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.
For more than a decade, a small subculture of fans has been hunting down Star Wars filming locations around the world. Maps and travel guides now circulate on the Internet, as do photos of the landscapes in which the visitors have tried to replicate the exact vantage points used in the films. Often the traveler is in the photo, assuming the exact place and posture of Anakin or Luke Skywalker. Many of these trips were initially inspired by a 1995 article published in Star Wars Insider, the official Star Wars fan-club magazine. “Return to Tatooine” was the travelogue of David West Reynolds, an enterprising fan who journeyed through the sandy outlands of Tunisia, fastidiously tracking down sites that stand in for Luke Skywalker’s home planet in the original 1977 film. Once this itinerary was spelled out, other pilgrims followed. A toy collector named Gus Lopez, well known in the Star Wars community, now maintains online guides to the Tunisian film locations, complete with GPS coordinates. He has also compiled information about more obscure sites, such as Mayan ruins in a Guatemalan jungle that served, in a handful of establishing shots in the first Star Wars film, as the exterior of a rebel base on a moon of the planet Yavin. Mark Dermul, the president of the Belgian Star Wars Society, operates a similar online resource and has led tours through a sheer white landscape of glaciers in Finland featured in The Empire Strikes Back. Dermul’s seventy-page guidebook to the region is titled The Force in Finse.
At several of these locations, as in Buttercup Valley, the sets had been abandoned, the spacecraft parts and shantytowns left to be reclaimed or repurposed when their surroundings reverted to Earth. In Tunisia, for instance, real-life nomads moved into a fictional slave village; later, a substantial portion of the set, an intergalactic scrap yard, fell into the hands of an actual junk dealer, a local named Kamel Souilah, who began selling off the pieces from a storefront in the city of Nefta. One Tunisian ended up building his backyard chicken coop out of the domed “moisture vaporators” that supposedly made life in the deserts of Tatooine possible. On merchants’ tables alongside Berber crafts, tourists could find fragments of a fiberglass skeleton left in the dune. Gus Lopez said he was able to scavenge so many artifacts in Tunisia that he had to ship them home. Many of the objects he recovered weren’t immediately recognizable, so back in his living room Lopez watched the films again, searching the backgrounds frame by frame to authenticate each antiquity.
Jad had also been to Tunisia, in 2004. He hadn’t intended to explore the Star Wars universe; he had just finished graduate school and wanted to get out and see our world. But after spending the better part of a year traveling around Asia, Australia, and Europe, and visiting a few Star Wars shooting locations along the way, he settled in Wroclaw to live with a Polish woman he’d met at a hostel in Spain. Nine months later, with that relationship collapsing, he began plotting his next move. He’d fantasized about going to Tunisia since reading “Return to Tatooine” years earlier, and now whenever he got the chance he explored websites like Lopez’s and Dermul’s, compiling notes. When the breakup finally came, he crossed Europe on a series of trains and, with no return ticket or clear plan, caught a ferry from Milan to Tunis. It was a twenty-four-hour boat ride. He sat near an aging German tourist in a Speedo and watched brown dolphins play in the ferry’s wake.
Jad spent the next week slogging toward various corners of Tatooine. He recovered a section of rubber trim from the roof of what had been Luke Skywalker’s great-uncle’s garage in Attack of the Clones. He visited as many as five locations in one day, forming alliances with other Star Wars tourists and hiring flummoxed Tunisian drivers. “It was transformative,” he said. “I felt like, after months and months of feeling lousy and like I’d wasted so much time and thrown away a part of my life, that it was okay to give back to myself. And that there are great things in life that are worth pursuing.”
He had financed his trip by selling off his collection of Star Wars toys on eBay, netting $6,000 in three weeks. Those toys had become an addictive burden, he told me—“a lot of stuff” that, while imbued with a kind of magic when he was a boy, no longer made him feel closer to the films. The trip those toys paid for was an actual saga.
