The Empire Lives Here

Geoff Boucher is a Times staff writer. Contact him at geoff.boucher@latimes.com.

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 Willy 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 an article 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 by people. Not so, says Tom Forster, Skywalker's ranch manager from 1989 to 2006. "George is a regular guy," Forster says, "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. 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 to the 101 Freeway.

Skinner says more fans will come this year because Lucas is back in a big way: The first Indiana Jones film in 19 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 to the ranch's Victorian-style Main House. It's the first afternoon of my four-day stay at Skywalker, a long-negotiated trip that gives me access to the place unprecedented 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 pass 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 was pretty easy. The cup that's the elusive prize in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" sits under a spotlight in a bookcase that also holds Charlie Chaplin's knobby cane and a frayed whip that Rudolph Valentino carried across silver-screen sand dunes. Nearby, perhaps proving that Lucas has a sense of humor, there's also a bright red guitar that was played by the title mallard in "Howard the Duck," the 1986 flop on which Lucas was 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 overall 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, with 95% of the land undeveloped. Along with 5 acres of olive trees, there are longhorn and Wagyu cattle, bee colonies, skittish patrols of wild turkeys, an organic garden and red-tailed hawks that wheel in the sky. 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 several hundred people would be at the ranch at one time, so most of his thousands of employees work at other sites, such as at his corporate-looking Presidio complex in San Francisco. Those offices feel like a software company; Skywalker feels like Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu with cowhands.

Walking through the Main House, with its inlaid brass, amber lights and honeyed glow, is to stroll through a stately past. It's very different, though, at the busiest site on the ranch, the Technical Building, the sleek home of Skywalker Sound, a highly regarded brand in Hollywood postproduction. There I watch digital artisans work in sound-effects studios, on a huge scoring stage and in mixing suites outfitted with state-of-the-art gear. Because the ranch has a pastoral, summer-camp setting, these workspaces make Skywalker a favored spot for filmmakers who yearn for Walden Pond but need the computer power of the Pentagon.

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 on, respectively, "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 working here 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 raced over to see who was dying behind the Technical Building.

These famous visitors are put up at the Skywalker Ranch Inn guest complex. It has 26 rooms, each named after someone Lucas admires--Fellini and Steinbeck, Kurosawa and Gershwin. Each has themed decor--the bilevel Lillian Gish room, for instance, is frilly, with stained-glass windows and floral mosaic tile above the claw-foot tub. I'm staying 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, who grew up in dusty Modesto, has said his happiest times were spent under the hood of a car or racing down fire roads. (It makes sense: Think of "American Graffiti," his big breakthrough, or the high-speed pursuits in the "Star Wars" films.) USC film school led to an apprenticeship at Warner Bros., and there he met a young-Turk director named Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola became a huge figure in Lucas' life, imparting a passion for the maverick filmmaking model. In 1968, Coppola was with Lucas at a student film event at UCLA's Royce Hall when Lucas met his future "Raiders" collaborator, Steven Spielberg. The three became part of the 1970s wave of film-school filmmakers who took Hollywood by storm.

Several people at the ranch tell me that to understand Lucas and Skywalker, the 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 this office two or three times a week. (Many people think Lucas lives at Skywalker, but he never has; his home is in nearby San Anselmo.)

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 American 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 collegial hub a healthy distance from the poisoning agents and politics of L.A. Lucasfilm was headquartered first in a Victorian house in San Anselmo, but 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 drew on 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 style. There was a winery, for instance, but then it burned down at a certain point in time and was rebuilt in an Art Deco style. 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 and with the facade of Walt Disney's Main Street, U.S.A. Did his movie factory really need a hilltop observatory, a solarium with towering ficus and a herd of Wagyu cattle? This is also the guy, though, who 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 as if he can see the future.

Inside the Technical Building, foley artists are creating noises for "Horton Hears a Who!" The scene I'm watching has a character holding a tray of water glasses, and as he waddles onscreen, the artists, with expressions of intense concentration, clink half-empty tumblers in a tinkling chorus. This crew has produced the sounds for every Pixar film--they stop to show me the strip of rubber that produces the sound for Elastigirl in "The Incredibles"--and their "office" is cluttered with a battered car door, toys, mismatched shoes, dishes, bottles, rusty pipes, dirt and shelves of boxes with disconcerting labels. ("Bones, fingernails, small shells" reads one.) The whole thing is so wonderfully . . . analog. The foley artists tell me some of their trade secrets, such as how they make the creak of haunted doors and the hiss of imaginary serpents. I promise to keep their magic tricks secret, but I have to know about the old bagel sitting in a corner: What is it for? "That," one of the artists says, "is what I call my breakfast."

I wander around Skywalker Sound and watch the teams at work. I meet sound designer Randy Thom, a two-time Oscar winner, who devised strange and wonderful noises for films as diverse as "Apocalypse Now" and "Ratatouille." Lucas and his sound collaborator Walter Murch "picked up on a thread of filmmaking that sound should be 50% of the storytelling," Thom said. "Francis Ford Coppola also made a priority of that, and it's a tradition that goes back to people like Orson Welles."

Skywalker Sound handles 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.) Buildings behind the Main House are being remodeled to accommodate the needs of that clientele.

It all supports the idea of making the place more like a film school, I'm told. A few years ago, Lucas opened the Presidio facility, freeing 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 Moderne-style Stag Theater below the Technical Building. The 300-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 guys with tattoos and skater-metal hair. It's the band Rancid, visiting the ranch's scoring stage for a three-week album session. (The place has many music clients: the Rolling Stones, Herbie Hancock, Faith Hill, Third Eye Blind and the 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.

My favorite part of Skywalker Ranch is the library and archives (those I am allowed to see, that is; 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 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, have needed no advertising. For the film "Chicago," they dug up old photos of 1920s ambulance interiors; a makeup artist on "The Last Samurai" phoned in a request for photographs of 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 a stunning paper trail on Lucas and his pop culture influence. One room is packed with press clippings that mention his movies. The early clips about "Star Wars" are 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 printed on T-shirts to inspire his employees to disregard the naysayers beyond the ranch.

My wife, Tracy, and our two kids, Addie and Ben, come up on my third day at Skywalker to see the place. (How could I tell my 10- and 6-year-olds, "Wait at home while I go to Skywalker Ranch"?) They adore the library and Lucas' menagerie at the stable, which includes miniature donkeys, chinchillas and a Pygmy goat. (His livestock collection began with an Arabian horse in 1981, but it really took off after the arrival of Buttercup, a cow Linda Ronstadt presented to him as a Christmas gift, ranch manager Lynn Huffaker says.) 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 bucolic Marin isn't for everybody. He said Mel Brooks was here years ago to finish "Spaceballs" but was unnerved by the lack of traffic noise. "He checked into a hotel in San Francisco," he said.

My family decides to spend the evening 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 character names (General Grievous? Bib Fortuna?), I ask him what the ranch means to him. "I pretty much grew up here," he says with a 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 for us 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.

"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 weekend." George Lucas may love history, but the future looks pretty good as well.

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