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How Denis Villeneuve Became the Master of the ‘Dune’-iverse and Saved the Movies

The French-Canadian director turned a childhood obsession with Frank Herbert's sci-fi classic into a quest to film an unfilmable novel. And then he made his dream come true
Chia Bella James/Warner Bros. Pictures

O n an island in Venice, about a 20-minute boat ride from the mainland and several million light years away from the arid desert planet of Arakis, there’s a small garden overlooking the water. It’s a green oasis located within a sprawling hotel complex that covers the entire area, complete with conference rooms, suites and private bungalows — think “luxury military compound” or “five-star fortress.” This quiet, green patch of serenity, however, is like an oasis dropped into the middle of several acres of casual-aristocratic chic. To the naked eye, there is not a grain of sand in sight.

Sandy, sun-baked, alien landscapes, however, are exactly what the tall man who’s just wandered into this hidden nook of Eden has brought to Italy. Squinting in the sunlight on this early September morning in this very expensive corner of paradise, wearing a rumpled blazer over a plain black T-shirt, Denis Villeneuve is looking for a place to sit. It’s the morning after the highly anticipated premiere of his new film, and yet the 54-year-old French-Canadian director does not come across as someone responsible for the single most anticipated blockbuster of the last few years, the brains behind a massive studio film that could become the next multimillion-dollar franchise, or the reluctant savior of the big-screen theatrical experience. He is, self-admittedly, simply a person in desperate need of a cup of coffee.

“Well, let me tell you about the boxes,” Villeneuve says, once he finally finds a place to settles in with an ocean view and an espresso. The story of how doesn’t really start there, because the pump had already been primed for a kid from the Quebecois countryside to blossomed into a sci-fi nerd doesn’t really start there. But the moment is still vivid enough to him that it’s worth revisiting at the beginning of the conversation. An aunt showed up at his house for a visit. She was bearing gifts: three battered cardboard boxes. Her neighbor was going to throw these them out, she told her nephew. But she saved them from the trash, and now they were his.

Denis opened one of the boxes, and saw that it was filled with all sorts of different magazines. One title stood out: Métal Hurlant, an anthology of science-fiction and fantasy stories published by a collective of French artists. The magazine helped introduce generations of genre-loving youth to the graphic-novel culture springing up in Europe in the mid-1970s, and Villeneuve can still excitedly spout off the masthead’s Mount Rushmore of contributors: Moebius, Phillippe Druillet, Jean-Claude Mézières, Enik Bilal. When National Lampoon brought the translated publication to America, they renamed it Heavy Metal, though Villeneuve is quick to point out that the two magazines had their own distinctive flavor. “The English-language version usually favored stories involving aliens with big boobs,” he notes. “Métal Hurlant tended to be a little more existential.”

He can’t remember exactly how old he was. “Maybe 10, I think?” Villeneuve says. But he definitely recalls the feeling he got seeing the covers of the magazines, with their extraterrestrial bounty hunters and otherworldly warriors and moody androids, staring back at him. “It was like, ‘What. The. Fuck?’” When Villeneuve laughs, loudly and unabashedly, he sounds the way you imagine that boy sounded when he laughed. He smiles and holds his hands out, palms up. “It changed my life. Those boxes are the reason I’m here.”

After several years of devouring the contents of those boxes, and eventually seeking out new issues, the young Villeneuve developed a taste for the kind of science fiction that blended the cerebral with the fantastical and the far-out. The illustrations of galaxies far, far away that suggested something darker lurking on their horizons were especially appealing to him. Which may be why the young Denis gravitated toward the one intimidatingly thick paperback with the vast, Middle-East-by-way-of-Mars desert scene on its cover. It was a book about a boy, born from royalty yet not unlike himself, who learns to embrace the unknown. It was called Dune.

