Power List 2023

The Power List: Denis Villeneuve wants to save the silver screen

With his unique ability to meld mass appeal and uncompromising artistry, Villeneuve has the best chance of pulling it off

Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve is known for his work on Dune

(Photograph by Pat Martin)

Hollywood North Stars

No.1: Denis Villeneuve

READ: The Power List: Hollywood North top 10

Dune is Denis Villeneuve’s love letter to the big screen. The movie’s sweeping landscapes and colossal creatures are such that shrinking the size of the canvas would be like taking a battle-axe to Villeneuve’s giant-sandworm-sized ambition. Then along came a pandemic to do just that. Dune: Part One arrived in October of 2021 as part of “Project Popcorn,” an experiment by WarnerMedia in which the studio released all of its features simultaneously on HBO Max. It was a way to grow the new streaming service while appeasing COVID-wary audiences—but to Villeneuve, it was an unacceptable affront.

MORE: See who made the 2023 Maclean’s Power List

And so the 55-year-old director did what any uncompromising, overprotective but also fundamentally Canadian artist would do: he wrote a strongly worded letter, calling out Warner for aligning itself with the interests of a telecom giant (the studio’s parent company is AT&T) and bemoaning his movie’s diminished box office potential. Above all, though, he objected as a filmmaker who still believes that there is something magical, even transcendent, about a group of strangers sitting together in a dark room. He’s not the only big name director to pledge his allegiance to the cinematic experience, but with his unique ability to meld mass appeal and uncompromising artistry, he’s the guy with the best chance of saving it.

The odyssey of Villeneuve’s Dune is almost as protracted and theatrical as Frank Herbert’s book—the epic saga of a young man’s quest to save his home planet. The novel has frequently been declared unadaptable due to its byzantine plot lines, as well as the expectations of hardcore Herbert fans, who make Trekkies look nonchalant. In the early ’80s, one such fan was a 13-year-old from small-town Bécancour, Quebec, a place where the career goal of a “filmmaker” was akin to “space cowboy.” Even so, Villeneuve’s parents encouraged him to follow his passions, including mapping out what a film version of his favourite book might look like. (Many artists say their whole life has been leading up to a certain project, but few can produce 40-year-old storyboards.)


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Denis explains his vision behind Dune

Villeneuve’s entire career has been a road to Arrakis. After film school at the Université de Québec à  Montréal, he appeared as a contestant on a reality show for aspiring directors. In 2009 he made Polytechnique, a dark, black-and-white drama about the Montreal massacre that got a lot of attention in Canada. His 2010 follow up, Incendies, earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, and soon Villeneuve was getting scripts from Hollywood studios. After making films with stars like Jake Gyllenhaal and Emily Blunt, he entered the big leagues with Arrival, a sci-fi thriller starring Amy Adams that earned multiple Oscar nominations, nevermind $200 million at the box office. In 2017, Blade Runner 2049 was another example of the human-centred, emotionally honest approach to science fiction that has become Villeneuve’s signature.

RELATED: How Canada’s Denis Villeneuve and Ryan Gosling infused their DNA into Blade Runner 2049

He was presenting Arrival at the Venice Film Festival when a journalist asked him what movie he would make if someone were to write him a blank cheque—and by now his answer should be obvious. That interview made its way to Mary Parent, the production chief at Legendary Pictures, who had recently purchased the rights to Dune. She called Villeneuve for a meeting, where he laid out two conditions. The first was that they turn the book into two movies; the story was too big for a single one. The studio agreed (assuming Part One did well). Number two, he wanted to film on a real set—none of this CGI crap. He would take Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya to the desert.

In different hands, Dune might have been a faster burn with more explosions and less existential angst. But that wasn’t the vision of the director, who clutched his decades-old copy of Herbert’s masterpiece for the entire shoot. “My dream is to express myself with scope and still keep my identity alive. It sounds pretentious,” he says. But in an industry where telecom giants call the shots, someone has to stand up for real sand.


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Dune went on to win BAFTAs, Critics Choice Awards and Oscars

It helps that Dune: Part One was a hit—an Oscar nominee and a 2021 box-office bright spot, Project Popcorn notwithstanding. Last summer, Villeneuve returned to the desert to shoot a sequel that, he says, makes the original look like a little indie flick. When Dune: Part Two comes out in the fall, it will be in theatres and only in theatres (lesson learned: Villeneuve got it in writing). The career achievement that once seemed like a culmination feels more like a fresh start. Villeneuve says he wants to keep his schedule open to new possibilities: the “only” things he is attached to right now are a Cleopatra biopic, a movie version of Rendezvous With Rama (another classic sci-fi novel) and a possible third Dune movie. The teenager from Bécancour dreamed of a young warrior saving his home planet. But Canada’s blockbuster auteur has an entire industry to rescue. And he’s just getting started.

Check out the full 2023 Power List here

This article appears in print in the March 2023 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $9.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $39.99.


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