Jad edged the Trailblazer to the very end of the road, where the pavement broke off and the desert began. Jilliann shouted, “Wait! I forgot something!” which we knew by then to interpret as a joke. Then Jad switched the truck over to four-wheel drive, and we crept onto the sand. Sloping yellow dunes filled the windshield, muting the light and mood in the cabin. I suddenly felt exceedingly small, like something swept up by accident and sealed in a terrarium. Then the wheels started spinning, and we were stuck.
Jad and I had bought a short- handled shovel at Home Depot for the excavation, and I tried using it to smooth out the high mounds around the wheels, allowing Jad to inch the vehicle out of its ruts and progress a foot or two. A few seconds later, after he’d buried the wheels again, I’d smooth out more sand, grading a new path. While we took turns working the gas and pushing, improvising new and progressively less effective strategies, Jilliann, at Bru’s urging, stood off to the side. She had a long list of medical troubles, including a degenerative back condition that, she said, makes her spine look like a zipper on MRIs. In the past fifteen years, she had undergone fifteen different surgeries. She offered advice as we pushed.
By 7:00 a.m. the truck’s undercarriage was lodged on a slope. Already the sun had heated the hood enough to sting our hands. Our meager progress had so thoroughly chewed up the terrain behind us that, when we finally agreed to double back, park the truck at the rest stop, and hike in, even that looked impossible. Jad looked at his cell phone. “I’m not getting reception,” he said.
Before I left for Buttercup, a woman named Sue Dawe had given me the name of the lone towing company willing to fish people out of the dunes. In 1982, Dawe was one of six friends from San Diego who had camped out in the valley for weeks, watching the filming of Return of the Jedi. Three months later, driving back from a science-fiction convention in Phoenix, the friends stopped at Buttercup to take in a full lunar eclipse. They expected to find Tatooine scrubbed from the desert, its every component trucked off. But the site “looked like a lumber yard,” recalled another member of the group, Michael Davis. Dismantled materials were arranged across the sand behind a chain-link fence, sorted as if for salvage and disposal. A pit—about twenty feet wide and twenty feet deep—was dug in the sand, and some fake dunes and pieces of foam had already been swept into it. The shortest of the friends burrowed under the fence and began passing over objects. The San Diegans, some still dressed for the sci-fi convention in the traditional garb of Han Solo’s home planet, ended up trekking out of the desert that night with six five-foot-tall wooden shutters that had lined the side of the barge—one for each of them.Davis assumes the scrap he saw partially buried in 1982 is still under the desert sand. A few years ago, he wrote to the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the dunes, seeking permission to bring in heavy machinery to excavate. The request was denied.
Twenty years later, Dawe would be the first to lead the San Diego Star Wars Society to Buttercup Valley, with metal detectors. She had seen the set both fully constructed and dismantled into constituent parts, so, like a living Rosetta Stone, she could explain the provenance of each scrap reclaimed there. The society has been making annual trips ever since. (Its president sent me a picture of a large metal bar, which she believes battened one corner of a sail to the barge’s deck.)
Before leaving San Diego, Jad and I paid a visit to Eugene King, another of Dawe and Davis’s cohort, to leaf through hundreds of photos he’d taken of the set in 1982. He and four other of the friends still own the shutters they looted that night. (King let us see his.) The sixth shutter had belonged to Michael Davis. In 1985, he traded it for a sports car.
Jad walked off, groping for a phone signal so that we could call the towing company, while Bru, Jilliann, and I stood around our half-sunken truck like refugees treading water beside their capsized raft. From time to time, a red prop plane circled overhead—a civilian, we later learned, keeping an eye out for illegal crossings on his own initiative. Like Jabba’s turf on Tatooine, Buttercup Valley teems with smugglers. Both illegal immigrants and drugs slip across the Imperial Sand Dunes from Mexico. In 2007, the U.S. Border Patrol arrested 39,000 aliens in the area. Six months before we arrived, an agent was run down and killed by a Hummer, driven by a Mexican smuggler who was racing back across the border.
Suddenly, three ATVs came buzzing over the dunes to the east. They were Border Patrol officers, sealed in jumpsuits and white helmets. I waited for someone to make a Stormtrooper comparison but was apparently the only one who noted the resemblance. It was unclear at first whether they would dignify our predicament by stopping. When they did, they were non- committal, sizing us up behind mirrored visors. Their hands stayed clenched around their handlebars.
