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“It’s better to fail trying something impossible” — Denis Villeneuve on "Dune"

Denis Villeneuve on the dusty set of "Dune," with Javier Bardem and other actors play the Indigenous Fremen of Arrakis.

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

Denis Villeneuve, the affable Canadian filmmaker everybody in Hollywood wants to work with, admonishes an interviewer when talk turns to the mammoth challenge he set himself in making “Dune,” that sci-fi epic that swallows filmmakers like sandworms. (UPDATE: The sequel “Dune: Part Two” opens March 1.)

“It’s better to fail trying something impossible than to succeed making something easy … It’s the beauty of creativity. It’s not arrogance!” the Quebec writer, director and producer says, holding up a scolding finger to the Zoom screen as if to wave off any naysayers.

“Dune” is set on a distant desert planet called Arrakis thousands of years in the future. It’s an interstellar saga of feuding colonial dynasties and struggling Indigenous people. They share a quest for a miraculous natural resource called “the Spice,” generated by the planet’s monstrous toothy sandworms, which expands minds, energizes bodies and fuels spacecraft.

Based on the classic 1965 sci-fi novel by Frank Herbert, “Dune” is anything but easy storytelling. The challenging tale of multiple factions and motivations has proven endlessly influential — everything from “Star Wars” to “Game of Thrones” owes a debt to “Dune” — but it historically resists film adaptations. Previous big-screen attempts by directors David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky burned through cash and dealt severe career setbacks.

A lot of people warned Villeneuve about the risks of filming “Dune,” even though he has previous experience with the sci-fi blockbusters “Blade Runner 2049” and “Arrival.”

He didn’t listen to them. He holds his hands up next to his eyes like horse blinders, to show how he always looked straight ahead to his own vision, not allowing anyone or anything to distract him.

“It’s just a deep, pure dive. I know how to do it,” Villeneuve says.

“I love to jump without having a net under me. Why? It’s about creativity. There’s something there that I feel that, as a filmmaker, there’s honesty in taking risk. You cannot create without taking a risk. My life is dedicated to cinema, so I have to take risk. I have to give everything, otherwise it’s meaningless.”

You could say that the deserts of “Dune” are in his blood. Paradoxically, though, his fascination for all-encompassing landscapes arose from the waters of the St. Lawrence River, the waterway he gazed at from the windows of his childhood home in the Quebec village of Gentilly.

“I was born with the horizon, the landscape of the St. Lawrence River,” says Villeneuve, 53, looking rested and relaxed, and sporting a neatly trimmed beard and moustache in a video interview from Montreal.

“Where I was, (the river) was quite wide. I have always been in a relationship with operatic skies, skies that would crush you and that are so big … the landscape has an impact on your soul and yourself.”

Villeneuve sees parallels between the abundant waters of the St. Lawrence and the endless sands of desert environments. Not just the one in “Dune,” although it’s most definitely the sandiest of all his movies.

Several of his earlier films also had prominent desert scenes. These date back to his debut feature, the intimate drama “August 32nd on Earth,” which screened at TIFF in 1998, right on up to more recent works such as “Incendies,” “Sicario” and “Blade Runner 2049.”

The desert even sneaks into “Arrival,” his 2016 UFO encounter thriller that earned Villeneuve a Best Director Oscar nomination, one of many awards kudos he’s received. One of the landing sites for the oblong alien spacecraft is Khartoum, the capital of the desert nation of Sudan.

“I like the desert,” Villeneuve says. . “I just feel to be home in it … scratching to be in contact with the skin of Earth, where there’s the emptiness. There’s something that’s like a mirror, that brings you back to your own heart. It’s an introspective, meditative feeling to be in the desert. And that’s why I insisted that we shoot in the real desert.”

“Dune” is one of the most anticipated movies of 2021, with a star-filled cast that includes Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Stellan Skarsgaard, Dave Bautista, Charlotte Rampling and Zendaya.

It was supposed to be one of the biggest movies of 2020. The pandemic had other ideas, forcing a year’s delay and prompting a controversial decision by studio Warner Bros. to simultaneously release all of its 2021 films stateside in theatres and via HBO Max, its streaming service, which isn’t available in Canada.

As a dedicated defender of theatrical movie-going, Villeneuve has vocally objected to the hybrid release plan, even though “Dune” will have a theatres-only initial release in his home country, Canada.

Villeneuve says he was “stabbed in the back” by Warner’s plan to stream “Dune” in the U.S. He was not shy about stating his opposition to the plan.

