The Interview: Denis Villeneuve on 'Dune' and inspiration from feminity
If Denis Villeneuve is feeling any pressure on the week leading up to the release of 'Dune', he isn't showing it.
He's dressed in a simple black hoody, sitting comfortably in a hotel room. He chats with a soft accent about his native Canada, and he gets visibly excited about introducing 'Lawrence of Arabia' at the Toronto International Film Festival later this week. "I made sure it was in my schedule, as a little treat," he explains with a smile. "It's in 70mm. I watched 'Lawrence of Arabia' in film in 65mm or 70mm when I was 19, and it was just... a masterclass into filmmaking. Frankly, it's the one screening that changed my life. I was a film student, it..." he pauses, to mimic an explosion, "The way that David Lean used landscape. Everything about that movie. I'm giving myself a gift. I changed my schedule to make sure I'm there!"
In fact, TE Lawrence and 'Lawrence of Arabia' are all over 'Dune'. There's subtle nods to the British colonial uniform in the movie's costumes. Hans Zimmer has a couple of homages to Maurice Jarre's Oscar-winning score from it. And, of course, the source material itself. "Frank Herbert was inspired by 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom' when he wrote 'Dune'," Villeneuve explains. "There's some similarities between the journey of TE Lawrence and Paul Atreides. There's some specific moment that were shot in the same areas of the Jordanian desert that 'Lawrence of Arabia' that shot in too."
However, when it came to specific inspiration, Denis Villeneuve had only one thing he relied on upon in production. The book. "The diet on this movie was exclusively the book," he states firmly. "I was trying to go back to the essence of the images that I had seen in my mind as a teen. I was trying to inspire my design crew and my editor to bring something new to the screen that would feel recycled or ideas that would have been too much influenced by 'Star Wars'. It inspired so many movies, sci-fi, in the past forty years, to try and create something new. I tried to focus mostly on the book to bring this to the screen."
The book, if you've never read it, is a dense tome of world-building, interspersed with heady passages of the inner workings of the minds of Paul Atreides, Lady Jessica of the Bene Gesserit, and more. David Lynch's ill-fated adaptation featured heavy narration taken from these pages, with Kyle MacLachlan's whispered tones sitting unevenly over some truly out-there sequences. The resultant movie was so bad, that David Lynch had his name removed from subsequent prints of the movie and replaced with the dreaded 'Alan Smithee' title in place.
Looking back over Denis Villeneuve's work, it's clear that his stories have placed female characters in a central position. 'Sicario', for example, saw Emily Blunt square up to the male-dominated world of clandestine operations in the US-Mexican border, as well as subtler intonations of sexism. 'Polytechnique', his third film, was based on the real-life mass shooting at a mechanical engineering college in Montreal which saw fourteen women murdered by a man who claimed in his suicide note that he was "fighting feminists". 'Arrival', with Amy Adams in the lead role, starts off as a straight-up alien / first contact story, but then deconstructs into a cosmic tome about the gift and pain of motherhood and loss.
"When I did my first feature film ('August 23rd On Earth'), spontaneously the story I was starting to write was the story of a young woman. I said to myself, let's not question that. My second film ('Maelstrom'), the same, was about a woman. I think it's about my education. I was surrounded by women and in a feminine environment. My grandmothers were very powerful characters, and they were impressive. So, yeah, I was raised in a very feminine environment. I realised, pretty quickly, that in my filmmaking, I was more inspired by femininity and that the relationship between women and power. I think 'Prisoners' and 'Enemy', that had a male protagonist. The rest, all female," he explains.
"The key to unlocking 'Dune', for me, was women. We put the emphasis on the Bene Gesserit and try to bring Lady Jessica into it more fully. She is the epicentre of the story. She's not an extra, waving in the background. I focused this adaptation on the relationship between Paul and his mother."
To say that 'Dune' is a hefty subject is an understatement. The books have been in continuous print since the '60s, and Warner Bros. has the adaptation rights to all of them. There's the inevitable sequel, as 'Dune' opens with the subtitle of 'Chapter One' and cuts the movie off just at the halfway point of the source novel, leaving it wide open for the sequel to follow. Work has already begun on the script for it, with a HBO Max series called 'The Sisterhood' soon to follow with Villeneuve set to direct the pilot and act as executive producer. After that, there's potentially adaptations of 'Dune Messiah', 'Children of Dune', 'Heretics of Dune', 'God Emperor of Dune' 'Chapterhouse Dune', and that's not even including the sequels that followed in Frank Herbert's passing written by his son, Brian, and sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson.
Of course, with all of this swirling around his mind, are the next ten years - if not longer - of Denis Villeneuve's career mapped out with 'Dune' everywhere?
"That could be the plan," he laughs. "I'm a bit monomaniac. I can just work on one project at a time. The 'Dune: Sisterhood' is done by a parallel team. What I've read so far is fantastic, it's a very exciting project, but my focus right now is on 'Dune' Chapter One and Chapter Two. There are people that can multi-task, like Ridley Scott or Steven Spielberg, they have tentacles in multiple projects. Me, I can't do that. It's one thing at a time. That's the way I love to work. Right now, I focus on 'Dune' and Chapter Two if it happens. After that, will it be possible to make an adaptation of 'Dune Messiah', I hope so. It will be a beautiful movie, but I cannot... each of those movies are massive, long journeys. If I make another 'Dune', it'll be another two, three years of my life just gone like that."
"If ever we talk again in ten years time, and I did just 'Dune' movies, it'll have been a good ride," he concludes with a wry smile.
'Dune' is in Irish cinemas from October 21st.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.