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Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Zendaya, Denis Villeneuve, Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson and Jason Momoa Violeta Sofia/Deadline

How Denis Villeneuve, Mary Parent And The Cast Crafted ‘Dune’ To Lead The Charge For Cinema’s Reawakening

Against all the odds, Denis Villeneuve has delivered the definitive adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 classic novel Dune. But a complex narrative and the difficulty of shooting a blockbuster in the scorching deserts of Wadi Rum, Jordan became the least of the challenges when a global pandemic threatened to disrupt the movie’s chance to screen in theaters. At the end of the process, with a follow-up having been announced, Villeneuve, producer Mary Parent and the cast of Dune tell Joe Utichi why the journey to Arrakis was worth the effort.

A few weeks past the domestic release of Dune, Denis Villeneuve is in a reflective mood. It’s not quite that he can finally relax—in fact, he says, he’s already deep into prep on the second chapter of his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi tome—but rather that the many dice he’s been rolling for the better part of the last five years have finally come to rest and he can be reasonably confident in declaring victory. Dune: Part One became the biggest opening of his career, Warner Bros’ biggest opening of the pandemic era, and a reminder for audiences the world over of the power of cinema.

Cameron Curtis Named Warner Bros EVP Worldwide Digital Marketing

“I felt the appetite for people to go back to the theaters, to be together and to watch movies, to go back to the theatrical experience,” he says now. “We made the movie for that kind of experience, and people really embraced it. People were moved to tears to be back in theaters. It was really touching.”

It’s a victory for Villeneuve—and for Legendary Pictures, which set the course for a new adaptation of Dune by picking up the rights only a short while before appointing the director—not just because Dune has a rocky history on the big screen. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to adapt the book resulted only in a definitive documentary about the folly of it all some 40 years after the fact, and David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation is much-maligned, especially by the director himself. It’s also a victory because of the landscape cinema found itself in when the pandemic shuttered theaters the world over, and Warner Bros announced its entire slate would stream on HBO Max concurrently with a theatrical release—if the latter was even a possibility at all.

And it’s especially a victory for the 13-year-old kid from Quebec who first read Dune and could scarcely believe he might one day get the chance to combine his passion for it with his love for movies. “Reading the book was a visceral experience,” he remembers of that first encounter. “I devoured it. I devoured the entire series. As I grew up, I rediscovered it through the years, because it’s the kind of book where every time you read it, you discover something new according to your life experience.”

Villeneuve had seen Lynch’s version of Dune on its initial release, not long after he first read the book. He was disappointed, admiring parts of it but feeling frustrated by its deviations from the source material. “I remember coming out and telling myself somebody will do it in the future again.” So, he waited and waited, hearing rumors about attempts that all seemed to fizzle, and nobody ever got into production with a new adaptation.

That might have been the end of the tale. But Villeneuve may be the Kwisatz Haderach of this story—the chosen one sealed by fate—because in relatively rapid fire in 2016, the planets aligned to put him in charge of his dream project. In an interview, almost as an aside, he disclosed that Dune had been the film he always wanted to make. Across town, Mary Parent had just brought the rights to Legendary, the company she would eventually join to become its vice chair of worldwide production.

“It never happened like this before and it probably never will again,” Parent says now. By chance, she read the interview, and reached out to Villeneuve. “We hadn’t even started to develop the script. I didn’t want to develop a script because I wanted it to be the filmmakers’ vision. And then in the third paragraph of this article, Denis had said it was his dream to direct this movie. It did feel fated.”

Still, Villeneuve faced the challenge of succeeding where others had failed. His first roll of the dice was the decision to split Herbert’s first Dune novel into two movies, betting on the success of the first that the second would get a green light.

Chia Bella James/Warner Bros.

Part of the struggle to adapt the project—and Villeneuve notes that writing the script was the hardest part of the process—was how much depth and definition there was in the world Herbert had created. With Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts, Villeneuve spent months trying to crack the nut, brainstorming how to introduce an audience to the themes, characters and politics of this game of thrones in space. “The novel starts with the phrase, ‘Beginnings are very delicate times,’” Villeneuve says with a laugh. “It’s true. You could make the movie for hardcore fans, and if everybody had read the book, that would be easy, but to make sure that everyone who saw this would feel welcomed, that was the biggest challenge.”

He set a simple goal: “I wanted to make the movie to please myself as a hardcore fan, but also to make sure that my mother, who had not actually read the book, would understand the story and not feel alienated.”