You could say that Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s highly influential, award-winning 1965 novel has been years in the making. You could also just as astutely note that King Kong is a rather large, lovelorn ape and that the Sistine Chapel required more than a few paintbrushes before it was finished. Though serious talks about his involvement with a new take on Dune didn’t begin in earnest until 2016, the Oscar-nominated director of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 has been chasing the movie that he saw in his mind’s eye when he first read Herbert’s story of empires and messiahs for decades. It’s not just his favorite book; it is, he says, the formative text that set him on his own spiritual, philosophical, and creative journey. He used to read the Dune Encyclopedia over and over for fun. His yearbook was filled with Dune quotes. “You know the class ring you get at the end of high school?” he asks. “Mine was inscribed ‘Muad’Dib’” — the name the book’s hero adapts when he becomes the Chosen One.

“As a boy, I was in love with science as much as science fiction,” Villeneuve says. “So to come across a sci-fi novel when I was 13 that had ecology as a subject — that used ecosystems as dramatic landscapes — and the precision and logic that Frank Herbert applied to that story, the poetry with which he showed how creatures and humans had to adapt to their environment…it had a huge impact on me.”

Huge is, in fact, a word that applies across the board to Villeneuve’s Dune. It’s a behemoth $165 million blockbuster, with a cast you could describe as “A+ list”: Timothée Chalamet as Paul, the young man who’ll eventually save humanity; Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson as his parents, the noble Duke Leto and the mystical Lady Jessica; Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa as two of Paul’s fight trainers/mentors. Zendaya and Javier Bardem play desert-dwelling “Fremen,” the former of whom will play a key part in Paul achieving his destiny; Dave Bautista, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgaard, Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Stephen McKinley Henderson round out the supporting cast. The film has the epic scope that you associate with the old-school roadshow presentations of the 1960s, à la Lawrence of Arabia, enhanced by Hans Zimmer’s Wagneresque score and the fact that Villeneuve insisted they shoot in real deserts.

And, to quote the last line you hear at the end of the film’s nearly three-hour run, “This is only the beginning.” One of Villeneuve’s caveats for making Dune was that he’d be able to tackle the story in two separate movies. As the movie’s official title credit makes clear, Dune: Part 1 only gets a little past the book’s halfway point. “I think the studio was pleased with the idea because they immediately knew they wouldn’t be getting the right to do one movie, but two,” Villeneuve says. “When I first said, ‘Look, it’s just too dense to do in a single film…’ they spontaneously said, ‘Yes, yes, of course, fantastic, you’re right.’ The only discussion was, do we shoot both movies at the same time and then release them one year apart? Which was my approach. But it was just going to be too expensive.

“Plus the source material…” he adds, before trailing off. “People are a little bit afraid of it, I think.”

The word “unadaptable” is as associated with Dune as much as “cult,” “labyrinthine” and “intimidating” — it has famously driven mad one filmmaker who attempted to make it (Alejandro Jodorowsky), and nearly ended the career of another who did (David Lynch). Even a three-part TV miniseries for the Syfy Channel in the early 2000s still didn’t quite capture the Dune-iverse. Unlike other complicated pop-fantasy/sci-fi properties, you can’t sum up the overall story with something as simple as “everyone wants the Iron Throne,” or “throw an evil ring into a volcano.” There is royal-court intrigue, indigenous folklore, scheming religious sects, giant sandworms and an invaluable psychedelic substance known as “spice.” It’s a standard hero’s journey, but as Villeneuve points out, “it’s also a Shakespearean history play, a coming-of-age story, a love story, an ecological story, a commentary on colonialism, and a warning about the savior syndrome.”

Add to all of this the fact that “it’s a fucking strange book,” as he puts it. “It’s even written strangely. It ends its chapters with cliffhangers, and the way they’re resolved don’t make any sense at all. And yet, given the way Herbert both creates and empathizes with these different cultures, the novel is, above all else, a miracle.” It’s almost as much of a miracle, he admits, as some French-Canadian kid from Trois-Riviéres somehow getting the chance to make movies, much less his dream project, at all.

