Tanya Lapointe Explains Philosophies of ‘Dune’ Movie, and What it Means to be an Artist

Tanya Lapointe, 'Dune' executive producer, talks to Nerd News about shooting the movie with Denis Villeneuve and writing the making-of book "The Art and Soul of Dune'.

The tremendously talented Tanya Lapointe, Dune executive producer, made an appearance on Chilean site Nerd News to discuss a variety of topics, among them, her work on The Art and Soul of Dune. Our site has covered the making-of book previously and you can read more about the author’s own take here. This interview however, revealed new insights about Lapointe which led into an interesting discussion around some of the philosophies behind the movie, as well as her own process when it comes to creating content such as the aforementioned art book.

Aside from her executive producer credits, Tanya Lapointe is also a journalist, author, and filmmaker. In below video, she talks about transitioning from journalist to documentary director, and writing her three behind-the-scenes books: The Art and Soul of Blade Runner 2049, The Art and Soul of Dune, and forthcoming The Art and Science of Arrival (February 2022). Lapointe elaborates on Denis’ approach of wanting to follow the source material of Frank Herbert’s novel, rather than (but not disregarding) the other versions of Dune out there, such as the documentary Jodorosky’s Dune or David Lynch’s movie adaptation.

Questions regarding her earlier work on 50/50—a documentary about gender equality—sparked conversation on the way Dune: Part One addressed those issues, including context of the gender swap for the planetologist character, Liet Kynes. And Lapointe also had some interesting things to say about science fiction, in general:

Starting to work with Denis [Villeneuve], really made me appreciate the level of detail that needs to go into science fiction… How do you create a future that is fascinating and that you want to be a part of, and yet make it feel like it’s resonating with your reality?… I always say this, a film that is told in our day and age; if you need to build a set and you need a doorknob, you’re going to go to the store and buy a doorknob. You can’t do that in science fiction. You have to reinvent every single detail, of course, from the sets to the costumes, to the props… I think there’s so much creativity.

This interview with Tanya Lapointe offers more behind-the-scenes information about the journey to create the Dune movie, shooting on its beautiful locations, as well as writing the making-of books. Watch the full video discussion from Nerd News (26 min) here. There’s also a full transcript for you to read, if you prefer, underneath that.

Below is the transcript of all questions from the interview, with minor edits for clarity. The Spanish-language version can be found on the Nerd News website.

Ernesto Garratt: We are now with the executive producer of Dune, Tanya Lapointe. She’s a filmmaker and also the director of the documentaries 50/50 and The Paper Man. She also is the author of these wonderful books: The last one is The Art and Soul of Dune, a magnificent making-of of the movie by Denis Villeneuve. Also she’s the author of this wonderful book, The Art and Soul of Blade Runner 2049. She is also a journalist. Welcome and thank you so much for being with us in in this conversation.

Tanya Lapointe: Thank you so much for the invitation. I’m glad to be talking to you today.

Garratt: It’s always difficult to to have an interview with a journalist, because you know all the tricks, you know, but I’m going to try to do my best.

So did you expect this big and enormous success of Dune in terms of critics and also box office, because it was a risky bet in a way, you know?

Lapointe: It’s funny because it’s been such a long adventure. Denis [Villeneuve] has been talking to me about this project since 2016. We were filming Blade Runner 2049 and we went to the Venice Film Festival because Arrival was premiering there and he told a reporter. The reporter asked “What is your dream project?” and he said “Dune”. And from that moment on it got picked up by the trades and we started talking about Dune and since then it’s been progressively a bigger part of our lives. Until now, as you can imagine, it’s all-encompassing.

So, of course, this was such a strong desire of Denis to make this film, that I think that for most of it we were just focusing on making it. Making it a film that reflected Denis’ vision, so we weren’t thinking about the critics, we weren’t thinking about the the audience reaction. Of course we wanted the film to be loved, but I think that when you put a lot of love into something then people will receive that.

It’s just been heartwarming and overwhelming and exciting and thrilling to see the first weekend of the North American and worldwide release. The enthusiasm of people and just the love for this film: People write me on social media saying “I’ve seen the film six times”. I think you’ve seen it quite a few times as well?

Garratt: That right now is seven times, yes.

Lapointe: Wow, that’s very impressive and what’s also so very exciting is that not only are people loving the film, but they’re going back to theaters. And I think that’s also such—I would say—a victory to get people to say “Hey I actually love getting out of my house and enjoying a work of art with other people, and experiencing the physical aspect of what art and cinema can be.”

