Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

Promotional poster for DUNE

Host Geri Cole is joined by Jon Spaihts and Denis Villeneuve—two-thirds of the writing team behind DUNE—to discuss the challenges of writing a story that serves two audiences, relearning the lesson of focusing on the human element in science fiction, and just how much coffee it takes for three masters of filmmaking to collaborate on the script of DUNE (spoiler alert… it’s a lot).

Jon Spaihts wrote the screenplays for PROMETHEUS, THE DARKEST HOUR, and MARVEL’S DR. STRANGE.

Denis Villeneuve is perhaps best known as the director of SICARIO, ARRIVAL, and BLADE RUNNER 2049.

Third co-writer Eric Roth—who, unfortunately, couldn’t join us because of technical difficulties—is the writer of titles like FORREST GUMP, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, and A STAR IS BORN, among many others.

DUNE—co-written by Spaihts, Villeneuve, and Roth and directed by Villeneuve— is a mythic and emotionally charged hero’s journey adapted from the 1965 science fiction novel by Frank Herbert. The film tells the story of Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, who must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people. As malevolent forces explode into conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence-a commodity capable of unlocking humanity’s greatest potential-only those who can conquer their fear will survive.

DUNE is now playing in theaters, and can also be streamed on HBO Max.

Seasons 7-10 of OnWriting are hosted by Geri Cole, a writer and performer based in New York City. She is currently a full-time staff and interactive writer for SESAME STREET, for which she has received a Writers Guild Award and two Daytime Emmys.

Listen here:

OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, East. The series was created and produced by Jason Gordon. Associate Producer & Designer is Molly Beer. Mix, tech production, and original music by Stock Boy Creative.

If you like OnWriting, please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to podcasts, and be sure to rate us on iTunes.


Follow us on social media:
Twitter: @OnWritingWGAE | @WGAEast
Facebook: /WGAEast
Instagram: @WGAEast

Thanks for listening. Write on.


Geri Cole: Hi, I’m Geri Cole, and you’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writer’s Guild of America, East. In each episode, you’re gonna hear from the people behind your favorite films and television series talking about their writing process, how they got their project from the page to the screen, and so much more. Today, I’m thrilled to welcome to the podcast, two of the three screenwriters of the new feature film Dune, Jon Spaihts and Denis Villeneuve. Previous to working on Dune, Jon Spaihts wrote the screenplay for Prometheus, The Darkest Hour, and Marvel’s Dr. Strange. Denis is best known as the director of Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049. Eric Roth is a third screen writer on Dune, and he tried to join us, but couldn’t make it because of technical difficulties. You know Eric as the writer of Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, A Star is Born, among many others.

In the podcast, we talk about the challenges of writing a story that serves two audiences, relearning the lesson of focusing on the human element in science fiction, and how much coffee it takes for three masters of filmmaking to collaborate on the script of Dune. Spoiler alert, it’s a lot. Dune is now in theaters, and really should be seen in theaters. Please go see it in theaters. It can also be seen on HBO Max. Jon, Denis, welcome to the podcast. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this podcast. This is so exciting. I guess I want to start by saying congratulations on part two. I’m so excited. Does this feel like a relief or was it just a formality? Did you guys know it was clearly coming?

Denis Villeneuve: We had the clue that it was coming probably, but it was not 100% sure. And I would say that the big relief for me was to see the numbers this weekend, to see that people had the will to go back to theaters and watch the movie on the big screen, because it was really dream written, shot, and designed to be an immersive experience, which you can only fully get in a theater. So it was a very beautiful surprise to hear those numbers over the weekend.

Geri Cole: Absolutely. Also, can we just do a quick introduction so that the audience can hear your voices and know who is speaking? And actually, maybe if you want to also say which character you think you might be most closely aligned with from the film?

Denis Villeneuve: My name is Denis Villeneuve. And frankly, I have no idea who I could be closer to character being… As a director, you want to feel like the father of a lot of children, so I think it’ll be unfair to say there’s a favorite one.

Geri Cole: Okay.

