‘Dune’ Director Denis Villeneuve Calls the Film “The Toughest Thing I’ve Done”

‘Dune’ Director Denis Villeneuve Calls the Film “The Toughest Thing I’ve Done”

Fear is the mind-killer, so although adapting Dune was a daunting prospect for director Denis Villeneuve, he decided to face his fear and take the project on. It’s not the first time he’s shepherded a beloved science-fiction property back to the big screen. Four years ago, Blade Runner 2049 showed that he was capable of doing at least one classic justice with a new interpretation.

With Dune, however, he was attempting to film an “unadaptable” Frank Herbert novel that had already stymied accomplished filmmakers like David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky. In a new interview, he says: “It was, by far, the toughest thing I’ve done.”

Villeneuve recently spoke with Total Film, where he characterized Arrival and Blade Runner, his two previous forays into science fiction, as necessary “stepping stones” in his career, leading up to Dune. He’s already left some outsized footprints in the sands of this particular genre, but a closer look at his filmography reveals that those footprints have led him in a big circle back to the deserts of Wadi Rum, Jordan.

That’s where he shot Incendies, his 2010 French-language film, which earned an Oscar nomination and which was the last film he made before crossing over into English in 2013 with the one-two Jake Gyllenhaal punch of Prisoners and Enemy. To hear Villeneuve tell it, Dune is something that was already on his mind well over a decade ago when he was on location in Jordan, filming Incendies. He said:

“I remember taking mental notes at the time: ‘If ever I do the movie, I’m coming back here and there. That’s where Paul sits. But it was a massive fantasy.”

Two Different “Little-Deaths”

Like many of us who read Herbert’s novel in high school or college, Villeneuve’s relationship with Dune began even earlier than that when he was a teenager. That’s how long he had been dreaming of making this movie. Seeing his dream become a reality now is something he likened to la petite mort, that French phrase, meaning “the little death,” which we’ve borrowed into English, much like Villeneuve’s filmmaking.

The Oxford English Dictionary (via Wikipedia) defines la petit mort as “the sensation of post-orgasm as likened to death.” It’s like that meme, “Yeah, sex is cool, but … [have you ever tried making a movie?]” As Villeneuve put it:

“There are deep pleasures when there are images that you’re able to achieve that are close to what you had in mind as a teenager; then it’s orgasmic. But the failures are very difficult, because you disappoint the teenager in yourself. As Hans Zimmer [who has scored Dune] pointed out, it’s very dangerous to try to reach one of your oldest dreams.”

He also said, “I have some kind of a self-destructive device inside me to take projects that are out of my reach.” With Dune, he was inspired to overcome this by Herbert’s famous book quote: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear.”

We’ll soon be facing Dune in theaters and on HBO Max. Timothée Chalamet leads a stacked ensemble cast, but if and when we see a sequel adapting the book’s second half (and Villeneuve is optimistic that we will), Zendaya’s character may become the new protagonist. In the meantime, with a release date of October 1, 2021, this first movie is no longer so far out of reach.

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