Publicado: 02-27-2008 05:47 PM
This is where Clint Eastwood had a weight bench brought into a mixing room so he could pump iron while polishing the sound on "Million Dollar Baby" and Salma Hayek joined an employee basketball game. (Skinner said that after throwing a few bricks she resorted to distracting her opponents by turning cartwheels down the court.)
Publicado: 02-27-2008 05:50 PM
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Inside George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch
Writer Geoff Boucher gains unprecedented access to the spread, home to Indiana Jones’ hat, a phenomenal soundstage and 21 Japanese Wagyu cattle. Join him on his quest, for a rare look inside.....
By Geoff Boucher
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
The uninvited have been coming to Skywalker Ranch for decades, all drawn by the Force, however they choose to define it. Some don camouflage parkas and hike over the leafy Marin County ridgelines, while others drive right up to the front gate and try to con their way in, as if you could enter Valhalla on the grift. Once in a while a wild-eyed intruder will show up, but mostly it's just fans who want to hand their résumé to the great and powerful wizard or simply touch the hem of his Jedi robes.
No, none of it makes sense, but then an overheated mind can bend logic, especially when it comes to profit and prophets.
The funny truth of it is that most of the pilgrims have no clue as to what they would find if they did get past the gate. There may be no more mysterious piece of real estate in California than Skywalker Ranch, the 5,156-acre spread that is the spiritual center of George Lucas' vast entertainment empire. Is it some tycoon's citadel of self, like Hearst Castle? Or, far worse, a sci-fi version of Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch and its creepy calliopes? Do dutiful Ewoks tend to the property like Willie Wonka's Oompa-Loompas? The imagination runs wild, and I doubt anything could make the master of the manor happier.
I have interviewed Lucas on two occasions. The first was years ago amid the din of the Long Beach Grand Prix, where he was wearing racing togs as one of the celebrity racers. The second time was a phone conversation last year while I was working on a piece about the filmmaker's stubborn support of his "Young Indiana Jones," a vaguely remembered television series that he had revived as a lavish DVD library. After both interviews, I went through my notes struggling to stitch together a story; the man clearly has a fabulous imagination, but his gifts are more visual than verbal. One journalist I know compares him to an engineer, socially stiff and engaged more by ideas than people. Not so, says Tom Forster, the ranch manager of Skywalker from 1989 to 2006. "George is a regular guy," Forster tells me over the phone, "and the way he has stayed that way through the years is by keeping a distance from all the people that want a piece of him. Success hasn't corrupted him in any way." It's Forster who tells me that the best way to understand Lucas is to understand Skywalker Ranch, a place that "shows everything George values."
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Lucas land purchase that led to Skywalker but, like its owner, the place keeps its secrets quiet. There has been no real media coverage or meaningful profile of the ranch north of San Rafael. That's why a year ago a chartered bus with three dozen Japanese tourists drove up Lucas Valley Road, their cameras and wallets at the ready. They assumed the place was like Universal Studios and they could pay $30 to peek behind the curtain and go home with some souvenir Yoda ears. They were met by Noah Skinner, an exceedingly polite member of the Skywalker Ranch Fire Brigade (yes, Lucas has his own fire department). He patiently posed for photos and then sent them on their way back toward the 101 Freeway. Skinner says more fans will be coming this year because Lucas is back in a big way: The first Indiana Jones film in 18 years is due in May and the animated film "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" hits theaters in August. People are even making movies about Lucas--the upcoming comedy "Fanboys" is about geeks trying to break into Skywalker Ranch.
"I can understand it, people just want to see what's here," Skinner tells me. "You can't blame them." As he says this, Skinner is driving along the rain-slicked road leading up to the ranch's Victorian-------------- main house. It's the first afternoon of my four-day stay at Skywalker, a long-negotiated trip that gives me unprecedented access to the place for a journalist. That's not what has me most excited though. I admit to Skinner that I'm a fanboy, the kid who wore a homemade Chewbacca costume for Halloween 1977 and obsessed about "Star Wars" for years. Skinner smiles but doesn't laugh. "There's a lot of people like that," he says as we passed Lake Ewok. "This place is the Holy Grail for them. And, you know, we actually have a few Holy Grails here."
