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Back in 1965, Frank Herbert revolutionized science fiction literature with his futuristic epic Dune. This novel earned him the coveted Hugo and Nebula Awards and helped launch a series of bestselling sequels, as well as the 1984 David Lynch-directed film.
Three and a half decades after its publication, Herbert's novel came to television via the Syfy Channel (then the Sci-Fi) in a lavish six hour mini-series adapted by writer-director John Harrison. The series, Frank Herbert’s Dune, was broadcast on December 3, 2000, followed by the sequel mini-series, Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune in 2003. Also written by John Harrison, the second television series was the adaptation of the second and third novels. Both mini series were in the top three of Sci-Fi Channel’s highest rated programs.
Although Dune relates the political and personal dramas that unfold on and around the desert planet Arrakis, Harrison, spent a few years working on the project, saw the work as relevant to 21st century readers. "The world we live in today more closely resembles Herbert's Dune world than does the 60s," he explained. "In today’s world, for better or worse, there is essentially one empire, one overarching world influence. We live amidst a much more confederated global society."
"We are now under the United States's or the United Nations's global influence. There are a series of competitive royal houses and competitive economic spheres that are vying for world control, again, not unlike what Herbert described. You also have a class of people, whether in Africa, the Middle East or wherever, who are being dragged along by the first world but certainly aren’t part of it. This is also a world dominated by one precious commodity—whether that’s oil, the economic power of the dollar, or whatever. The politics and sociology of Dune are very much like today's, with the conspiracies and political intrigue."
Although the budget was only slightly over $20 million, the mini-series looks considerably pricier. One reason was its top-notch international cast that includes Alec Newman (Paul Atreides), Saskia Reeves (Lady Jessica), William Hurt (Duke Leto), Ian McNeice (Baron Harkonnen), Julie Cox (Princess Irulan), and Giancarlo Giannini (Emperor Shaddam IV).
The other reason for the impressive production values was its A-list crew, notably visual FX supervisor/second unit director Ernest Farino, production designer Mirken Kreka Kljakovic, costume designer Theodor Pistek, and veteran cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, a three-time Oscar winner for Apocalypse Now, Reds, and The Last Emperor. Harrison was able to assemble such a heavyweight group thanks to one simple yet inescapable item. "The book," declared Harrison. "Look, I’m not going to play false modesty here; They all loved the script I had written, but it started with a love for the book. Each one of them—except for Pistek, who really didn’t know Dune, but who had always wanted to do some epic SF adventure—knew the book. In fact, Vittorio had almost done the original film when it was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s [unmade project] in the early 70s."
"There’s an interesting story about us getting Vittorio. My assistant director Matt Clark, with whom I’ve done several pictures, was working with Alfonso Arau on a film that Vittorio was shooting [Picking Up the Pieces]. I told Matt, 'Finish, because I’m about to tie you up for the next year and a half. By the way, when Vittorio is having lunch sometime, ask him if he wants to go to Europe with me and shoot a TV movie.' "
"Matt called the next day and said he had lunched with Vittorio. He had told him that his friend was going to film a mini-series on this SF novel, and was wondering if he would be interested. 'The book’s called Dune.' Vittorio dropped his fork and said, 'Frank Herbert's Dune? I must meet him right away!' So I went to see him. I was quite nervous, because frankly, Vittorio Storaro is one of my cinema idols. I’ve been stealing his work for years and getting other DPs to imitate him, so I’m thinking, 'What am I going to say to this guy? How am I going to impress him?' "
"I got as far as saying, 'Hi, my name is John Harrison,' when Vittorio went into this pitch about how he should do Dune and what he would do with it. He brought a complete visual vocabulary to the table that we were able to adapt, so while we didn't have Jim Cameron's money, we had the visionary talents of guys like him, Kreka, and Pistek. That's how we were able to get these production values on the screen."
Shooting Dune entirely in the studio, where virtually every aspect of the production could be carefully controlled, didn't hurt either. During the early days of pre-production, several long discussions ensued as to where the lensing would be done. Harrison even made scouting trips through North Africa with an eye on possible locations. "We ultimately concluded that I couldn’t make the movie I wanted to make that way. There are many elements to that decision; some were financial, but many more were creative, such as the practicality of shooting on location. The shooting days would have been short during our scheduled time, the light would have been flat—overhead desert light—and the locations would have been limited to what I could find and adapt.
