The Directors UK Podcast is back! This week is all about Dune, the spectacular sci-fi vision from director Denis Villeneuve.
At a recent Directors UK event, Denis spoke to fellow filmmaker David Oyelowo about his love of Frank Herbert’s original novel, the joys and challenges of shooting in the desert, filmmaking on a grand scale, and the emotional life of directing.
David Oyelowo: It’s an absolute delight for me to get to talk to you about this film, because it is one of the most astounding things I’ve seen in a movie theatre. Truly built for this screen. I’m working with Rebecca Ferguson, and she told me that when you were a lot younger, you were already obsessed with Dune. Is this correct?
Denis Villeneuve: It’s a book I read around 13 or 14 years old, and I read a lot of things at the time, read the whole series and went deep into Frank Herbert and it’s a book that stayed with me through the years. It’s multi-layered, and it’s the kind of book that as you age and you revisit it again, you see new things. You discover new things according to your own life experience. It’s a book that I have been obsessed with for a long time.
David Oyelowo: She said you did these drawings even when you were younger. As a young person, reading that book, how much correlation is there now between how you envisaged it as a boy and what we are now watching?
Denis Villeneuve: The challenge was to get as close as possible to those visions, those visions that had some kind of purity, that were uncorrupted, that were primal and original and without too much influence yet. So, the exercise that we did was trying to cut back, like an archaeologist, be in contact with those first, primal visions. When we read a book, we all have those visions, and I was trying to go back. The book had influenced so many things, so many other projects that I was trying to go before that.
David Oyelowo: Your vision, and what the studio might want, sometimes there’s a disconnect. Were there any battles you had to engage in order to get to the specificity and the purity of what you were looking for?
Denis Villeneuve: I would not call them battles, it’s all about relationship. From the start, I had the best relationship with Mary Parent, the main producer. I was working with her, and when I met her, I knew before getting into her office that she had the best reputation as someone who wanted to work with directors, and she had just made The Revenant with Inarritu, so I was saying, ‘If she can work with Alejandro,’ but I love him. I knew it had been a very complex project, and Alejandro had said great things about Mary to me, and strongly recommended her. I felt I could trust her, and in truth, she was a fantastic partner. For me, a good producer is someone that will surround you with the best crew and push, and give you the necessary resources, but also more importantly, someone who will push you to make sure that they will get the best out of you. It’s important for me, and she did it. We all read the book, they knew what we were trying to achieve here. So, there was no question about the pacing or things like that, but we had one preoccupation, all of us. The problem was to make sure that people who would not have read the book would feel welcome and understand the story. To try that balance, to find a way to introduce that story, there were a lot of conversations with me and the screenwriters, and Mary was a good help, she has a good instinct. There was no confrontation. I have had confrontation in my life with producers, but on this one, it was very collaborative and I trusted her, and I still trust her.
David Oyelowo: I imagine that in the back of your mind is pleasing the new audience but also the hardcore fans. How much of those people were in your head as you were constructing this?
Denis Villeneuve: I just had to deal with me. It was enough. I am someone who deeply loves the book. I was not trying to please, but I’m just saying that I was seriously trying to channel my inner teenager that had read the book at that time, who was arrogant, pretentious, an asshole. I tried to get in contact with that guy, to try to please the vision that I had. When you make an adaptation like that, of course you think about the audience, but I’m not trying to please, I’m just trying to make sure that people will understand.
David Oyelowo: Am I right in assuming that when you were younger the Timothee Chalamet character is someone you identified with, in describing yourself, as you said, an arsehole?
Denis Villeneuve: Of course, when you read the book at 13 years old and you are a young boy, you identify with Paul Atreides of course.
David Oyelowo: It seems like you had a wonderful experience on this. There are 2 schools of thought when it comes to testing a movie. I know film-makers who swear by it and film-makers who think it’s sacrilegious. Is this something you’ve had to do and have an opinion about either way?
Denis Villeneuve: Let’s say that when I was doing indie movies in Quebec, in Montreal, it was very important for me at one point to test the movie with a few friends. Not friends, I will say people that I knew would tell me the truth, either because they are close friends and I trust them, or people that don’t know me and don’t care about me. It’s very important at one point, for me to sit in a theatre with a little audience, because it changes your own perspective on the movie. You feel the rhythm differently, you understand. It’s more about feeling how they react, to hear them after. Then from those screenings, I’m trying to see it to make sure that the things that I take for granted are really there. Cinema is very powerful but very strange sometimes. Sometimes there’s a scene that can be so powerful, that the information that will be conveyed after is totally lost. Things like that. So, it’s an interesting process. In Hollywood, they do those gigantic test screenings which honestly, I hate. One day I was really traumatised by the process and a director came to me and said, ‘You can see this as a time machine. It’s like going into your premiere, and then going to the restroom with the audience and listening to their comments, and then you can go back in time to the editing room.’ I thought that there was a kind of wisdom in that. As long as there are adults in the room, meaning that as long as the studio supervises those tests, knows how to read the room — the score writing is ridiculous, but the comments sometimes are interesting. I will say that if it was just for me, I would not do a test of that scale, but I like to show the movie to a real audience, a small group of people, definitely.