Jon Spaihts: This is Jon Spaihts, longtime sci-fi screenwriter. And I don’t know, I feel almost familial bonds to every Dune character, but I’m probably closest with Jessica. I guess I’m Jessica.

Geri Cole: Okay.

Denis Villeneuve: Oh, I love that. And I would have been Jessica too, so I’m a bit jealous that you chose that.

Geri Cole: I mean, I was going to go for Paul myself, but [crosstalk 00:03:06]. Well, this is a incredible adaptation. Please know that I read the book in anticipation of this film and that I’ve seen the film twice. I’m going to watch it again. So can we talk a little bit about how this perfect team came together?

Denis Villeneuve: First of all, at the time at the early stage of the project, I approached Eric Roth. I had read several screenplays from Eric that I thought Eric has the… First of all, Eric loves femininity. It is something that was important for me in this adaptation, that it would be an angle that would be choosing to crack this adaptation. And also, I really admire the depth of this culture, his culture references, how we approach historic work. And for me, Dune is a kind of historic novel from the future. It’s really like if you had sent a historian in a time capsule, writing what will happen in the future and coming back and writing the novel about our future. There was something that almost feels like a period drama, the way that it’s written.

And then I thought that it would be very interesting to have a screenwriter coming from that period or background to crack at first the novel, and Eric came. The deal was that we do a first draft, a first pass, and then I will work on it to try to condense and make it closer to me. And as I was doing so, I felt I needed help. And I always loved Jon Spaihts’s writing. And I had learned also that Jon was a Dune maniac, which I felt I needed a brother to go to help me too. So it was really like a three step process up. And so, that’s the structure of the work. And then Eric came back, did a pass, and then Jon came. It was like waves one after the other going on the page, and I would say also [inaudible 00:04:46] the structure of it all.

Geri Cole: Hmm. So Denis, I’ve read that you’ve loved this story since you were a kid, but Jon and Eric, do you have your own history with material? Denis just said you, Jon, were a Dune fanatic, I think?

Jon Spaihts: Yeah. I read the book very young. And I think for many people who came to it at 12 or 13 or 14, they had never read something that seemed so profound in genre fiction. Certainly that was my experience. It seemed impossibly deep and intelligent, and I reread it many, many times and read all of its sequels. And so, yeah, I think I had not read it for some number of years when word of this project came to me, but I still practically knew the book by heart.

Geri Cole: Hmm. So let’s talk a little bit actually about how this story from 1965 is so wildly relevant today. Did you try and sort of take it through a modern lens and connect it with things that are currently happening at all?

Denis Villeneuve: I think that if I did my research on that, it’s just that I feel that it’s a book that as time went by, became more and more relevant. It’s like a Frank Herbert being inspired by the main currents on the 20th century wrote a novel for our world, what our world would become. It’s like, we have to remember that Herbert was talking about time and change at the end of the sixties. Yeah. It was really ahead of his time. So I will say that our job, it was not about the thematics of the novel that we had to readjust to today, because what the book is is already relevant. I think that our job was to make sure that emotionally, the audience will connect with the characters, keeping their singularity and the beauty of their different cultural background and the novel that Herbert had created, but still making sure that we can emotionally connect to them.

Geri Cole: Hmm. I like to also talk a little bit, or rather a lot, about condensing the story. It’s a very tricky thing to do because you had already sort of understood that it’s like, we can’t do Dune in one film. So how do you sort of decide what’s more important than something else as you condense this story into just even the two films?

Jon Spaihts: Well, iteratively is the answer. We tried again and again to see what would fit and what not and to identify what was essential. There are things we took really hard looks at and even attempted that did feel essential to us, but in the end, had to fall by the wayside in favor of telling a narrowly-focused story that hinges on the emotional lives of our protagonists and has an elegance about it. So there’s a banquet scene in the middle of the book that I think is very memorable for many readers and beloved, and we loved it too. Banquet scenes are fraught in any production. There’s so much dialogue, so much coverage. They’re hard to shoot. They’re hard not to have founder and sort of torpedo the pace of your story. When characters sit down, the movie sits down. So we tried standing the characters up, we tried tightening its focus. We tried several ways, but ultimately, it did not serve the momentum of the film. It did not serve the storytelling. And ultimately, every piece of work being done in that big talking scene was also being done in other scenes more economically.