"My vision for Dune's look required the kind of attention to detail that I hope you’re going to see. For example, the cultural life of the Fremen was an essential element in understanding the story's resonance. It’s a traditional story of royal houses feuding over an incredibly valuable commodity, mixed with conspiracies, betrayals, murder—very classic, almost Shakespearean stuff. What ultimately becomes the linchpin of the story, though, is this world of desert people. It’s almost as if Shakespeare met Lawrence of Arabia. It was incredibly important to me to make sure that the life of the Fremen—how they lived, bathed, ate, what they did with their hair and their clothes, how they had children, how they taught their children—came across, so we had to create an environment that reflected all of that."
The solution, then, was to build a series of massive sets in Prague's Barrandov Studios, which boasted the largest soundstage in Europe, yet wouldn't break the bank in terms of production costs. "We decided to create a world that was completely unique, that couldn't be replicated in any natural environment. It meant that Kreka could design sets, such as the primary sietch where the Fremen live, in a way that I never could have duplicated in the deserts of Morocco or Tunisia. I could work with Vittorio on the lighting schemes, creating a color palette that would work on an audience psychologically, which we couldn’t do in the open desert. We then took that color scheme and worked with both Kreka and Pistek in terms of the different houses and tribes—making it all consistent, so that you move through the story visually as well as through the dialogue."
Harrison cast a classically trained group of actors to lend gravitas to his words. "We had an opportunity here to take a book that said much about the human condition and create a TV classic. My intention was to treat the production like that from the beginning, never to 'slum it.' William Hurt's a case in point. He loved the book, so when he heard we were curious about him as a potential Duke Leto, he wanted to meet me right away. He liked the script, and that's how it started in every case. If people had hated the script, we were dead in the water, but people found it a faithful adaptation, a potentially good drama."
"I met with Bill in New York, and we spent a whole day together, just talking about the possibilities. It was the same with Giancarlo. I had to spend many hours trying to talk Saskia into it, though, because she was just coming off a show. But I was saying, 'Forget rest. I’m going to put you to work for four months and you're going to work every day and be in virtually every scene.' With Ian, he came in and gave such an unbelievable audition that it was, 'OK, there's the Baron!' It was just a matter of telling everybody, 'Stop thinking of this as a TV mini-series. Think of it as a great, epic production.' "
The casting of Newman in the key role of Paul Atreides particularly pleased Harrison. "There were some wonderful young actors out here in Los Angeles, but considering the depth of life experience and training that they had, I wasn’t convinced that they could handle the incredible burden I was going to put on them. In New York, it was a bit better. Their training was a little deeper and the talent pool was more complex, but it wasn’t until I met Alec in London that I found the guy I knew could handle it. This young Scot is so brilliant. We actually met in a hotel room at 10 PM. A casting agent said, 'You have to see him; He’s sick with the flu and I know you're tired because you’ve just flown in from France, but this is the only time you can meet him.' Something about Alec just stuck. My luckiest day on Dune was the day I met him."
For Harrison, there's no doubt that Dune marks the creative high point of his career to date. A former Pittsburgh-based actor and musician, his erstwhile directing career took a detour when he teamed up with guitarist Roy Buchanan, touring and making records for several years. In the late 70s, Harrison and two friends formed a production company to make commercials and industrial videos, but it was a meeting with director George Romero that changed his life. "He and his partner Richard Rubenstein gave me my first opportunities in the business."
Harrison worked with Romero as an assistant director, composer, and occasional actor in such films as Knightriders, Dawn of the Dead (that's Harrison as the screwdriver zombie) and Creepshow. "I knew it would be difficult to just show up and announce that I was a director, so I moved to LA. I thought I could write my way into a directing assignment. One of my first screenplays got me my first agent and kept food on the table, and then I wrote and directed for four seasons of Tales from the Darkside when George and Richard got that going."