Cutting the story in the middle meant that Villeneuve and company could focus the narrative primarily on establishing Paul Atreides, the wide-eyed 15-year-old whose fate is intertwined with that of the desert planet of Arrakis, which gives the story its title. From Paul’s perspective, we are introduced to the power struggles between rival houses over access to the Spice Melange, the natural resource of Arrakis that makes the planet a highly contested landscape. And through him, we meet the various other groups along the margins who are all affected by this fight for supremacy. They include the Fremen, Arrakis’ native population whose world is being decimated by spice mining, and the Bene Gesserit, a female-led order who appear to be the puppet masters behind the patriarchies that fight over political power and territory.

There were few elements here that stood up to being cut. Every thread of the plot impacts the overarching narrative. Splitting the story in two not only meant an opportunity for a longer overall runtime (Parent notes that she expects theaters might want to treat the separation point as an interval for the inevitable double bills of both chapters), but also that an audience wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the information dump of exposition required to cram it all into a single movie.

“There’s so much worldbuilding, but it’s completely accessible,” notes Parent of the script for Dune: Part One that emerged as the project developed. “The worldbuilding is simply hard to hide in this movie. But Denis is precise about that, and he makes it as intimate as it is epic. There’s only a few people that I think of who could pull that off, and Denis is at the top of that list.”

And just as fate seemed to hand this project to Villeneuve, so it was that finding a young actor who could bear the weight of that worldbuilding turned out to be less of a challenge than perhaps it could have been. Not only had Timothée Chalamet set up a Google news alert for Dune when he heard Villeneuve was going to adapt the book, but, for Villeneuve, “there was no other candidate, frankly.” Chalamet was fresh from his Oscar-nominated breakthrough with Call Me by Your Name, and a raft of stellar notices for work like Lady Bird and Beautiful Boy. He was ready for his first blockbuster lead role to test his mettle as a movie star.

Josh Brolin and Timothee Chalamet in Dune
Warner Bros.

“What he has is a very rare talent,” Villeneuve says. “You see actors like that come by once in a decade. He’s a profound thinker and a skilled actor, and I needed someone who had that. And yet, on screen, Timothée looks really young, and I also needed that youth. I wanted Paul to be close to the description in the book, where he is a teen with a lot of maturity.”

What Chalamet also brought, Parent says, was a commitment to the process that made him more than just an actor for hire. Along with Zendaya, cast as Chani, whose narrative will dominate the second chapter of Villeneuve’s adaptation, the film’s two leads fully immersed in a collaboration with their director. “Timmy and Z aren’t just legitimately two of the best actors of their generation and movie stars, but they are in full command of what they want their careers to be,” Parent says. “They take charge, and they drive decisions about the filmmakers they want to work with and the kinds of material they will do.”

Around them, a supporting cast full of franchise-commanding players includes Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Javier Bardem and Jason Momoa. “One of the big challenges of the film is getting all these people assembled,” says Parent, with an eye on how she will plan to bring most of them back together for Dune: Part Two. “It’s a high-class problem to have, but they’re all so busy and at the top of their game that figuring out how to schedule the movie was not easy.”

Hence the biggest of all the movie’s rolls of the dice. Because Dune: Part One—thus titled on screen, with a definitive ellipsis at the film’s conclusion—had been constructed specifically to play as a first chapter and not a stand-alone picture. And yet Warner Bros had not committed to a back-to-back shoot as they had done with the Matrix sequels, or as New Line had done with The Lord of the Rings. Getting a chance to make the second part of Dune would always rely on delivering success for the first part.

And even in late 2019, as principal photography wrapped on Dune, conversations about the survival of cinema—about its viability and its definition—had started to rage. Streamers like Netflix and Amazon had gained ground offering in-home convenience, but they set out to make movies and television shows alike, blurring the division between the two formats. And the most successful tentpole releases seemed to come from a single studio, Disney, with its consolidation of franchises including Marvel and Star Wars.

“We’re not a Marvel movie and we didn’t have a Marvel budget,” Parent says. “At $165 million we’re on the smaller side of a big movie. I’ve never made anything of Marvel size, but I’ve certainly made movies for $10 million or $15 million more, and by the way, that would have been great. But we were helped by Denis knowing exactly what he wanted to shoot.”

