Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 17 January 2020

Emirates Palace turned into Jakku for party after Middle East premiere of The Force Awakens

Celebrities and dignitaries mingled with Star Wars fans at the exclusive event celebrating the launch of the new Star Wars movie, which was partly filmed in Abu Dhabi
The Jakku Experience after-party that followed the Middle East premiere of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens features sets, props and costumes from the film. Christopher Pike / The National
The Jakku Experience after-party that followed the Middle East premiere of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens features sets, props and costumes from the film. Christopher Pike / The National

After the Middle East premiere of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens on December 16 at Emirates Palace, the audience – featuring local dignitaries and international celebrities, including Hollywood actor Richard Dreyfuss – got to attend an out-of-this-world after-party.

Props and costumes from the Abu Dhabi set of the film were used to decorate the plush gardens of the hotel, turning it into an Arabian-tinged version of the film’s desert planet Jakku.

Partygoers tucked into a buffet that included burgers, dim sum and gnocchi while listening to music from the films and browsing the props and costumes worn by actors on the Abu Dhabi set.

There was also part of the Jakku refugee camp set, which featured realistic-looking alien grub – white meringue-like balls in a cooking pan – as well as metal containers, tools and nets.

The BB-8 robot, which was fully functional we were told, though it stayed put during the party, took pride of place on a plinth in the centre of the garden, alongside costumes, a couple of miniature models of vehicles from the film, and a full-sized Stormtrooper helmet.

Among the crowds Admiring the exhibits was Star Wars fan Haitham Hasan Al Subaihi, 31, vice president of UAE sales for Etihad Airways.

“I feel very proud as an Emirati to see these items on show from the Star Wars set,” he says. “It’s almost as if all my dreams have come to my home. We always wanted to travel to the United States, just to be part of this dream of Star Wars and now it is here, so it’s almost as though its come around full circle.”

Star Wars made such an impact on Al Subaihi when he was a child, he says the films helped make him the person that he is.

“What influenced me growing up was the way that the story was so familiar – the relationship between father and son, the good side and the dark side – every time I wanted to do something bad, I would always remember that with patience, the good side always wins,” he says.

So how does the new film compare with the originals? Did it meet his expectations.

“They took the best qualities of the old movies and mixed it with the modern style of filming,” he says. “It was great.”

Not everyone at the party gave The Force Awakens two thumbs up. After posing for pictures with fans, Jaws star Richard Dreyfuss said: “I thought it was exciting – but I’d like to see a great film and somehow this was not great. The first Star Wars was great and set the bar. None of the others came up to it.”

The original Star Wars (Episode IV – A New Hope, in the saga’s chronology) was released in 1977, two years after Dreyfuss shot to fame in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws.

“I knew all of the original cast members of Star Wars”, he says. “Carrie [Fisher], Harrison [Ford], who was in American Graffiti with me, [director]George [Lucas, who also directed American Graffiti], the whole caboodle. When Star Wars first came out, I didn’t want it to be better than Close Encounters [in which Dreyfuss starred]. I wanted Close Encounters to be first,” he joked.

The man behind bringing the filming of Star Wars to the UAE, executive director of Twofour54’s film and television services Paul Baker, told us how it came about.

“A friend of mine is the producer, Tommy Harper, who I worked with in a past life,” he says. “We’d been busy building our infrastructure and our production community here in Abu Dhabi, so I gave him a call about Star Wars. He said, ‘We’re going elsewhere at the moment.’ I said, ‘If anything changes, please give me a call.’

“About two weeks later, I got an email that read: ‘We should speak.’ That email is now locked in the treasure trove. It snowballed from there. We spent many weeks scouting in and around the Western Region with the whole team from Star Wars, and they chose to produce with us.”

Baker was probably the only person in the packed theatre at the premiere who had already seen The Force Awakens.

“I was at the premiere in Los Angeles last night and am suffering a bit now,” he says. “So I’ve now seen it a second time but in 3D this time, which was fantastic.”

Other celebrities rubbing shoulders at the party included Italian footballer Alessandro del Piero, Syrian actors Basel Khayat, Samer Al-Masry and Kosai Khauli, and Emirati actress Fatima Al Taei.

Few, though, could have been more pleased to see the film than Emirati Eeman AlAnsari, 22, a programming executive with Quest Arabia, who got to work with the Star Wars production team first as an intern in Abu Dhabi, and then as a production assistant on the London set. She arrived at the premiere with hair tied up in Princess Leia-style buns.

“It was so incredible,” she says. “Working on set and seeing what’s going on is one thing. But seeing it edited and cut together and all in order was just incredible. I had been on the shoot and seen the different scenes, but I didn’t necessarily know the order of everything.

“As the movie started playing, it started to click what was about to come. To be so immersed in the story was amazing – I’m actually really happy with the storyline and how everything came together.”

Didier Vanneste, senior vice president and country head at the Walt Disney Company MENA, hinted that might be more big-budget movie productions on the cards for Disney in the UAE.

“This is just the beginning”, he says. “I am really happy that Abu Dhabi is Jakku and Jakku is Abu Dhabi. We have more movies in the pipeline. We don’t know yet if they will be shot in Abu Dhabi – it’s all in the creative content.”

artslife@thenational.ae

Updated: December 19, 2015 04:00 AM

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