David Oyelowo: What kind of person do you have in that audience? Are they other film-makers, ordinary people?
Denis Villeneuve: Both. I have friends, film-makers that are very hardcore, that I know will come to my screening. I ask them, ‘Bring your baseball bat. I want to test the machine, I really want you to be brutal with me at this time.’ There’s a moment where I think it’s important to do that, for me. Also, to have people that know nothing, that are not in the movie business, it’s interesting also. Not too much, it’s just a little group, but it’s interesting.
David Oyelowo: How was it shooting in the desert?
Denis Villeneuve: First of all, you have to be very well organised. There’s a crew that takes care of the film crew, so the crew becomes gigantic very quickly. Shooting in Jordan was not that difficult. I mean, it was exhausting, and it was super rewarding because the landscapes there are absolutely unique and brought a lot to the movie, it deeply inspired us. But we were prepared to go there, and base camp was like a military base. We had 800 people in the desert working on the movie. You know what pissed me off? I was like, ‘I’m finally doing a big movie,’ but Star Wars had been there the year before, and they had 1,800 people on their film crew. So, I was looking again like an indie movie. Where it was tricky was to shoot in Abu Dhabi, because we were shooting in a part of the year where we would have the proper sky, that it would have that kind of humidity in the air that would create that kind of haze that I was looking for. I didn’t want the desert to look beautiful, I wanted the desert to look dangerous and powerful, and feel the power of nature. To do so, it meant that we would shoot in extreme temperatures.
Luckily, I was looking for light at the beginning of the day and the end of the day, so the way we did it is that we were waking up at 3am, and it was already 37 Celsius outside. I convinced the studio to do that by saying to them, ‘I will have a very small unit.’ There was this hotel that was in the middle of the desert. You opened the door and the desert was there, so it didn’t require a lot of crew to deal with the distance and the transport. So, I was bringing the crew at 4am, we were rehearsing when the light was there, because there are a lot of scenes that are made to look as if it was night time. I was shooting, and before 9am, I had to put the crew out of the desert because it was getting dangerous. Then, we were coming back at 5pm, we were going to bed, everybody, then coming back at 5pm and then rehearsing and shooting when the light was okay until it was too dark. We shot like that for maybe 10 days and it was very exciting, but I think it was the most exhausting shoot I have ever done. But very rewarding, because talking about the sand dunes, the ocean of sand dunes, there was no such landscape in Jordan. So, I needed that for the movie. That I will say was pretty tricky.
David Oyelowo: How much did you have to go and supplement what the camera was seeing with CGI? How much of what we’re seeing is real? Did you ever have to add that haze?
Denis Villeneuve: No, we were very lucky with the weather in the desert. Jordan was a total victory with weather. We had those washed skies and a lot of wind, and sometimes the producers were thinking that we were not shooting because it was too stormy, but my crew were like Navy SEALS, we were in the middle of this desert capturing this crazy wind sequence. It was an amazing experience. We built a planet, so it means that it’s a puzzle. Everything involving rocks is a real location in Jordan. We had to erase plants with CGI. That’s the only manipulation we did in Jordan, I will say. All the desert of Abu Dhabi is mostly untouched I think. Of course, there are vehicles or things like that which we added everywhere, but the landscape, I tried to keep them as naturalistic and as untouched as possible. The sequence like the crawler sequence where Paul Atreides will be, for the first time, going into the desert, was shot in sand dunes at the border of Jordan and Israel, sand dunes that are like a no man’s land.
So, it was a place where we were the first ones shooting there, there were no tourists, nobody there. It was a protected area. There were mountains on the horizon that I had to transform into sand dunes, and so that’s the truth. We found sand dunes and I remember Patrice Vermette, my production designer, had a little suitcase with sand samples from everywhere in the world, and he was matching the sand from one place, ‘That’s good, we can shoot here,’ because it needed to look seamless. I wanted everybody to believe that we were always in the same environment. So, we had to be careful with the light and the colour of nature.
