Thursday, June 13, 2024

Part Two’ With Denis Villeneuve, Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya

When movies come out, we grade them with reviews, define them by box office returns or eyeballs on streaming services, and maybe trophies down the line. But every successful, ambitious film starts with a dream, followed by compromise and adversity. Deadline offers the occasional peek into the creative aspirations, and the sweat and blood that propels ambitious films.

The Movie

Dune: Part Two

When one looks at properties that invite the visual and storytelling worldbuilding that every great filmmaker desires, there isn’t much around that rises to the occasion of films like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings or any number of films made by Ridley Scott, George Miller and James Cameron. With rapturous reviews and every expectation that it will outpace opening-weekend projections that approach $80 million, the Dune franchise will be on that list shortly. Once turned into a David Lynch adaptation that fell short, Denis Villeneuve’s ambition in Dune: Part Two is as big as the film’s giant sandworms that haunt the ships ravaging the desert-covered planet Arrakis. But for a while at least, the Covid pandemic looked like it might swallow, wormlike, those franchise ambitions.   

The History

For Legendary, the prospect of having the full devotion of Villenueve and emerging young stars Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya in an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novels is the reason that heads Josh Grode and Mary Parent got into the game. Legendary put up 80% of the first film’s budget, but Warner Bros exercised its contractual rights and put Dune among a year’s worth of the studio’s entire feature slate, to open day and date in theaters as well as its streaming service, then called HBO Max. The move was somewhat understandable from the studio’s side: no one was going to the movies in 2021 as Covid continued to rage. Why not try and build its paid streaming subscription base while clearing out inventory? The disruptive move was not handled gracefully. Operation Popcorn became known to the filmmakers and talent of all those films the same moment it was publicly announced. There were testy talks between reps of stars to be made whole on losses from backend deals. Even though he had no film in the day/date batch, Christopher Nolan was outraged enough that his long fealty to Warner Bros was over and he made the Oscar frontrunner Oppenheimer at Universal. But it was a different matter for Legendary. They’d footed almost all the production costs, not WB, only to be blindsided by the realization their signature franchise might be dead before it even came out.

I remember being at a Covid-stunted Toronto Film Festival, and trudging over to an Imax theater and watching Villeneuve take the stage. Looking a bit gobsmacked by all that happened, he defiantly pointed to his right and upward, as he told those assembled, “I made this film for that screen.” The lights went out, and Villeneuve showed how he had painted on that 100-foot canvas like a master. It was so compelling that I would argue that anyone who watched Dune on TV or a smaller device, didn’t see the film. After testy exchanges and threats of lawsuits, Legendary CEO Grode, and producer and chairman of worldwide Production Parent were faced with a tough decision: double down and trust the elements and potential that looked beyond the pandemic-stunted results of the day/date strategy, or fold?   

Denis Villeneuve at the ‘Dune: Part Two’ New York premiere

John Nacion/Getty Images

“At the time this happened, the folks at Legendary were really proud of the film and not happy with how things were going,” Villeneuve told Deadline. “They had somewhat reassured me saying they truly believed in the first one, and that it would have taken a catastrophe to not have made Part Two. The good news is, the winds did blow in our favor, and then Mary Parent at Legendary said make sure the screenplay will be ready to go; we wanted to jump into Part Two as quickly as possible because it’s not a sequel, it’s really the continuity of a first movie and we wanted to make sure we could bring this to the world as fast as possible.”

Needing to justify another huge bet to Legendary investors, Grode said they found a formula that allowed them to project what the the U.S. grosses might have been were they not marginalized by the pandemic and streaming situation. It gave the confidence to take the plunge on a film believed to have cost around $190 million.

“We had a deep belief that the technical aspects, the artistry and storytelling were all there,” he said. “A lot of [the sequel decision] we based on Europe. We opened the movie much earlier there than in the U.S. because Europe didn’t have the day-and-date Max problem. I saw that audiences were responding to the genre, and so we did an analysis that was somewhat bespoke in that we had to create it ourselves. How much impact did Covid have at the box office and how much impact did Covid plus day and date have. We went country by country for the major territories, talked to exhibition in Korea and France, box office people and exhibitors. Every country was different. In Korea, there was a big impact from Covid, Mexico was smaller. We put it all together to say, if we released this movie during a non-Covid time, this is what we would expect the result would have been.”

They discovered some things that might bode well for another film that could be released and serve the communal experience, even as the first was hurt by audiences staying away from public gatherings. “The core fan base for the first Dune was older, because the book came out in 1965 and that older fan base was not going to the movies because they were still worried about the residual Covid effect. We found there was some knock on our aspiring younger audience for the franchise because of Max. We came up with the right impact number in all this that made us say, this is the number a second film might do. If we’re 50% right, or 75% right … you know what? We’re going to trust in the filmmakers, the artistry. Let’s go make the second one.” So Legendary put up 80% of a budget, once again. Warner Bros paid the rest, and handled the marketing that the Legendary duo said was superb. 

A scene from Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure Dune: Part Two.

‘Dune: Part Two’

Warner Bros.

The Vision

If there was a North Star film Villeneuve aspired to when making Dune: Part Two, it would be Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s sandy saga that — Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey excepted – seems the high bar many great filmmakers say they aspire to. “The thing is that [Frank Herbert’s] book was inspired by Lawrence of Arabia, and the idea of someone who falls in love with the foreign culture, tries to immerse himself in that culture, embraces it and then betrays that culture, is very close to what we were doing,” Villeneuve said. “I would say that Lawrence of Arabia is definitely a movie that was beside me the whole time I was doing this movie.” Protagonist Paul Atreides wins his way into the Fremen, a clan that survives in the inhospitable desert and battles those ravaging the planet for spices.

Even before she focused only on Legendary blockbusters, Parent was renowned as the producer you want on the set of a big-budget, logistically complex film that could spiral out of control. She’s done this on films like The Revenant, managing to help Alejandro González Iñárritu execute his master vision in environs that were so cold and isolated there were times his star Leonardo DiCaprio had to tell him, the lenses are frozen solid, and so was everyone else. Let’s go back.

Dune: Part Two had its own logistical complexities that could have been simplified if shot on a backlot. But she and Villeneuve felt it worth the effort to go all in and head for the desert — lugging all the equipment and Imax cameras — and so did the cast. So they spent months in Abu Dhabi and Jordan, in sands that looked as untouched as the snowy landscapes in The Revenant.

Austin Butler as Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen and Léa Seydoux as Lady Margot Fenring in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE: PART TWO,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Austin Butler as Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen and Léa Seydoux as Lady Margot Fenring

Warner Bros.

“When I first read the book, you’re transported into this world that it’s so unique and original, you haven’t quite seen it before,” she said. “When I look at it as a film, there’s so many things that are very primal and very relatable and very human, and then you have the world building. It is crazy ambitious, what Denis and everyone on the team did here, and it feels so authentic, even down to the sounds of birds and animals. It’s familiar, but unique. There really isn’t a comp for me, though seeing Star Wars for the first time is one where I remember exactly how it made me feel. But this is its own, unique film.

RELATED: ‘Dune: Part Two’ Movie Posters and Images

“Obviously there are visual effects. The worms are not real. The ships are not real, but as much of the action as possible is,” she said. “We were actually out there in the desert doing it. To the actors’ credit and everyone else. It was intense, just moving in the sand. When you see Paul [Chalamet] and Chani [Zendaya], that whole scene where they’re with the spice harvester and you see them running across in the same frame, you feel it all, the intensity and the exertion and the heat, and that’s all real. It’s not as though that was shot on a stage with fan brought in and a green screen. We built a big part of the harvester, when they’re moving and jumping between the different legs. That’s not all visual effects; obviously the harvester itself is, but all of that visceral action, all real. So doing all of that, the amount of people of crew of it was very complex work to do on location. But I think that level of reality and authenticity comes through, and I think it makes the action that much more pulse pounding. You looked out at those dunes, and it was otherworldly and the actors will tell you, they were squarely in the world of Dune.

“We all spent more than two months out there,” Parent said. “We got pretty lucky and didn’t have a massive sandstorm. But the sheer physicality of it? I think the crew really felt like they were a part of making something that was special, and just the amount of work and effort to hike up the dunes and be out there, and you see it again and you feel it. When Paul rides the worm for the first time, and he then begins walking down into the sand and then moving up again … you just feel it.”

