'Dune': Director Denis Villeneuve's Two Conditions For Making The Movie, And Why The 55-Year-Old Story Is "More Relevant Than Ever"

Denis Villeneuve is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today, and it looks like his hot streak is going to continue with his next big movie.

As of a few weeks ago, the filmmaker behind Arrival, Sicario, and Blade Runner 2049 was still hard at work on Dune, the first part of a planned two-movie adaptation of Frank Herbert's massively influential 1960s sci-fi novel. But even though he's in a self-described "sprint to finish the movie" before its December release date due to complications from the COVID-19 pandemic, Villeneuve and several members of the cast participated in a press conference last month, where they unveiled an early look at the trailer and explained what we can expect from this long-awaited big-screen adventure. Here's what we learned from the event.

Stephen Colbert moderated the virtual press conference, which featured Villeneuve and stars Timotheé Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Rebecca FergusonJason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Zendaya, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster. A shorter version of the full conversation was released with the trailer today, but you can get the full story below.

If you've watched the trailer but have never read the book, there's a good chance you're wondering what the hell you just saw. The book is famously dense and difficult to adapt for the big screen. (David Lynch made a version in the mid-1980s, but he, like pretty much the rest of the world, was not happy with the final outcome.) I'll try to give a concise summary: Dune is the story of Paul Atreides (Chalamet), the teenaged son of Duke Leto Atreides (Isaac), the head of one of the most powerful noble families in the galaxy. The Duke is given control of the planet Arrakis, also known as "Dune," a planet primarily made of sand but that is also rich in melange, or "the spice," a powerful drug that's seen as the most valuable commodity in the entire universe. (There are also giant sand worms that live beneath the planet's surface.) When the Duke moves his family to this foreign planet, things start to get dangerous, and all of this coincides with a coming-of-age story for Paul, who begins to think the vivid visions he's been having could indicate that he might be a messianic figure that the prophecies foretold.

Villeneuve spoke about how he became "obsessed" with the book after reading it for the first time when he was 14 or 15 years old, calling it a "very powerful human story" and saying he always thought "it had massive potential on screen."

"At its core, you can see it from one angle as a powerful, epic adventure story, but it has so many themes that make the book so rich," he explained. "We tried to keep the richness in the movie...humans, we need to earn our destiny in order to change the world. The movie is kind of a call to action for us to change things, especially for the youth."

Before the director signed on to the film, he had two "conditions" for Warner Bros. to meet. First, he wanted to split the film into two parts. "The story is so rich and complex that we'll need to make at least two movies," he said, potentially leaving the door open for more movies set in this world. (Last we heard, he was also on board to direct the pilot of a TV series called Dune: The Sisterhood, which focuses on a mysterious order of women called the Bene Gesserit.)

Second, he wanted to shoot in the actual desert. "My argument was, they didn't shoot Jaws in a swimming pool, you know?" he quipped. "We needed to be in the real environments so we will be inspired by the infinity and the impact of those landscapes on the actors' inspiration, and for myself, too." They ended up shooting in the desert in Jordan, which proved to be an essential component of creating the reality of the movie.

"Dune is about an ecosystem," he continued. "At the very core, what I deeply love about Dune was [its] exploration of life and ecosystem and the biosphere that Frank Herbert put behind that. It's so beautiful, so poetic. I think in order to bring Dune to the screen, I needed to be as close to nature as possible and to make Dune as close to us as possible, so that when people see the movie, they will be amazed by the power of the landscape and the beauty of the creatures that we brought...But most importantly, they will feel strangely at home. It's important that, in a subconscious way, this would be so real. Because what the movie is about, is about us. At the end of the day, I wanted the audience to feel deep inside their soul the journey that I felt as I was reading the book."

One of the biggest messages that the filmmaker wanted to retain from the novel was its warning about the negative effects of ravaging a planet for its resources. "There's a lot of changes that are coming in the world through the next decades, with climate change and all this," he explained. "We will need to change our ways of living. We will need to change our ways of dealing with nature and the world. That takes a lot of courage and ethics, and I think Dune is a call for that. It has roots in all these topics. That's why I think Dune is more relevant than ever."

Chalamet plays Paul, in what he calls "one of the most inspiring and changing experiences of [his] life." Villeneuve praised his performance, calling him "by far, the best actor of his generation" and pointing out that a key reason he cast him in the lead role was because of his unique mixture of having such a young look on camera while also still coming across as an old soul. And according to the director, Chalamet also has "insane charisma that can be found in the old Hollywood stars of the '20s" – something that may come in handy when playing a character who might need to lead an army one day. In the press conference, Chalamet seemed very much like a young Nicolas Cage – intense, philosophical, like he has a secret that nobody else knows – and he talked about how the pretentiousness that can come with method acting was wiped away by the desert. But for his director, that environment seemed to help bring the characters front and center.

"For me, the science fiction and fantasy elements are seriously background in this story. I really focused on the character's journey and the epicness and the qualities of this adventure, the human journey," Villeneuve said. "At the end of the day, it's a great human story. The technological elements are there in the background."

