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Is ‘Dune’ Truly a White-Savior Story?

Not according to Denis Villeneuve.

Recently, members of the press, including The Nerds of Color, were given the privilege of speaking directly with the visionary director behind Dune. During the conversation, Villeneuve was asked about Dune being an example of the White Savior trope, among many other questions, and he wanted to make it specifically clear that while many have taken the surface-level concept of the story and expressed condemnations for it based on that, interpreting the story as such would actually be missing the true point of it.

If this is the case, what is the true point we should be taking away from Dune? For that matter, how would Villeneuve hope to ever convey an anti-White Savior interpretation in his adaptation of the seminal science fiction novel? Furthermore, how could one ever even hope to adapt a novel with such a large scope, complex themes, and niche fanbase into something mainstream moviegoers could digest and understand with the same enthusiasm as hardcore lifelong Dune-atics?

Here’s what Villeneuve had to say about the answers to the above questions, and about bringing the film to life:

Can you talk about the adaptation process? Getting into the details of the story knowing you were going to make multiple movies. But also the deviations you made from the source materials and characters you didn’t include?

Villeneuve: From the start I knew I’d have to focus on specific elements. When you adapt, you transform. The idea was to be as close to the spirit of the book as possible. To be as close to the poetry. I am a massive fan of Dune books. It’s stayed with me for 35 years… the goal was to make a movie that will please the hardcore fans — people that know Dune by heart — and also my mother that never read Dune. So to find equilibrium was not easy. And [told my screenwriters] we need to focus on Paul Atreides… I want the movie to be as immersive as possible and be in the boy’s point of view. The second decision I made was that I said to Eric Roth, who had the task to crack the piece at the beginning. Eric asked me what would be the most important element…I said ‘Women.’ I think in Dune women are very important. I think they were very important to Frank Herbert. And I think the Bene Gesserit should be upfront. I would want Lady Jessica to be, not the main protagonist, but just behind… It was very important to focus on Paul and the relationship with his mother. And to try to develop Lady Jessica as much as possible. The decision to make the movie in two parts — a decision I made right at the beginning as well — some elements I did not explore in the first act that I’ll have the chance to explore in the second part. Dune takes all its power in the details. So that was part of the challenge.

If Warner Bros. were to greenlight a sequel after the premiere, how close are you to shooting it?

The thing I will say is when you make a movie in two parts, when you do the first part, you have to know what you’re going to do in the second part. It has been structured, it has been dreamed, it has been mostly designed in a way that there’s a lot of elements that I would be ready to go quite quickly. For a movie of that size, you still have to make sets and costumes. We are talking about months. But if there’s enthusiasm and the movie is greenlit sooner rather than later, I’d say I’d be ready to shoot in 2022 for sure. I am ready to go and I’ll say I’d love to bring it to the screen as soon as possible. But this is the first film I had time to make sure it was exactly the way I wanted it to be. And I would love the same feeling when I make the second part. So the quality will be the priority.

What were major inspirations in creating the look (costumes, ships, etc) of such an alien world?

[I told the crew] to stay as much away as possible from the internet as possible. I would love for you to meditate. I would love for you to dream. I want this movie to come from inside us, and not from other influences outside. I would like us to find our own path into our mind to try to bring something. We were very arrogant. We wanted to try to bring in something new. There are a lot of sci-fi movies made before us. But one of the keys was to be as close to nature as possible… When I saw the first Star Wars in 1977, my favorite scenes were the ones that felt the most natural… there was something about the strength of nature. I’ve been raised doing documentaries where nature is your most powerful ally. And I tried to bring that into Dune strangely. I tried to do a sci-fi movie like a documentary, using nature as a strong ally instead of fighting against it.

Could you talk about working with Hans Zimmer and the soundtrack of the film?

