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Home in Canada, director Denis Villeneuve says "Dune: Part Two" is a love story first

MONTREAL — Quebec director Denis Villeneuve was feeling the love from his family and friends as he returned to Montreal for the Canadian premiere of "Dune: Part Two.
Director Denis Villeneuve on the red carpet as he attends the premiere of "Dune: Part Two" in Montreal, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

MONTREAL — Quebec director Denis Villeneuve was feeling the love from his family and friends as he returned to Montreal for the Canadian premiere of "Dune: Part Two."

And that's fitting because Villeneuve says that, despite the film's big action sequences and epic storyline, even he was surprised to realize that his latest adaptation of Frank Herbert's beloved sci-fi novel is first and foremost a love story.

"It's an action film, it's a war movie, but it's above all a love story," he said Thursday, the day after he was met by cheering fans at a red carpet premiere at a downtown movie theatre.

In the followup to 2021’s “Dune: Part One," Timothée Chalamet returns as Paul Atreides, the one-time heir to a now decimated powerful family. The movie chronicles his transformation into a warrior and religious figure as he and his mother, played by Rebecca Ferguson, unite with Zendaya’s Chani and the desert-dwelling Fremen in a battle against those who killed his family. 

Villeneuve said filming "Dune" involved extensive, grueling shoots in the scorching desert of Abu Dhabi and Jordan.

In addition to concerns over protecting the cast and crew — who had to work under the sun with heavy equipment and thick costumes — the team faced the logistical challenges of getting equipment into the desert.

"They built something like 30 kilometres of eco-friendly roads that probably don't exist anymore, because they were meant to disappear," he said. 

But Villeneuve said it was important to him to do justice to the book's desert landscapes, as well as the love story that bloomed between Paul Atreides and Chani.

"Through this love story, we understand all the tragedy of the Fremen, and I think that's the heart of the film," he said.

The "Dune" project is a deeply personal one for Villeneuve, who has described the 1965 novel that spawned the feature as a seminal part of his teenage years.

He said that, in many ways, "Dune: Part Two" lives up to his initial vision, especially when it comes to depicting the Fremen. But though he tried to stay "as close as possible" to the book, he acknowledged that it can be tricky adapting a beloved work of art for film.

"By the process of the adaptation itself, it's an act of a certain kind of violence regarding the book," he said.

"I had to kill a lot of darlings in order to transform it into a movie, so there's a lot of new things in this adaptation that the old me would say, 'Really?'" 

Villeneuve’s science-fiction sequel had been set to open last November but was delayed amid an actors strike that prevented its star cast from promoting big studio projects.

"Dune: Part One" faced its own challenges thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic which imposed gathering restrictions on theatres. In the United States, Warner Bros.' put the film on the HBO Max streaming service the same day it hit theatres. 

With those pandemic challenges in the past, Villeneuve is adamant that people go to the theatre to get the full "Dune" experience.

"The whole fabric, the DNA of the film is to be a spectacle on the big screen," he said. 

"And that's something that is crucial for me because I feel that there's something about the communal that is very positive for humans, that we are not meant to be isolated."

Returning stars Chalamet, Zendaya and Ferguson are joined this time by Austin Butler as Harkonnen heir and villain Feyd-Rautha, Christopher Walken as Emperor Shaddam IV and Florence Pugh as Princess Irulan. 

While previous stops on "Dune's" promotion tour have drawn headlines for Zendaya's daring fashion and appearances by the film's big stars, Wednesday's Canadian premiere was a less glitzy affair. 

With a last-minute cancellation by Chalamet due to illness, Villeneuve walked the sand-coloured carpet in Montreal with his partner — and "Dune" producer — Tanya Lapointe, his parents and fellow Montrealer and longtime collaborator Patrice Vermette, who won an Oscar for production design for the first "Dune."

While he doesn't know if or when he'll return to filming in Canada — though he'd like to some day — Villeneuve said it was important to him to celebrate his new film at home with friends and family.

"The love of their presence, their benevolence, their will to welcome me, to take care of me — it was very moving for me to see all those friends together."

While a part three has yet to be confirmed, Villeneuve — and the film's ending — suggest that a third film could be in the works. 

A third and final movie "makes sense" to close out the story arc of Paul Atreides, said Villeneuve. 

But after six years of filmmaking, he said he's first going to take a few weeks or months off before thinking about his next project.

"Dune: Part Two" opens in theatres across Canada on Friday. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 29, 2024.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press