More than a decade after the premiere of their hit TV show, the fabulous femmes of the latest Sex And The City film talk to Linda Barnard about why the desert is their new favourite location and how getting out of the Big Apple cemented their real-life friendship. "There was a wedding and now there has to be a marriage," says Sarah Jessica Parker, reflecting on the next step for her character, the glamorous writer Carrie Bradshaw, in Sex And The City 2 (SATC2).
Now married to her Mr Big (aka John James Preston, played by Chris Noth) the setting shifts from Manhattan to the exotic and luxurious world of Abu Dhabi in the latest film - but with Morocco standing in as shooting location for the UAE. From sand dunes to souks, the women immerse themselves in their gorgeous surroundings, while often bumping up against culture clashes - especially Samantha (Kim Cattrall), who can't quite manage to dress demurely enough.
"Carrie finds herself starting, as she typically does, to ask questions about the environment in which she currently lives," says Parker of SATC2's early New York scenes. The petite 45-year-old actress looks typically stunning in a puffy floral skirt and shimmery silver-beige, lacelike jacket shot with miniature crystals over a hot-pink bustier. Her eyelids are layered with glittering opal shadow and on her feet, of course, sky-high shimmering strappy sandals.
It seems fitting that the four fabulous femmes of Sex And The City are talking about their new film in what you could call their natural habitat: the shoe department of ultra-chic and expensive Fifth Avenue retailer Bergdorf Goodman. The first scene involving all four stars was shot in the shop, as Carrie, Charlotte (Kristin Davis), Samantha and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) meet to buy a wedding gift.
Surrounded by Christian Louboutin, Chanel, YSL and Jimmy Choo heels, the four women, along with Noth and the movie's writer-director, Michael Patrick King, share their thoughts on making round two of the successful film franchise. Carrie has left her single-girl life behind after six seasons of looking for love in Manhattan on the HBO hit TV series, Sex And The City, followed by the 2008 film. She and hubby John have set up house in a sumptuous Manhattan apartment, complete with a massive walk-in wardrobe for Carrie and her legendary shoe collection. But she questions what marriage means to both of them when her party-girl persona starts to clash with John's suddenly revealed homebody leanings.
King says sending the women to Abu Dhabi in the film - public relations powerhouse Samantha is invited on an all-expenses-paid trip with her best friends to explore a possible business opportunity for a magnificent luxury hotel - allowed him to have "this incredible cinematic experience" that mimicked the Busby Berkeley-style films of the 1930s. King says he wrote the script for the sequel just as America was plunging into the economic downturn and that led him to decide to pull out all the stops on a storyline, "like they did in the Great Depression. I thought Hollywood should let people go on a big, extravagant vacation that maybe they couldn't afford themselves."
And how. The newly built Mandarin Oriental Jnan Rahma in Marrakech stood in for the fictitious Abu Dhabi hotel. The costume budget alone for the film, with extravagant designer fashions and one-of-a-kind vintage items pulled together by longtime SATC designer Patricia Field, rang in at US$10 million (Dh37 million). The women don Chanel and Prada to ride camels in the desert, Halston gowns for a walk along what is meant to be the Arabian Gulf and vintage Dior to check out the spice market.
For Parker, shooting in the Moroccan desert away from family and distractions - she and her husband, Matthew Broderick, have a seven-year-old son James Wilke, and twin daughters, Marion Loretta Elwell and Tabitha Hodge, who were born to a surrogate last year - helped her get closer to her cast-mates. They're a trio of women Parker calls "thoroughbreds". "I got to live with this cast," Parker explains. "We were removed. We were shooting outside of the country and we've never done that and we had this chance to live together and know one another in a way we've never had an opportunity to do in New York."
There were times, shooting in isolation in the Sahara Desert, when they didn't even have a bathroom, Parker says, laughing. "In New York we go home to our friends and our family and our children and our animals. For me, it just changed everything (to be in Morocco) and I came away loving them more than I ever have because I got to see them in a new way and I was so reliant on them," Parker says of the women she began working with when the cable show Sex And The City premiered in 1998.
Parker adds that she hopes the enduring on-screen friendship among the four strong-willed stars can help teach women how to get along better. "I look at what's available on television and I see how women treat each other and it's stunning to me," Parker says, shaking her head. "It's arresting and I like that there is some place to illustrate that women would much rather be allies than adversaries," she adds of the SATC franchise.
"We seem to be moving towards where women are really unkind to one another, call each other horrible names and there's a vernacular which I find really objectionable. "I really love how these women love each other and I love how decent and honourable they are to one another. I love how much they respect each other. I love that they were never meant to be friends," she says of the quartet. "Their DNA is so radically different from one to the next and they have found this incomprehensible friendship that is truly inspiring to me and it changes the way I feel about my friendships constantly."
Cattrall, who jokes that she didn't need to do any research to realistically portray Samantha's menopause woes, says plots in the series helped change how women feel about a variety of issues, thanks to scripts that often tackled controversial topics. "We have encouraged a lot of women to change the way they feel about being single, about having cancer, all the storylines about being married and being left and being lonely," says Cattrall.
"I think we have addressed all that and that's a very powerful thing. In this era of post-feminism, I think we have helped to find what it is to be successful, smart and also feminine." Like Parker, Nixon says the idea of getting the women out of New York not only helped the characters relate to each other, it added a new dimension to their friendship. (There had been rumours of rifts among them in the past, tensions Parker and the rest have denied.)
"That's what was wonderful about going away," adds Davis. "The girls get to go away and get to a deeper place together." And they learnt a new phrase working in an Arabic-speaking country. Insha'Allah, replies Davis when asked if the movie will be a success. The sense of family was deepened among the four by celebrating American Thanksgiving together, enjoying a traditional meal that night and another celebration on the weekend when their families flew in to join them, complete with apple and pumpkin pies and a snake charmer.
"It was Thanksgiving. We were thankful when he left," says King with a grin. King says shooting in the isolation of the Moroccan desert, including in the sand dunes where multiple Oscar-winning film Lawrence Of Arabia was shot in 1962, made for a real contrast to working in New York, where huge crowds gather to watch anything to do with SATC. "We have New York, which was here, Bergdorf's, with thousand and thousands of people watching and it's like an interactive theatre piece I call that the celebrity petting zoo," King laughs. "We went to Morocco in the middle of the Sahara Desert and not a sound. No paparazzi; just the crew, the hot sun and us. It was a very different, bizarre and colourful time."
Also "laborious and Herculean", adds Parker, who, as with the first film, co-produced SATC2. "But it was one of the great experiences of my professional life to live and work with this cast and crew, and to be on a camel with Kim Cattrall." "Not many people can say they've done that!" Cattrall jokes.