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Villeneuve has a handful of early memories of growing up near the Bécancour region of Quebec. Oddly enough, many of them seem to involve both space and observing. He has a vivid memory of being a toddler and watching men walk on the moon on TV — “not the first one with Neil Armstrong, it was a later moonwalk” — which he says gave birth to an early obsession with astronauts. When he was a little older, he recalls sneaking in some scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey before being sent to bed. And he remembers seeing an ad for Star Wars in the newspaper, pointing to it, and informing his mother and father, “I want to see that.” It was the first time he’d asked his parents to take him to the movies instead of simply being taken to them. Like many kids of his generation who caught that original “jedis and death stars and droids, oh my!” rush, he became an instant die-hard.

The sequel to that film, however, was what would end up truly blowing Villeneuve’s mind. “I saw The Empire Strikes Back at the first screening on the day it opened,” he says, “and thinking back on it now, I realize it was the first movie I’d seen which had fully leaned into the darkness of its story. You know, the tragedy of it, the philosophy of it, the relationships in it, the violence. It made me think, ‘Star Wars is a movie made for kids; this is a film made for someone a little older, a little more ready to handle what comes next.’ I felt like the movie was talking to me like an adult.”

The Métal Hurlant magazines had given him a taste for serious, “hard sci-fi” stories; Empire had proven to Denis that you could do the same thing in a larger, more pop-oriented arena as well. But there were other external factors that would help shape Villeneuve’s sensibility. The village where he spent his childhood was located in the shadow of the Gentilly Nuclear Generating Station by the St. Lawrence River; many of the local populace were engineers who worked at the plant. And though Villeneuve and his three younger siblings “were raised with total freedom,” he says there was this constant, underlying sense of fear and paranoia about that looming structure on the horizon.

“You’d hear about these spills and meltdowns in the news,” he says, “and there was all this talk about pills for radiation sickness. It was always, ‘Remember, if anything happens, you take these pills. Don’t stand in the way of the wind — stand down from it — and take these pills.’ My father would say, ‘It’s all right, it’s all right, Denis, nothing’s ever going to happen…but also be sure to take the pills.’” He laughs. “Someone once asked me if that ever contributed to the sense of anxiety in my movies, and I’m sure that having something like a nuclear power plant three miles from my home may have caused me to become a natural worrier. The fear of atomic power was massive at the time. But it also fueled my creativity. There was something very curious about it.”

“He’s kept his intense intellectual energy and his childlike enthusiasm, which is inspiring. The guy’s a wizard, man. I don’t know how else to put it.”—Timothée Chalamet

He began making short films in high school as a hobby, sticking to his plan to become a biologist. Around the time he finished his classes in senior year, however, Villeneuve said he fell into a deep depression. The path that had felt predetermined to him — the life in science that he’d been actively pursuing since he was young — felt like the wrong way. “I suddenly just went, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to film school in Montreal. That’s really what I want to do.’ There was this Catholic priest who came to counsel me when I was down, and he told me, ‘Denis, film school? Don’t do it! You’ll lose your life!’

“The ironic thing is,” he adds, “that it was when I got to Montreal, that’s where my real happiness began. It cured me.”

Villeneuve describes the transition of going from a small Quebeçois village to the University of Montreal as the equivalent of “entering the Los Angeles of Blade Runner. It was that much of a culture shock.” But he soon became enlivened by being around fellow students who obsessed over art and aspect ratios, as well as the incredible mix of cultures both in and around Montreal. Then, near the end of college, he heard about a television program that, as Villeneuve describes it now, sounds like a sort of reality TV prototype. Think: The Amazing Race for Auteurs. Eight prospective filmmakers, all between the ages of 18 to 25, would get the chance to go around the world for seven months. “You had a plane ticket, a camera, and you had to make one short film every week,” he explains. “And every Monday at 7 p.m., all of the work would be shown, to a jury of filmmakers and critics, on national TV.”

Denis made the cut, at which point he found himself dropped into the first of many make-or-break DIY situations for the show. “You might land in Japan, not know the language, not even know how to ask for a fork,” he says. “But you still have to find a subject, make a five-minute film — and it’s going to be on TV in two weeks, so you’d better get it done.”

Everything he learned about filmmaking, he now says, happened while making the 25 documentary shorts he made for that show. Cutting sequences in camera and in your head, learning how to approach subjects, switching tactics on a dime if something unique presented itself, reacting to your environment while also narrowing your focus amid chaos — it was a completely immersive experience that forged the kind of filmmaker who’d eventually lead a cast and crew into the desert for weeks on end. And it helped him create what he says became a very intimate relationship for him — the one between a man and his movie camera.

“It’s funny, because Denis doesn’t listen to music when we drive to a set,” Tanya Lapointe, an executive producer on Dune and Denis’ wife, says. “The same when he’s on set … He needs silence. He has a great relationship with his casts and crews, but you’ll see him get very quiet all of sudden. Because the whole movie is happening in his head, and he’s trying to pin it down. And a lot of that comes from his experience making those films out there in the world, on his own.”

“You know, Tonya showed me an old interview of Denis in Montreal, when he was debuting one of those documentaries,” Timothée Chalamet says, when we talk on the phone a few weeks later. “He’s about 20 years old or so, but even then, he already has this intense intellectual energy about him. That throughline is already present. But the video felt so charming to me, because you see all of that along with the childlike enthusiasm I saw him display on set when I worked with him. He’s kept both of those halves of his creative life, which is inspiring, you know?” There’s a slight pause on the other end of the line. “The guy’s a wizard, man. I don’t know how else to put it.”

Villeneuve has a soft spot for Venice and its film festival, he says, because prior to hosting the world premiere of Dune, it had already changed his life twice. After getting a lot of notice for his work on the TV program, notably for a short film he did on the life of beetles, and contributing a segment to the anthology movie Cosmos, Villeneuve managed to scrape together enough funding to shoot his debut feature, a road movie titled August 32nd on Earth (1998). It was received warmly enough, as was Maelstrom (2000), an oddball character study notable for being narrated by a dying fish.

His third film, Polytechnique (2009), which recreated an infamous mass shooting on a college campus, got him a lot of attention and press in his native country. It was the one after that, however, that would turn out to be a game-changer. The director had seen a production of Wajdi Mouawad’s play Incendies, about a pair of twins tracking down a previously unknown sibling after their mother’s death. He was so taken by it that, along with his co-writer Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne, Villeneuve adapted the work for the screen; after the finished film premiered at Venice in 2010, he could feel his career shifting into a different gear almost overnight.

“The day after that first screening here,” he says, gesturing to the city on the horizon, “it was like I could sense something in the air. It’s hard to describe. I remember going straight from Venice to Telluride, where they were about to show the film, and seeing [Sony Pictures Classics co-founder] Michael Barker in the airport. He ran up to me and said, ‘I want your movie!’ I thought to myself: Wait, shouldn’t I be the one running to you? It’s like, ‘Ah, so…something’s definitely changed now.’” Incendies would be nominated for Best Foreign-Language film at the Academy Awards and end up winning a number of Canada’s equivalent of the Oscars.

What followed was the usual Hollywood song-and-dance courtship: Villeneuve started receiving a number of scripts, some of which were very similar to Incendies’ elliptical, twist-heavy storytelling, and some of which were a 180-degree turn. But all of them, he says, were ones “where you could tell, ‘Oh, a lot of directors have passed on this and now it’s making its way to me.’” There was one involving missing children and a man out for revenge, however, that caught his eye. “No one wanted to touch it. It was too dark. That turned out to be Prisoners.

