Dune director Denis Villeneuve has touched down in London and is sorely lacking spice. ‘I am very happy to be with you,’ he says via Zoom link, ‘but I have a very strange reaction to jet lag.’ The Canadian would be forgiven for feeling a little weary: Wrestling Frank Herbert’s monumental sci-fi novel to the screen, complete with a superstar cast, desert locations and the billion variables of Covid-era filmmaking, has been the labour of a lifetime. He discovered the book in his teens and has nursed dreams of adapting it for almost as long. Today he has his still-pristine original copy to hand, because, he smiles: ‘I need Frank Herbert's spirit with me’.
For the uninitiated, Herbert’s 1965 epic of imperialism, colonisation, intergalactic magic, bloodletting and voracious sandworms sees the Atreides clan assuming control of the inhospitable desert planet of Arrakis (aka Dune) and its most precious resource, spice. Only, well, it’s a trap. The villainous Harkonnen, the indigenous Freman people, and a fair few super-sized sandworms all lie in wait.
It’s a lot to cram into one movie – too much for David Lynch’s beloved but unquestionably dotty 1984 version – which is why Villeneuve is betting the house of the film’s success to get part two made. If Dune is a hit at the box office, and on streaming (HBO Max in the US), the second part awaits. And with a cast that boasts Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac and Javier Bardem – and a clutch of unexpected bagpipers – it’s definitely not short of pulling power.
Can we start with the bagpipes? What was the inspiration for that?
‘When you make a movie like this a lot of things are planned and then there’s a lot – a lot – of creativity that comes out of the storyboard process. But there was something missing with the Atreides family’s arrival on Dune. I wanted it to look like Mountbatten arriving in India in 1948, but the thing that was missing was culture. I woke up in the middle of the night saying, “I need bagpipes! Where can I get bagpipes?” Aesthetically, it felt right for the Atreides, and I deeply loved the idea of a lonely melancholic bagpipe player stepping onto the ground, [sounding a note] and then there’s a whole army of bagpipes answering. When I had this idea I ran to my first AD’s office the next morning and said, “I need bagpipes!” There was a long silence. People thought I was mad but I got Hans Zimmer’s respect for introducing the bagpipes.’
Was it a challenge for Hans?
‘It was a miracle that he was able to hire 30 or 40 bagpipers in the middle of a pandemic.’
I got Hans Zimmer’s respect for introducing the bagpipes to Dune
What does your copy of the book look like?
‘I took great care of my original version of the book. It’s old but it’s not destroyed. I used a digital copy to make annotations – I love that the digital allows me to do research very quickly. My original paper version that I had as a kid has stayed with me, and I love to keep it close to me: It’s like the Bible for me. People expect the book to be battered and filled with notes.’
Where do you keep it?
‘It’s with me right now. I need Frank Herbert’s spirit with me.’
Timothée Chalamet is mesmerising in this role of Paul Atreides, a character who has a bit of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal about him. Was his role as Hal in The King a factor in casting him?
‘I cast it before I saw The King, although I did love that film and his performance in it was really impressive – but I didn’t see it until I was doing prep. I saw all his movies and was mesmerised by his skills, his maturity and how young he looked on camera. That contrast between maturity and youth seemed very close to Paul Atreides’s spirit and his features – aristocratic – and his beautiful candour. From what I’d seen in his movies, there was nobody else like him.’
The world of Dune is full of conceptual abstractions, like the torture box Paul has to stick his hand into. How do you make something like that real for an actor?
‘It was one of the first scenes we did. Paul has to express a tremendous amount of pain and control it and I had to bring out of him a kind of inverted exorcism – a dangerous button being pushed which will trigger an awakening inside him. [Directing that] is in the moment, like playing an instrument: You watch the actor, you listen and I gave multiple little directions to sculpt the performance. It was like he was possessed by some force. Directing actors is a very intimate process and it's so different from one actor to another.’
Dune is a tragedy and the second part is much more intense than the first
What comes next?
‘It will be for Paul and Jessica to be accepted by the Freman culture, to immerse themselves and become one with it, and that’s one of my favourite parts of the novel. They learn the ways of the desert, and Paul has to learn to control this rising power within himself to foresee the future and to avenge his father. Dune is a tragedy and the second part is much more intense than the first part.’
Will there be more sandworm riding?
‘As the story requires. The answer can be just: Yes, of course.’
And from a greenlight point of view?
‘It’s part of the game. It’s strange because I’m not talking about making a sequel, I’m talking about finishing a first movie. I made that deal at the beginning and I’m responsible for that – I’m the one who asked for it to be two parts.’
After Blade Runner 2049 you said you were ready ‘to stop and slow down a bit’. How did you gear up again for something on this scale?
‘The screenwriting process was a blessing. I had time to go back home, to think and dream and design the movie, so I wasn’t rushed like I was on Blade Runner. I had more time. I will say that I have the energy now to make movies – it doesn’t show up this morning! – but I have it, and I may not have that in 20 years. I may not do that my whole life. It requires a lot of stamina, I will say.’
What did you learn about filming in the desert?
‘I learned so much making Dune, but I learned that bringing a film crew into the desert and footprints – as stupid as it sounds – was nightmarish. The logistics of protecting the environment from a film crew. I don’t know how David Lean did it, to have this army of people and trying to protect the sets from being destroyed by footprints. It was a real challenge in the desert. But I’m deeply comfortable in the desert, working in the heat.’
Are you ready for people to keep asking you about part 2?
‘It’s exciting. The opposite would be sad.’
Dune is in cinemas worldwide now. Read our review here.