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graphic
iconThe Sci Fi Channel's "Dune" concludes its premiere run with Part Three on Tuesday at 9 p.m. EST (repeat airings follow). If you'd like to take along some terms, characters and images in your stillsuit pocket, click here for our interactive "Dune" primer.

Careers in collaboration

'Dune,' rising


In this story:

'Countless delicate decisions'

'Desert power'

'The spice must flow'

'Knowing there's a trap'

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



November 30, 2000
Web posted at: 6:15 p.m. EST (2315 GMT)

(CNN) -- "I'd be lying to you if I said I never had ambitions to tackle something like this. Of course I did. Careers work in mysterious ways. But I never knew that I'd have the opportunity to do this kind of material. You get one of these maybe once in your career."

Writer-filmmaker John Harrison has just articulated the power of "Dune" itself. Did you get it? To those who already know the work, it's as easily spotted as those burning eyes on Harrison's characters, eyes gone bottomless blue from the coveted spice mélange.

  QUICK VOTE
graphic Many were disappointed with David Lynch's 1984 film adaptation of "Dune." Do you think Frank Herbert's key career work can be satisfyingly translated to the screen?

Yes. And it sounds like John Harrison's production might get it right.
Can't predict. I'm going to have to see it work to believe it.
No way. Herbert's work simply transcends cinematic capabilities. It lives only in the mind.
View Results

 
  JOHN HARRISON
graphic Harrison began his directing career in music videos. "I would hope that Frank Herbert is smiling down on this and enjoying what I've done."
 

But for others, it's maybe hard to catch: Harrison rushes on to credit the many artists, on- and off-camera, with whom he's collaborated on his new six-hour adaptation of the late Frank Herbert's masterwork -- Miljen (called "Kreka") Kljakovic's nouveau-baroque production design, Academy Award-winner ("Amadeus") Theodor Pistek's rococo-Regency/Berber costuming.

In its meticulous evocation of a universe both alien and native to us, "Dune" is considered by many to be among the English language's most accomplished works normally classified as science fiction.

For his part, Harrison steers the shifting-sand perceptions of this 1965 novel -- and all 12 million copies -- straight out into the desert beauty of its not-quite-classifiable rarity. "I actually don't think of it as science fiction. It's epic adventure, not sci-fi.

"Mallory. Shakespeare. 'Beowolf.' Aeschylus. This story doesn't have to be familiar to an audience to be properly told. It's referential. We have wonderful sets of guidelines for understanding this work."

And so when his luminous, drum-pounding vision of "Dune" opens its three-night premiere on Sunday at 9 p.m. EST on the Sci Fi Channel, Harrison says his greatest joy "will be to have some in the audience find this material for the first time.

"Because it's not a story about technology," he says. "And it's not a simple-minded story. It's a complex story of revenge and larger destiny: It's a romance -- a 'romance' in the epic sense of the word. This is a story about the human condition."

graphic
Frank Herbert, who died in 1986, is seen here with his son Brian. With co-author Kevin J. Anderson, Brian has written two prequels to his father's six "Dune" books -- "Dune: House Atreides" and "Dune: House Harkonnen."  

So now go back to his first statement. When Harrison was younger, studying acting in Carnegie Mellon University's theater-arts program in his hometown of Pittsburgh, did he ever have ambitions of interpreting so sweeping an arc of classic contemporary literature as "Dune?" -- "Of course I did."

Of course he did. That's the secret of "Dune."

It's not cool to talk about it at the office watercooler, but we all nurture fantasies of getting a crack at the big work in our field, the real thing, the icon. That's the most potent part of "the human condition" Harrison is talking about. And it's something Herbert seeded, rare as that spice, into the mythic sands of "Dune." The dream of the Kwisatz Haderach -- a fabulous glowing-eyed messiah -- can only be topped by the thought of being such an entity, discovering yourself to be the one who is "the shortening of the way."

"We all know what this is," Harrison says. It's that peculiar, nagging, scary desire to be bigger, better, more than we are, all that we could be, everything we think we sometimes glimpse in ourselves -- if we could just be in the right place ... at the right time ... on the right planet.

graphic

'Countless delicate decisions'

"Had I not got my lazy arse out of bed that morning ... ?" The one known to the desert Fremen as the Muad'Dib has a mighty Scottish dialect right now. In fact, it's too bad you won't hear much of it in the screen-sanded speech he uses in "Dune." This dialect holds a mischief, a wink, a little key to this man's pleasure in the irony of his good luck.

"I was lying in bed with horrible flu," Alec Newman says, "when the call came through to go see John Harrison. I thought, 'Well this is ridiculous, it's a huge project, it'll be on in the States and I've got the flu -- it's ridiculous and I'm not going.' John had flown in that day and had seen another guy" for the role "and was telling Wendy Brazington, the U.K. casting director, 'I think I've had enough for today.'

graphic
Alec Newman  

"So I was being reluctant. And he was being reluctant. But we both decided it might be all right."

