Dear Paul Atreides…
If you’ve seen David Lynch’s 1984 version of Frank Herbert’s Dune you know that the conventional wisdom of the novel being essentially unadaptable might not entirely be hyperbole from die-hard fans who want their favorite book to remain unadulterated. Herbert’s text is dense with detail and story, making it an imposing wall to climb for anyone trying to translate it to another medium.
This week brings another attempt to scale that wall in the form of Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve. Timothée Chalamet stars as Paul Atreides, the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). House Atreides is called by the emperor to take on stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis, important because it’s the only source of spice – a drug that extends human life and which is so pervasive it’s now essential to life itself – in the galaxy. But the enemies of House Atreides stand in the shadows to attack. And once on Arrakis, Paul and the others will have to work with the Fremen, natives of the planet that include Chani (Zendaya), a young woman Paul has been having visions of in his dreams.
Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Charlotte Rampling, Dave Bautista, Javier Bardem and others round out the cast.
That the movie, which runs over two-and-a-half hours, only covers the first half of the first book indicates just how dense that book is, though Villeneuve’s luxurious, unhurried style surely contributes as well. With that in mind, let’s see how it’s been sold.
announcement and casting
While there had been other projects that had attempted to get off the ground over the years, this one was officially announced all the way back in 2017, when Villeneuve was revealed as the director of this new version.
Though Blade Runner 2049 wasn’t a smash success, that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm for Villeneuve to take on Dune, with the director being called the “sci-fi remake master” in this interview where he discussed both movies. Later on he revealed he planned to make the adaptation a two-parter, a format he confirmed in a separate interview.
Chalamet and Ferguson were cast in mid-2018, with others added that year and up to the beginning of production in mid-2019.
One of the first cross-media expansions of the story announced was a video game from Funcom, news that showed the movie was renewing interest in the universe as a whole.
Warner Bros. announced in May 2019 that the series “Dune: The Sisterhood” would debut on its upcoming WarnerMedia streaming service. The series would focus on the women of the Bene Gesserit, the enigmatic mystical power brokers in the story’s universe and be produced by Villeneuve, who would also direct the first episode.
marketing phase 1: pandemic is the release date killer
An interview with the filmmakers was accompanied by a number of first-look photos from the film in April 2020, showing off Chalamet, Issac and others in the cast. More photos along with additional comments from Villeneuve came a bit later.
Also on the tie-in front, a comic version of the “House Atreides” novel was announced in May, telling a story set some 30 years prior to the events of the movie.
Reports circulated in mid-June that WB was planning to release a first look at footage from the film along with Inception when that movie returned to theaters to celebrate its 10th anniversary.
A Q&A featurette with the cast was released in early September at the same time as the first trailer.
Despite the marketing seeming to get up and running through September, in early October reports emerged that WB was pulling the movie from its planned December release date and pushing it all the way to October, 2021.
Warner Bros. debuted the first trailer in theaters in front of Tenet’s release at the end of August 2020, weeks before it came online.
When it did (37.5m YouTube views) at the beginning of September of last year it went a long way toward making even skeptics eager with anticipation. The focus of course is on Paul as we follow from his training to his life on Arrakis and the adventures and people waiting for him there. It offers significant glimpses at other major characters as well, especially in how they relate to Paul, but only at the end do we get a look at the worms that dominate the planet, offering the key to its place in the universe while also presenting a clear threat to the humans living there. It’s…just great.
Just after the first trailer came out, Zimmer was interviewed about working with a full choir on the version of Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse” that appears in that spot. The use of Floyd is also a nod, intentional or not, back to the development of a Dune adaptation in the mid-70s with Alejandro Jodorowsky set to direct. At the time, Jodorowsky intended to have the movie’s soundtrack created by the band.
There was a feature profile of Chalamet that covered the actor’s role in this film as well as his rise to stardom over the last few years, including comments from Villeneuve.
Like the rest of Warner Bros.’ 2021 slate, the release of Dune was altered in December of last year to include both theaters and HBO Max, a concession of pandemic reality by the studio. But that didn’t sit well with financier Legendary, who blasted the decision, or with Villeneuve, who penned an op-ed criticizing WB for grabbing cash instead of respecting artists.
