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Timothee Chalamet, 'Dune' cast talk of their experience doing the epic science fiction film


VENICE, Italy — After more than a year and a half of pandemic restrictions, it was great to be back traveling internationally and finally attending a live, instead of virtual, film festival.

We are happy and excited to be back at the Lido for the 78th Venice International Film Festival watching movies and interviewing talents at press conferences.

One of the biggest movies that premiered at Venice was “Dune,” the epic science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve with a screenplay by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth. It is the first of a planned two-part adaptation of the 1965 novel of the same name by Frank Herbert.

Timothee Chalamet, 25, who first caught our hearts in his breakthrough movie as Elio Perlman in Luca Guadagnino’s coming-of-age romantic drama “Call Me By Your Name,” is the lead in “Dune” as Paul Atreides, the ducal heir of the House of Atreides.

Others in the cast are Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides, Paul’s father, Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, Paul’s Bene Gesserit mother and concubine of Duke Leto; Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, the weapons master of the House of Atreides and one of Paul’s mentors; Zendaya as Chani, a young Fremen woman and Paul’s love interest; and Javier Bardem as Stilgar, the leader of the Fremen tribe at Sietch Tabr.

Below are excerpts from the press conference for the cast and the director.

Timothee Chalamet

Photo: Janet Susan R. Nepales
Photo courtesy of Janet Susan R. Nepales

The character of Paul Atreides has already been with one iconic performance, namely Kyle MacLachlan in the David Lynch film. So I am wondering, when you were preparing for the role, did you use that performance as any kind of template or inspiration or did you prefer to stay away from that as much as you could and build something that is completely your own?

Huge respect for Kyle’s performance and I love that version and I watched it about two months before we started shooting. I have been fortunate enough to work on other projects that have had prior iterations with great actors in them and I have huge respect for all of them. But when Denis Villeneuve asks you to do a movie and do his version of a movie, you forget all that and you make yourself as humble as the source material asks you to be. And I guess I just went in it like that.

This is a very epic story and your presence is very, very strong in the whole movie. So personally, what does this movie mean to you and what impact do you think it has on your career?

Simply put, this was the honor of a lifetime for me. In some way I just had to be guided, even though project size it was something I hadn’t been on before. And every person and artist I am fortunate enough to sit up here with right now, and maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I was able to lean on each one emotionally at some point over the course of this four, five month shoot, and these are all actors who I have seen in projects that I admire and that is not actors blowing smoke, if we had more time, I could have a longer conversation about it. And now I am proud to call them my sisters and brothers with everyone up here.

I hope we get to do a second one, that would be a dream and yeah, in some way I am simply grateful for the experience of doing this. And Josh Brolin said it beautifully this morning in a different interview, when you make something the process of doing is different than putting it out. So there’s three versions of the movie, there’s the version you read, there’s the movie you make and there’s the movie the edit. And now there’s the movie we put out there so hopefully people will go see it, but this is already a dream come true.

Could you tell us a little bit more about the sandwalk and perhaps demonstrate it?

It was with one of the best choreographers in the world, Benjamin Millepied who is a director in his own right, who actually came up with this sandwalk. So I think the first video Rebecca (Ferguson) and I would have gotten was a video on him on Santa Monica Beach in Los Angeles doing the sandwalk. I’m afraid if I did it right now, I would be in rhythm and this whole room would be devoured by a sand worm. That’s a bad joke.

Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac

Rebecca and Oscar, you play Paul’s parents. Oscar, you have the power of the war and Rebecca, you have the power of the mind. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between your characters and Paul?

Photo: Janet Susan R. Nepales
Photo courtesy of Janet Susan R. Nepales

Oscar Isaac: War, I don’t know, I feel like what Duke Leto brings, which is maybe very specific, is in some way he is the most recognizably human, I mean he has no special powers, he has nothing that any of us don’t have, other than being the ruler of Caladan. And the fact that he is knowing marching towards his demise and knows that, and that’s from the book too, I mean from the second people start talking about him, they are saying he’s not going to make it. And yet there’s still this tension about what is he going to do and if he’s going to continue. And not to get too highfalutin about it, but it’s very similar to that we all know that we are going to die yet we still have to continue and make choices.

And so I think as far as a figure for his son, trying to bring some sense of humanity and nobility and nobility not in the blue blood kind of way, but nobility in terms of seeking a higher level of consciousness and a higher way of leading a nation and leading a people, especially coming into this place, like how do you inherit all of this ugliness and all of this evil and all these machinations that are out of your control and try to move towards a more noble state of being, I think that’s the big thing that he’s trying to give to his son that has been a prophet, to be some messiah or something. But as far as he is concerned, as long as you can hold onto that humanity and the higher idea of humanity, you will be okay.

It’s an interesting dynamic between the two of them and that was something we had to talk a lot about between Rebecca and I, about how much do they know about what each parent is doing, how much does he know about all of these manipulations over the centuries and what this means? It starts with this thing that she was supposed to have a daughter and she gave me a son instead. She broke the rules out of some sense of love.  Is it because of a sense of love or is it because she already knew it was time for this messiah to show up? It’s amazing because the more questions you ask, the deeper and deeper and deeper it goes.

