Following a special IMAX 70mm film screening of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet , on February 2, 2024—which also included a five-minute scene from Dune: Part Two—he sat down with fellow filmmaker Denis Villeneuve for a conversation on cinema. These two legendary directors discussed their respective movies and shared insights into creative processes, as well as challenges of bringing these immersive stories to life on the big screen.
The Dune Movie Trilogy’s Empire Strikes Back
Nolan has already watched Dune: Part Two, in its entirety, and had high praise for Villeneuve’s forthcoming film. The former compared this movie to The Empire Strikes Back, popularly regarded as the best entry in the Star Wars film franchise—and certainly a favorite of both these directors.
I don’t think it’s saying too much to say that, if Dune: Part One was Star Wars, [Dune: Part Two] to me was very much The Empire Strikes Back, which is my favorite of the Star Wars films.
Christopher Nolan, IMAX Behind the Frame Conversation
The Empire Strikes Back was groundbreaking in its time—a major milestone for the science fiction (film) genre as a whole—both in terms of cinematography and storytelling. It enthralled audiences with clever subversion of expectations and, for those who know both stories, it’s clear how Star Wars movies took a lot of inspiration from Dune.
The Specter of Dune Messiah
When it comes to Frank Herbert’s first Dune novel, some may argue that its most fascinating messages are below the surface and could be overlooked. That’s not the case, however, for second book Dune Messiah, for which Villeneuve is currently finalizing a script. The director plans to film this as the third (and final) movie in his Dune adaptation.
Villeneuve has written Dune: Part One and Part Two with full knowledge of what’s to come and emphasizes that in aforementioned movies he’s already bringing more of the saga’s warning, regarding dangers of charismatic leaders, to the forefront. This will result in some differences to his version of the story.
And I will say for…the people who know the book [Dune], that the movie is slightly different. I can say that when Frank Herbert. wrote the first book, he was a bit disappointed how people perceived the book, because for him Paul was not a hero. He was a dark figure. For me, it was like the book was a cautionary tale about messianic figures.
And to correct the perception, he wrote Dune Messiah to make sure that people would understand that. So I tried my best to do this [in my] adaptation, closer to the initial intention of Frank Herbert.
Creating New Visuals, From Dream to Screen
The conversation also explored the process of storyboarding, a tool which Villeneuve uses to translate his dreams into what will appear on screen. This was especially important for creating visuals, where the book didn’t offer (detailed) descriptions.
A lot of things are coming out of the storyboard process as well, where I have to translate a scene and find the most economic and the most expressive way to bring ideas to the screen. It’s almost like an extension of my brain where I can, in the very intimate moment, dream that’s where a lot of ideas are coming from, visual ideas are coming from.
Dune: Part Two as a Standalone Movie
Finally, if you know someone who still hasn’t seen Dune: Part One, that’s no excuse for them not to join you at the theater for the second movie. When writing Dune: Part Two, the director considered that it should also work as a standalone experience.
It’s like a direct continuity of [Dune: Part One], but I wanted the movie to be; someone who will have not seen Part One will be able to enjoy Part Two. I gave enough clues in it to make sure that someone, yeah you don’t need to have seen [the first movie].
This full conversation (25 minutes) can be watched here, with Dune-related discussion beginning at at the 16:54 mark. A full transcript is available below.
Dune: Part Two premieres widely in domestic theaters on March 1, 2024, with preview screenings starting from the day before. For other countries, check out our up-to-date list of international release dates.
Villeneuve: And that is a remarkable cinematic achievement. And I’m always in love with movies that are tackling with that existential sensation that you’re walking into the unknown. It happens with movies that are dealing with time. A film like [?], I suppose that you like.
Nolan: Oh yeah.
Villeneuve: Or movies like, it’s a sensation that I felt when I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey the first time or watching Inception or Interstellar.
It’s a, it requires a lot of discipline and a lot of mastery to, to be able to achieve that. And I’m curious about for Tenet. If you could share with us where this, the idea come from, what is the birth of the idea of this? mad idea of the inverted entropy.
Nolan: I think the kicking off point really was a long time ago when I made one of my earlier films, Memento.
And the beginning of Memento has a sequence that’s shown in reverse chronology because the entire film is then structured in reverse chronology. And so I included a backwards opening where Guy Pearce shoots Joe Pantoliano in reverse and, begins with him catching the gun and that kind of thing.
