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Dune director on why the resilient saga is 'more relevant than ever' during our current times

By Josh Weiss
Dune 2020

Earlier today, Warner Bros. (finally! finally!) dropped the epic first trailer for Denis Villeneuve's ambitious take on Dune. SYFY WIRE got to see the initial footage Tuesday during a special presentation hosted by the studio, and the virtual event — moderated by Frank Herbert superfan and late-night host Stephen Colbert — featured a discussion with Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) and his ensemble cast of all-star actors.

When Colbert brought up the fact that we're all living in a kind of dystopian future right now amid the global pandemic, the director noted just how strongly the film resonates with our current times: "Dune is a movie about the capacity of adaptation, because there’s a lot of changes that are coming. That’s why I think Dune is more relevant than ever."

"It’s gonna be a mammoth moment when people have the chance to experience something that is not only just exquisite — a feast for the eyes — but is also something that we should take home with us and into our hearts. This film can inspire change," added Sharon Duncan-Brewster, who plays Dr. Liet-Kynes.

Dune 2020

These sentiments mesh with comments Villeneuve made several months ago about Herbert's classic novel delivering an important message about humanity's treatment of the environment. "No matter what you believe, Earth is changing, and we will have to adapt,” he explained 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."

For maximum thematic impact, Villeneuve insisted that production take place in an actual desert. In fact, it was his "one condition" for boarding the project.

"My argument is that they didn’t shoot Jaws in a swimming pool," he said during the special trailer event. "The title is Dune, and we needed to be in the real environment, so we would be inspired by the infinity." (Jaws' infamous, ocean-bound shoot was certainly turbulent, but here's a fun Jaws fact for you, Denis: Steven Spielberg was unhappy with the initial version of the chilling sequence where Hooper [Richard Dreyfuss] discovers Ben Gardner's eyeless corpse. As such, he reshot it — using his own money — at the Encino-area swimming pool of the film's editor, Verna Fields.)

Dune 2020

For principal photography, Dune headed to Jordan, using the arid and sweeping vistas of the Middle East as a stand-in for the Spice and worm-filled planet of Arrakis. "When you’re shooting in the desert in Jordan, the spirituality of the location, I’ll ruin it with my words, so I won’t even try, but you’re really in it," admitted Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet, who portrays the story's young hero, Paul Atreides. "I think I did two scenes on a green screen. I think it’s literally two scenes I did on a green screen. Besides that, everything else was practical."

"It was quite an intense shoot," said Rebecca Ferguson, who takes up the post of Paul's strong-willed Bene Gesserit mother, Lady Jessica. "It taught me an incredible amount about myself. And the desert, it’s so big! It’s basically Mother Nature golfing you and going, ‘You mean nothing.’ It takes away the ego."

Oscar Isaac, who plays Paul's royal father Duke Leto, previously shot in Jordan with J.J. Abrams on last year's Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The galactic experience on Dune, however, was entirely different. "I’ll just say that no set piece, no X-Wing, no Millennium Falcon could compare to the sheer scale of Josh Brolin’s head," the actor joked. "It was massive, both literally and figuratively. It really made me feel like I was in an alien planet."

Shortly after Leto takes over stewardship of Arrakis (the planet that gives the movie its name), House Atreides is betrayed by House Harkonnen, which is led by the morally detestable Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård).

"At the very core, it’s a tragedy about the family going into a new environment," Villeneuve said. "I will say that my secret weapon ... was Stellan Skarsgård. After five seconds onscreen, people will understand right away what his position is regarding the Atreides and the difference of moral values between the Atreides and the Harkonnens."

The cast also features Zendaya ("Chani"), Josh Brolin ("Gurney Halleck"), Dave Bautista ("Glossu Rabban"), Jason Momoa ("Duncan Idaho"), Chang Chen ("Dr. Wellington Yueh"), David Dastmalchian ("Piter De Vries"), Stephen McKinley Henderson ("Thufir Hawat"), Charlotte Rampling ("Gaius Helen Mohiam"), and Javier Bardem ("Stilgar").

Dune is currently scheduled to arrive in theaters on Dec. 18. Villeneuve co-wrote the screenplay with Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange) and Eric Roth (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). A second installment is already planned. Check out our in-depth breakdown of the first trailer right here.