The Gom Jabbar scene is such an iconic moment, in Frank Herbert’s Dune novel. Something that Denis Villeneuve emphasized he had to capture impeccably in his movie. In a recent video-breakdown with Vanity Fair, the director explains, in fascinating detail, how he approached creating a faithful adaptation of this Bene Gesserit test.
Layers is a good word to use, to convey the depth that what went into filming the Gom Jabbar scene. Exposing the first layer, Villeneuve explains how the antique, historical aesthetic of the segment fits into a science fiction story. He notes that in Herbert’s book there are no computers, and the focus is very much on human triumph, rather than technological prowess. That is why the scene begins in a library and the room’s decor looks ancient.
The next important layer: The implications of the test, and how that effects Lady Jessica, both as a mother and as a Bene Gesserit. Failure in this test would mean certain death for her son. But if she were to refuse presenting Paul to the Reverend Mother, that would mean betrayal of her duties to the Bene Gesserit. The emotion on display from actor Rebecca Ferguson, Villeneuve remarks, is central to this particular segment’s storytelling.
Another key layer discussed in the interview, which I thought was just phenomenal cinematic storytelling, is the Reverend Mother’s powerful use of the voice in the scene. The voice is an aspect that Villenueve wanted the audience to feel while watching the movie—like the viewer’s own will is being controlled. The director revealed the cinematic techniques used to make this sensation happen, such as the fast-moving dolly shots and superb editing by Joe Walker.
The test itself—the crux of this scene—is interestingly detailed by Villeneuve. He discusses the images of fire and burning hands; Hans Zimmer’s score of the scene (which was in part compressed screams); and the power dynamic between Paul Atreides and the Reverend Mother.
Clearly, a great amount of thought went into realizing the Gom Jabbar scene, and you can hear about all of those layers in the full director’s commentary video below (17 minutes).