David Oyelowo: You get some incredibly still performances from these great actors. I felt like it added to the gravitas of the film. Was that something you got out of them by directing them, or were you specifically looking for actors who already tend to bring that kind of stillness to their work?
Denis Villeneuve: I was envisioning the movie to be something very spartan-like. There’s something about the immobility that I was deeply inspired by. I know that my cinematographer was tired of shooting people standing, doing nothing, but I was obsessed with that stillness, that position of the body in space. It’s difficult for me honestly, to intellectualise that. It just felt totally right for this project. Characters being in some kind of meditative state — it has to do with something about the introspection of those characters. Suddenly, the movements start, and when the movements start, when we are with Paul diving into the desert, he’s finally going deeper and deeper and deeper into his psyche, but before that movement I wanted him to be in observation mode. It’s like a teenager at the beginning of the movie who has absolutely no control over his reality. All the adults around him are making the decisions, so I wanted to him to really be like a tree, in the middle of all that madness, witnessing everything spinning around him until he himself finally starts the movement.
David Oyelowo: Was that something you really had to talk Timothee through? I thought he gave an incredibly disciplined performance. I felt like that was pretty universal with every single actor. They would have had to rely on you heavily to do that. Sometimes it may have been a thing where they wanted to do more. Was that ever something, particularly with Timothee, where you had to ask him to trust you or was it there from the get go?
Denis Villeneuve: I think I can become very stubborn when it comes to directing an actor. As much as I love receiving ideas, I love when an actor has an idea, and if this idea feels better than mine, I will put my ego aside. It has happened in a few of my projects where my favourite scenes have been scenes that have been discovered on the set in the morning, or influenced by an actor. On Dune, there were so many elements to control, that I had no patience, and I was very, very direct. There was one way to do it for me, and they followed my lead. I will say it was a huge cast, and the truth is that we were all waiting for the asshole to show up. We were all thinking that one of them will be, but it didn’t happen. They were all very playful, collaborative, open. There was a sincere, good spirit on set. I think there was a joy linked with the idea of making this adaptation. They all love the book, they were all feeling the responsibility that we had on our shoulders. So, there was a nice discipline.
David Oyelowo: There was a deep sense of spirituality about the film. It felt like it was reverential towards spirituality. There were times where you could almost feel like it was critical of the nature of spirituality and the things people do with deity and spirituality and religion as an excuse. Yet, there were things about it that were incredibly powerful in terms of the spirituality. Which side of the fence do you find yourself on?
Denis Villeneuve: It’s very simple. Spirituality is used as a tool to manipulate. When you blend religion and politics, that’s where the movie gets, very quickly, cynical. But spirituality for itself, when we see people having a reverence for nature or having a spiritual relationship with nature, that I think I deeply love. It’s the way you use that power. The power itself is okay, it’s just how you use that, that strength, is what Frank Herbert was questioning in his book.
David Oyelowo: The incredible use of bagpipes in this film. How much of that was part of the film’s design in pre-production? How much of it was discovering stuff while you were there? How much was imposed?
Denis Villeneuve: When you make a movie, for those who make movies of that scale, there are so many aspects that you have to design everything. You have to think about everything. Sci-fi, you have to build worlds and I had time to do it, but still, there was something about the arrival, the concept of the ship, when they were arriving, all the costume design. The contrast, the most important thing was that contrast, that feeling that new colonisers, despite their intentions, they were still colonisers coming into a new world, and to have a contrast with the natives of the place, to feel that tension, that religious question, those questions arising in Paul’s mind. It’s like that brutal contrast of the light. There were tons of elements, of course, but there was something missing. In the screenplay, I didn’t find it. I found it was I was finally there on the set a few days prior to the shoot. I remember waking up at night thinking, ‘Bagpipes!’ And why? Because I was saying, ‘We need an expression of their culture, something other than weapons or armour or flags. I need a melancholic expression, something vulnerable.’ I remember going to my fantastic first AD, probably one of the best in the world, Chris Carrera, that comes from here. Chris has a lot of experience, and I never saw him panicking once. I saw a glint of panic in his eyes when I...
David Oyelowo: When you said bagpipes.
Denis Villeneuve: Yes, ‘Would it be possible to have bagpipes players in 5 days?’ And he said, ‘Bagpipes?’ Seriously, everything lacked I found in one piece when I found this idea. Some people thought it was ridiculous. Me, I deeply loved it. Seriously, it really helped the acting as well, it brought some kind of feeling of ceremony that I was looking for, and I love this idea of this lonely player with this horrible instrument starting to make that fragile piece of music in the wind, and suddenly you have the army answering the call of the king. I thought it was very romantic. Then, when I had done that — Hans Zimmer, I got his respect actually, bringing bagpipes into a sci-fi movie — he was pretty proud of the idea. During the pandemic, he brags about the fact that he was able to find 40 bagpipe players in Scotland, and during the pandemic, even though it was a challenge. It became an instrument that became part of the score from this idea. In the book, there are a lot of hints that things that will have survived those 20,000 years of time, hints of the religion, hints of some worlds or culture. Habits or aspects of culture that will have survived through to that time. I thought that Frank Herbert would have approved of the bagpipes, frankly.