“What’s your tire pressure?” one finally asked. We had not known to deflate the truck’s tires—that this, in fact, is the only way to drive over deep sand. The agents dismounted. Each strode toward a different tire, slipping a pressure gauge from a pocket of his jumpsuit. Then, in unison, they knelt and started letting out the air.
They had Jad turn the vehicle around and drive over the small mound behind us, the last obstacle before the parking lot. They knew about the sail-barge site but tried to discourage us from pressing on. “Everything’s pretty much been picked over,” one said. “There’s nothing there,” said another. Clearly they didn’t want us driving this truck any farther, and they definitely didn’t like the idea of us hiking in. We’d already squandered the only bearable hours of the morning. “In the next thirty minutes, it’s going to get pretty hot,” an agent warned.
We thanked them. Jilliann had them pose for a few celebratory pictures, and they rode off. Then, leaving the truck where it was, we filled my backpack with bottled water and started to walk.
We’d gone only about four hundred yards when I turned and saw Jilliann far behind us, bent over with her hands on her knees. “I don’t walk anywhere,” she said when I reached her. When I offered her water, she sighed, “I don’t think it will make a difference.” I yelled for Jad. Jilliann explained that in addition to her back condition, half of one of her lungs is permanently collapsed. But she prided herself on her toughness and was not interested in waiting in the truck and, as she put it, “sucking.” So she kept marching alongside us, panting and cursing between breaths. Jad and I made increasingly more direct suggestions that she turn back. “It’s just going to get hotter,” he told her, in a tone similar to that of the Border Patrol men.
Soon she stopped and let her head drop to her knees. “Oh, you can still see the car from here,” she said. “Oh, God.” Bru had gone ahead. We could see him, barefoot, holding his sandals in one hand. He was almost to the top of a steep rise. “Whaddya see, Bru?” Jilliann called after him. He paused. Then he turned around and shouted, “Nothing!”
It was then that Jilliann agreed to go back. Jad promised to take pictures. He commended her for making it farther than many others would have. For a moment no one said anything. It was a silence bloated either with respect or awkwardness. “I’m really disappointed in myself,” Jilliann said softly. Then she reared back and shouted into the dunes again. “Whaddya see, Bru?” But the man we called Bru Galeen couldn’t hear her this time.
The three remaining members of our party descended into Buttercup Valley from a narrow, winding channel between two broad dunes. The valley spans 12,000 acres and is populated by tall, rangy creosote bushes. To our right, interrupting a sky so crystalline blue it seemed digitally enhanced, was one of the region’s most dramatic features—a steep-faced dune that ATV riders call Competition Hill.
We fanned out and traced slow, purposeful paths through the sand. We kept our heads down, occasionally brushing at some intriguing shape or discoloration with our feet. We were looking for small granules of foam on the surface—good indicators, Jad instructed us, that there were larger artifacts underground. The foam was used to build the Sarlacc’s pit, to cushion the fall of the stuntmen diving into it. According to Jad, the flecks would be a mustard color and would have been turned brittle by the sun. Pushed around by the wind for the last quarter century, they were also likely to be clustered at the base of the bushes. Unfortunately, those areas were heavily speckled with tiny dead leaves that were also the color of mustard.
At one point, Jad picked up a small square of wood. It looked like engineered plywood but with the resin that once bound it somehow eroded or evaporated, so that individual slivers of wood could be seen loosely lined up like tiny matches in a book. “You find a lot of this,” Jad explained, “and it’s really hard to say whether it’s from the sail barge or not.” To be proven authentic, wood needed to bear traces of paint. I watched Jad pick up another fragment. He looked at it carefully. “Inconclusive,” he said, and flicked it back into the sand.
