He spent much of his childhood on the bench watching other kids playing hockey. He doesn’t blame the coach. “I was probably,” he said, amused, “one of the 10 worst hockey players of all time in Canada. I was, like, so clueless with the puck, you know?” The best days were those of heavy rain, when sport was impossible and he could retreat into a book-filled room at home. It was pure paradise to close the door and spend the whole day reading sci-fi novels.
One day at school, Villeneuve was tapped on his shoulder. “See that guy over there?” another pupil informed him. “He’s mad like you. He wants to do ‘Star Wars’ in his basement next summer. So I think you should meet him.” Pretty soon he was best friends with a kid named Nicolas Kadima. Where other boys their age were smoking weed and discovering girls and soccer, Villeneuve and Kadima were “clueless. We were like cinema monks.” They spent their nights watching Eisenstein and Godard, were obsessed with Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Kubrick. They weren’t filmmaking (“We were too lazy for that”), but they wrote screenplays, drew storyboards — Villeneuve still has some that Kadima drew for “Dune” — and they dreamed.
Villeneuve needed to shoot the movie in real desert landscapes, he told me, ‘for my own mental sanity.’
“It was intense,” Villeneuve recalled fondly. “There’s something there that was, like, pure, and beautiful in a way.” As soon as you take a camera, you learn humility. “But before that moment, you think you’re the next Kubrick.” He and Kadima stopped going to church, he told me, hoping to be excommunicated, but were “ready to give our blood to the gods of cinema, like Coppola, like Spielberg, Scorsese.” (He admitted that nowadays, when he runs into some of his idols, he is thrilled. He becomes a child again, he explained. “I can start to cry, sometimes. The first time I met Spielberg, I cried — I mean, not in front of him,” he adds quickly. “But I cried.”)
He was expected to become a biologist, but decided to follow his interest in film. “There was something that needed to get out,” he said, “and I would have got depressed if it didn’t get out, that’s the truth.” After studying communications and film at the University of Quebec in Montreal and winning a Radio-Canada filmmaking competition, Villeneuve began working in what he describes as the “beautiful laboratory” of the Québécois documentary tradition. What does it feel like, I asked him, to have moved away from his cultural and creative roots? “It’s a big wound,” he said, seriously. “I feel a crack in myself.” But he felt he had to leave. Until the 1960s filmmaking in Canada focused on the documentary form, he said, and fiction was relatively unknown. “I realized at one point that — and that’s very arrogant,” he admitted — “nobody could teach me anything here, I had to go outside.”
Today, he said, living in Montreal but working in Hollywood, he’s asked on an almost daily basis: “So, Denis? When are you coming back to make a movie here? We are looking forward to seeing a movie in French.” But, he said, “the thing is that I feel that I am at home.” It was American movies that moved him when he was young, so much so he was nicknamed Spielberg at school. Only later did he become interested in European cinema. (Villeneuve discovered the French New Wave as a teenager after watching François Truffaut in Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”) With his first feature film, he confessed: “I was trying to be closer to my roots. My influences were more European. But at one point there was a moment where I said: Stop that crap! That’s not what I am! And when I realized that, it was so much freedom.” The moment he understood that at heart he was an American director “was the beginning of pure happiness. And that’s where I started to have fun with cinema. I think I started to make better films. That’s where I started to become a real director, I think.”
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer” is the most famous line in “Dune.” It appears on innumerable motivational posters, has been inked by tattooists into uncountable arms. It’s part of the litany of the Bene Gesserit Order. Because fear obliterates thought, the litany holds, it must be mastered and discarded. But for Villeneue, fear is a generative emotion, and cinema is what he has used and continues to use to defeat it. He sees cinema — not just watching movies, but also the act of making them — as the force that drives him out of his shell, brings him into contact with other people. Without cinema, he told me, he could be easily trapped in a hole with the door locked, afraid of the world. “It brings me,” he said, “solace.” His forehead furrowed. “Solace, or … I do not know what is the right word.” He looked worried. “Solace? What does it mean, solace, exactly?” He searched for it on his computer. It was the right word, of course.