Article — From the March 2009 issue
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Article — From the March 2009 issue
It was just before six in the morning when we stopped at a rest area off Interstate 8, near where California, Arizona, and Mexico meet in the desert. A line of U.S. Border Patrol dune buggies with flat tires slumped at one end of the parking lot. Across the road, a mobile watchtower with dark windows loomed over an SUV. Jad Bean flipped open a three-ring binder on the hood of our rented Trailblazer to reveal a satellite map, most of which was taken up by a waxen emptiness that crinkled like the surface of a brain. The Imperial Sand Dunes cover forty miles, with some dunes reaching heights of more than three hundred feet. A few have earned proper names, like mountains. Jad pointed at the center of the map, to a tear-shaped depression identified as Buttercup Valley. A black-and-red icon was printed near the valley’s edge—the proverbial x marking the spot—alongside the words sail barge set.
It was on this particular tract of sand that a fragment of another world’s landscape temporarily took up residence. Over thirty-eight days in the spring of 1982, a crew from Lucasfilm erected a 30,000-square-foot wooden platform and built atop it sand dunes that rose five stories above the actual desert floor. On top of the ersatz dunes, they then built a yacht-like structure, 90 feet long and 60 feet tall; the color of weathered tree bark, it was overhung with jagged, orange polyester sails. The craft would appear in an early scene of Return of the Jedi as the hovering pleasure barge of the blubbery crime boss Jabba the Hutt and would shuttle his cadre of bounty hunters and hangers-on across the desert planet Tatooine to watch the execution of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca. Each prisoner was to be walked off a plank into something called the “al mighty Sarlacc,” a kind of belching vagina dentata in the dunes, which, it was said, would digest them over many anguishing millennia. A quarter of a century later, remnants of the set were apparently littered across the valley or buried in the sand. We would be excavating whatever authentic artifacts of that fictitious universe remained.
“What are we looking for? A little bag that says ‘Chewie Hair: Don’t Touch’?” Jilliann Zavala had chirped on the drive out. Until that point, she’d been amusing herself in the back seat by repeating laugh lines from Not Another Teen Movie and National Lampoon’s Vacation.
“We’re looking for wood,” Jad answered, keeping his eyes on the highway. “Generally, it will be painted brown, green, or silver. You’re looking for pieces of hard condensed foam, or foam rubber, that will usually have sand embedded on one side.” He said we might also find bits of latex from the rim of the spindly-toothed Sarlacc. “Those are going to be harder. You can try to dig for those.”
Jad is thirty-two, with a calm, earnest demeanor and a few threads of silver in his brown hair. I’d contacted him after stumbling across a posting on his blog about a trip he was planning to Buttercup Valley. The blog, JadOnTV.com, was an extension of his lobbying of Lucasfilm to name a character “Jad” in the stream of spin-offs it continues to issue.Jad has gotten several Star Wars actors to write letters in support of this campaign, including Gerald Home, who played Squid Head, an alien in the background of a single scene of Return of the Jedi. Jad met Home at a convention, and the two email occasionally. “I’m on good terms with Squid Head,” Jad told me. Although a devout Star Wars fan (he owns a Jad Bean action figure, dressed as an X-wing fighter pilot and cast from a digital scan of his head), he discusses his fandom in a relatively measured, even self-effacing way. Recently, he blogged wryly about not knowing exactly how to feel when, after two years of his monomaniacal crusade going wholly ignored, a new Star Wars animated series rolled out a character with the name Cad Bane.
On this trip, Jad was meeting Jilliann for the first time, as well as the fourth member of our party, who introduced himself by his Star Wars–inspired pseudonym, Bru Galeen, which he seems to use in much of his daily life. I’d struck up a conversation with Jilliann and Bru at a sci-fi convention in San Francisco when I was first looking into joining a Star Wars dig. The two friends had talked about organizing a trip to the redwood forest in northern California, where other scenes from Return of the Jedi were shot, but their efforts never advanced beyond the planning stage.At the convention, they were also trying to score an interview with the “real” Darth Vader—not James Earl Jones, who provided Darth Vader’s voice, or even the British bodybuilder in the costume in the films. They meant the former Lucasfilm effects artist who has played the character in M&M ads and at charity events since the 1990s. By now, Jilliann said, “He’s worn the suit more than anyone.” For our dig in Buttercup Valley, Jilliann, a tall, thirty-four-year-old forensic-psychology student, was dressed in a thick, black felt hat and a four-pocket safari shirt with sewn-in belt. After some deliberation that morning at our Econo Lodge, she’d decided on Keds instead of black pumps. Bru was forty-two, worked at an arts-and-crafts store, and was writing a tutorial on how to build lightsaber hilts out of vacuum-cleaner parts and bathroom fixtures. He is a somewhat skeletal man, with long fluffy hair and John Lennon glasses. Now, as we took turns in the rest stop’s wooden outhouse, he picked up a curved piece of metal and lifted it to his eye, peering at it in imitation of a particular Stormtrooper in a scene on Tatooine. “Look, sir,” he said. “Droids.”
Unlike Jilliann and Bru, Jad had experience with the sort of fieldwork we were hoping to undertake. For his master’s thesis in paleontology, he scoured a Nevada mountain, collecting trilobite fossils every three or four feet; he now conducted geologic studies for an environmental consulting firm. Only five months earlier, he’d caravanned to Buttercup Valley with the San Diego Star Wars Society and managed, very quickly, to unearth a four-foot-long hunk of condensed foam. The society’s elders authenticated it as a section of the lining of the Pit of Carkoon, the chasm that houses the Sarlacc. Still, Jad had found that trip less than satisfying. When on other Star Wars expeditions, he said, “I mostly got to have a one-on-one experience with the location.” Visiting a certain rotunda outside Naples, Italy, he had the space to himself for nearly an hour. He lined up shots from the film with his camera and strolled up and down the same steps tread by the character Queen Amidala, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia’s mother, in The Phantom Menace. He’d wanted the same opportunity to commune with Return of the Jedi in Buttercup Valley. But his needs went adrift amid the disparate motives of the big, somewhat disorganized group. “Some were really into it, and others were just kicking their toe in the dirt. That kind of dials it down a little bit,” he said.
In addition to the map, the binder of useful materials he’d compiled included 8×10 publicity stills from Return of the Jedi, behind-the-scenes photos of the filmmakers at work in Buttercup Valley, and promotional trading cards from the film, carefully filed in plastic sleeves. All showed the sail barge set from a variety of angles, and Jad intended these materials as references, much as an archaeologist would consult an artist’s rendering of a temple he was attempting to excavate.
Somewhere under the sand lay the actual relics of a fake, futuristic past—which were also the set pieces from the actual past that had helped bring that fiction into being. It was hard to keep it all straight. But I sensed that, as with any archaeological endeavor, whatever physical objects we recovered would somehow tie us, in our time, more closely to the truths and mythologies of the era they survived. “We ready?” Jad asked, when the last of us finished in the outhouse. We had decided to dig for those meaningful scraps of lumber and rubber nine days after the summer solstice, and the forecast predicted a high of 114 degrees. We needed to get to work.
Jon Mooallem ’s last article for Harper’s Magazine, “A Curious Attraction,” appeared in the October 2007 issue.
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