Filming Star Wars in Abu Dhabi

Star Wars: Episode VII's trailer confirms the UAE as a major player in Hollywood blockbusters

There has been an awakening. Have you felt it? So began the voiceover of the teaser trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, that was revealed to the world on Friday.

Positively Kardashianing (new technical term) the internet with its glorious mix of practical effects and stunning CGI, J.J. Abrams’ 88-second teaser felt at once pure Star Wars and also breathtakingly new. And, amid all of the many newcomers to the party – more on whom later – for us here at Time Out Dubai there was one immediate star, in it from the very first to the very last shot: the UAE.

Opening and closing with views of what is rumoured to be Tatooine (Luke Skywalker’s home planet that has featured in all of the movies so far except The Empire Strikes Back) we got our first glimpse of what the UAE will look like through the filter of Star Wars, that trailer’s vivid desert-scape shot just one hour down the road in Abu Dhabi.

Famously, Tunisia had always previously doubled for Skywalker’s twin-mooned home. And then, when it was first rumoured that Episode VII (as it was then called) would be shooting on location in the Middle East, the early word was that it would take place in Jordan – notable for providing the iconic backdrop to 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia and recently home to everything from Prometheus to Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen.

‘To be honest, it was our understanding that they [Lucasfilm and Disney] were going to Jordan, and I thought that was that,’ Paul Baker, head of Intaj, the production services arm of Abu Dhabi’s government-backed media powerhouse twofour54, told The Hollywood Reporter. ‘But then a couple of weeks later, we had their guys come in and do the first scout. Then once they’d taken a look at the locations and infrastructure we had on offer, things quickly developed from there.’

Baker himself claims that a key driver behind the movie switching locales from Jordan to Abu Dhabi is the latter’s new 30 percent tax rebate system, as well as the reduced-rate hotel rooms made available to the sprawling cast and crew. But it’s not just the bottom line that appealed.

Abrams has always talked passionately on the role of real locations in modern cinema’s increasingly computer-generated landscape, which is something his boss and new head of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy, also said to us when we met her last year. ‘Think about it,’ she said. ‘Star Wars has such a rich heritage when it comes to shooting on location. That’s very much something we want to echo.’

And, in Abu Dhabi, they had their perfect muse. Recently named as the only Middle Eastern city – alongside countries such as Canada, Australia and Germany – on a list of top international locations, the city has much to offer filmmakers, from its perpetually brightly-lit blue skies to its outstanding vistas and world-class production facilities at twofour54; a combination that has also seen it recently play host to Furious 7 and Bollywood blockbusters Bang Bang and Baby.

With respect to the above, however, there really is nothing on the filmmaking calendar like a new Star Wars movie and, for us, last week’s trailer makes its release date of December 18, 2015, seem a mighty long way off indeed. New recruits alongside the capital city are Oscar Isaac (seen piloting a new-look X-wing), British newcomer Daisy Ridley (sat on top of something resembling a cross between a landspeeder and speederbike) and John Boyega (dressed in a Stormtrooper outfit), which would seem to add credence to the rumours that he will play a trooper turned to the good. Is this The Force Awakens’ new triumvirate of heroes? Who is that with the funky, scary new lightsaber? And when will we get to see the returning triumvirate of original heroes, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford?

As for the UAE, one thing is certain: ‘If you can hold Star Wars in your country, the sky’s the limit,’ says Emirati filmmaker Ali F. Mostafa. ‘It’s definitely a huge boost. It was important that they walked away with smiles on their faces, which they did.’

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