He soon moved on to directing assignments on Tales from the Crypt, Nightmare Cafe, Earth 2, and Kindred: The Embraced, as well as the TV movies Donor Unknown and The Assassination File. In 1990, he directed Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, a feature version of the anthology series. "We took over an old high school in Yonkers, turned the gymnasium into a stage and built everything there. We also found an old mansion in Riverdale that had once been owned by Benito Mussolini, and used that for the 'Cat from Hell' episode. Everything else was on the stage in the sets we built. I had a wonderful director of photography Rob Draper. I was able to get a certain amount of style within it."
Even while directing episodic television, Harrison continued to write—most notably Disney's Dinosaur, co-written while waiting for Dune to get green-lit. He worked on several Disney projects, including an adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, and an adventure story featuring a Dead End Kids-like gang, one of them being a ghost. "It was a little edgy and they decided not to make it, so they said, 'Would you come onto this project called Dinosaur, because we’re going to start over.' I met the directors and the head story guy, liked them very much and thought they were very smart people, so I jumped in."
"That was the first time Disney had done a film of this style [complete CGI], and they built an entire animation studio up around it. The film cost a lot of money, but as with these things, the press has made it out to be much more expensive than it truly was. Has it performed as well as they wanted? Everybody’s really happy with it. It would have been great if it had done Lion King business, or Tarzan, but they tell me it's really profitable. I think it’s a spectacular-looking film."
The opportunity to write and direct Dune occurred when producers Rubenstein and Mitchell Galin picked up the TV rights to the property and asked if Harrison would be interested in working on it. A longtime fan of Herbert's work, Harrison had seen the Lynch film, but thought this was an opportunity to completely reimagine the story. "I had seen David's movie years ago when it came out, and the long version that the Sci-Fi Channel ran, but frankly, when I began work on the project, I avoided watching either of them so that I wouldn’t be unduly influenced one way or another, either by trying to avoid something or by inadvertently aping something. I don’t think anybody will confuse the two in any way, shape or form. It’s a David Lynch movie, no question about it, more than a Frank Herbert story, in my estimation."
"That said, I have enormous respect for David Lynch as a filmmaker and I’m sorry that it was an unfortunate experience for him. I knew that I would have six hours to tell the story properly. I also had the benefit of 15 more years of technological developments, which could be brought to bear on re-creating this world that he couldn't."
Harrison acknowledges that some viewers may be more interested in such recognizable elements as the sandworms and Guild Navigators. "It’s a bit frustrating, but those are the bells and whistles. There’s no question that they are significant elements of this world that Frank Herbert created, and so we took a lot of care in their creation."
"I had a very distinct image in my mind of what a Navigator should resemble, which was informed by what Herbert had written and also by what I considered to be the kind of human who would evolve given the environment in which they had to live. We went back and forth on what they might look like, and then my friends from KNB EFX were able to make the Navigator, and it’s quite a startling creature, not at all like Lynch's. And then of course, there are the Guild Agents who are not the Navigators but pretty creepy in their own right. The worm is a spectacular rendering, very true to the book in terms of what we’ve ultimately been able to create. If you know what Herbert wrote, that’s the worm you’re going to see."
Upon the series premiere in 2000, John Harrison hoped that fans of Dune would enjoy the mini-series. "It has a unique visual imagery, but I’m not going to take total credit for it; that's the work of Vittorio Storaro, Mirken Kljakovic and Theodor Pistek."
"The other thing I would say is that it’s very successful from a storytelling point-of-view—not just the script, but the performances and the actor's ability to make these characters come to life in a compelling and believable way. Without these characters who are incredibly moving, the story would not have the depth and texture that it now has. That, to me, is its other major success. I really hope people get sucked into Dune, because it keeps getting better and better!"
Frank Herbert's Dune
Frank Herbert's Dune is a three-part miniseries written and directed by John Harrison, based on the 1965 novel. The series was first broadcast in the US in 2000 on the Sci-Fi Channel (since renamed to Syfy), then released on DVD in 2001. The series won two Emmy Awards for Cinematography and Visual effects in a miniseries/movie, as well as being nominated for a third Emmy for Sound editing.