Nevertheless, $165 million is no small indie loss-leader. And marketing the movie, despite a committed fanbase for the book, would not be easy, especially since so many of the ideas Herbert originated in Dune had been co-opted by the many other space-bound franchises that followed its publication. When the global pandemic shut down theaters just as Dune was nearing the finish line, all of these challenges multiplied.

It wasn’t that Dune was the first project rocked by the pandemic and the lockdowns that began in earnest in the early half of 2020, and nor will it be the last. Every studio—streamers included—has had to reckon with a new paradigm for releasing movies… or risk letting them rest on shelves indefinitely, incapable of recouping their production costs. But more than many—perhaps even most—Dune demanded the big screen.

When Warner Bros announced it would send its slate to stream on HBO Max day-and-date with whichever theaters were available, it was reported that the company had not consulted with the filmmakers in its stable about its plan. The studio would ultimately lose the loyalty of Christopher Nolan, a longtime proponent of the theatrical experience, whose next film Oppenheimer will be released instead through Universal Pictures. And Legendary fought on behalf of its own projects at the studio to preserve the value of a big-screen release, coming close to taking legal action.

For Dune, a compromise was reached. “We had already sat on the movie for a year, so thinking about sitting on it for another year was very stressful,” Parent says. “Faced with holding the movie longer, I think we made the right decision.”

The announcement from Warner Bros might have blindsided its filmmakers, but it wasn’t without precedent. As soon as late March 2020, studios had begun toying with shifting movies originally bound for theaters into exclusive streaming runs. Theatrical windows, which had long held exclusivity for theater operators, started to collapse, and exhibitors, whose venues were shuttered, had little leverage to protest.

The accessibility of streaming combined with the sudden arrival of brand-new studio pictures piped directly into homes had a profound cultural impact, too, though this took a while longer to manifest. While no outbreaks of Covid have been conclusively linked to movie theaters, audiences seemed to be in no hurry to return. When Dune finally premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August, critics who suggested the film belonged on the big screen encountered the ire of social media users who had come to see theatrical cinema as a frivolous—even dangerous—pursuit, when safer home distribution models had been applied to other releases.

“There’s a level of engagement [to a theatrical release],” Villeneuve says now, determined that there is only one optimal way to see his movie. “If you’re at home watching it on your computer, you are less committed to the experience. There’s something about the power of the big screen and the sound system that you cannot find at home. It becomes almost spiritual, because with an audience suddenly you become one together, which is something humans need. I think we are not meant to be isolated. We are meant to share together. And cinema really is one of the last places that can happen.”

He isn’t ignorant to the notion that most audiences, in the lifespan of a movie, will experience it first on the small screen. “That’s how I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time,” he notes, while insisting, humbly, that he isn’t comparing his own movie to Kubrick’s classic. “You can still have a strong cinematic experience at home. But when you watch it in 70mm in a theater, the difference is emotional. I cried when I watched 2001 again in a movie theater. I realized how much I had missed when I watched at home.”

As for the teed-off Twitterati? “A platform like Twitter is just polarizing and everything will become hostile. There’s no more place for nuance,” he says. Villeneuve knows that people need to feel safe, and that may involve eschewing the cinema. “It’s delicate because of the pandemic, and I respect that. But it’s not the ideal way to see the movie, and the movie was not meant to be seen on a TV screen,” he says simply. “It was shot and edited and designed for the theater.”

In the end, Dune’s release proved that there was still an appetite for theatrical. After premiering at Venice, the film rolled out internationally as a cinema exclusive before opening day-and-date with HBO Max in the U.S. At the time of writing, it has made $350 million globally; numbers that may have felt modest pre-pandemic, but that suggest Villeneuve’s adaptation has given post-pandemic audiences an excuse to emerge.

When, on October 27, Dune: Part Two was officially announced, Villeneuve’s victory was complete. He had been feeling good about his chances. “When Warner Bros finally saw the movie, they did express to us loud and clear that they loved it and were very proud of it. And of course, I have had the full support of Legendary from the beginning,” he says. “Nobody wanted the journey to end there. It would have needed a catastrophic opening to end that journey, I think. But until the light goes green, you really don’t know what can happen.”

“You can’t take anything for granted,” Parent adds. “Hollywood doesn’t make these kinds of films anymore, these big epics. It’s a film that’s a mix of new and old, because it’s cutting edge and very timely, but it was made in the tradition of old Hollywood, with not a lot of CG and as much practical as possible. People really did appreciate that, and it gives you hope.”

