How Denis Villeneuve went from Quebec indie films to Blade Runner and Dune

An exploration of the Filmmaker of the Decade’s pre-Hollywood career

An exploration of the Filmmaker of the Decade’s pre-Hollywood career

This is the third time Director Denis Villeneuve has won the Best Canadian Film Award. (Arthur Mola/Invision/Associated Press)

Like many Hollywood directors before him, Quebec's Denis Villeneuve started out in the independent film world.

Named "Filmmaker of the Decade" by the Hollywood Critics Association, Villeneuve is known to the world for his Hollywood successes such as the science-fiction sequel Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and Arrival (2016), which earned him an Oscar nomination for best director.

What makes Denis Villeneuve stand out as a director is his opposition to presenting stories in the way our brains have been trained to process them. He is a movie maker who expands the thinking of his viewers by surprising them — to the point that they have to look up YouTube videos to explain what they just watched. 

The purpose is not to confuse, it's to leave you thinking of the psychological and social meaning behind the films, and what they reflect about reality. 

Before making it big in the U.S., Villeneuve had a filmography that spanned well beyond the past decade. Here's how he made his journey. 

The early beginnings 

Villeneuve studied film at Montreal's University of Quebec, and began making short films and documentaries (winning Radio-Canada's youth film competition in 1991) before releasing his first feature film, August 32nd on Earth, in 1998. The movie was about a young woman's crisis following a car crash, and was well-received. Variety praised the director's visual style stating that "there's no question Villeneuve has real talent in that department." 

Villeneuve's next film, Maelström, was about a woman who reassesses her life after a series of devastating events. The New York Times called it "a fine French-Canadian film… a meditation on the disconnection between the glossy surfaces of high-end urban existence and the life-and-death realities they camouflage."

He then went on to win the Best Motion Picture Genie Award for Polytechnique, which was about the 1989 misogynist massacre of female engineering students in Montreal. 

Incendies (2010)

Villeneuve blasted into the spotlight in 2011, when his operatic family drama Incendies was nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars. 

Incendies is a French-language adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad's play about Quebec siblings who uncover their immigrant mother's tortured history after her death. They journey to the Middle East to discover their family history and fulfill their mother's last wishes.

"I was aware that I was working with very strong material. The play's a masterpiece," Villeneuve told CBC News after he won the 2010 Toronto Film Critics Association's Best Canadian Film Award, for the second time in a row, after Polytechnique (Incendies also won a second consecutive Genie Award).

"With Incendies, [Villeneuve] has bridged Montreal and the Middle East to create a deeply resonant tragedy about family and the uncontainable nature of war," Brian D. Johnson, president of the TFCA and film critic for Maclean's magazine, said in a release.

Collaborations with Hollywood's modern greats

In 2013, the director went on to collaborate with some of the best actors in Hollywood. His film Prisoners, a thriller about the search for a missing child, stars Jake Gyllenhal, Hugh Jackman and Viola Davis. 

Jake Gyllenhaal (left) is pictured in a scene of Denis Villeneuve's surreal mind-bender film Enemy in a studio handout photo. (Canadian Press)

In Enemy (available to stream for free on CBC Gem), Jake Gyllenhaal plays two identical men in this nihilistic psychological thriller/surrealist nightmare. You should be ready for twists that keep you uncomfortable and intrigued the whole way through. Enemy follows a lecturer named Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) who spots his double in a movie, and launches a search that leads him to a small-time actor who looks exactly like him.
"I think this movie is a documentary about my subconscious, or Jake Gyllenhaal's subconscious," said Villeneuve. It's about a man who decides to leave his mistress and go back to his pregnant wife, and we see it from his point of view, says Villeneuve.

Gyllenhaal explained to CBC Radio that he and Villeneeuve share a "deep collaboration" on set. 

"He wanted to respect my process wholly, and that's very rare," Gyllenhaal told Brent Bambury in a 2015 q interview.

"He was looking for a real collaborator and also someone to lead."

International recognition

From there, Villeneuve went on to land high-budget science fiction films reaching critical acclaim. For his work on Arrival (2016), he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) won two Oscars — one for Roger Deakins for cinematography and another for visual effects. Dune, his latest highly anticipated sci-fi film starring Timothée Chalamet, is set to release next month. 

Until then, you can stream his film Enemy for free on CBC Gem

With files from CBC Radio