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Denis Villeneuve sees Dune as 'call for action' for modern audiences, explains 2-movie plan

By Josh Weiss
Dune 2020

Clocking in at nearly 1,000 pages, Frank Herbert's Dune is almost as big as the deadly sandworms of Arrakis. That's why Warner Bros. and director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) decided to split their brand-new adaptation of the sprawling sci-fi novel into two massive movies.

Speaking with Vanity Fair (which unveiled our first look at the project yesterday), the filmmaker confirmed the decision to make a pair of Dune flicks — a wise decision that might have saved David Lynch's cinematic version from critical and box office failure back in 1984.

“I would not agree to make this adaptation of the book with one single movie. The world is too complex. It’s a world that takes its power in details," Villeneuve told the magazine. “It’s a book that tackles politics, religion, ecology, spirituality — and with a lot of characters. I think that’s why it’s so difficult. Honestly, it’s by far the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life.”

"He is one of the best working directors on the planet with some of the best IP on the planet. We all know the quality of the story in Dune. Most of us have either read it or heard about it," the project's cinematographer Greig Fraser (The Mandalorian, The Batman) recently told SYFY WIRE.

Dune 2020

Set in the far flung future, Dune takes place in a universe where humanity has mastered interstellar travel, but returned to a somewhat archaic system of monarchy and house loyalty. Rife with lofty sci-fi concepts and political backstabbing, it's basically Star Wars meets Game of Thrones. There's even time for an environmental message in there, too.

The story centers on Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet in the upcoming adaptation), the royal heir of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). When Leto is betrayed after taking stewardship of Arrakis — the eponymous desert planet that is rich with a coveted and mind-altering substance known as spice — Paul must accept his destiny and assume true leadership. Since the original novel was published in 1965, Villeneuve was very much interested in updating some of its story elements for modern audiences.

“No matter what you believe, Earth is changing, and we will have to adapt,” he added to Vanity Fair. “That’s why I think that Dune, this book, was written in the 20th century. It was a distant portrait of the reality of the oil and the capitalism and the exploitation — the over-exploitation — of Earth. Today, things are just worse. It’s a coming-of-age story, but also a call for action for the youth.”

"I’ve been doing a bit of sci-fi recently with Star Wars. So, the idea of doing a sci-fi [movie] itself wasn’t the interesting part, it was doing something that I knew Denis would hit out of the park and that I could help him absolutely hit it out of the park. I’m incredibly excited for that film to come out," Fraser added during his exclusive chat with SYFY WIRE.

Dune 2020

Another tune-up Villeneuve wanted to perform on the source material was to tweak some of the characters like Baron Vladimir of House Harkonnen, sworn enemy of House Atreides. In the book, he's an extremely corpulent antagonist, whom Villeneuve felt was "flirting very often with caricature." In the movie, he's played a bit more seriously by Chernobyl's Stellan Skarsgård and depicted as "calculating" and "quite frightening."

As for Jessica, she's no longer just the Duke's concubine or mother of the universe's only hope. In the book, she is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a group of magical "space nuns" (a bit of world-building that VF alludes to as being a precursor to the Jedi of Star Wars). In Villeneuve's big screen interpretation, that role is ramped up to "warrior priestess."

“She’s a mother, she’s a concubine, she’s a soldier,” Ferguson echoed to Vanity Fair. “Denis was very respectful of Frank’s work in the book, [but] the quality of the arcs for much of the women have been brought up to a new level. There were some shifts he did, and they are beautifully portrayed now.”

"[Denis is] a visionary director that has a long love with sci-fi from his childhood, I believe," Fraser continued to SYFY WIRE. "To have a passionate visionary director who’s incredibly smart when it comes to filmmaking, it ticks all the boxes for me as a cinematographer. I think he is the best person to make this film and he’s chosen an amazing group of people to work with. From cast to crew. They’re some of the best crew that I’ve worked with."

Dune 2020

Said "crew" includes make-up artist Donald Mowat, composer Hans Zimmer, editor Joe Walker, and an all-star supporting cast. The impressive lineup is as follows: 

  • Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, an Atreides warrior 
  • Dave Bautista as Glossu Rabban, a Harkonnen henchman
  • Chang Chen as Dr. Wellington Yueh, a two-faced doctor retained by House Atreides
  • David Dastmalchian as Piter De Vries, the slippery Harkonnen advisor known as a Mentat
  • Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir Hawat, the wise and loyal Atreides Mentat 
  • Charlotte Rampling as Gaius Helen Mohiam, a Bene Gesserit high priestess
  • Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, another Atreides warrior 
  • Javier Bardem as Stilgar, leader of the Fremen, people who live on the wild frontier of Arrakis
  • Zendaya as Chani, a mysterious Fremen woman from Paul's predictive dreams


"It’s like a freight train," Fraser concluded. "It’s a-comin’ [and] you better get out of the way because it’s gonna hit you in the face."

Dune Part I arrives in theaters everywhere Friday, Dec. 18. Villeneuve penned the film's screenplay with Eric Roth (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Jon Spaihts (Rogue One).

Put on your stillsuit best and check out some more first look production stills in the gallery below...