Geri Cole: Hmm. That actually brings me to a question. There were scenes sort of created to do the work of things from the book that didn’t make it in, an example being… And I couldn’t remember, honestly. Now it’s all starting to blend together. The scene where Paul is talking with the gardener about the palm trees and sort of how they’re sacred and that sort of taking the place of Jessica discovering that garden room from the book and that sort of understanding that even though it’s a desert planet or because it’s a desert planet, they take plants and vegetation as sacred.

Denis Villeneuve: But the thing is that it’s a good example where the idea was also to embrace Paul Atreides point of view. And by the same of the palm tree, you understand the ecological problems of the planet. You understand the spirituality of the natives of Arrakis or the world of the plants, the ecology. There’s so many things you understand in that scene. And the scene with Jessica, a scene that I love by the way, the secret garden, was opening a door with other characters and it was like a side story. That’s a good example where we had to focus on the main narrative of following Paul Atreides’ to his journey in how we encounter this new planet instead of opening side stories. Yeah. Does it make sense what I’m saying, Jon?

Jon Spaihts: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. The greenhouse discovery leads to a dialogue with other bene gesserits and the mysterious Fenring family, which is recurrent throughout the books, but a little confusing, even to the reader, and almost impossible to explain to a movie audience in the time that we had. So in that gardener scene, Denis managed to make a character-driven a moment that is externally driven in the book. There many, many moments in the book when Paul is approached by some lieutenant or advisor who delivers him a lesson on a topic, and they had a conversation. And a big piece of that gardener conversation is delivered that way. I think Dr. Yueh comes up to him and lays a trip on him about how much water palm trees drink. And so in that moment, Denis found a way to let that be a discovery that Paul makes on his own. It’s his curiosity and his hunger to understand that leads him there. And it is overlapping with the worshipful cries of the natives who think he might be the [inaudible 00:10:19]. And with the reverence of the gardener for the plant and the ecological possibility, it represents the front-end dream. So there is a scene, a short scene doing several kinds of work at the same time in just a few moments.

Denis Villeneuve: That was a key of the adaptation, in general the work that was done by Eric and after by Jon. It was Jon focused on a lot of trying to find scenes like that that will convey as much as possible information, not going away from the dramatic arc of the characters and trying to make sure that it will not feel like a lecturing or over-exposition. It was really to try to find that balance, because there are so many things that Jon and I loved about the book that we wanted to express and to protect, but we have to make some difficult choices sometimes. We have to kill a lot of darlings. That’s the truth.

Geri Cole: I can only imagine, because it seems like while you’re writing this, you’re actually sort of writing it for two different audiences. You’re writing it for the people who have read the book and sort of know the story, but then you’re also writing it for an audience where this is going to be their first experience with the story. And so, it sounds like you guys had to make a lot of compromises in sort of trying to serve those two.

Denis Villeneuve: TI will not say compromises because for me, it was fascinating to try to make a movie that will please or satisfy the hardcore fans that will recognize the poetry, the spirit, the beauty of the ideas of the book, and at the same time, to make sure that my stepmother will understand the movie, that someone that knows nothing about the book will feel welcome and will understand the beauty and the complexity of that story. And so it’s like, it was a beautiful challenge. That was one of the main challenges of this adaptation. It was on the paper, I will say.

Jon Spaihts: Yeah. It’s a really enjoyable spur of creativity. One thing that I was always bearing in mind was my teenage self and every other big fan of the novel, they were going to come to a lot of moment that they would know very well. And the question there is how to be very true in the book, but also give them something new, also give them some surprise that might delight them despite their knowing the text so well. And some examples of that would be in the hunter seeker scene where Paul is menaced by a hovering remote assassin droid in his room. There was a sort of updating question about why such a machine could not see him even in a shadowy room. And that’s partly about the passage of time because cameras have come to such a state now that your phone can see in the dark. And so, it’s harder to believe that this little device could not, that the operator could not see Paul through this little device.

