Interview: Timothée Chalamet and Denis Villeneuve on the ‘Dune’ Films

Interview: Timothée Chalamet and Denis Villeneuve on the ‘Dune’ Films

The director Denis Villeneuve and the actor Timothée Chalamet bound into the room talking at, and over, each other in rapid French. Villeneuve is from Quebec; Chalamet was born in New York City but has dual American and French citizenship. Together, they’re a dynamic tag team dressed near-identically in head-to-toe black, although Chalamet’s shiny leather layers have more swagger. The topic of the day is galactic genocide and dubious messiahs, central themes in “Dune: Part Two,” the second installment of their cerebral space epic based on the 1965 novel by Frank Herbert. Yet, the pair are prone to giggle fits.

“We didn’t see each other since a while, so it’s like a holiday,” Villeneuve, 56, said apologetically, switching to English. When coffee arrives, the two clink mugs. “That’s our spice,” he chuckled, referring to the psychedelic substance found only on the movie’s planet Arrakis.

In “Dune,” spice is the most valuable resource in the universe. Herbert conceived of it as a glittering dust with the power to expand minds, fuel interstellar travel and incite bloody battles over its distribution. Combine the brain-melting effects of peyote, the geopolitical strife over oil and the violence of Prohibition-era bootlegging. Multiply that by the number of stars in the sky and you get the idea.

The previous “Dune,” released in 2021, won six Academy Awards. It climaxed with Chalamet’s sheltered scion, Paul Atreides, abducted from his family’s spice-mining compound and left to die in the scorching Arrakis desert, patrolled by fanged sandworms the size of the Empire State Building. To survive “Part Two,” Paul’s mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), encourages the Fremen, a tribe of desert-dwellers, to believe that her son is their long-awaited savior. The danger is that Paul might be swayed to believe it, too, even as the hallucinogenic spice peppers him with visions of a jihad waged in his name.

Heavy stuff. Not that it’s weighing down their mood. As Chalamet, 28, grinned, he said, “The great irony of working with a master like Denis is it’s not some pompous experience.” The two spoke further about the next potential sequel, the impossible quest for onscreen perfection and those infamous “Dune” popcorn buckets. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

People have described your dynamic as father and son. Is that how it feels to you?

DENIS VILLENEUVE At the beginning, I had a lot of empathy for Timothée that he was stepping forward in a production of that scale. He’s the age of my kids, and I was trying to find ways to take care of my new friend. Maybe I was paternalistic.

TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET I was grateful. The scale was so large, the actors were such titans. I felt a protected aura.

VILLENEUVE When he walked into the set of “Part Two,” it was totally different. Much more confident. Much more solid. He was not impressed by the size of things anymore. You were jaded!

CHALAMET No!

VILLENEUVE It’s the first time that I had the chance to see an artist growing up in front of the camera. That’s very moving.

You came into the room speaking French. Did you use it on set as your own language?

VILLENEUVE Yes. It was the way that we were able to find intimacy in the chaos. It was our protected landscape. A second secret language.

CHALAMET He said it perfectly. Our bubble.

Audiences could have left “Dune: Part One” thinking, this Paul Atreides kid is terrific, I can’t wait to see him take over this planet. Here is where disillusionment sets in.

VILLENEUVE Frank Herbert wanted the book to be a cautionary tale, a warning against charismatic religious leaders. He felt that he failed because people misperceived his intentions. So he wrote “Dune Messiah,” an epilogue where he made sure his ideas would be seen. I think the movie’s more tragic and more dramatic than the book because it’s closer to Frank’s intentions.

You’ve talked about making “Dune Messiah,” based on Herbert’s second “Dune” novel, which picks up 12 years into Paul’s reign as Emperor of the Known Universe. Under his rule, 61 billion people have died.

VILLENEUVE [Curses at Chalamet]

CHALAMET I didn’t write it!

But you’re waiting until Timothée is older. Six years from now, will you hide his sunscreen so he’ll age faster?

VILLENEUVE He will look forever young. We’ll have to use the magic of A.I.

Yet, Paul’s visions of the future are not what will happen — they’re what might happen.

VILLENEUVE Yeah. I tried to make sure that you could in some ways explain scientifically what is happening. Paul is a young man that is oversensitive to a hallucinogenic … not psychotic?

CHALAMET Psychotropic.

VILLENEUVE Psychotropic substance that gives insight into the future. I didn’t want the character to go, “OK, it’s going to happen in five minutes, I’ll take my coffee now.” Like weird dreams, they are mystical, they are enigmas. The most important thing when we dream is not the images, but the emotions.

Frank Herbert’s spice was psilocybin. He was into mushrooms way before micro-dosing mushrooms became mainstream.

VILLENEUVE From being in California —

CHALAMET In the ’60s!

VILLENEUVE A product of his time.

But people also call him a person ahead of his time who predicted elements of our future. What would he say about the present?

VILLENEUVE He would say, “I was telling you!”

CHALAMET “I warned you —”

VILLENEUVE It’s frightening how precise he was.

I have a good friend with a tattoo of the “Dune” quote, “Fear is the mind-killer.” Has making these films affected how you handle being afraid?

CHALAMET I’m playing a grounded character who is — simply by way of the eyes on him — going through something I can relate to.

VILLENEUVE Movies are very long to make, so it does have an impact on your own psyche. Definitely, it put a seed inside me. I developed an aptitude to be comfortable not knowing the answer right away.

