Denis Villeneuve: ‘Dune’

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Director Denis Villeneuve. Photo credit: Ulysse Del Drago

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes back director Denis Villeneuve, whose latest film is the adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” which is nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay, which Villeneuve co-wrote. His other films as director include “Arrival,” “Sicario,” and “Blade Runner 2049.” Villeneuve tells The Treatment how fear weaves its way through many of his films. He talks about why his films often focus on the impact and aftermath of violence rather than the violence itself. And he says, in spite of the darkness of many of his films, he does believe that humans can evolve, and there is hope for the future.  

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell.  I think what my guest, Denis Villeneuve, brings to his movies is an interesting idea of somebody who thinks they know the world until something calamitous happens, and then they have to re-examine that world. That actually happens in his latest motion picture, an adaptation of "Dune." What attracts you to that kind of character?

Denis Villeneuve: Oh, that's a very good question. Frankly, I don't think I ever looked at my work in the way you described, but I think that it's pretty truthful. The idea of someone losing --how can I say--his virginity, changing his view, being in contact with reality, being shocked by reality and losing his ideal view of reality. It's something that definitely is present in my work, maybe coming from a very safe, peaceful environment, and diving into the world and being in contact with reality. Maybe here I translate my own life experience.

KCRW: You said virginity, but I think it's that these characters have a confidence about the world that they think that they know, until this thing happens. You like the idea, it seems to me, of sort of shaking that confidence up. Because I wonder if that's a way of making the viewer and your lead character kind of an audience surrogate, so we understand what that person is going through.

Villeneuve: Yeah, there's always a will to create an immersive experience. Cinema is a very powerful tool for storytelling because it has such a hypnotic power. And when you do it properly, you can really immerse the audience and make them dive into someone else's point of view, and embrace and go through their journey and get out of there with a cathartic moment that that brings them in contact with something new about their own reality, or gives them a different perspective in their own reality that I think can be very rich. I'm not saying that I succeed at doing that, but that's the goal. 

KCRW: You've gone from making intimate films to making bigger films and then more intimate films again. I'm still struck by images from "Polytechnique." And you've turned the intimate into these epic stories, and you made these epic films into something more intimate. 

Villeneuve: You mentioned something at the beginning: images. I think that at the end of the day, all filmmakers, what we want to create is images, meaning something that captures something with the camera that will transcend what you see, that will bring deeper meaning. A key that will open a door to poetry. And those images are the ones that usually the audience will remember, that they will go back home being haunted by specific images. 

KCRW: I guess what I was trying to ask is in your earlier films, they were kind of small, intimate stories, but you made them about epic emotion. And your past few films that we go from "Arrival" to "Bladerunner" to now, "Dune," they're really big, epic stories, and you found something intimate in those stories. And there's a part of you that seems almost like to reverse the scale in some ways, if you know what I mean.

Villeneuve: I see what you mean. I think that it's always about that tension between the intimate experience and the link with the society or the link with that tension between those fears. It's that tension, probably because of the resources I had, that I was taking it from the other angle before. And now that I'm working with more resources, I do the reverse. Reverse engineer, but at the end of the day it's the same idea: the exploration of a human being in contact with their environment.

Director/co-writer/producer Denis Villeneuve and Timothée Chalamet on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “Dune,” a Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary release. Photo by Chiabella James

KCRW: As you were talking about that, there are a few things that come to mind for me, which is, at some point, you focus on a character or your protagonist has to figure out how they're going to deal with their fear, if that fear is going to overcome them or not. There's a moment in almost all these movies, even going back to "August 32nd," where your protagonists have to decide how they're going to lead their lives.

Villeneuve: You did your homework.  I try as much as I can not to analyze myself as a filmmaker because it's interesting for other people, but I think it's important for me to look forward and not look back. But if you're asking the question, I will say that this idea of fear that you said is present in my work, is an observation that does touch me because I find my main link with reality is cinema. Cinema allows me to travel, to be in contact with others, to explore reality because frankly, I think that I'm very afraid of reality. If it was not for cinema, I would probably be in a cave right now alone, drinking. There's something about this desire of making films that puts me in contact with the world, and I can transcend that fear, but the fear is something that is a part of me. 

KCRW: Wow, that's really interesting because it's so present a force in thematic terms in your work. But does this give you a way to kind of work that fear out of your system a little bit, dealing with these characters wrestling with their own fears?

Villeneuve: It's a place where I can express my demons and explore them and try to make peace with them like any other artist. I'm not at all original in that regard. It's like obsessions, and it touched me that you can see that because it's not something that I ever thought of myself, but definitely it must be present everywhere.

KCRW: You've gone from bringing very realistic demons to the screen  from going back to "Maelstrom" and "Polytechnique" to "Arrival," those early films about very realistic terrors that people faced. And these last few films, "Arrival" or "Blade Runner" and now "Dune" have been about more mythic fears. And I wonder what kind of pleasure you get in doing these fears that are more fantasy based as compared to the very realistic stuff you did at the beginning of your career.

Villeneuve: I think that dealing with realistic fear, there is always a huge responsibility when you do that. And it's also a burden, because playing with darkness can start to get heavy on the soul sometimes. And to go more into fantasy or sci fi, it allows some time to go deeper in a more safe space, because you're dealing with pure imagination. Maybe it's a way to approach demons in a more playful way, where there's a bit more lightness to it. When it's sometimes too close to reality, it can get quite dark on the soul. 

I remember, as I was doing "Sicario," I was saying to myself, that I was in need of something more light. And I knew that "Arrival" was coming after. I was back then able to work on "Sicario"-- which was a pretty terrible story– I was able to work in that zone, because I knew that after that there would be light at the end of the tunnel. 

When you look at a movie like "Dune," it's a tragedy. We are following a boy that will lose all his privileges and more importantly, lose all his friends and families. His universe will collapse around him and he will be stripped away from everything and get totally lost in the desert and finally, be at peace with a part of his identity. More precisely tame a part of his identity and then make peace with it. And it's something that is kind of beautiful, but it's quite dark again.

Director/co-writer/producer Denis Villeneuve and Zendaya on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “Dune,” a Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary release. Photo by Chiabella James

KCRW: As you were talking about "Sicario," for me, that's kind of the dividing line between almost the first half of your career and where we are now, where not only the violence, but the threat of violence was so intense. By the second half of the movie, we're actually more afraid of something happening than when it actually happens.

Villeneuve: Absolutely. The possibility of violence, the possibility of the event is there's something that the apprehension is kind of horrible and "Sicario" was an exploration of that. That tension is something that I tried to approach in other movies as well.

KCRW: In “Sicario,” the way you deal with the moments after violence are for you, as important as the violent acts themselves, aren't they?

Villeneuve: I think that I'm more interested in the impact of violence. Sometimes I fail, frankly, but I tried to show more the impact of it on the psyche of the characters than to make a show out of it. I tried to depict violence in its ugliness, in its wrongness, and not looking away from it, but not trying to make a spectacle, not trying to make a show out of it. But more to feel the ugliness and then to focus on the impact of it on the characters.

KCRW: Why would you say fail? Where do you think you failed in doing that?

Villeneuve: When you are a filmmaker, you have to be ambitious. You have these objectives; you have goals you want to reach. When I finish a movie, I see where I improved, where I had successes, and where I failed. There's always failure. It's part of the process. And those failures will be the place where you can expand and grow and improve yourself as an artist, but that relationship can be painful. And that is why it's so difficult for me to look back, and it's so difficult for me to watch my movies again. It always takes me years to be able to rewatch my previous works. It takes me years to be at peace with the movie because the movie is an accumulation of joy, yes, but a lot of pain and anger. 

When you're making a movie, you're dealing with a certain amount of frustration. That comes from the process. That's where you're going to be able to improve after but I'm aware, sometimes I see things and I'm looking at it as a goal, but I know that I was not necessarily able to achieve that goal. I'm not sure if I succeeded. It's more for other people to say.

KCRW: There's a moment in the movies where we see one of your protagonists, just taking the weight of everything that has happened to him often alone and that moment where there is that realization that they can't go back. And you find such an interesting way to dramatize that moment of no return. And I wonder if that's one of these things that in these projects you've liked, or that you've done rather, that you gravitate towards that moment.