David Oyelowo: Well, I approve of the bagpipes as well, I thought they were majestic and brilliant. There will be a lot of people here who are directors, and one of the trickiest things is, I think, the work/life balance. Tanya is your wife, and you guys have a family. What advice do you have? A film like this is inevitably 2, 3 years of your life. I believe this is your 10th film now, so you’ve done this journey a few times. Each time, there’s a cost when it comes to the life component. How have you navigated that?
Denis Villeneuve: I have no advice. I will say that it’s the big cost of being a film-maker. It’s a privilege to make films, it’s a massive privilege, but it’s difficult with family. It’s something that is not easy. Now, my kids are grown up so it’s easier, but I will say I had strong support at home from everybody. I was able to do this because there were a lot of people at home helping us, with the kids and making sure that I was making them travel as much as possible. The truth is, even when the kids are with me, I’m not there. I’m in my head. It’s something that, when I become a director on set, I’m not present for reality. I try to do my best. The only advice is when I go back home, I’m present. I really learned that. Sorry, I don’t want to be a counsellor here, but it’s important to be present and be really there. I also developed a strong capacity to switch off, meaning that even if I’m writing or I’m doing any kind of work that can be stressful, if I go to dinner, I have a strong capacity to switch off and to be present. I will say that compensated sometimes for the absence. You are British, I know you don’t like sentimentalism...
David Oyelowo: No, but it’s a good thing to talk about because yes, we are British, and sometimes because of that stoicism families suffer in this industry. I watched this episode of Masterclass with Ron Howard, where he said, ‘No matter how well a film goes in its rendering, at some point, it will find a way to break your heart.’ Do you agree?
Denis Villeneuve: You mean during the process or on the outcomes after?
David Oyelowo: Yes, he said, ‘Whether it’s the difference between what you have in your head and what you see,’ or, ‘You get all the way to the Oscars and you’re nominated and you don’t win.’ There’s this moment where you go, ‘Oh.’ When I look at an endeavour like this, you want everything about it to be perfect.
Denis Villeneuve: For sure, Dune will or has broken my heart. I think that’s totally true. I think that there’s always a moment where you face your limits or your ego suffers, or there’s always a moment when a movie breaks your heart, yes, definitely. I will say each movie is an accumulation of joys, victories, but also failures and pain and a lot of anger. That’s why, for me, it’s very difficult. After the premiere, I watch the movie, and after that, I break up. I cannot watch a movie for years before being able to watch it again without having to deal with all the emotions involved with an actor or a producer or a scene or where I failed. Most of the time, it’s very personal. I recently watched a movie I made in 2000 and, for the first time, I really felt it. I was, for the first time, able to watch it for what it is, without having all those filters. It’s a very strange relationship with the past, it’s painful.
David Oyelowo: What are those things that you would deem a failure? What are the painful things? Have there been recurring pains or recurring things you deemed failure?
Denis Villeneuve: Of course there are recurring pains or things, that you are facing your own limits. Myself, I don’t know how to answer your question, let’s have a beer after if you want, but without getting very personal, of course, how many times do I feel like an imposter? Still today, it’s recurring. That’s the truth.
David Oyelowo: If you feel like an imposter, wow.
Denis Villeneuve: No, it’s true. You deliver things but sometimes you fail, you know it in your heart.
David Oyelowo: Jason Momoa’s facial hair in this film, his ever-decreasing facial hair, was that conscious? What was happening there?
Denis Villeneuve: I’m so happy that you are, frankly, the first human being talking to me about it. I thought I was able to escape it. It’s a character that obviously goes in the desert. I was able, first of all, to shave Jason Momoa. Do you realise the achievement? It was a long negotiation, but the thing is, I will tell you the truth, I wanted him to be hairless, no facial hair but when he was in the desert, it made sense for realism, he’s a soldier at least, part of an elite, so I thought it made total sense for him to be unshaven. Then when he’s with the court and goes back in town, he shaves again. Then, as the movie goes, we were trying to construct a certain reality with that. I did additional shooting at one point, for one scene, a moment, and it was not possible to shave him because of continuity. I was really pissed off, and it was out of the question that I would do CG to remove that. I was against the idea. Then we wrote the scene, to make jokes about the fact, and it felt so bad, so cheesy, that I decided to remove it. I said, ‘Fuck it, we’ll embrace the fact that this character has a beard at the beginning and the end. Then he shaves when he goes in the mission, in the desert,’ and nobody noticed.