REBECCA FERGUSON as Lady Jessica in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE: PART TWO,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica

Warner Bros.

In Villeneuve’s mind, the second installment needed to be watchable as a standalone, whether or not one saw the first film.

“The nature of the story is very different,” he said. “In the first movie, we follow a boy who discovers a world. It was more contemplative, more meditative in some ways. That boy is the victim of events, but he survives. In the second movie, he takes action. He becomes a leader, a leader of guerilla fighters. He tries to avenge the murder of his father. It’s much more of an action movie. I really tried to improve as a director in Le Mise-en-Scène. I tried to be much more efficient and conscious of the way I was directing. When I finished Part One, I had the impression I had gone to film school again about the use of visual effects, about the work, the setups of the scenes, and the writing. There was tremendous work that had been put in the writing of Part Two [Villeneuve shared credit with Jon Spaihts, writer of Part One] to make sure that I would not fall into the same trap that I felt I was in Part One. It’s just that every time you make a movie as a film director, you have the impression that you learn everything once again. And it was like a chance to revisit a world which was the first time I was doing that, knowing what mistakes I had done in Part One to correct that in making Part Two. It’s like that, it’s very intimate, the process of a director. I think that anyone who finishes a film, you don’t see where you improve, you see where you fail.”

The Performances

If you stood on the set of Dune: Part Two, you could throw a rock and hit an actor prominent enough to star in their own movie. “There was a day on set where I remember standing there and I looked to my left, and it was Christopher Walken talking with Charlotte Rampling,” Parent recalled. “Wow. You’re like, I’m in the presence of these great actors, and then I looked dead ahead and I am watching Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem interacting. Turn to my right, and there is Florence Pugh, Austin Butler and Timothée and Zendaya, arguably all four of the best young actors of their generation, and all movie stars on their own. As a producer, you’re like, this is all you could ever dream of and a sort of once-in-a-lifetime moment. It was a moment I took in and haven’t forgotten. We were between shots and everyone was just sort of in these little, just little clusters. And I looked around and I was like, wow.” She didn’t count Rebecca Ferguson, Dave Bautista, Léa Seydoux, Stellan Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy, all of whom are above-the-title stars.

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Zendaya as Chani in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE: PART TWO,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Zendaya as Chani

Warner Bros.

Key to all this is the chemistry between Chalamet and Zendaya, whose relationship is as important to the film as the giant sandworms. Zendaya’s appearance in the first film is brief, but she is a constant in Part Two, and it is difficult to take your eyes off her and Chalamet as their characters create sparks and complications that follow.

RELATED: ‘Dune: Part Two’ World Premiere Red Carpet Photos: Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Anya Taylor-Joy, Florence Pugh & Austin Butler

“When we did Part One, I remember that very quickly there was chemistry being that were born between both actors,” Villeneuve said. “And that in between when we were doing the promotional tour of Part One, they became real friends. And that, of course, tremendously helped me because the whole movie is based on their love story. The whole structure of the movie is embedded in their love story. And through their relationship, we see all the drama that is being unfolded and all the tension. That intimacy, that friendship, that strong friendship between Timothée and Zendaya helped me because they were not afraid to go into more intimate scenes. So it was very easy for me to work with them. I don’t know if I was surprised [by the result], but I would say I was moved, many times. Many times, like where I felt I knew that I had a movie. There’s specific moments where I said, okay, okay, I’m okay. We nailed it. I felt the connection between both when they were like getting closer together or when they were growing apart. I felt the tension and I was very deeply happy with both.”

The film will give audiences a chance to think of Chalamet as a man, one who is convincing in action scenes. They include a climactic swordfight with Butler’s sociopathic villain.

L-r) TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET as Paul Atreides and AUSTIN BUTLER as Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE: PART TWO,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

(L-R) Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Austin Butler as Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen

Warner Bros.

Said Chalamet: “Training started from day one. I started learning the fight choreography in Los Angeles, I think Austin was already in Budapest. So, as soon as I got there, we were working on the fight. He was a dedicated scene partner and fight partner. Not only is he an incredible actor, he’s a super hard worker, he really cares about the work. And that whole sequence was just epic — no other way to put it.”

