Inside the making of Dune’s long-awaited film adaptation15 min read
Over two days in early September, the starry cast of Dune carefully picks their way through wild marsh fields for EW’s cover shoots. They’re on a tiny island perched just off the world-famous Lido, home of the Venice Film Festival, where Dune is making its world premiere and the cast has been reassembled for the first time since filming. Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya swat at hovering bees and laugh at each other, striking sultry poses at magic hour. They seem unworried about the epic franchise that now rests on their shoulders.
It’s a stark contrast from Arrakis, a world with little green and even less water, the most inhospitable planet in the entire Imperium. Director Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s beloved 1965 sci-fi novel features an epic ensemble, but most closely tracks the coming-of-age protagonist Paul (Chalamet), the only son of the great house of Atreides, who built their fortune on the rainswept planet Caladan. Now, though, they are taking up the fiefdom of Arrakis because of the planet’s unique treasure, the spice melange, which can elevate the human mind to incredible highs of calculation and consciousness. Harvesting it means braving the fiery sun, lashing wind, and rolling sandhills that give Arrakis its much more well-known moniker: Dune. Paul must decide whether to accept his destiny — and not just as a future duke. The female mystical order known as the Bene Gesserit — including Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) — believes that Paul will become the celestial messiah known to posterity as Muad’Dib.
“It’s one of the books that I really hold close to my heart now,” Chalamet says. “Not because I had the good fortune of getting to star in a movie adaptation, but because there are just so many lessons in it through the eyes of Paul: Whether they’re warnings of colonialism and colonial mindsets, or the destruction and exploitation of the environment. But then also there are really prescient lessons on becoming an adult and what it means to try to grapple with who you are in the world when there sometimes are greater things at play, or when you have to wrestle with a terrible purpose as Paul does.”
Dune‘s legacy towers over the last five decades of pop culture: You can find its shadow in the desert landscapes and double moons of Star Wars‘ Tatooine, in the noble house power plays of Game of Thrones, in the ecological focus of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films. But despite its lasting influence and passionate fanbase, adapting Dune for the screen has been as herculean a task as the Atreides’ attempt to master Arrakis. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unfinished attempt in the mid-’70s has since become fodder for documentarians, while David Lynch has all but disowned his 1984 film.
None of that deterred Villeneuve, who still remembers the moment he first found a copy of Dune in his local library growing up. He was so captured by it — by Paul’s journey from noble privilege to finding true community with the Fremen people who inhabit Arrakis, by Herbert’s scientifically-informed creation of planetary ecosystems, by the vividly psychedelic cover art by Wojciech Siudmak — that he even carved “Muad’Dib” on the inside of his school ring. That artifact has unfortunately been lost to the sands of time, but Villeneuve’s obsession with Dune has never left him. As he became a film director, carving out a distinguished career with smaller films like 2010’s Incendies and Enemy before moving on to big-budget sci-fi like 2016’s Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve’s answer to the question “what’s your dream project?” never changed.
“When I finished [Lynch’s] movie, it kept bugging me in the back of my head that maybe there would be a different way to do it that would be closer to the spirit of the book,” Villeneuve says. “It kept growing in me, this idea. I’m not here to compare myself to the master, I’m just here to say I think that I saw something else in this book.”
So far, early audiences are responding to his vision. After making its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 3 and rolling out in a staggered commercial opening across international territories and film festivals, Dune has earned rave reviews. (It hits U.S. theaters and HBO Max on Oct. 22.) It would be hard for any adaptation of complicated material with as rich a history as Dune to please everyone, but so far Villeneuve’s vision seems to be both entrancing newcomers and earning the respect of hardcore fans — and making a powerful case for a film that truly warrants being seen on the biggest screen possible.
Here’s how he (and his many collaborators) did it.
Villeneuve signed on to direct Dune in January 2017, just about a week after earning a Best Director Oscar nomination for Arrival. This did not escape the attention of then up-and-coming actor Timothée Chalamet, who made the most of the fact that he and Villeneuve each had movies on the awards circuit (Call Me by Your Name and Blade Runner 2049, respectively) later that year.
“Every room I was in with him, I’d try to put myself in his eyeline or just try to make him familiar with me,” Chalamet, 25, recalls. “He hadn’t seen Call Me by Your Name yet, but once he did he asked me to come meet him at the Cannes Film Festival where he was president of the jury, which did not feel casual at all. So I went out there and just had one of the coolest meetings ever with him, where I felt he was already treating me as a potential collaborator.”
