Mark Dermul, former President of the Belgian Star Wars Fan Club, was a 'film tourist' before any of us even knew what that meant.
Pioneering Star Wars Tourism
Mark Dermul must be one of the most dedicated Star Wars fans out there. I talked to Mark about his extensive knowledge of Star Wars locations and his impressive campaign to 'Save the Lars Homestead'.
How did your Star Wars location begin?
I saw the original Star Wars in the cinema at the age of 7. Needless to say, I was very impressionable, who wouldn’t be? I started collecting the toys – like most kids from my generation, I suppose – and later moved on to autographs and other collectibles. I still have a great collection and this is my pride and joy.
I started visiting and organising conventions, which is how I got in touch with over 80 different cast and crew members. Ah, the memories… having drinks with Mark Hamill, lunch with Dave Prowse or dinner with the late Sir Christopher Lee. What a blast.
In the early 2000s I travelled to Tunisia to find the filming locations of A New Hope. This arid country doubles as the desert planet Tatooine in Lucas’ saga. It was the trip of a lifetime for me. Quite surreal, as I had to keep reminding myself that I was actually on Earth. It sounds a bit crazy, but you must realise that I had seen these locations only on the big and small screen (hundreds of times, admittedly) and so for me they actually were Tatooine and not Tunisia. A very weird, but lovely experience.
After I returned and launched a website about my trip, I was swamped with requests by fans from all over the world to take them over there. That’s how the ‘Trip to Tatooine’ started. I did three of those tours.
You have guided a lot of fan tours to Star Wars locations. Which trip was the most memorable one, and why?
Oh, they were all memorable in their own right. I loved the Lake Como area in Italy where some key scenes from Naboo in Attack of the Clones were filmed. This is really a good place to stay with a young family too.
My stay in Finse was much more impressive. I took a bunch of fans to the Hardangerjokulen Glacier, known as 'the roof of the world' which was the backdrop for the impressive Battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. This location is extremely remote. You cannot reach it by car and it is very desolate, but I love the snow. And it also helped that Episode V is my all-time favorite Star Wars film.
But if I’m really honest, Tunisia is my favorite location. I have been there six times and I plan to go back in 2020 for a reunion with some of the Pioneers (an affectionate name I gave the fans I took along during the Trip to Tatooine tours).
The most memorable part of all these trips are the lasting friendships. Even though the fans that came along did not know each other beforehand, they bonded quickly and forged friendships for life. We are still in touch, after all these years. The second biggest reward for me was to see the fans’ reactions when they first discovered a location. Their faces lit up like a kid’s in a candy store.
What is your favourite Star Wars location?
That would have to be the Sidi Bouhlel canyon near Tozeur, also dubbed 'Star Wars canyon'. It is such a beautiful place. It was used to shoot the scenes in which Artoo gets captured by the Jawas, but also where Luke is attacked by the Tusken Raiders and rescued by Ben Kenobi. It was actually also used for a key scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark (in which Indiana Jones threatens to blow up the Ark with a bazooka) and a scene in The English Patient, when Ralph Fiennes carries Kristin Scott Thomas to the Cave of the Swimmers.
But despite its movie significance, it is simply a magnificent place to spend the day. Such an unspoiled, beautiful and tranquil piece of nature.
Tell us about your 'Save the Lars Homestead' campaign?
During my last Trip to Tatooine, back in 2010, we found the Lars Homestead – which is just a simple structure in the middle of the desert and not a real building – in a very decrepit state. It was slowly decaying and we realized that it would be gone in a matter of months if we did not take action.
So we launched a crowd funding campaign via Facebook and the response was overwhelming. In just a few months, we had so many donations that a team of six people were able to fly out to Tunisia, hire locals, purchase materials and restore the Lars Homestead – which we affectionately call the igloo – back to its full movie glory.
You can read all about that in our online diary.
What is the story of the Tunisian Star Wars sets left behind by the film team?
There is not much of a story, actually. Lucasfilm built a couple of sets in the desert, such as the Mos Espa set in the Chott el-Gharsa or the Lars Homestead set in the Chott el-Jerid and left them behind. The Tunisian government now owns these and takes care of them, for they bring in much needed tourist dollars.
What advice would you give to fans who want to experience the Star Wars locations in Tunisia?
Despite what many people think, Tunisia is a very open country and the people are very, very friendly – at least in the south where all the locations are. The north is… well, let’s just say that it is a tourist trap.
But people who want to visit the Star Wars locations should go well prepared and make arrangements beforehand, especially if they do not plan to drive themselves. And remember that the southern part of the country is very, very poor. Don’t expect to sleep in grand luxury (although there are quite a few nice hotels in Tozeur).
The locals are not very interested in Star Wars and know very little about the locations. Even the travel agencies’ drivers are not aware of many of these locations. They only know the Mos Espa set. So make sure you know where you are going before you set foot on a plane. You can read more about the locations in my book.
Do you think the use of CGI poses a threat for Star Wars location tourism in the future?
Actually, no. While the Star Wars prequels made extensive use of CGI and thus deprived us fans of film locations to visit, the new movies such as The Force Awakens, Rogue One, the upcoming The Last Jedi will be shot on location again - much to my delight!
What do you think of the latest Star Wars movies - The Force Awakens and Rogue One?
I loved them. Contrary to the prequels which I was not very fond of (and it would seem many fans of the ‘first generation’ share this sentiment), the new movies have that quirky sense of humor, good old fashioned sets and the true Star Wars vibe. I’m sure you know what I mean.
I can’t wait for The Last Jedi to hit the theaters in December 2017.
Thanks so much Mark!