French Candian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming film, Dune, opens in theaters in December. However, his journey from the Canadian arthouse to Hollywood blockbuster was not straightforward, writes John Hunter.
French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has quickly, but with great care and precision, edged his way into the pantheon of great modern filmmakers with his consistent output of work having been lauded for their depth, complexity and spectacle, as well as their meticulous craft and storytelling. Beginning his career at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board of Canada, Villeneuve got his start with a documentary short called REW FFWD in 1994 and followed this up by contributing a segment to the anthology film Cosmos in 1996. From there he would make short films as well as three feature films, August 32nd on Earth (1998), Maelstrom (2000) and Polytechnique (2009). These gained attention and awards for the up-and-coming director, but it would not be until 2010 that the writer-director would get the success he needed to catapult him to great international acclaim.
Incendies (2010) follows a pair of twins, Jeanne and Simon, as they attempt to track down their estranged father and brother, whom they only learned of at the reading of their late mother’s will. They journey from their home in Canada to Lebanon in order to piece together the puzzle and in doing so uncover the dark truth of their mother’s past. Released to a glowing critical reception and receiving a Best Foreign Language film nomination at the 2011 Academy Awards (losing to Susanne Bier’s In a Better World), this film caused Hollywood to sit up and take notice. In a 2017 interview with BAFTA, he revealed that while he “received numerous offers to direct” following the success of Incendies, he wasn’t too interested in moving to Hollywood because he didn’t want to “direct silly sequels or things like that”. However, this all changed when he read a screenplay that “had strong potential” and linked with themes he was exploring in his previous work. That screenplay was for Prisoners (2013).
Two families come together to celebrate Thanksgiving when two girls, one from each family, disappear without a trace. Panic and grief set in as a detective begins to investigate, while the father of one of the missing girls begins his own search. Led by an all-star cast, including Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis and Paul Dano, Prisoners proved a success, garnering great reviews and making over $120 million at the worldwide box office on a $46 million budget. It also proved an important film for Villeneuve, not only netting him critical acclaim, but also establishing a working relationship with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, as well as cinematographer Roger Deakins, who would receive the film’s only Academy Award nomination. Both of these would prove to be important in future projects for the director.
Around the same time as he was working on Prisoners, Villeneuve was working on his sixth feature Enemy (2013), an adaptation of Jose Salamago’s novel The Double. This film also stars Jake Gyllenhaal, as a university lecturer who becomes paranoid after seeing a man who looks just like him in the background of a movie. It is an identity thriller, more experimental than Villeneuve’s previous work, with inspiration seemingly drawn from films like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977). While not as successful as Prisoners, the film received positive reviews and nonetheless gained a reputation among fans of the director as a deep and intriguing work, with much speculation on its meaning, as well as raising discussion regarding the significance of the spiders in the film.
Shifting gears from his previous films, Villeneuve’s next would be more action orientated. Sicario (2015) follows an FBI agent as she joins a taskforce designed to fight the War on Drugs along the border between Mexico and the United States. Written by Taylor Sheridan (Wind River, Hell or High Water), shot by Roger Deakins (who was again nominated for an Academy Award for his work) and starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, the film received great reviews; competed at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival; was nominated for three Academy Awards; and earned nearly $85 million at the worldwide box office on a budget of $30 million. However, it was controversial, with mayor of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico calling for a boycott, claiming that the film “tries to portray a situation of violence as if it were the current reality of the city, which is not the case”.
After making several successful films, many wondered when Villeneuve would receive a nomination for Best Director from the Academy Awards. This would finally occur after the release of his first work of science fiction, Arrival (2016). Written by Eric Heisserer and adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”, the film follows a linguist who is brought in by the military to communicate with aliens who have landed twelve ships around the globe. The film, staring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, proved to be Villeneuve’s biggest success yet. It was released to rave reviews, earned over $200 million on a budget of $47 million and received eight Academy Award nominations including a win for Sylvain Bellemare for Best Achievement in Sound Editing. It would also make Denis Villeneuve known as a serious voice in science-fiction filmmaking.
How does one follow up a successful and well-regarded science-fiction film? Why, by making a sequel to a beloved film in the genre of course. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) would be a risky project for any director to take on, especially after Ridley Scott decided against directing it, which led to many to wonder who would take it on. Villeneuve stepped up to the plate because of his love for the original and, to use his own words, because he didn’t “want someone else to fuck this up”. Though he also claimed that he was worried that if he didn’t succeed “everyone would hate me” and that he could be “banned from the cinematic community”. Written by Hampton Fancher (co-writer of the original Blade Runner) and Michael Green and staring Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Ana de Armas and Harrison Ford, the film received huge praise from critics, many of whom saw it as a worthy sequel to the original and some claimed that it even surpassed it in certain regards. It received five Academy Award nominations, winning two for Best Achievement in Visual Effects and Best Cinematography respectively – the latter of which was long overdue for Roger Deakins, who had been nominated 13 times in the category up to that point, firstly for The Shawshank Redemption in 1995. Deakins has since picked up a second Oscar for Best Cinematography for his contribution to 1917 (2019). Shockingly however, Villeneuve’s direction was not nominated, nor was the screenplay or the film for Best Picture. The film also underperformed at the box office, making just under $260 million worldwide on a budget of $150 million (when you include prints and advertising the budget would be higher; the conventional wisdom is a film must double its budget to make a profit). This has been attributed to the film’s length, running at 164 minutes, and its deliberately slow pace, but may also be due to the fact that the original Blade Runner doesn’t have the same kind of mass appeal that, say, Star Wars has – this is backed up by the fact that the original Blade Runner was also a box office bomb upon its release in 1982.
After Blade Runner 2049 underperforming, one would think Villeneuve would have lowered his sights and returned to more modest projects, but one would be wrong. Villeneuve’s next film seems like one of the most exciting – and financially risky – films of the year. Dune (2020) will see the filmmaker team up with screenwriters Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts to adapt Frank Herbert’s classic science-fiction novel to the big screen. The film will star an ensemble cast of star performers, including Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Dave Bautista, Jason Momoa, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Javier Bardem and Charlotte Rampling. It has been reported the Villeneuve intends to tell the story of Dune across two films, as well as a mini-series, called Dune: The Sisterhood (for streaming service HBO Max). However, all of these future projects seem to be reliant on the notion that their progenitor will do well at the box office – which, given the history of Dune screen adaptations seems like a gamble. The 1984 David Lynch iteration was a notorious bomb, making only $30 million on a $40 million budget, and also being trashed by critics at the time. Here’s hoping that we will be able to see Dune in theatres on its scheduled release date, December 18, 2020 (pushed back from its original release date of November 20, 2020).
Following on from his Dune projects, Denis Villeneuve is set to helm an adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s novel The Son, as well as a big budget retelling of Cleopatra (1963) Villeneuve seems attracted to projects with rocky histories, as the previous Jo Nesbo English language adaptation, The Snowman (2017), made $43 million on a budget of $35 million and the original Cleopatra – like Blade Runner and Dune – was a bomb at the box office, having made only $57 million on a $44 million budget.
Whatever the future holds for Denis Villeneuve, audiences can be assured that it will be something worth seeing – his track record says just as much.
John Hunter is a student at University College Cork studying History and Politics. He has had a keen interest in film since childhood. Besides those of Denis Villeneuve, the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, Werner Herzog and Robert Altman are of special interest to him.