Kung-Fu Kingdom has published an in-depth interview with Roger Yuan, fight coordinator for the upcoming Dune movie. Besides behind-the-scenes insights into production of the 2021 movie’s battle sequences, the discussion hints at what’s to come in its prospective sequel, which would complete the two-part adaptation of Frank Herbert’s original Dune book. This article includes minor spoilers, if you’re not yet familiar with the story.
In addition to his expertise in multiple martial arts and stunt choreography work on action blockbusters—including Skyfall, X-Men: First Class, and John Wick 3—Roger is also adding Dune to his significant list of acting credits. The interview revealed that in this movie he’s playing Lieutenant Lanville of the House Atreides army. It’s especially exciting that this is planned as a returning role for the—as yet to be officially green lit—second Dune movie.
Denis [Villeneuve] wanted me to play a part in the film, because if the first one does well—which we hope it will—and we complete the book, then I’ll come back as a character called Lieutenant Lanville. I have a battle to the death with Feyd-Rautha, which is in the book.
Roger Yuan speaking to Kung-Fu Kingdom
This refers to the scene towards the end of the book’s second part, when seventeen-year-old Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen fights the captive soldier one-on-one in the arena on Giedi Prime. This intense contest of young heir of House Harkonnen vs. Atreides veteran is likely to be the first appearance of the former character. So far, casting has not been announced for Feyd and the Dune test screening report from October confirmed he’s not in the first movie.
Fighting Styles of the Dune Movie
Whether it’s designing Dune‘s massive sets to reflect traits of the Houses or Middle Eastern influences in Hans Zimmer’s thematic musical score, the creators’ conscientious approach to the world-building in this movie has been apparent. It appears this same attention to detail extends to the characterization of each factions’ distinctive fighting style:
Ramon Youseph (Kung-Fu Kingdom): For those not familiar with the story, there are many fighting styles detailed in Dune the book. How did you go about developing the fighting systems for the film?
Roger Yuan: Designing the specific fighting styles for the [Padishah] Emperor’s guard, the Sardaukar, the Atreides, and the Harkonnens were basically the first three things that we focused on in this first film. We haven’t gotten into Paul Atreides [played by Timothée Chalamet] teaching the Fremen yet, because that’s going to come in the second film.
Again, it’s encouraging to hear that the team approached preparations and filming of Dune (2021), while keeping its sequel in mind. This has come up consistently during interviews with other crew members. Focusing on the first film itself, we’ll see battle sequences pitting the armed forces of both Houses Corrino (the Sardaukar) and Harkonnen against House Atreides.
For the Atreides, because their weapons are a bit like a shorter sword, I use more Filipino styles of kali and escrima. The Sardaukar are more a group, like a cross between Viking Berserkers, and the Samurai.
Finally the Harkonnens, because of their bestial and sadistic quality – I liken more to the barbarians of old, like maybe Genghis Khan and the Mongols even in the way that they move – they’re efficient but they’re not very precise or stylized.
The Atreides are very precise, and they have techniques that work specifically for the weapons that they use. Those are the three kinds of systems that we wanted to identify, and that will hopefully give the audience something pleasing to look at and something to take away from.
With the ‘Weirding Way’ fighting style, Rebecca [Ferguson] who plays [Lady Jessica], Paul Atreides’ mom, has a scene where she’s training him about the hidden blade, and for him to survive he has to rely on the Bene Gesserit way of fighting. I don’t know if that has made it into the film, I guess we’ll see if it features some knife fighting skills.
It’s possible we’ll get a glimpse of Bene Gesserit martial prowess during Lady Jessica’s fight with Stilgar (played by Javier Bardem), when Paul and herself first encounter the Fremen. While Roger didn’t go into detail about the Fremen, Secrets of Dune uncovered an interesting detail: Below video (6 minutes) explores how the combat techniques of the Arrakis natives, who wield crysknives in close quarters, may be influenced by Persian knife fighting and self-defense techniques.
Working With Denis Villeneuve
Another recurring theme in conversations with cast and crew, is the director’s enthusiasm in getting them familiar with the Dune universe. Denis Villeneuve certainly put in the effort (creating notes and taking the time for one-to-one discussions) to convey an understanding of the book’s story and clearly communicate his vision for this movie adaptation.
Denis was great and he definitely gave me certain directions on how he wanted the film to look and I followed all his notes on what he wanted and basically what Dune was. I got more creative freedom when it came to working on the motion capture stuff. We had already shot two weeks’ worth of motion capture scenes in Los Angeles which mainly consisted of computer-generated main battle sequences and included the dream sequence of Paul [Atreides] becoming a [Fremen].