The hotel-room reading of a couple of scenes that Newman managed to give Harrison that day in London may very well end up making this Glasgow-born actor's career. At the very least, it has given him a week's lead-up to the show's debut this weekend "doing what John tells me is known as the 'Hollywood shuffle.'"

Newman turned 26 on Monday. "I'm not even that big a name in Britain," he says matter-of-factly. But suddenly he has access to the swank offices of Tinseltown. "It's like just having left drama school all over again," he says.

"It's actually quite nice, to come here and be able to relax and say hello, knowing that it's all fresh. Then again, while I don't want to waste the opportunity of my work being seen, it's important for me not to get too over-excited, you know.

"I'm proud of the work. In six hours, there's always going to be bits you wish you'd done another way, but that's the same for anyone involved. I figured this would be as good a time as any to come over," to California, "figure out how it all works. It's such a great opportunity for me. And, yes, I'm driving myself around on your roads -- driving myself around the bend."

  VIDEO: THE "DUNE" TRAILER
graphic The Sci Fi Channel's marketing program for "Dune" has included a theatrical release of its trailer in many cities.

Open those blue eyes wide.
(QuickTime, Real or Windows Media)

 

You're hearing, naturally, the traditional actor's superstition -- you don't say who you're seeing for which gigs. You're also hearing Newman's quiet way: He's making hay while the sun of this glistening new production shines on him. This is what you do with a starring role like Paul Atreides in "Dune." You try to turn it into a career catapult to something even greater.

"There was an interesting moment at the airport," he's talking about LAX, Los Angeles International, "when I was pulling off on the wrong side of the road. I thought it was the radio. But it wasn't the radio, actually, it was the people beeping at me. Some very colorful language," from other drivers, "my welcome to Los Angeles. "

graphic

'Desert power'

Newman's Paul Atreides is Luke Skywalker with a mind -- a problematic, layered figure, at times an anti-hero. Before the Force was with anyone, Frank Herbert's Paul was saying, "I will face my fear ... and it will pass through me .. and when it's gone there will be nothing ... only I will remain."

The actor says he didn't know "Dune" before getting into the project. "It was a bad thing because I had lots and lots of work to do very fast. But it was good because I had no prejudice about it.

  ALEC NEWMAN
graphic Here's some background info on Newman's career -- what he did for a living before becoming the Muad'Dib. "It's silly to be talking about the whole universe, standing here in Beverly Hills, isn't it?"
 

"After I was cast, friends were quoting parts of it to me. 'Fear is the mind-killer.' All my peers had it, but I'd missed it. I was always a big 'Star Wars' fan but I started to realize that 'Dune' is far more rich and more complicated. So it was a great shock. I gradually found what I was involved in.

"I was on a fast burn. Before I went back to the script, I'd read the book three times. I set about getting to know each part of the story as well as I could. It's a really vast journey Paul makes, a huge spiritual journey. I knew I'd need to know it inside and out -- that was a given, being that we'd shoot it out of sequence.

"So I arrived in Prague" where much of the shooting was done "and set up an office in my room, I was quite proud of it. Went to the gym every day, I was terrified I'd look fat. The guy playing Feyd, Matt Keeslar (Feyd has a pivotal fight with Paul) is incredibly fit. So I figured, 'If I'm going to be half-naked opposite this guy, then don't eat that chocolate. And stay off the beer.' Didn't quite manage that last one."

Newman knows he'll be scrutinized by the worldwide cult of purists who frequent "Dune" sites on the Web. The actor stands 5 feet 9 inches, a point in his favor in playing Paul, who in the book is a teen-ager. So towering is the meaning finally vested in the character by Herbert that it's easy to forget the Kwisatz Haderach is really just a kid at the vortex of "countless delicate decisions."

"I just hope people appreciate how faithful we've been to the book," Newman says. "John hasn't changed any plot line, or added anything to make it easier to understand the material. There's no need. In the first part, you gather so much information. And then the last bit just goes at such a lick."

graphic

graphic

'The spice must flow'

In our interactive "Dune" primer, we walk you through a few of the basic terms and names and plot features of Frank Herbert's book. But as Harrison likes to point out, most of the components of the story are remarkably clear, with their linguistic roots in some sturdily Earthly classics.

The "Bene Gesserit "order of mentally cloistered devotées, for example, carries in its name echoes of "benevolent" and "Jesuit." Even Paul's royal seat, the House Atreides, is named with unmistakable proximity to the Greeks' great House of Atreus.

