Hans Zimmer had a vision for his “Dune” score, and no pandemic was going to change it. If Paul Atreides had to adapt after he got to Arrakis and everything went to hell, Zimmer could too — so what if his singers had to record themselves in a closet in their apartment? A vision’s a vision.
Denis Villeneuve’s cosmic cinematic tone poem to the 1965 Frank Herbert book is all about visions. Paul (Timotheé Chalamet) has recurring dreams about a mysterious desert girl and a gruesome holy war, visions that both beckon and horrify him. He knows he’s different, and he overhears his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), imply that he might be the chosen one.
Zimmer, who’s been dreaming about “Dune” since he read it as a teenager, decided to lean into the reverie. His theme for Paul — performed on duduk, an ancient wind instrument from Armenia — searches and wanders, never finding resolution.
“All the melodies are questions. They’re meanders,” he said. “They’re like the dreams that Paul has — some of them might be a vision of the future, and some of them are just dreams. Because we don’t know if our dreams are true or if they’re a way into our own self. The doubt they raise in us raises a really interesting tension. When we wake up and we’ve had a weird dream, we react differently to people the next day. Breakfast is all a bit of a mess.”
This film is, after all, part one — so unanswered mystery comes with the territory. But where other filmmakers would be tempted to cram Herbert’s dense, byzantine plot and terminology into a breakneck firehose of exposition, Villeneuve wanted to weave a dream. He and co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth trimmed the narrative down to its bare essence, removing all of the internal dialogue, and cinematographer Greig Fraser let the camera linger on the beautiful vastness and strangeness of Herbert’s universe.
Zimmer followed suit. Instead of writing storybook tunes for each of the different characters, the methodology behind John Williams’ “Star Wars” scores or Howard Shore’s “Lord of the Rings,” he decided to let tone colors and textures do most of the talking.
“If you look at Lady Jessica,” he said, “she is a noblewoman, so there was the house of Atreides tune that could stick with her. But then, she was the mother as well, so that was a different sound, which I could add to the noblewoman. But she was a Bene Gesserit, so I could add that as well. So by subtracting or adding different tone colors, I could play with the subtext.”
“Every character in this movie has a subtext,” he added. “Every character is not quite what they seem to be. Every character knows either something about the future or something about the past, and the idea of ancient DNA is very important in the story. So I just thought: If I load everybody up with many, many different versions of DNA, it will be interesting.”
Zimmer also eschewed the sound of a symphony orchestra. For the Bene Gesserit, a religious order of women who influence history from the shadows, the color was a chorus of wilding female voices. For Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), the olden-times, wartime sound of bagpipes — which announce the arrival of House Atreides on the planet Arrakis, and later blare when the Duke’s house comes under attack.
“If you arrive on a planet and you’re being heralded by your bagpipe player,” Zimmer explained, “it basically says: ‘We are very nice, but watch out, you know. Respect us.’”
He also featured an electric cello, run through a resonating filter to imitate the sound of a Tibetan war horn. Zimmer started his music career in the 1980s programming synthesizers for bands and film composers, and he loaded the “Dune” score with lots of new and strange synths.
The score is predominantly atmospheric — it’s the wind blowing through the sands of Arrakis, or the yawning black chasm of space. It moves at the pace of Villeneuve’s pictures, sustaining a texture or lumbering between two extraterrestrial chords. Zimmer and Villeneueve conspired to forget about transmitting everything intellectual and narrative in Herbert’s story and to instead conjure the feeling of the dream.
“I wanted to somehow figure out how you were going to lose the edges of the screen,” he said. “The widest wasn’t wide enough, and the highest wasn’t high enough. And at the same time, the specific wasn’t quite specific enough, either. We go from tiny, tiny, tiny — you know, the Gom Jabbar needle — to the vast worm.
“So it’s a movie of extremes. Denis was just going to boldly take us on a journey, and I wanted you to feel that you were part of that journey, that you were part of that story, without having to go and read a dictionary about what it all means. You could feel the facts, as opposed to learn the facts.”
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