The harsh reality of building a ‘Star Wars’ fantasy in Abu Dhabi
Just 21/2 hours outside this ultra-modern Arab city the terrain is so alien you might as well be on another planet. Martian-red sand dunes tall as skyscrapers roll out as far as the eye can see and a fine mist of copper dust hangs in the air like low-lying fog.
The Arabian Peninsula’s Rub’ al Khali desert is the stuff of fantasy, which is precisely why “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was shot here. In early 2014, director J.J. Abrams and nearly 800 cast and crew trekked into the largely uninhabited region known as the Empty Quarter to build, film and blow things up.
They had plenty of room to stage intergalactic battles. Rub’ al Khali is the world’s largest contiguous desert, a sea of sand stretching from Oman to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (of which Abu Dhabi is the capital) to Yemen.
From Abu Dhabi, a 17-hour flight from Los Angeles, the “Star Wars” crew would have been shuttled past the city’s modern high rises, its suburbs’ pristine Mediterranean McMansions, the outskirts’ shabby workers quarters, then desolate salt flats, an occasional goat herder taking refuge under a makeshift tent and grazing camel herds.
In the company of a guide from the Abu Dhabi film authority, I am making a similar three-hour journey by SUV to the Empty Quarter. A dead, shriveled camel laying on the side of a sand dune is just one reminder that even the hardiest of creatures is no match for the Rub’ al Khali.
The guide finally stops our vehicle in an area of the desert known as Liwa, adjusting his head scarf before stepping out of the air conditioning and into the heat.
Daisy Ridley (Rey) and director J.J. Abrams on the set of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”(David James / Lucasfilm)
A crane frames John Boyega (Finn) on the set of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”(David James / Lucasfilm)
John Boyega (Finn), from left, Harrison Ford (Han Solo) and director J.J. Abrams on the set of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”(David James / Lucasfilm)
Director/producer/screenwriter J.J. Abrams, left, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan on the set.(David James / Lucasfilm)
Director J.J. Abrams on set with John Boyega (Finn).(David James / Lucasfilm)
Director J.J. Abrams talks with Daisy Ridley (Rey) on set.(David James / Lucasfilm)
“See this hill?” he asks, pointing off into nowhere. “Behind that is where ‘Star Wars’ was shot. Now maybe you will know us for something more than camels and sand. Stormtroopers and sand,” he says, laughing.
The “Star Wars” set was off-limits to press and visitors, and those who worked on the movie during filming were sworn to secrecy about everything having to do with the production.
“We used the code Avco in everything we did in relation to ‘Star Wars,’” says Noura Al Kaabi, CEO of Abu Dhabi’s Media Zone Authority and production facility, twofour54. On her conference wall in Abu Dhabi is a giant mosaic of the emirate’s late ruler Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan (a common sight in the region), and on the floor below, a life-size C-3PO (not so common around here). She picked up the latter from a prop store in the U.K.
“Even with the government we had to use code when speaking about it,” she says. “When I asked, ‘Why is the code word Avco?’ they said it was the name of the cinema in Los Angeles where J.J. Abrams watched ‘Star Wars’ for the first time. So sentimental, right?”
According to reports from regional papers, a “whole world” was erected in the desert and it included a “shuttle-like” spacecraft, “fast buggies” powered by jet engines, and giant craters made with explosives.
It was an arduous process scouting the site where, as one film authority rep tells me, battle scenes involving the Millennium Falcon were shot. And once they did settle on a location, there was the question of how to provide access — i.e. building roads where none had been before.
“Our contractor said, no, you can’t build here because these are all preserved sands,” Al Kaabi says. “Luckily the head of the environment agency is a good friend. I said to her, ‘We need to build a road. Whatever we have to do, we will do to get this done! It’s “Star Wars!”’"
Her friend set up a screening room and persuaded environmental inspectors to come watch a screening of the first film in the franchise. “These are men in their late 50s, and many hadn’t seen the films,” Al Kaabi says. “She said, ‘Look, this is going to be filmed in Abu Dhabi.’ They were not only watching to see what it would look like, but they started commenting, ‘Well, could I be that character?’ They wanted to be part of the set.”
Crews from Bollywood’s film industry accustomed to working in challenging terrain were flown in from nearby India to help build sets. Cast and crew from the U.S. were given detailed packets on how to survive shooting in such brutal, albeit beautiful, surrounds.
“The heat was so — ahh, my God — so intense,” says actress Daisy Ridley, who plays the fighter pilot Rey, by phone. “Like sweaty and gritty, we were filthy in it.”
