While it had been a nostalgic thrill for my friend Ryan and I to visit all of the Star Wars locations in Tunisia, one location in particular will always stand out: Luke Skywalker’s house.
In actuality, it’s two locations. There’s the classic domed exterior where Luke watches the binary sunset, and there’s the pit in the ground where Luke drinks blue milk. The dome is located in a salt flat just outside the town of Tozeur. The pit is actually a functioning hotel called the Sidi Driss in the town of Matmata, about three and a half hours away.
We reached Matmata first. “Troglodyte” dwellings are common in the area. Pits are dug out of the sand and rooms are dug out of the walls of the pits to allow the residents to keep cool in the middle of the desert. I don’t think anyone knows for sure when the Sidi Driss came into existence but other settlements in the area date back to around 200 BC.
Tour buses regularly bring people to the hotel for a quick look around, but if you have the option to spend the night in Luke Skywalker’s house WHY WOULDN’T YOU WANT TO SPEND THE NIGHT IN LUKE SKYWALKER’S HOUSE???
The hotel has no website and no email address so I had to make reservations during a static-filled Skype call which became disconnected twice. We were given an old, metal, dog-from-the-Pirates-of-the-Carribbean-ride-style key and shown to our room, which was in one of several connected pits that make up the hotel.
The main pit is the very recognizable location from Star Wars and it includes a bar and the famous dining room. After the original shoot, all the set decorations were stripped away, but they were recreated for Attack of the Clones, which was filmed there years later. For some reason, they’ve since decided to paint everything yellow, but one thing was still undeniable: We were standing in Luke Skywalker’s house.
Dinner was included with our stay, and we got delicious, heaping plates of spicy chicken, couscous, chickpeas, and green chiles while the locals hung out, drank, and listened to music at the bar. Probably not too many other bar options in the area, I would guess. I took a rather gross shower in a communal stall with bad drainage (remember, you’re staying there for the history, not the amenities) and we went to bed in our little cave room.
We woke up early the next day and were served some bread, jam, and not-so-great coffee for breakfast. But it didn’t matter what we were eating, because we were eating it in LUKE SKYWALKER’S DINING ROOM. We had the place to ourselves, so we were able to spend a crazy amount of time moving furniture and trying to get the perfect angle for a dining room photo. We ultimately even filmed a re-creation of the scene where Luke runs out on Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru just before he watches the binary sunset.
After breakfast we made our way to Tozeur and then continued on to the salt flats about a half hour away, where our GPS coordinates assured us the “Lars Homestead” (named after Luke’s uncle, Owen Lars) would be located.
There is no sign or marker pointing to the Homestead. You just follow your GPS to 33.842791, 7.779095 while following the tire tracks that others have left behind until a tiny plaster dome appears on the horizon.
This was the heart of the entire trip. This was the location we had dreamed about seeing for years. This was a defining element of our childhoods finally coming full circle. This was why we were in Tunisia.
Roughly a hundred yards from the Homestead, our car got stuck in the mud.
We didn’t have time to deal with it if we wanted to catch the sunset, so we grabbed our cameras and walked the rest of the way. We knew this would mean we’d likely be digging the car out of the mud after dark, but we hadn’t come this far just to miss our epic Skywalker sunset moment!
As we approached the Lars Homestead and pushed the worries about the car out of our heads, a dude on a moped appeared out of nowhere. He rolled up and asked us in Arabic if we’d like to buy some little hand-stitched camel dolls for the equivalent of five bucks each. “Oh here we go…” I thought. Now we were going to be harassed by a persistent tout who won’t take no for an answer. And we had nowhere to hide. But once we reached the Homestead he stopped asking us about the camels and just sat there and watched as we set up our cameras. Every now and then we’d smile at him. He’d smile back. A little awkward, but at least he wasn’t hassling us.
Our primary goal for this entire trip was to shoot a video re-creation of the iconic “binary sunset” shot from Star Wars. We had researched the original production thoroughly and brought two cameras and two tripods: one dedicated to capturing me walking out of the Homestead, the other with a 300MM zoom lens (and a step-up magnifier) to capture the sunset in real time so we could comp together two setting suns from our actual trip in post.
The original Lars Homestead set was abandoned by the New Hope film crew. Time and the elements slowly destroyed it, but it was rebuilt in 2000 for the filming of Attack of the Clones, and then left behind once again. It fell into a depressing state of disrepair until a group of dedicated fans raised some money and fully restored it in 2011.
