Dune is a visual wonder. But there’s one shot, in particular, that director Denis Villeneuve loves the most. It’s fairly early on in the sci-fi film, but it’s one of the most iconic scenes from Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Villeneuve grew up adoring. In a recent interview, Villeneuve broke down Dune‘s Gom Jabbar scene shot by shot. And in it, he revealed the inspiration and techniques behind each moment as well as his favorite shot.
‘Dune’ Gom Jabbar scene is one of Denis Villeneuve’s favorites
During his press tour, Villeneuve has expressed his love for the Gom Jabbar scene, aka the Dune pain box scene. The French Canadian director said in several interviews he was particularly proud of how this scene turned out. Set in a library on Caladan, ancestral home of House Atreides, Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides meets the Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit, played by Charlotte Rampling. His mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), is also a Bene Gesserit and is terrified her son will die in this test. After all, those are the stakes: you either pass the test, or you die.
To pass the Gom Jabbar test, Paul had to place his hand inside the pain box and resist his urge to end the suffering. If he removed his hand from the box before the test was complete, the Reverend Mother would prick him with the Gom Jabbar — a poisoned needle promising instant death — she held up to his neck. The scene is chilling and high-stakes. Villeneuve told BBC Radio 1 the aesthetic of the scene is a point of pride for him.
“The atmosphere, the tension, and the color palette — that’s one of the scenes that I will say is very close to my original dream when I was a kid when I read the book,” he said. “And I remember having shivers directing it.”
Denis Villeneuve’s favorite shot is in the Gom Jabbar scene
Villeneuve loves this scene overall and feels it’s one of the film’s most important. And his favorite shot from Dune is also in it: the moment when Paul puts his hand in the pain box.
Outside looking in, the pain box looks empty inside. But it doesn’t take long for Paul to start feeling the immense pain the box causes. In a video breaking down the Gom Jabbar scene for Vanity Fair, Villeneuve said he wanted the pain box to look as close to Herbert’s description of it as possible. He said:
“The box: one of the very iconic objects. I said to my team, ‘It’s not an expression of our take on the book. I want Frank Herbert to be on the screen. We basically went with the description that was in the book, bringing it feeling of something ancient, something dangerous that cast shadows inside. For me, I didn’t want to use any visual effects for this scene. I really wanted it to be a mental scene, meaning that it will be a scene that will rely into the acting of the actors. And that the actors will express their inner pain without having the help of any visual effects.”
The pain box scene shows what ‘Dune’ is all about
Villeneuve explained how the Reverend Mother’s presence — from her clothing to her stature to the “feeling of oppression” in the library — helped raise the stakes of the scene. And when everything comes together and you see Paul’s hand in the pain box with the Reverend Mother’s hand resting on top of it, you get the true essence of Dune. Villeneuve said:
“Greg and I had tried to create a feeling of oppression and making sure that the room felt closing on Paul, that there is no way to escape. The Reverend Mother is designed to make sure that she will look like towering over him. The box was designed so it fit exactly. So we will feel that the hand is kind of trapped inside. And honestly, frankly, it’s one of my favorite shots of the movie. Why? Because it’s all there.
You have the power of Charlotte Rampling, the Reverend Mother, towering over Paul. And there will be here a connection, a mental connection where Paul will experience tremendous amount of pain coming from nerve induction, like hypnotism. There’s something kind of a sacred quality to the scene. The science-fiction here is more about the evolution of the human brain. And I think it’s like, this is what Dune is about.”
Villeneuve and his production team’s setup for the Gom Jabbar scene could only go so far. The scene wouldn’t be complete without Chalamet and Rampling nailing their performances. The director told BBC Radio 1 he started dancing behind the camera in glee in response to Chalamet’s acting that day on set. It was the moment he knew he had chosen the right cast.