“I Don’t Hate Dialogue”: A Conversation With ‘DUNE: Part Two’ Director Denis Villeneuve

Cinema sculpts history — just look at the Hollywood Sign. To set the stage, let’s turn back the clock to 1923. That year, Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler spent a cool $21,000 on block letter billboards to advertise Hollywoodland, an upscale real estate development. By 1949, the sun-bleached sign was refurbished to read ‘Hollywood.’ Today, the city wears its white-lettered landmark like a diamond necklace — though upon construction, it had all the value of a rhinestone. To avoid a fate as tragically pedestrian as the nearest landfill, the Hollywood Sign became greater than the sum of its parts. Countless films, from Steven Spielberg’s 1941 to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, have taken the sign to the silver screen, turning it into an emblem of entertainment. It’s an example of motion picture doing what it does best: building a fantasy from a photograph, blurring the boundary between fiction and reality. With DUNE: Part Two, director Denis Villeneuve is doing the same.

“The beauty of science fiction is to talk about reality with the distance of fiction,” he says. “We’re in the future.” DUNE: Part Two, the second instalment in Villeneuve’s two-part adaptation of Frank Hebert’s 1965 novel, takes place roughly 20,000 years from the present day. Yet, its central conflict feels intimately familiar — foreign powers dominate a desert planet, seeking control of its natural resources. Of the parallels, Villeneuve says: “A story is relevant if you can make some connection with our reality, of course.”

DUNE: Part Two Denis Villeneuve on set

Though a tinge of Quebecois reveals his French Canadian roots, the DUNE: Part Two director speaks metaphor like a first language. In a recent interview, the filmmaker called 2021’s DUNE “meditative and contemplative” while its sequel is better thought of as “muscular.” It’s far from a brutish film, to be sure, but watch the premiere and you’ll see what he means — Villeneuve’s latest film sculpts exposition into action: bright, loud, sensual, dynamic. If DUNE sketched the stencil, DUNE: Part Two whipped out ten or twenty acrylic tubes, squeezing and slamming them onto the canvas until every inch was soaked and saturated.

That’s not to say Villeneuve opts for style over substance; he puts plenty of thought into the film’s message. Though Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) stands at the centre, Villeneuve says Atreides is no protagonist: “I tried to make it clear that Paul is an antihero, and that the movie is a cautionary tale against messianic figure.”

“It’s an exploration of the danger of the blend of politics and religion. I trust the audience to understand that, absolutely.”

Denis Villeneuve on DUNE: Part Two

With this point, Villeneuve stays true to Hebert’s vision. Clarifying the layers to Paul Atreides, the DUNE author once said “the difference between a hero and an anti-hero is where you stop the story.” On screen, Villeneuve captures this sense of ambiguity well. DUNE: Part Two displays interpersonal conflict with more confidence than its predecessor. Tension boils to anger on more than one occasion; during a particularly fraught scene between Paul and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), family ties begin to rot.

Villeneuve doesn’t spell this out for us, though — the audience never quite gets inside the characters’ heads. Instead, we see the characters in the context of a larger, multipolar conflict: the Fremen, some believing Paul to be a messiah figure, fight the power-hungry Harkonnen, who seek to control and exploit the Fremens’ home on Arrakis.

There are other groups at play, too: by the start of DUNE: Part Two, the Padishah Emperor has virtually destroyed the House of Atreides, who he saw as a threat to his millennia-spanning rule. Meanwhile, Atreides survivors Paul and Jessica also belong to a mystical faction known as the Bene Gesserit, which only deepens the Fremens’ belief in Paul as a messiah. (Don’t worry if you can’t keep it straight — there’s a SparkNotes guide to study during the previews.) It’s a complex universe, but the story’s core remains accessible. “It’s an exploration of the danger of the blend of politics and religion,” Villeneuve says. “I trust the audience to understand that, absolutely.”

DUNE: Part Two Denis Villeneuve on set

Villeneuve is quick to confirm that the film’s allegories “were in the book already,” noting that they were strictly the work of Hebert. That said, the director sees how reality influenced the work: “Frank Hebert [was] inspired himself by the main current of the 20th century, [to] create that sci-fi world, that projection into the future,” Villeneuve says.

And, while Frank Herbert’s DUNE is decidedly prose, Villeneuve compares adaptation to poetry. In conversation with The Times of London, the director said he remembers films for their strong image. When I ask how he crafts visuals for his own work, Villeneuve tells me: “I’m trying to — and I’m not saying that I succeed, I’m saying that I’m trying — to create images that will bring the necessary meaning to the scene, and create [something] like a haiku. You have a series of words that describe the reality, and from that description an image will come up.” Cinematography, he explains, is the reverse. “You have those images that come to you. From those images, there’s a sense that a meaning will come out of it. It’s poetry. The whole writing process is based on the search for those images.”