Photo: Janet Susan R. Nepales
Photo courtesy of Janet Susan R. Nepales

Rebecca Ferguson: It’s interesting to listen to the interviews that we are doing and listen to other people’s answers, because what I love is, you can do films and you can ride along I feel on other people’s character description or emotion. And I feel we all have our own identity really and truly in this, we all have our relationships to each other and to the space. And you can’t just ride along.

For me, for Jessica, it’s such a mind game and an emotional one as well, that balance of being a mother, but also having such a strong belief in something greater than just being a mother. And one isn’t better or sort of outsmart the other but she comes from this sisterhood, the Bene Gesserit, who are there to manipulate the outcome of the universe basically. And then conflicted with this passion and love for her belief. And her belief, we spoke a lot about true love, what happens when you fall in love and the request of creating a son versus my chores, which one do you go for? It’s a constant struggle. And you say mind, this is her entire identity, the mind struggle, but the emotional protection of your child, of your loved ones and knowing what is right. It’s finding those lovely balances, thankfully I had a director helping me from one emotion to the other, I was quite confused sometimes.

Oscar Isaac: To speak to Denis as well, it was something that we constantly, constantly spoke about. And trying to find that balance and how much we reveal of what they know and looking and constantly going back to the book and talking about scenes and what can we add, what do we not need, how can we deepen the feeling of the family and particularly the emotional battle between duty and love of your family, wanting to keep your family safe?

Denis Villeneuve (director)

Photo: Janet Susan R. Nepales
Photo courtesy of Janet Susan R. Nepales

I understand this book has been with you for a very long time. So what was it about this book that was so important for you when you were young and now?

I kept saying to the cast “push the button.” I think that when I read it as a kid, I was like struck by Paul’s way of finding his identity and comfort into another culture, his relationship with nature and this feeling of melancholy and beautiful isolation that the character was going through and struggling with all this heritage, the weight of all the heritage on his shoulder, that is something that deeply moved me at the heart at the beginning.

When you got to do this massive movie which is called Part One, what did you find was your biggest challenge? And secondly, because it is Part One, what is the benchmark when we will find out that we can have a Part Two?

The biggest challenge doing “Dune” was by far to deal and master with Timothee’s hair. Because it’s alive and I had to direct Timothee and I had to direct his haircut.

The biggest challenge I would say was to try to find a balance between, the book is so rich and it’s a book that takes all the strength into its details and it was really to try to find an equilibrium between the information that someone that doesn’t know the book at all, the information that the audience that does not know the book, the information that they need to understand the movie without crushing them with exposition and trying to be as cinematographic as possible.

So that was the big challenge, trying not to write a lot of information so the audiences could follow the story correctly and follow this adventure. About the benchmark, I am not the one who will draw the line, I think one thing for sure is that Warner Brothers and Legendary are proud of the movie right now and putting all their efforts to bring it to the world on the big screen, which I am very happy for.

We will see how it goes, hopefully at the end of the day these are, of course, difficult times for everybody and we all agree safety first, but if the audience feels comfortable and there is a safe environment, I encourage them to see this movie on the big screen because it has been dreamt. It has been designed, it has been made, it has been shot, in IMAX and the sound and everything, when you watch this movie on a big screen it’s almost like a physical experience, we try to design a movie that will be as immersive as possible. And for me, the big screen is part of the language.

I have an impression that this film is very politically relevant today. So I would not say there is a message but an important subtext in it. So could you talk about the process of adaptation?

When Frank Herbert wrote “Dune” in the 60s, back then he was like doing a portrait of the 20th century but I think it became more and more true to the time, like a prediction of what would happen in the 21st century. And sadly the book is by far more relevant today about the blend of the danger, of the blend between, the cross mix between religion and politics, the danger of messianic figures, the impact of colonialism, the problem with the environment. And as this book stayed with me through the years but it just felt more and more through time more relevant. I think that sadly—I wish it was not the case—but I think the movie will speak to the world right now more than it would have done 40 years ago.

I would say about the environment, I think that future generations will judge us. I think it’s time to get angry right now. I think it’s time to push, to make changes. I still have hope and I think that it’s time to get into action. I think as an example, there is an affliction right now in Canada. They don’t talk enough about the environment, that should be the priority, that’s the thing we should talk about in this election right now. But they don’t talk about it much, it’s just like another subject. Anyway, I don’t want to be moralistic. I just think it’s about survival, and that’s what this book is about, surviving.

You mentioned before about the soundtrack and the big sounds. Had you had the idea before making the movie with the music of Hans Zimmer or he came along during the movie?

Actually, when I decided to make this movie, Hans was the very first artist I asked to come on board. At the time we were finished with “Blade Runner” and I remember having a conversation with Hans and he said to me, you know it’s one of my biggest dreams to score “Dune,” so much of a dream that I didn’t watch anything. He never watched the previous movies. He was never watching anything, because he wanted to stay virgin. And he had this hope for one day. And he came to Montreal, and we had a nice dinner, and we had a discussion about is it a good idea to try to bring to life one of your oldest, one of your most precious dreams, is it a good idea to try to do that?  And we were not sure of the answer, but we did it.