It’s been a rough year for superhero movies. This story asks us to think harder about heroes, chosen ones, saviors. Timothée, is it fair to assume that if you wanted to play a superhero, you’ve had opportunities?

CHALAMET Well, Leonardo DiCaprio said to me, “No superhero movies, no hard drugs.” Which I thought was very good.

VILLENEUVE Which one?

CHALAMET I follow them both! But the movie that made me want to act is a superhero movie, “The Dark Knight.” If the script was great, if the director was great, I’d have to consider it.

“Dune” exists in a post-computer world. Computers were destroyed and everybody decided to not rebuild them.

VILLENEUVE They banned A.I. and the computer. They are trying to increase the human capacities biologically, instead of having external machines. “Dune” is not much of a science-fiction movie. It’s more about embracing a new culture. For me, it’s more interesting to explore sand-walking. It’s more poetic and cinematic then a spaceship.

In that spirit, you filmed in physical locations in Jordan and Abu Dhabi that stood in for a planet where it’s only safe to be outside at sunrise and sunset. That must mean pulling off scenes in a narrow window of sunlight — go, go, go!

CHALAMET Definitely. Those scenes with Chani [Paul’s love interest, played by Zendaya], we would shoot at dawn — sometimes over three days — because you have 30 minutes or an hour.

VILLENEUVE It gives a lot of credit to the actors, because the cinematographer [Greig Fraser, who won an Oscar for the first “Dune”] and the director are stubborn and want a precise light that will exist for 10 minutes. I didn’t want to make any compromise. There’s scenes that onscreen look very simple, but would be shot in several different environments just to make sure that we have the right rock at the right color at the right time of the day with the precise sun. It was constructed like a puzzle.

Yet, I had the impression that you welcome a bit of imperfection to balance the grandeur. Here, Florence Pugh wears a chain headdress that’s sliding off her nose. Another director might have jumped in between takes saying we’ve got to fix that, make it straight, make it perfect. You chose not to.

VILLENEUVE [Looks pained]

CHALAMET He’s going to go edit it right now.

VILLENEUVE No, no. It’s a balance between perfection and life. Life is chaos. I’m pretty O.C.D., but the performance will always prevail. I know exactly what you’re talking about. Good eye. Leonard Cohen says that when there’s a crack in something, that’s where the light comes in. I believe in that. Part of me tried to do it perfect. But life is stronger and I prefer that.

Imperfections make this world feel human.

VILLENEUVE I’m moved by what you’re saying because it’s something that challenges me. Sometimes I know that the camera movement is not absolutely perfect, but there’s something in the performance that breaks my heart. [Expletive] it. I will choose that take because it feels more powerful.

Neither of you are strangers to intense compliments. Denis, you’ve been called a genius, this generation’s Stanley Kubrick

VILLENEUVE I learned very early in my career that the bigger the flowers, the bigger the pot that follows after. If you receive a big compliment, someone else will say that you’re a hack.

CHALAMET That is a great quote. The bigger the flowers, the bigger the pot. Wow.

And Timothée, you were nominated for your first Oscar at 22. You both must have insight into the arc of this film: the temptation to buy into your own hype.

VILLENEUVE Fortunately, I’m always feeling like an impostor, so there’s no danger!

CHALAMET I’d say the difference is, in this story, there’s human life at stake. The role of an actor is never that consequential. Even if you’re making powerful work and people relate to it. That make sense?

VILLENEUVE I was not listening.

I hope you’re not thinking about Florence’s nose.

VILLENEUVE No, no, no, no, no!

CHALAMET He’s texting Joe [Walker, who also won an Oscar for editing “Dune”].

VILLENEUVE There’s a specific moment when you know that the movie’s finished because you try to correct the editing and the movie bites you back.

CHALAMET Don’t touch it anymore —

VILLENEUVE It’s not perfect —

CHALAMET I had a thought, actually, about the scene —

[Both laugh]

Timothée, you once said that when Denis held [a copy of the book] “Dune” in his hands, his body language was like a little kid. How so?

CHALAMET Just incredibly enthusiastic and playful. He would take time to think on things or go to the book. Even Austin Butler in interviews said he thought he found the voice of Feyd-Rautha [Paul’s sadistic nemesis], and then Denis said, let me dream on it.

VILLENEUVE Bull. He’s not here, we can say that.

CHALAMET But Denis’s total enthusiasm inspires everyone on the set. Every actor, every crew member, you want to make him proud.

VILLENEUVE Cinema is an act of presence, an act of being totally open. I know on set I look like a 4-year-old — I’m aware of it — but having fun with the toys is the way I make cinema.

Speaking of, the internet seems intimidated by the souvenir sandworm popcorn buckets.

[Chalamet shoots a quick glance at Villeneuve. Both chuckle nervously.]

VILLENEUVE I don’t want to make stupid jokes right now that will I regret tomorrow morning. But I will say this. When I saw it, I went, “Hoooooly smokes.” What the [expletive]!? At the same time, it created a lot of fun online. So maybe it’s positive? It’s some kind of …impressive design.

I respect a bold choice.

CHALAMET I can’t tell if someone is at home right now going, “My design worked perfectly and everyone’s talking about it.” Or if someone’s brutally offended by the response.

VILLENEUVE At the end of the day, it seems that bucket brought a lot of laughter and joy, which I think is —

CHALAMET Something we need more of —

VILLENEUVE But I was not —

CHALAMET You were not personally involved in the design process.

VILLENEUVE I thought you were!

CHALAMET My idea!

[Both laugh]

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