In “Dune,” Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides is heard opining, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.”
The line of dialogue is one of the most famous quotes from Frank Herbert’s classic novel and, now, one of the major themes of Oscar-nominated filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s big-screen adaptation.
But when it comes to translating a 700-page sci-fi epic into a blockbuster movie – especially when previous attempts to successfully translate the dense material for the screen have been shaky at best — there was a healthy amount of fear from everyone involved.
Villeneuve had been dreaming of bringing Herbert’s book to life since he first read it as a teenager. In a joint interview with Chalamet, the filmmaker admitted that his biggest fear once he finally got the green light from Warner Bros. and Legendary to make the movie was disappointing himself.
“I was afraid of not being able to be good enough,” Villeneuve told Variety. “That I will not be able to please that teenager that was dreaming 35 years ago about this movie.”
Fortunately for the filmmaker, “Dune” has been a big success thus far. The movie racked up $40 million for its opening weekend in the U.S., after opening across Europe over recent weeks. The movie is also streaming on HBO Max, with fans joining Chalamet’s Paul Atreides on his coming-of-age journey from the comfort of their homes.
“Dune” follows the young heir to House Atreides as he and his family travel from their home on Caladan to take charge of Arrakis, a harsh, desert planet that is the most dangerous on in their universe, fought over for centuries as the primary producer of spice — the highly valued, mind-expanding natural resource upon which space travel and commerce all rely. But the voyage is not only one of physical relocation; it also represents an internal journey, as the brilliant and gifted Paul must discover his true purpose in the world, all while fighting to survive.
Because Villeneuve was such a longtime fan of the book, he was keenly aware of the importance of casting the right actor to play Paul, and Chalamet was the only option in his mind. His faith in the young actor (who had been equally eager to work with Villenueve) was validated early on in the shoot, as the director recalls watching Chalamet’s performance in the all-important Gom Jabbar scene, which is a test of wills that sets up much of “Dune’s” mythology.
“To go through that process of having Timothée diving into that zone of pain and starting to transform himself in front of the camera, it was so impressive for me, and I knew. I was dreaming to work with Timothée on this, but when I saw this transformation, I was like, ‘Whoa, we’ve got a movie,’” Villeneuve explains with a laugh. “I was so relieved and happy that I didn’t fuck that up, casting you.”
From Chalamet’s perspective, the young star admitted that on more than one occasion he was “pinching himself” over the opportunity to work with an ensemble cast that boasts Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem and Zendaya, an experience which brought him into the mindset of his character.
“To get to have a big role in [this movie], you’re pinching yourself and the imposter syndrome you feel, that’s what Paul would be feeling,” he explains.
Despite the fact that the Oscar-nominated actor has starred in a host of very successful movies, including the film adaptations of massively popular books “Little Women” and “Call Me By Your Name,” the actor hadn’t been part of a production of quite the size and scale of “Dune,” which shot on location in Norway, Hungary and in the deserts of Jordan and Abu Dhabi.
Sharing what he learned about blockbuster filmmaking over the course of this movie, Chalamet says: “That it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Which is something I thought I knew, but I really discovered on this.”
“Because of the sensibility that Denis has on set, and also that his collaborators on set are from many of the films he’s done prior, whether it’s a huge film like ‘Blade Runner,’ or a smaller film like ‘Polytechnique’ that makes you feel like you’re stepping into a machine, like a carnival that’s already in motion,” he explains. “So, it’s more your responsibility to just not mess up the turning of the wheel.”
While Chalamet felt like he was in great hands with Villeneuve, the actor also says he felt a huge responsibility to the director because of his deep connection to the source material. He also shared that he grappled with his accountability to “Dune” fans, comparing their feelings about him starring this movie to how he’d feel if someone made a biopic about his favorite music artist — and friend — Kid Cudi.
“I imagine if I was older, and I was in my 30s or 40s, and there’s a biopic being done on him, and I was watching interviews with a young actor playing him, that I would want that young actor to know every bit of backstory, and even maybe, stories that weren’t true. Just all the lore associated,” he says.
Chalamet continues: “When you have a connection to source material like this book, and when it’s so formative to people’s youths — like Denis, but many people I have talked to, whether it’s on the subway in New York or people that have stopped me in the street that want to talk about it — you don’t want to get that wrong.”
If all goes according to plan, this will only be the beginning for Chalamet’s journey as Paul Atreides, with potential for “Dune Part 2.” Villeneuve shared his hope to complete his take on Herbert’s tale, saying, “It’s going to be just like pure cinematic pleasure for the second part. I don’t want to speak for everybody on the team, but I will say that we really created on this movie a feeling of family and to re-unify everybody again together, that would be paradise.”
Watch the video above to see how Isaac, Ferguson and Sharon Duncan-Brewster overcame their fears to make “Dune” a reality.
“Dune” is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.