Summoned to the belly of the show-business beast to pitch, Villeneuve decided to go, solely because he wanted to see if the reality of the Hollywood meet-and-greet lived up to the myth. “I had nothing to lose, honestly,” he admits. “In my mind, it was simply a cultural experience: I’m going to go to L.A., meet those people you always see in movies about L.A., and then go back and make more movies in Montreal. I was having a great time doing that.” He started telling a roomful of producers what this movie everyone was afraid to make needed in order to work. As he boarded the plane back to Montreal, his agent called and congratulated Denis on scoring his first $50 million deal.

“I yelled, ‘How much did you say the budget was?!’” Villeneuve says, laughing. “I thought it was a joke, because as a French-Canadian filmmaker, Prisoners is a movie you make for $7 or $8 million. That was the culture shock. Had they told me that number in the meeting, I likely would have freaked out.”

Prisoners proved that Villeneuve could make dark dramas that would attract both movie stars and audiences without sanding down the edges, and other than Enemy — the genuinely weird 2013 film he made with Jake Gyllenhaal in Canada while prepping Prisoners — his next few projects would each move him up the Hollywood filmmaking ladder rung by rung. The border thriller Sicario (2015) begat the Close Encounters-like alien parable Arrival (2016), which earned him a Best Director nomination and put him in the running to do the long-in-the-works Blade Runner sequel. Villeneuve suddenly found himself becoming a hot-property director, as well as one who understood how to translate the brainy science-fiction of his youth to the screen.

Which, he says, brings him back to Venice, and the second of this city’s gifts to him. When he brought Arrival to the film festival, he was asked during a press conference what movie he’d make if he were given a blank check. He claims that he replied, without even taking a second to consider the question, “Dune.” It just so happened that Legendary Pictures, a production company best known for being Christopher Nolan’s home base, had purchased the rights to Frank Herbert’s magnum opus. Their production chief Mary Parent read Villeneueve’s comments and asked if he’d like to talk.

“It wasn’t until I left what felt like a very informal but very interesting meeting with her,” Villeneuve recalls, “and called my wife afterward, that I suddenly stopped and went, ‘Whoa. Whoa!’ The sheer weight of what had just happened kind of hit me all at once. I was still going to go off and make Blade Runner 2049, we were already in pre-production, but the idea that I might actually get to do Dune, to make a movie of that book, it was …” His eyes practically pop out of his head. “I suddenly had a lot of fear.”

And fear is… ? “Yes, it’s the mindkiller!” Villeneuve yells, quoting one of the best-known lines of Herbert’s novel in between bursts of laughter. “But the excitement of doing it was far more powerful than the fear. Even just opening up the book and reading that first page once again, it was like, ‘Ah! There it is. I see it!’ If I can get even 10 percent of that” — he points to his head — “on the screen, I will have succeeded.”

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Josh Brolin and Timothée Chalamet in ‘Dune.’ Chibella James/Warner Bros

From the opening moments of Dune, in which a guttural rumble accompanies the introductory epigram “Dreams are messages from the deep,”  the movie announces itself as something large, epic, and extremely idiosyncratic. And within the first five minutes, it’s obvious that you will be diving deep into a singular vision of Herbert’s world-building. During the year-plus period of pre-production, Villeneuve set down one rule for his storyboard artists, conceptual artists, and various other collaborators: They were not allowed to reference anything. Not just from previous interpretations of the novel; they were not allowed to go on the internet and pilfer bits and pieces from anything at all when it came to designing the movie’s look. They had to rely strictly on their own imaginations. (“Prep is maybe Denis’ favorite part of the process,” the cinematographer Roger Deakins, who’s worked on three films with the director, says. “He calls it “the time you have to dream.’”)