And so, we took the holographic device of the film book and had Paul step inside it for a concealment, which turns a passive resistance of not moving into an active resistance of finding concealment, and gives the scene a cinematic quality and a bit of surprise that it would not otherwise have had. Likewise, there’s a phenomenal scene later, an essential scene where Duncan Idaho plays Horatio at the bridge and stands against the sardaukars so that Paul and Jessica can escape. And there he falls and there he dies, and all the lovers of the book will know that. And so, how can you give them a surprise in that scene? And so, we work very carefully with the architecture of that and gave Duncan Idaho a second death. So he falls as readers of the book know that he must, but even then, Paul and Jessica are not safe. There’s a lasgun cutting through a door. They’re barred from escape. And he rises again to save him one more time and give a [inaudible 00:13:50] even to people who knew what was coming.

Geri Cole: Hmm. Yes. That was a heartbreaking moment. So beautiful. So actually, one of the things that you added to the top that I really appreciated was this monologue from Chani. And I feel like for me, it sort of felt like it was giving Dune agency over the story, that it wasn’t just sort of Paul’s story, but it took you into the planet first and sort of the spirit. I wonder if you could talk little bit about that, but starting with Chani and DUne, rather than, as the book does, starting with Paul.

Denis Villeneuve: The thing is that, in fact, the book start with that quotes from Princess Irulan, the daughter of the emperor, and she says beginnings are very delicate times, something like that, the first words of the book. And I will say this. It’s like, one thing that was long to find finally was how to start this movie, making sure to find that balance that we were talking about earlier, that balance that make an introduction that people want. And Chani became an obvious choice because it was like bringing a view of the planet from an intimate way. We were seeing the planet, really at first, from a place of love that will contrast with the way people will talk about the planet later and that very harsh deserted planet. And there was something about, for me, having seeing earth from this intimate point of view of a young woman, that will be a thread that Paul will follow to the old movie. It came from the fact that idea to bring Chani at the beginning, because we felt that the character needed more weight. Otherwise, she was just a vocation of dreams. It felt that the story was not strong enough. That’s my first comment on that opening.

Geri Cole: Yes. Especially since it’s sort of because the story has to end where it ends. And obviously as the book goes on, she becomes a crucial character. But in this beginning part, it’s sort of trying to communicate her importance to his journey, but in a way that feels good. So actually speaking of Chani and Zendaya, this one’s a dream cast, dream-dream cast. I’m mean, I’m no expert, but feels like no one else could have played these roles. Was any of this written with certain actors in mind? And if so, how did that inform how you sort of wrote the characters?

Denis Villeneuve: Frankly… And please, Jon, stop me if I say something wrong here, but we chat about casting very often, Jon and I, but later when we were very advanced in the screenwriting process, I think that at the beginning we were really focused on Frank Herbert description. And I recall talking about casting with Jon, but much later when we were very advanced, very, very advanced. Am I wrong?

Jon Spaihts: That’s correct. And I think for both of us, the characters in the book live so vividly in our minds that we’re really writing for the characters we grew up with.

Denis Villeneuve: Yeah. And we had to understand that when we start that adaptation and we were into it, we spent months working on it and Eric had done a part of the job. And then Jon came and helped me and Jon work a tremendous amount of time to make sure that we had the right structure and compress the information at one point and to find the arc of everything. And it’s like, we were overwhelmed by the writing of this. And for me, it was one step at the time. I kept saying to myself, I will allow myself to do casting when I would feel that I have something solid under my feet. And then I started to dream about the cast. But before, we had to stay close to the book. That I will say.

Geri Cole: That actually is one of my other questions. Was there ever a moment where you sort of felt lost, not in a fun way, in this writing process and sort of what helped you out of that moment, if that was the case?

