Legendary Pictures Exec Mary Parent on ‘Dune 2’ Success and Challenges: ‘The Movie Gods Were Kind to Us’

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The veteran producer tells TheWrap about developing “Dune” during a turbulent time for film production and how the strikes impacted its release

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Dune: Part Two

With $178 million grossed worldwide on its opening weekend, “Dune: Part Two” is set to become one of the biggest theatrical hits for its producers, Legendary Pictures.

While Legendary has served as a co-producer on films like “Jurassic World” and “The Dark Knight,” “Dune: Part Two” could become Legendary’s biggest box office success on a film in which it is the primary financier, a record that currently belongs to “The Hangover Part II” with $586.7 million in 2011. The Wanda Group-owned company footed 80% of the sci-fi epic’s $190 million budget, with the remainder coming from the film’s distributor, Warner Bros.

The road to this weekend has been as turbulent as a desert storm on Arrakis. “Dune,” first written by Frank Herbert in 1965, has long been known as a sci-fi novel that is notoriously difficult to adapt before Villeneuve took it up as a personal passion project and teamed up with Legendary, which held the film rights, to release the first “Dune” in October 2021.

But that film had been delayed a full year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and when it finally opened, it was released simultaneously on streaming as part of a year-long initiative spearheaded by WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who had to enter extensive negotiations with Legendary to avoid a legal dispute.

Legendary greenlit “Part Two” not too long after “Part One” was released, but the writers and actors’ strikes in Hollywood left both Legendary and Warner Bros. — the latter now merged with Discovery and led by CEO David Zaslav — unsure whether Timothée Chalamet and the film’s loaded cast would be able to promote the film.

That led the two sides to agree to move the film’s release date from November 2023 to March 2024, a move that paid off as “Dune: Part Two” has doubled the domestic opening weekend of its predecessor. With this start, “Part Two” is on an early pace for a $600 million-plus global theatrical run, one that should be enough to get the green light for an adaptation of Herbert’s sequel novel, “Dune Messiah,” fulfilling Villeneuve’s dream of telling the story in a trilogy.

Mary Parent, producer of the “Dune” films and chairman of worldwide production for Legendary, spoke with TheWrap about the challenges of bringing the saga to the big screen and what it was like to work with Villeneuve on turning dense sci-fi text into a blockbuster hit, including the reality of making a blockbuster epic under expensive COVID-19 protocols and during a worldwide pandemic.

It was a really big decision to move this film from November to March.What were those negotiations like? And how did you settle on March 1?

You know, it wasn’t really a negotiation. Warners are great partners and it was definitely a discussion because there was certainly a lot at stake, and we were ready with the film — everyone had worked really hard on a pretty tight schedule to be ready for November. We feel very grateful to have this incredible cast, and it just didn’t seem right. It didn’t seem smart to unveil the film to the world without using the power of the cast to really get the film out there. So we all decided that we began this journey together, we’d finish the journey together, and there’ll be impact by waiting. The tour that was put together was incredible, and with a cast like this, they just really shined and showed up in a way that really helped get the film in the culture.

I’m interested to know how you guys worked with Denis Villeneuve on translating this book, which is a very dense and very difficult sci-fi novel to read, and make it into this big tentpole blockbuster with a very compelling plot.

I mean you said it yourself, obviously Frank Herbert was brilliant and prescient, and this was over 50 years ago but the core themes of the piece are incredibly relevant. For Denis, he’s spoken about him many times, it was really a lifelong dream to bring this story and these characters to the big screen, and these incredible artisans — Greig Fraser, Patrice Vermette, Jacqueline West — he has had such a clear vision and love for these characters in this story. He’s a master world-builder and storyteller, and it just sort of poured from his soul. I know that sounds almost goofy, but it’s true. Those filmmakers with a strong vision, as a producer are always the easiest ones to work with because they have such a very clear vision. All of us would follow Denis into the desert over and over and over again. But he really focused on the characters at the core of it, and that’s one of the reasons why this film is as emotional as it is. He’s a unique filmmaker in that he can work on a very intimate level as well as on a giant, big cinematic canvas.

I understand on this film you guys put in about 80% of the $190 million budget. This film is currently on track to be the highest-grossing film that Legendary is the primary producer on. How do you settle on that 80% number? What goes into deciding how much you put into a film of this magnitude?

It’s a good example of how Legendary is a big company but a small company. We’re uniquely situated to have this sort of intimate environment where we can really caretake and help filmmakers, really support their vision, particularly on a property like this. All you can do is start with trying to find the most talented people you can work with, with stories that deserve to be told. We very much believed in the property itself and Denis and everyone involved. So it was a decision based on that.

How much did Warner Bros. factor into that 80/20 decision?

Warners is an incredible partner. They’ve been amazing partners on not just this film, but many of our other films as well. When you’re making bigger films, you offer up and it’s always nice when your partner wants to be a partner as well, financially. And that was the case here.

The first film was released day-and-date on HBO Max and had been made under the previous leadership at Warner Bros. with Jason Kilar. Once David Zaslav came in, how far along was “Dune 2” in development or pre-production? And how much did that transition affect communication with Warner Bros. as “Dune 2” was being developed?