And it’s stuck with me that I’d be interested in exploring that reality. The reality that the camera can show us that we can’t see. We’re the first, the movie generation, this hundred years or so, we’re the first people to ever be able to see time in different ways.
It’s the movie camera that’s shown us time backwards. It’s one of the original kind of fascinating effects of what a movie camera can show us. And so I became interested in the idea quite some time ago really following on from Memento rather than The structure of the story being backwards.
What if you could literally change the direction of time for a character or for an object and have two directions of time existing in the same frame. So not time travel, not jumping around in time but actually looking at the physical process of time, which is, I had dealt with A lot in Interstellar and I spent a lot of time talking to Kip Thorne, a great physicist who helped me with Tenet as well, because it was so much fun sitting around talking to him about the implications of real world physics, and so much of it is truly stranger than fiction when you’re dealing with relativity, black holes, those kind of things, and we’d explored that so much and enjoyed exploring that together in Interstellar, As I got into Tenet, I, I called him and I started talking about this notion of if you could invert the entropy of an object or a person.
And some interesting things immediately came out of it, like the idea that you wouldn’t be able to breathe air because it wouldn’t pass across the membranes in the same way.
Villeneuve: Or eat a chicken, for instance. What happens if you eat a chicken?
Nolan: There’s a lot of what ifs that the film is designed to inspire, yeah.
Villeneuve: But, it’s this so the idea of the, to approach time with entropy came from you and not Kip?
Nolan: It did. I’d always been fascinated by the notion that all the laws of physics are reversible. They’re all symmetrical in time, in terms of time, and so there’s no reason that The entire universe can’t run backwards except for one law, and that’s entropy.
And there’s I suppose you’d call it a conflict or a disagreement in, amongst physicists as to whether that’s cause or effect. Whether entropy’s the sign of the arrow of time or whether it’s the cause of it. For the purposes of our film, we view it as the cause of it. So we postulate, okay, what if there were a machine that could You know, flip that.
Villeneuve: And then the idea to merge that with a the, a spy movie. Yeah. Came spontaneously, or you leave that idea, is leaving this idea of time travel by itself for a while, or?
Nolan: I think for me it was always fused with at least a thriller scenario. Coming from this idea of Guy Pearson Memento.
Shooting somebody backwards, the kind of kinetics involved in action cinema, thrillers So I think the spy genre was always really part of it for me because it’s the genre that gives you access to all of these wonderful kinetic action movie tropes. The gunfight. the car chase, armies fighting each other, these kind of things.
And what I wanted to do was really explore the sort of experience of watching an action film and watching a a spy movie. And build out from that and try and build this sort of big screen, very immersive experience, based on that to try and take it to another level and find a reason for an audience to, to watch a car chase again and watch it in a different way and try and look down the other end of the telescope at a lot of these tropes that we all know and love from action cinema.
Villeneuve: Yeah, and more specifically from James Bond, because I felt that you were playing with, Bond is almost a genre in itself. And you have some each of James Bond there, you have the exotics place, you have the Bond girl, you have the villain that is always, And I felt that you were playing with those codes and something, having fun, and in a subversive way.
Nolan: Yeah, I’ve always been a huge fan of the Bond films, as anyone who’s seen any of my movies would know, but especially this one. Or Inception as well, I think there’s also a lot of the Le Carre approach to espionage. And I think partly that’s because with a Bond film, we have James Bond at the center.
Nobody worries too much about the reality of the spy world that they’re in. But when you have an anonymous figure at the center of the protagonists, John David Washington’s character. I wanted to take on some of that complexity, some of that sort of jargon based more John le Carre, more, bit more sort of real world spycraft feeling about the character and the way he interacts.
Villeneuve: Do you heard that, Spielberg created the Indiana Jones in reaction that he was not allowed to direct a Bond movie. Did you direct your own Bond movie during 10 Hours?
Nolan: I think I did, yeah. And I think I really got to Here we go. I got to have a lot of fun with it. Certainly with Inception, you look at the end of Inception with The sort of ski chase and the big fortress in the snow.
That was very much a sort of homage to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which is my favorite of the Bonds. So but I think with this, yeah, I just went into that mythology fully because what I was trying to do was create a stylized science fiction experience on top of that.
And so you’re trying to use the same way Memento tried to use the familiarity of the tropes of the film noir, Tenet is an attempt to use the audience’s familiarity with the spy movie genre, the Bond movie, to be able to take it someplace a little crazier, someplace a little different and have us experience it in a different way.