Denis Villeneuve: But what you mentioned earlier that at the beginning, at one point that we had tried, I forgot what I asked at the beginning to everybody was to start the movie with the Gom Jabbar Like in the book, the arrival of the [inaudible 00:17:54]. I was in love with this idea to start the movie and the dark rainy nights when you have the [inaudible 00:18:03] under the rain and having those village figures and walking. It was so mysterious. But the problem is that there was so much work that you needed to do after to understand who was that boy, why he was going through that people as they are trying to process what was happening to Paul or staying in what was an intellectual state instead of entering the scene and receive it viscerally. And to do so, we started to work on the idea of having some kind of introduction. And that’s where there’s a difference with the [inaudible 00:18:38]. There’s an introduction to Paul and his family in order to prepare the ground. So when we arrive to the Com Jabbar, the people have the necessary note in order to embrace the scene [inaudible 00:18:48] and not just to receive information.

Jon Spaihts: The novel accomplishes the same work by device inaccessible to filmmakers because Paul walks in to take the test of Gom Jabbar And we can hear him thinking about what’s happening to his family, about the change they’re going into. We hear Jessica thinking about who Reverend Mother Mohiam is and what this test is about and the bene gesserit order. And so, their internal monologues are fleshing out the universe that we’re moving through so that we can begin to understand what we’re seeing. And of course, a film deals with externalities and that’s to imply the internalities. And so, we did not have that ability. And the only way, as Denis is saying, make that scene play emotionally for people is to give them the information they needed to understand what was happening. And that meant unkinking the timeline of the books and taking some of the flashbacks and side references and people’s interior monologues and making them exterior, making them events.

Geri Cole: Hmm. I actually have another question about the dialogue and how there is so much of the book that is, reading people’s thoughts and/or Princess Irulan’s memoirs and how that sort of informs what the audience knows. But I’m curious because there was also the invention of the sign language, which again, it’s going to play together, but I was like, I don’t think that that was in the book. How did you approach dealing with dialogue in the language because it is this future-past. And then also the invented language of the Sardaukar, which I also was like, I don’t remember from the book, but maybe I…

Denis Villeneuve: Their sign language is something that the village learned as a skill to decipher or read people’s emotion on their face or the way the skin will react. I mean, they have driven this amount of a way to observe. And there is some idea of sign language in the book. Maybe it’s more present in the movie because it does allow us to have an insight on what’s happening inside the characters, the way they communicate between each other without expressing themself in front of enemies. I would say it brings that beautiful, paranoid quality that is in the book. As Jon mentioned earlier, you have access to the thoughts of the characters, you know their strategies. You are aware of their fear and how they want to control the other character in front of them.

There’s something about this idea of having an insight and to their thought process that I was trying with Jon to express differently through that sign language that was developed by David Peterson that was well known for his work on Game of Thrones. He developed all the languages for the [inaudible 00:21:25] languages, the feminine languages, because I wanted to make sure there would be an inner logic to all those languages. And the Sardaukar language, you’re right. There was never mentioned, I think, in the book of such thing as a foreign language, but I was just feeling to increase the idea that we are being confronted to different cultures, people coming from different planet, and a good way to express of that was through language, through sound. And I felt also that it was giving to the Sardaukar something a bit more [inaudible 00:21:55] and a distinctive feeling at the end of the day just to try to… I think I love in the book is how Herbert described all the different cultures, the magic, their roots, and it’s so rich. And so, I try to use as much cinematic device to create that on the screen. That’s what I will say.

Geri Cole: So I guess at what point then do you consult a linguist to help inform how those things… Is that a part of the script writing process, or is it sort of a part of the production process once you get to that point?

Denis Villeneuve: I think that Jon has inspired himself from the actual… There are a lot of words that are in the book that Frank Herbert used. We expended this going into pre-production, because there was already the presence of [inaudible 00:22:42] in the screenplay. We introduce this idea that was there already. It was on the written page. Now, how do you pronounce it if I want more of it, if I want the extra to react to it? I had to expand that world as the projection was moved, but it was present. And simply, that was written.

Jon Spaihts: Yeah. Chakobsa is a real language out of the Balkans, but what Herbert calls Chakobsa is pigeon that he invented, which is filled with Arabic loan words, but that he has mutated because this is a future 10,000 years from now when the human diaspora has spread out all over the place. And so, he plays that game throughout his book, of mutating language to show the passage of time and to show the blending of traditions. The Fremen were said to be Zensunni So their tradition combines the Zen tradition and Sunni Islam and other elements. So the underpinnings of all of that are in the novel, but it fell to the need to flesh that out and make it something cinematic.