When I asked Lucasfilm publicist John Singh what became of the sail-barge set after filming, and why, apparently, some portion of it was still strewn across the federally managed desert, he spent a few days looking into the question but said finally that he couldn’t provide any definitive answers. Our knowledge of the levitating vehicle owned by Jabba the Hutt in a galaxy far away is much more exhaustive. Luke Skywalker and his friends escape execution at the Pit of Carkoon, of course, and rout their captors, while Princess Leia, her breasts rigged up in a metallic bikini top, wraps a chain around Jabba’s lardy throat and strangles him. Eventually, the heroes turn the vehicle’s cannon toward its own deck, blowing up the barge and spraying a riot of splintered lumber in all directions. As Luke and company fly off, pieces of the barge have already begun to touch down and skip madly across the desert. Where, after the camera cut away, did they ultimately settle?
By now, thanks to Star Wars fans’ extraordinary investment in that fiction, and the extraordinary ways marketers evolved to capitalize on it, even such idle lines of inquiry lead to clear answers. New information continues to coalesce around the events depicted onscreen—a buildup of additional detail that started immediately after the first movie’s release as an almost accidental byproduct of the invention of a new kind of toy, the action figure. Kenner Toys sold 26 million Star Wars action figures in their first year of production. But the company quickly realized that the figures it had produced of the few marquee players (Luke, Leia, Darth Vader, et al.) would be marooned on store shelves for two whole Christmases before the next film in the trilogy, with its infusion of new characters, hit theaters. “We had kind of done everything,” said Jim Swearingen, one of the toys’ designers. “We needed other filler.” So they started watching the film again—very closely. Soon, interesting-looking aliens were being plucked out of the backgrounds of scenes and cast in plastic.
Over the next decade, 111 different Star Wars action figures would go on offer, delivering even the most insignificant-seeming tenants of that galaxy into eager hands on Earth. As life was breathed into progressively more marginal bit players, each one acquired not only a name but also a backstory. Fans prized these throwaway scraps of information, which only added to the deeply textured universe in the films, making it feel even more real. This reality was so compelling that, for many devotees, the toys themselves seemed beholden to it. One fan told me that, since he had watched Darth Vader kill Obi-Wan Kenobi onscreen before he acquired his first action figures, he never once thought to play with his Obi-Wan toy—“because he was dead.”The Star Wars action figure, and the age of licensed toys that it helped launch, would remake the very way children played. Play shifted from pure make-believe to “scripted play,” in which kids maneuvered props through storylines and according to conventions laid out in advance by marketers. At focus groups, executives often showed kids short animated videos that established the master narrative of a new line of toys before they gave the kids the prototypes to play with. When the initial Star Wars trilogy concluded, in 1983, there were fourteen different television programs based on licensed toys. Two seasons later, there were forty, and a third of all the toys marketed to boys were licensed from some sort of existing story.
By the 1990s, the Lucas empire was vigorously expanding its fictional world. A series of novels and other media fleshed out peripheral allusions in the films into full-blown biographies, geographies, ethnographies, and political and military histories. The “Expanded Universe,” as this body of knowledge is known, has continued to grow, chronicling epochs before, after, and between the movies and demarcating everything on its own invented calendar. An alien with a head like a hammerhead shark in the background of the first film’s cantina scene is now, in this ever-enlarging taxonomy, an Ithorian—a race of “tall gentle herbivores” with two mouths, known for “devoting much time to contemplating their ecology.” Even calling the character “Hammerhead,” as Kenner first did when it turned him into an action figure in 1978, now feels like an ignorant slur.
The annals of the Expanded Universe provide a proper name for Jabba the Hutt’s sail barge: the Khetanna. And Jabba has acquired one as well: Jabba Desilijic Tiure. As for the barge’s debris—thrown into the desert by the explosion during what is now known as “The Skirmish at Carkoon”—sources cited by the online user-compiled encyclopedia Wookieepedia report that some of the ruptured planks were eventually recovered and “used to line the interior of the Doe See’ybark Bootana restaurant.” This Tatooine eatery, according to its own Wookieepedia entry, “served good food and drinks in a quiet, sun-dappled, romantic atmosphere.” We know the sail barge’s manufacturer—the Ubrikkian corporation—and also its top speeds, both when wind- propelled and when switched over to its repulsorlift engines and triple- chamber thrust turbines. We even know the identity of the chef employed in its galley. His name was Porcellus, though there is some disagreement about whether Porcellus was bald.
