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The Canadians Behind ‘Dune’

todayOctober 29, 2021

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When “Dune” opened in Canada last weekend, I was in Quebec, where the sweeping science fiction tale was the talk of the province.

The excitement and anticipation had an obvious source. Denis Villeneuve, the director who finally figured out how to successfully bring Frank Herbert’s classic novel to the screen, may now be one of Hollywood’s biggest directors, but Montreal remains his home.

Several Canadians, of course, have risen to the top of the film industry. But many of them have left Canada behind to pursue their careers, following the example of James Cameron, who directed “The Terminator,” “Titantic” and “Avatar.” He was originally from the northern Ontario paper mill town of Kapuskasing.

It would be an overstatement to call “Dune” a Canadian film. But as has been the case with most of Mr. Villeneuve’s movies, many Canadians were involved in the production. Patrice Vermette, another Montrealer and longtime collaborator with Mr. Villeneuve, was the production designer responsible for creating the look of various planets as well as the vehicles, buildings, furnishings and gadgets used by their inhabitants.

Tanya Lapointe, an executive producer of “Dune,” is a former culture reporter for Radio-Canada and Mr. Villeneuve’s spouse. Other Canadians were involved in makeup and prosthetics, and two Canadian companies, one in Montreal and the other in Vancouver, were key contributors of digital special effects. (Their work is also responsible for the appearance of Quebec’s film production tax credit system logo, a variation of the province’s flag seen during the film’s closing credits.)

In interviews with Helen Macdonald for a profile and article about the making of “Dune” that appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Mr. Villeneuve went into some detail about how growing up in the village of Gentilly, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, affected how he transformed a favorite novel of his childhood into film. His time in Canada making documentaries also influenced him, as did a school friend who later joined the film industry and, above all, his grandmothers.

“One of them was an operatic character, the other one was a benevolent, warm grandmother,” he told Helen, adding: “I realize I receive so much from them, but there are so many — there are a lot of neuroses.”

Mr. Villeneuve also participated in a regular Times video feature, Anatomy of a Scene, and dissected a scene from “Dune.”

[Watch: Timothée Chalamet and Josh Brolin Spar in ‘Dune’]

“Dune,” the novel, has been widely seen as an environmental parable, one perhaps even more relevant today than in 1963 when Mr. Herbert began serializing it. The Times’s Opinion section has published a guest essay by Daniel Immerwahr, a professor of history at Northwestern, that makes the case that the source of the book’s environmentalism was Indigenous environmentalists, who were members of the Quileute and Hoh peoples of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.

[Read: How Is ‘Dune’ So Prescient About Climate Change? Thank This Native American Tribe.]

The evening before I headed off to Quebec’s Eastern Townships, I made my way to a suburban multiplex with my youngest son, Timothy, a recent film studies graduate, to watch “Dune.” A confession: Unlike him, I’ve never read the novel, nor am I particularly a fan of science fiction. My son has since returned to the cinema two more times to see it. And, for what it’s worth, I found the film beautiful and engrossing. Mr. Villeneuve found a way to sort out the story’s complexity for “Dune” neophytes like me.

For an informed assessment, please read Manohla Dargis’s review in The Times, which addresses some of the issues of race and heroes surrounding the story. Mr. Villeneuve, she writes, “has made a serious, stately opus, and while he doesn’t have a pop bone in his body, he knows how to put on a show as he fans a timely argument about who gets to play the hero now.”

[Read: ‘Dune’ Review: A Hero in the Making, on Shifting Sands]

Opinion offered its own review of sorts from an unusual source: Paul Krugman, the columnist, economist and unabashed “Dune” fan.

[Read: ‘Dune’ Is the Movie We Always Wanted]

One thing in the movie did unsettle me, however. Despite being the grandson of Scottish immigrants, or perhaps because of that, I was dismayed to see that thousands of years into the future, bagpipes will still be droning away. In writing about Hans Zimmer, the film’s composer, Darryn King discovered that the futuristic bagpipe tune was not a hit with Mr. Zimmer’s family as he worked on the soundtrack at home. “My daughter told me the other day she has bagpipe PTSD,” the composer said.

[Read: How Hans Zimmer Conjured the Otherworldly Sounds of ‘Dune’]

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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