By Lindsey Bahr, The Associated Press on February 9, 2024.
LOS ANGELES (AP) – Denis Villeneuve doesn’t feel like he came back to Arrakis for “Dune: Part Two.” In his mind, he never left.
The sequel, which opens in theaters on March 1, is the culmination of a six-year filmmaking journey, preceded by 40 years of dreaming about it. And it’s one that Christopher Nolan has already compared to “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Realizing Frank Herbert’s novel for the big screen is a feat that has bested and befuddled some of the greats, including David Lean, Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch, the only one who actually got to make a film. But his 1984 film was such a flop that its two sequels were quickly abandoned.
Villeneuve finally got his chance at one of the more turbulent times in Hollywood history, facing two delayed releases (one because of the pandemic, the other because of the Hollywood strikes ), an historic shift to streaming and zero guarantee that he would get a “Part Two” at all.
“The conditions could not have been worse to release ( Part One ),” Villeneuve said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “And still the movie did a decent box office.”
Even in that limbo time, he never stopped working on the script for “Part Two” knowing that if they got the greenlight, he wanted to be ready to go. By the time his cinematographer Greig Fraser was picking up the best cinematography Oscar for “Dune,” they were deep into pre-production for the second. And everyone was soon back in Budapest with cameras rolling by July. But though they’d conquered the desert in “Part One,” new challenges awaited.
“We all walked at the beginning into this project feeling confident,” Villeneuve said. “And that confidence quickly eroded.”
“Dune: Part Two” would be much more technically challenging, with at least seven major action sequences compared to two in the first. It picks up with Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides in the aftermath of the calculated and devastating attack by a rival house on his family and followers who had just established control of the mineral rich desert planet Arrakis. With his father dead, Paul and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) retreat to the desert where they establish a tenuous alliance with Arrakis natives known as the Fremen (including Zendaya). Paul trains to fight alongside them against the Harkonnen invaders.
Among the challenges: Filming Chalamet “surfing” on a sandworm in a way that is thrilling and transportive and not at all silly ““ something that Villeneuve had to figure out how to translate from what he’d imagined into words that would make sense to all the craftspeople working to make it happen in the brutally hot sun.
But none of those stresses seemed to transfer to the atmosphere on location in Wadi Rum, Budapest and Abu Dhabi. In fact, Chalamet said, it was the opposite. Villeneuve appeared to be having fun while making it.
“Denis is so playful. It’s like the greatest evidence of self-confidence to me,” Chalamet said. “It’s ultimately a playful, creative exercise to get to direct any movie. The man who takes himself too seriously, is more focused on the people around him, the audience, than the actual product reeks of a movie that’s pretentious.”
Josh Brolin, who has now worked with Villeneuve on three films, including “Sicario” and both “Dunes,” where he plays Atreides warrior Gurney Halleck, said it takes a unique personality to be a great filmmaker, but that Villeneuve is right up there with the Coen brothers in his ability to do it well.
“Great filmmakers that I’ve had the gift of being able to work with are misfits. They’re true misfits. They’re not cool people. They’re socially totally inept,” Brolin said. “And they found this medium to be able to work through, (where) they can express themselves wildly and specifically. And what’s going on in their head that we never were privy to? Now we get to experience it.”
Villeneuve has almost gotten used to delayed releases ““ and both times his films have benefitted from the cushion. The first was held almost a year because of the pandemic, which allowed him to tweak and perfect. This time, he got to do something different: Make a film transfer so that it could be projected on IMAX 70mm and 70mm, even though it was shot on digital.
“It’s the ultimate viewing experience and the ultimate format,” Villeneuve said.
“Dune: Part Two” cost a reported $122 million to produce and is arriving in theaters not a moment too soon. The marketplace is a little emptier than usual because of the residual effects of the labor standoff in Hollywood last year, and it’s also a landscape where superheroes are no longer the trusty “tentpoles” that they once were.
But “Dune” is a different kind of franchise. The first “Dune” made just over $400 million even though it was also released day-and-date on Max (then HBOMax). And Villeneuve is more hopeful this time around. Audience appetite for theatrical is stronger than it was in late 2021, after all. He also believes “Part Two” is both more broadly entertaining and can be enjoyed without having seen the first.
“Part One was more meditative,” he said. “We were following a boy discovering a culture. Now we are with the boy avenging his father, falling in love. And it’s more of an action movie.”
He knows that “Part Two” “has a soul” as well, but he’s not quite ready to step back and enjoy it as the 13-year-old boy who started him on this path in the first place. It’s one of those paradoxes of adapting something you love, that in order to do so, you have to sacrifice some or all of that, and it will no longer mean what it once did to you.
Before they started on the first, composer Hans Zimmer, also a lifetime fan of “Dune,” asked him a question to this effect.
“He said to me, “˜is it a good idea to try to life a dream that we had when we were kids? Is it meant to fail?'” Villeneuve said. “There’s part of the movie that when I look at it, it’s closed the dream. Other parts are new because it’s an adaptation and I have to make choices and distort really the reality of the book in order to make it fit into a film format.”
“It’s mixed emotions,” he said. “It’s joy and pain.”
But even if he can’t yet experience it as a fan, his peers can. When Nolan compared it to “The Empire Strikes Back,” Villeneuve demurred, but the internet went wild.
“There’s a tremendous amount of visual imagination and worldbuilding on a scale that I have not seen before in a very long time,” Nolan said. “It’s somebody using all of the advantages of cinema in a way that doesn’t often happen.”
Villeneuve has left the door open for more, too. Herbert kept writing books, after all. But for now, he’s going to step back and let “Dune” breathe a little. He’s looking at his movies in the macro, in a way that might ensure the future of the medium he loves so much.
“What I tried to do with my last three movies is to push forward this idea of event and the grand scale,” Villeneuve said. “I think that’s the way movies will survive.”