The result, Villeneuve says, was not some sort of authoritarian mind game; it was designed, rather, to honor everyone’s subjective take on the source material. “When in doubt, go back to the book” became something of a mantra. And yet: If you’re even a little familiar with Villeneuve’s past work, his thematic obsessions, his eye for detail and his peculiar ability to blend intimacy with a feeling of distance — and in Blade Runner 2049’s case, a sense of scope as well — then you’ll see that he likely channeled more than 10 percent of the Dune he’d been carrying around in his cranium. It feels as if an army has been assembled to realize one man’s very specific head trip.

“He has a knack for finding the right creative partners to help him channel his vision and get it out into the real world,” Lapointe notes. “And Denis has said this before, but I’ll repeat it: Never mind that it’s his biggest film, it really is his most personal film. The fact that this influenced him so deeply as a young man reflected how he wanted to tell this story. He wanted it to relate to young people today, in the same way he related to the book.”

“When I first met him, he talked for an hour and a half about what he wanted to get up there,” Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Lady Jessica, says as she makes a screen-like square with her hands over Zoom. “He described it the way a child would describe something they love. And it was like, ‘I don’t know what this is, but whatever it is, I want in.’ And now, it’s like: The exact thing he described to me that day has come to life! He’s defibrillated it into fucking ecstasy!” Ferguson says she took to calling Villeneuve “my giant octopus” on set, “because he has this center, this core, this brain — but with all these arms that he uses to cradle the cast and crew.

“There was one day when I was extremely pissed off at someone — it doesn’t matter who it was,” she continues. “I went up to him and started ranting about how angry I was, and he patiently waited until I had finished. Then he just calmly said, ‘Wow, you’re just shit-stirring now, aren’t you? Let’s just focus on your rhythm today, shall we?” Then he gave me a little hug and walked off. I thought, ‘Dammit, I get nothing from him!’ But really, we all got everything from him.”

“Even when he seemed to be directing while in the middle of some sort of ‘spice’ vision, which was a lot of the time, he’d still be there for you,” Chalamet says, referencing the hallucinogenic mélange that everyone in Dune is after. “Josh Brolin used to do this impersonation of him going into a ‘Denis hole’ of deep thought. But whenever I’d ask him a question about Paul, he’d go ‘Hmm,’ wander off a bit and then come back with the most profound and unpredictable answer. I always knew I’d asked a good question if it caused him to just walk away.”

“What happened instead was so disrespectful, and so arrogant. If they’d just said, ‘Oh, we just want to increase our stock shares, so we’re going to sacrifice your movie,’ OK, well…at least you’re being honest!”

When you bring up the affection that his cast and collaborators have for him during what was by many accounts a bonding experience in terms of filming in real, sometimes harsh landscapes (the production shot most of the Arakis exteriors in the Wadi Rum desert in Southern Jordan), Villeneuve beams. Mention his patrons behind the production, however, and you’ll notice his demeanor shift ever so slightly. He mentions that he felt a little tension when he first began talking to Warner Bros., especially once his previous film had underperformed at the box office. “I shouldn’t say this,” he says, “but you have this novel that has long been considered unadaptable. You know, ‘It’s too dense, too intellectual, too complex, too too-much.’ So then who do you hire to do it, but the guy who just made a movie that everyone said, ‘Too dense, too intellectual, too complex…’

“Look, I love the movie we made with Blade Runner,” he quickly adds. “But I didn’t think anyone around the table at AT&T was screaming ‘Yes!’ when I signed on.”

Still, while the delays caused by the pandemic forced a number of movies in addition to Dune to go into a sort of free-floating release-date limbo, there seemed to be a commitment to waiting until it was safe to get people back into theaters before they would commit to a plan. Which is why Warners’ announcement at the end of 2020 that they would be simultaneously premiering their entire 2021 lineup, including Dune, on HBO Max as well as in multiplexes, came as a bit of shock to the filmmaker. (He who controls the streaming controls the universe.) To say he was not pleased that a movie he designed to be an overwhelming experience might be seen by many on TV from the jump would be putting it lightly.

