In Dune 2021, Baron Harkonnen turned out a dastardly villain for the ages, but this genius reiteration of his character almost didn’t happen. While it’s safe to say the Baron was still memorable in Frank Herbert’s Dune and David Lynch’s Dune, there is an extra edge to Denis Villeneuve’s vision of the House Harkonnen leader that saw this version of the character receive notable praise. However, Dune 2021’s Baron could have easily been quite different. As it turned out, Villeneuve had a lot of convincing to do before he got the designer he wanted.
Baron Harkonnen was one of Villeneuve’s biggest concerns when he prepared to make Dune 2021. In Frank Herbert’s original book, Baron Harkonnen was a talkative manipulator who confirmed many conventional villain stereotypes of the time. Villeneuve feared that the Baron would become a joke if he didn’t alter the dated stereotype. Instead, he wanted a Harkonnen leader whose ominous presence spread fear in his subjects and audiences alike.
The design of Baron Harkonnen didn’t fall into place until costume designer Jaqueline West came with a few suggestions. As it turned out, though, West had refused to work on Dune two times before one of the producers convinced her to sit down with Villeneuve. West was already one of the most prolific costume designers in the industry. She had three Oscar nominations in her pocket, from The Revenant, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Quills. Still, she reportedly felt that Dune was out of her element. West was famous for her work on period films, but had little experience with sci-fi and fantasy – which was why Villeneuve wanted her to work on Dune’s costume design.
Once Jaqueline West was introduced to Villeneuve’s vision, she agreed to join the production. Since she had nothing to go on in terms of historical accuracy, so she started by analyzing the characters and their houses. When it came to Baron Harkonnen, Villeneuve voiced his concerns, to which West came up with the idea of taking inspiration from Marlon Brando’s role in Apocalypse Now. Villeneuve wanted to avoid any caricaturing of the character; Baron Harkonnen had to make everyone tremble, which was why they transformed him into a taciturn and conniving figure.
Had it not been for Villeneuve’s persistence – or rather his producer’s persistence – West might never have joined the production of Dune. West’s inclusion was a stroke of luck, since her excellent touch on characters like Baron Harkonnen contributed significantly to the overall atmosphere in Dune. Fortunately, the stars aligned both on and off-screen and turned the Dune reboot’s cast into a plethora of memorable characters and fantastic costume designs.
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