Feel the Force: Inside Skywalker Ranch
Deep inside a Californian valley is Skywalker Ranch, the nerve centre for Star Wars and its offshoots, another of which begins tonight
Saturday 24 October 2009
It is not every day that you are greeted at the front door by Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Princess Leia, Yoda, RD2 and a platoon of Stormtroopers. But there again, it is not every day that you visit the Skywalker Ranch.
I am being treated to a rare tour of this, the nerve centre of the Star Wars creator George Lucas's empire. It is the headquarters of Lucasfilm, one of the largest independent film producers both in this galaxy and a galaxy far, far away. Located in the gorgeous Lucas Valley (no, it's not named after him – it's purely a coincidence), the secluded ranch situated in the remote highlands above San Francisco is a strictly private place.
The Skywalker Ranch, where Lucas plans all the key developments in the Star Wars universe, is a nirvana for stratospheric numbers of fans. It is no theme park, however, and the general public is not allowed in. So it is quite a coup to be admitted into these hallowed portals. It is like entering Geek Heaven.
Innocent passers-by would have no idea they were so close to Lucas's mother ship, the location where pre- and post-production on his work takes place. On the main road, there is no sign indicating you are at the Skywalker Ranch – merely a street number. I could tell you where it is, but then I'd have to kill you. You have to pass through a security checkpoint before driving up a long and winding road to the entrance, where the aforementioned Star Wars characters welcome you. Every corner of the beautifully designed, neo-Art Deco ranch, built in a fold of the Californian hills next to an idyllic lake, is a reminder that Lucas is responsible for the third most successful franchise in movie history (behind those very British characters James Bond and Harry Potter).
Over there is a life-sized figure of Obi-Wan Kenobi wielding a light sabre, and over here is a meticulously rendered picture of the main Star Wars characters playing in a rock band – Princess Leia, resplendent in bondage trousers, on lead vocals, Han Solo freaking out on lead guitar, Darth Vader saluting the crowd on bass, C3P0 and RD2 doing their robotic thing on keyboards and Chewbacca smashing the drums. At lunch, the "Bounty Hunter Buffet" in the main hall is serving "Yoda's Mixed Greens" (er, lettuce leaves) and "Genosian Mind Worms" (rather delicious, serpentine sweets).
The ranch is an enormous enterprise. Stretching over 3000 acres of Marin County, it has 200 employees, three restaurants, a baseball field, a fire station and its own police service. It produces wine, olive oil and beef.
I am here to learn about the making of the second series of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the animated spin-off series charting the early adventures of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker (who later, of course, metamorphoses into Darth Vader). The series builds towards the events portrayed in the six movies.
But it is merely one small cog in the immense Star Wars machine. It is a global industry that encompasses products as diverse as computer games, books, comics and Lego sets. You can buy a light sabre torch or a toy clone trooper voice changer (no, me neither). Or how about a Star Wars-branded watch, wrapping paper, sports bottle, mug or duvet cover? Truly, the Force is strong with the marketing department. Forbes.com has calculated that the income earned by the Star Wars franchise totals some $32.5bn.
Phrases from the movies – "may the Force be with you", "I've got a very bad feeling about this", "do or do not – there is no try", "beware of the dark side", "I am your father" and "the Force is strong with this one" – have passed into common usage and are constantly referenced in other movies, TV shows and adverts.
The franchise has a passionate following, encouraged on fan sites with names such as The Geeks of Doom and TheForce.Net . Even though there have inevitably been ups and downs over the years – certain fans feel the Force has weakened since The Phantom Menace was released in 1999 – Star Wars still appears to strike a chord with the 13-year-old in all of us. Its enduring popularity is proof that the geeks shall inherit the Earth.
So why, some 32 years after the first movie was released, does Lucas's empire continue to strike back? Why do Star Wars fans keep on supporting new manifestations of Obi-Wan Kenobi and co? Why do they carry on feeling the Force? That's what I'm at the Skywalker Ranch to find out.
Lucas himself reckons that the ideas the films – and all their myriad spin-offs – highlight are timeless. "Star Wars has always been based on classic archetypes," reflects the film-maker, whose net worth has been estimated at $3.9bn.
The director, who is also behind another enormously successful cinema franchise, the Indiana Jones cycle, continues: "With the original movies, those archetypes were packaged in such a way that appealed to audiences at the time, and I have been lucky that it's continued to resonate for so many years. With The Clone Wars, the messages and archetypes are similar, but we're appealing to a new generation."
It is true that in The Clone Wars Lucas is still tapping into mythic themes. "Even though we're a weekly series, I don't treat this like TV – I treat it like my movies," says the director, who also helmed American Graffiti. "My process doesn't change because we're in a different medium."
Lucas, 65, who still has very hands-on, day-to-day control of the operation, adds, "We're drawing on a lot of inspiration from the original films, but we're also looking at the things that influenced those films in the first place." The film-maker, who has acknowledged the influence that Kurosawa's movie The Hidden Fortress had on the first Star Wars film, A New Hope, goes on to outline his other inspirations. "We're integrating different genres, from westerns to war movies to Japanese cinema, and we're incorporating all of those various aesthetics into The Clone Wars."
As well as The Clone Wars, Lucas's organisation is planning a live-action TV series based on the original characters. But will it ever reach the stage of dying a slow death? Not according to the people at Lucasfilm, including vice president Howard Roffman, who has worked with Lucas for 29 years. "Do I worry about running out of inspiration?" asks Roffman. "No. There are so many new places to take the characters. The number of stories there are to tell is potentially limitless. The beauty of exploration in Star Wars is that you can take audiences to places they've never seen before. I'm always amazed at the ability of the franchise to reinvent itself."
For his part, Dave Filoni, the supervising director of The Clone Wars, is adamant that Star Wars can run and run. "It's a common phrase used around here: Star Wars is for ever," he asserts. "I think it still holds up incredibly well. People often ask me, 'isn't there enough Star Wars already?'. But I think we will always need that outlet of a galaxy far, far away."
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