Geri Cole: Hmm. You both are world famous filmmakers known for making incredible sci-fi films. I’m curious as to what attracts you to science fiction stories and if there is something that you think is extra special about telling sci-fi stories?

Jon Spaihts: For me, they allow us to build a window into the interior world. I think that in our daily lives, we ordinarily have cataclysmic experiences. We get our hearts broken, we lose our jobs, we deal with bankruptcy, we score windfalls, we have first kisses, we cuddle a baby. And when those things happen, there are lightning storms in our brain. We can feel as if we’ve just turned to stone. We can feel as if there’s electric current flowing through. We feel like the sky has fallen. We have macrocosmic experiences internally. Science fiction allows us to externalize those moments. It lets us actually have the sky fall. It lets you actually turn to stone. We can take moments that we all relate to intimately because we know what it is to be so afraid that we taste metal on our tongue. We know what it is to be so elated that we feel like we are floating off the ground. And in science fiction, we can allow ourselves visual language, a phenomenological language that lets us see those experiences. It lets us live them outwardly. It makes them cinema. And it think at its best, science fiction reaches into our hearts and minds and drags out the experiences we have and throws them on the screen at large.

Denis Villeneuve: I think we love how Jon answered to this question.

Geri Cole: That was a beautiful answer.

Denis Villeneuve: That was awesome. But me, my answer is more boring. It’s just that what I love about science fiction it’s that it allows us to tackle difficult topics with a distance. For instance, talking about religion without offending nobody. I love the idea that it’s like it because you are in the future, you are in imagining real world. And it’s something that I think it’s a very powerful genre to do that. I’m always moved, but the frontier between science and spirituality and where we are facing the unknown and as human beings, the unknown is something that brings fears and anxiety. And there’s something about the exploration of that frontier with the unknown, that science fiction allowed to explore a very playful world.

Geri Cole: Hmm. Both beautiful answers.

Denis Villeneuve: No, I know Jon wins, but you used to it, okay?

Jon Spaihts: Okay.

Geri Cole: So were there any challenges that you feel like you’ve faced in previous scripts that you’ve sort of worked through in previous scripts that you feel like helped inform your writing of Dune?

Denis Villeneuve: I would say that I didn’t and that I used to work on my screenplay when I was younger. I did a few projects where I was away from the keyboard, but still, when you direct a movie and you participate in some ways that are on the writing process, even from a side, there’s always an input with a screenwriter. And I would see that the work I did on arrival with Eric Heister definitely helped me to work on doing for more obvious reasons, having a character, dealing with a foreign culture, and having dealing with patients that she doesn’t understand and have difficulty decipher. So there’s similarities in some regards between both projects that definitely helped me when I was working with Eric and Jon.

Jon Spaihts: Yeah. I have to say that no matter how much work I do or how many things get made, there are times on everything I’ve ever worked on where I feel like a rank beginner. And I am conscious of having to learn the most basic lessons again and again and again. It’s why I listen so ravenously when other storytellers talk about their work, because I always learn something. And sometimes it’s something I’m going to have to learn 10 times over. The through line for these worlds, I think, is merely that what matters is the human, what matters is the people in the middle. And I know that, and I still have to figure that out every time I sit down to write one of these things. I still have to remind myself, relearn it, come again to it as if it were a revelation every time, that the people matter and all this stuff, all this distractions, all the armature around them is just in the way. I may never stop learning that lesson.

Geri Cole: That’s incredible. That’s also very encouraging to hear that it’s like, miss a lesson I learn every time. Speaking of lessons that you learn every time, what are your writing processes like? I’m curious as to how you share responsibility in writing the script. Do you guys all have similar ways in which you work and how was it sort of sharing the responsibility of the script?

Jon Spaihts: Oh, we had such different experiences.

Denis Villeneuve: Yes, yes, yes. Very different. Yeah.

