Fascist architecture. Insectoid war machines. Hellish desert landscapes. These are just a few of the hypnotically sorry “Dune” scenarios configured by production designer Patrice Vermette. After collaborating with “Dune” director Denis Villeneuve on four previous films – including “Arrival”, for which he won an Oscar nomination – Vermette has become adept at generating ambitious sets.
Still, “Dune” has proven to be particularly intimidating, given its reputation as impossible to adapt. But when he first read Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel, Vermette enthusiastically embarked on seven months of pre-production concept development and six months of principal photography.
Speaking of a movie set in Australia, Vermette said, “This book has been on Denis ‘mind since he was a teenager, so I decided,’ Let’s go back to the roots of the original material and look for clues. that will help us build the world. ‘ And the first thing that struck me when I read ‘Dune’ was the ladder.
To this end, Vermette and her team, faithful to Villeneuve’s “No green screen” mandate, have built “Dune’s” the most intimidating architecture on the backlot of Origo Studios in Budapest. The Residence, a huge concrete fortress squatted on the desert planet of Arrakis, originally served as the headquarters of the evil colonialists of the House of Harkonnen harvesting hallucinogenic spices in the desert and exploiting the native Fremen.
“In the book,” says Vermette, “Frank Herbert says it’s the greatest construction ever built by mankind and as a reader you are like ‘Wow, that is awesome.’”
The oddly-angled building, made of wood and high-density polystyrene, is in part inspired by the Brutalist school of mid-century architecture, once popular in the Iron Curtain countries. “There is also the influence of Egypt, the ziggurat architecture of Mesopotamia, Aztec architecture and bunkers from WWII, which is the first thing Denis showed me”, said Vermette. “It’s a great mix because, for us, design must always respond to reality. In this case, the Residence is a response to the landscape. Why so angular? The wind tears metal at 750 kilometers per hour! The angularity allows the wind to sweep the building.
Ideology is also built into the structure, he says. “House Harkonnen was probably like, ‘We’re the great conqueror, so let’s build something for the Fremen to look at and say,’ Oh, my God, they’re strong people, we have to obey them. ‘ This is the message of architecture.
The filmmakers traveled to Norway for exterior shots of the planet Caladan, home of Prince Paul Atréides (Timothée Chalamet). “Caladan is tradition,” says Vermette. “For Denis and I, our favorite season is fall in Canada. There is still haze in the air and you have a darker green from the moss and Norfolk pines. We wanted to create that kind of atmosphere for Caladan.
Caladan’s Canada-inspired color palette contrasts sharply with sunny Arrakis. “We’re going to Arrakis and blah!” Paul squinted in that harsh light as if he had been shaken by the shoulders, ”said Vermette. While researching venues in Jordan with Villeneuve and line producer Joe Chacon, Vermette realized that the desolate desert of Wadi Rum would provide a totally inhospitable setting for Arrakis.
“In Jordan we were really struck by those faded metallic skies as opposed to the beautiful blue skies of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. ‘Dune’ is a much harsher world. Denis’ idea was: “Let’s find a desert where, if you walk in it, you will die.” This is what Arrakis should be.
The pale sky of Jordan-as-Arrakis serves as the backdrop for airborne war machines inspired by Vermette’s penchant for insects. A small predator looks like a high-tech cockroach. An egg-shaped airship is reminiscent of a zeppelin from the 1920s, although Vermette explains, “It’s basically an armadillo that got run over.
And for the wing-sprouting helicopter-like war machines known as Ornithoptera, Vermette gave designer George Hull a simple guideline. “My brief for George was: the dragonfly. The resulting aircraft, weighing around 10 tonnes, was made in England and shipped to Jordan, with fully functional retractable wings.
In designing the Gargantuan Sandworms of Arrakis, Vermette again found analogues in nature. “They must have looked dangerous, but we didn’t want the sand worms to have big teeth,” says Vermette. “It wouldn’t make sense, because what would they be chewing in the middle of the desert?” So I suggested that maybe the sand worm should have small teeth like a whale’s, which filter plankton. Likewise, sand worms would find their nutrients in sand. As for the leathery-looking epidermis of the worm, Vermette says that the monster’s skin was “very influenced by the roots and bark of some trees and also by [the hide of] the rhino, because the sandworm has a little hair.
Emerging from the “Dune” bubble after more than a year of detail-obsessed world-building, Vermette believes Herbert’s premonitory storytelling has been served well by Villeneuve’s heartfelt adaptation. “The biggest challenge in this film was to support Denis Villeneuve’s inner child by bringing to life this vision of ‘Dune’ that he had when he was 13 years old.”
This futuristic vision of a galaxy gone awry seems to have stood the test of time, according to Vermette. “Frank Herbert was a product of his own generation, but like all good science fiction, ‘Dune’ foretold what happens today. There is always colonialism, exploitation, we are not treating the planet properly. Herbert absolutely saw the future.