Still, she adds, “It was amazing to start on location, everyone was together, everyone was bonding. And we had people making it as easy as physically possible. I think when it was difficult it needed to be. You can’t look like you’re prancing across a track field. Running through sand is really difficult.”
These desert scenes were originally slated to be shot in Jordan, another Arab country that’s a short flight from Abu Dhabi. Paul Baker, executive director of twofour54’s film & TV services and formerly of Hollywood’s Pinewood Studios, had heard “Star Wars” was looking for a desert backdrop, and contacted producer Tommy Harper.
Among the new characters in “Star Wars: Episode VII -- The Force Awakens” is Finn (John Boyega), who may or may not have the power of the Force.(Lucasfilm / Disney)
BB-8 pops up in “Force Awakens.”(Disney)
A firefight in the sky in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”(Disney)
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” shows the back end of a new X-Wing.(Disney)
Daisy Ridley as Rey in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”(Disney)
John Boyega as Finn in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”(Disney)
Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”(Disney)
Rey (Daisy Ridley) speeds across the desert in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”(Lucasfilm / Disney)
Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron and John Boyega as Finn in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”(Disney)
Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is an ace pilot in “The Force Awakens.”(David James / Lucasfilm)
R2-D2 and C-3PO are also returning in “The Force Awakens.”( David James / Lucasfilm)
The villainous Empire of the original trilogy has been replaced by the sinister First Order in “The Force Awakens,” which takes place about 30 years after the events in 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.”(Lucasfilm / Disney)
The First Order displays its mght in “The Force Awakens.”(Lucasfilm )
First Order stormtroopers are shown in a scene from “The Force Awakens.”(Film Frame / Associated Press)
Shown is Captain Phasma, played by “Game of Thrones” star Gwendoline Christie, in a scene from “The Force Awakens.”(Film Frame / Associated Press)
Domhnall Gleeson stars as General Hux in “The Force Awakens.”(David James / Associated Press)
Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is another new villain in “The Force Awakens.”(Lucasfilm)
Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wields his fancy new lightsaber in “The Force Awakens.”(Associated Press)
The Millennium Falcon is back in action in “The Force Awakens.”(Lucasfilm / Disney)
A dogfight takes place near what looks like the wreck of an Imperial Star Destroyer in “The Force Awakens.”(Lucasfilm )
Rey (Daisy Ridley), left, the pint-sized droid BB-8, and Finn (John Boyega) make a break for it in a scene from “The Force Awakens.”(Film Frame / Associated Press)
The droid BB-8 and Rey (Daisy Ridley) cross paths with a scavenger named Teedo mounted on a Luggabeast in a scene from “The Force Awakens.”(David James / Lucasfilm)
Finn (John Boyega) runs past a crashed TIE fighter in “The Force Awakens.”(David James / Lucasfilm)
Finn gets a helping hand in a scene from “The Force Awakens.”(Film Frame / Associated Press)
Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) appears with stormtroopers in a scene from “The Force Awakens.”(David James / Lucasfilm)
A lightsaber changes hands in a trailer for “The Force Awakens.” Why didn’t this scene make it into the movie?(Lucasfilm)
A explosion hurls a stormtrooper in the air in “The Force Awakens.”(Lucasfilm)
“I said, ‘I know you may have this other place in mind, but maybe just come here and see what we have to offer,’” Baker says. “He initially passed. Then I got an email sometime later that just said, ‘Let’s talk.’ I will never delete that email,” says Baker, laughing.
Abrams and some of the crew stayed at the Empty Quarter’s Qasr Al Sarab resort, according to hotel workers who broke the code of silence. Situated off a winding road in the middle of towering sand dunes, the resort is also constructed like a set from another place and time, its stonewalls, turrets and gurgling fountains an oasis.
But “Star Wars” might have never come here if it weren’t for an aggressive push by Abu Dhabi over the last decade to establish the emirate as a media and film hub in the Arab world. Abu Dhabi, one of seven emirates that includes nearby Dubai, is among the wealthiest regions in the world thanks to its petroleum industry. But it is preparing for a not-so-distant future when the oil runs dry.
“Star Wars’” desert set has since been disassembled despite rumors that say otherwise. The film authority here is still reticent to discuss any details about what exactly was shot in the Empty Quarter, though some of it can clearly be seen in the trailer.
Even a question as simple as, “I heard rumors they had problems with the Stormtroopers’ boots melting in the desert heat” is left unanswered. Jokes a film authority rep, “It’s one more secret the desert holds.”
Staff writer Meredith Woerner contributed to this report.
Your essential guide to the arts in L.A.
Get Carolina A. Miranda's weekly newsletter for what's happening, plus openings, critics' picks and more.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.