It's Day One, and I have found the Holy Grail. It is pretty easy. The cup that's the elusive prize in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" sits in a perfect spotlight in a bookcase that also has Charlie Chaplin's knobby cane and a frayed whip that Rudolph Valentino carried across silver-screen sand dunes. Nearby (perhaps proving that somewhat stiff Lucas has a sense of humor) there's also a bright red guitar played by the title mallard in "Howard the Duck," the 1986 flop that had Lucas as executive producer.
Those are just some of the Hollywood artifacts on display in the Main House (they call it that, but it's not a residence; it's a business building that looks like an 1860s Victorian home). But Skywalker is no Planet Hollywood; the memorabilia is confined to one area and the wider vibe of the ranch is classic Americana--the guiding spirits are Norman Rockwell and Frank Lloyd Wright--or maybe Ritz-Carlton with a "Bonanza" theme. Most of the ranch is wide-open space, with 95% of the land undeveloped. Along with 7 acres of olive trees, there are longhorn cattle, bee colonies, skittish patrols of wild turkey, organic gardens and red-tailed hawks that wheel in the sky above. Skywalker has four clusters of buildings, and some of them are huge (the main house is 50,000 square feet, more than an acre under one roof), but the place feels hushed and a bit hollow, like a university campus during a sleepy summer session. Long ago, Lucas pledged to his concerned neighbors that no more than 300 people would be at the ranch at one time, so most of his thousands of employees work at other sites, such as at his more conventionally corporate-looking Presidio complex in San Francisco. The Presidio offices feel like a software company; Skywalker feels like Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu with cowhands.
Publicado: 02-27-2008 05:50 PM
This is where Clint Eastwood had a weight bench brought into a mixing room so he could pump iron while polishing the sound on "Million Dollar Baby" and Salma Hayek joined an employee basketball game. (Skinner said that after throwing a few bricks she resorted to distracting her opponents by turning cartwheels down the court.) Sean Penn and Paul Thomas Anderson were on the grounds at the same time working, respectively, on "Into the Wild" and "There Will Be Blood," and they kept tabs on each other's progress, chatting at the coffee stand. Sometimes the relaxed quiet has unexpected results: When Tom Hanks was here working on the 2000 film "Cast Away," a recording team took him outside to tape some open-air screams for help; he was wailing with such fervor that the rescue trucks came racing over to see who was dying behind the Technical Building. These famous visitors are put up at the Skywalker Ranch Inn. It has 26 rooms each named after someone Lucas admires--there's Fellini and Steinbeck, Eisenstein and Gershwin. Each has themed décor--the bi-level Lillian Gish room, for instance, is frilly with stained-glass windows and floral mosaic tile above the claw-foot tub. They put me up in the John Ford apartment, a sort of luxury bunkhouse with a framed John Wayne poster and a shelf of books on Ireland, and I breathe a sigh of relief that I won't be showering in a Hitchcock suite.
Lucas grew up in dusty Modesto and has said that his happiest times were spent under the hood of a car or racing them down fire roads. (It makes sense: Think of "American Graffiti," his big breakthrough, or the high-speed pursuits in each of the "Star Wars" films.) USC film school led to an internship at Warner Bros. and there he met a young-Turk director named Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola became a huge figure in life story of Lucas, imparting a passion for a deeply personal and independent filmmaking model. In 1967, Coppola introduced Lucas to a young peer named Steven Spielberg at a student film event at UCLA's Royce Hall. The three became part of the 1970s generational wave of film-school filmmakers who wanted to take Hollywood by storm. That turned out pretty well for each of them.
