Why 'Dune' director Denis Villeneuve chose 'mesmerising' Abu Dhabi as his Arrakis

The UAE capital wasn't always the first choice for the setting of the desert planet

Denis Villeneuve in the Liwa desert while filming 'Dune'. Photo: Chiabella James
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It’s one of the most anticipated films of the year, and Abu Dhabi has a starring role in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, which will hit UAE cinemas on Thursday.

The sci-fi epic was partly filmed in the Liwa desert and uses the vast open landscape as the setting for the planet Arrakis.

In the film, which is adapted from the book series of the same name by Frank Herbert, the dangerous planet is known for its exclusive supply of Spice, the most essential and valuable commodity in the universe.

Described as a desert planet with no surface water bodies, Liwa seemed to be the perfect location. However, producers were initially looking for something a little different.

“When the producers were looking to the UAE, the brief wasn’t about a big desert landscape,” says Robbie McAree of Epic Films, which provided production services for Dune.

“We were looking for locations that had big, rocky mountains with desert around, which sounds achievable but it’s not particularly easy to find in the UAE, especially when they’re also looking at other countries like Jordan where you have places like Wadi Rum.

“Eventually it changed. They fell in love with the UAE and the desert landscape so much that they decided to choose the UAE for the vast desert landscapes.”

Even though producers found their Arrakis, the next challenge was to decide when and how to film, in order to achieve the environment they were looking for. McAree says a creative choice was taken to film during July and August, typically the hottest months in the UAE.

“Logistically it was challenging, however, we did come up with an approach that was safe for everyone. We would film for a few hours in the morning, we’d have a break during the hot hours in midday and then we’d go back out again in the late hours of the afternoon,” he says.

It wasn’t only the actors and crew that had to deal with rising temperatures, but also the equipment used. McAree says special tents with air conditioning and temporary shades had to be created to help keep things cool.

Despite the heat, there was also a specific reason why Villeneuve wanted to film during those months.

“Summer in the UAE has greyer skies and a lot more haze. For Denis’s vision of Dune, it was absolutely perfect. We all knew that it was going to be harsh but he wanted that for a reason," says McAree.

In a behind-the-scenes video released by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, Villeneuve revealed what drew him to Liwa as a central location for the film.

"What I found in Abu Dhabi is unmatchable. There’s a scale to the dunes and the desert in a variety of shapes that we thought was absolutely mesmerising," he says.

"There’s also some climatic conditions there that were perfect for us because of the proximity to the city, it's like a strange kind of haze in that air that I was looking for that matched totally with the look of the film.”

Although Dune won't be released in the US for another month, reviews have been promising. The cast and crew received an eight-minute standing ovation after the film's debut at the Venice Film Festival earlier in September.

On the back of the blockbuster, Abu Dhabi now has a stronger position to promote itself as a major filming locale, in the hopes that future productions will also consider coming to the capital.

Dune is yet another example of how Abu Dhabi continues to attract major international productions. By doing so, the large and diverse pool of crew that we have here gain invaluable experience working with major players such as Netflix, Legendary Pictures and Paramount on projects such as Dune, Mission Impossible and 6 Underground,” says Hans Fraikin, head of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission.

“The success of such projects in turn attracts more productions from across the globe – Hollywood, Bollywood and the Arab world – because they can see that Abu Dhabi offers everything they need to realise their creative vision, smoothly and seamlessly.”

Updated: September 22, 2021, 2:19 PM