Garratt: Yes, and I was thinking about that, because watching Dune in theaters, especially in IMAX—you know that’s amazing format—it’s like coming back to the normal life in a way, because we’re used to watching movies in this pandemic situation on small screens. But finally, finally we can come back to the normal life and the regular size of cinema. You know this gigantic, giant vision of the storytelling in movies. Don’t you agree?

Lapointe: Of course I agree and I think that there’s something specifically with Dune, because it happens on a desert planet and we went to actual deserts in Jordan and Abu Dhabi, to capture these striking landscapes. I feel that it is a journey into the world of Dune and to Paul Atreides’ coming of age. But it’s also this journey into these wonderful landscapes. So we get to travel through the story all around our world and all around the world that Frank Herbert created.

So i think for me, and trust me I’ve seen it a lot of times as well through the different process over the years, but there’s something exhilarating about being immersed in these worlds, and I’m talking about the deserts. But when you’re with the Baron, and this strange eerie tension that Denis created in those scenes, you’re also experiencing it as though you were there. So yeah, I enjoyed the IMAX version as well.

Garratt: This book also, The Art and Soul of Dune, has a lot of unique information from the point of view during the making of Dune. And you mentioned Jordan desert. How was important for you and Denis especially shooting in those locations, because he saw Lawrence of Arabia—since when when he was a kid—you know the David Lean movie. How important was, what was special for you as a team, as creators, shooting in Jordan?

Lapointe: There were a lot of interesting connections, because you mentioned Lawrence of Arabia, the David Lean film, but yeah beyond the cinema history of it all and the historical richness, I would say, of those landscapes and of just that country. There were a lot of connections to Denis, because Denis had gone there when he was in his 20s to do a short film, then he went back in 2010 to film Incendies.

And so, when we when we when we went back in 2019, we worked with some of the same team members that he had worked with almost 10 years earlier. So it—I had never been to Jordan—and it felt like coming into a family. Strangely, even though we were 800 people working on the film, it really did feel like we were being welcomed by people who had already had this relationship, this creative relationship with Denis.

And there was so much work to be done in the desert—of course it’s beautiful, but it’s also grueling for the cast and crew, because day in, day out you’re in the sand. There’s sandstorms, it’s obviously very very hot. So we had all these systems to make sure everyone was keeping hydrated and cool, and out of the sun. So, there’s a lot of logistics that went into making these scenes. But what it did, is that being in Jordan—and it was early in the shoot—immersed us in what it’s like being in a desert environment.

And of course, since Dune happens on Arrakis, which is a desert planet, when we went back to film in Budapest, we knew what it was like to be on Arrakis, so to speak. We knew how much sand we would have in our ears, in our shoes. And I say that jokingly, but for the costume department they knew how much sand they needed to put on those costumes. When Duncan Idaho comes out of the ornithopter and he’s got sand all over the place, they’re like “of course he just came from the desert.” So it really informed the narrative, as well as to what the desert experience needed to look like on screen.

Garratt: Yes and talking about the the work of Dune and making it real. Of course I’m Chilean, I’m sorry about this question, but was there was a special reference to the previous work of Alejandro Jodorovsky’s Dune in a way, maybe some homage or something, in terms of developing your project with Denis and the rest of the team?

Lapointe: I think there was no—from the very beginning and from that first conversation that Denis had with [Legendary Pictures] and with Mary Parent and Kale Boyter, who are the producers on the film, it was really going back to the original book. So of course there is the Lynch film and there is the Dune that never got made—if you have never seen this documentary watch Jodorovsky’s Dune, because it’s just such an epic dream, but a dream that never made it to the screen. So for Denis it was more important to, not to say that he was disregarding, but he was really digging back into those dreams of when he first read the book and bringing those images to screen.

Garratt: When I was a kid I also had the chance to read Dune. It’s very common in this generation, never mind if you are in Latin America, or Europe, or North America. In terms of a loving science fiction Tanya, how was it for you to get involved in the three films of Denis, focusing on science fiction: Arrival, Blade runner 2049, and finally Dune. What does science fiction mean for you?

Lapointe: It’s funny, because I think you’re wearing a Back to the Future [shirt].

Garratt: Yeah, sorry.

