Denis Villeneuve Pays Tribute to Artisans & Writers Who Brought ‘Dune’ to Life

Chiabella James / © Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection

Denis Villeneuve, the director, co-writer and a producer of WB/Legendary’s “Dune,” talked with Variety about the four creative stages of filming — scriptwriting, preproduction, production and post — as they related to his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel. The film has been Oscar-nominated in each of those four stages, with 10 well-earned bids.

“I’m very proud of my team. It was a challenge to adapt that book but everybody worked hard and I think they brought a beautiful elegance to the movie,” the filmmaker says.

“As a director, you’re always flirting with disaster; every movie is fragile, and the chances of success are narrow. But early in the shoot, I was directing Rebecca Ferguson and Timothée Chalamet, and both gave performances that gave me a chill. I knew that if I was doing my work correctly and keeping the focus, we would have something special.”

Asked his favorite of the four creative stages, Villeneuve responds, “Each has its own charm. I love screenwriting because everything is possible.” He laughs, “I love editing too: You are on the other side of mountain.

“With every movie, I’m learning. On ‘Dune,’ one of the best decisions was to give ourselves enough time for the designs. I asked Patrice [Vermette, the production designer] for artwork that was very precise — not only the architecture, but also the light, the atmosphere, textures. All that was embedded in the artwork, which gave information to [cinematographer] Greig Fraser and everyone else.”

Editor Joe Walker, composer Hans Zimmer and the sound team led by Mark Mangini and Theo Green have jobs that are traditionally post. But they signed on early in pre-production.

“I need Joe as much as possible, to make early decisions about many things, including specific shots for VFX,” he says.

Zimmer was the first one onboard, after their collaboration on “Blade Runner 2049.” Says Villeneuve, “He started early on to brainstorm how the movie would sound, and he created an insane amount of sounds exploration and experiments; he even created instruments for the score. He was obsessed with finding sounds as if they were from another world.”

With his films “Sicario,” “Arrival” and “Blade Runner,” Villeneuve encouraged the overlap of music and sound design. So in preparing “Dune,” Zimmer worked closely with the sound team. It was “total collaboration, true teamwork as they worked to redefine a new soundscape,” Villeneuve says.

“The idea was that sound will feel genuine, authentic. It was like sending a documentary team into the future. It’s a spectacular sound design, but I wanted it to feel like part of a world, not like the usual tropes of sci-fi movies.”

In keeping with the idea of documentary-realism in a sci-fi world, Villeneuve approached costume designer Jacqueline West, who is well-known for period movies.

“I felt she would bring a historical quality to the film. I wanted a design that would have roots in our own history. The book is very grounded in a future that is connected with Earth culture. I wanted that same feeling in costume design.”

During prep, “I didn’t give any movie references. I said, ‘We will survive this journey if our North Star is the book.’”

When casting, Villeneuve said, “I always went back to my first visceral reading of the book at age 13, and tried to make sure that all my choices would be approved by the 13-year-old.

“My storyboard artist, Sam Hudecki, is my secret weapon. I storyboard with Sam; it allows me to explore designs with him.

“I’ve worked with Sam on most of my movies. He’s like an extension of my brain, seriously. I can express very little and he always understands. My wife says I speak three languages: French, English and Hudecki.”

“The Baron is an enormous character and he was a challenge; I didn’t want him to be a buffoon. So we worked on a shape that was proper. Another challenge were the Sardaukar, the soldiers of the emperor. I wanted a cross between a medieval suit and an astronaut suit; it was a long road to find that.

With those 10 nominations, the film is a likely winner in multiple categories. Whatever happens, Villeneuve is honored.

“I’m grateful that their work has been recognized by the Academy. To be nominated for a sci-fi movie isn’t always easy, so it’s a beautiful compliment.”