Several people at the ranch tell me that to understand Lucas and Skywalker Ranch the best person to talk to is Jane Bay, his personal assistant for three decades. Her office is next to his on the second floor of the main house. He typically uses the office two or three times a week. (A lot of people think Lucas lives at Skywalker, but he never has; his home is in San Anselmo, about 10 miles away.) I climb the steps to find Bay, a woman with a steady gaze, precise diction and a bear-trap memory for dates and names. She tells me that Coppola's Zoetrope inspired Lucas to think of filmmaking as something entrepreneurial and personal. "Francis was the don of the Bay Area independent film community," Bay says. Lucas wanted to create a similar hub with a collegial nature and a healthy distance from the poisoning agents and politics of Los Angeles. Lucasfilm was headquartered first in a converted Victorian house in San Anselmo, but then, in 1977, a space opera changed the scale of his ambitions.
"It was six weeks after the release of `Star Wars' that we realized the success of the movie," Bay says. "We were still in our offices in San Anselmo, and George went into his offices with yellow legal tablets and began sketching the buildings that would become this ranch."
Lucas has been described as a frustrated architect, but to draft his dream academy he needed more than blueprints. "He created a story for the ranch," Bay says. "He created a history. It belonged to a cattle rancher. Each building was added at a certain time and built in a certain -------------. There was a winery, for instance, but then it burned down at a certain point in time and was rebuilt in an Art Deco -------------. This room we're in, it belonged to the rancher's daughter She had brown hair and green eyes and went to the University of Arizona and she couldn't get horses out of her blood."
I walk out of Bay's office trying to imagine how rich or crazy Lucas must have been in 1977 to close his eyes and think of this place as his next move. It is Zoetrope combined with Thomas Edison's Menlo Park invention laboratory but with a faÁade of Walt Disney's Main Street USA. Did his movie factory really need a hilltop observatory, a solarium with towering ficus and a herd of Wagu cattle? This is the guy, though, who also labeled that first "Star Wars" film "Episode IV" and was prescient enough to negotiate a chunk of all toy sales. Lucas may be a student of history, but it sometimes seems like he can see the future.
Publicado: 02-27-2008 05:51 PM
I wander around Skywalker Sound and watch the teams at work. That's where I meet sound designer Randy Thom, a 14-time Oscar nominee, who devised strange and wonderful noises for films as diverse as "Apocalypse Now" and "Ratatouille." "George and [his sound collaborator] Walter Murch picked up on a thread of filmmaking that sound should be 50% of the storytelling. Francis Ford Coppola also made a priority of that, and it's a tradition that goes back to people like Orson Welles," Thom said. Skywalker Sound works on about 40 films a year and is the primary reason people come to the ranch. Its signature work is on big-budget animation and special-effects extravaganzas, but there's a push to bring in smaller indie films and the art-house crowd (Thom, for instance, showed me some of his work on the haunting new Errol Morris documentary about Abu Ghraib.) and construction is underway to build new screening rooms at the ranch to handle the needs of that new clientele. It all goes to the idea of making the place more like a film school, I'm told. A few years ago, Lucas opened the Presidio facility, freeing up Skywalker for a purer focus on film postproduction. The accountants have been moved off site, and the dream academy will be closer to the film school ethos that Lucas covets. "It's finally going to be what George always wanted; this is the year," Bay says. "All this time, and now the story is actually going to have the ending he wanted."
One night, I watch a screening of "Cloverfield" at the plush, Art Deco-------------- Stag Theater in the basement of the Technical Building. The 350-seat room has immaculate sound (duh) and fixtures that make me feel as if I should be watching "Citizen Kane" instead of a seasick "Godzilla" redux. Outside the theater I see some guys with tattoos and skater-metal hair. It's the band Rancid, visiting the ranch scoring stage for a three-week album session. (The place has lot of music clients; the Rolling Stones, Herbie Hancock, Faith Hill, Third Eye Blind and Kronos Quartet have recorded here, some looking for the perfect acoustics, others for a studio with no pubs in sight). As I pass Rancid, they are discussing the vagaries of punk-rock credibility while sipping tea and coffee drinks. I bite my tongue and keep walking.
