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A Trio Bands Together to Help Denis Villeneuve Make ‘Dune’

Two of the director’s previous collaborators - production designer Patrice Vermette and editor Joe Walker - along with first timer, cinematographer Greig Fraser, teamed together to help him bring author Frank Herbert’s famed sci-fi novel, long thought unadaptable in cinema, to the screen.

A key reason filmmaker Denis Villeneuve was so successful in constructing the cinematic world of Dune, blueprinted from his own vision of the story while still honoring the famed sci-fi tome’s author Frank Herbert, was his partnering once again with two veteran collaborators, production designer Patrice Vermette and editor Joe Walker, along with cinematographer Greig Fraser, a new member of his inner circle. “When Denis asked me to do the movie, we were having breakfast together in a restaurant, on a cold, snowy February day,” recalls Vermette, who previously worked with Villeneuve on Enemy, Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival. “I knew how important that book [“Dune”] was for him so I needed to treat it with respect. But, I also enjoyed the worlds that Frank Herbert had created.” 

Design inspiration for Vermette’s mood boards came from Ziggurat and Brutalist architecture found in Eastern Europe and Brazil. “I had an ongoing discussion with Denis for seven months,” he says. “’Dune’ is a book that as we know was considered unadaptable in cinema.  That was a good challenge.”

Complicating the film’s world building was the fact that blockbuster franchises such as Star Wars were also inspired by the seminal science fiction novel. “Many years before Dune was set there was an uprising that led to banning of all computers and technology,” notes cinematographer Greig Fraser, who worked with Villeneuve for the first time on Dune and previously shot Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. “The people doing the calculations for the spaceships are the Mentats, who use the spice to enhance their brain.  When you talk about it like that, Dune is the opposite of what Star Wars is.  Star Wars is about computers and high tech. So, it’s got to start with the production design, otherwise it doesn’t matter what I do with the camera.” 

Various planets populate the Dune universe, from Caladan, with its abundance of water and vegetation, to the scorched arid desert wasteland of Arrakis. “Caladan has islands,” notes Vermette.  “The economics is about rice, fisheries and wine.  You want to try to represent that in the architecture and planet.  The book talks about big pine trees and a Medieval influence for the castle.”  Principal photography for House of Atreides’ ancestral home took place in Norway.  “The word that I keep using on Caladan is ‘moist’ because the place is constantly raining,” states Fraser.  “It’s a bit like the UK.  It feels like there’s always moisture on the foot or dew in the air.  The humidity is not like Thailand, but there is a heaviness to the oxygen.  That made for a nice opposite to Arrakis, which heavy with sand, spice, and heat.” 

The indigenous tribes of the South Pacific and history of colonialism informed the basis of Arrakis, where giant sandworms roam beneath the desert surface, and create the rare and coveted “spice.”  “The tribes would not cross open ocean, so within the desert, we needed the rock formations [for the Fremen] and that’s what brought us to Jordan.  Colonial entities build these massive things to show how powerful they are so the Arrakis residency is the biggest construction built by humans.”

In the film, the Voice enables the Bene Gesserit, a secretive matriarchal order with superior physical and mental abilities, to mind control their subjects. “Theo Green [sound designer], Mark Mangini [supervising sound editor], Denis and I became obsessed with this idea that the Voice somehow summons up the Bene Gesserit ancestry,” reveals editor Joe Walker, who cut Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049.  “Theo recorded dozens of readings of lines from a variety of voice artists.  Not everybody will get it’s Charlotte Rampling’s [portrays the Reverend Mother] voice mixed in with Marianna Faithful’s, which was appropriate because they were both partners in crime in the 1960s. The idea was that the Bene Gesserit possess the skill of being able to dig deep into their past, and Paul Atreides [Timothée Chalamet], having been brought up in that discipline, would have that ability. The other thing is that you’re trying to make a point that he is not that good at it in the beginning but develops the skill as he comes along.  At some point we had a breakthrough in the cutting room. Denis and I tried moving the sync. It made me think of those lovely Czech films from 1960s that were adventurous with sound.”     

The filmmakers took significant pains to ensure that as much as possible could be captured in camera, such as a massive environment that was partially constructed called The Nexus. “Part of the set had to be built for real to give us the texture and background, while the rest became a light volume,” states Vermette.  “We ended up building that set between Stage 1, 2, 3 and 4 at Origo Studios in Budapest.  65 feet high. On two parts we built the real set up to 20 feet. In the middle of it we built the mast.  It’s when Duncan Idaho [Jason Mamoa] dies. Fremen hide in the sand and the Sardaukar come down from suspensors. That’s where visual effects really excelled. It was all about creating the right light environment to enable Paul Lambert [visual effects supervisor] and his team to do their best work.  The rest between the stages was covered with sand colored fabric. The floor was sand and the top was a retractable roof that the riggers had put metal wires onto. We could slide the fabric roof, which had a gobo representing all the spokes that would be shadow casted on the floor.  It was complicated.”


It was also important to the filmmakers for viewers to understand what was going on the in the fight sequences. “One thing that we talked about early was the fights because Denis and I aren’t necessarily big on the rapportage shooting when you do stunt fights, which has already been done beautifully,” notes Fraser.  “How are we going to do that better?  We covered them as we would a dance or ballet.  I’ve always been intrigued by good fight design and am frustrated when I can’t see it on the screen because it’s all full of boom, boom, boom, whips, bams, and zooms. I want to see and feel all the hits.  We would do it on a slow dolly push or try to be Kubrickian almost in our coverage.  We tried to be poetic with the fights and even less poetic with some of the dramatic work that would be simpler and more functional.”

In one scene, Paul Atreides gets tested on his ability to endure pain while the Mother Superior holds a gom jabber, a long needle tipped with meta-cyanide poison, to his neck.  “You want to sense that a troubling and disturbing power is surfacing in him and that has as much to do with editing visual as it does with sound effects and music,” Walker remarks.  “The music can be like a sound effect sometimes and the sound effects can be like music.” 

Noting the pandemic’s impact on the film’s editing process, Walker concludes, “For a lot of the time last year, Denis was up in Montreal, and I was in Los Angeles. We were working by Evercast. The strangest thing for me was to not to have him on my righthand side. The right side of his face is like the dark side of the Moon to me. I have no idea of what it looks like!  I’ve only seen the left side of his face.  It was unusual having him staring right at me!  In all honesty, it’s a relationship that becomes strangely less and less spoken.  It’s like a well-rehearsed band that can play together well.” 

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.