A Most Awesome Job:
Shooting Moonrise over Skywalker Ranch
It’s a common misconception that Lucas Valley Road was named for George Lucas, but it was actually named for an Irish immigrant named John Lucas, a mountain man who settled in Marin in 1849. But by coincidence, Lucas purchased nineteen hundred acres north of Lucas Valley Road, the Bulltail Ranch, as he was beginning work on The Empire Strikes Back, with a plan to establish his filmmaking center in Marin County.
By the time I was at Lucasfilm the company was finishing up the primary construction of “Skywalker Ranch” — including a Victorian main house and library, a half-dozen associated bunkhouses, man-made lake (which could double as a reservoir for fire safety), and an ultramodern post-production studio.
The Ranch was exciting and still pretty secretive in 1986. There was an all-company open house one weekend, the “grand opening,” but it was looking like the move into the Ranch from Kerner Boulevard (where the company was located) would be slow over the upcoming year, and not include everyone, so I felt like that tour might be the only time I would ever get to visit.
The structures were stunning, like handmade jewel boxes wrought large, built from redwood trees cut on the property itself, from a mill they constructed onsite. The distinctive stained glass fixtures and windows (including the massive 19 foot dome in the library) were also built in workshops onsite. But maybe the best part was the “history” — a fictional tale about Skywalker Ranch from George, created to help explain the architectural design, but ossified into lore. Like everything from Lucas in those days, it was delightful.
The story was about a retired sea captain who landed in the area with his wife and young kids in the 1860s. The main house was the captain’s residence; built in 1869, it was a large white mansion with a deep veranda. The gate house and stable were built the following year and the library was added in 1910 in the craftsman style, which had become popular. In 1880 the family began to diversify into winemaking; they planted a vineyard and built a brick winery on the shores of the lake, a short distance from the main house. One of the captain’s sons built a brewery behind the winery in the 1930s. As both the winery (built of brick) and the brewery (in its moderne style) expanded in subsequent years, the two merged into a single structure.
The “old winery” was going to be renovated into an Art Deco center for digital filmmaking.With no sound stages and no production, the Ranch was going to be a retreat for writers (doing pre-production), picture editors, and sound mixers (handling post).
To increase veracity, Lucas planned to install abandoned railroad tracks through the property, down the center of the winery, to explain how they used to get the big wine casks delivered, but practicality and cost dictated they get cut from the plan.
My job had little to do with the Ranch. I commuted weekly between Marin and Los Angeles. I lived each week in a hotel near the studios where I was training or supporting them in their use of Lucasfilm’s new filmmaking technologies. Interestingly, the flights I’d take south on Monday mornings and north on Friday afternoons were often populated with the Lucasfilm execs and various project collaborators and I took the opportunity to chat with them at the gate or sit together on the flights. PSA was generally behind schedule, but it was all quality time for me. While not always familiar names to the public, these people were rock stars and were gracious about keeping this 22 year-old entertained: Steve Starkey (Spielberg co-producer), Sid Ganis (movie marketing executive), Howard Roffman (company attorney and licensing maven), Tom Holman (inventor of THX sound), Thomas Dolby (80s pop musician)… and Jane Bay. Jane was George Lucas’ private assistant. She was the gateway to Lucas, and had been by his side since Graffiti. She had a reputation as tough and no-nonsense— so I was surprised to find her warm and inviting. She told me about her trips to the turquoise jewelry markets in Santa Fe and I told her about my photographic experimentation. And dating failures. She lived in one of Lucas’ old homes, and invited me to visit when we were back in Marin.
When my division was being closed in January 1987, I went to see her to say good-bye. Over tea, she mentioned that George had been driving up to the ranch recently and had seen the full moon over the Main House and he had told her he wished he had a camera to capture it. “I have a camera,” I said. “I’ll get a picture of that for him. I’m pretty free right now.”
Surprisingly she thought that sounded like a fine idea.
Jane and George were among the very few who had offices in the Main House. The 50,000 square foot victorian was connected to George’s film research library — a redwood room with an amber stained glass dome over it and a handmade spiral staircase; a solarium, like a greenhouse; and downstairs was the rest of the research library. There was also an adjacent room that was designated as a darkroom, but it had not yet been set up. “I’ll build the darkroom,” I announced.
So by February 1987, after having been let go by the company, I was inexplicably given unfettered access to Skywalker Ranch, to set up a space in the Main House, and to walk the property taking photographs, watching the moon rise and fall. I’d return for a few days around the full moon every month throughout the Spring, and hike in the surrounding hills, watching deer graze, thinking about the shot. My favorite spot was across the broad empty field of wildgrass that extended in front of the Main House and down to the shore of Lake Ewok, as it was being called.
In March, sitting in the middle of the field with a tripod and camera pointed at the house, I watched the moon begin its journey, with just the right amount of golden sun on the house and light in the sky to get an exposure of the moon. The beveled glass in the Main House front door flashed, and I saw a figure begin the long walk toward me. As she approached I realized it was Linda Ronstadt, Lucas’ girlfriend. It took her almost 10 minutes to arrive. She sat with me for awhile while I shot and we watched the sun disappear and the moon light us up, before making the trek back into the house.
I shot dozens of film rolls over the spring, but that was the shot. I printed it in the darkroom, mounted it and delivered it to Jane, who passed it along to George.
It was the last I thought about the project for a couple decades, until Apple began offering printed photo books with linen covers right out of iPhoto. I wanted to test their service so I scanned all my Skywalker negatives and assembled a little book of my favorites. I sent it to Lucas for his birthday in 2006 and he responded with a sweet note. I told him I had only made one book of these photos.
But actually, I made two.
- Some text and images excerpted from DROIDMAKER, 2006