Frank Herbert's science fiction classic Dune has vexed many a filmmaker who has tried to bring the sprawling world to life on the large or small screen. Alejandro Jodorowsky's attempt was so epic it birthed its own 2013 documentary, Jodorowsky's Dune. David Lynch made it into a film in 1984, but it didn't satisfy mainstream audiences or fans of the book. A 2000 Sci Fi Channel miniseries worked on some story levels, but lacked the massive budget or scale.
But life-long book fan and Academy Award-nominated director Denis Villeneuve thinks he's found the right mix of respect and vision to hopefully, finally get it right. With Dune Part I, which premieres at the Venice International Film Festival today, and opens in U.S. theaters and HBO Max on October 22, audiences will finally get to see Herbert's complex world of characters who battle over power, religion, prophesies and colonization on the sand covered planet of Arrakis.
In a recent virtual interview with SYFY WIRE and other select press outlets via Zoom from Venice, Villeneuve said his copy of Dune has been a constant presence on his bedside table for more than three decades, but he knew to make an adaptation work, it would have to work for people like his own mother, who never read a page of Herbert's work.
"How do we introduce this world without being too much didactic, that it becomes like lessons or almost like homework for the audience?" Villeneuve said of his conundrum. "We had to find ways that will feel respectful to the book, but kind of a little bit different. And from the start, I knew that I would like to focus on some specific elements. Because when you adapt, necessarily, you transform. The idea was to be as close to the spirit of the book as possible."
In a lengthy pre-production period with screenwriters Eric Roth and then Jon Spaights, Villeneuve said the first step was about assessing the novel and ultimately determining that it could not be done in one film, like Lynch attempted in the early eighties. "It's something that I explored with Roth and Spaihts. And Jon and I spend a lot of time brainstorming, and to find that equilibrium was not easy, honestly."
Villeneuve said his ultimate focus was how to tell the story of the young heir to House Atreides, Paul (Timothée Chalamet). The son of the powerful leader, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and a superhuman Bene Gesserit, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), Paul straddles two worlds just by his lineage, but he may also be a savior prophesied to change the universe and specifically the seized planet of Arrakis.
"Dune has been written where you visit the different planets, and you have all those families, but for this movie, I said, ‘We will mostly focus on Paul Atreides. I want the camera just behind him, and I want the movie to be as immersive as possible, and to be in the boy's point of view,'" Villeneuve detailed.
Secondly, he wanted to make sure that women were framed with the utter importance that Herbert wrote for them in the book, and even add more when possible. Villeneuve said he told Roth: "In Dune, women are very important, and I think they were very important for Frank Herbert and I think that the Bene Gesserit should be up front, I would love Lady Jessica to be, not the main protagonist, but just be behind. It was very important that the movie would be focused on Paul and his relationship with his mother. And to try and develop Lady Jessica as much as possible."
Also important was deciding where Part I should end, which is controversial just in the fact that the film is constructing an end point that the source material did not dictate. However in the book, there is a point where the narrative has a time jump of two years, which is seemingly the natural place to split the book into two separate films.
But Villeneuve said that opened the door for a potential second film with plenty of material. "Already I was shoveling elements, like the character of Feyd-Rautha and pushing his introduction to the second part," he said about an important adversary to the Atreides family. "We tried to go to that jump and we became monstrously long. I was feeling that there is a limit. Where we end right now, I thought was the perfect way to feel a completed arc in this first part, and to keep enough stuff for the second one."
"And the beauty of making the movie in two parts is that there are some elements that I didn't explore in this first part that I will have the chance to explore in the second part," he said.
"I will say, the tough task here was to introduce you guys to the world, to the ideas to this world, to the codes, to the cultures, the different families, the different planets. Now once this is done, it becomes an insane playground. It will allow me to go berserk and really create. I shouldn't say it, but I will say that for me, Dune Part I is like an appetizer. Dune Part II is the main meal where we can add much more. As much as Dune Part 1 was, by far, my most exciting project ever, Dune Part II is already getting me even more excited."
Although Warner Bros. has not formally announced the production of Dune Part II, Villeneuve was candid in sharing his overall vision from the start, which is making three films.
"I'm going to be very honest, I envisioned the adaptation of two books, Dune and Dune Messiah," he said. "As a filmmaker and as a screenwriter, I know how to do this. When we decided to split the first novel in two, now we are at three movies. But those movies are very long to make, so for my mental sanity, I decided to just dream about three movies. After that, because I am a big fan of all the novels, I'll see where I am."
But he emphasized that a possible Dune Messiah movie is far away from his current mental head space. "I'm focusing on launching Dune Part I, hoping there will be a Part II and that's enough. I mean, doing the first one was by far the most challenging thing I've ever done. I think that we were able to bring it to life because we all, me and the team, just did that for three years and a half, full time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That's the way I can make cinema. I need to be there now and not think too much about the future."
"But the thing I will say is, when you make a move in two parts, necessarily when you do the first part, you have to know what you're going to do in the second part," he continued. "It has been structured, it has been dreamed, it has been mostly designed in a way that there's a lot of elements. I will be very ready to go quite quickly but you still need to make sets and costumes. We are talking about months. But if there's enthusiasm and the movie is greenlit sooner than later, I will say that I will be ready to shoot in 2022 for sure. I am ready to go. And I will say that I would love to bring it to the screen as soon as possible. But with the first film, I really had time to make sure that it was exactly the way I wanted it to be and I would love to have the same feeling but I make the second part. Quality will be the priority."
Now, it's up to the Dune readers and the non-readers to determine if Villeneuve's instincts for adaptation will satisfy, but also leave audiences needing to see what happens next for Paul, Lady Jessica, and the native Freman people of Arrakis.
Villeneuve is hopeful audiences approve. "It's all about choices and sometimes tough decisions," he said. "But it's not something that was done in five days. It's something that evolved as we wrote the film, and as I shot and edited. It's something that evolved like a sculpture will evolve. And for me, it was a very fascinating filmmaking process that I really enjoyed."
Dune opens in U.S. theaters and HBO Max on October 22.