One day at school, Villeneuve was slapped on the shoulder. See that guy over there? another student informed him. He’s crazy like you. He wants to do Star Wars in his basement next summer. So I think you should meet him. Very quickly, he became the best friend of a child named Nicolas Kadima. Where other boys their age were smoking weed and learning about girls and soccer, Villeneuve and Kadima had no idea. We were like movie monks. They spent their nights watching Eisenstein and Godard, were obsessed with Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Kubrick. They weren’t doing movies (we were too lazy for that), but they were writing scripts, drawing storyboards Villeneuve has some more that Kadima drew for Dune and they were dreaming.
Villeneuve needed to shoot the film in real desert landscapes, he told me, for my own sanity.
It was intense, remembers Villeneuve fondly. There’s something there that was, like, pure and beautiful in a way. As soon as you pick up a camera, you learn humility. But before that moment, you think you’re the next Kubrick. He and Kadima stopped going to church, he told me, hoping to be excommunicated, but were ready to donate our blood to the movie gods, like Coppola, like Spielberg, Scorsese. (He admitted that nowadays, when he meets some of his idols, he is thrilled. He becomes a kid again, he explained. I can start to cry, sometimes. The first time I met Spielberg , I cried, I mean, not in front of him, he adds quickly. But I cried.)
He was expected to become a biologist, but decided to follow his interest in cinema. There was something that had to come out, he said, and I would have been depressed if it didn’t come out, it’s the truth. After studying communications and cinema at the University of Quebec in Montreal and winning a Radio-Canada cinema competition, Villeneuve began working in what he describes as the beautiful laboratory of Quebec’s documentary tradition. How does it feel, I asked him, to have strayed from his cultural and creative roots? It’s a big injury, he said, seriously. I feel a crack in me. But he felt he had to go. Until the 1960s, cinema in Canada focused on documentary form, he said, and fiction was relatively unknown. I realized at one point that and it’s very arrogant, he admitted that no one could teach me anything here, I had to go out.
Today, he says, living in Montreal but working in Hollywood, he asks himself almost daily: So, Denis? When are you coming back to make a movie here? We can’t wait to see a movie in French. But, he says, the point is, I feel at home. It was American films that touched him when he was young, so much so that he was nicknamed Spielberg in school. It was only later that he became interested in European cinema. (Villeneuve discovered the French Nouvelle Vague as a teenager after seeing François Truffaut in Spielbergs Close Encounters of the Third Kind.) With his first feature film, he confessed: I was trying to be closer to my roots. My influences were more European. But at one point there was a point where I said stop this bullshit! This is not who I am! And when I realized that, it was so much freedom. The moment he realized that he was basically an American director was the start of pure happiness. And that’s when I started having fun with cinema. I think I started making better movies. That’s where I started to become a real director, I think.
I must not fear. Fear is the Mind Killer is Dune’s most famous line. It appears on countless motivational posters, has been inked by tattoo artists in countless arms. It is part of the litany of the Bene Gesserit Order. Because fear erases thought, the litany holds, it must be mastered and rejected. But for Villeneue, fear is a generating emotion, and cinema is what he has used and continues to use to overcome it. He sees cinema not only by watching films, but also by making them as the force that brings him out of his shell, puts him in contact with other people. Without the cinema, he told me, he could easily be trapped in a hole with the door closed, afraid of the world. It brings me comfort, he said. His forehead creased. Consolation, or … I don’t know what the right word is. He looked worried. Comfort? What does that mean, comfort, exactly? He searched this on his computer. It was the right word, of course.
Risk and danger are, for him, intrinsic to creation. One of his favorite films is a 1956 documentary called Le Mystre Picasso, by French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot. It was like a bomb in my soul, he told me. In this one, a shirtless Picasso, then in the mid-1970s, painted on a screen filmed from behind so that the artist is invisible, and we only see the work being born, line by line, stroke. brush by brush stroke. He can do a painting and then add something, then add something, and add something, then he says: It’s a piece of [expletive] and we’re talking about three weeks of work and then he destroys it, and does it again, 20 times. Watching him moved him deeply. Because it shows that creativity is an act of vulnerability, where your path to success is narrow, and you have to let yourself be experienced.
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