David Oyelowo: How long did this take?
Denis Villeneuve: I think the shoot was something like 5 months or 6 months. What was singular is the length, the intensity of it also, because to do this movie with the budget we had, I had to accept one thing. I had to adapt in order to survive. I never, in the past, used a second unit, a real second unit. I had sometimes help from a uniform for stunts or explosions or things like that, but a real second unit that will work on-set with us, that was my first time. I agreed to do it because it was the only solution, to be able to achieve what we had to do. The way we did it, with my sonographer, Greig Fraser, we chose Kate Arizmendi as cinematographer because we loved her signature. She got along very well with Greig, and stylistically she blended totally. She was a fantastic cinematographer. Then that unit was working under our supervision, and I had Tom Struthers, the stunt coordinator that was there, and Tanya was there also to supervise that unit, making sure that my instructions were... it was crazy to work, directing a first unit and directing a second unit at the same time. I had to take my weekends off and put the work with the second unit on the weekend, so I could be there. It meant I was shooting all the time. It was really exhausting but that was the only way I was able to bring this movie to life because there was too much work and too little time.
David Oyelowo: Shall we take some questions from the audience?
Audience Member: I am completely new to this. I don’t know the story at all. I thought it was fantastic, and I thought it was fantastic precisely during that performance for the intimacy, as well as the epic quality. As well as making an incredible film, you’ve made a fantastic piece of Shakespeare, in my view. I half expected the wood to come across the desert. I wondered, for that reason, if you have any acting in your background or if you did any theatre before you got into film at all? The performances were just stupendous and so much is covered, except for the eyes, so often.
Denis Villeneuve: Thank you very much, that’s very generous. There was a moment in my life where I did two feature films and I stopped making movies because I was not going in the right direction. I will not go into specifics, it’s a long story, but I stopped for years. I said to myself, ‘I need to go back to film-school. I need to learn more about what is an actor, the mechanism of a human, of emotions, of everything.’ I learned to write. Onr thing that I deeply love and that I learned so much was when I shadowed a stage director doing a play in Montreal, for months. I sat in the theatre and watched him directing actors in a play. The way he was communicating with the actors, it’s crazy, how I learned. I will say that that’s the only real theatre experience I had, not doing it myself, I would not be able to do it, but to watch someone focussing entirely on acting in order to bring authenticity in the performance, I thought was was really instructive. That’s a thing, for a young director, that I would strongly recommend.
Audience Member: How do you keep yourself from becoming totally overwhelmed, making a movie at this scale?
Denis Villeneuve: Prep. It required a lot of prep, and that prep started very early, when I was just alone, even as Eric was starting to work on the screenplay, even as I was finishing Blade Runner, I was already starting to prep the movie, sketching the movie, doing sketches to find the right visual language for the movie, and started the design. On Blade Runner, I was feeling overwhelmed sometimes because I didn’t have enough prep time. On this one, I made sure that all the visualisations, all the design, everything had been mostly made when we started prep. I was more focussing, as on a regular movie, on the art on the movie.
But I felt overwhelmed. The problem is stamina. It’s not creativity. It’s when you are at one point on those long shoots or suddenly the body doesn’t want to follow. I remember once a director telling me that he was starting to do sport and to train because he was about to shoot, and I was laughing, ‘What are you talking about? I hate sport. It’s the last thing I want to do before I shoot, is to do sport, to do training, physical training,’ but I understand it now. You really need to be in good physical shape in order to do those movies. That’s the thing, it’s stamina, that’s where it gets you.
When we started the shoot, we shot 2 weeks in Hungary, so we could shoot the stage, strike those stages, then the production design built a new stage as we were going into Jordan, shoot for a few weeks there, and I shot every day. I remember that we shot maybe 4 or 5 weeks in Jordan. When we came back from there, we were all totally exhausted, and we were beginning the movie. I remember Greig Fraser and I landing in Budapest, saying, ‘Oh my God, how are we going to do this? We still have the whole movie to shoot.’ Yes, it requires a lot of energy. That’s why I’m making those movies now. I don’t know if I would be able to do that in 20 years, frankly. I don’t know, that’s what I will say. That’s why I have massive respect for Ridley Scott. I don’t know how he does it, 2 movies a year, then shooting, shooting. He’s a machine.