Chalamet had previously auditioned for Villeneuve’s 2013 film Prisoners, but didn’t make the cut. Zendaya, who says she’s seen Prisoners more times than she can count, was just as excited as Chalamet was by the opportunity to work with Villeneuve — especially on a film where “there might possibly be a role for a young lady from another planet.” She aggressively pursued the role of Chani, a Fremen warrior who haunts Paul’s dreams, and secured it after nailing a chemistry read with Chalamet. Even though Zendaya was only able to make it to Dune‘s Middle Eastern set for a week, those seven days left an indelible impression on the 25-year-old actress.
“I didn’t want to leave,” Zendaya says. “Denis had such a warmth, and there was a familial quality to the way it felt when I got there. I felt very welcomed by the crew and cast, everybody was so lovely to me. Denis is so detail-oriented and thoughtful; any question I had, he had thought about before. He had answers for everything, so I was able to speak with him and develop Chani very quickly. I became very close with Timothée. We were like, ‘Oh, this is great, we’re gonna be besties, I can tell.'”
Other members of the star-studded cast were sought out directly by Villeneuve. For the role of Fremen leader Stilgar, Villeneuve went straight to Javier Bardem — matching up who he calls “one of my favorite actors” with “one of the most beautiful characters in the book.”
“I met him over lunch. He offered me the role and I was blown away by the fact that he was so direct,” says Bardem. “I read the book many years ago, and funny enough, I felt the same way about Stilgar that I felt when I read Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. It’s that role that you want to play when you are a kid. So when Denis Villeneuve asked me to play that role I was absolutely in shock, knowing that he’s going to do something very unique with it.”
Josh Brolin, who plays House Atreides’ gruff weapons master Gurney Halleck, is one of the few Dune stars to have previously worked with Villeneuve (on 2015’s drug-war tale Sicario). Another is Dave Bautista, who stole the opening minutes of Blade Runner 2049 as a robot revolutionary-turned-farmer. With Dune, Bautista now finds a new register as Glossu Rabban, the cruel and spoiled scion of the Atreides’ sworn rivals in House Harkonnen. A former wrestling star, Bautista is often cast as big strong guys, like Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Drax the Destroyer. Villeneuve, though, finds much more interesting ways to channel Bautista’s charisma.
“I left a career in professional wrestling to take a chance on myself because I fell in love with acting. It took me forever to get a job,” Bautista says. “So when someone like Denis calls me and says ‘I really want you to play this part,’ that validates the sacrifice and the chance I took on myself.”
The massive cast of Dune naturally means a wide variety of acting styles, and Rebecca Ferguson is still impressed at how Villeneuve was able to work with everyone as both individuals and a collective. “We all have different techniques to how we work. I’ve never met a director who can so wonderfully embrace everyone’s individuality and know exactly what to give each and every one at a certain moment,” Ferguson says. “Everyone was so humble to the story and to Denis. There were no egos in that sense. People were just there to do a great job and to deliver the best for him.”
Filling these roles with such starry actors is a big part of how Villeneuve has made Dune digestible. Even those viewers who have never combed through Herbert’s tomes can still be dazzled watching Chalamet pine over Zendaya, or at iconic internet boyfriend Oscar Isaac go full “space daddy” as Paul’s noble father, Duke Leto Atreides.
Some of the stars brought their own perspective to Herbert’s characters. Dr. Liet Kynes, the imperial ecologist assigned to assist the Atreides in their takeover of Arrakis, is written as a male character in the novel but played by Sharon-Duncan Brewster in the film. Kynes has grown quite sympathetic to the Fremen during her time on the desert planet, and uses her knowledge of their culture for maximum effect during one of Dune‘s most memorable scenes.
“It’s nice to be part of an ensemble,” Duncan-Brewster says. “To be amongst such wonderful actors who are so genuine, generous, and nice is much easier than being thrown into a world where it’s all just all on me.”
Jason Momoa, the charismatic action star who helped kick off Game of Thrones and pulled off the seemingly impossible task of making Aquaman cool in WB’s recent superhero films, gets to play a different kind of hero as House Atreides’ loyal swordmaster Duncan Idaho.
“Duncan is a highly-trained chess player who is skilled and thoughtful in war,” Momoa says. “Duncan is 100 percent a knight. He’s very regal, and he’s sacrificed everything for this family.”