When Chalamet appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in December of last year, about the time the movie was originally meant to be in theaters, his choice to wear a “Legendary” branded t-shirt raised lots of eyebrows given that company’s disapproval of WB’s HBO Max decision.
Zendaya commented on making the movie when she was promoting Malcolm & Marie earlier this year.
Rumors came early in 2021 that the studio may not have completely settled on a release plan for the film despite it appearing in a number of HBO Max promos, but nothing solid was reported or announced. Eventually WB execs confirmed it would receive a hybrid release just like the rest of this year’s lineup, and not be exempted from that plan.
marketing phase 2: hope clouds observation
With Warner Bros. now committed to that theatrical/HBO Max release plan, the marketing restarted in July of this year.
That’s when a series of character posters came out showing extreme close-ups of Paul, Chani and others.
The second trailer also came out at this point. It opens with Chani describing how beautiful the planet Arrakis can be but also how that beauty is marred by the greed and brutality of the outsiders who want her homeworld for the spice, regardless of who gets hurt. The focus then shifts to Paul and the rest of House Atreidis, which has been tasked with managing the spice and the world as a whole. As loyalties are betrayed and war comes to the planet, we’re reminded numerous times that Paul may have a destiny that’s unknown and unexpected by others, one that seems intimately tied to the Fremen and Dune as a whole.
IMAX offered theater goers at that time not only the trailer but also an exclusive look at even more of the film at a special event slated for late July.
An interview with Villeneuve had him talking more about the imposing nature of the story and how casting Chalamet was crucial to his deciding to make the movie at all.
“It begins” we’re told ominously on the next poster, released in early August. It shows Pau wandering the vast nothingness of Dune at the bottom while above the main cast is shown assembled in the standard franchise design.
IGN offered introductions to the heroes of the movie that included exclusive images and character backgrounds. The site would later publish similar roundups of the Fremen, House Harkonnen and other major groups from the story.
marketing phase 3: if you don’t see this movie in theaters, we’ll kill this dog
At this point the director began hitting on a notion that would become common through the rest of the publicity campaign, namely that this may be the first movie but it’s just the first part of the larger story he’s telling. Building on that, he makes it clear fans shouldn’t take the second installment for granted as it will depend on this first one being successful.
The message is this, then: You better go to the theater because that’s the yardstick WB is using to measure whether or not it greenlights Part 2. The fate of Dune as a movie series is thus clearly placed in the hands of the audience. That message is underlined by his additional comments about how moviegoing is an almost religious experience, one that should take place communally, not just on your own at home.
Screenwriters Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts were interviewed about the challenges in adapting what’s long been seen as an unfilmable book and story. A later interview with the movie’s costume designers covered their own struggles with recreating the looks described in such detail in the book, as would the director of photography in his own conversation.
Warner Bros. included footage from the movie in their presentation to exhibition executives and others at CinemaCon in August.
Shorter videos – likely used as TV spots, social media and other promos – started coming out at this time that each focused on a slightly different aspect of the story, from Paul’s journey to the other characters like his mother and father that influence his path and more.
The IMAX exclusive poster simply zooms in on the image of Paul in the desert seen on the earlier one-sheet while calling out that the movie was “filmed for IMAX” to lure in those who want to see it in the format it was apparently intended for. The same message was shared in a commercial for IMAX and in an exclusive featurette on how Villeneuve shot the film specifically for big screens.
The movie’s appearance at the 2021 Cannes International Film Festival was confirmed in May. It was also scheduled (out of competition) for September’s Venice International Film Festival and as a “special presentation” at the Toronto Film Festival. Villeneuve received the TIFF Ebert Director Award at Toronto. It was later added to the lineup of the New York Film Festival.
That Venice appearance garnered mostly positive buzz and reviews, with critics calling it some mix of exhilarating and impressive and mildly disappointing, though many of the latter comments seem to stem from this not being the complete story. In interviews from the festival Villeneuve again called for audiences to see it on the big screen and urged for them to turn out in droves so the studio will allow him to make the sequel.
We’re introduced to the characters, especially the warring houses that drive the action and drama, in a featurette given to Fandango’s MovieClips.
Dolby’s exclusive poster shows Paul still wandering the desert, but this time from a slightly different and harsher looking point of view. It also had its own featurette on how Villeneuve directed and crafted the sound of the movie.
