Dune: Denis Villeneuve on Frank Herbert, a director’s cut and Dune part two

Director and writer Denis Villeneuve exclusively reveals to us his love of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel, his hopes on part two of his adaptation of Dune and whether we’ll see a director’s cut…

Frank Herbert Dune Villeneuve

Based on the novel by Frank Herbert, Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, who must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people. As malevolent forces explode into conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence — a commodity capable of unlocking humanity’s greatest potential— only those who can conquer their fear will survive.

There have been a few attempts to adapt Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi classic (including, famously, David Lynch who disowned his own Eighties version) and now’s the turn for visionary French director Denis Villeneuve (pictured above, left, with actor Javier Bardem who plays Stilgar) who’s no stranger to sci-fi, having directed 2016’s Arrival and Blade Runner: 2049. 

A true passion project for Villeneuve (who’s also credited as co-screenwriter), we sat down with him to discuss his version of Dune (which encompasses the first half of the novel) his love of Frank Herbert, deleted scenes and what’s in store for a potential Dune part two…

How did your journey start with Dune?

At the time I think I was shooting Blade Runner [2049], I knew that somebody was about to get the rights to the book, and Dune has always been a dream of mine. To make a new adaptation of Dune has been an old dream.

So I just said it out loud in an interview A journalist asked me ‘what would be my dream project?’ and spontaneously I said Dune, because it’s true. I also knew that the rights would soon be acquired and I wanted to make sure, out loud, that people knew I was interested in being part of the conversation if such a thing happened.

I then got a phone call from Mary Parent [producer] at Legendary asking me if I would like to meet her to talk about the adaptation!

Frankly, it was probably the fastest meeting I’ve ever had in my life. I got into her office, we shook hands and said ‘let’s do this together’. That was it. Mary has the best reputation in the business, she’s a producer, she had just finished The Revenant with [Alejandro G.] Iñárritu and I knew that she was the real deal. She’s someone that is filmmaker-oriented. She’s a true filmmaker, and she had in her hands my favourite book and she wanted to work with me, so it was an easy decision to make!

Are there any other dream projects you’d like to say in this interview to get you a meeting?

Haha, I think I have enough on my plate, but thank you!

Well if you ever need us…!

You say that Dune is your favourite book and it’s one you’ve always wanted to adapt. What is it about this book or this world that that really made you want to do this adaptation?

It’s the way Frank Herbert created an ecosystem, and explored biology as a backdrop for this world, for Dune’s world that still to this day mesmerises me.

I’m in deep love with biology, with the study of life and this idea that you could articulate a science fiction story through biology, I thought it was absolutely mesmerising. It’s also the way he explored the notion of spirituality in contact with nature, that I thought was pretty poetic and powerful.

Was there any particular element of the book you felt you must have in your adaptation?

Yes. I specifically tried to protect everything that was linked with the ecosystems, again everything that involved the creatures, or the plants, or the logic of the way the living form of the planet is portrayed in the book.

I tried to stay as close as possible to the description, and their interaction and the complexity of it. I tried to protect that, and I tried also to make sure that the spiritual elements that are linked with those creatures will be present in the film.

As a fan of the book, was there any particular element that you were excited to see on the big screen?

Everything involving the Bene Gesserit, the Reverend Mothers, Lady Jessica. This female sisterhood. I thought the idea of this female power was very original and contemporary and I was very excited to bring it to the screen.

Also, everything involving the Fremen culture. These people that are living in the deep desert that were able to adapt, that were able to develop technologies, that were able to design strategies in order to survive in the deep desert. I thought that was very inspiring. Everything involving the Fremen culture I was really excited to design and to capture with the camera.

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Villeneuve was excited to see the Fremin, who live in the desert, on the big screen.

Frank Herbert’s book is incredibly complex – how did you ensure the balance was right to cover all of those elements in your adaptation?

It was all about the screenwriting and I didn’t do that alone. I was working with John Spaihts and Eric Roth on the screenplay, and we took months and months if not years to find that balance.

The idea was that I wanted the deep arc for fans like me to be pleased with the adaptation, to recognise Frank Herbert’s poetry, the strength of the novel, the complexity of the ideas. At the same time, I wanted audience members that will never read the book, who will have known nothing about Dune, to feel welcome and to understand the story. So, to find that equilibrium was long and tricky.

Are there any deleted scenes you wish were in the movie and should we look forward to any particular deleted scenes in the home entertainment release?

I never put deleted scenes in Blu-rays. Why? Because when it’s out of the movie it’s because it’s dead. And if it’s not in the movie, there’s a specific reason why.

What you see on the screen right now is the director’s cut.

Were there scenes that were painful to cut? Of course, there’s a lot of scenes. There are some moments with Stilgar [Javier Bardem] in the deep desert, that I had to remove.

There’s a moment where Gurney Halleck [Josh Brolin], is playing a song, which was very sad. That was one of my favourite moments that I had to remove because I decided myself that it didn’t fit in that first part. But that’s part of the journey of editing a movie, you are killing your darlings!

What is it about genre that really calls out to people to want to explore on the big screen?

I don’t know if I can speak for others but for me, sci-fi allows me to think about reality. To be in contact with reality, but with a distance that makes it more digestible. To explore difficult themes that are more abrasive, or subjects that are more difficult. Like, for instance, in Dune, religion. But in a way that is more poetic and more playful maybe.

I think as humans, it’s healthy to have a representation of ourselves in the future. To foresee the problems that might come to us, and, also to see ourselves present in the future. I think it’s very healthy. It brings hope.

Frank Herbert Dune Villeneuve
Sci-fi allows Villeneuve to think about reality and explore themes like religion – a big element in Frank Herbert’s novel.

Frank Herbert wrote Dune back in 1965 – what is it about this particular story that’s kept audienced hooked for all these years?

I think that it all goes to the genius of Frank Herbert. I think he wrote a novel being inspired by the 20th century. I think when he wrote his novel he was trying to make a portrait of the state of the world at the beginning of the Sixties. Being inspired by the impact of colonialism, by the overexploitation of natural resources, by the danger of blending religion and politics together… These topics sadly became just more relevant, then as time went by, they became more prominent. I think that if you read the book today. It feels sadly more relevant.

What can you tell us about part two of Dune?

I will say at this point, we are very advanced, of course, because doing part one, I knew where we would go with part two, but there is no spoiler alert, in the way that the book has been available for 60 years!

But I will say that the first part was really a way to introduce the world to the audience, and now that this introduction has been done, the second part will be playtime!

It’s just going to be having fun with the world and it will definitely be more cinematic and a pleasure to make. I hope it will happen, and if it does, I think it’s going to be kind of awesome!

What do you want audiences to take away from Dune?

That’s up to them. I mean it’s like misnomers in poetry and I don’t want to impose things on the audience’s minds. Of course, I express things in the movie from the book and they’re my concerns regarding the world, my apprehension of the future, but I want people to be free to take whatever they want from the movie. I think it’s more the way it should be.

Dune is out in cinemas now from Warner Bros Entertainment. Read our review here.