“The thing is…” Villeneuve says when this comes up, before stopping and shifting slightly in his chair. Even the bright Venice morning seems to darken a bit. “The problem today is that everything I say about this situation, it goes on Twitter and it’s distorted and everything becomes polarizing. There’s no room for nuance. So let me say: I actually love streaming! But I love it as a tool to explore the past. The notion of making something an event, though, or for keeping the singularity of cinema and the big screen…”

Another pause, and then Villeneuve lets out a loud sigh. “My problem with what happened was the way they went about doing it. I learned about it in the news, the same way everybody else did. No one reached out to me to tell me this was going on. They didn’t do it to protect people. They did it to increase their share on Wall Street. They hadn’t even seen Dune yet! It was like, ‘Fuck, guys…can’t we have a conversation about this? Can’t we find a compromise?’

“Look, I’m not stupid,” he continues. “We are in a pandemic — and at that point, you couldn’t send people into a theater! We would have found a common ground. I might have even agreed that this was the best way to go about things. And I know that cinema is an art form — it’s a gamble, whereas streaming is a constant flow of revenue. But what happened instead was so disrespectful, and so arrogant. When people say the truth, I feel more comfortable. If they’d just said, ‘Oh, we just want to increase our stock shares, so we’re going to sacrifice your movie,’ I’d have gone, ‘OK, well…at least you’re being honest!’”

The relationship between the studio and Villeneuve would improve even after he publicly blasted them in print, and when we talk in September, the official release dates in Europe and the U.S. are still several weeks away. Despite the fact that the filmmaker has asked to split the story into two parts, there was a wait-and-see approach to everyone signing off on a Part 2; Villeneuve claimed he hadn’t even started writing the script for a second film yet. (“You don’t put ‘Part 1’ in a title and then not finish the story,” Ferguson says. “I am already lobbying him for things I want my character to do in the next one.”) The fact that Dune would indeed have an impressive opening weekend, bringing in $40 million from its theatrical run alone, and that a Part 2 would officially be greenlit right after that, and Denis would fulfill his destiny as the man who adapted the unadaptable, the Muad’Dib who would save traditional moviegoing — it’s still in the distant future. Right now, he’s just a filmmaker who made a dream com true.

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Javier Bardem, Zendaya, Stellan Skarsgard, Chang Chen, Oscar Isaac, Sharon Duncan Brewster, Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Denis Villeneuve, Dave Bautista, Josh Brolin arrives on the red carpet for ‘Dune’ during the 78th Venice International Film Festival in Venice, Italy. P. Lehman/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

So before we leave this lovely garden overlooking Venice, Villeneuve points toward the Lido, where Dune played last night to as large a crowd as the festival could allow under pandemic-era rules. “You have to understand,” he says. “Normally, I’m making a movie, and it’s: ‘OK, finish it by Tuesday! And show it on Sunday!’ Then you sit at the premiere, and it just whooshes by you and you go, ‘OK, what was that?’ You barely have time to think about it. There’s no distance between what you made and what you’re seeing on the screen.

“But this time, I had a year to spend with the film before we could show it,” Villeneuve admits. “I got to see it walk, and talk — I got to have a conversations with it. So I felt peaceful when I showed it last night. I felt very grounded. I know there is something in it that I’d been dying to express, that I had never had the chance to express before. There’s a part of my identity up there. No matter what anyone else thinks about it, I know that the movie I wanted to make is up there. At that point, when the lights were going down, my only thought was, ‘Well, there had better not be any technical fuck-ups.’”

He laughs that boyish laugh one last time, before continuing. “And when the lights went up, and my cast and crew were there with me, and we finally got to show this to people on this huge screen…” Villeneuve nearly chokes up for a second. “Even with the theater only being half-full, the reaction we got after that first screening felt so much bigger. It didn’t feel like a premiere to me. It felt like opening up those boxes again. It felt like a victory.”