Originally published as “I Ate Lunch at Skywalker Ranch (and all I got was this lousy t-shirt).” The Steven Spielberg Film Society Newsletter. May, 1995: Issue 58, page 3.
Eating Lunch at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in 1995
MARCH 27, 1995 is a date that will stand in my memory for some time. It was right around Oscar season, and Tom Hanks had just won his second golden statuette in two years for Forest Gump, a movie with special effects by Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas’ famous special effects company in San Francisco.
I was living in Portland, Ore., at the time, with a good friend of mine. And we got this invitation from a friend-of-a-friend that could not be ignored. We were invited to do lunch at Skywalker Ranch, baby… big stuff for a couple of film geeks like us.
Before daybreak, were on our way to George Lucas’s digs in Nicasio, Calif., a few bumps north on the map of sweltering San Francisco. Never mind that it was a 22-hour drive from Portland. Never mind that we rented a car for the trip and promised not to take it out of state. Never mind that, when we got there, the hills looked like accordion rift valleys just waiting for the next 8.0 to play a tune on them; or that the hotel we stayed in was an over-priced, third-world Howard Johnson’s with pee-stained walls.
This was the Imperial Palace of filmdom, man, the Shangri-la of shaky town… this was the center of the Star Wars universe!
“Oh, George?” said our dinner waitress at the restaurant, fluffing her hair, “he comes in here all the time. So do the guys from ILM.” Why did it worry me that the guru of new-age filmmaking, the architect of the next Star Wars saga, ate at a really bad Mexican restaurant named Chevy’s? At the time, I wondered if Lucas would live long enough to create The Phantom Menace, which was due for release in 1999. Of course, that was before all the reviews came out.
Skywalker Ranch is a great place for a Wookie cookie, if you can still stomach a Wookie cookie by the time you get there. Lucas Valley Road, where the ranch is, is a twisty little knot of stomach-turning pavement zig-zagging across the country-side like a speeder bike trail. My friend and I agree that this was some sort of endurance test, like space flight training, to see how badly we want to get there. We knew we were in another world when we finally saw the llamas.
“Are those tauntauns?” my friend whispered. “No, I don’t think so.” Tauntauns live in the arctic.
The main house is indescribably ornate; more like a Spanish hacienda than a ranch. The building at the center of the ranch property seemed to have been carved out of a single block of solid wood inside and out, a nineteenth century Victorian mansion built in the 1980s. A perfect place for the king of special effects films.
At lunch, I had the dinner salad with, what else, ranch dressing.
We ate Ham Solo sandwiches at the big house, the main house, while one floor up Doug Chiang was supposedly sketching art work for the next Star Wars film, The Phantom Menace, set for release two decades after the originals. Lucas was hidden away (almost Yoda-like, probably on Dagobah somewhere, but actually) in San Anselmo simultaneously tearing his hair out over the script for Episode 1, we were told.
“Slimy? Mudhole? My script this is.”
Are you jealous, yet? We were, too. At that time, every fan of the original films was wondering what the new films would look like. Meanwhile, here stood my friend and I, two film school dropouts, idling in the lobby of the main house of the most popular filmmaker of our time, while conceptual artwork was being created quite literally above our heads. We could almost hear crumpled paper balls hitting trash cans above, as one idea after another was rejected for the new saga. Thump thump thump went the trash balls.
Drooling over our Princess Leia rolls, we cringed at every sound, and wanted to see that mysterious third floor art room more than we wanted to see tomorrow, but it was a no-go. Only the Imperial Guard marched there, back and forth in time to John Williams music.
Then came a tour of the property: Casper was getting sheeted up in the Technical building waiting for a summer release, spinning away on fifty reels of film combining his live action plates with special effects and sound. Robert Redford spent two months here that winter, fine tuning Quiz Show.
In the library, a cat named Misha would sharpen her claws on a book and check it out to you the same time under a domed mosque of yellow-and-red stained glass. What a place to research for a movie. Lucky cat.
In glass shelves, we saw Indy’s whip and jacket, Lucas’s Thalberg award, Academy technical awards, and the golden statue from (“You throw me the idol, I throw you the whip!”) Raiders. An original Normal Rockwell hung out over the fireplace, almost casually, as if to say, “Yeah, what’s the big deal?”
So much to see, it left our heads spinning, just like the oversized reels in the big movie theater auditorium. There, we were shown previews of movies that were in production, movies that would not be out until summer. The big summer blockbusters. It was like getting a glimpse into the future.
Now, with the tenth anniversary of “The Phantom Menace” almost upon us, I can see why the new trilogy—The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith—was not as warmly welcomed by fans or critics as the original films were back in the 1970s.
Lucas made a mistake.
His mistake began in 1997, by re-releasing the old saga retouched, which irked many of the original fans. We were the original fans… kids back in 1970s, middle-aged by the 1990s, who desired something more in a storytelling experience than Jar Jar Binks and Baby Vader. In the 1970s, we were the kids who bought the sparkly t-shirts and plastic toys—we made Lucas rich, in other words. After all, the new saga was supposed to be a tragedy. Hardly fitting for kids.
In preparing the new films, Lucas could have made a less pocket book-oriented decision by aiming the films at an older audience. The new saga, with its darker themes, really begged for a more mature storytelling experience. But instead, he went straight for the kiddies again. Certainly an easier, more profitable route. But one which lost him many of the original fans.
We were no longer his audience.
Still, long ago that night, as we drove back through the never-ending Robert Redwood forests of scenic Highway 101 and through sparkling Crescent-City-by-the-sea (locations for the planet Endor in Return of the Jedi), everything was magical for me and my friend.
The sky opened up through the trees like a glittering jewel.
We were singing Ewok songs to keep ourselves awake. You remember those songs from the original Jedi, before Lucas re-worked the films in the 1990s? I memorized those songs, believe it or not, once upon a time. And I could sing them from heart.
“This is the first time I’ve ever driven 22 hours for lunch,” my friend yawned.
I nodded sleepily. Twenty-two hours in a rental car in the dead of night.
It was like driving to another galaxy… far, far away.