“Dune” is in the details and Denis Villeneuve knows almost all of them. Growing up with an obsession for Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel, the French-Canadian filmmaker has spent the last years of his life adapting that 1965 book into a burgeoning film franchise. The first episode came out in October and the second one will start shooting later this year, so if you want to know about the inner workings of “Dune”, Villeneuve is the man to ask.
But last week in Malibu, California, when he looked with obvious amusement at a blue box of cereal, Villeneuve admitted that an important detail had eluded him until now.
“I learn today that there were Rice Krispies in ‘Dune,'” he said.
We were at Zuma Beach on the kind of warm March afternoon that New York readers would rather not think about, and the Oscar-nominated sound editors of Villeneuve, Mark Mangini and Theo Green, were nearby, pouring grains into the sand. This was not intended to provoke seagulls; Mangini and Green wanted to demonstrate the sound-gathering techniques they used to revive Arrakis, the desert planet where “Dune” hero Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) discovers his destiny.
“One of the most compelling images in the film is when Paul first sets foot on the planet,” Mangini said. Because the sand on Arrakis is laced with ‘spice’, a valuable and hallucinogenic substance, the sound designers had to find an audible way to convey that there was something special under their feet.
To explain it to me, Mangini pressed his work boot onto the soft patch of sand he’d sprinkled with Rice Krispies. The sand produced a subtle, tantalizing crunch and Villeneuve burst into a big smile. Although he had heard it many times during post-production, he had no idea what the sound designers had come up with to capture that sound.
“One of the things I love about cinema is the intersection between NASA technology and gaffer tape,” Villeneuve said. “To use a super expensive mic to record Rice Krispies – that touches me deeply!”
“Dune” is full of those clever, secret sounds, almost all of which are derived from real life: of the 3,200 custom sounds created for the film, only four were created using solely electronic equipment and synthesizers. Green noted that in many science fiction and fantasy films there is a tendency to denote futurism by using sounds that we have never heard before.
“But it was Denis’ vision that this movie should feel as familiar as certain parts of planet Earth,” Green said. “We’re not putting you in a science fiction movie, we’re putting you in a documentary about people on Arrakis.”
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To that end, Green and Mangini made an early expedition to Death Valley to collect natural sounds that could later be used for the film’s sound palette. “When an audience hears acoustic noise, there’s a subconscious box that ticks off that says: this is real‘ said Mangini. But within that reality, Mangini isn’t afraid to push things a little: While working on “Mad Max: Fury Road,” for which he won an Oscar, Mangini mixed the sounds of dying animals into the crash of the world’s most formidable vehicle. movie .
For another “Dune” demonstration, he started burying a small tip of a microphone in the sand. “This is an underwater microphone, a hydrophone,” explains Mangini. “It’s something you would normally drop into the ocean to pick up a humpback whale, but we found another way to use it.”
In “Dune”, the characters use a pinned device called a thumper to rhythmically pound the sand, summoning huge sandworms. To get that sound, Mangini and Green buried their hydrophone at different depths in Death Valley, then used a hammer to hammer the sand above the buried microphone.
“We would also record it above ground to get the real sound of the impact,” Mangini said, demonstrating his method for me with a few sharp blows in the sand of Zuma Beach. “Each of these hits is the ka-dunk of the thumper, as you see it in the movie.”
To give some grandeur to the sandworm’s gaping maw, Green recorded a friend’s dog as it gnashed its teeth, while Mangini added snarling whale sounds to match the pistil’s rhythm – gunk, gunk, gunk† And how did they transmit the sandworm that swept through the sand, liquefying every particle in its path?
“I came up with the idea of taking a microphone, covering it with a condom and digging it underground,” Mangini said.
“I was not aware of that,” Villeneuve said, trailing. His sound designers laughed. “We never told Denis about the condom,” Green said.
Green and Mangini worked with Villeneuve on his previous film, ‘Blade Runner 2049’, and the director brought them both on board as soon as he got the rights to Herbert’s novel, rather than waiting for post-production, as is more common. .
“I wanted Theo and Mark to have the right time to research and investigate and make mistakes,” said Villeneuve. “It’s something I’m really traumatized by with my early films, where you spend years working on a screenplay, then months recording and editing it, and then right at the end, the sound guy comes in and you barely have enough time. “
By hiring his sound designers early and letting them go, Villeneuve was even able to incorporate some of their discoveries into Hans Zimmer’s score, creating a holistic aural experience where the percussive music composition and the penetrating sound design can sometimes be confused.
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“Hans embraced that, he was not afraid of that,” said Villeneuve. “It works because it’s like a band.”
And just like a band, “Dune”‘s sounds took advantage of some intriguing vocalists. To create the Voice, a persuasive way of speaking that allows Paul and his mother (Rebecca Ferguson) to draw on the strength of their female ancestors – a witch order called the Bene Gesserit – Villeneuve and his sound team cast three elderly women with smoky, commanding voices. , and then superimposed their line readings on those of Chalamet and Ferguson.
One of those women happened to be British singer Marianne Faithfull, whose whiskey-infused voice is one of the most recognizable in rock and roll. Listen closely when the characters use the Voice and you may hear 75-year-old Faithfull hiss, “Kill him!” That bit of casting turned out to be more appropriate than Villeneuve might have suspected: Faithfull told the director that in the 1960s she became fast friends with Charlotte Rampling, who plays the film’s most terrifying emissary of the Bene Gesserit.
“At 20 years old, on the streets of London?” Villeneuve mused. “They were murderers!”
As Villeneuve and his sound designers exchanged stories, I mentioned the Oscars, where “Dune” has been nominated in 10 categories. (Mangini and Green share their nominations with Mac Ruth, Doug Hemphill and Ron Bartlett.) Five of those races — sound, score, editing, production design, and hair and makeup — will be presented with the three short film categories in the hours before the live show. , then incorporated into the broadcast in a shortened form.
The implication is that those races aren’t interesting enough to compel a casual viewer, which Mangini refuted by leaning into my recorder to mimic a cat’s purring—one of many sounds, including the fluttering wings of a Hungarian beetle, which were mixed together to create sounds for the ornithopter plane in “Dune”.
“I think that’s exciting television,” he said.
Villeneuve agreed: “Sound is one of the tools that still makes the theater experience worthwhile.” And it’s at the forefront of his mind as he finishes the screenplay for the sequel that promises to take Paul into an even more eccentric sound realm: “All I can say about ‘Dune 2’,” Villeneuve teased, “is that it is as much about sound as it is about image.”
He looked to the right, where Mangini and Green were carefully excavating the buried hydrophone from the dune. Those sand hills have an interesting resonance, Villeneuve told me, “It’s a giant drum in some ways.” Adding that resonance to the film’s psychedelic soundtrack, it created a tangible sensory experience that in one case added another surprising sense.
“My daughter saw the film in Switzerland in scent-o-rama, can you believe it?” Villeneuve told his sound editors.
And what should it smell like when a sandworm emerges from the depths of the desert, opening its wide mouth terrifyingly wide?
“I don’t know,” Villeneuve said, thinking about it. “Bad breath?”