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 wgaeast.org. 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.