Villeneuve: There’s something about there’s a lot of spectacular scenes in, in Tenet, but one of them that really absolutely blew my mind was this close combat.
Between the protagonist and himself and it’s probably I don’t say that to please you But it’s probably one of the most exciting combat sequence on an infamous story. Seriously. It’s mind blowing what You were able to achieve on camera and I would love if you could explain to us a little bit, how did you achieve? Having both actors fighting in different time direction?
Nolan: It was not so much my achievement as my challenge to an incredible crew, George Cottle, stunt coordinator, Jackson Spital, fight coordinator, and then John David Washington, who was in the NFL, was an incredible athlete and had such dedication to learning this very long fight from both sides. So he had two versions of the fight to learn; protagonist, antagonist. And then he had to learn it backwards for both parts as well.
And we shot it day one, we started with it. And, I just wanted, because I felt like sometimes it’s good to start with the hardest stuff. Because we knew there were so many mind bending things to work out later in the film, I felt if every department, if stunts and wardrobe and production design, camera, if everybody could come together and figure out how to do that.
We’d be in better shape for when we got to the middle of Tallinn and shut the whole city down and did a massive car chase. We really had to know what we were doing by then. And so it was this approach to shooting everything in camera. There are no, visual effects in those fights.
And it’s all incredible performance and knowing the fight four different ways, and being able to switch with it. And then Hoyter shooting on IMAX handheld, according to a rule set that I put in place that basically said we weren’t ever going to reverse the footage. So we weren’t ever going to use something from that we’d shot for the first fight sequence when we see it for the second, each piece of film is unique.
And so everything has changed slightly in order to give you a different perspective on things. And the most obvious example for people who’ve seen the film more than once may have noticed is the tint, on the mask that John David’s wearing, it’s completely dark. The first time, you’re seeing that antagonist.
The second time you see it, it’s a lighter tint so that you can see his eyes through it. Because we’re seeing it from his perspective. So the camera’s closer to him, we’re seeing his expressions and doing that. Similarly with the sound we’re using, you know, his sound as foreground. So first, as the suited protagonist without the mask, and then the second time we see it, we’re favoring the sound of the guy behind the mask, whose eyes we can now see a bit.
But the camera angles are different, and the axis is different.
Villeneuve: But it meant that one actor was doing the choreography backwards, and the other one was doing, and it’s just I’m trying to explain it to myself Chris. I failed. All night, I thought about it last night. I was not getting it.
Nolan: There’s one had to do it. So John David had to do it forwards. He then had to get changed, different costume, and do it backwards. And needed to know… Sorry, I misspoke. There was no wardrobe change. He’d do it backwards in the same wardrobe. Although he had a different tie, so it was stiffer, so it wouldn’t move the same way, that kind of thing.
And then he would have to go get changed into the SWAT outfit. To do the entire fight forwards, then do the entire fight backwards in that wardrobe. And then we took everybody to Estonia, to Tallinn, and we shut down a freeway across the city, and we had to do that. The stunt guys had to do that with cars, they had to do it with driving, and literally do a chase forwards.
with regular vehicles, Fords and with vehicles that would drive backwards at speed. And then the other way around. And so everything was shot four different ways. And they did just an incredible job putting together all these rigs to be able to do that.
Villeneuve: It’s remarkable.
The, I’ve seen the movie many times, and I love movies that are like enigmas. Movies that, the more you revisit them, new things every time, but you have to watch them a couple of times, and Tenet is definitely one of of those. And I had I went online to see how people dealt with with, and I seen it.
Remarkable graphics where people were trying to explain. And it looks like a madman subway, with maps. And it, even then when you look at it visually it’s Pretty impressive. It’s still difficult to understand. My question is, as a filmmaker, when you make a regular movie with a very simple narrative, you still have sometimes some of your crew members that are confused.
Were you the only one keeping the the compass on set, or were you
Nolan: I’ve done films where I’m in that role of the only person. I think with a lot of Inception, sometimes I was the person with the handle on it. With Tenet, what we found is, I had a handle on it when I was writing the script, but when it comes to the execution and the detail I didn’t have a handle on it any more than anyone else.
We had to pre visualize things. We had to look at computer graphics. We had to use tools to be able to look at the palindrome of each sequence, to look at it one way, look at it the other, and work on it from both ends together. Of any of the films I’ve done, it was the most Collaborative effort. We would all get in a room and there were no we said right from day one.