Because Star Wars history has been subsequently and repeatedly revised, such discrepancies can arise. Another involves the floor plan of Han Solo’s spacecraft, the Millennium Falcon. “There’s always been certain questions about the actual, internal arrangement of the ship and where the corridors go,” Bru noted, explaining to me that he appreciates these glitches, which “open up more possibility for debate.” Grown-up fans will avidly sift the canonical from the apocryphal only because that imaginary universe has taken on the specificity and grit of an actual one—one, like our own, that demands a more thorough, scientific accounting of itself. It is a form of playing at Star Wars, a kind of play that acquires more, and ever more stringent, parameters. Play becomes a discipline, until—as with us, traversing Buttercup Valley—adults finally journey great distances to stand inside that universe and handle it for real.
Jad, Bru, and I wandered around in the sand for about forty-five minutes. Occasionally we came across a flattened beer can or a pack of Camels, its colors leached out by the sun. Jad examined a rock, wondering if it was anthracite; Bru found a pair of sand-etched eyeglasses and a chip of fiberglass, which, after some discussion, Jad declared unimpressive. It was tedious work, carried out on the floor of a furnace. Sand had puddled into each of my shoes, and increasingly I was having trouble appreciating the recondite differences between splinters of detritus. Overhead, the man in the prop plane continued his rounds, hunting Mexicans. A few times I saw Jad’s body stiffen, dart toward some promising point in the sand, and then collapse back into a lurch, as though giving in to the heat. Later, he knelt and dug vigorously with the little Home Depot shovel under some scattered, pebble-like traces of foam. Then he stood up and took a long drink. “Just a few tiny pieces, I guess,” he said.
Eventually, Jad and I converged on a trail of yellow foam dots. We followed the trail as it widened and spread over the rippled sand. “We got foam,” Jad shouted. He dug. Bigger nuggets turned up. “We’re in the right spot,” he said. “Here we go.”
David West Reynolds was twenty-seven years old and finishing his Ph.D. in archaeology at the University of Michigan when he began plotting the expedition to Tunisia that he later recorded in “Return to Tatooine,” his seminal article in Star Wars Insider. He was accustomed to working at sites where archaeologists were already well entrenched: analyzing pottery shards found at Anasazi ruins in the American Southwest or among the remains of a Roman city. But if he was going to be a successful archaeologist, he reasoned, he should be able to locate sites—any site—on his own. So he challenged himself to find Tatooine, a planet that even within its own made-up galaxy was described as hopelessly remote.
Surprisingly, no one at Lucasfilm had bothered to document the locations from the first Star Wars film. Company archivists put Reynolds in touch with Robert Watts, the movie’s production supervisor. But Watts had scouted so many films since 1976 that they were jumbled together in his mind. He had vague information to pass on, like that the plaza of Mos Eisley spaceport—where Obi-Wan Kenobi says, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”—was on an island. It turned out there was only one sizable island off the coast of Tunisia. “I knew I could crisscross the whole bloody island if I had to,” Reynolds told me. “I ended up doing that.”
Reynolds left for Tunisia in April of 1995, traveling with a paleontologist friend. He approached the trip as he would have any other fieldwork; although whereas an academic might scour a library to assemble reference materials for the trip, Reynolds set up a camera across the room from his television and snapped crude screen-shots from his Star Wars laser discs. One of his best resources turned out to be the Star Wars trading cards he still had from boyhood. Each card has trivia printed on its back, and the Topps company, riding the merchandising wave as long as it could, had kept issuing new editions. “They ended up printing every little factoid that the publicist folks had,” Reynolds said. “By the fifth series, you’re really getting down to the last nuts and bolts that nobody cared about. You get down to, ‘Luke Skywalker’s home was shot in the town of Matmata.’ And that’s terrific news for me.”