The green light is actually ours, so we weren’t dependent on a Warner Bros. green light. We unveiled “Dune: Part One” in October 2021, and we had always hoped that this journey would continue, and we were ready. The response to the film was great despite all the other things that we were contending with. So we basically went right into a soft prep after the first film was released and hoped and planned for the best. And in this case, it worked out. It doesn’t always work that way. But we were grateful that it did in this case, certainly.

Mary Parent
Mary Parent (Getty Images)

Were there things that you guys had to work out the kinks on while making “Part One” that allowed production on “Part Two” to be faster? Was it any easier this time around?

There was a lot less time spent in the desert on the first film, and Denis has spoken very articulately about every film you learn from, but certainly getting to be on Arrakis already and getting to live with some of these characters, you learn things as you go but we laughed because of course a lot of the world building going forward was completely different. In your mind you sort of think, “Okay, this is great, we’ve already got so much of this under our belt,” but Denis’ vision expanded in such a way that between the new characters and the new world building — we spent more than double the amount of time shooting in the desert on “Part Two.” It was over two months, actually.

For Denis, as much as he can do practically he’ll always desire. I really think you feel it on the screen. There’s not green-screen extensions in the desert. Obviously the ships, the worms are VFX and the visual effects team is incredible. They won an Oscar the first time around, and I think they’ve outdone themselves. But Denis’ mantra was always boots on the ground, as tactile as this can be. So we didn’t shoot with big green screens and we didn’t put sand on a soundstage, so to speak.

Around the time that “Dune 2” was being shot, there were a lot of issues like supply chain issues, COVID-19 costs and additional hurdles that producers had to face, particularly with overseas productions. Did you and your production team at Legendary face any unique hurdles in making this movie?

You’re spot on. I mean, everyone was facing that and everything cost more. I would say that, again, as a huge compliment to Denis, as big and as epic as this film is, there were many times where it almost felt like you were on the set of an independent film. He’s also a producer on this film and he’s very very smart about where to spend money. Obviously it’s all in service of putting it on the screen, but he’s really an incredibly responsible filmmaker. Vision first, but he’s great to work with and there were challenges just from lumber for construction and the wait times were longer. It was challenging. But where there’s a will there’s a way.

Just the cost of goods in general and the amount of time to get them was certainly longer. So it’s having backup plans, all of those things. Every production faced it. So, you’re right, it was definitely something that that we had to contend with big time.

Last year, there was a lot of talk about how there are a lot of films that, whether it was because of the supply chain costs or increased COVID costs, had very high budgets. Some of those factors, like having to get COVID PPE, are now going away and inflation is cooling off somewhat. How much do you foresee the factors that led to increased costs for these big productions continuing to impact productions?

People were hit in different ways. Certainly, every production had added cost just for COVID protocols and safety first, that’s the right thing and the responsible thing to do. Obviously, now we’re all moving forward, we’ve moved past those, but I think where a lot of people were challenged beyond that was — we were very lucky, we didn’t have any reshoots, we didn’t have big shutdowns due to COVID. And it happened to a lot of people where they actually had to shut the film down for significant periods of time, or they weren’t able to get things and they had to go back and get it. People have talked a lot about that in the press, and some of these movies were financially severely impacted.

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Austin Butler and Denis Villeneuve on the set of “Dune: Part Two” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

In November 2022, Legendary reached a new agreement with Sony Pictures that didn’t affect “Dune: Part Two” or “Godzilla x Kong” because those were projects that were made with Warner Bros. Things are looking like there could be an adaptation of “Dune Messiah” at some point in the future. Should that happen, how does Legendary’s deal with Sony impact that?

It doesn’t. Everything we’ve done with Warners will continue to be done with Warners. If we’re fortunate enough to go forward, those films will go forward with Warners. So no impact.

Denis has mentioned in interviews that he’d love to adapt “Dune Messiah” but he’d love to take some time with it and isn’t looking for a specific release date, and might make a different movie in between. “Dune: Part Two” was greenlit not much longer after “Dune: Part One” hit theaters, but what can you tell us about a potential timetable for “Dune Messiah?”

I’m superstitious, so one day at a time. Opening weekend it’s incredibly rewarding just to see how the audience is responding to the film. So things feel good, but I think we’re all superstitious and we’ll see how things unfold.

While Legendary has been involved as co-producers with other studios like Syncopy, Amblin, DC and Universal, this is one of the biggest gambles that the motion picture group at Legendary has taken. What can you say about what lies ahead with Legendary on the big screen? Do you foresee more of these films where Legendary puts down well over $100 million on these productions?

Sure, if it’s a story that we’re excited to tell and that’s the best way to tell it. We try to be very responsible in terms of how we make our films, but at the same time, when we believe in something, we have the financial wherewithal to [do that], which is one of the exciting things about the company. You’re right, it’s a very complex and difficult adaptation and I think there’s only a handful of filmmakers that you would make this film with, and Denis was at the top of the list. He was at the top of the list of filmmakers that we felt could really do this successfully, and I read an article where he talked about “Dune” having been his lifelong dream. I was like, “Oh, my goodness,” so it was very easy. Sometimes it can be a long process of trying to find the right filmmaker for something, and certainly it was a long journey bringing this to the screen and getting the rights and doing all that, but then finding the right filmmaker, it almost felt fated. It’ll never happen to me again.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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