ON LOCATION: BUTTERCUP VALLEY, 1982
Take a journey with us thirty years into the past. Before the world wide web, before internet forums and blogs. Hell, before Usenet groups and Compuserve. This was when movie spies were more like real spies. Belly-crawling with real cameras loaded with real film. Sharing physical assets. Speaking on the phone. Making meet ups face-to-face.
A more romantic, if now largely forgotten, time.
The return to Tatooine.
It was the Spring of 1982. In the Southern California desert region known as Buttercup Valley, cameras were rolling on a film called BLUE HARVEST: HORROR BEYOND IMAGINATION. A SoCal science-fiction nut named Mike Davis had heard rumors about the production just having gotten under way. He and his pals decided to pack up some camping supplies and go check it out. This was the 1980s, a time when film productions were able to remain much more secretive than they do today, due in large part to the producers being able to stem the flow of information much more effectively in the absence of the internet. But just Earthling spies do their best work when boots are on the ground, so too would Mike Davis and his network of Bothan spies.
None of these Bothans died to bring us this information, but they did get sand everywhere imaginable (and unimaginable). The photography that follows is a never-before-published archive of private shots snapped on set during the filming of RETURN OF THE JEDI.
The sand skiff and the helicopter that filmed the exciting action sequence.
Mark Hamill prepares for swashbuckling on the high (dune) seas.
Mike’s group embarked on a ten-day camping expedition to get themselves out to this remote area of the desert where something titillating was happening. There was a small rest-stop just off the freeway which opened up into a big, flat area in the middle of countless sand dunes. A long slog on foot out into the sand took them up over a rise of dunes and down into a sprawling valley.
Jabba the Hutt’s luxury sail barge.
As soon as Mike and his explorers came upon it, they knew they had stumbled upon the filming of the third STAR WARS film. Before the internet, movie studio counter-intelligence programs were a relative rarity. RETURN OF THE JEDI (still REVENGE at this point) was one of the exceptions. The massive success of the first two films had already created a rabid fandom and an insatiable hunger for all things STAR WARS. The third and most-anticipated-to-date film in the trilogy was the Holy Grail of eyeball porn for fans. Hence the misdirection created by the title BLUE HARVEST.
Still, compared to today’s environment, security was relatively lax. It consisted of a chain-link perimeter fence and scattered security grunts. Mike and his cohorts were able to walk right up to the fence where they were told that as long as they behaved, they could hang out and watch movie magic in the making. They were even allowed to openly take photos! Talk about a more romantic time.
Carrie Fisher takes a break from her sizzling golden bikini.
While on their long expedition, the Jedi spies were trying to piece together the plot for RETURN OF THE JEDI, something that was kept very secret. Were they looking at the return to Tatooine or some other desert? If it was, as they anticipated, was this the secret lair of the fabled Jabba the Hutt?
Every angle of Jabba’s sail barge.
As filming rolled for days and days, Mike and his embedded amateur snoops would write down snippets of dialogue they could overhear and try to piece together the story based on what they were seeing. The centerpiece of the action filmed in Buttercup Valley was the execution sequence on the sand skiffs…
New aliens appeared, more realistic and menacing than had been seen earlier in the trilogy…
New vehicles tantalized (though even present-day STAR WARS sleuths must wonder what the speeder-bikes were doing on Tatooine)…
The spies witnessed C3P0’s swan dive off the barge and wondered if that was the end of poor goldenrod…
They saw R2-D2 dramatically cannon-launch the lightsaber to Luke and debated how that worked into the story…
They saw Lando Calrissian (here, just his stunt double) dressed as what looked to be a bad-guy and wondered where his betrayal of Han in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK took his story…
One of the coolest spectacles they got to see was Boba Fett, a cult character favorite, engaged in his aerial battle with Han and Chewie. They also witnessed, Mike and his spies hypothesized, Boba Fett’s untimely demise in the mouth of the all-powerful Sarlacc.
While the STAR WARS sleuths witnessed much of the action surrounding the Sarlacc pit, their vantage point did not actually allow them to see the hungry, hungry alien himself. It actually wasn’t until months after filming had wrapped, when Mike and his pals returned to the scene under cover of night, that they realized what was happening down below those execution skiffs. As was customary for larger sets at the time, the Sarlacc was left exactly where it was built—in the desert sands. Discovering the Sarlacc resulted in great excitement for the spies as well as great treasure—they were all able to haul some (now very valuable) pieces of the ancient beast back to their homes where they would be slowly digest—er, enjoyed—for the next thousand years.
Producer Howard Kazanjian debates the finer points of Tatooine with producer Robert Watts.
Mike and his friends spent so much time on the Buttercup Valley set that they became veritable fixtures in the RETURN OF THE JEDI shoot. In many cases, they were able to get up rather close and personal with many of the famous faces on set, those both in front of and behind the camera.
Kenny Baker confirms suspicions: it’s kind of hot in these astromech droids.
Mark Hamill’s stunt double chats skiff-swinging with Carrie Fisher.
Those few weeks in the deserts of California’s Buttercup Valley during the spring of 1982 were an experience for the ages. As popular as STAR WARS was back then, Mike and his enterprising friends had no idea the phenomenon it would grow to become. And now their stories and their wonderful photographs are a part of the STAR WARS trilogy’s indelible history.
The ultimate treat for Mike and his fellow Bothans was finally getting to see RETURN OF THE JEDI in the movie theater when it was released in May of 1983. Not only was it a new STAR WARS film, but they were finally able to divine what parts of the story they had correctly deduced and what they had completely miscalculated!
Prop Store extends a very special “thank you” to Mike Davis for allowing us to share his photos and story with the prop collecting community.