Villeneuve: That moment, that pivotal moment where there's nothing but to move forward? And to jump? Yeah, it's a moment of vertigo where you have to abandon yourself to the force of the events. 

KCRW: When you said vertigo, that reminded me of that moment in "Vertigo" where Jimmy Stewart is holding on for dear life as the ground just sort of falls away from him at the very beginning. It's a moment in emotional terms like that. It becomes a way to make the audience feel the kind of emotional jeopardy that these characters are feeling. Paul has so much assurance in the first third of the movie. He's almost skipping in his way, he's kind of floating. And as the movie goes on, he gets more and more physical weight.

Villeneuve: Absolutely. I think that at the beginning of "Dune," Paul Atreides is a teenager that has no control over his life. It's like following adults that are making all the decisions for him, and he's just a witness or someone that is embarking on other people's journey. The only thing where he can be active is about what he will learn about this new world. His big weapon is curiosity. He will learn so many things about the environment about this new culture that it will help him later to adapt and to survive. But he is very passive in the first part of the movie. As things go, he will gain more and more power on his own journey. And he will put in application what he had learned in that first passive part of his life. And I think it's becoming an adult, slowly. I think it's something that teenagers can really relate to: this moment where you feel that you don't have control over your own destiny, until you reach that point, where you are at the edge of the cliff and you will have to jump yourself.

KCRW: Despite all these things that happen to these protagonists, these awful events that changed their view about the world, they still remain curious. 

Villeneuve: That's the thing that I love in the novel. This idea that this appetite for knowledge that Paul Atreides has for this new culture, this idea that if he has the intuition, that deep somewhere in this new world there will be home, and that he will find in this new environment, things that will solidify his identity. And that's something for me, at the time when I read the novel, brought me a lot of hope. 

KCRW: I think the real interesting addiction in the film is an addiction to knowledge. Once that appetite is open for him, he has to learn. And when we see the blue in his eyes, the first consumption of the spice, that becomes the real hunger in his life, that appetite for knowledge, no matter where it takes him.

Villeneuve: I think that appetite is about education and is where hope is. It is something that I made sure was very present in the writing in the screenplay because it's something that, for me, is a more important thing than anything else. Paul is open to a new reality, and that makes him such a compelling character for me.

KCRW: He feels almost like the great science fiction characters; some of these characters go and travel and are unchanged by their worlds, but change these worlds they go to. In Paul's case, as we go through these books with Herbert, we can see how, by absorbing things, he’s not only a different person, but by the end of the trilogy, literally a different creature.

Villeneuve: Absolutely. And it's something that is very important that at its core, it's a human being that wants to blend into a new society, a human being that wants to embrace a culture, but that will, by the end, find himself the instrument of colonialism and that will himself be a burden for this culture. And I think that when he got in contact with the Fremen at the very beginning, he had good intentions of being there to learn, to listen, but at the end, it will become something that he was afraid of, which is the kind of messianic figure that will lead the world into chaos.

KCRW: There's so much of what you've done in your storytelling that reflects on the themes of the book, and picking it up the first time, I wonder if you just started to see, “I see who this guy is.” Basically, he has to put his feet on the ground to be able to understand people because he's not really connected to people.

Villeneuve: I don't think I envisioned the book at that moment, intellectually that way, but viscerally probably I received the book like someone that is disconnected from the world being raised in a bubble. And that will face reality and receive the impact and the violence of reality. That for sure, there's something deep that spoke to my subconscious in some ways.

KCRW: By the end, we feel that there's hope for your protagonists, they can get past these demons that have visited them, in some ways they're responsible for, even. 

Villeneuve: The hope for me is that we can get rid of cycles, and that we can learn and get out of those cycles of violence or neurosis. The idea that human beings can evolve. And it's something that is where I put all my chips. And that's, I think, something that is very present in some way or the other in my movies. The idea that someone at the core of things can actually evolve. It sounds stupid, maybe, but it's a very deep statement that humans are not condemned. I mean, we keep repeating the same mistakes, but I truly believe that there is hope and that we will evolve as a species. 



Rebecca Mooney