DUNE: Part Two Denis Villeneuve

It’s a fitting analogy for the director to make. From the DUNE adaptations to earlier features like 2016’s Arrival, visual motifs tie scenes together like the rhymes of a verse. Aerial views of Arrakis give the audience a show of shadow and light, flickering across the planet’s sandy surface. Saturated palettes seem to parallel action while paler scenes reflect rare moments of peace. On Giedi Prime, home of the Harkonnens, brutal lighting mirrors a sadistic, gladiator-style scene.

Earlier this week, Villeneuve made headlines for a different comment in The Times of London, in which he said “Frankly, I hate dialogue. Dialogue is for television and theatre.” Naturally, this caused a stir — quotable lines aside, dialogue is key tool for storytelling. In context, though, Villeneuve’s comments make total sense.

“Of course, a lot of directors are brilliant dialogists, and there’s a lot of strong movies that are filled with the great dialogues. But if I think about my own work, it’s [ideal] for me as a filmmaker to try to avoid the use of dialogue as much as possible.”

Denis Villeneuve

“It’s true that I said that,” he says with a smile. “I said that laughing. So [when] I said it, I put a lot of emphasis on ‘I hate dialogue.’ I don’t hate dialogue. I am not inspired by scene that is overwritten with dialogue — that’s the truth — and I’m talking about my own work.”

“Of course, a lot of directors are brilliant dialogists, and there’s a lot of strong movies that are filled with the great dialogues,” Villeneuve adds. “But if I think about my own work, it’s [ideal] for me as a filmmaker to try to avoid the use of dialogue as much as possible. I think dialogue is the tool of expression for theatre, and then it became, for other reasons, one for television.”

Rest assured, DUNE: Part Two has enough conversation to keep the dialogue diehards happy. The preview crowd was small, but Zendaya and Chalamet filled the theatre with laughs during a brief interlude.

DUNE: Part Two Denis Villeneuve on set with timothee chalamet

That said, the film’s forte is the action; all 166 minutes vibrate with kinetic energy. Villeneuve captures explosive moments in high-definition. He says the core of cinema is visual: “At its birth, there was no dialogue in cinema — there was a full exploration of the power of the images to tell the story. [Filmmakers] were using the power of the cinematic language to express stories; the direction and the drama unfolded [through] images.”

“I will say: in a perfect world, you should use dialogue only when there are no other resources,” he continues. “It should the last resort — that’s what I’m saying. When I say ‘I hate dialogue,’ it’s not true. I wasn’t. But it’s true that I feel, myself as a film director, uninspired when I read 500 pages of dialogues. For me, it’s boring.”

vid cover dune part 2

In lieu of conversation, Villeneuve looks for images. With an adaptation, that means cherrypicking visceral, paradigm-shifting moments from the source material. “When you adapt, you have to, first of all, see what the low hanging fruits are — the images that are clear at first, and that will drive the structure of the writing,” he explains. “As an example, when you read DUNE, there’s a description of Paul riding for the first time, a sand worm. It’s a very powerful image. It’s an image that says a lot of things about the relationship of man and nature, and about the passage from being a boy to an adult. It’s from the parts of those images that I create the whole scene.”

Paul’s coming-of-age arc, fully realized as he speeds through sand clouds, is electrifying to watch. It’s easy to see why these visuals stand out to Villeneuve, but to grasp his process — translating a fantasy onto the screen — is another thing entirely. Villeneuve, of course, is eager to thank his teammates. The DUNE: Part Two cast is filled with actors of red carpet variety: Zendaya, Timothée Chalamet, Josh Brolin, Austin Butler, and Florence Pugh, to name a few. “It’s true that they’re stars, but before being stars, they are artists,” he says. “They are great actors, and they are very professional.”

Villeneuve’s affection for the cast is infectious as he talks about the camaraderie on set. “In French, we say ‘tirer la couverture de son bord,’ meaning [to take the whole blanket while sharing a bed] — it doesn’t make sense in English, sorry,” he says before clarifying with a laugh: “what I’m saying is that there was a spirit of friendship, a spirit of collaboration. [The cast was] like a band, instead of one big ego taking all the ground. I’m grateful. Timothée behaved with a lot of elegance and leadership by greeting everybody aboard the ship and with friendship.”

If pre-ticket sales are any indication, Dune: Part Two is slated for success — the feature film is playing in theatres as of March 1st.