Right from the start, Hans was very ambitious with the score, because like me, it was one of his oldest dreams [to make this]… I remember having dinner alone with Hans in a Montreal restaurant, and said “Hans, I would love you to do the Dune score” and he said, “Denis, this is my oldest dream. And I will say ‘yes’ but I’m just afraid it’s a very dangerous idea to tackle your oldest dream. But let’s try it.” From the start we decided he would not use any instrument we could recognize. They will be like instruments that we can create ourselves, or use instruments in a new way to distort the sounds. We will not recognize the source. And use as much as possible the power of female voices to enhance the idea of femininity. That was important to me and Hans as well. Right from the start we agreed both of us that the sound design and the music should be blended… Hans and our sound designer worked very closely together… we all worked together to try to bring the specific score to life, so Hans will not be in competition with sound effects all the time. Hans is not being known for being subtle. You put Hans Zimmer on the score it always takes a lot of space. It was a week trying to find the balance with sound design. And it was a beautiful artistic dance between sound and music.

How do you approach bringing the villains to life from an aesthetic and narrative standpoint?

The thing is for me, the Sardaukar needed to be like soldiers that have equipment designed to fight under any conditions…. you can launch the Sardaukar army on any planet on any time… And for the Harkonnen, it was an exploration that we started to try to bring an idea of total artificiality and total disconnect from nature. A world that would be totally artificial, and an exploitation of resources… it was like a long exploration to find the balance. And it was an old dream of mine to work with a world that would use only the black color… I really love the Harkonnen world. It’s so specifically beautiful.

There are whispers of a possible prequel or trilogy. Could you talk about your vision of a possible Dune universe?

I’ll be very honest. The thing I envisioned the adaptation of two books: Dune and Dune: Messiah. As a filmmaker and screenwriter, I know how to do this. So we decided to split the first novel in two, so we are up to three movies total. Those movies are very long to make. So for my own sanity, I decided to only dream about three movies. After that I’ll see where I am. But I want to say I want to focus on the aspect of these three movies right now. By the way, I’m not dreaming about Dune: Messiah right now. I’m focusing on launching Dune: Part One hoping there will be a Dune Part Two, and that’s enough. Doing the first one was by far the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, and I think we were able to bring it to life because we all, me and the team, just did that for three years full time — 24 hours per day, seven days a week we were dreaming about Dune: Part One. That’s the way I make cinema. I cannot start to have a long-term [project]. I need to be there now, and not think too much about the future.

Do you have a favorite thing you added or changed? Or anything you really wanted to add from the book that you didn’t get to?

I have one thing that’s painful for me. It’s Gurney Halleck’s baliset. It’s something that I shot. It’s something that exists. Josh was awesome. But I could not, for whatever reason, put it in Part One… The thing I changed from the book that I feel is — I don’t want to go into spoilers — but there’s something about the way we approach Paul’s visions of the future… that’s where I took a bit more liberties, and I’m pretty proud of what I did there, I would say.

In terms of splitting the movie, there is a portion in the first book where there’s a two-year jump. And you could use that as an ending point of the first movie. How much of a conversation was there in terms of finding the right place to split the movie?

You’re totally right. You could have ended there, but it would have made the first movie too long. I didn’t want to sacrifice elements… we tried to go to that jump and the movie became monstrously long. So there was a limit. Where we end right now was the perfect way we felt Paul had a completed arc with his relationship with his mother. And to keep enough stuff for the second one… to find that equilibrium was not easy.

There is a storytelling trope called the White Savior where a Caucasian will go into a foreign land and act as a rescuer or messianic figure to the indigenous people there. And Herbert’s work has been criticized for falling into that trope. So how do you contemporize the story to avoid falling into the problematic areas that trope may potentially present?

That’s a very important question. And it’s why I thought Dune was, the way I was reading it, a critique of that [trope]. It’s not a celebration of a savior. It’s a condemnation and criticism of that idea of a savior. Of someone that will come and tell another operation how to be and what to believe… it’s a criticism. That’s the way I feel it’s relevant and can be seen contemporary. And that’s what I’ll say about that. Frankly it’s the opposite [of that trope].

Can you talk about assembling the cast?