Lapointe: No, but honestly I mean science fiction—Back to the Future is science fiction—I think that it’s always been part of my life and I think that there have been directors who have made science fiction very accessible. Such as Spielberg, of course, and you know such as these other—Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the movie I’m thinking about—but there’s been Back to the Future.

And strangely, I was trying to remember the first film I saw in theaters and I realized it was a science fiction film it was called Innerspace. I think it was a comedy, not like it’s not a classic, or to my knowledge, a masterpiece, but I realize that it’s always been part of my life. And I’ve had an uncle who gave me Isaac Asimov to read, so it’s always been sort of something that’s been part of my imagination or like my creative inner world, I would say.

But i would say also that, starting to work with Denis really made me appreciate the level of detail that needs to go into science fiction. Not only of the storytelling, that’s obvious, but creating these worlds that are both futuristic and yet relatable. And I think that’s where Denis—because you know I’ve written a book on each of these of these films now and I’ve analyzed it, and it always comes back to: How do you create a future that is fascinating, and that you want to be part of, and yet make it feel like it’s resonating with your reality?

So that goes into all of the world building, which is very intricate, complex and wonderful. I always say this, a film that is told in our day and age; if you need to build a set and you need a doorknob you’re going to go to the store and buy a doorknob. You can’t do that in science fiction. You have to reinvent every single detail, of course, from the sets to the costumes, to the props. And i think there’s so much creativity and that’s why I loved writing this book on Dune, because I can highlight all of that creativity and expertise of people who have worked on some of the biggest movies in history. So that’s what I really love and from Arrival to Blade Runner 2049 and then Dune, it just feels like it’s been an expansion of world building. It’s so much fun, I’m having a blast.

Garratt: Yeah, I admire your work and writing and I’m expecting to have the chance to read [The Art and Science of Arrival], coming in February if I’m right?

Lapointe: Yeah, we’re right now we’re putting the final final touches and what’s interesting about that book is that, as opposed to the Dune and Blade Runner 2049 books which were written right before the release, this one is written five years after the release. So what’s fascinating in this case is, of course, we get into the world building and the creative decisions, but I also spoke to a lot of scholars, linguists, scientists—people who have all used Arrival as a source of inspiration for their academic work.

Garratt: Me too. I teach journalism and used it in a final thesis about language, and how learning language can change your way of understanding the world, and especially in native language here in Chile—because we are we’re going through big political and social issues about our nation’s first natives first nations. So it’s very important for me that movie in that sense.

Lapointe: Well I hope you’ll enjoy the book, because there’s an entire section on language and we talk about the the philosophy behind how learning someone else’s language is presented visually in the film. It was really interesting for me to get into that.

Garratt: Yeah, then if you let me [ask] a few more questions. I have a little, of trying to be smart, I think clever interpretation—maybe not—I hope. In those in those three science fiction movies by Denis, there is a kind of biblical reference. Arrival is like a person who is in touch with the gods and learns this spiritual language. She can “hablar en lenguas”, as you say in Spanish, speaking in tongues like the biblical reference.

And in Blade Runner 2049 we talk about virgin Mary, like this birth is impossible because that a replicant had the chance to have a kid. And obviously in Dune it’s the path of the messiah. I don’t know if there is some conscious will in terms of building that storytelling with reference to biblical issues or something that I made up, trying to be smart?

Lapointe: It is very smart, so I’ll give you that. I mean that’s a question that Denis could answer, because obviously he’s choosing these um these stories because they resonate deeply with him—to invest so many years of your life to tell one story. But I can say this, because I’ve heard him say this often, is religion has always been the backdrop of his childhood and so he has asked himself a lot of questions about that.

He said that he’s sort of exploring spirituality and religion through these different films and more specifically in Dune, because of the Bene Gesserit and the religious almost control, if I can say, on this world. So definitely you’re on to something, but next time you get to talk to Denis you can ask him and he’ll give you a more in-depth answer.

Garratt: Yes, I’m gonna try to do that, sorry for the interpolation. I’m talking about you and your work and I want to ask you about this beautiful documentary called The Paper Man. This is a movie focused on Claude Lafortune, a children’s TV show host. And there is there is a quote, finally during one one passage of the documentary he can say freely “I’m an artist”, because it’s difficult to to say you can be an artist because of your background in this TV show. But finally he can say: “I’m an artist.”

How has you been your own process in terms of saying “I’m an artist, I Tanya am an artist”—I mean, from jumping to journalism to this big, enormous career that you have right now?

