When it comes to making movies, it’s a production designer’s job to transport you to a different world. But in the case of Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s epic new film, that also involved creating entire planets.
To pull off the godlike feat, Villeneuve tapped frequent collaborator and fellow French-Canadian Patrice Vermette, a two-time Academy Award nominee who has dreamed up the sets for films such as Vice, Sicario, and Arrival. Dune—based on Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 sci-fi novel of the same name—presented new challenges altogether, not the least of which was avoiding the notorious “Dune Curse,” which has plagued even the most enterprising filmmakers for decades.
But Villeneuve was determined. “Denis had been dreaming of that book since he was like 13 or 14,” Vermette says via video from Australia. “He had it in his blood.”
The film begins in the year 10191 and chronicles the arrival of a noble family—played by Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, and Oscar Isaac—on the desert planet of Arrakis. Not only must they rule over the local people, the Fremen, but they also must mine Arrakis’s prized natural resource, a glimmering substance called spice. Like any good story (and no spoilers here), the narrative focuses on the battle between good and evil but also touches on more complex themes like colonialism and environmentalism.
“For me and Denis, design should be set in something that makes sense,” Vermette says. “When you ground something in a reality we can all recognize, it makes it easier for people to believe in the more fantastical aspects of your story.”
The resulting reality is easy to get lost in. Dragonfly-like aircraft shudder above Brutalist cityscapes. Characters pace through cavernous, dimly lit corridors. Grains of sand and spice glint in the unrelenting desert sunlight. (And the efforts were well worth it: Legendary Entertainment and Warner Bros. just green-lighted the sequel.) Here, Vermette shares how he and Villeneuve pulled it off.
They Designed Like Fremen—and Architects
Like Villeneuve, Vermette had also read Dune as a kid. But after revisiting the text, he realized, “there’s nothing very specific about anything.” But there were clues. On the desert planet Arrakis, for instance, Vermette knew that the planet’s inhabitants faced extreme temperatures, 500-mile-per-hour winds, and, of course, hungry, angry sandworms. Armed with those realities, Vermette and his team reverse-engineered the sets to imagine what the buildings might have looked like. “Architecture and design should respond to an environment and also respond to the storytelling,” he says.
To that end, Arrakeen, the sprawling imperial city in the film, is positioned strategically in a bowl of mountains to ward off sandworms. (“Would you really settle your city in the middle of the desert? No.”) Vermette and his team gave the buildings sloped, thick walls that would withstand whipping winds and keep the interiors cool during the day—not dissimilar to passive design principles. “The idea is that it’s designed around light shafts so that there is never any direct light,” Vermette explains. “It bounces off the walls.”
The team also found architectural inspiration on Planet Earth as well, notably in World War II–era bunkers and Mayan temples—with a bit of Brazilian Modernism thrown in for good measure.
Nope, That’s Not a Green Screen
With Dune’s breathtaking scenery and immersive environments, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was all captured using a green screen. Not so with Vermette’s set: “We went old-school Hollywood,” he says. “Denis’s approach has always been about creating the most immersive sets and the most immersive environments for the actors. I think it helps everyone on the team get into the mood of what we’re doing.”
That meant filming in IRL locations, like deserts in Abu Dhabi and Jordan (the crew spent four weeks in the Wadi Rum valley) for scenes set on Arrakis, and wooded, coastal terrain in Norway for the scenes on Caladan. Some of the most complicated sets were constructed on soundstages in Budapest, leveraging the skills of hundreds of artisans but also deploying some visual sleight of hand. Some of the more towering interiors were built using fabric, which allowed the actors to be lit correctly while also enabling the visual-effects team to work their magic more easily.
And those surreal helicopters, known as “ornithopters” in Dune parlance? Also real. A prop maker in London built two of them—one 75 feet long, the other 48 feet—and shipped them to Jordan, where they were then transported to the set on a Soviet-era Antonov cargo aircraft.
Caladan Is (Sort of) Canadian
In contrast to the super-arid, harsh climate on Arrakis, Caladan, home to House Atreides (a.k.a. team Chalamet), is a cooler, rainy planet, defined by craggy coastlines and misty pine forests. And though the Caladan scenes were filmed in Norway and Budapest, for Villeneuve and Vermette, they evoked something closer to home. “Our favorite season in Canada is fall, and fall represents a change,” Vermette says—a perfect device to foreshadow the changes coming to the characters’ lives.
The interiors, however, nod to medieval Japan in their spartan furnishings, intricate screens, and diffuse lighting. “You need to understand visually that that family has a strong and very long history,” he explains. That’s where set decorator Richard Roberts worked his magic, sourcing custom-made furniture, lighting, textiles (the rugs throughout the film were all made in Denmark), and other props, which were then weathered to an ages-old patina.
They Actively Avoided Creating Another Star Wars
Desert planet? An evil emperor? To the uninitiated, the plot of Dune may sound a lot like a certain George Lucas series. There was precedent for Dune on the silver screen, too, notably David Lynch’s 1984 stab at the epic, as well as an early-aughts miniseries. And among millennial and Gen-Z viewers, a fresh Dune adaptation could run the risk of emulating a video game. “We did not want it to look like a movie or a video game,” Vermette insists.
Vermette’s best research assistant? His own son. “Every time I added a new illustration [to my storyboard] I said, ‘Come here—does that remind you of anything that you’ve seen in video games?’ ”
That kind of internal scrutiny helped push the Dune team to create something entirely new, from the sumptuous costumes (designed by Jacqueline West) to the architectural spaceships. “The idea is to dream and to let our imaginations become a kid again,” Vermette reflects. “It’s part of what gives us our drive.”
The Walls Hold Secrets
Vermette may have overseen the big-picture look of the film—bunker-like cityscapes and the climate of each planet—but he and his team relished in the details, too. One such tidbit came from a note in the novel about Paul Atreides’s room on Arrakis featuring a mural with fish. Vermette ran with that detail and designed not only a gleaming bronze relief in that bedroom (Vermette’s wife, an artist, designed the koi fish) but also similar murals throughout the residence, including Art Deco–like reliefs of Shai-Hulud, the Fremen’s sacred sandworm. “If you actually pay attention, they tell the story of Arrakis,” the production designer explains. “They probably would have been created a long time ago when they made the residency. They probably would have hired local artists…it needed to look like there’s a tradition.”
The walls on Arrakis hold even more secrets: “One nerdy detail that nobody would know about except me is that in the imperial lab, on the walls in the main room, it looks like a stone texture, but if you look closely it’s all a written language,” Vermette divulges.
That text, which resembles cuneiform or hieroglyphics, is the written form of an entire Fremen language developed specially for the film. It might be visible to just Vermette and the most eagle-eyed viewers, but it’s that level of obsession, Vermette says, that is essential to successful moviemaking: “Denis allows us to dream and he pushes us to be like that. We’re a bit maniacal,” he says.
“Where do you stop? You stop when you say ‘roll camera,’ ” Vermette adds.
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