Unlike many of the unfortunate movie characters who have crossed his path, Yuman Robert Gwinn can say that as a young teenager he survived a chance encounter with the menacing and villainous "Star Wars" bounty hunter Boba Fett.
For Gwinn, a lifelong “Star Wars” fan, the encounter happened a long, long time ago, in a desert not too far away. He says it happened back in April of 1982, when he was 13 years old. In recalling the story, he says a buddy of his told him that his father was working on a construction site out in the Imperial Sand Dunes, and that he planned on going out there that coming weekend to see what his dad was working on.
Not wanting to go alone, Gwinn said his buddy invited him and a couple of their other friends to accompany him on the 20-minute trip to Buttercup Valley area of the dunes.
“We all piled in the back of his El Camino, because you could still do that back then, and we drove out to the dunes,” said Gwinn, himself a filmmaker today.
Once they got to the Buttercup Valley area, Gwinn said they followed a makeshift road that led them around the backside of a huge dune, where they saw a wall of semi-trucks and a chain-link fence that had been temporarily set up.
“We technically weren't supposed to be out there, but we didn't know that,” Gwinn said. “You couldn't really see what was going on. You could only see the top of the set. We saw these big maroon sails. You couldn't see past the trucks. They did it on purpose. They had all the trucks parked long ways, end to tail, like wagons being circled.”
George Lucas was interviewed by The Yuma Daily Sun during the two weeks he spent here filming what would become the opening scenes in “Return of the Jedi,” and he was asked what led them to choosing the Buttercup Valley area as the site for the Great Pit of Carkoon sequence on the Dune Sea.
Lucas said the production company's art department spent the previous year travelling around the world scouring all the deserts and dunes before finally deciding on the site at the Imperial Sand Dunes near Yuma.
“Usually we do this in Tunisia, but the dunes there aren't really big enough for this kind of thing,” Lucas said during that interview now 30 years ago. “Algeria's got dunes that are bigger than this but it's very difficult to work there. It's about 1,000 miles from the nearest civilization.”
Lucas went on to say that, “Morocco has got some dunes and Colorado has got some dunes. This seemed to be the most hospitable place and easiest to work in. I want to try and do it in the United States if I can, rather than going all over the world. It's hard on the actors.”
But Buttercup Valley wasn't the only location that was being considered for the alien planet where Jabba the Hutt's huge space ship would be built. Lucas, in his interview, said several other locations in the Imperial Sand Dunes were also being considered as well as some dunes near Denver.
“The only other place we had was out of state in Colorado, the dunes outside Denver,” Lucas said. “The Rocky Mountains were right there, which was the problem. The dunes are nice and big and everything. It is like there is this super huge mountain range right next to it.”
Once the location had been chosen the production company paid the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation $7,550 for a seven-month lease of the site in the Buttercup Valley in the dunes.
While thrilled with the location, Lucas said there were some problems during the filming, such as Star Wars fans and duners who frequently off-roaded in area always trying to find out what was going on. As it turns out, Gwinn may have been one of those fans Lucas was referring to.
After a few minutes of being at the site, Gwinn said he and his buddies realized a movie was being filmed at the location, because the name of the film, “Blue Harvest,” was everywhere. Little did they know that a short time later they would find themselves momentarily on the make-believe world of Tatooine.
“When we first got out there we saw guys in rubber creature masks, so we really didn't think much of it,” Gwinn said. “We just thought they were making some type of monster movie.”
Although he didn't know it at the time, “Blue Harvest” was a fake working title used to hide the production of “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi,” the third installment of the Star Wars film series.
Gwinn said they probably weren't out there for more than about 10 minutes, occasionally hopping out of the vehicle to go peer through fence, when all of the sudden Boba Fett walked between two of the semi-trucks.
“I had just seen ‘Empire Strikes Back' at the Crest Drive In, so I was all into Boba Fett. Boba Fett was the most kick-ass character in the world, at the time. Still is in my book,” Gwinn said. “We saw him right away. You can't miss that Mandalorian battle armor, the antenna sticking up from his helmet, the jet packs and the Wookie scalps hanging off his belt.”
Calling it a weird moment, Gwinn said he remembers it suddenly getting really quiet as he and his buddies just stood there in stunned silence for about 30 seconds before what they were seeing finally sunk in.
“Then it was like we were yelling ‘They're making Star Wars!' at the top of our lungs,” Gwinn said. “Suddenly now we are like giraffes and are stretching as much as we can, hoping to see anything we could. Now we are really excited.”
He said it was about that time that a guy from the company came up to them in a golf cart and told them they needed to leave, which they did.
Gwinn, who was 7 when the original movie came out, said he suspects many people such as himself became “Star Wars” fans because the trilogy was a big part of who they were growing up – a constant part of their childhood.
“It affected us because suddenly Yuma just wasn't a desert. It could be something else,” Gwinn said. “To suddenly find ourselves with Tatooine in our backyard, how frigging cool is that? Suddenly the crappy little desert town you live in wasn't so crappy anymore.”
Additional footage for the special edition of “A New Hope” of stormtroopers finding evidence of droids was also shot at Buttercup Valley and cut in with original shots from La Grande Dune, Tunisia.