As the story unfolds, House Atreides ends up going head to head against House Harkonnen, a ruthless, scheming, evil house led by the disgusting Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård). Villeneuve called Skarsgård his "secret weapon" in helping depict the politics of Dune, because upon seeing him on screen for the first time, the audience will almost instantly be able to understand the dynamic between the two families and the difference in moral values between them. In the book, this character is in full mustache-twirling villain mode, and from the brief amount of footage we saw, it seems like Skarsgård is leaning into that over-the-top characterization.

Contrast that with Oscar Isaac's Duke Leto Atreides, who Isaac described as "the epitome of what a father should be. He's noble, and House Atreides is a noble house...and he is human, absolutely human, and doomed the way that humans are." He described his character's lover, Lady Jessica (Ferguson), as the "engine of the family, the engine of the events that happen, and it's a long game that's being played over millennia, and she's part of that." Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, that mysterious order of women who play a significant role in the affairs of the galaxy. "[Denis] highlighted this from the book in the film," she said. "That [Lady Jessica's] decisions basically create fractures and disrupts everything."

Jason Momoa plays Duncan Idaho, one of Duke Leto's right-hand men and the swordmaster of House Atreides. "I've never worked with action on this scale," the Aquaman star said. "Denis is a cinematic genius, and generally, all the action I've done has been nowhere even remotely close to Denis. Just watching some of the moves that I would do, and going behind the camera and watching [cinematographer] Greig [Fraser]'s eye with Denis, I've never seen something so beautiful in a fight scene. Generally, the things that I do don't look that good."

Josh Brolin plays Gurney Halleck, whom he calls "a great dichotomous character." Gurney is House Atreides war master and a trusted advisor to Leto, but also a sensitive soul who plays music on a stringed instrument called a baliset. He and Idaho both train Paul to fight, and Gurney becomes a sort of surrogate father figure who takes Paul under his wing and looks after him when Duke Leto is busy dealing with matters of the house.

Javier Bardem plays Stilgar, whom he described as "the head chief of the people who live deep in the desert of the planet Arrakis, which is also known as Dune. He's a leader, a fighter, he has a lot of ethics and morals." Stilgar is the leader of a particular tribe of Fremen, the indigenous people who live on Dune and have found a way to survive its blistering heat. "[The Fremen] are kind of protecting their environment, and the planet from abuse that it's been taking," he says. "There's a lot of ethics, morality, and environmental thinking in their ways, which I think is brilliant in the book and in the movie."

Sharon Duncan-Brewster plays Kynes, a key character who was a man in the book but has been gender-swapped as a woman for this movie. In the book, Kynes bridged the gaps between all of the various players of the story, and it sounds like Duncan-Brewster found the essence of the role. "First and foremost, Denis was adamant that we concentrate on what Kynes represents," she said. "He's an integral role. He connects all the dots: he connects the Harkonnens, he connects the house of Atreides, the Fremen, planet Arrakis, the sand worms. This is somebody who understands all of these worlds and moves in between each and every one seemingly with one agenda. However, as things go, we start to understand there's more gameplay, more survival of preservation for the good of certain people or individuals. For Denis, it was all about connecting with the essence of this person, not about the fact that this person was a man."

Zendaya plays Chani, who is Kynes' daughter in the book. In both Herbert's story and this movie, she becomes a love interest for Paul – but it sounds like it'll take a little while to get there. "[Chani's] a warrior who's native to this planet, and this is all she knows," the actress said. "So this other kid coming in, she's not really feeling it, you know? That's to the Fremen culture: they have a very strong culture bond amongst each other. She obviously doesn't know about [Paul's] visions and things. He knows her, but she doesn't know him. [But] there are moments where she sees something in him that is obviously an indicator of what is to come."

Speaking of visions, it sounds like Chalamet is envisioning a world in which this movie could actually spark some meaningful change. "I'm a big believer that the art takes place in the head of the audience member," he said near the end of the discussion. "I've always said that. I don't want to make a grand allusion or a grand proclamation of what this movie could mean, but just based on what's already there in the book...I don't want to trivialize the hellfire we all find ourselves in with the simplicity of words or something, but I do think there's the possibility of somebody seeing this movie, with the ecological metaphors that Denis was alluding to, with the clash of worlds that Oscar was alluding to, with the coming of age that Chani and Paul are stepping into – both in a huge obligation of birthright, but also what all 15, 16, 17, 18-year-olds go through, which is just that growing up is hard. There is a metaphor and a lesson in this movie for everyone."

And finally, having recently gone through the similar experience of directing a highly-anticipated project with Blade Runner 2049, Dune must have been a walk in the park for Villeneuve, right? Not so, says the filmmaker. "It's two different pressures. [With Blade Runner 2049], I had to be respectful of Ridley Scott's universe, of Ridley Scott's masterpiece. It was more an act of love toward the work of Ridley. Here, it's totally different. It's like I'm dealing with the pressure of the dreams I had when I was a teenager – and I was a big dreamer."

Dune hits theaters on December 18, 2020.