Denis Villeneuve Explains Why Dune Had to Be Filmed in the Real World

Director Denis Villeneuve directors Stilgar (Javier Bardem) during a scene from Dune.
Director Denis Villeneuve directors Stilgar (Javier Bardem) during a scene from Dune.
Image: Warner Bros.

When Denis Villeneuve was asked to direct an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, he had two requirements. One was that he wanted to divide the book into two movies—the other was that he wanted it to be as real as possible.

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“I strongly believe that as human beings, what is around us has an impact on inspiration,” Villeneuve said. “The other condition that I had to shoot the movie was that I wanted to shoot in the real desert. My argument was, ‘They didn’t shoot Jaws in a swimming pool.’”

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Villeneuve and several members of Dune’s cast sat down with Stephen Colbert for a virtual Q&A, which io9 and other media outlets sat in on. During the panel, Villeneuve discussed why he chose to film so much of the movie on location in Budapest, Hungary, and Jordan using real sets, instead of turning to giant greenscreen soundstages like so many movies do nowadays (according to Timothée Chalamet, who plays the lead character of Paul Atreides, only two of his scenes involved greenscreen). Villeneuve said that, much similar to Blade Runner 2049, he wanted the world of Dune to feel as real and tangible as possible for the actors, as well as the audience.

“The title is Dune. It needed to be in the real environment, so we would be inspired by the infinity—and the impact of those landscapes on the actors’ inspiration, and myself too,” he said. “When you are pushing on the camera button, you need the chaos of life. You need to recreate life in front of the camera in order to document reality. And most importantly, you need nature.

Dune is about ecosystem, at the very core,” Villeneuve continued. “What I did learn about Dune is exploration of the life and the ecosystem and biosphere, and all the science that Frank Herbert put behind that is so beautiful, it’s so poetic. I think that in order to bring Dune to the screen, I had to be as close to nature as possible and to make Dune as close to us as possible. So when people will see the movie, they will be amazed by the power of the landscape... [and] most importantly, they will feel strangely at home.”

This is something that wasn’t lost on the actors. Zendaya, who plays Chani, called filming Dune a “magical experience” that brought her to a “completely different world.” Chalamet noted how being in Jordan made him feel like he was truly on the desert planet Arrakis—something echoed by Josh Brolin, who takes on the role of Gurley Halleck.

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“There was something about being on the set of this film. Because it was in Jordan and because we were kind of in the elements the whole time—and because we were living through not only Frank Herbert’s but Denis Villeneuve’s imagination. There was something: It was like a behavioral blackout. It was like he sucked us in, you know? And we were at the beck and call of these people’s amazing imaginations,” Brolin said.

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Oscar Isaac, who plays Paul’s father Duke Leto Atreides, also chimed in with his thoughts on the scale of the production. In short: It competes with Star Wars but pales in comparison to something else. Or should I say someone.

“I’ll just say that, you know, no set piece, no X-Wing, no Millennium Falcon could compare to the sheer scale of Josh Brolin’s head,” Isaac said, as everyone (including Brolin) laughed. “It was massive, both literally and figuratively. And it really made me feel like I was on an alien planet.”

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Of course, there’s one other big reason why Villeneuve wanted to film Dune on location: to get to the heart of the film’s environmental message. Herbert’s original novel features themes of conservation and exploitation (like how corporations are keeping Arrakis from terraforming so they can continue harvesting spice), but the director is taking this one step further to comment on modern issues of climate change. He said the story of the Fremen adapting to the needs of their planet in order to survive is something we should be taking to heart—not just because it might save our planet but because eventually, we won’t have any choice.

“It’s a call for change,” Villeneuve said. “There’s a lot of changes that are happening in the world [over] the next decades, with climate change and all this. Maybe we need to change our ways of living, maybe we need to change our ways of dealing with nature and the world. And that takes a lot of courage and effort, and I think that Dune is a call for that.”

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“Revolution, baby,” Isaac added.

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Dune is set to arrive in theaters on December 18.


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Video Editor and Staff Writer at io9. My doppelganger is that rebelling greeting card from Futurama.

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DISCUSSION

“I’ll just say that, you know, no set piece, no X-Wing, no Millennium Falcon could compare to the sheer scale of Josh Brolin’s head,”

Bwahahahahaha!

Now that’s a belly laugh I really needed this morning.