Film director Denis Villeneuve’s lush locations
He may shy away from being labelled an auteur, but when Denis Villeneuve makes a movie, it’s hard to look at the screen and not know it’s his. The Oscar-nominated Canadian filmmaker is known for his challenging stories and distinctive visual flair, the latter established in no small part by his deft choice of filming locations. Ahead of his latest release – the star-studded epic sci-fi Dune – we take a look through his back catalogue and celebrate the places behind the plots...
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North America’s varied landscapes make it a desirable shooting destination for filmmakers, but it comes at a cost that can easily price out prospective directors. Luckily, for Villeneuve’s box-office breakthrough thriller Prisoners (2013), the tax-friendly state of Georgia offered Conyers as the perfect setting for a twisted view of the all-American picket-fenced idyll. Here’s a small, rainy, pine-tree lined suburb of Atlanta that, through Villeneuve’s tactical direction, manages to add even more tension to an already incredibly strained situation (look out for that tree shot).
In stark contrast to the Peach State’s towering trees and lush foliage, the deserts of New Mexico, Texas and Utah provide the harsh backdrops for hit cartel thriller Sicario (2015) as well as Villeneuve’s bold opening gambit, August 32nd on Earth (1998). The director’s visual footprint was firmly established in his debut, recognised by its inclusion in the Cannes Film Festival the same year. The film tells the story of a model who survives a car crash and subsequently decides she wants to become pregnant by a friend, who agrees on the proviso that they conceive the child in – wait for it – a desert. Enter Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, a crusty 30,000-acre area where the majority of the film subsequently takes place, with the white/blue horizon splitting the screen in more ways than one and establishing Villeneuve’s cinematic flair with aplomb.
See it for yourself: You can learn about the history and geology of the Bonneville Salt Flats via a tour with the Intermountain Guide Service, which provides one-hour expeditions and can collect visitors from local hotels.
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With a 30 per cent tax rebate, Covid travel exemptions for US actors and crew and two well-fitted film studios, Hungary has never been more attractive to filmmakers. It’s a no-brainer, then, that Villeneuve chose to shoot much of his upcoming blockbuster Dune there (in addition to Jordan, Austria, Norway and the UAE), but it was far from his first foray into the central European country. Back in 2016, he used Hungary as a double for futuristic Los Angeles in high concept sci-fi Blade Runner 2049 (2017), shooting extensively at Korda Studios as well as capturing footage in ‘live’ locations. Most memorable of these were scenes shot in the largest privately owned landmark in Budapest: the immense 50,000sqm Exchange Palace, a building that has stood empty since 2009. Built in 1907 and previously home to the Budapest Stock Exchange and Hungary’s MTV division, the ornate structure poses as a dishevelled, orange-lit casino in a futuristic Las Vegas where a long awaited stand off – gun fights, holographic Elvis Presleys and all – between K (Ryan Gosling) and Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) takes place. Hungary also supplied other equally dystopian sets for the film, including an abandoned factory and Brutalist city streets that masqueraded as K’s apartment. Some second unit exteriors also ventured as far as Iceland, Mexico and Nevada, as well as a solar power plant in Spain.
See it for yourself: Book a few nights at the centrally located Aria Hotel Budapest to enjoy a luxurious pied-à-terre while you explore the city’s cinematic sites – including the Exchange Palace, which is only a nine-minute stroll away.
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Born between Montreal and Quebec City, Villeneuve knows his homeland inside out and used it to masterful effect in his early work. Both his debut August 32nd on Earth, as well as his bizarre but critically acclaimed narrated-by-a-fish follow up, Maelström (2000), made use of his university town Montreal’s cityscapes – as did Polytechnique (2009), a powerful dramatisation of the 1989 Montreal École Polytechnique massacre. After a string of filmed-abroad box-office hits initiated by Prisoners, Villeneuve returned to his homeland to shoot cerebral sci-fi Arrival (2016), which used the vast countryside to the northeast of Quebec City (the emerald hills of Bas-Saint-Laurent, to be precise) to capture the physical vastness of the alien spaceship and metaphorical gap in communication between the human species (represented by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner) and the visiting extra-terrestrials.
See it for yourself: To take in an infamous alien landing site, first check in to Quebec’s Fairmont Tremblant hotel, which offers superlative ski facilities, a comprehensive spa and seriously luxurious rooms. Then head out along Route 132 to enjoy the majesty of the St Lawrence River until you arrive at Arrival’s shooting site just under three hours later.
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Villeneuve is known for his challenging storylines, so it’s no surprise he often shoots in challenging locations. For 2010’s Academy Award-nominated Incendies, the barren, sun-beaten sands of the Jordan desert reflect an equally stark story of a mother’s last wish. Family drama has rarely looked as bleak as it does here, and, flanked by an unforgiving, garishly bright Middle Eastern backdrop, the discomfort of the characters’ journey is effectively magnified.
Using Jordan for Dune was a more straightforward choice, however, not only because the classic Frank Herbert novel takes place on a dry, desert planet, but also because almost every major science fiction film has used its crown jewel, Wadi Rum, for the same purpose over the years. Known appropriately as the Valley of the Moon, Jordan’s largest canyon has hosted the likes of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), Prometheus (2012), The Martian (2015), Aladdin (2019) and the not-so-sci-fi Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – which is often credited with giving the area the tourism boom it enjoys today.
See it for yourself: Bask in the brilliant expanse of Wadi Rum from the air or from the ground on four wheels, four hooves or two feet. Find the trip that suits you best here.
A retrospective of the director’s work – Denis Villeneuve: The Path to Dune – is at BFI Southbank, London until 5 October, with selected films available to stream on BFI Player (UK only). Book tickets here
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