And the thing is that Hans started to dream, I remember he gave me his own copy of the book. He said bring a copy of the book to the desert with you, it would be good for the soul of the movie, his old “Dune” book. I kept it with me, and he started to work for months of exploration, he wanted to bring new sounds, he wanted to go out of his comfort zone, he wanted to approach music in a different way. And strangely the pandemic came and strangely it forced him to find new ways also to interact with the singers and everybody, all the instruments, all the singers, everybody was trapped in their own houses and sometimes you had the best singer on earth singing in their own closet. It was beautiful to see everybody in their own little bubbles and bringing the score from everywhere and creating all this.

We had one thing that we decided right from the start, is that it should be a feminine score to enhance the feminine presence that we felt was very important and fundamental in the book. So it was something that we both agreed upon, to bring the female strength to the score as well as we did in the screenplay.

Zendaya

Photo: Janet Susan R. Nepales
Photo courtesy of Janet Susan R. Nepales

Your presence makes a very big impact. So how do you prepare for this role?

I didn’t really get much time to shoot with these amazing people, some of which I got to meet today. And I was extremely I guess you would say intimidated, because obviously there’s so many people here that I admire. And the opportunity to work with Denis I think, he is an extraordinary filmmaker and he’s always been someone that I also admired. So stepping into that, I was also like I don’t have much time and there’s so many people that I have to hopefully stand next to and do somewhat of a good job and it was intimidating and scary.

But as soon as I got there, there was such a warmth and an embrace that I felt immediately comfortable and taken care of.  And all I had to do was be guided and Denis opened up and explained the world to me and was able to do that in a short amount of time and everybody was so welcoming and it was a beautiful experience. I was only there for a few days but I felt like I had been very quickly a part of a family. I appreciate all of you guys for making it such a wonderful time and I feel extremely grateful to just be a piece of this really gorgeous puzzle that is “Dune.” I am very humbled and it was a special time. But I just trusted him.

Javier Bardem

Photo: Janet Susan R. Nepales
Photo courtesy of Janet Susan R. Nepales

“Dune” in my opinion talks about one of the most important problems today, the environment. You are a green activist. Why is it important that movies like this talk about that?

I think yes, the movie, the author was ahead of his time and he was already concerned about how the world was going towards in the sense of losing the capacity to have us all in good health as long as we violate its limits. And here we are today dealing with that, thinking that it’s something that is going to happen in the next future but it is happening as we speak, which is kind of scary.

It’s on the governments, it’s on the big corporations, the solution to really make a big step ahead and really change our minds about the way we behave in this world. And it’s a change of style, of lifestyle for all of us and it’s kind of scary. But it’s either that or a disaster as the people who know say.

My character in this movie thinks that way as well and he’s defending the environmental aspect of the planet in order to at least make his stride, his people survive. And I was absolutely linked emotionally and conceptually to that color of the character immediately when I read it in the book and when I read it in the script. And it’s important that in a movie like this, Denis and the whole crew, all the people who have made this amazing movie, tells that part of the story, because it is one step more in the right direction.

Josh Brolin

Photo: Janet Susan R. Nepales
Photo courtesy of Janet Susan R. Nepales

I saw the Stephen Colbert question thing with you and you were like the class clown and every time your name is mentioned Timothee smiles. So were you the class clown on the set? And it’s hilarious that your first line is “I am smiling” when you are not smiling. How is it to play this stern military man given that you are the gregarious person in real life. How was it on the set?

He put it in my contract. Wow man, there’s so much to say, there’s so much intelligence up here that I can’t match. I think I was on set as Denis’ friend and I was somehow worked into the movie. I don’t even know I hadn’t read the book so I don’t know if the character is actually in the book. But I am paid to make people laugh apparently, even in dramas. So I have the power of the testicles in this movie, (laughter) yes, I said it, and that’s what I represent. I’m here to protect the Duke, that’s all I know. I’m listening to, what I find fascinating in all seriousness, which is very difficult for me, what I find fascinating is what we created before we started the movie is not what we are experiencing now.

You have ideas of what this was and what Frank Herbert Jr. created. I just for a moment imagine Frank Herbert Jr. listening to us right now and to think would he be proud, is this what he intended, was he talking about this when he was talking to Alan Watts in the 60s, was he imagining us when he did LSD in the 60s? But I think he intended something very powerful and when I saw the movie that’s what I saw.

I know we are supposed to kind of talk away from the fandom of “Dune,” but when the movie was screened for me, I brought somebody who was a major fan and had read the series probably three times over when they were very young, eight years old, nine years old. And we screened the movie and there was a long pause afterwards and this man is 48 years old and from New York City, and he started screaming at the top of his lungs and he said that’s what I saw, that’s what I saw as a kid, yes! Yes, yes, yes! And when you see that kind of reaction, you realize it hits somebody on a very visceral level, it allows for regression and it allows for something else to happen other than just a cinematic spectacle.

—MGP, GMA News