My favorite part of Skywalker Ranch is the library and archives (the archives I am allowed to see, at least; I'm told there's a secret building of large movie props, costumes and original scale models). Lucas started his own research library in 1978--its early duty was researching plot, wardrobe and design for "Raiders of the Lost Ark"--and a decade later, he purchased Paramount Pictures' collection of books, periodicals and clippings. Then in 2000, he scooped up the Universal library, which dates to the 1920s. The core Lucas collection is in a burnished library in the main house with a spiral wood staircase and stained-glass dome; the two older, imported archives fill a vast, climate-controlled building not far away. The librarians toil on Lucas projects but also do work for hire at $100 an hour and, thanks to word of mouth, they've needed no advertising. For the film " Chicago," they dug up old photos of 1920s ambulance interiors; the filmmakers on "The Last Samurai" phoned in a request for Civil War-era wounds. The wardrobe team on "Munich" needed to know: What kind of pajamas would a pregnant woman wear in the early 1970s?
Librarian Jo Donaldson and her team walk me through a collection of fragile treasures. There is Paramount's copy of "San Francisco: Port of Gold" that, according to the card inside, was checked out in 1948 by Frank Capra and, 12 years later, by Marlon Brando. They also show me a weathered tome about Ben Hur that Cecil B. DeMille signed out in 1927.
There's also a stunning paper trail of Lucas and his pop culture influence. One room is packed with press clippings that mention his movies. The early clips about "Star Wars" were full of derision. One New York reviewer said the film had "no redeeming social, entertainment or cultural value" and compared it to skateboarding as an odious youth trend. Lucas not only saved the old reviews, he later had some of their blurbs turned into T-shirts to inspire his employees to disregard the naysayers beyond the ranch.
Lucas had his archivists index all the amateur films, scrawled fan letters and other echoes of his movie that came back to him. Skywalker Ranch is a staggering time capsule, but I suspect Lucas didn't have a choice when it came to the homemade movies. No matter how shaky the effort, Lucas could never snub a youngster with a camera in his hand.
My wife, Tracy, and our two kids, Addie and Ben, come up on my third day at Skywalker to see the place (how I could I tell my 10- and 6-year-olds: "Wait at home while I go to Skywalker Ranch"?), and they adore the library and the animal collection at the stables (which began, I'm told, when Linda Ronstadt gave Lucas a cow as a 40th birthday gift). At the firehouse, they giggle with joy at getting a ride in the sweet new $450,000 engine (painted in USC cardinal, no surprise) past the vineyard (the grapes are shipped off to Coppola's winery, again, no surprise).
As night comes, the kids remark on how dark and quiet the place is. I think of Thom telling me that the ranch isn't for everybody; he had said Mel Brooks came here years ago to finish up "Space Balls" but was unnerved by the rustic setting. "He checked into a hotel in San Francisco," Thom said.
My family decides to spend the night watching an "Indiana Jones" movie, so my daughter and I walk over to the firehouse, which doubles as a 24-hour guest services spot, to peruse the DVD library. That's where, unexpectedly, I get my interview with Lucas--not George, but his son, Jett. The lanky 14-year-old (he must be 6-foot-5) is spending the night on a ride-along with the fire department. Jett has experience with the core family business as well; in "Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith" he portrayed a young Jedi with the thinly disguised name Zett Jukassa. Instead of quizzing him on where his dad comes up with these ridiculous character names (General Grievous? Bib Fortuna? Jar Jar Binks?), I ask him what the ranch means to him. "I pretty much grew up here," he says with teenager's shrug. "I love it."
We chat a bit more about basketball and rock music and Jedis, but there is no great revelation. It is getting late and my daughter is eager to get back to the John Ford apartment, put some logs in the fireplace and watch "The Temple of Doom," the only Indiana Jones movie she has never seen before. "I can't believe I get to see it tonight," she says, just as excited about the DVD in her hand as she is about the extravagant ranch around us or the meeting with a Jedi. Then she adds: "And the next movie comes out Memorial Day." George Lucas may love history, but the future looks pretty good as well.