Jon Spaihts: And even different from themselves. Because in the natural course of things, I saw Eric’s work on this project only through the prism of Denis and the work that they had done together. So for me, that’s a mystery that only Denis can penetrate for you because their work was intermingled when I encountered it. I did a deep exegesis with the novel where I tore up a copy of Dune and I underlined everything, dogeared everything, and just basically transcribed the novel beat by beat onto a document and then kind of built an adaptation up from there. And then I took my kind of clean adaptation and took Denis and Eric’s work and studied them and imported all of Denis’s moments of genius from his script into this new hybrid. And then Denis and I became a two-headed monster and did a series of revisions where come to him wherever he was and get a hotel down the street with a suite.

And for a week or more, every morning he would walk in and we would sit down in the living room and we would talk about the story all day. Break for lunch, back to it, talk about the story. And this time around three in the afternoon, Denis would go back to pre-production and he’d be off doing story boards or whatever, concept art, whatever other things he was doing, so many things. And I would start writing. And around midnight, I would be exhausted. I’d send him when I had, and I would go to bed. And the morning he would read it and roll back in at nine, and we would talk till three. And he would leave and I would start writing. And we did that every day. And by the end of the week, I was completely exhausted and he would come and we’d talk until two or three and he would leave and I would fall immediately asleep. I would wake up at midnight. I would start writing and I’d write all night, and at six in the morning and send them by pages and he would read them and come over.

So not the most sustainable way of working, but fast and in this process when things are getting real. In early days, we were trying to find the shape of a story. Someone like Denis will be attached to many things. There’ll be writers pitching him scripts. He’s reading, he’s having opinions. That can be a more epistolary relationship. It can be a correspondence, but this was a movie getting made and we needed to go fast. And there was no time for me to write a whole draft where maybe I wasn’t headed in the direction Denis wanted to go. I needed to know right away. And what he allowed me to do by being so generous with his time and allowing this dialogue to go on is that we were able to meld our minds and I got daily affirmations or corrections about the direction we were headed and was able to know his mind throughout the process. And I think that allowed us not just to revise a script for the course of a week with some confidence that this was headed in Deni’s direction, but also to just move by leaps and bounds through the process without needing to do so much backtracking, which you do in the ordinary process.

Denis Villeneuve: Yeah, it was, for me, one of the most beautiful and intense screenwriting experience I had where I had the impression that we were dancing together making that, but it was quite exhausting and it involved a lot of coffee. And Jon like mentioned, there’s always the cup of regrets.

Jon Spaihts: The one cup of coffee, two men.

Geri Cole: You’re like, I’ve gone too far.

Jon Spaihts: Yes.

Geri Cole: I tried to keep this specifically about writing, but I feel like we have to talk about the incredible visuals of this film and how much of that was on the page. Honestly, it was also like, can I get a copy of the script before? I just want to read how it worked or how much of it was just sort of, in this process, a collaboration with production design and storyboard artists and those things. Or I guess it sounds like it was maybe all happening at the same time.

Jon Spaihts: The answer is everywhere. It’s all of it. A screenplay always has to have a haiku-like economy of description in setting, it seems. But you try. You try to find the line of poetry that evokes the way this place should look and feel. Here, we have the incredible safety net of the underlying novel. There is Dune that everyone can turn to as a text to consult about these things. But of course, my little haiku or the haiku that Denis and I write together is very much in the backseat when the director’s in the room and his visual team is working. So Denis is the answer.

Denis Villeneuve: Okay. I will say that there was a lot of thing that it’s coming, the sense of the screenplay where you have an emotion or a meaning in the scene that is brought to this by the screenplay that would inform the production design. And by the way, it’s true that at the time, I was already designing the movie. So I remember bringing images to Jon, say, oh, okay. And either it was a comfort by what I was showing to him because it was close to what he had in mind, or confronted because he said, oh, that’s so different. And that clash, we could talk about it. But it was a beautiful… That’s what I’m talking about at [inaudible 00:33:29], that bold process were done. There was a the moment where it was simultaneous.

