Denis Villeneuve lists Lawrence of Arabia among his greatest inspirations for Dune. He’s so passionate about the David Lean epic that he once went out to see it in a theater — and realized he was the only one there.
“I was 19 years old or 18 years old and I showed up to a projection of Lawrence of Arabia, a new 70mm print in Montreal, and I was alone in the theater. … I was a film student at the time and it changed my life. It’s a master class of filmmaking and it still is by far one of my favorite movies.”
Villeneuve shared the experience of watching the 1962 film in an interview with MovieMaker‘s Micah Khan, which you can watch in its entirety above. The Dune director and co-writer also talks about other crucial early lessons in filmmaking, including taking on an assignment right out of film school to make several small short documentaries around the world.
“So I spent a year shooting tiny documentaries. And that changed my life,” the French-Canadian filmmaker says. “The idea to, with a camera, try to embrace reality in a way that would be cinematic — to develop an intimate relationship with the camera, meaning that it becomes an extension of yourself.”
The experience taught him to make relatively fast decisions to maximize the meaning of every moment.
“When a cow is walking in a field, and it will happen one time, and the sun is going down, where do I put my camera so it means something? So it becomes a cinematic image that has a meaning and means something more than just a cow walking on a field at the end of the day? To create poetry.”
His advice to aspiring moviemakers is to engage with the world as often as possible, through the lens.
“If you are a young filmmaker, even with your iPhone, go out and be in contact with life,” he says. “Shoot life.”
The lessons he learned about making every shot matter still resonate in Dune, as becomes obvious when he answers a question about the relationship between two different shots in the film. One occurs on Paul Atreides’ lush home planet, Caladan, and the other on the desert planet of Arrakis.
“As you write the screenplay you are trying to create a melody,” he says. “You are trying to create inner currents that will be meaningful or at least will have an impact on the audience’s perception. You have what the movie will see on the surface and you are trying to create layers that people will perceive, not necessarily intellectually but subliminally. … I am trying as much as possible to plan these things so that they have the proper power.”
Villeneuve himself creates a melody as he shares and revisits thoughts and insights throughout the interview; close your eyes and you’ll hear it. If you’d like to enjoy or share the interview in audio form, it’s also on the MovieMaker podcast, available on Apple, Spotify, Repod or here:
Also, if you’re wondering: We spoke to Villeneuve before news broke that original Blade Runner director Ridley Scott is developing a Blade Runner 2099 series set after Villeneuve’s 2017 film Blade Runner 2049.
Here are some time stamps with highlights from the interview:
:39: We congratulate Denis Villeneuve on the film’s 10 Oscars and lament that he wasn’t nominated for Best Director. He takes the snub in stride: “I don’t take things for granted,” he says.
1:20: Denis Villeneuve on creating the camera language for Dune.
4:20: He talks about the POV of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet).
5:20: Framing the very “internal” 1965 Frank Herbert novel for the screen.
6:00: Working with actors in films big and not-so big.
7:02: “The big difference between an indie movie and a big, big Hollywood movie is the time it takes from your car to the camera. … Once you are around the camera it’s the same.”
7:20: Changes in his style from Prisoners to Arrival to Dune.
8:25: Contrasting Blade Runner 2049 and Dune.
9:49: Cinematic storytelling between Paul and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson).
11:33: The subliminal power of juxtaposed images.
14:19: Advice to young moviemakers.
Main image: Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve.