Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha head to Abu Dhabi in the follow-up to the 2008 blockbuster

By Missy Schwartz
May 14, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Sarah Jessica Parker is the first to admit that she’s not a nature nut. ”I’m not that kind of a person — don’t need to hike,” she says over brunch on a recent morning in her beloved Manhattan. But while filming Sex and the City 2 in the Sahara desert last fall, even she, a city girl to the core, was awestruck by her surroundings. ”It was spectacular. You step out of your trailer, it’s dark, and you watch the sun rise,” she says. ”Those dunes are so breathtaking and so eerie. I loved it.”

On the same majestic dunes that Peter O’Toole famously crossed in Lawrence of Arabia almost 50 years ago, Parker and her costars — Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon, and Kim Cattrall — mastered the art of strutting through the desert in stilettos. They also learned to ride camels…while decked out in really, really expensive clothing. ”Kim and I had this camel that without any warning would just sit down whenever he wanted. And we were dressed like lunatics!” Parker says. ”Designer couture on camels. And I mean couture. I had some vintage Dior pieces from the couture archives on a camel.”

What, you thought Carrie Bradshaw would opt for basic linen khakis on her big Middle Eastern escapade? Honey, please. In the sequel to 2008’s first big-screen SATC adventure, Carrie and the gals do luxury like they’ve never done it before, gallivanting through crowded marketplaces and lounging under lavish desert tents like four sultanettes of blissful decadence. ”The comedy is in the extravagances,” says Michael Patrick King, writer-director of both SATC films. ”It’s not realistic. It’s Carrie on vacation. What could be better than that?”

For the hordes of die-hard Sex and the City fans who helped turn the first movie into a $415 million worldwide blockbuster, possibly nothing. A $95 million bonanza that whisks the gals from New York to the oil-rich city of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Sex and the City 2 (out May 27; rated R) is the splashy sequel that a franchise as aspirational as this one would seem to demand. But unlike the first movie, which followed a brokenhearted Carrie after Big (Chris Noth) left her at the altar, the new one is a decidedly carefree affair — a celebration of friendship, love, and, as long as Samantha’s around, lots and lots of sex. ”The first movie was like pushing on a bruise and really liking that feeling,” says Parker, a producer on both films. ”This one is the antidote to that. It’s an alternate universe for a little bit of time. It’s a romp.”

Picking up two years after Carrie and Big (né John James Preston) finally tied the knot in a low-key city-hall ceremony, SATC2 finds Ms. Bradshaw about to publish her fourth book (a memoir on marriage called I Do, Do I?) and pondering what it means to be hitched. ”She has immersed herself in the idea of being a wife, but it’s such a new concept for her, and she has to redefine it in her own way,” says Parker. So when she runs into her ex-fiancé, Aidan Shaw (John Corbett), in the middle of Abu Dhabi, ”you see some of that self-destructive, oh don’t do that! Carrie,” says King. Meanwhile, Charlotte (Davis) is struggling with the challenge of raising two young children; Miranda (Nixon) is dealing with a new boss from hell; and Samantha (Cattrall) is fighting menopause. In her own way, each woman is resisting traditionally defined roles. When they travel to the Middle East, courtesy of a wealthy potential client of Samantha’s, they bump up against a whole new set of conventions. ”To transport these emancipated new-millennium women to a world that has not changed, in a lot of ways, since biblical times was a fascinating idea on Michael’s part,” says Cattrall. ”Using that kind of tension to comedic effect was very clever.” Adds Nixon: ”In some ways, Abu Dhabi is very similar to New York: modern, cutting-edge, lotta people spending a lot of money on consumer goods. But it’s a very different baseline reality if you’re a woman. The film confronts, What is it like for women on the other side of the globe?”

Unlikely as it may seem, the idea to send the ladies on an exotic five-star vacation sprang from the recession. ”We were in the middle of an economic downturn, and I realized that during the Great Depression, the movies’ job was to go to a bit of an escapist’s bend,” says King, who took over as showrunner on the HBO series after creator Darren Star stepped down in 2000. ”So I thought, Let’s take everybody on a big, fun trip. Because I don’t think people want to see Carrie Bradshaw selling apples under a bridge.” Like Carrie penning one of her columns, he then asked himself, Where is the most decadent place on the planet now?

His first answer was Dubai, the UAE city synonymous with profligate spending. But Dubai, it turned out, just wasn’t that into playing host to Carrie’s own One Thousand and One Nights. So King retooled the script and set the action in neighboring Abu Dhabi. But they too declined to host. ”Abu Dhabi was like, ‘You know, the UAE is not really ready to have four sexually liberated American girls filmed here,”’ King explains. Luckily, Morocco gladly rolled out the magic carpet for Carrie & Co. and served as a double for the Persian Gulf metropolis.

And so last fall, after a paparazzi-crazed, six-week production in New York, the SATC gang set up camp in North Africa, where, they were delighted to discover, they could shoot in relative obscurity. ”In Morocco, they don’t care about us at all. That was really exciting — no offense to our fans in New York,” says Davis. In fact, the only crowds the stars encountered abroad were the regular folks in Marrakech’s bustling markets (called souks). ”They take their mopeds, their horses, their donkeys, and their goats through there, and we were basically blocking people’s route to work,” Davis continues. ”So they were very displeased with us, like ‘What are you doing?!”’ The lack of fan scrutiny spared everyone from resorting to fake-out tactics, such as the day King sent Cattrall to the New York set in a wedding dress. Corbett even managed to stay in Morocco for two weeks without a word of it leaking to the press. ”I couldn’t believe that I got to go there and the paparazzi never caught me,” says the actor. ”The whole time we were there, one guy got a shot off, but I had a little bag I was carrying and I got it up in front of my face. That was the only photo — a big, tall guy with a bag in front of his face.”