The cast and crew headed to Paris in early September for a screening there.
Additional interviews with Villeneuve had him talking about why he chose Abu Dhabi to serve as Arrakis and how he wanted the screenwriters to focus specifically on the influence and importance of the story’s female characters.
A takeover ad campaign run on IMDb at the beginning of October caused more than a few negative reactions for being too obtrusive, covering information on pages and rendering the site largely unusable because the ads couldn’t be minimized.
An exclusive poster for RealD 3D pulls the camera out a bit but, like the others, shows Paul walking along a massive sand dune
MovieClips received an exclusive featurette that had the cast and crew talking about the massive scale of the movie and how it was filled with visuals and more that the audience had never seen before.
The final trailer (3.1m YouTube views) came out in the first week of October. It doesn’t have a whole lot that’s brand new, though there are a few scenes we haven’t seen before, but does sum up the story and the epic nature of the movie nicely, including some quotes from positive reviews to help make the case to the audience.
At the same time, Villeneuve and composer Hans Zimmer were hosting a screening and Q&A at New York Film Festival.
EW ran a cover story package of features that went into the making of the movie, including how Villeneuve first began considering how a new adaptation might be made, the process of bringing the cast together and lots more.
Momoa praised Chalamet when he appeared on “The Tonight Show.”
Cinematographer Greig Fraser talked about how he worked to make a big movie that felt small in terms of the focus on the characters.
The movie took over @TwitterMovies this week, sharing videos of the cast and crew answering fan questions.
Another interview with Villeneuve had him making it clear that he took this job not in spite of being seen as difficult but because it was seen as difficult, which is a nice sentiment.
HBO Max announced just days before release that the movie would be available on Thursday, not Friday, as part of a “special preview event.”
Let’s be about what works in the campaign.
It focuses on Paul Atreides, which makes sense given the entire story revolves around that character, but it doesn’t go too hard in the paint in setting him up as a white savior out to rule the native people and their lands. Nor does it spend too much time tipping its hat toward Paul’s role as a prophet or Christ-like figure. Instead he’s a young man put in a rough situation and making the best of it and trying to fulfill his destiny as well as his father’s expectations for him.
It highlights bits of comedy – or at least levity – that are wholly missing from the source novel or previous adaptations. Those especially come through in some of the scenes featuring Isaac’s Duke Leto Atreides and Duncan Idaho, played by Jason Momoa. With such a weighty product being pitched to audiences, it’s good to include a few lighter moments added by screenwriters Ross, Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts to make it a bit more attractive.
It keeps the scale both massive and human. This is addressed in one of the interviews linked above, but the marketing nicely balances showing how big the movie is while also making it clear the story hinges not on those huge ships or the grand, detailed buildings we see but on the characters walking around and through them. That helps communicate that the audience won’t be overwhelmed or wonder who they’re being asked to care about or why they should care.
With those all in mind there’s one thing that strikes me as odd about the marketing.
Namely, the message sent by Villeneuve and others that the fate of the second movie being made at all hinges on audiences going to theaters in huge numbers to see this one.
It’s odd, especially in this age of franchises being central to studio success, that there would be any contingency placed on the second installment, especially given the admission that this is only the first half of the first of multiple stories that could be told. If not “odd” then it’s at least out of character for a major studio to not immediately say that both movies will be made and released. After all, that’s the approach WB itself took with both the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, reassuring fans that they would see the whole thing over a few years and wouldn’t be left hanging without The Return of the King because The Two Towers had underperformed. We know when the next 12 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are coming out, so why not lock dates in for the entire Dune two-parter?
Instead we have the cast and crew sounding increasingly desperate in their appeals.
Critics, who have given the movie positive reviews adding up to an 87% Fresh Rotten Tomatoes ranking, have added to that. For a while now the unofficial line has been that the movie needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible to get the full experience. While that may be true and is relatively common/innocuous, many have gone further recently and suggested anyone who doesn’t go to the theater is someone who doesn’t actually love movies.
That’s not fair and does a disservice to critics in general, who should be more concerned with substance than delivery platform. And, based on what’s seen in the marketing campaign, Dune has plenty of substance and style, both of which can be just as easily enjoyed at home as on a big theater screen.