Arguably the most iconic piece of imagery in Dune is the sandworm, a titanic creature that has been copied and replicated everywhere from Star Wars to Beetlejuice and Tremors. Artists have often imagined it as a giant beast with three triangular lobes for a mouth, filled with hundreds of fangs ready to crush and devour anything it encounters. But in Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation, which will compete in ten categories including Best Picture at Sunday’s Oscars, the sandworm gets a makeover: Here, it resembles a lipless worm with a gaping maw full of baleen, like a whale. A Dune newbie might not fathom how the monster could get any weirder. To that, the effects team behind the sandworms reminds you that Dune: Part Two is incoming — and can you imagine what sandworm babies look like?
In Villeneuve’s film, the sandworm is both a revered, godlike figure and a menace as stealthy as the shark from Jaws. The film reveals them slowly, hinting at the incoming behemoths’ presence with trembles on the sand dunes. Attuned especially to a specific, rhythmic sound, they attack and destroy anything that makes that sound, like bigger, uglier versions of the creatures in A Quiet Place. But Dune: Part One only briefly dips our toe into the wide world of sandworms. Best Production Design nominee Patrice Vermette and Oscar-nominated sound designers Mark Mangini and Theo Green are already at work on the creatures’ next phase. And the first thing they mention is, of course, the sandtrouts.
One of the stranger parts of the second half of Frank Herbert’s book involves the introduction of sandtrouts, a.k.a. sandworm larvae, which play a key role in the creation of the spice mélange that kick-starts the entire story. According to Green, Paul Atreides’s (Timothée Chalamet) spice visions in the film originally included images depicting the worms’ entire life cycle and a clearer look at how they function. “It was something that was only ever in the storyboard phase and not developed further, but we did create a few sounds for it,” Green says, calling it one of the more psychedelic elements of the story. “We had Paul seeing the sandtrout and came up with a very strange sound, like a heartbeat, like a watery heartbeat. That could be tapped into for Part Two.”
Production designer Vermette, meanwhile, has been thinking through the continuity of the sandworms’ designs. “We designed the worm while thinking of how it would grow, because we know there are different sizes in the book,” he tells Vulture. While tight-lipped about how big, exactly, these different forms will be, Vermette hints that he was inspired by whales when designing the worm. But what would the whale equivalent of a larva be? Green offers a suggestion: the whale sucker, those “little creatures that surround and help out the whale, the symbiotic creatures.” (Indeed, Google a picture of a whale sucker and, once you’re through the nightmares, you’ll realize it’s an especially Dune-appropriate little creature.)
To envision how the worm would live and function onscreen, the design teams considered the physiology and anatomy of the creature as a whole, beyond their giant gaping mouths. Mangini and Green looked to the second half of the book to do so. “We have a process of really exploring the physics of how something works if it’s a creature not from our planet,” Mangini said. “So an awareness of the whole story was necessary, and in some small areas, we did design things. In the end, we don’t really hear them in this part, but I think we will be digging into those pieces of research when we come to part two.” Similarly, Vermette devoted arduous research to “how it feeds, how it lives, how it survives,” and just as crucially, “how it’s being ridden by the Fremen. We thought about how the skin is made so you can climb on it.”
Book fans, as well as fans of David Lynch’s version and the SyFy channel adaptation, will recognize one of the highlights of the latter half of Herbert’s novel: seeing Fremen ride worms into battle like building-size horses. Though the breaking down of those scenes has yet to begin in earnest, progress has already been made in designing how they will work, at least sound-wise. Green teases that his team has lots of stored recordings from the desert to give them ideas for everything a worm might need to do, many taken from underneath sand dunes. We might have heard some of those sounds in part one’s final scene, in which we see a Fremen riding a worm through the desert, but Villeneuve opted to show it only from a distance. (“We may have needed to have a closer look,” explains Green.) His team has likewise already started researching how to advance the “Voice,” the mind-controlling power the Bene Gesserit use to command others to do their bidding. “We were giving hints in the early parts of this film that it will become something bigger in the next one,” Mangini adds.
According to Vermette, Dune was originally going to end someplace different than with Paul and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) walking with the Fremen through the desert after Paul kills a warrior named Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun). “We were initially going to go further into the story,” he reveals. “Throughout preproduction, the script moves, it finds its place. It’s never definite until a certain time. So during the soft prep, there were areas of the screenplay that we did not end up covering when we locked the script and decided to shoot.” That means “there are elements already designed that will be in Part Two,” he says. He demurred from more details, but Vermette is likely referring to Paul’s arrival at the Fremen Sietch — the tribe’s vast hidden communities, where the legend of Muad’Dib is born and the story really kicks in. We may have to wait two years for the continuation of Paul’s journey, but the work to get us there has already begun.