Reynolds was able to identify Mos Eisley plaza by matching a single window in a dome to a trading-card photo. A paved road now ran through the area, and an apartment complex had been constructed nearby. It was difficult for him to connect with the essential Tatooine-ness of the place. But later in Matmata, he visited the underground dwelling used as the interior of Luke’s home; it is now the Hotel Sidi Driss, a low-budget inn with a restaurant. There he came upon textured plastic pieces from the original set still affixed to many of the doorways. At the edge of a canyon system, he found the rock formation where R2-D2 was ambushed by the race of child-sized droid-merchants called Jawas. To locate the site, Reynolds searched the landscape for geomorphological trademarks—such as patterns of dark manganese staining the sandstone outcroppings—that were visible in his laser disc screen-shots.
Reynolds then headed into the Sahara. He was able to find a 1974 road map of the region and plotted out zones within a four-hour drive of any town, figuring the film crew wouldn’t have wanted to shoot scenes too far from wherever they were staying. At one point, Reynolds stumbled upon sand-choked ruins not shown on any of his maps—an actual lost city. He kept going. He was searching for a particular sand dune where C-3PO and R2-D2’s escape pod crash-lands, and although all dunes tend to look the same, his scientific sensibility did not allow him to feel content knowing he had merely come close to the filming location. Archaeology, he explained, is about “using your imagination as little as possible. You’re only exercising it along principles and parameters that you’ve taken from the evidence”—collecting every available fact and then, when the facts are exhausted, telling the most logical story to connect them. “It’s imagination,” he told me, “but you’ve learned to use it with discipline.”
On one of his last days in the desert, he combed remote salt flats looking for the exterior of Luke’s homestead. At dusk, he found it—the very crater rim where, early in the first film, the farm boy, longing for adventure, watches Tatooine’s twin suns set. Reynolds had felt throughout the trip that he was tracing a legitimate history, stalking the spot where Luke Skywalker met Obi-Wan Kenobi, not where Mark Hamill and Alec Guinness traded lines. “It was the first time I was surrounded 360 degrees by Star Wars,” he told me. The sandstone igloo in the film was gone, and the sunset he stood watching was one sun short. But still, he said, “I felt like I actually succeeded in stepping up from the seat in the movie theater when I’m an eight-year-old kid and stepping up into the screen. The action has wound down, and Luke and C-3PO have run off on the land- speeder, and the dust has settled. Or maybe Luke’s downstairs asleep, or they’ve sold the droids and moved on. But I’m still there—on Tatooine.”
Not long after returning, Reynolds was hired by Lucasfilm to lead a production team around Tunisia, guiding them to sites they needed again to shoot the upcoming trilogy of Star Wars prequels. He was later asked to collaborate on a series of Star Wars reference books called Incredible Cross-Sections, which painstakingly devise mechanical explanations for the visible parts and armaments of every Star Wars vehicle. A UCLA professor writing about the books noted, “People who would never read the instruction book that came with an appliance they use in their kitchen every day devour the inner workings of a device that does not and cannot exist except in the imagination.” For Reynolds, the exercise of deducing how an X-wing fighter could actually have been engineered to fly, given the physical evidence visible in the films, was not unlike his archaeological work. And yet here his reasoned hypotheses were cemented into the canon. Reynolds was inventing history.
Jad searched amid the foam debris, burrowing deeper into the sand. Soon he was exhuming rough, business-card-sized chunks of wood crusted with reddish paint. He brushed off each artifact, a half-dozen by now. Then he spread out a white plastic bag and laid the pieces on it side by side.
I examined one of the larger foam hunks. It was the size and shape of a flint arrowhead, with the same dimpled texture, but weighed almost nothing. On one side, veins of orange paint forked through a stubbled, sand-like finish. It looked like a grotesquely deformed and discolored variation on the kind of foam peanut that Crate and Barrel might ship with a set of glasses. Jad believed these pieces likely came from the exterior rim of the Pit of Carkoon. Fragments of that fictional era a long, long time ago were turning up in our present. It was hard not to get swept up in the thrill of their discovery.