  INTERACTIVE 'DUNE' PRIMER
graphic You can enjoy the Sci Fi Channel's new "Dune" miniseries without any preparation. But if you'd like to be in the know going in, check out this background on Frank Herbert and some key terms and characters from "Dune" -- plus images from the new miniseries. Just set your thumper here. The drop box you'll get at the top allows you to select "Dune" terms or people.
 

And while many like to refer to "Dune" as an ecological novel -- focusing on the spice mélange, water and the relation of conservation to power and sustenance -- Harrison and Newman comment more on the messianic theme.

"There's a spoiled young prince named Paul" Harrison says. "He's lived a life of privilege. Adores his father (William Hurt as Duke Leto Atreides). He's taken to a far-off wilderness place where his father, as an honorable man, must do the bidding of the Emperor (Giancarlo Giannini). Conspiracies abound. Sure enough, the father is assassinated, the prince is left to die in the desert. He's adopted by the indigenous tribe (the Fremen), which is looking for a messiah. The young prince learns their ways, takes revenge on those who murdered his father, but grows and realizes he has an even larger destiny at stake. Becomes the leader of the desert tribe. And finally triumphs over his enemies."

Newman says the challenge of playing Paul Muad'Dib, that prince-gone-conqueror, is "to resist any hero element. The story is far from optimistic at the end. Paul Atreides unleashes this jihad across the universe. He knows and the audience knows that at the end of the book it's not over. Herbert wrote another five books on it. Every decision has a good and a bad, everything is compromised, as in life. He's united with his lover Chani (Barbora Kodetová). But there's this Princess Irulan character (Julie Cox), who represents the unification of the universe through marriage. Paul's horrific to Chani at some points and he's quite reckless."

Harrison says he's at work on the screenplay for a sequel that producer New Amsterdam Entertainment likely will have him make as a single miniseries treating the next two books in Herbert's canon. "Dune Messiah" (1969) and "Children of Dune" (1976) complete the Atreides trilogy.

What he's done in this film, Harrison says, was all bought for "around $20 million." He makes it look far more costly, he says, by working in a highly stylized and theatrical mode -- soundstage settings, for example, "instead of weeks on location in the deserts of Morocco." The entire piece plays with a keen stage consciousness, in fact, Vittorio Storaro's cinematography almost stalking the actors at times like another blue-eyed character in a scene.

graphic

graphic

'Knowing there's a trap'

Harrison, like Newman, is at pains to insist that the film he's made is faithful to Herbert's concept. My intention was not to make 'John Harrison's "Dune,"' but to make the most faithful adaptation I could."

Since July, the Sci Fi Channel's Web site has logged some frequently very pointed questions from "Dune" aficionados about the new production, along with Harrison's patient and detailed answers. "Are we going to see a new look for the sandworms?" one question reads. "Will the 'weirding way' be accurately depicted in your movie?" reads another. "What assurances can you offer Herbert's fans that his vision will be conveyed as written?" "What do you hope to accomplish with a second film about 'Dune?'"

  THE DAVID LYNCH "DUNE"
graphic The big point John Harrison would like you to get about the 1984 film "Dune" is that this film -- is not that film.
 

That last question refers to the 1984 David Lynch film which starred Kyle MacLachlan as Paul.

"Perhaps one of the things I'll get criticized for," Harrison says, "is the choice not to use the internal monologue that Herbert used in the book. If you use the voice-over narrative -- if you use it to tell the emotional state of a character while you're watching that character -- it has the effect of stopping the motion picture. Movies are images and moving pictures. Novels are words."

But at any point a change was needed from what's in Frank Herbert's book in order to get it successfully onto film, Harrison says, "that change comes from the text, not out of thin air, to fashion the story into a more linear cinematic narrative."

In both men, Harrison and Newman, you hear a gathering excitement as more than a year of work heads for Sunday night's premiere.

"It's silly to be talking about the whole universe, standing here in Beverly Hills, isn't it?" Newman suddenly says with a laugh. "To tell you the truth, I have an aversion to sunglasses and parties."

What viewers will see in the United States on the Sci Fi Channel is some 30 minutes shorter than a European version that screens some nudity as the Fremen get into and out of their stillsuits. Harrison says he trimmed about 10 minutes off each night's installment both for reasons of that nudity and for the time restrictions of U.S. commercial television.

"Eventually, though," he says, "I think the full version will be seen here in the States, too. I just hope the fans of 'Dune' love this. And I hope many more people discover the material through it.

"And I would hope that Frank Herbert is smiling down on this and enjoying what I've done."

Know then that it is the year 10,191 ...

graphic

graphic

 

RELATED STORIES:
Psychic raises ratings for TV's Sci Fi Channel
October 31, 2000

RELATED SITES:
Sci Fi Channel: "Dune"
Brian Herbert's "Dune" site
New Amsterdam Entertainment


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