It’s impossible to think of science fiction and not think of Frank Herbert. Like the works of Isaac Asimov and Ursula K Le Guin, Herbert’s 1965 epic ‘Dune’ is synonymous to the genre; and while many filmmakers have dreamt of adapting the sprawling work, none have been able to capture the best-selling text’s diverse themes and complex landscapes.
None until Denis Villeneuve, that is. (Sorry, David Lynch.) The Canadian filmmaker, most notable for his work on projects such as ‘Arrival’, ‘Blade Runner 2049’ and ‘Sicario’, is confident that his adaptation — part one of a planned two-part project — stays true to the source material and honours its rich legacy.
“I discovered the book in my teenage years and I remember being totally fascinated by its poetry, by what it was saying about nature — the true main character of ‘Dune’,” Villeneuve says in the production notes. “At the time, I was studying science, I thought I could become either a filmmaker or a biologist, so the way Frank Herbert approached ecology in the book for me was so fresh, so rich, so poetic, so powerful. His view of nature was absolutely mesmerising — all those beautiful ecosystems he created. His exploration of the impact and chaos caused by colonialism was a portrait of the 20th century that is still relevant today. And through all of this was a young man struggling with his identity, trying to find his way in the world, as I was doing myself. The way Paul discovers his identity through another culture was, for me, amazing.”
Acclaimed screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, as well as Villeneuve, tackled the daunting adaptation. Spaihts says about the daunting project, “This was a chance of a lifetime for me. I first read ‘Dune’ at probably 12 or 13, and at that age I was struck by it almost like scripture; it felt like one of the most profound things that I had read and became one of my annual reads, like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and a couple other pivotal pieces of fiction. I came to know it shockingly well, and a striking experience for me, working on the screenplay, was that all I really needed to do was start a scene and my brain would just lay out the dialogue. I knew exactly where it went line by line.”
When it came to casting the many roles, Villeneuve and the producers assembled the who’s who of Hollywood stardom to fill the roles, including Timothee Chalamet as our hero, Paul Atreides, alongside Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem and many more. “To my great pleasure, most of my first choices were available and willing to embark on this journey with me,” Villeneuve smiles.
THE HERO’s JOURNEY
Taking Paul Atreides on this ultimate hero’s journey is actor Timothee Chalamet, who was thrilled to be given the role. “It was an awesome opportunity to play someone so lost, someone so conflicted, but with so much responsibility at a young age,” says Chalamet. “I thought that was a kind of beautiful dichotomy and rare to see as a lead of a movie. Paul is not the everyday romantic protagonist and I relished the idea of this being a character I could really play with.”
Chalamet happily views Paul not as a saviour or messiah but as a reluctant hero with power thrust upon him at a time he is still learning who or what he is destined to be. Surrounded by adults, Paul is the only child among them. “We’re introduced to him when he is just 15 years old,” he says, “and he has to embark on a journey to save his people from genocide. He comes from a moral and dignified people known for their honour and their valour. It’s a proud warrior culture, in contrast to the greed and deceit of the Harkonnen.”
For Villeneuve, there would be no ‘Dune’ without Chalamet. “The process of choosing Timothee Chalamet was very simple: there was no process. There was only Timothee. I had no plan B. I mean, I was making ‘Dune’ with Timothee Chalamet, that’s it, that’s all. And fortunately it was not difficult to convince him because he loved the script and we wanted to work together.”
And while Chalamet’s Paul is definitely — at least initially — an outsider to Arrakis, Zendaya’s Chani is as local to Dune as it gets,
Chani was born on Dune, raised in the ways of its free people and shaped by the planet’s wilds to be a confident, defiant and dangerous warrior.
On Chani, Zendaya says, “When we first meet Chani she’s watching Paul, who is threatening her people. She keeps her eye on him, sizing him up. What he doesn’t realise is that she will very easily kill him if he does anything that she doesn’t want him to do. Of course, she has no idea that he’s been dreaming about her.”
Though Paul dreams about Chani, he still does not understand the importance of who she is… or will be. So when they meet under less than friendly circumstances, there’s a great tension between them.
Zendaya says she understood early on that she’d be put under the scanner by ‘Dune’ superfans. “I spent a lot of time learning how to pronounce the vocabulary, some of which is inspired by real languages, some of which is made up, so I wouldn’t get in trouble with the hard-core fans! I also really wanted to understand the back story for each of the characters, and it is vast — every character has a very in-depth, detailed history and they all intertwine and connect. It was particularly important where the Fremen were concerned, so I could understand their bond and how this group of people really works, and how they survive in the desert.
“They have special suits which help them retain their water,” she continues, “and they have very specific rules and guidelines and rituals. It was very cool to be playing a character that is a vital part of this entirely new world.”
Planet Arrakis is a vast desert world of infinite horizons and desolate beauty. To capture Villeneuve’s singular vision, his creative teams — led by director of photography Greig Fraser and production designer Patrice Vermette — worked to capture as much in camera as possible. That meant foregoing a green screen and creating the director’s ideal Dune on Earth, on the soundstages and backlot of Origo Studios in Budapest, Hungary and on location in Jordan, with about a week in Abu Dhabi before wrap.
The team spent about four weeks in Wadi Rum in Jordan. It provided the breathtaking locations for some of the exteriors on Arrakis, as well as some of the visual effects and helicopter aerial shoots. “It was really surreal,” said Chalamet to Variety, on shooting a scene at dawn in the south of Jordan. “There are these Goliath landscapes, which you may imagine existing on planets in our universe, but not on Earth.”
About shooting in the desert of Abu Dhabi, Chalamet said, “I remember going out of my room at 2am, and it being probably 100 degrees [37.7°C],” says Chalamet. “The shooting temperature was sometimes 120 degrees [48.8°C].”
DID YOU KNOW?
As the foremost expert on Dune and the ways of its people, Dr. Liet Kynes’ relationship to the planet goes beyond mere duty. Though Kynes is male in the novel, Villeneuve and the producers cast actress Sharon Duncan-Brewster in the role. The switch came about because the filmmakers wanted more female representation in the film, while remaining respectful and true to Frank Herbert’s book. Duncan-Brewster observes, “Across the board in this story you’re seeing a majority of men, you only have three women. They are three powerful and integral players in our storyline, as is the role of Kynes, who now opens up a richly complex dialogue for audiences to expand upon whilst holding Frank and his original mission within our 21st century hearts and minds.”
Don’t miss it!
‘Dune’ releases in UAE cinemas on September 23.