For 37 years and five films, Tunisia has served as the earthbound inspiration for the “Star Wars” films’ desert planet Tatooine, but that’s going to change in the latest installment, the J.J. Abrams-directed “Episode VII." In the new installment, the “Star Wars” crew will use the desert surrounding Abu Dhabi as a stand-in for Tatooine.
A second-unit crew was spotted in May filming pickup footage for “Star Wars,” but it was unclear whether Abrams and his team would use Abu Dhabi as a main shooting location or return to Tunisia. That was until Wednesday, when twofour54, a tax-free economic zone established to promote the Abu Dhabi film industry, and producer Lucasfilm officially confirmed the new filming location.
“We were very excited to start the filming of Star Wars: Episode VII in Abu Dhabi -- it has been an incredible place to commence this journey,” Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm, said in a statement.
The break from “Star Wars” tradition comes after a time of political unrest in Tunisia. In the wake of 26-year-old fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in 2010, Tunisians revolted against their government and overthrew then-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, becoming one of the first nations to take part in a series of protests that would later become known as the Arab Spring. Though the new Tunisian democracy has been stabilizing the region, the U.S. State Department still advises travelers of potential safety hazards.
And, of course there are financial considerations behind the move. Abu Dhabi’s twofour54 zone isn’t just a tax-free filming location; in 2012, the Abu Dhabi Film Commission began offering a 30 percent cash-back rebate for production expenses. Many locations hoping to attract film productions offer tax credits, but Abu Dhabi’s uncommonly high rebate and the absence of taxes make it an especially attractive shooting location.
“Star Wars” may have moved on from Tunisia, but fans of the series can still pay homage to the series roots. The original films’ desert sets have been restored and preserved by fans, and the Tunisian government has encouraged travelers to visit the original sets and stay in a hotel featured in the films.
As for the modern “Star Wars” set, Abrams on Wednesday gave fans a brief look at the desert film site. The director appeared alongside a new background character to announce the UNICEF fundraising program "Star Wars: Force for Change." Fans who contribute to the effort will have a shot at a cameo when filming begins in London for scenes set outside of Tatooine. The fundraising campaign runs until 11:59 p.m. PDT on July 18. Disney will release the film in December 2015.