We learned this. There are no stupid questions because what we found is everybody’s brain you would You’d get certain things right and you couldn’t understand why other people couldn’t get them and then you’d suddenly realize you were wrong, and a lot of it was about diagrams and rules and all the rest.
And so a huge amount of work went into pre visualization and we would change things on the previous to make sure that the sequence is all worked, completely. So it was a very collaborative effort. It was never a. The basic concept behind Tenet, with the mixing of timelines within the frame, it was something that we realized as we shot.
You were never able to intuit. It’s something you have to experience. You could describe, and even in the edit suite, I was working with Jen Lame And, I would try and explain something to it, but ultimately you had to put it together and then talk about it, look at it and then look at it in different directions and talk about it.
And that’s what I loved about the concept. It’s purely a cinematic concept, you have to sit in a movie theater and watch it and let it wash over you and experience it. It’s not something you can intellectualize. Yeah,
Villeneuve: I understand that I would love if you were talking a bit about IMAX earlier and to talk about what is the percentage of IMAX in the movie exactly?
Nolan: Gosh. I know, but I don’t know.
Villeneuve: No. It’s been a few years. But it’s, there’s, let’s say it’s not the whole movie. No. And I was wondering oh. What is your decision? Is it driven by sound?
Nolan: For me, a lot of the time it’s driven by sound. Because IMAX film cameras are very noisy.
They’re huge and cumbersome and very noisy. And so you have to make decisions about whether when you post synchronize the sound or whether you want to be able to record and use the real performances, which I always prefer. So the film is a mix of 65mm, five perf, which you can, Panavision has a quiet camera for that.
And that’s the letterbox format. And then it expands to the 15perf, 70mm, usually for the action sequences. And what we found over the years is there are different cut points you can mix. You can put that cut point in a different place to either make the f Screen feel like it’s suddenly expanding or you can disguise the cuts.
I mean in the final sequence when the protagonist is in the back of the car, all the shots inside the car are letterbox and the ones outside aren’t. And it plays because of the low ceiling and the dark ceiling of the car. So it’s something that from we first started to play with in the dark night, we’ve been messing around with it ever since in different ways.
Villeneuve: Yeah, because it’s, it creates almost, it’s a new way to install the, use a new way of a new editing tool in some ways to create impact. And as you rightly said to tell you the truth, I remember studying The Dark Knight and Interstellar the first time I for Part One when I had to, for the first time, shoot in 1:43 trying to make my own decisions about how I would approach it.
Nolan: When you say “Part One“, part one of?
Nolan: Ah, Dune. Which reminds me, the five minute piece you saw at the front which is from Dune: Part Two. I just want to turn the tables. Because we’re running out of time. I’m going to ask you a few questions about Dune: Part Two.
But that was fine talking about Dune: Part Two. I know. And I know spoilers and all the rest. There’s not much that you could say about it at this point. But I’ve seen it, so I can say whatever I feel like about it. Being respectful of spoilers. But watching the piece into this format, I was Frankly, just thrilled how amazing the translation is to this format for the film.
I think it’s a incredibly exciting way for people to see it. And what I was really struck by was the sense of immersion in that world. There’s a little bit of, we talked about a little bit of grit to it. There’s a little bit of the emotion of that. You feel, watching that, that scene where Tim is reunited.
And reveals himself. It’s thrilling and very emotional as it is in the finished film. I just wanted to ask you, looking at the minds, the detail of that world and how it works, where does, where has that all come from? Because without saying too much about the finished film, it’s a film that has so many unique images, so many things you’ve never seen before in this movie.
Time after time, and I was so struck by the detail of everything, those minds coming outta the sand and things like that. And they’re not all from the book. Where is that coming from with your team? How are you putting those details together?
Villeneuve: Frankly it’s things that I spent a lot of time in the screenplay.
I wrote with Jon Spaihts, but I spent a lot of time myself on it myself. Through the years, there’s ideas that I accumulated that I wanted to insert in this film. And it’s really, it was all inspired by Frank Herbert, the book. But it’s true that I had to come up with ideas to bring the words in a more cinematic way.
And it’s just a lot of things are coming out of the storyboard process as well, where I have to translate a scene and find the most economic and the most expressive way to bring ideas to the screen. It’s almost like an extension of my brain where I can, in the very intimate moment, dream that’s where a lot of ideas are coming from, visual ideas are coming from.
