNCAN-BREWSTERArt can be used to challenge and incite energy. Art is a gift. I’m so proud to be part of a world that is still considered an artistic expression. A lot of people are in it because they just want to be famous, but that’s not where I come from. I want to tell stories. I want audiences to think about what they’ve seen and relate to it.
I haven’t been in this business for very long, and Dune is definitely the biggest thing I’ve done on the big screen ever. But watching the movie for the first time, it grabs you straight away and once you’re in the moment of experiencing it, it’s something else. There’s an electricity to this movie that occurs when you’re sat in an audience watching it with everybody else, and you feel the ripples of emotion run through the theater. That’s so exciting to witness.
Timothée Chalamet is Paul Atreides
DEADLINE: How much did you rely on Frank Herbert’s novel to understand more about who Paul was?
TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET: Absolutely. When you’re lucky enough to work on something with a book as source material, it’s the best cheat code. There’s a blueprint right there in front of you. All of your preparations are over and you can just trust Denis on the day. However, it felt like I was author of this character. I felt like Paul Atreides. I am excited to do another one.
DEADLINE: We’ll see more of Zendaya’s Chani in Part two of Dune. Was it worth the effort?
CHALAMET: SheIs Chani, and it’s incredible to witness. It was clear that she was that character right from the start, and it was amazing to see. The scene in which Chani takes the mask off for the first time is so special. But even on the day, it was like, Holy sh*t, Chani has arrived.
There’s the book, and there have been other adaptations, but not only was the relationship between us alive in Jordan, and not only does it live on the screen now, it was there just at the first chemistry read. It felt obvious.
DEADLINE: Are your ready to return to the desert? Part 2?
CHALAMET: We were prepared to do it again [when we wrapped Part One]. This story is far from over. These characters are far away from their end. It’s a dream come true to get to work with Denis once on a movie of this size. And it’s certainly a marathon and not a sprint, so you have to pace yourself. But you don’t want to be weary of having fun. Certainly, in the project I’m working on now [Paul King’s Wonka], I’m learning even more than you don’t have to suffer all day at work. We are so lucky to be able to do this.
Lady Jessica is Rebecca Ferguson
DEADLINE – Did you know? DuneBefore you took the part
REBECCA FERGUSON: I didn’t have a relationship to DuneCertainly not. It was all completely new to me. It was enough to be able to chat with Denis via Skype. He’s cheeky, mischievous and he’s curious. These qualities are what draw me in. When someone’s a very good talker, you’re drawn in and it has power. So, when you meet someone like Denis, who can verbalize in quirky ways and use gestures as he explains all this to you, I’m blown away. Done. I’m sold on this story. The script was then sent to me. I’d already said yes before I read the script, but reading it, I didn’t feel like I wanted to change a thing. I didn’t feel a female suppression, which I often do. It was a script, which had been carefully dissected to allow for everyone to follow their journey.
DEADLINE – What was your reaction to seeing the film for the first time, with all of the music and effects in place?
FERGUSON: I took my son, Isaac. I was expecting him be amazed by the cool shields and body armor. Jason Momoa. Isaac grabbed me by the hand when the imperial spaceship landed in the film’s opening minutes. I saw him take a deep breath and grab my hand. It was the sound. It was the score. It triggered every atom in my body.
DEADLINE: Lady Jessica is part of the Bene Gesserit, a female-led order and they’re basically pulling the strings of the universe.
FERGUSON: She was ahead her time in 1965 and she is still ahead today. What’s wonderful is the fact that this male writer—Frank Herbert—was enlightened and felt the urge and necessity to describe this sisterhood who are connected ancestrally to be able to manipulate the universe. Because it wasn’t so different back in the day when men were on the battlefield and the women were building strong households, marrying off their children and making alliances to build stronger communities. That’s basically the Bene Gesserit, right?
Jason Momoa lives in Duncan, Idaho
DEADLINE – How did you first hear about this project?
JASON MOMOA: I hadn’t read the book before speaking with Denis. He filled my head with all the information and gave me his Bible for the movie. I saw his visual presentation, and I couldn’t believe how generous he was in the director’s notes and everything. You can see pictures from that presentation that look exactly like the ones in the film. That was a wonderful introduction to his vision and heart.
DEADLINE: The film feels so real.
MOMOA: That’s because there wasn’t any green screen. The only thing that was missing from the frame the day we shot it wasn’t the ornithopter overhead. Wadi Rum is where we shot was amazing, man. Just to be a part of that, out there in the desert… I actually went out and shot some of my own stuff in the middle of the day or in our off hours. I’d show Denis the footage. It was inspiring to be around him, and it was so liberating.
DEADLINE: What do you love most about Duncan the character?
MOMOADuncan was called the greatest fighter in all of the galaxy. He’s honorable, he’d do anything to serve the family, the house of Atreides. That quality is what I love about him, like the knight and the samurai. He is loved by women and men alike, so his charisma and sense of adventure are what I love about him. And at the same time, he’s a badass. So, why wouldn’t I play him?