How Patrice Vermette Created Dune’s Desert Landscapes

The set designer behind Arrival and Sicario referenced ancient Ziggurats, Soviet Brutalism, and World War II bunkers to bring the arid planet Arrakis to life.

Though widely regarded as one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written and having laid the foundation for Star Wars to take off, Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 novel Dune has struggled to translate to the big screen. A 1984 epic directed by David Lynch, for example, was critically panned to the point where the vaunted filmmaker disowned the final cut. Denis Villeneuve, the French-Canadian director behind Blade Runner 2049, may have just broken the “curse of Dune” with his newly released adaptation, which cost a whopping $165 million and took more than three years to make. Besides the star-studded cast that includes Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya, perhaps Dune’s most exceptional quality is the captivating set design by Patrice Vermette.

To set the stage for the sci-fi epic, which mostly takes place on the harsh desert planet of Arrakis, Vermette immersed himself in the novel and collected images and illustrations. On the mood boards? Ancient pyramid-style Ziggurat architecture, power dams, Soviet and Brazilian Brutalism, glaciers, marble mines, and World War II bunkers, which all became the cornerstones of the film’s universe. “We talked about how colonialism always tries to force itself onto a landscape,” he tells Science Focus, “which led me to the work of Nicolas Moulin and of Super Studio in the 1960s, both concept architects who had these designs for huge human-made constructions jutting out of landscapes, which were kind of terrifying.”

It’s on Arrakis where Paul Atreides, played by Chalamet, must travel to ensure the future of his family and his people against the tides of malevolent forces beyond his understanding. Arrakis is replete with captivating rock formations that often serve as pathways for the planet’s indigenous population—known as Fremen—to safely cross the arid terrain, where winds often reach 525 miles per hour and massive man-eating “butthole” sandworms roam beneath the surface. That footage was filmed largely in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, both Middle Eastern countries known for their sand dune landscapes. 

“We needed to ground the story into realistic settings to help the audience believe in the extraordinary elements,” Vermette tells Moviemaker. “This would mean making the settings as immersive as possible, and rallying everybody. Fortunately, we all wanted to make the same movie. Dune would feel like a destination that we would all be exploring together.” As appealing as blistering heat, sandworm monsters, and spice dust that rips off your skin sounds, we’ll leave this one to Timothée Chalamet.

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