Are you a good board drawer? Are you?
Nolan: No, not particularly. And I don’t actually storyboard that much. I’ve done certain sequences. It’s fascinating to hear that you, so creatively you started with storyboarding before you ever got a camera.
Villeneuve: Yeah. And the thing is that I feel still today, once the screenplay is done, I will storyboard most the, of the movie of, if not the entire movie.
And it’s a new way to rewrite and to approach, bring the words closer to the camera. And I then once the storyboard I finished, I rewrite the screenplay grant again from the storyboards because there’s a lot of changes that will be found through the storyboards. And it’s a way also to, for me to find the alphabet and the vocabulary that would be used, the cinematic alphabet of the film, the rhythm, everything is in the boards.
Nolan: And is that before you have the whole team on?
Villeneuve: Absolutely. I do it by myself. And it’s a way to dream about the movie in the most intimate way. It’s one of my favorite moment of the film process. Now, there’s a rule on my set is that the storyboard precedes the screenplay, and nature precedes the storyboard, which means that most of the time I throw the storyboard out and we improvise with the camera.
But it secures me to find the movie with the boards. I think it’s almost a different way to to go deeper into the screenwriting process more specifically for the cinematic sequences. Yeah.
Nolan: Yeah. What do you feel comfortable telling this audience about the new film? What are you comfortable revealing in this environment, if anything?
Villeneuve: Listen, first of all, it’s like a movie that I’ve tried to create that would be a standalone, meaning that it’s like a direct continuity of part one, but I wanted the movie to be someone who will have not seen Part One will be able to enjoy Part Two. I gave enough clues in it to make sure that someone, yeah you don’t need to have seen Part One.
I will say that I feel it’s a much more, I don’t know if you agree with a more muscular movie, some movie that has more action sequence. And as a filmmaker it was much more much more challenging, but definitely more at, much more fun doing it because it’s like we go it’s a guerilla warfare movie where we follow Paul and Chani starting to be guerillas against again, the Harkonnens.
And I will say for the fans of the book, the people who know the book, that the movie is slightly different. I can say that when Frank Herbert. wrote the first book. He was a bit disappointed how people perceived the book because for him, Paul was not a hero. He was a dark figure. He was someone, for me it was like the book was a cautionary tale about messianic figures.
And to correct the perception, he wrote Dune Messiah to make sure that people would understand that. So I tried at my best to do this as adaptation. closer to the initial intention of Frank Herbert.
Nolan: And I don’t, I won’t necessarily ask you your exact point of reference, but for me, I don’t think it’s saying too much to say that, if Dune: Part One was Star Wars, this to me was very much The Empire Strikes Back, which is my favorite of the Star Wars films.
And I just think it’s an incredibly exciting expansion of all the things you introduced in the first one.
Villeneuve: Yeah. I have to say to you, Chris, that is a massive compliment. And I’m pleased to know that you love The Emperor Strikes Back as well. That’s nice.
Nolan: I do indeed. And I think that your sequel reminded me of it in all the right ways whilst being completely different from it.
I think it’s an extraordinary piece of work and I think people are going to be amazingly excited to see it. They’ll be able to see it on IMAX film, so Tenet re-releases February 23, and then Dune: Part Two will be on the same screen. Also film print and it’s a wonderful translation. I think it, the format looks incredible there.
Villeneuve: I need to say that I was able to bring Dune Part Two, I shot it for IMAX, but I was able to do a translation to to, we were able to do film prints. because of you, because of the success of Oppenheimer and that I’m so grateful. Again, Chris Nolan, I cannot say thank you enough for what you are doing for cinema.
Nolan: Thank you. Yeah, and on that note, I know it’s late, so we should wrap it up, but I actually just wanted to very quickly. Acknowledge someone who’s in the credits of Tenet, who worked at Warner Bros. for many years, called Scott Nall, who was one of the best projectionists at Warner Bros. who passed away just last week.
And it made, it just makes me feel better to say his name to people and acknowledge all the great work he did for me over the years, but also. Keeping film alive, having these kind of screenings, what we’re going to get to do with Tenet, what we did with Oppenheimer this summer, and what you’re going to get with Dune: Part Two, what you’re going to get to do totally dependent on the guys in the booth these incredible projectors who work so hard for us.
I just want to take a minute to acknowledge them and thank them for everything they’ve done for us. And I want to thank you, Denis, for being here this evening and telling us a little bit about you.