Based on the novel by Frank Herbert, Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, who must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people. As malevolent forces explode into conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence — a commodity capable of unlocking humanity’s greatest potential— only those who can conquer their fear will survive.
There have been a few attempts to adapt Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi classic (including, famously, David Lynch who disowned his own Eighties version) and now’s the turn for visionary French director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner: 2049.)
With cinematography that could burn your retinas (in a good way) we couldn’t wait to sit down with the movie’s Director of Photography, Greig Fraser, to find out more about his process and what his favourite scene is…
So, you get the call that you’re going to be the Director of Photography on the new Dune adaptation, what do you do first?
First of all, you go into the corner and you vomit. That’s the first thing to do [haha]! No, obviously you don’t. When you get the phone call from Denis Villeneuve, you’ve got to stay poised and professional. Maybe put it on silent when you vomit…
The first thing after I got off the call was I went ‘oh, geez, this is big’. I remember where I was. I was in a parking lot when I was talking to him and I was pacing up and down looking at the lines on the road going ‘oh dear’ because he was talking about how much he loved this thing. I was like ‘this is the unmakeable film’! You know, they talked about this being the unmakeable book.
What was great about it was that I didn’t have a back story or back history with this movie, with this book. I hadn’t read it when I was a kid. So I didn’t have that passionate love that a lot of our team had. I actually didn’t feel at a disadvantage to that because I didn’t have a picture of what this thing would look like.
What was really lovely was that Denis did. He’s had a passion for this thing since he was 14. So he clearly had a vision. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of Denis’ other movies, but he’s got bloody good taste. So when he says to me, I recommend you try this, this or this… he was very, very collaborative. He didn’t say this is how we’re doing it, and this is my way or the highway. He was like, ‘can we try this? Could it be that?’
I became this kind of malleable device that effectively took his vision and turned it into something. Which is effectively what my job is! I can walk into any film with my opinions, but ultimately if they don’t align with the director’s, then guess who is going to win that discussion? Right? It’s not me. So I had to become in alignment with him.
Dune is a huge story with numerous planets, complex technology, various religions and civilizations. Was it daunting to create such a layered world?
It was in hindsight. When people ask me about it, I’m like ‘yeah, it was daunting’ but the biggest thing that was daunting was how much passion my collaborators had for it and how important it was not to get it wrong. Obviously that was more pressure on Denis because he was leading the crew but we all felt this overwhelming passion to not get it wrong.
There had been obviously discussion in the past about the film being hard to make and there’s the whole version that didn’t get made and so it comes with baggage. Not every film comes with baggage, some films people don’t know about when they get released and they get surprised. This one had some baggage and that was a huge pressure that we all put on ourselves.
So from my perspective, I just made sure I became super focused. I was like, ‘alright, everything I’ve learned up to this point, is now going to lead me to make this movie’. Everything; the way that I light, my crew and my health, my mental health, my physical health. All those things that go along with a production that people don’t often talk about. Like we all had to stay super fit and super healthy. When everyone’s going out Friday night, we’re like ‘no, I’m not, I won’t come out’. So those types of things, we all were aligned to try and make the best film possible.
That’s a lot going on! How do you keep yourself organised?
Thankfully, I have a great crew, so there are a lot of things that I don’t need to worry about, which is really good for me because I’m not the most organised person! I’m not the most organised person but what I am good at doing is blocking out everything and focusing and using my instinct. Listening to different parts of your head versus your heart.
There’s a whole argument about ‘is your head talking or your heart talking?’. Some people have a hard time determining what is talking to them, but I’ve been trying to get better at focusing on what my instincts say. So I have a lot of great people taking care of things that really would distract me from the bigger picture.
What element of your job do you like the most?
I love the entire process. But I love anytime there’s an honesty and intimacy to the camera. I do a lot of operating myself where I can and I think there’s a really spiritual opportunity that you have with an actor in front of a camera. In a real location in a real space, doing the real thing.
Obviously we’re not on Arrakis. We were in Abu Dhabi or in Jordan, but we’re on set, we’re in sand dunes. All you can see are sand dunes. But having that bond with the actors and the director, and the camera. There is this triangle of trust that goes on there where the director’s swerving the actors to get them into the right mindset and to do the right action. As the camera, you’re recording that. Otherwise it doesn’t exist. No one sees it unless I turn up for work, or the person that I play in the film, which is a cameraman, turns up for work. Otherwise that becomes a story that’s written to the ages. So, I find that quite powerful. Particularly when there is a raw honesty to the drama, and that’s intimacy. It’s not big stuff and blowing stuff up (although that’s fun). But it’s not that. It’s the intimacy of humans, dealing with humans.
What scene are you most proud of in Dune?
Well, I’m a bit hesitant to say. There’s a number of things I really love. I love the scene with the Gom Jabbar and I love the scene in the nexus, in the lab; Duncan Idaho’s last stand. But I also love those little intimate moments of Paul and Jessica, in the desert by themselves. I love that. I just love those two characters and that intimacy that they have, on the rocks, getting dressed and then going through and sitting down and taking a breath and seeing the sand worms. It’s just so intimate. I love it.
Dune is available on digital download now and 4K UHD, Blu-Ray, DVD and VOD on 31st January. Read our review here.