It’s not the only time Villeneuve has bucked the establishment regarding “Dune.”

He made the movie in defiance of conventional wisdom that author Herbert’s nearly 500-page novel, replete with all manner of characters and intrigues, resists attempts at film or TV adaptations. Herbert’s novel has been called “impossible” and “unfilmable” since it was first published.

Previous book-to-screen attempts have included Lynch’s misbegotten 1984 film, a critical and box-office bomb, featuring shirtless rock star Sting (Villeneuve loves the film anyway). There was also a quixotic attempt in the 1970s by cult filmmaker Jodorowsky at a film that was supposed to involve surrealist painter Salvador Dali and rock group Pink Floyd and run for 14 hours. It never got off the drawing board; a 2013 documentary, “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” was made about its failure to launch.

Villeneuve was not to be deterred. He has wanted to film “Dune” since he was a young teenager, a science student obsessed with biology — the novel details the many physical hardships of desert living — and the exploration of space.

“I read the book when I was around 13 or 14 years old,” Villeneuve says, smiling at the memory. “I wanted to make movies back then. I remember drawing with my best friend, Nicolas Kadima … We were drawing storyboards, drawing costume designs, dreaming about making (‘Dune’) all this time.”

He approached the challenge by splitting Herbert’s original novel into two parts — the full title of the film is “Dune: Part One.” He intends to make Part Two, if Warner will let him. And Warner undoubtedly will if moviegoers flock to see Part One in sufficient numbers.

In adapting “Dune” for the big screen, Villeneuve worked closely with co-writers Eric Roth (an Oscar winner for “Forrest Gump”) and Jon Spaihts (“Prometheus”), but he was not listening to any dissenting voices.

“Dune” actors all rave about working with Villeneuve.

“I don’t know how I got so lucky to work on something this big but with a really independent sensibility, and that’s down to Denis,” Chalamet says in production notes for the film, echoing a common sentiment among the cast.

“He’s an artist. He’s a genius. He has a technical understanding of how to shoot these kinds of movies differently and we saw that in ‘Blade Runner 2049’ and also in ‘Arrival.’ He has a connection in his heart to this kind of material in some way.”

“Dune” fans will be pleased to know that Villeneuve insisted to his cast, co-writers and crew that Herbert’s novel should be considered “the Bible” and “everybody had to be as close as possible to the descriptions of the book.” (Newcomers to the story might want to start swotting up now on such terms as “Bene Gesserit” and “Kwisatz Haderach,” among many others.)

Yet Villeneuve felt there was something lacking in Herbert’s story: female characters. There are some: chiefly warrior priestess Lady Jessica (Ferguson), the concubine of Duke Leto Atreides (Isaac) and mother of their son Paul Atreides (Chalamet), whose heroic journey on the desert planet Arrakis was very much an inspiration for Luke Skywalker’s journey in “Star Wars,” which begins on the desert planet Tatooine. There’s also the Fremen warrior Chani, played by Zendaya, who is drawn to Paul despite the natural antagonism of Fremen toward the colonial spice raiders.

Villeneuve instructed Roth to give the female characters more power, agency and screen time. He went so far as to change one of the significant characters from male to female, Liet Kynes, played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster.

Supporting women is not a new thing for Villeneuve. Many of his films, notably his drug war thriller “Sicario,” have strong female leads. The lead FBI agent was originally a male character, but he cast Emily Blunt in the role.

“It’s a matter of inspiration; I’m inspired by women,” he says. “I have been since the beginning. Something about the female condition, the way they have to deal with power. It’s something that I feel is very inspiring and moving to me. So it’s an instinct.”

It might seem obvious, given his sci-fi fascinations, that Villeneuve would be a big fan of real life space travel. His past three films have been sci-fi movies: “Arrival,” “Blade Runner 2049” and now “Dune.”

On the contrary, Villeneuve is dismayed by the dawning age of civilian space travel. He has no desire to fly into the sky like billionaire tycoons Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson.

“No, no, no, no!” he says, looking horrified at the thought. “I’m mesmerized by space. I have a spiritual relationship with space. And when I look at the images coming from telescopes, it brings tears in my eyes to see those galaxies or those stars on those systems. There’s something so powerful.

“But I’m much more interested by what’s happening on Earth. And I think that space is not the way to go. I think it’s super irresponsible to think that the future of humanity is out there. I don’t think so. I think that we will have to deal with what we have right now, which is a paradise that we are destroying slowly. But there’s still time to save it.” 🌗

(This story originally ran in the Toronto Star.)



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