Twenty-four-year-old Mark Hamill auditioned for the role of “Luke Starkiller” on December 30, 1975. Based on Director George Lucas’s apparent lack of enthusiasm, Hamill assumed he didn’t get the role. But just two and a half months later, he landed in Djerba, Tunisia, took a harrowing taxi ride to Tozeur, and began playing the role that would define his early career. He offered the following memories of Tunisia, as a complement to the Winter 2013 article, “Soundstage Tunisia.”
I had lived in Japan because my father was in the Navy, so I felt like I’d seen more of the world than most of my contemporaries, but nothing really prepares you for Tunisia. When we were going around to our various locations for Star Wars, we would be following the locations recently vacated by Jesus of Nazareth. It was weird, because they were shooting something with medieval architecture, and the fact that things hadn’t changed for centuries really worked in their favor; ours was using that same kind of terrain and architecture to try and project an unearthly look.
We would go out to the salt flats and erect what we called moisture vaporators. Just nonsense machinery. Or we would put additions on certain buildings to make antennas or radar scopes and take what existed and just tweak it a little bit. One thing I thought was really well done in the early films was the organic look of things. Even the spacecraft were sort of beat up and dented, with oil drips. It wasn’t a pristine, antiseptic kind of look to the hardware, which sometimes you would expect in something that is supposed to be “futuristic.” But it was such a great melding of what was there in North Africa and what we brought to it.
There was an Absolutely Fabulous where Patsy and Edina go to Morocco, and the hotel they were staying at was really a flashback for me. I remember there was white adobe and a nice swimming pool. I think we were doing six days a week and having one day off, and we were trying to stay away from getting sick; we were careful about what we ate. I mostly ate blood oranges and eggs or bananas—things that had natural casings. I was sort of dubious about eating stew and all that. Tony Daniels—who played C-3PO—and I went off to do touristy things like ride camels, and we saw this big procession coming down the street. People were firing blunderbusses. And it was startling, the sound they made. We sort of joined in at the end of the procession and were following behind, and a couple members that were in the procession got very enthusiastic, and through our sort of broken French we were able to understand that this was a wedding procession. But we got self-conscious and thought, “Oh, the last thing you want to do is offend somebody’s cultural traditions.” But they were thrilled! We got invited into either the bride’s or the groom’s father’s abode, and that’s where it got a little dodgy because they got us a bowl of stew. We were always nervous about eating anything because people could get violently ill, and we couldn’t afford it! We weren’t staying long enough where they could wait for me to get over food poisoning.’
At first, he offered us a puff of his hookah, and as he passed it to us, there’s a long string of brown saliva. We’re assuming it was tobacco, but I sort of covered myself by putting my hand over the end of the thing that you’re supposed to drag on, and sort of sucked through my fingers and made a token puff at it because it was offered to us. With the stew, we sort of pushed it around and ate bread. I can’t remember how we actually got out of that because you couldn’t actually dump it somewhere and not be seen—like trying to get out of eating your lima beans at your mom’s house.
The Tunisian Laborers
We were climbing up to the location [Djerba], where we were supposed to be overlooking the space port and it took all of five hours to walk all the way to the top. We didn’t have helicopters and Sir Alec [Guinness] was not a young man. On our way up, trekking up this mountain, we had to stop, and we asked, “Why are we stopping?” Well, one donkey had mounted another donkey on the way up, and when they’re in the mood, they stop everything because they need baby donkeys. We had to wait until they finished, so we sat and just cooled our heels for forty-five minutes. Yeah, the film company will be gone in a month’s time or less, but for [the Tunisians], it was much more important to have baby donkeys.
I was a real fanatic for Famous Monsters of Filmland and Ray Harryhausen and the black-and-white King Kong and all the Universal horror films, so I knew what storyboards were. I made sure that I always knew what I was supposed to be looking at and what was going to be put in later. So it was easy for me, especially when you really got out there and turned your back on the camera crew and you just had your little floating car, you had your two robots, and you had your lightsaber. I was a comic-book freak. I used to play this stuff in my backyard. Everything from Robin Hood to Jason and the Argonautsand The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, so I was totally into it, and I could really imagine it. I’d seen it drawn, whether it was in storyboards or in Ralph McQuarrie’s paintings, I had a good idea of what it was intended to look like. When I was standing up there looking at that setting sun, I knew that they were going to double print it and put another sun right next to it so that I was looking at two suns going down.
And that became a kind of a running joke because the lighting had to be just perfect—there was a window of about forty minutes when they could get anything usable—and no matter where we were, they’d say, “Have Mark standing by to get into the jeep,” because we kept shooting that over and over and over again. I must have looked at that setting sun at least half a dozen times because they wanted to get the widest range of sunsets as they could. We couldn’t put it in with CGI the way they do it now.
I had a great time. When we left Tunisia, it was really with a heavy heart because I could have easily stayed there. I mean I really loved it. I know Tony Daniels felt the same way. Tony and I bonded so well. Han Solo has Chewbacca but Luke had C-3PO. And I really bonded with Tony, and he felt very slighted when we went back to England. First Harrison [Ford] came over and I was hanging out with him—you know, I had to get to know everybody. And then Carrie [Fisher] came over, and I wanted to go out to dinner with her, and Tony was sort of lamenting the fact that it’ll never be the same again as when it was just Guinness, the robots, and me.
Mark Hamill is currently raising funds for a film adaptation of The Black Pearl, a comics series he co-authored in 1996. The project’s producer is Peter Kohn, whom Hamill met on the set of Star Wars. The two have been good friends since 1976.