Denis Villeneuve and Javier Bardem on the set of 'Dune'.

One day at a barbeque at Roger Deakins’ Santa Monica home, Denis Villeneuve got chatting to an Australian man – one who he found to be kind, charming and humble.

Suddenly, it dawned on the French-Canadian director that he was speaking to Greig Fraser, a cinematographer whose work – spanning Lion to The Mandalorian – he had long admired and had hoped to work with.

When it came to shooting his sci-fi epic Dune, based on Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 novel and starring Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya, Fraser was Villeneuve’s first choice.

He was drawn to work with the DOP because of his ability to use “nature as a tool” – how he used natural light cinematically.

“I wanted the movie to look naturalistic, as real, as familiar, as possible. For that I needed a cinematographer that would be comfortable dancing with nature – that’s the way I’d say it. I had the feeling that Greg had that flexibility, the way he listened to natural light,” he tells IF.

However, while Villeneuve may have chosen Fraser for his sensibility, he also found in him an organised and disciplined multitasker – “a navy seal”.

“I would have not been able to do Dune without Greig. He was my strongest ally on the set. I learned a lot from working with him. He’s really a tremendous artist, but also a close friend now.

“I love his energy. There’s a strong passion for what he’s doing, and he was never afraid of stepping out into the desert into the high winds and harsh conditions.”

Villeneuve’s Dune, his most ambitious work to date following films like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, has made more than $15 million in box office Australia since its release last December, and $US399 million worldwide.

‘Dune’.

Alongside its commercial successes are a significant number of industry accolades, including 11 BAFTA nominations today – the most of any film, a Golden Globe win for composer Hans Zimmer and a Best Direction award for Villeneuve at the AACTA International Awards last week. It is tipped by to potentially lead the Oscar nominations next week, in Best Picture and Best Direction, as well as many technical categories, including cinematography.

For Villeneuve, Dune is a culmination of a lifelong dream. He fell in love with Herbert’s novel at 13, even going so far as to storyboard out his vision of a film version with a friend.

The book, to which the director wanted to stay very true, endures for him still because of its themes around family and nature.

“The characters in Dune have to deal with the presence of the voices of their ancestors, of the lineage of their ancestors, and they have to channel those voices in order to make something good out of it,” he says.

“They have the burden of the heritage of family; how do deal neurosis and how to finally get free from the pressure of the subconscious forces. It’s something that still inspires me today.

“And I’m still deeply moved by all of the poetic elements that Frank Herbert created from the relationship between humans and the ecosystem. Meaning, the way he dramatised biology; the way he created this environment where The Fremen, that culture, was able to find an equilibrium in their relationship with nature. I think it brings a lot of hope.”

Asked whether he often had to think of his teenage self while making this film – and whether or not he was pleasing him – Villeneuve says: “You are putting the finger right where it hurts.”

When he was first considering the film, he had a meeting with Zimmer, who seriously questioned him over whether it was a good idea for to fulfil a childhood dream – perhaps it would be more wise to keep it as just that. Yet he felt it was an artistic risk that made sense.

“You can never achieve your dream totally,” Villeneuve reflects, noting some parts of this film are close to what he once envisioned, while other parts are very different.

“I’m pleased with some parts of it. Other parts I’m sad [about], because I was never able to bring it to the full glory of my teenage dream. But at the same time, I couldn’t say no to this opportunity because I’m still deeply inspired and in love with that book that stayed with me all those years.

“It was by far one of the biggest challenges of my life, because of that relationship with the book, that old history I had with the book, that old passion I had. It was a risk I took. But for me, creativity is linked with risk.”

Greig Fraser on the set of ‘Dune’.

Villeneuve will continue to live in the world of Dune for at least another few years yet. The film was always conceived in two parts, with the sequel currently in pre-production.

For the director, it is an interesting process to revisit a universe of characters – something he has never done before. He describes it like “going back and revisiting old friends”, with the world now more much more defined and all cast and crew knowing how to approach the material.

However, he says making the sequel will be an exercise balancing continuity and reinvention – and also a chance to improve on things he wasn’t quite happy with the first time round.

“I’ve never walked in the same footsteps before. I don’t want to do that. So I have to find a way to make a movie that makes sense with Part One, but where I will feel that I’m exploring new territories.”

When Warner Bros. announced in late 2020 that it would release all its entire 2021 slate in cinemas and on HBOMax simultaneously, including Dune, Villeneuve was an vocal critic, going so far as to write an opinion piece lambasting the decision for Variety.

For him, Dune is a big screen experience, and Legendary Entertainment and Warner Bros have guaranteed a 45-day exclusive theatrical window for the sequel.

The director has frequently referred to the pandemic as an “enemy” of cinema, and has every faith it will endure.

We are not meant to be isolated. We are meant to be together and there is nothing more beautiful than sharing emotions together. That’s why we love to go to rock concerts. That’s why we love, since the birth of time, go the temple, to go the church, to sing together, to dance together, and to watch movies together.

“There’s nothing like, to me, to go through a wave of emotion, a communal emotion, a communal experience, where we feel all as one. It’s at the core of the human experience and one of the most beautiful things we share.

“I must add that cinema is a hypnotic experience, the theatre brings all the proper conditions to this hypnotic experience, so it will be received with its full impact. I have total hope for the theatrical experience. Since I was born, every five years, someone announces the death of cinema. I’m used to it; I’ve heard it about 10 times so far. It will always go on. There will be transformation, there will be challenges, but it will prevail.”

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1 Comment

  1. Great DP with a great eye, brave cinematographer, not afraid of shadows & darkness. Had the pleasure of working with him a few times in Melbourne, impressive with his work, & no surprises he’s found this kind of success. And with Denis is a great combination. Well done…Michael H

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