Unfortunately for mega-nerds, somewhere along the way the Homestead was slightly repositioned, so re-creating the exact angle of the Homestead in relation to the setting sun is impossible, but we did our best. Also unfortunate is the visible deterioration of the site. Despite the restoration it has once again been ravaged by the elements. The plaster is coming off in chunks, some of the wood supports are exposed, and when we were there the interior was completely flooded. It was still intact enough for us to enjoy it, but fair warning to any Star Wars fans interested in making the pilgrimage: hurry.
Before the sun got too low in the sky we filmed the reverse angle of me, as Luke, staring out at the horizon. Then we shot several takes of me exiting the Homestead and walking to the edge of the “pit.”
Despite the time crunch and the stress of getting our shots, we were giddy. And overwhelmed. After so many years of idle talk, “someday” had become today. We had officially made it. We celebrated with smiles and tranquil silence. It was just us and Luke’s house and the setting sun.
And the strange dude with the stuffed camels.
As the sky darkened we quickly packed up our gear and headed back to the car, bidding the camel guy adieu as he hopped on his moped and sped off. We had mentally prepared for the possibility of getting stuck in the sand at some point during our trip, so we knew we were supposed to pull out the floor mats and use them for traction. I was pushing, Ryan was at the wheel. We weren’t getting very far.
After a bit, the camel guy returned and offered to help. He quarterbacked the whole operation even though he didn’t speak any English. He pushed with gusto and helped position muddy floor mats and soon enough the car was liberated. I profusely thanked our new friend and tried to hand him 20 bucks for his help. He went into his bag and pulled out four camels: the equivalent of 20 bucks worth.
I attempted to explain that the money was a gift, but he insisted I take the camels. And, in fact, he threw in an extra camel. And then just for kicks he threw in another little stuffed doll of a woman holding a baby. I couldn’t figure out how to tell him he was needlessly burning his inventory, so I just sincerely thanked him several more times, took the dolls as a dignified trade, and shook his hand.
We had turned down his camel dolls when we first arrived. He could’ve easily said, “screw those guys,” and left us stuck in the mud. But he didn’t. Once our car was free, he didn’t ask for anything in return. When I tried to hand him money, he insisted I take his dolls as a fair deal, and on top of that he gave me BONUS dolls when I wasn’t even trying to bargain with him.
So many people clutched their pearls and tried to tell us Tunisia was an unsafe destination before we left. In their minds, the country’s entire reputation rested on two horribly tragic terrorist attacks from years prior (and some absurdly false reports about terrorists taking over the Star Wars sets). Terror attacks have never spurred anyone to warn me away from Paris, London, Barcelona, Berlin, Nice, Brussels, or New York City…but for some reason Tunisia was supposed to scare us. In truth–and without exaggeration–Tunisia is possibly the safest and friendliest place I have ever visited in my life. What you may have heard on the news isn’t even remotely representative of what we encountered in Tunisia. That guy with the stuffed camels? THAT is Tunisia.
The next morning we awoke before sunrise and returned once more to the Lars Homestead. We wanted to capture the same shot of me walking out of the dome with the light at our backs, in order to flatten out the sky and give us more flexibility in post. We also wanted some extra time to just sit back and appreciate the site without the pressure of filming.
We arrived in darkness and this time we parked the car probably a kilometer away from the site. The long walk was preferable to the risk of getting stuck again. We took some photos of the stars and the sunrise, and we re-filmed our scene.
One thing we hadn’t gotten quite right the previous night was the pacing. I was counting my steps so I’d be roughly in sync with Luke’s walk in the original scene, but I hadn’t fully nailed it. This time, we decided to try doing it to music. Of course I had downloaded all the Star Wars films onto my laptop for this trip, so I pulled my laptop out of my bag and cued up the scene.
In the dawn silence of the salt flat the sound from my meager laptop speakers carried well. I positioned myself in the stairwell of the Homestead and Ryan hit play. That classic John Williams score guided me from the steps of the dome to the edge of the pit in perfect step with Luke Skywalker.
It was the music that finally made it all sink in. I was hit with a wave of memories and nostalgia, and thoughts about what Star Wars had always meant to me. As a child I was captivated by Luke Skywalker. As an adult I was now walking in his footsteps.
I planted my foot and looked out at the horizon. The music swelled. And I actually choked back a tear.
I wasn’t in Tunisia anymore. I was on Tatooine.