The thing is, I had a secret list, and most of the people on the screen were on that list. It was amazing. The level of enthusiasm the actors and actresses had for the source material — there’s a lot for Dune out there. And it’s a project that brought a lot of passion on the actor’s community I would say. And right at the start I remember sitting in [the casting director’s] office. And we were like, “who should play Paul?” And we both said, “It’s Timothee Chalamet” It has to be Timothee… There was no plan B. That was the truth. I didn’t say that to Timothee of course, but for many reasons he was for me Paul Atreides. He was the physical incarnation of what could be the most fantastic Paul Atreides ever. And the next decision was to cast his mother. And Rebecca Ferguson came into my mind. I was always mesmerized by what I was seeing on screen. But she had all the qualities I was looking for in an actress. And physically too I felt that she looked like Timothee. There was something in her eyes, her physicality. And I believe she had that regal quality, and the mysterious quality that she could bring all the complexity, all the layers — Jessica’s the most complex character in the story — And I wanted an actor who could bring all the layers up front and to play with them. And I think it’s probably, with Paul, the most difficult part to play. And once I found my duo then my body relaxed. My soul relaxed. Then we brought Oscar Isaac. He fit the description of the Duke. When you read the book they describe Oscar. And for me I’ve wanted to work with Isaac for a long time… So it was like a very exhilarating process, the casting of the movie, because there was so much enthusiasm on the actors side.

Could you talk about the casting of the Fremen and the meaning behind them in your film? Because it’s a very surreal experience watching this movie as the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan, and hearing the opening lines saying “who will our next oppressors be?

The thing is I tried to be as faithful as possible to Frank Herbert’s description. I tried to be as faithful as possible to the images I had in my mind when I read the book when I was young. And this idea that the world of the Fremen would be kind of inspired by culture from North Africa and the Middle East — culture that I deeply love by the way, because it’s a very complex world — There was this idea that there was something powerful that will come out from Africa in Frank Herbert’s mind. And I tried to respect his ideas. Which is why I did the casting the way I did. And I feel truly that I’m right in doing it this way. It feels authentic, it feels honest, and true to the book.

What will be the weight of Dune Part Two compared with Dune Part One?

The tough task here was to introduce you guys to this world. To the ideas of this world. The codes, the cultures, the different families, the planets… once this is done, it becomes an insane playground. And it will allow me to go berserk… Dune Part One is like an appetizer. Dune Part Two is the main meal… That’s what I can say… As much as Dune Part One was my most exciting project ever, Dune Part Two is already getting even more exciting.

As soon as I finished the first movie, I will admit, I was genuinely excited to see the second from a purely cinematic perspective. So I think Villeneuve has triumphed pretty greatly on an entertainment level. And surely no one can dispute what a technical and narrative accomplishment this movie will be based on the passion and love he’s openly expressed for the material, coupled with his strengths as a storyteller and director.

However, the truth of the matter has always been that Dune is a controversial story when viewed through the eyes of people of color. Though the surface level interpretation of the story falling into the “White-Savior” trope has been disputed as being (as Villeneuve puts it) actually a critique on the idea of messianic figures trying to dominate their subjects, many still go back and forth around the idea that author Frank Herbert may be wanting to have his cake and eat it too by making his White protagonist be a complex and sympathetic character at the end of it all. That being said, based on his responses, Villeneuve is firmly on the side of the story being a criticism or condemnation on individuals who deem themselves the saviors of indigenous individuals, so I have to believe that’s where he is going with his interpretation of the story, as opposed to what David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation did.

Thus, for all the spectacle and cinematic accomplishments the Dune saga has to offer, at the end of the day, the most exciting thing about the future of this franchise will be seeing whether or not a director as talented and intelligent as Villeneuve can pull off an adaptation of the novel that truly lives up to the critical interpretation he’s committed to showcasing in his vision. Will he be able to pull it off? Perhaps for now, only the Bene Gesserit can know for sure.

Dune hits theaters and HBO Max October 22, 2021.

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