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$20 million epic 'Dune' was 3 years in making

Sunday, December 03, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

You could say writer-director John Harrison's latest production was a day at the beach. Make that five months at the beach.

After all, while making the six-hour desert-set Sci-Fi Channel miniseries "Dune" in Prague for five months during late 1999 and early 2000, Pittsburgh native Harrison was surrounded by sand. Tons and tons of sand.

"You were always taking it home with you, sleeping with it, finding it in your food," Harrison said.

    Sci-Fi classic falls flat in translation


But making the three-part $20 million epic was anything but easy. Harrison spent three years total on the project and did double duty as the writer who adapted Frank Herbert's sprawling novel before directing the massive production.

After months of post-production work, supervising the addition of more than 500 special effects shots, Harrison is facing the press and inevitable questions about how his "Dune" compares to David Lynch's critically disclaimed 1984 box-office flop of the same title.

"We never set out to remake the movie, nor did we set out to correct any perceived deficiency in the movie," Harrison said. "Our agenda was to make our own version of this great novel. I was determined from the beginning to do as faithful a translation as I could."

"Dune" tells the story of young Paul Atreides (Alec Newman) and his odyssey to become the leader of an oppressed people. But Harrison wanted to delve deeper into the relationships and cultures of "Dune" than Lynch's film did, from the noble members of House Atreides to the nasty Harkonnen clan to the desert-dwelling Fremen.

"I was determined to bring the cultural life of the individual tribes to life, how they lived, how they ate, how they groomed, show how they survived in the desert," Harrison said. "Because we had a longer time format, we could get into that more. The miniseries format is better suited to do an epic story like this than two-hour theatrical movies."

Harrison said he's been a fan of "Dune" since he first read it in college and was determined to do the novel justice.

"I don't consider it science fiction; I consider it an epic adventure," Harrison said. "It is really a story of the human condition, human politics. At its core, there's a lot of familiarity. It's a messiah story wonderfully told. It's amazing the things 'Star Trek' and 'Star Wars' have copped from 'Dune.' Herbert's book [published in 1965] laid the groundwork for what we have come to accept from the science fiction genre."

Harrison, who grew up in Oakland and Oakmont, attended Lehigh University and graduated from Boston's Emerson College before getting a master's of fine arts degree from Carnegie Mellon University. While in grad school, he had an apprenticeship at WQED, with both the TV and radio stations.

He worked with director George Romero here in Pittsburgh, then moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s to write and direct episodes of Romero's "Tales from the Darkside" TV series before directing the 1990 feature "Tales From the Darkside: The Movie." He's written and directed episodes of the TV shows "Tales from the Crypt," "Earth 2" and "Profiler." Harrison also wrote last summer's animated Disney flick, "Dinosaur."

He's currently writing a "Fugitive"-like thriller for Will Smith's production company as well as an animated horror series he's developing for Web site z.com called "John Harrison's 'Skins.' "

Then there's the "Dune" sequel. Harrison said talks have begun with Sci-Fi Channel about developing a second miniseries, which may combine the next two Herbert books, "Dune Messiah" and "Children of Dune."

If the sequel project moves forward, Harrison will once again find himself headed back to "Dune" beach.

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