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The film version of 'Dune' aims to remain true to the sci-fi author's vision

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: Frank Herbert's 1965 novel "Dune" is one of the greatest sci-fi stories ever told. There were several attempts over the years to bring "Dune's" sprawling world to the big screen, but all of them ended famously in disaster. "Dune" is Hollywood's elusive sci-fi epic. Now a new adaptation 3 1/2 years in the making might actually break the curse.


TIMOTHEE CHALAMET: (As Paul) There's something happening to me. There's something awakening in my mind. I can't control it.

CHARLOTTE RAMPLING: (As Gaius) What did you see?

ZENDAYA: (As Chani) Paul.

CHALAMET: (As Paul) There's a crusade coming.

ZENDAYA: (As Chani) This is only the beginning.

MARTÍNEZ: "Dune" is directed by Denis Villeneuve, who also made "Sicario" and "Blade Runner 2049." He says the story of "Dune" has lived in his imagination since he was a 14-year-old kid, when he picked up the sci-fi novel at a library in Quebec. He saw himself in the main character, a teenage boy with a special gift on a vast desert planet called Arrakis. We spoke with Villeneuve about his love for the book.

DENIS VILLENEUVE: Still, to this day, every time I open it, I have the same pure, melancholic and nostalgic joy. There's something about it that really grabs me every time. And I just focus on that joy. And I kept the book close to me all the time we were in production. I was referring to the book as the Bible at the time. And so it was really our main reference. And it was definitely my guide as I was doing this adaptation.

MARTÍNEZ: Back then, when you were a teenager, were you already dreaming up what this movie would look like if you had a chance to make it?

VILLENEUVE: I did - we did drawings. My best friend and I, we were into writing screenplays at the time. And we did some storyboards for the fun of it. But it was just a fantasy. It was just, like, a game.

MARTÍNEZ: Did you ever go back and refer to teenager Denise's notes on the screenplay?

VILLENEUVE: Not on the screenplay, but...

MARTÍNEZ: OK (laughter).

VILLENEUVE: ...On the images that came into my mind. That was the images that I tried to bring back from the past. I was just obsessed with this idea of trying to go back to the old dream. And we didn't do this movie as adult. But we went back to - in our teenage years.

MARTÍNEZ: To recreate the sand-swept planet of Arrakis, you filmed in the Middle East in boiling heat. The cast is dressed in these heavy, rubber suits. Why not just, you know, green screen that part of it? Why did you feel like you needed to be out in the environment?

VILLENEUVE: For several reasons. I wanted the planet to feel as close to us, as familiar to us as possible. There's things that you cannot recreate in a backlot and on stage. And it's like, I would have never been able to capture this - what you say in French? (Speaking French). The size, the scope of what we did with the camera, it's - I needed to be - to go in the desert.

MARTÍNEZ: How did the actors handle being out in the heat, particularly Timothee Chalamet? He plays Paul, the protagonist, the lead in this film.

VILLENEUVE: Oh, listen, they were very professional. And they didn't complain. But I will say this, we had a crew taking care of the crew. So it was by far the - probably the biggest crew I ever had. When we were shooting in Jordan, I think we were 800 on the set...

MARTÍNEZ: Oh, wow.

VILLENEUVE: ...Because - to have the proper shelter and everything and make sure that everybody were hydrated, and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. It was, like, not easy, but very rewarding. Yeah. And I think that for everyone who came back from there, there was something in their eyes, you know? Like, they were amazed and in awe when they were in contact for the first time with those incredible landscapes.

MARTÍNEZ: Are you sure it wasn't sand in their eyes, because there's plenty of sand blowing all over this world?

VILLENEUVE: (Laughter) Probably. Probably. Probably. Maybe I'd been fooled by the sand. Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, we got to talk about the massive, very terrifying sand worms that we see in your film. Tell us about these creatures and how you decided to show them off on the screen.

VILLENEUVE: The sand worms are one of the most important idea in the book. My production designer, Patrice Vermette, and I, we spent almost a year...

MARTÍNEZ: Oh, wow.

VILLENEUVE: ...Brainstorming about how this worm will look like, trying to recreate this beast so it will look as realistic as possible and, most importantly, that it will evoke spirituality from certain angles, that you will feel that we are in presence of some kind of godlike creatures, which is very important in the book.

MARTÍNEZ: Because one of the things about it is that you'll only really see the sand worm right when it's kind of coming up out of the sand. That's when you really get a good feel for the mouth of this massive worm. But the rest of the time, it's this thing that's coming that everyone is aware of and terribly frightened of. So there's that creepiness that you have to lay down to try and get the sense that, hey, something bad is about to happen.

VILLENEUVE: I invented nothing. It was all from "Jaws."


VILLENEUVE: I mean, and it was - frankly, it's one of my favorite effect of the movie. And I think that the visual artist who work on these sorts did insanely beautiful and poetic work.

MARTÍNEZ: I wanted to ask you about the film's release. Warner Brothers decided to stream "Dune" on HBO Max the same time as its theatrical release. And you really fought hard against that decision. What do you feel audiences lose out on with something like that?

VILLENEUVE: The thing is that it's like that we made this movie right at the beginning, before the pandemic. It was designed to be a love letter to the big screen experience, the theatrical experience. And there's something important also about the idea of the communal experience. People love to go to a rock concert in a group. They love to go to theater. They love to go to dance in a bar. It's not the same thing when you dance alone at home or when you're in a bar. And it's the same thing with cinema.

And I think that when you receive all together and you feel as one in the audience receiving an emotion, there's nothing more beautiful than that. Human beings are meant to be together. And there's something about the commitment. Watching a movie is akin - it's almost like a kind of hypnotic experience. You will embrace a different rhythm. You will enter a new world with different codes. And for that, you need to be engaged. And I don't think you have the same engagement when you are looking at the movie on your computer at home or on a TV screen, where the dog is barking or you're talking to someone on the phone at the same time.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter) Yeah.

VILLENEUVE: It's not the same commitment. And that's what I wanted to add.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. You can't push the pause button in a movie theater.

VILLENEUVE: Exactly. You have to trust the filmmakers and go for the full ride.

MARTÍNEZ: Denis Villeneuve, thank you very much for your time.

VILLENEUVE: It was a pleasure talking to you. Take care.

MARTÍNEZ: His new film is called "Dune," in theaters tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANS ZIMMER'S "HERALD OF THE CHANGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.