Denis Villeneuve sees the future. The French-Canadian director — who, over the past few years, has emerged as one of the most singular and visionary auteurs working in cinema today — is in the middle of a run of ambitious sci-fi films. First was 2016’s Arrival, a disarmingly heartfelt story of aliens establishing contact with Earth that earned nods for best picture and best director at the Oscars; more recently, Villeneuve visited the world of Blade Runner for October’s Blade Runner 2049, a sumptuous and lonely sequel to the 1982 classic. Next, the 50-year-old filmmaker is aiming to adapt Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 sci-fi novel Dune, which was previously adapted by David Lynch in the early ’80s.
Despite working with pre-existing material for Dune, Villeneuve feels freer to interpret his next project as he sees fit. “In Blade Runner, I had to deal with someone else’s dreams, which is very complex,” Villeneuve said in a recent phone interview, reflecting on the need to stay true to the world that director Ridley Scott created with the original Blade Runner. “Now I’m doing my own adaptation of something coming out of my own inner images. It’s known territory.”
Because he’s so fascinated with what lies ahead for humanity, Mic talked with Villeneuve about what lies ahead for him as a director, what goes into building fictional future universes, how he feels about new technology and what he thinks about our current dystopia. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mic: It’s fascinating how the world you created in Blade Runner 2049 melds things from our present and the ’80s idea of the future, to create something new. How did you conceive of all that?
Denis Villeneuve: I decided to do a projection of the first movie. It means that, in Blade Runner 2049, Steve Jobs doesn’t exist. It’s really like a world that was inspired by the world from the ’70s, with a certain kind of technology. There’s no cell phones, the screens are not 16 by nine, but four by three. It became an alternate universe that’s a comment on today’s world.
When we made the technology involved, at first, I made two decisions. The first was that architecture and the technology will be influenced by the climate. Of course, the climate will be getting more brutal and more harsh on Earth. Buildings will be more like bunkers, having to deal with brutal conditions, and the same with the vehicles — they’ll be designed to go through severe conditions. And there’s also the idea that society will have less money. People will want to flee Earth. That means there will be less money on Earth and the technology will be old. The institutions will be lacking money, the police station will look like an old spaceship, smelling like piss. Everything feels like there’s a weight on the world and that the world is crumbling.
There’s a thing that I really love also, an idea from the screenwriters — the idea that there will be no internet. People will come back to more analog technology. And that conveys a more old-fashioned feeling to the world that I deeply love.
We had to make sure that what we see on the screen will be an alternate version of our future — that it will be a comment on today’s reality.
In addition to the environmental stuff and the lack of the internet, how else were you trying to comment on today’s reality?
DV: Our relationship with technology is that it has now invaded our intimacy, our intimate life. It distorts our intimacy.
Do these technologies factor into your daily life, personally?
DV: The internet is definitely a powerful tool for research. When you do visual research … if you look for a specific architect or a specific designer or a specific object, you can conduct very strong, quick research.
The thing that I realized doing Blade Runner is how much people today, the concept artists, rely on the internet to inspire themselves, instead of dreaming. It’s a thing that I want to protect my next project from. I really want to try to go deeper in the ideas. Everybody can have access to [the internet], but dreams are unique.
Would you say that you’re a technological optimist or pessimist?
DV: I think I’m a worried optimist. In some ways, the internet was at the birth of very strong social movements. In other ways, we are witnessing a strong narcissism emerge in society, where it’s all about egos and not about community. I don’t think I should comment on this because I didn’t do the necessary research to talk about the internet.
But I will say something about how the world is evolving right now, about communications: More and more people are talking and less people listening. And a lot of narcissism. Narcissism is a plague of our society today.
In Canada, the citizens, I feel, are more aware of the importance of changing our relationship with the environment. We can’t control nature — we have to be in harmony with it. It’s a big cliche, but as humans we have very big egos. We are not humble enough with our relationship with nature.
“’Dune’ will definitely be made for IMAX. I think that it will be insane to shoot that movie in that technology.” — Denis Villeneuve
As a filmmaker, are there any technologies that you’re looking forward to in terms of making movies?
DV: One of the biggest revolutions is CGI. It’s a very, very powerful tool if it’s used well. Right now, I think that the problem is that people are overusing it and it’s not really controlled. Very often, I feel like a lot of movies are ugly from an aesthetic point of view. But CGI, if you use it in relationship with nature, it can be a very powerful tool. You can use CGI even in indie movies. It’s made a massive difference. When I was doing indie movies, CGI was the birth of being able to dream about making things that were not possible before with a smaller budget.
I don’t like 3-D. I do love the Dolby Atmos Systems, I think it’s fantastic. I would love to shoot a movie in IMAX, because that’s where the future is, with those big screens. You don’t have the impact of a screen like that in your living room. To have the power of that vision is something that I’m really attracted to because I love to shoot for the big screen.
DV: Dune will definitely be made for IMAX. I think that it will be insane to shoot that movie in that technology. That’s my dream right now. I’m totally focused on Dune right now. Obsessed — I dream about it all the time. I don’t know if it’s going to be possible, I don’t know if I will make the movie. I don’t know if we will all agree on the screenplay, I don’t know. Maybe in six months I will be unemployed, but for now I’m dreaming about Dune.
What made you always want to make a Dune movie?
DV: It’s a story that [stuck] with me [right out of] the gate. I think that the culture created by Frank Herbert was such a strong portrait of today’s world. The way it explores the relationship between religion and politics, natural resources, the ecosystem. It’s very, very inspiring. It’s by far one of the best novels I’ve read. It triggers very old dreams in me, so I’m trying to bring back those dreams to my consciousness.
Do the events of the past year, politically or otherwise, bleed into your movies?
DV: I try not to be cynical. I hope the world is better than that. I hope that the political world is always like a pendulum. You know, we went very far in the progressive way with Barack Obama, which were fantastic years, I think. And then the pendulum went the other way around and it’s like the dark ages right now. I have difficulty accepting that we behave as if it’s normal that someone so narcissistic is in power right now. It’s really strange that people are not in the streets protesting.
Does it have an impact on [the work]? You know, cinema is, in a way, a way to depict society, it’s an act of resistance. It’s an artistic act that reflects — or is a reaction to — what’s happening in the world. So [current events] definitely have an impact in some way or another.
Lastly, just shifting gears: With all of the sexual assault and sexual misconduct scandals currently plaguing Hollywood, has it made you think about where you draw the line regarding who you will and won’t work with?
DV: Listen, I was lucky enough to have never been in contact with someone that would have that kind of behavior. As a director, I have a responsibility toward my film crew. I must behave like a father. I must behave as someone that inspires and is taking care of my crew and the people I’m working with. It’s important that people feel respected, men and women.
And what’s happening right now — it’s sad to hear those stories, but it’s very positive because, knowing that it does exist [will help us get rid of it]. Hollywood is a mirror of society. It’s artistic, so it’s a step in front of society. And I think that is something that will influence, positively, the rest of society: to remove those kinds of behaviors, to make sure that the power is not in the hands of abusers, but in the hands of the victims. The idea is that those things should not exist. And I hope, in the future, that the world will be safer for our daughters.