Posted on Friday, February 6th, 2009 by Kevin Kelly
Every evil genius needs a lair from which the run all of their daily affairs: everything from selecting the color of the company letterhead to plotting world domination. Usually these are hollowed-out mountain fortresses, secret inactive volcano lairs, or undersea secret bases. Because if you’re going to do something on such a massive scale, why not it with a little style and panache?
Now, I don’t know if I’m going to call George Lucas an evil genius. A genius? Definitely. Evil? Well, the jury’s still out on that one, but his last few movies have certainly been tipping the scales in the wrong direction. Still, it’s hard to fault the guy that’s been responsible for American Graffiti, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Let’s just hope he ands some new franchises in there and stops tinkering with the old stuff.
Even though Lucas may not be an evil genius just yet, he’s still forged his own sprawling, secret base from which he conrols his empire. With the Skywalker Ranch-centric Fanboys opening (finally) this weekend, we thought we’d take a brief peek behind the scenes and tell you all about the secret lair of Lucas.
52 Park Way, San Anselmo, California
Lucas attended college at the University of Southern California, although he grew up around the Bay Area of San Francisco, and returned there not long after he finished school. He’d return to Hollywood frequently to work, and in 1973 after the huge success of American Graffiti (it cost $1.25 million dollars to make, and grossed over $115 million), Lucas found himself with $4 million dollars in cash and spent $150,000 of that on his first secret lair: Park Way.
This was a home found by Lucas’ first wife Marcia, who dubbed it ‘Parkhouse’, and was located in Marin County, in the tiny city of San Anselmo. It was a sprawling Victorian house, designated as a Marin landmark, and Lucas turned the house into a complete workstation: the bedrooms became offices, they installed an editing bay in the attic, and had a screening room built in the back. It was only a short drive from Lucas’ much smaller house in San Rafael to Parkhouse, and it became a refuge for both him and his friends. A place to work without interruption, and the de facto offices for Lucasfilm, Ltd, which was established in 1971.
Lucas had a “writing room” built at the back of Parkhouse, and he holed himself up for eight hours a day there writing Star Wars. Once that became a surprise smash-mega-ginormous hit, he had enough money to begin building his real empire.
Once he was flush with cash from Star Wars, Lucas purchased a significant amount of land in Marin County. His first purchase was a large ranch called Bulltail Ranch, and he assembled the rest of it piece by piece over the next several years. In 1979 he submitted plans to Marin County for a “sprawling creative retreat where Lucasfilm and their filmmaking colleagues can meet, study, collaborate, write, edit and experiment with new filmmaking ideas.” Which admittedly sort of sounds like a clubhouse for filmmakers. Lucas himself called it “a sort of cinematic yacht club.”
Over the next several years, while making Star Wars sequels and working on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas kept quietly putting things together at the ranch, now dubbed “Skywalker.” Although what’s interesting is that he almost never bought the property. When he was originally looking at sites, he didn’t like the fact that the road leading out to it was called “Lucas Valley Road,” and thought that it would be a beacon for fans to follow to his front doorstep, especially since it has its own freeway exit. The road was actually named after a rancher who lived in the 1880s, and Lucas eventually came to terms with it. After all, who wouldn’t want to live on a road bearing their own name?
The process took time, however, and Skywalker Ranch didn’t officially open as a working facility until 1987, nearly ten years after Lucas had submitted the original plans. Lucas worker bees were busy constructing an entire working set of buildings, disguised as ranch houses, barns, and so forth. A vineyard was set up on the property, animals were brought in, trees were planted, and Lucas supposedly wrote out an entire fictional history for the people who had built the property. Does that mean there’s a Skywalker Ranch: The Movie possibly coming some day? A change of genres and settings might be good for you, George.
As Lucas acquired neighboring ranches and pieces of land, he also scooped up Big Rock Ranch (seen above) which was used to expand the working space at Skywalker. Last year members of the press (including yours truly, who was lucky enough to be included) were flown out to Big Rock which at the time was housing the Lucasfilm animation department, who were all busy working on The Clone Wars. You can check out my Flickr photo album from that trip here, which includes a photo of the original door to The Kerner Company – Optical Research Lab. This was a fake name to keep people from trying to pry secrets out of Industrial Light & Magic.
However, Lucas has been making an enormous effort over the past few years to push Lucasfilm and its various other divisions off of the Ranch and into new offices in an effort to return the place to the filmmakers’ retreat he’d envisioned year ago. In 2005 he took out a lease on the Letterman Medical Building inside The Presidio in San Francisco, and spent hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading it and preparing it to house Lucasfilm, Industrial Light & Magic, LucasArts, the animation team, and so on. Most of the teams have already been moved over there, with the lucky animation division being some of the lone holdouts. Although as one employee said, “Spiritually, it’s a great place to be, but not exactly conducive to business efficiency.”
Skywalker Ranch also houses Skywalker Sound, which is one of the main reasons most filmmakers take the time to trek out to Marin County to work on the the sound design for their films. Skywalker Sound originally started as Sprocket Systems and was based in San Rafael in shared office space with ILM, although they changed their name after The Empire Strikes Back came out, and eventually moved out to the Ranch once the buildings were complete. They occupy the entire Technical Building on the Ranch property, which is 155,000 square feet. They’ve won 18 Academy Awards, and probably don’t come cheap.
As you’d expect, Skywalker Ranch is a pretty amazing place, with tons of amenities besides the picturesque views and rolling hills. Check out the list and fun other stuff that you’ll run into on the ranch.
- Besides all of the work buildings, Lucas also constructed an observatory on-site to house a large telescope sent to him by a Star Wars fan.
- In additon to the working building, there’s also a motel, four restaurants, a day-care center, and fitness center on the property.
- In case you were wondering, there’s a free continental breakfast provided daily. Although I imagine if you can afford to book Skywalker Ranch, you’re not worried about the price of a muffin and a glass of juice.
- The Ranch also has its own fire department, whose trucks are emblazoned with the word “Skywalker” on the sides. They often help with fires in the Marin County area.
- Lucas went to great length to make sure that it’s difficult to see the buildings from the main road, and has also hidden most of the parking structures underground.
- As you’d expect, Lucas has an on-site security team with extensive surveillance over the entire property. Supposedly he’s extremely terrified of being kidnapped. Probably more so after the invention of Jar Jar Binks.
- The Ranch has it’s own screening room, a 300 seat state-of-the-art theater called “The Stag.” It’s one of the most sophisticated theaters in the world.
- One of the coolest places on the ranch is the Skywalker Library, which is a two-story research center that provides archives and research to filmmakers.
- Lucas’ inner sanctum at the Ranch, located in the main Victorian-style building, houses artifacts like the original lightsabers from Star Wars, Indy’s battered and dusty fedora from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and… Howard the Duck’s electric guitar.
- Currently, the Ranch sits on almost 5,000 acres, most of which is undeveloped.
Although Skywalker Ranch might very well be Lucas’ Xanadu, he still considers it “a nice, contemplative environment, which I need to think.” Which probably makes it one of the most expensive writer’s retreats in the world. It’s estimated that Lucas has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the Ranch, and if or when he’s ever finished with it, what will happen to it? In all likelihood, he’d donate the property to a local college, or maybe gift it to USC as a film center. Lucas have been very generous in giving USC money since graduating, and in return they named the George Lucas Instructional Building after him.
For now, the entire place remains one man’s empire. Hopefully it will start being used for more good, and less evil.