Filming so far away from home and family was tough on the cast, though they did manage to create their own little SATC community on location. The costars stayed in the same hotels and ate most of their meals together, and when Thanksgiving rolled around, Davis and Parker threw a special holiday dinner. Parker recalls the eight weeks in North Africa with a touch of wistfulness. ”It was so much fun. Perhaps I’m nostalgic, but I’d be shocked if anybody didn’t say that they recalled it that way,” she says. ”We literally lived together and went home to each other every night. It created some of the best memories we’ve had.”

With just two weeks to go until SATC2‘s opening, the big question is whether the sequel will match the dazzling success of the original. The first movie catapulted to event status thanks to the thousands of SATC devotees desperate to reunite with the heroines after their four-year absence from the small screen. Now, two years later, are fans still as ravenous? SATC2 doesn’t have quite the same frenzied buzz, but at press time, box office presales were robust, suggesting that the franchise’s largely female, extremely loyal audience might approach these movies as they would catching up with their best girlfriends: They’re happy to see the gals no matter how much time has passed. If the box office numbers hold up and SATC2 does kick off another round of fizzy girls’ nights out around the globe, New Line Cinema, the production company behind the franchise, will undoubtedly be calling up Parker and King to talk about a third installment. ”As a fan of Sex and the City, I hope this isn’t the last we see of Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha, and Miranda,” says New Line president Toby Emmerich, declining to offer further insight into his plans. (Contrary to rumors, No. 3 did not shoot concurrently with No 2. ”I wish I could pretend that was true, but we’re just not that organized!” says Parker. According to King, there isn’t even a script.) For their part, Cattrall, Davis, and Nixon are all game to strap themselves back into their characters’ vertiginous footwear — provided the circumstances are right. ”All of us are 100 percent on for the ride,” says Davis. ”But it’s such a gargantuan undertaking. We’re superexpensive. We can’t make a little tiny movie. The bar has been raised pretty high.”

No one understands this better than Parker and King, who, as producers, decide where Sex and the City goes from here. Both shudder at the idea of inadvertently diminishing the brand they worked so hard to build. ”I don’t want to oversaturate culturally, and I hope Michael and I would have the good sense to know when not to,” says Parker. King has no doubt that he could dream up more plotlines (actually, see one on page 46). ”These characters, they could go on and on and on,” he says. But he’s not about to get ahead of himself. ”The last line in the movie is ‘That’s where I am today.’ It ends on today.” Happily for Sex and the City fans, there is always the promise of tomorrow. (Additional reporting by Jennifer Armstrong, Dave Karger, and Tim Stack)

Out of Africa
John Corbett (Aidan) was the only actor who definitely made it to Morocco. How did the other guys feel about being left at home? They’ll tell you.

”I had [the series finale in] Paris, but I was still really f—ing pissed! Corbett gets to go? I said, ”If there’s another one, Carrie and Big are going on a worldwide f —ing tour because we need to spruce things up before her first baby or something.” I don’t know. I’m making it up.” — Chris Noth (Big)

”Kim [Cattrall] was like, ”I want to take you! Oh, it’s beautiful! You’ve got to go!” I was like, ”You saw it through the Prince of Persia’s eyes, with his security 24/7, helping you on the camel. That’s why you enjoyed it.” They’d say to me, ”Get on your camel yourself, and carry your own rug!” I’m not going.” — Mario Cantone (Anthony)

”I’m going to give you nothing. I’ll put it this way: I’ve been to Morocco.” — Jason Lewis (Smith)

”Basically what Michael wrote is two, three scenes for all the guys, and then the girls go out of town. It all makes sense, and everything is integral. This movie is perfectly written, perfectly structured.” — Willie Garson (Stanford)

”I did want to go. I wanted to go bad. My wife was in the Army in real life and I was in the Marine Corps. I wanted [us] to go and be personal security for the girls, but I couldn’t get them to bite. — David Eigenberg (Steve)

”I love it, because I was ultra-jealous of those guys when they got to be in the first movie. I called Noth on his birthday while I was there. I passed the phone around. I couldn’t wait to rub it in, because he was really bummed out that he couldn’t come. I like creating jealousy. — John Corbett (Aidan)

Liza with an S-E-X
The Oscar-winning actress and singing-and-dancing legend is one of four new faces to join the SATC cast.

Intent on making the Sex and the City sequel even more fabulous than the first, the producers turned to lavish clothes, exotic locales, and one very special star: Liza Minnelli. The singer, 64, arrived on the New York set to officiate Stanford and Anthony’s nuptials and shimmy in her trademark black sequins while singing Beyoncé’s ”Single Ladies.” Penélope Cruz also appears, as a random hot woman, and Miley Cyrus and Tim Gunn cameo as themselves. ”I had a marvelous time,” Minnelli tells EW of her two days on set. ”All the girls came! We had such fun together.” As for her spin on Beyoncé’s tune — one of two songs Minnelli contributed to the movie’s soundtrack — she adds with her usual dramatic zeal: ”It’s going to be a sensation!” — Tanner Stransky