x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Could the force be with us?

On the hunt for the Star Wars: Episode VII set, which a growing number of people are sure is in Abu Dhabi, but no one can seem to find.

It is believed that the desert-like planet of Tatooine is being recreated for Star Wars: Episode VII. Could that be where filming in the UAE comes in? Courtesy Lucasfilms
It is believed that the desert-like planet of Tatooine is being recreated for Star Wars: Episode VII. Could that be where filming in the UAE comes in? Courtesy Lucasfilms

It’s not often that you get to turn your Saturday-nights-watching-Columbo-taught detective skills to the world’s most eagerly anticipated film, especially in your own backyard. But when rumours emerged that the filming for Star Wars: Episode VII wasn’t just under way, but was under way in the Middle East, picking up the musty scent of Skywalkers, Wookies and J J Abrams suddenly became top priority.

It began — as almost everything appears to do these days — with a blog post. The online fan journal Jedi News reported that filming was currently under way in Cairo, Egypt (before moving to Abu Dhabi). Yes, the very same Cairo that is home to just under eight million people, has undergone major upheavals in the past few years and still isn’t a place you’d consider “perfectly chilled for a top-secret Disney shoot”.

With our eyebrows cocked to quizzical, we began our enquiries. Scepticism was instantly appeased when several solid sources in the Egyptian film industry claimed that there was absolutely no way on Earth it could be going on without them — or someone they knew — having heard about it, and they hadn’t. It was, said one, actually taking place in Jordan — a rather more plausible option and a place that has provided the backdrop for a few massive blockbusters (Transformers, Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker).

But no, The Royal Film Commission of Jordan, which oversees all such productions, flat out denied it.

So what about Jedi News claiming that filming would move to Abu Dhabi? It couldn’t be going on right under our noses, could it? Surely someone had just been spotted still in costume from Comic-Con the week earlier and had let their imaginations run wild. We were dubious that something as massive as Star Wars could have sneaked into the UAE — which isn’t bashful when it comes to talking about massive stuff going on — without us having heard something.

Initial digging proved predictably fruitless, with twofour54 — the only Abu Dhabi production company really big enough to handle such a project and the parent organisation of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission — saying they hadn’t heard of anything. But then, slowly but surely, other teasing nuggets of info started coming out of the woodwork.

A rather big cheese in the local industry revealed he’d known about the shoot “for ages”, but couldn’t say more despite our best attempts at Jedi mind trickery. Other sources hinted that a production crew had been hired, while production companies in Dubai said they weren’t involved as it was “all happening in Abu Dhabi”. A contact, not in the film business, claimed to know someone who spotted Abrams on a flight to the capital in recent weeks. It seemed we were on to something.

In perhaps the most amusing bit of investigative reporting, a friend told us that her colleague had been chatting to a fellow via the iPhone app Tinder, who — in a gross act of flirtation — had revealed that he was an assistant director on a major film shoot in Abu Dhabi, inviting her to guess what? That’s right, Star Wars.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of harmless bragging, but when you’re working on perhaps the most secretive film production of the decade, perhaps it’s better just to lie and claim you’re an astronaut or Bradley Cooper). Naturally, we called the poor guy (who shall remain nameless), only for him to, unsurprisingly, deny all knowledge and even assert he was working on Fast & Furious (of which he’s not listed as among the crew). His name was, however, listed as being among the crew for the last round of Star Wars films, beginning with Episode III. Hmm.

Next up, we needed a location. We had heard that the film would recreate Tatooine, the desert-like planet that is the home of Anakin and Luke Skywalker, Jabba the Hutt and everyone’s favourite alien spit-and-sawdust hangout, the Mos Eisley Cantina, so it was unlikely to be taking place at Marina Mall. Then the name Qasr Al Sarab, the vast fort-like resort out in the Liwa Desert, came to our attention, with reports that it had been booked up long in advance.

Unconfirmed but reliable sources later stated that the hotel was indeed housing the cast and crew, but that filming itself was happening elsewhere, no doubt out in a specially created set. Also, there are rooms available now and through most of May — save for a week-long block starting on May 19 — we checked.

Sadly, attempts to locate this new Tatooine using Google Earth came crashing when we noticed the satellite image of the area we were desperately squinting at had been taken more than a year ago.

It was at about this point that the international press waded in, with The Hollywood Reporter saying that it had heard shooting in Abu Dhabi would begin in mid-May and would last for four weeks.

Which brings us up to speed. We haven’t yet seen physical, visible proof — a Battle Droid taking some R& R on the Corniche or Mark Hamill tweeting “LOVING MY TIME IN ABU DHABI FOR THE STAR WARS SHOOT! LOL!” (in fact, social media has been impressively absent of any decent SW gossip) — but all fingers (human, robotic or Ewok) appear to be pointing towards Abu Dhabi, and it’s all rather exciting.

Or, should we say: exciting, it is.

artslife@thenational.ae