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Dune director Denis Villeneuve on adapting Frank Herbert's notoriously unfilmable sci-fi epic

It takes an experienced director like Denis Villeneuve to tackle a project like Dune. The Canadian filmmaker joined Q’s Tom Power to explain why he was eager to helm a big-screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal novel, despite its shaky cinematic past.

The Canadian filmmaker says he’s been a ‘hard-core Dune fan’ since he was young teen

Denis Villeneuve sat down for an interview with Q’s Tom Power in Toronto. (Christy Kim/CBC)

Denis Villeneuve was only 13 or 14 when he stumbled upon Frank Herbert's Dune in a bookstore and spontaneously fell in love with it.

"That deep melancholia, that feeling of isolation and that attraction to massive wide spaces and foreign cultures — there was something about that that [struck] me at the time," the Québécois filmmaker told Q's Tom Power in an interview.

Since its publication in 1965, Dune has inspired adoration like Villeneuve's in many readers, but the book's screen adaptations have mostly been disastrous. First, there were attempts by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott, and then came David Lynch's infamous 1984 flop, which was savaged by critics and reviled by the director himself.

Despite its shaky cinematic past, Villeneuve was eager to helm his own adaptation even if it meant taking a big risk.

"Listen, every time someone [asks] me what was one of my biggest dream in cinema, I always answer: 'To adapt Dune,'" he said. "And every time I open the book, it every time brings that deep, pure joy, that deep inspiration.… I have too much love for the book. It's like, I could not — I would have hated myself all my life if I had not tried."

WATCH | Denis Villeneuve's full interview with Tom Power:

Villeneuve said he didn't give a second thought to previous adaptations, choosing rather to focus on Herbert's source material. "The book was my bible," he told Power. "I referred to it constantly as I was shooting. All the answers were in the book."

But is it a good idea to adapt a novel that's been close to your heart for 40 years? That was the question the film's composer, Hans Zimmer (who's also a self-professed Dune fan), posed to Villeneuve before shooting started. "That was a big challenge," the director admitted. "To try to please the hard-core Dune fan that I was."

Villeneuve's Dune gets its Canadian wide release this week (Friday, Oct. 22), and so far its reviews have been much more favourable than those of its predecessor. Unlike many of Villeneuve's films, which are mostly rated R, the director decided to make this one PG-13 so it would be suitable for younger audiences.

"I did that because I wanted young people to experience what I had," he explained. "The experience I had when I discovered [the] book at 13 or 14 years old."

WATCH | Official trailer for Dune:

A true Imax experience

While Dune follows the intimate journey of its protagonist, Paul Atreides, its story takes place on a massive scale, with a landscape that really lends itself to a cinematic experience.

"The more [the character] will travel into this landscape, the more the journey will become introspective and the more he will learn about himself," said Villeneuve. "[It's] about the impact of this landscape on his psyche."

If ever you watch Dune at home on your computer, you will just have, like, a glimpse of what the full experience is.- Denis Villeneuve

To protect the intimacy of the story while preserving its scope, Villeneuve knew there was nothing else like Imax, the biggest movie format possible. Dune was designed to be a big-screen event, from its depth of field to the rhythm of its editing.

"When you deal with Imax, the thing that I learned through my experience is that it creates a strong vertigo, feeling of vertigo, with landscapes, but then an insane intimacy with character," he said. "So it's a very intimate medium, and that balance between intimacy and scope, [cinematographer Greig Fraser] and I felt that Imax will be perfect."

With more people streaming movies from home thanks in part to the pandemic, Villeneuve urged those interested in the film to see it on the big screen.

"If ever you watch Dune at home on your computer, you will just have, like, a glimpse of what the full experience is," he said. "In order to have the full impact of Dune you need to have this immersive quality and commitment that you have … when you are in a movie theatre."

As for what's next, the film is split into two parts, and Villeneuve still needs to adapt the second half of the novel.

"The problem is that I painted myself in a corner," he said with a laugh. "I did half of it. I did half of a big movie. I did Dune: Part One and I need to do the second part now. Hopefully we'll do it."


Listen to Tom Power's full conversation with director Denis Villeneuve near the top of this page.

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Kaitlyn Swan.

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