“The worms were visual effects, though,” laughs Villeneuve. “No worms were harmed in the making of this movie.”

Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Zendaya & Denis Villeneuve
Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Zendaya & Denis Villeneuve Violeta Sofia/Deadline

Zendaya is Chani

DEADLINE: After a year and a half of pandemic, how did it feel to premiere this movie in Venice?

ZENDAYA: Timmy and I looked at each other like, “You know what, let’s really take this moment in, because this is so special.” There are very few people that get to have the view that we got. And I think we were just reminding each other that this is real life, and to soak it up as much as we possibly could. I felt very grateful also to be sharing that with a dear friend of mine.

DEADLINE: Chani is a definite presence in this movie, but her story will really be told in Part Two. What was the experience of finding her when you are joining this established ensemble relatively late in shooting?

ZENDAYA: I was late to the party. It’s interesting because I pursued it quite early. Before any casting went out, I heard that it was happening and I was like, “Hey, I’m here, I just want to put my name out there, can I get in the room?” At the time I hadn’t done Euphoria yet, so I knew I didn’t have anything to prove it.

But I was finally cast, and when I arrived in Jordan, there was an already this set family. I remember turning up and everybody was already in their outfits, which was cool. I met everybody fully in the stillsuits. So that was a very cool way to be introduced to everyone, pretty much in their character essentially.

Even though my time on set was brief, Denis is great at giving you structure, but then also giving you freedom within that structure. And I think for me, I could come to it with a sense of who she was. I don’t feel like she’s too much of a departure from who I am, though the circumstances may be different. But with any character, you find the pieces of yourself that line up with the pieces of who they are and then you build around that. I felt immediately connected to her. I wish I had more time with her, and with everybody. I didn’t want to leave.

DEADLINE: What are you most excited about for Dune: Part Two?

ZENDAYA: Well, I can be there for longer, which is cool [laughs].

I want to grow with the characters I play, and with the people that I get to learn from. Anybody who has read the books knows there’s so much more to explore and deal with. What was cool for me having not been around for much of the first shoot was getting to see the movie from a completely fresh perspective, because I hadn’t seen the sets and the scenes for most of the movie. And watching it felt like just the beginning of this story.

Sharon Duncan-Brewster is Dr. Liet Kynes

DEADLINE: What did you make of the scale of this project? You had been in Rogue One briefly, but this must have felt different.

Sharon Duncan-Brewster
Sharon Duncan-Brewster Violeta Sofia/Deadline

SHARON DUNCAN-BREWSTER: For Rogue One, I basically had a bazillion costume fittings, but I only did like two-thirds of a day of actual filming. Compare that with getting out of a car in Wadi Rum in Jordan and seeing hundreds of crew reeling cables everywhere, and trucks being driven over the dunes. So that was Star Wars, but by heck, this is Dune. It blew me away, but for all the right reasons.

DEADLINE: Dr. Liet Kynes is a man in the books. How helpful was the conception of the character on Frank Herbert’s page to you as you figured out how to play your own version?

DUNCAN-BREWSTER: Something I have always strong stood by is that, if you extract the gender from many characters in some of the greatest stories, the stories still function. We live in a time now where so many young people are defining their own gender identities, or not defining them at all, and this fluidity of identity means that we’re starting to look at identity in a whole new way. So, yes, if you pull out the idea that this is a man, everything else about the character is still in there. I still have the opportunity to play all those truths.

DEADLINE: What excites you about being an actor?

DUNCAN-BREWSTER: Art is there to stimulate and challenge and ignite an energy. Art is a gift. I’m so proud to be part of a world that is still considered an artistic expression. A lot of people are in it because they just want to be famous, but that’s not where I come from. I want to tell stories. I want audiences to think about what they’ve seen and relate to it.

I haven’t been in this business for very long, and Dune is definitely the biggest thing I’ve done on the big screen ever. But watching the movie for the first time, it grabs you straight away and once you’re in the moment of experiencing it, it’s something else. There’s an electricity to this movie that occurs when you’re sat in an audience watching it with everybody else, and you feel the ripples of emotion run through the theater. That’s so exciting to witness.

Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson & Jason Momoa
Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson & Jason Momoa Violeta Sofia/Deadline

Timothée Chalamet is Paul Atreides

DEADLINE: How much did you rely on Frank Herbert’s novel to understand more about who Paul was?

TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET: Absolutely. When you’re lucky enough to work on something with a book as source material, it’s the best cheat code. There’s a blueprint right there in front of you. On the day, you just let go of all of your prep work and trust in Denis. But it did feel like taking authorship of this character. I felt close to Paul Atreides and close to this story. I have excitement to do another one.

DEADLINE: We’ll see more of Zendaya’s Chani in Dune: Part Two. What did you make of what she brought to the project?

CHALAMET: She is Chani, and it’s incredible to witness. From the get-go, she was that character, and it was inspiring to see. I love the shot in the movie of Chani pulling the mask down for the first time; it feels properly momentous. But even on the day, it was like, Holy sh*t, Chani has arrived.

There’s the book, and there have been other adaptations, but not only was the relationship between us alive in Jordan, and not only does it live on the screen now, it was there just at the first chemistry read. It felt obvious.

DEADLINE: Are you ready to head back to the desert for Part Two?

CHALAMET: We were ready to do it back then [when we wrapped Part One]. This story is far from finished. These characters are far from their end points. It’s a dream come true to get to work with Denis once on a movie of this size. And it’s certainly a marathon and not a sprint, so you have to pace yourself. But you don’t want to be weary of having fun. Certainly, in the project I’m working on now [Paul King’s Wonka], I’m learning even more than you don’t have to suffer all day at work. How lucky are we to get to do this?

Rebecca Ferguson is Lady Jessica

DEADLINE: Did you know Dune before you took the part?

Rebecca Ferguson
Rebecca Ferguson Violeta Sofia/Deadline

REBECCA FERGUSON: I didn’t have a relationship to Dune at all. It was all very new to me. But it was enough for me to sit on a Skype with Denis. He’s cheeky, mischievous and he’s curious. Those qualities are what lure me in. When someone’s a very good talker, you’re drawn in and it has power. So, when you meet someone like Denis, who can verbalize in quirky ways and use gestures as he explains all this to you, I’m blown away. Done. I’m sold on this story. And then I read the script. I’d already said yes before I read the script, but reading it, I didn’t feel like I wanted to change a thing. I didn’t feel a female suppression, which I often do. It was a script that had been dissected so carefully that there was time to follow the journey of everyone.

DEADLINE: What did you make of seeing the movie for the first time with all the effects and music put into place?

FERGUSON: I took my son, Isaac. And I was expecting him to be blown away by the cool shields or the body armor. Or by Jason Momoa, of course. But when the imperial spaceship comes into land early on in the film, Isaac just grabbed my hand and I literally saw him do an intake of breath. It was the sound of it. The score. It provoked every atom of my body.

DEADLINE: Lady Jessica is part of the Bene Gesserit, a female-led order and they’re basically pulling the strings of the universe.

FERGUSON: She was ahead of her time in 1965, and still is. What’s wonderful is the fact that this male writer—Frank Herbert—was enlightened and felt the urge and necessity to describe this sisterhood who are connected ancestrally to be able to manipulate the universe. Because it wasn’t so different back in the day when men were on the battlefield and the women were building strong households, marrying off their children and making alliances to build stronger communities. That’s basically the Bene Gesserit, right?

Jason Momoa is Duncan Idaho

DEADLINE: How did this project first come to you?

Jason Momoa
Jason Momoa Warner Bros

JASON MOMOA: I hadn’t read the book before speaking with Denis. He filled my mind with all of it and gave me his bible for the movie. I saw his visual presentation, and I couldn’t believe how generous he was in the director’s notes and everything. There are pictures in that presentation that are absolutely identical to what has ended up in the movie. So, that was such a beautiful introduction to the kind of heart and vision he has.

DEADLINE: The movie feels so tangible.

MOMOA: That’s because there wasn’t any green screen. The only thing missing from the frame on the day we shot it was the ornithopter over my shoulder. Wadi Rum, where we shot, is unbelievable, man. Just to be a part of that, out there in the desert… I actually went out and shot some of my own stuff in the middle of the day or in our off hours. I’d show Denis the footage. I was so inspired by him and being around him that it got the creative juices flowing, and there was no pressure at all, even for a movie this big.

DEADLINE: What did you like most about your character Duncan?

MOMOA: Duncan was described as the greatest fighter in the galaxy. He’s honorable, he’d do anything to serve the family, the house of Atreides. I love that quality he has, of like the knight or the samurai. Women love him and men want to have a drink with him, so I loved the idea of his charisma and his sense of adventure. And at the same time, he’s a badass. So, why wouldn’t I play him?




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