TORONTO – As he took on the colossal task of building “Dune” for the big screen, filmmaker Denis Villeneuve turned to close Canadian collaborators, including fellow Montrealer and production designer Patrice Vermette.
The two had already worked together on several films, including the 2016 alien-invasion drama “Arrival,” which earned both Vermette and Villeneuve Oscar nominations.
They’re also good friends, share a similar sensibility and immediately aligned on their vision for the sprawling feature adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel, says Villeneuve.
“It’s a very dynamic way of working where it’s like multiplying myself,” the writer-director said in a video interview during last month’s Toronto International Film Festival, where “Dune” had its Imax premiere.
“He becomes like suddenly another me and we walk together in the same direction. It’s just a lot of firepower when I work with Patrice.”
Vermette is among several Canadians who helped Villeneuve on the highly anticipated “Dune,” which hits theatres on Friday in Canada and the United States, where it will also land on the HBO Max streaming service the same day.
Timothée Chalamet stars as Paul Atreides, who is deemed the “chosen one” to save colonized planets using prescient powers passed down through his mother, played by Rebecca Ferguson.
Oscar Isaac plays his father, who faces political crises as he oversees a dangerous desert planet containing precious “spice.”
Villeneuve said he became enamoured with the interstellar story of warring families after discovering it at a bookstore as a sci-fi-loving teenager.
“I read it as fast as I could and I was mesmerized, totally engulfed into the poetry,” he said. “This book stayed with me through the years.”
Legendary Pictures got the rights to what’s been called the greatest sci-fi novel of all time and approached Villeneuve to direct and co-produce.
The visionary filmmaker felt ready to take on the sweeping fantasy a few years ago, after two decades of acclaimed features, including Oscar-winning “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049.”
Villeneuve co-wrote the “Dune” screenplay with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth. He split the story in half, with the new film serving as part one. Part two is being written but, as per an agreement Villeneuve made with Warner Bros., its future depends on how well the current film does at the box office.
Toronto storyboard artist Sam Hudecki, who’s worked with Villeneuve on films including “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049,” tackled “Dune” in the early stages.
Villeneuve described an intimate, weeks-long process in which Hudecki helped extract images from his brain.
“Sam is another extension of myself,” said Villeneuve, whose other films include “Incendies,” “Maelström,” “Polytechnique,” “Prisoners,” “Enemy” and “Sicario.”
Villeneuve then went to another frequent collaborator, Montreal concept artist Deak Ferrand of Rodeo FX Los Angeles, to craft the final visual language of the movie — from the architecture to the vehicles to atmosphere.
Vermette, whom Villeneuve calls one of his “closest allies,” used that material to develop the full desert planet world of giant sandworms and spacecraft resembling fireflies.
“It was the first time he was doing a movie of that scale but I knew that he was ready to do it and what he did is very impressive,” said Villeneuve. “I think Patrice is one of the great production designers alive to be working in cinema.”
Another frequent Villeneuve collaborator, Montreal-born Donald Mowat, did makeup, hair and prosthetics for “Dune.”
Villeneuve honed in on the story’s themes of colonialism “and the influence and the danger on how you use religion,” he said.
“Religion by itself is not a bad thing. It can be a good thing,” said Villeneuve. “But the way you use religion as a political tool, that is something that I think was very relevant with today’s world.”
The filmmaker also changed the story arc of some of the female characters, featuring Ferguson’s Lady Jessica alongside Zendaya as a key member of the Fremen tribe on planet Arrakis.
Lady Jessica is part of the Bene Gesserit, a pseudo-religious organization of women with superhuman abilities.
“The Bene Gesserit was so wonderful on so many terms for me — the connection to their ancestral heritage, that empowerment,” said Ferguson.
“It’s not sitting in a room with lots of dudes going, ‘Yes, we’re going into battle.’ This is manipulating the outcome of the universe and yet just being a mom.”
Villeneuve, who is also co-producing and directing the pilot of the upcoming HBO Max series “Dune: The Sisterhood,” said the femininity in the story “is very important.”
“It’s everywhere, the female power,” he said. “One of my favourite ideas is that there’s a congregation of women that are the true masters of the world and that are using genetics and influence and their wisdom to guide humanity to our enlightenment.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 20, 2021.