Denis Villeneuve and May Parent reflect on the five-year journey that brought Dune back into our lives.
Dune has been out for over a month, and Denis Villeneuve is in a retrospective mood. As he is deep in preparation for the second chapter of his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s beloved sci-fi novel, Villeneuve looks back at how he got the chance of a lifetime to create his childhood dream.
Dune: Part One has become the biggest opening of Villeneuve’s career, Warner Bros.’ biggest opening in the pandemic era, and the first film to remind audiences of the power of cinema after a year of straight to streaming releases. How did Villeneuve claim victory during this time of uncertainty and polarizing opinions?
In an interview with Deadline, Villeneuve says, “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. We made the movie for that kind of experience, and people really embraced it.”
This theatrical win is huge when noting that Warner Bros. announced its entire slate would stream on HBO Max concurrently with the theatrical release—if the theaters were open at the time of the film’s release.
The announcement from Warner Bros. might have blindsided its filmmakers, creating animosity between filmmakers who made films meant for the big screen. The studio would ultimately lose the loyalty of Christopher Nolan, whose next film Oppenheimer will be released through Universal Pictures. Legendary, who agreed to co-produce and co-finance films with Warner Bros. back in 2014, fought on the behalf of its projects at the studio to preserve the theatrical release of its films.
A compromise was reached for Dune. Though Villeneuve believed it should be seen in a theater, he understood why the decision had been made. The accessibility of streaming combined with the sudden arrival of brand-new releases available to stream in homes had a cultural impact too big to go unnoticed. No one was in a hurry to go to the movies to watch films when COVID-19 was still on the public's mind.
``There's a level of engagement [to a theatrical release],” Villeneuve says, determined that the best way to watch his film would be in theaters. “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 [the] cinema really is one of the last places that can happen.”
Villeneuve isn’t ignorant to the fact that most audiences will experience films for the first time on the small screen.
“That’s how I saw 2001: Space Odyssey for the first time. 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.”
Dune’s film legacy hasn’t always been a cinematic experience to enjoy in a dark theater—--Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to adapt the book only brought a documentary about the folly of the project 40 years after the fact, David Lynch’s adaptation has a mixed reputation with fans who either hated it or loved it because of the campy elements, and the SyFy Channel version has largely been forgotten.
Villeneuve watched Lynch’s Dune on its initial release, finding moments of admiration within the overall frustrating feeling with the film’s deviation from the source material.
“I remember coming out and telling myself somebody will do it in the future again.”
As he waited, the stars aligned. In an interview from 2016 Villeneuve disclosed that Dune was a project he always wanted to make, and Mary Parent, who had just bought the rights to Legendary, read the interview.
Parent reached out to Villeneuve, saying, “We hadn’t even started to develop the script. I didn’t want to develop a script because I wanted it to be the filmmaker’s 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.”
To do the novel justice, Villeneuve decided to roll the dice and split the first Dune novel into two movies, betting on the success of the first to greenlight the second.
The struggle of adapting the project for Villeneuve was taking the depth and definition of Hebert’s work and finding a way to introduce the audience to the themes, characters, and politics of the ruling families in space without alienating anyone who hasn’t read the books. Splitting the story into two allowed for the elements missing from previous adaptations to be included while not overwhelming the audience with exposition dumps.
Worldbuilding is what makes Dune captivating, and Villeneuve was aware of this during the development of the script. Parent believed that Villeneuve was one of the few people who could pull off the worldbuilding of Dune as he has rebuilt breathtaking worlds from Blade Runner with his sequel, Blade Runner 2049.
In the end, Dune’s release proved that there was an appetite for theatrical releases and dedication to the worldbuilding of Hebert’s novel. After the premiere at Venice, the film rolled out internationally as a cinema exclusive before opening day.
Currently, the film has made $374.2 million worldwide, and Warner Bros. confirmed on Oct. 27 that Dune: Part Two was greenlit.
“Nobody wanted the journey to end [at part one]. 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,” Villeneuve says.
Parent added, “You can’t take anything for granted. 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.”
While Dune: Part One is no longer available on HBO Max, your local theaters may still be playing the film. Support your local theaters and catch the breathtaking world of Dune while you still can.
Did you watch Dune: Part One in theaters or on HBO Max? Tell us about your cinematic experience in the comments below!