Writing Dune was not something that was done over the course of few weeks. It was a long journey. And it’s a journey that evolved through times through, first of all, the way we would crack it, the way Eric crack it. I worked on it. Then Jon came and we worked together and then Jon took the lead and then I come back and it was a kind of dance like that. But then we went into production. And Jon came with us because why? Because we had, of course, to work with restrictions and we have to face reality that we were not all like every filmmakers face. We will not have all the money in the world. And we will have to find a solution to try to bring scenes that will be more economic, not economic in the sense that they will be easier to fit into the schedule, but without making any compromise, without making any poet compromise and that will keep the meaning. Of course, Jon came and was like a Navy seal. Honestly, our whole brains melt down more than one time during this.

Geri Cole: Wow. We’re running out of time, so I do actually want to make sure that I get to the question that I love to ask everyone that comes on the podcast, which is about success. And I think that there has been very clear metrics of success for this project. And I feel like we’ve already gotten there now that part two has been green lit. But the reason why I like to ask people about success is because I feel like it’s one of those things that is elusive, the feeling of it, and always changing. And so, I’m curious as to how you’ve described success for yourself and how it’s maybe evolved over the years.

Denis Villeneuve: That’s a good question. At first, there’s always a moment, I will say, where you have to be clear about your relationship with the object of the movie and to make at peace with the… It’s easy to think about the joys or the victory, but the truth is that each project… I don’t know about you, Jon, but there’s always anger. There’s always disappointments that are linked with the project, because me, I’m talking about as a director, of course, I was not able to achieve something, so you have to make peace with that. So the success is very intimate. How the world would perceive it later, you have no control over that. And in today’s world where, which is very polarized, you can be hero for someone and a loser for someone else for the neighbor. So you have to have your own relationship with your art form and try to be deeply honest about where you are, what you were able to achieve, and where you have to learn. And the most beautiful part is where you have to learn because that’s where you can expand. And I found later why I’m excited to do Dune part two because I know where I can be, I hope a better filmmaker. And that’s what is exciting for me, to grow up. I mean, at the end of the day, that’s the thing, to evolve.

Jon Spaihts: I deeply agree with all of that. For a screenwriter it’s accentuated by the oddity of being so front-loaded in the process, so that by the time a work comes to the public eye and is criticized or acclaimed or both often, you are a year and a half past that and working on something else. And it’s strange suddenly to go back and be connected. Deni’s connection never stops. He works for the last second and even past the last second on the project. But a writer moves on to other things while the physical production and post is going on. Maybe called back for little bits here and there, but mostly, your piece is done. And so, success always feels a little startling, like someone really wants to come up and congratulate you on the relationship you had that person you dated a couple years ago, and you’re like, yeah, I’m dating someone else now. It’s a little odd. It’s a funny conversation to have.

And there’s also just that cargo that, in the most flamboyant success, you who have been on the inside of the project can count the failures, the defeats, the indignities, the bodies that are buried, darlings left and right. You know all the things you didn’t quite succeed in doing. And of course, in this case, there’s always the looming shadow of part two hanging out up there because we’re not home yet in my mind. And I’ll tell you, part two is harder. The first part of Dune is ready to be a movie. It doesn’t all fit and it’s hard to fit, but as storytelling, it is digestible. It’s cinematic. The second half of the novel gives you less help. It’s a little more incoherent. It makes greater leaps. It is stranger. It’s a harder nut to crack. So part two is still out there and I’ll let you know if I ever feel successful about it.

Geri Cole: Well, that is a good place to wrap up, and I’m so excited for part two. Good luck. I’m sure it will be brilliant. I can’t wait to watch it. Thank you so much for giving us time today to talk about this incredible film. Yeah, and also doing the sisterhood, I really wanted to hear about it.

Denis Villeneuve: One thing at a time. We have a lot of on our plates with the first one and then starting to dream about the second one. So yeah, it was a pleasure to talk with you, madam. Thank you.

Geri Cole: Thank you so much. That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America, East and is hosted by me, Geri Cole. This series was created and is produced by Jason Gordon. Tech production and original music by Taylor Bradshaw at Stockboy Creative. Our associate producer and designer is Molly Bier. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America, East online at And you can follow the Guild on all social media platforms at WGAEast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thank you for listening and write on.

Back to top