Bru made a discovery of his own: the buried stump of one of the old fence posts around the location. He exposed the remains of one pole after another, tracing the original perimeter. Soon he came over, holding up a thin plank of wood streaked with silver paint. “Dude, dude. This is from the front!” Jad said, astounded. “That’s from the front!” The front of the barge was painted silvery white to reflect the sun and keep the set cooler. That part of the barge is never shown clearly onscreen, Jad said, but there was solid evidence of its coloration in a behind-the-scenes photograph he would later show us in his binder, holding the relic up against the photo to verify the match. Bru placed the wood in a Linens-N-Things canvas tote bag. “Oh yeah, hold onto that,” Jad told him. “You earned it.”
Just then a low hum rose from the dunes. I heard a honk. We turned and saw a dark SUV bouncing up and pounding into the sand as it sped toward us. It was almost on top of us before we recognized it as our own rental vehicle.
Jilliann stopped short and cut the engine. She had the window rolled down and one hand slung over the wheel. “When I tell you I’m driven, I’m not kidding,” she said.
She’d been sulking in the truck when another group of Border Patrol agents went tooling over the dunes in an SUV just like ours. She took a risk, hoping that with the tire pressure lower she’d make it to Buttercup if she built up enough momentum and never slowed down. When she stepped out of the truck, Bru went to his friend, showing her a few slim fragments of lumber. “Look at what we got!” he said. “We found all this.”
We resumed digging, sitting spread-eagle in the sand or bent over, working the little shovel like a toddler’s beach toy or paddling with our bare hands. Jilliann glanced back at the truck. Then she turned to Bru, her voice rising like a child’s. “You should’ve seen me fly!”
In the end, I made the day’s most impressive discovery: a foot-wide, brittle polygon of wood, marked by three clear bands of silver-white paint—verifying its provenance, indisputably, I was told, as part of the front of Jabba the Hutt’s sail barge. I donated the piece to Jad. He planned to build a shadowbox to display some of the choicest items he reclaimed here.
We decided to call it a day. Jad poured water over his head and handed me his video camera. He was hoarse, and exhausted from the heat, but as he signaled me to start filming he somehow projected a clear, upbeat voice. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Jad, and I probably have heat stroke, and I’ve nearly lost my voice because I’m so excited to be in Buttercup Valley in Imperial Sand Dunes National Monument in California. And the reason this place is so special is because we’re in the exact place where Lucasfilm set up and filmed the Sarlacc pit and sail barge for Return of the Jedi.”
He spoke with the jauntiness of a Discovery Channel host. He described the artifacts that his viewers, whoever they were, might find in Buttercup, and how they could determine their origins. “Like, for example, this piece of wood here,” he went on, displaying the piece I’d given him. He assured viewers that if they were “a little tenacious and willing to deal with the heat, you can come out here and find these things to put in your collection. I hope that you do,” he said.
I eventually heard the stories of numerous Star Wars travelers, and I noticed a common theme. Their tales often dipped from the ecstasy of departure to moments of adversity or despondency, only to be redeemed by some instant when the searchers were aided by forces beyond their understanding—an uncanny feeling that a certain obscure site was just around a corner, or the fateful appearance of a kindly old Berber man who happened to have worked on the original production in the late Seventies. It was as though Star Wars had propelled these people onto real-life heroes’ journeys, with their own trials, and that the feat of reaching those sites ended up overshadowing whatever vague rewards they actually found. Both Reynolds and Jad had come back from their Tunisian adventures self-assured and refocused. Jilliann had triumphantly rejoined our party in the desert, and the four of us had excitedly gotten back to our work. One traveler, a thirty-three-year-old southern Californian named Kolby Kirk, later told me, “As a kid, you can only go so far playing with action figures. As an adult, you don’t play with action figures anymore. You become the action figure.”
I held the camera as still as I could, concentrating on keeping my wrist from sagging in the heat. In the tiny viewfinder screen, I could see that Jad was breathing heavily and fading but still smiling as he gestured and addressed his imagined audience. Finally, he signed off. “And if you do come to Buttercup Valley, best of luck, and may the Force be with you.”
Jon Mooallem ’s last article for Harper’s Magazine, “A Curious Attraction,” appeared in the October 2007 issue.
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