Also key for Chalamet was a pivotal moment where he rides a sandworm. “The sandworm sequence —scene 62! — was shot over the course of three months,” he said. “There was an entire worm unit dedicated to it that our producer Tanya Lapointe, who was also our second unit director, directed, and she was hugely passionate about it. It’s such an important moment in Paul’s entry to the Fremen world, his acceptance by them — other than Chani and Stilgar, of course — and it was so important to get it right. It was incredibly complex. Paul learning how to ride the sandworm is akin to coming of age. It’s a rite of passage and one of the main reasons Paul is accepted amongst the Fremen, because someone who wasn’t one with Shai-Hulud, which is the Fremen word for the sandworm, would have died in that predicament, and Paul doesn’t. He rides the worm.”

Zendaya as Chani in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE: PART TWO,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Zendaya as Chani

Warner Bros.

The relationship between Paul and Chani is much edgier than forerunners like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia in Star Wars.

“What Denis has done so beautifully is show the distinction between the older and younger generations,” Zendaya said. “The Fremen have had years and years of propaganda pushed upon them: the ‘one’ will come and save them. Many of them believe this. We’re dealing with that generational division nowadays with the new generation of people see things through a completely different lens and with a completely different set of rules. Chani is part of the generation that’s fighting back against what she perceives as archaic ideas. She believes this is what has been oppressing her people. So, her entire journey is one of sincerity, an honestness to learn and grow from Paul. She’s falling in love with him, but at the same time hating what he represents, and that’s really difficult for her because she cares about her people and wants the best for her community. Paul throws a wrench in that situation and it’s really difficult for her to grapple with that, and she wants to believe that he’s on her side. It takes him time to win her over and to crack her shell and for her to be trusting of him. Their love story is really earned.”

Javier Bardem as Stilgar in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE: PART TWO,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Javier Bardem as Stilgar

Warner Bros.

The Payoff

Dune: Part Two ends on a cliffhanger, but there doesn’t seem like much doubt that Villeneuve and Legendary will realize his ambition to finish the trilogy. “It’s the first time of my life, I think, that people are asking me so much questions about the next movie,” he said. “I’m used to being very secretive. I’m used to protecting movies when they are at their early stage. I love to protect that moment and we’re at the writing stage right now.” It’s clearly not going to require the speed needed in prepping Part Two. “Sorry, those books are not easy to adapt. I want to take the time to do it right. I worked on Part Two until recently, I was still approving the 70 millimeter prints a week ago. And now I’m doing the marketing campaign. So I don’t have the time to work. But I would love to complete that arc, and I know that at Legendary, there are no questions. Of course we’re going for a third one. They started to talk to me about the third one after a week of shooting Part Two.”

RELATED: ‘Dune: Part Two’ Review: Denis Villeneuve’s Spectacular Sequel Goes Heavy On The Mythos

Rotten Tomatoes shows that critics (83% positive) are nearly as sky high about Part Two as audiences (90%). It is generating early awards buzz, though with a film like The Lord of the Rings, voters waited for the end of the trilogy to award that trilogy a haul of Oscar hardware.

(L-r) TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET as Paul Atreides and JOSH BROLIN as Gurney Halleck in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE: PART TWO,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

(L-R) Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Josh Brolin Gurney Halleck

Warner Bros.

The film’s fortunes were enhanced by a mutual decision between Warner Bros and Legendary to postpone it from a November release, which would have meant globally launching without the benefit of the film’s stars because talent wasn’t doing press because of the SAG-AFTRA strike. A rave by Oppenheimer’s Christopher Nolan, himself the preeminent maker of worldbuilding movies, also helps. “That first film, we had the pandemic, and now the strikes,” Parent said. “We weren’t going to sit on the movie for another year. Now seemed to be the best time for it, and if you’ve watched everything from the [press] tour, I think it was the right decision.”

Movie superstition warrants that neither Grode nor Parent would speculate on a third installment that will only come if the sequel lives up to high expectations. But, said Grode: “This is 100% why you get into this business, because you want to be in a position to feel this proud of what you’ve helped make. I’ve seen it 14 times … and you just go, okay, this is the pinnacle of storytelling on a big scale. I’m just pounding it into people, see it on the biggest screen possible.”



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