“Family” is a loaded concept in Dune, whose cosmic landscape is dominated by power struggles between competing houses like Atreides and Harkonnen. But when the cast talks about their experience on Dune, they compare the set to a “family” in the traditional sense: An environment of mutual respect and support, presided over by a director with a guiding vision who was open to everyone’s input, no matter the scale of the shoot. The close-knit nature of the cast despite the massive scale of Dune‘s production leads Chalamet to describe the experience as “an indie film on steroids.” Zendaya remembers dance parties breaking out in trailers and dressing rooms in between scenes, and she now has a treasured photo of the one time Bardem joined in.
“It definitely felt like a family,” says Isaac. “That comes from the top, that comes from Denis in his excitement and his camaraderie and his passion, the constant joking around and then suddenly getting very serious. I think we became a really tight-knit group.” Speaking specifically to the House Atreides triumvirate of himself, Chalamet, and Ferguson, Isaac adds, “We worked so hard on that and on those scenes, knowing that was kind of at the emotional core: This family that fractures. Dramatically that’s what we were doing and then also, in the shooting of it, we had such a fun time. I could not stop laughing.”
Brolin points out that Villeneuve was nonetheless skilled at shifting everybody from play to work: “He has this great way of elevating everybody and lifting morale. But when it comes down to scenes, there’s something that shifts. You don’t think it’s happening, but he allows everybody to feel really collaborative and yet he has a very set vision.”
Most of Dune‘s Arrakis scenes were filmed in Abu Dhabi and Jordan’s Wadi Rum, also known as Valley of the Moon. Ferguson notes, “When you see that landscape just continuing on forever, that is what it was like to actually be there. You feel so tiny, Mother Nature just kind of swallows you, you mean nothing compared to the grandiosity of life, and I loved that feeling.”
Like Lawrence of Arabia and so many Western cowboys before him, Paul finds refuge and transcendence in the sandy landscape.
“It’s simplicity,” cinematographer Grieg Fraser says of the desert. “It’s one of the most simple environments out there, and I’m a strong believer in the idea that the simpler it is, the stronger the stories can be. When the book was being written, I think [Herbert] clearly had an idea of what this might be and made it a simple visual world so that these complicated stories can ring true.”
Arrakis is not the only planet in this story. The film shows us three more: rainy Caladan; the polluted Harkonnen homeworld of Giedi Prime; and Salusa Secundus, where the elite imperial troops known as Sardaukar are trained in the only environment nearly as harsh as Arrakis. All of these planets were constructed as sets with minimal CGI to give a real sense of these places and the people who live there.
“They were great sets,” says Stellan Skarsgård, who is nearly unrecognizable as the film’s demonic, wheezing villain Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. “It affects the way you work. If you work with a green screen, you don’t have the help of the set. But coming onto those sets were so beautiful. In my case, the set was frightening in itself so I didn’t have to do much. It was great. What I find is that sci-fi films often have a tendency to be slightly ridiculous because everybody is trying to be as inventive as possible in coming up with gadgets that we don’t have today. But here, it’s very sort of scaled down, it’s very pure. It’s a universe that you’ve never seen before and yet you really feel you’re in it.”
Sandworms live at the heart of Dune. The massive beasts have adorned the covers of most novels in the franchise and are the starring centerpiece of the movie’s trailers. No wonder: They are awe-inspiring creations. The sandworms make three separate screen-rattling appearances over the course of Villeneuve’s new film, and the director knew that getting them right was a major part of nailing this adaptation.
Dune‘s roots stretch back to Herbert’s work as a science journalist, and the author was committed to making the biology of his work believable; the first appendix of the novel is all about “The Ecology of Dune.” Villeneuve knew that he and his team would have to take a similarly scientific approach to developing the sandworms.
“For us, it was important that the worm look like an animal that makes sense,” says Villeneuve, who worked with production designer Patrice Vermette and storyboard artists to go through multiple designs. “To live through millions of years in the desert, you need a species that has evolved and has built a protection against the elements. Its skin has to look thick enough to protect itself in the worst environment. The most important element is that when you see it, it has a sacred quality to it too. You will feel like you’re in a huge presence, a different kind of intelligence, something that is beyond our way of thinking.”
Between Hans Zimmer’s score and the expert sound design by Mark Mangini and Theo Green, Dune boasts a truly unique sonic landscape, and the sandworms are at the center of it. They are attracted by rhythmic noises, sandquakes mark their approach through the desert, and every time they roar it shakes the screen — especially on a big screen.
Josh Brolin, Oscar Isaac, Timothée Chalamet, and Javier Bardem
One problem that previous Dune adaptations have struggled with is the sheer length and depth. Dune predates our modern organization of sci-fi and fantasy stories into neat trilogies; Herbert wrote six novels in total, spanning thousands of years, and the first book alone contains too much story to pack into a few hours (just ask Lynch). Soon after taking the job, Villeneuve decided that containing it all in one movie would simply be impossible.
“The book is so dense. It’s a story that takes its strength from details,” Villeneuve says. “So one of the very first things I said to Legendary was we should not make one movie, we should make two. The question was, when do we stop the first part? That took a while, sculpting the end to make sure the audience will feel like they’ve been through a full journey, a full arc for Paul Atreides, but at the same time they would feel there’s something else coming after.”
Splitting Dune in two carries a risk (as of now, part two has not been officially greenlit), but also makes the material much more understandable. Zendaya, who is tasked with delivering a few lines of introductory exposition at the top of the film — where a title card introduces the film as “part one” with no further commentary — notes that splitting the story in two reduces the need for additional narrative-dumping.
“[Denis] makes it digestible,” she says. “He does a beautiful job of immersing you in this world without making you feel like you’re being explained things. It catches you up so easily and effortlessly, you feel invested in this planet and world.”
The split means the viewer doesn’t get to spend a ton of time with Chani and Stilgar, who loom much larger in the second half of Dune. But there’s just enough of the Fremen to whet the appetites of viewers (and the actors themselves) to continue the story.
“There’s so much story left to be told. I would love to spend more time with these characters,” Zendaya says. “I learned so much as an actress and became better just from that experience of being around Denis, watching him interact with his actors and run sets, and then seeing the way Javier works too. I also became wonderful friends with Timothée, who’s now like my family I would say. We talk all the time about how fun it’s gonna be if we get to do it. Selfishly, I want to do [a second film] to have fun and spend time with my friend.”
Villeneuve is equally eager to get back to work on the rest of Dune; after all, his dream project still isn’t finished. Vermette says he’s aware of storyboards for a Dune film Villeneuve made all the way back when the director was 14 or 15 years old. As Brolin says, “I think this was an obsession for him. I don’t think it was just another movie.”
Why not be obsessed with Dune? The new film is sure to mint thousands of new admirers, especially those who would like to know how the rest of the story goes while they wait anxiously for part two. Despite being more than 50 years old, Herbert’s story still has a lot to say about social organization (Brolin succinctly describes it as “an epic story about human politics”) and living in tune with the environment. Here we are in 2021, with a new vision of Dune just as our relationship with our own planet has gotten dangerously out of whack. No wonder it’s resonating.
“Dune shows a world that has gone too far, a world that has lost balance. I hope we will not go there, but I feel it’s something that should be at the forefront of all citizens in the world and all politicians,” Villeneuve says. “Dune is also about a love of science and the power of the human brain. We need to trust scientists. We are at a crossroads, and we have to change, we have to adapt our ways of living. That’s going to be a big challenge, people don’t want to change, but we will need to if we want to survive. That’s what Dune is about; it’s about adaptation.”
—Additional reporting by Tyler Aquilina
Motion direction and photography by Julian Ungano for EW. DP: Tommy Agriodimas; Production: Shades of Grey; Additional production: Alison Wild, Shana Naomi Krochmal; Post-production: Good Company, Ethan Bellows; Design: Chuck Kerr. Bardem’s Styling: Evet Sanchez/The Wall Group; Grooming: Jillian Halouska/The Wall Group; Brewster’s Styling: Zadrian + Sarah; Hair: Venner James; Makeup: Lisa Houghton/The Only Agency; Brolin’s Styling: Samantha McMillen/The Wall Group; Grooming: Kelly Marazzi/Milton Agency; Chalamet’s Styling: Erin Walsh/A-Frame; Grooming: Jamie Taylor/The Wall Group; Ferguson’s Styling: Kate Young/The Wall Group; Hair: Alain Pichon; Makeup: Emma Lovell/The Wall Group; Isaac’s Styling: Jason Bolden/JSN Studio; Hair: Tim Nolan/Tracey Mattingly; Makeup: Donald Mowat; Zendaya’s Styling: Law Roach/The Only Agency; Hair: Antoinette Hill/The Teknique Group; Makeup: Raoul Alejandre/Opus Beauty.