Concurrently, the director afforded his crew considerable creative freedom in their respective areas of expertise, so that Roger generally had final say when it came to motion capture directing. The interview also emphasized that they focused on realism when constructing the action sequences.
He would see it and usually say, “I’m happy if Roger’s happy.” He really entrusted me to oversee these action battle sequences that’s going to be in the film. Denis is such a visual storyteller and I just knew that in terms of any piece of action choreography I would hope to introduce, first and foremost, to take into consideration; does it serve the story? And does it serve the character in line with his concept and his vision?
It wasn’t about how flashy I could make a certain fight sequence or an actor look, but rather about how frenetic, eye-catching, and believable we could make this piece of action.
Training the Cast Members of Dune
Roger personally trained and worked side-by-side with many of film’s stars (and their stunt doubles). This close cooperation gave him a view into what was happening in their lives, including a joyous event that almost made Josh Brolin reconsider his participation in the movie.
Josh Brolin [who plays Gurney Halleck] was here in LA prepping, so I had him start training in kali with one of my friends, Shioshi – one of Dan Inosanto’s guys. Then I flew over with Timothée’s stunt double to start training Josh for about a week before he was going to fly over to Budapest. He’d just had his baby girl, and said he was this close to sending an email to Denis to saying, “I can’t do this film, I can’t do it, I can’t do it!” [laughs].
The interview contains a wealth of insights into the fight coordinator’s approach to preparing the actors for their action sequences, including consideration for each person’s unique strengths and weaknesses (e.g. past injuries). Roger initially guided them through each individual move in the scene, before incrementally increasing complexity and speed as they attained the required level of comfort.
Josh wanted to see the whole thing. After he did his training in L.A, I started to fine tune his movements. He had to learn by rote [mechanical or habitual] movements, like dance steps. You learn what all the steps are and then you link them all together. I started linking thought, movement, and intent right from the very beginning. I wanted it to be done in slow motion first, so that you have time to adjust, and then you’ll have time to understand how the center of the body is moving.
The training scene with Paul Atreides and Gurney Halleck fighting with personal shields on (shown in the trailer), was especially demanding for the participants.
His training fight with Paul at the beginning, is a very intricate piece that flows from training, to almost real fighting because Gurney is really trying to inject Paul with the seriousness that, on Arrakis it’s basically life or death. It’s one of the most intense sequences and Josh came through. He’s brilliant, and such a perfectionist as well. Jason [Momoa] is a good mover, he’s done a lot of fight sequences, and he knows what he likes to do with swords.
Filming During the Pandemic
Initially all personnel, including Denis and Roger, were physically together to shoot the action sequences at ’87Eleven Action Design’ in Los Angeles, however production was halted due to COVID. With a full week of filming left to complete, including a fight scene involving Paul Atreides, the team was faced with uncertainty on next steps.
I discussed various options with producer Joe [Caracciolo Jr.]. At first they wanted me to oversee motion capture that could be shot over there in a studio used for video game performances, and I would oversee and give notes remotely while they shoot. I basically said no, because I actually need to be there physically to guide the performers and add any choreography to tidy up and bring it all together.
The other option was to fly to Budapest and film the whole thing live in full gear. The third alternative was to actually do it in Los Angeles, but at that point, nobody knew when Los Angeles was going to open up for filming projects. Denis basically said that he needed me to be there in person and he would oversee things through Skype, and a remote camera.
It’s noteworthy that Dune resumed production, following strict safety protocols, as soon as the locations re-opened. At this point Roger was onsite prepping the fights and Denis was back in Montreal, reviewing footage as it came in.
Los Angeles opened up in June and we were ready and had our protocols in place. By the way, Dune was the very first film in America to come back into production, right after lockdown, with COVID protocols in place. We were the test case, essentially the lab rats! We would be tested three times-a-week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday – we had to make sure everybody was locked down, in quarantine and not going out.
Looking Ahead to Dune‘s Premiere
Finally, Roger confirmed that he’s seen close to completed versions of some of the fight scenes and is happy with the results:
I’ve not seen the finished film yet, I’ve seen the trailer and it looks amazing. I’ve seen some of the fight sequences, the visual effects are almost finalized, and it looks really good. I’m happy because I think that’s exactly what Denis wanted. Some of the sword fights that Jason [Momoa] and Timothée [Chalamet] have, and Timothée’s and Josh [Brolin]’s training fight – I think they performed really well.
Being involved in the film, working closely with all these actors, we’ve become friends. And seeing their action on film, I think they’ll be very happy, and I hope the audience will be too.
To read the entirety of this excellent interview (conducted by Ramon Youseph), including a wealth of information about Roger Yuan—his background, influences, and other projects—head over to Kung-Fu Kingdom.