Will 'Dune: Part Two' return to Abu Dhabi to shoot?

Oscar-nominated sci-fi epic was partly filmed in the Liwa desert in July 2019

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After Dune opened last October to the highest-grossing opening weekend of director Denis Villeneuve’s storied career, it came as no surprise when Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures promptly green lit a sequel. The $41 million opening it achieved in the US, despite having to contend with the ongoing box office challenges presented by the pandemic and a same day HBO Max streaming release, was no mean feat.

A sequel had always been on the cards, of course. Villeneuve already split Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel in two for his film, but the producers of the likes of Maze Runner and Dredd can confirm that if a film doesn’t cut it at the cash registers, sequel plans can swiftly go awry. Thankfully, with a $400m-plus global haul to date and an impressive awards showing that most recently won the film five Baftas, the accountants can be fairly confident they made the right decision. They could be vindicated further later this month when the film competes in an impressive 10 categories at the Oscars.

Details about the sequel are thin on the ground for now. Villeneuve has said the earliest he expects to begin shooting is autumn of this year, and Dune: Part Two has a tentative release date of October 2023. Those who are familiar with Herbert’s novel can probably predict some key plot points as Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) rises to power among the Fremen in the ongoing battle for control of the spice of the desert planet of Arrakis.

Big names including Florence Pugh, Austin Butler and Kyle MacLachlan are also rumoured to be joining a cast that already features the likes of Chalamet, Zendaya, Stellan Skarsgard, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Dave Bautista and Javier Bardem.

The big question for many UAE fans, however, will be “Is Dune coming back to Abu Dhabi?” The first film shot in the Liwa desert for 11 days, but the short answer is “we don’t know". Not officially at least.

The longer answer is “it seems highly possible". The National understands that negotiations are taking place, but neither the Abu Dhabi Film Commission nor twofour54, which handled local production on Dune, were prepared to comment. Similarly, Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures declined to comment, and none of the local crew we reached out to were able to confirm or deny if they’d been approached for Dune: Part Two, though if contracts haven’t yet been signed, that’s understandable.

Perhaps the best place to look for a clue, then, is right at the top. Director and co-writer Villeneuve revealed to The Hollywood Reporter last year that “a lot of the work has been done already regarding design, casting, locations and writing", for the sequel. He also said in a February interview with Empire that “it is mostly designed. The thing that helps us right now is that it’s the first time I’ve revisited a universe. So I’m working with the same crew, everybody knows what to do.”

If Villeneuve is “revisiting” a pre-designed universe where a lot of the location work is already done, that would certainly sound like good news for Abu Dhabi. The news sounds even better when we hear production designer Patrice Vermette eulogising over the dunes of Liwa. Speaking to Conde Nast Traveller following the film’s release, Vermette revealed that, while the rocky landscapes of Wadi Rum in Jordan may have won the role of Arrakis’s main city, Abu Dhabi was the only choice for the wider desert.

“Even if Jordan worked out for the storytelling, we also needed a place that had intense sand dunes. We were trying to find a place that had 360º of dunes. In the sand dune world, we had selected Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Morocco,” he said. “As soon as we scouted the desert in Abu Dhabi we were like ‘this is the place'.”

As if that wasn’t effusive enough, commenting on the film’s four main locations of Jordan, Abu Dhabi, Norway and Budapest, Vermette said: “Without those four places, there is no Dune.

Cinematographer Greig Fraser, who like Vermette picked up a Bafta for his work on Dune, was similarly full of praise for the capital. In fact, he revealed in a December roundtable hosted by The Hollywood Reporter that the Liwa shoot was his favourite part of the whole film.

We went there with 15 people, and Denis was absolutely diligent about keeping 15 people, which meant we were limited by what we could do,” Fraser said. “But those limitations ended up being probably the best time that we had on the entire movie.”

Last week, Hans Fraikin, film and television commissioner at Abu Dhabi Film Commission, told The National that Dune benefited from the authority's 30 per cent cashback rebate.

"I must note this is a true testament to everyone’s efforts working on the film in Abu Dhabi," he said. "I can’t help but be proud of Abu Dhabi Film Commission’s and Abu Dhabi-based production company Epic Films’ collaborative involvement, and celebrate the breathtaking natural landscape of Liwa in Abu Dhabi — the perfect backdrop for planet Arrakis in the film.

"Abu Dhabi has played host to a growing slate of fantastic, award-winning films and we are very proud of Dune’s well-deserved nominations for 10 categories including Best Picture," Fraikin told The National after the Oscar nominations were announced. "We always knew that this film would be a spectacular piece of cinematography, and its critical and commercial success have shown it was even more impressive than we imagined."

In a behind-the-scenes video previously 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 said.

"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.”

Of course, we can’t be certain that Dune will return until the ink is dry on those contracts, and there are undoubtedly plenty of other desert locations who would gladly do whatever they can to take such a high-profile project off Abu Dhabi’s hands.

However, if the opinions of the three people who most strongly influenced the first film’s aesthetic hold any sway, and they usually do, we can expect the battle for Arrakis’s spice to touch down in Abu Dhabi once more in the coming months.

Scroll through the gallery below for pictures from the premiere of 'Dune' in London:

Updated: March 17, 2022, 3:27 PM