Lapointe: That’s a really good question, honestly, because Claude Lafortune was such a talented artist making these very intricate paper sculptures, like no one else has done. Very different from origami. It’s a very unique style and I discovered him when I was a child growing up. And there was something fascinating about watching television, because it looked like a different world. It didn’t look like a world that was accessible from my standpoint.

So that’s the beginning of my answer, is that I always felt removed and I sort of felt like oh this is the world that’s intriguing to me, but I’m not part of that. Then I became a reporter because of this fascination with communication and then when i decided to leave journalism, after 15 years, there was—and I think there still is—this transition of embodying this new reality of being part of the creative process. And i think that writing these books is a way of saying okay I am understanding it intellectually, so that I can truly experience it in my day-to-day life.

Because Claude Lafortune, as you said, was such a wonderful artist. Right up until the end of his life he was making, his art even was evolving until his death in at 83. And it took two years, I was with him for two years, and he would say: “No I’m not an artist, no no no no, I’m a creator.” And I was like; isn’t a creator an artist, isn’t that the same thing? But he was always very cautious. I think it was humility, but it’s such a joyous moment when he says “I am an artist”, because that’s what he truly is.

So when you throw that back at me, I’m like well yeah maybe I need to go my through my own process of accepting that I too am an artist. But I’ve written five books now, so I’m okay with the title author. Executive producer I’m really good with. So it’s slowly…

Garratt: But you are director, you are the director of documentaries, so you’re an artist also.

Lapointe: Hey see what he was, that’s the… yeah I guess I’m an artist. See, you made me say it.

Garratt: Yes, yes. My final question, maybe almost final question, is talking about the other documentary that you made 50/50 that it’s is focused on equality treatment among female and males, in order to get a better society. How important was it for you as creators of Dune—the creative team, producers, directors, writers—how important was focus on female characters, in this big big adaptation of the novel by Frank Herbert.

Lapointe: I think 50/50 is the film that I did when I left journalism. For me it was a transition, but also I made that film because I was asking, I had questions about how do we make our society more equal and i found people who had solutions. So it was my own personal quest, in a way, of saying how can I participate in making this world more equal? And then when I started working on both Blade Runner 2049 and Dune it’s always been sort of in the back of my head.

And I think Denis has those same preoccupations of how do we create opportunities to have more women. I’ve been given the opportunity to be executive producer, because one of the people who made that decision is Mary Parent, who’s one of the producers at Legendary, and I’m forever grateful for her trust. And the decision to make Liet Kyne’s character from the book, who’s a man, to a woman in the film played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster, that was a decision that I had nothing to do with. That was Denis and Jon Spaihts, one of the other screenwriters, who said this book was written in 1965 and (when they were writing the script in 2018) asked “how do we adapt this to to our reality?” And that meant more women, as main characters and powerful characters. And therefore, as I said, it just aligned with Denis’ values.

I would say that even in terms of our crew, sometimes I’m saying: Hey, is there a woman that could fill in, or not fill in, but bring her own expertise and experience what we’re making? And we’ve managed to do that. I want to mention one person that we’ve discovered on Dune, Kate Arizmendi, who’s a director of photography and she did all camera cinematography for a second unit. She’s such a talented artist and she’s worked on her own films. Swallow is an amazing movie, if you want to discover her work.

So yeah, it definitely is always a preoccupation and it will continue to be going forward.

Garratt: Thank you. Now my final question, is maybe not smarter than the previous, it’s just I want to know what are the news that you can comment on the sequel, of Dune: Part Two. Do you have the cast ready? Maybe thinking about some Latin American actor, maybe some Chilean actor? I don’t know.

Lapointe: You want me to say the unsayable.

Garratt: Exactly, journalist to journalist.

Lapointe: Yeah okay, just just between us. The truth is, we just released a film and we’ve been touring the world for the past two months. So right now we just announced it and and we’re just like okay, so there isn’t all that much to to say other than: We’re working on a script.

And I will not reveal anything else, because we need to keep the suspense, the excitement for the release of of the next one which will come pretty [fast]. I know everyone’s saying: “Oh my goodness it’s a long time from here.” And I’m like: “But when you’re making the film it feels like it’s going to be tomorrow.” So we’re hard at work already, to get the show on the road.

Source: Nerd News via Ernesto Garratt (November 14, 2021)