Exclusive: Denis Villeneuve Talks Dune: Part II

After a brief strike-related pause that pushed the film from its scheduled drop last autumn, Denis Villeneuve finally brings the second chapter of the Dune saga to big screens worldwide. As our Pat Mullen wrote in his review, “everything is bigger and better in this follow-up”, and these latest Arrakisian adventures build upon what we saw unfold in the prior film. Continuing mere moments after the previous film’s finale, in my own video review I found this latest chapter to be a “mighty messianic triumph”, enthralled by the expansion of scope while still maintaining a core focus on the characters despite the stunning visuals.

I spoke with Denis Villeneuve over Zoom while he was finally back in his hometown of Montreal. He appeared worse for wear, fighting both jetlag and a cold resulting from an arduous global press tour. I caught him at the end of the day, just before he could settle in for some well-deserved rest, and we joked how a bed may be a better reward than box office success. We spoke about the process of getting here, about how the philosophical ideas at the heart of the narrative were held onto through tough days of production, and how the prophetic elements of the first film are purposely seen from different perspectives when revealed in this chapter.

The following has been edited for clarity and concision.

If given the choice I think any studio would have said this is the movie you’re supposed to make and ignore the first. During the development how much of a fight it was to make Part I, and how much of Part I in retrospect was conditioned on the fact that one day you wanted to make a part II?

Denis Villeneuve: The thing is that there wasn’t such a fight. We all agreed very spontaneously that it would be a better idea to start the narrative as we did because of the nature of the original story. The plan was ideally to make two movies – The first movie would be a little bit more contemplative, with the idea of a boy discovering a culture and a planet and suddenly becoming the victim of adult decisions and having to survive in a new environment. When I made that movie, as I was shooting it, even as I was writing it, I didn’t know for sure if the second one would ever come to life. At the time of making part one I distinctly remember when shooting in the desert saying to myself that I needed to enjoy it, for I might not come back. I tried at that time to bring as many images as I had in mind as possible from the book, so that if I didn’t get the chance to do part II, I would not be too sad.

I think that Part II works so well in a major way because of the ground you set earlier. You made us care about these characters in Part I, which allows some of the bigger, grander storylines to take over which are so often the center. There’s a shift in focus here, but it’s one that like the Bene Gesserit laying the groundwork for a space messiah, you’ve layed the foundation for Part II to flourish.

The DNA of my version of the project, the very foundation, is found in the relationship between Paul and Chani. All the stories unfold through the tension between both of them and the evolution of their relationship. That was one of the first decisions I made. I wanted to make sure that I would be faithful to Frank Herbert’s desire that Dune needed to be perceived as a cautionary tale, a warning against messianic figures. Right from the start I thought it critical to bring Chani to the forefront of the story, and thus to construct the entire movie based on their evolving relationship. That of course means that no matter how big the scope gets, no matter how big the battles become, all of that is secondary to this central relationship. The heartbeat of my story was their love. As I kept saying to my crew: if we don’t believe in what these two young people are going through, there’s no movie. Thus the main focus of the adaptation was being with them and taking care of them and what’s happening between them.

Am I crazy to see echoes of Incendies? Of family secrets, of finding out horrifying things about your lineage? Or is this just me the film critic looking for deeper connections?

There is a connection with the idea of how genetic heritage shapes people, as well as the power of education, and the struggle of someone to get free from what has been embedded in you from your parents. They’re both about how can someone become a real adult and try to become free. So, yeah, there is a connection with Incendies, I can see it.

Director Denis Villeneuve and Actor Timothée Chalamet (Paul Atreides) on the set of DUNE: PART II

There are big ideas about fate and faith at the heart of the story – Did you struggle to articulate these ideas, perhaps in contrast with the source material? How many conversations did you have that were deeply philosophical versus just trying to get the day and make sure that in the middle of the desert you were getting the shot?

Ah no, but you don’t talk about that in the desert! You talk about that at home around your keyboard when you read the screenplay. It’s all in the screenplay. The writing process was the most difficult thing about making those two movies. When people ask me how tough it was in the desert, I say, it was fun, it was tough while sitting at the keyboard.

There are shots in this film that echo prophesized moments from the first film, but they do not replicate the moments perfectly, the visions are askew. That’s a fascinating choice that complicated the storyline even further.

The idea is that I try to approach the visions as very powerful intuitions, or dreams that you need to decipher. They are not precise. What Paul experiences is more about the emotion of the dream and a singular context rather than a precise vision. They’re more like puzzles. I thought it was interesting that Paul has these fears, these strange moments of prescience about what could happen, but they’re not clear visions. Some of Paul’s earlier visions are distorted and when the reality unfolds later, it’s completely different. We see these unfold in Part II in a similar current, with a similar emotion, or a similar idea, but they are distorted from what was foreseen. And I love that! In the book, Paul can foresee multiple possibilities, and that’s what I tried to express cinematically with that.

Did you have these moments when you’re navigating messianic paroxysms, were there moments of how do I narrow this down for a general audience, or were you convinced even during this production, the audience would go along with you on this kind of journey?

I tried to bring a kind of level of reality, of verisimilitude. From a certain point of view you can almost explain the metaphysical elements of Dune scientifically. I tried to ground this story as much as possible in a certain reality, to go as much as far away from fantasy as possible, so the people will feel a familiarity, they will feel that these struggles are tangible.

Are you still dreaming about the desert? How much has this filmmaking experience changed you over the six-year process?

Each movie will change you, but these ones have been massive life experience. It’s been an expansion of my ability to collaborate creatively with other artists, and learning more about how to bring my vision to the screen on this scope. I’ve had to navigate the size of the crew and the visual effects, yet at the core to keep my identity alive. While making those two movies I felt I was going back to film school, and learned a lot about my own limits. These films made for a fantastic laboratory.

Dune: Part Two is now playing in theatres worldwide.