“It’s good, but it won’t film.”
–Nathanael West The Day of the Locust, 1939, 41
I first became involved in the motion picture business when I was twenty-four years old, and living in the San Francisco Bay Area. After I answered Lucasfilm’s advertisement in the local paper for a secretary, I was called for a job interview.
While Lucasfilm’s Skywalker Ranch has since been widely seen on television, especially through journalist Bill Moyers’ television specials, I was unfamiliar with its peculiarities, which are noteworthy. In giving me directions to the place, my interviewer warned me that it was hard to find: after I passed the llama farm, which did not belong to Lucasfilm, I should look for the number 5858 on a wood sign, which indicated the entrance to Skywalker Ranch.
Skywalker Ranch was built in the 1980s with the profits George Lucas made from his Star Wars films. Disgusted by theLos Angeles motion picture business, George bought several thousand acres of pastureland in MarinCounty, north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and built his own movie studio. Designed to resemble aHollywood idea of a Nineteenth Century prosperous farm, the “Ranch,” as it is called, has state-of-the-art post-production facilities, and includes a 300+ seat movie theater. Just as there is no sign outside the Ranch to distinguish it from any other property on the winding Lucas Valley Road (named long before George was born), there is no sign on the Ranch campus that this is a motion picture studio, although one can see rotting Ewok huts—from an old film set—among the Redwood trees if one looks carefully. The buildings look like someone’s fantasy of a quaint, if oversized, Main House, a shingled Carriage House, a Brook House complete with a brook going by, and then down the road, there’s the Art Deco “Tech” building, where, according to the manufactured mythology, the Ranch owner’s son rebelled and built a vineyard. For verisimilitude, there are real grapes growing outside the front of the Tech building, just as, for looks, there are horses pastured on the winding road leading to the exit of the Ranch. I worked in the so-called Stable House, where there were offices, not horses. As a secretary, I had French doors from my office leading out to a cobblestone courtyard where a large piece of Nineteenth Century farm equipment sat picturesquely rusting. The sofa in my office was down-filled, and there were gentlemen who were daily responsible for stocking the wood for my working fireplace. My non-union starting salary was $25,000 a year. One Saturday, while I was working unpaid overtime and had left the French doors open for a breeze, a hawk flew in and landed on the back of the sofa in front of me. We exchanged glances. After a few failed terrifying attempts to leave the building by flying into walls, the hawk went out the French doors through which it had arrived. Although this was not staged by George, it was so fantastic it could have been. Afterward, only the hawk feathers left scattered around my office convinced me the hawk had visited.
While the company’s prosperity owes itself to George Lucas’s business sense and love of the movies, and to the hundreds of bright, dedicated people employed to support that, the place is a peculiar fantasy of George Lucas, down to its smallest details. George allegedly did not like the fact that he could see a building from his office in the Main House, so he had his crew build and landscape a gentle sloping hill between the two buildings to improve his office view. The county-mandated fire trucks on the Ranch are painted a tasteful maroon because, it was rumored, George doesn’t like fire-engine red. I was warned about the “Art Police” before I encountered the phenomena. The Ranch aesthetic is so strictly enforced that if you put something objectionable up on the wall behind your desk, the Art Police (at that time a lady named Mary) will insist you remove it. In the Main House, where George works, the approved art tends toward original Aubrey Beardsleys and Norman Rockwells. In the peripheral buildings, approved art includes lots of bucolic Northern Californian landscapes. I tested the Art Police by hanging a large abstract collage I made called “It’s Big. It’s Pink” behind my desk. Soon, Mary came by and gently, apologetically told me I had to take it down.
While we worked as employees, we also served in another function: the employees are also “extras” to serve as the fantasy of collegiality for George without the responsibility of interaction—I was instructed in my job interview, after I had been offered the job, that my employment would be terminated immediately if I went up and spoke to George at any time. Once, while standing behind George in the lunch line, I made a joke. He laughed. That was our sole encounter during my time on the Ranch. I was not fired.
During my time there, a person was fired for speaking with George. In one way, I understand this: the man has been besieged by people with stars in their eyes, enchanted by the movies he produced. The tall gates and fencing surrounding the Ranch attempt to keep both deer and stalkers off the property.
What lingers in my memory is the aroma of the golden rolling hills, something else George did not make, and the shock of pleasure on hot days, when, during lunch break, after diving from the dock, my body hit the cool water of Lake Ewok, a manmade lake much too near the septic system. The turtles sunned themselves on rocks nearby.
The septic system often had problems because, a maintenance guy told me, it kept getting clogged with condoms. Plumbing problems aside, I loved how peaceful the Ranch was, how quiet, how good it smelled: the fragrant plants, furniture polish, steak from the cafeteria, the fireplace. So many growing things—there was a full-time staff of gardeners. The dress code was terrific; we were expected to wear flannel shirts and jeans, like George did. Despite or perhaps in part because of its Dickensian overtones, I also enjoyed the annual holiday employee gift of a turkey from George.
Actual celebrity encounters were few, although they were often sighted at lunch. Once I gave Steven Spielberg a phone message. Another time, I drove by a fellow walking in my direction whom I realized was Robert Redford. The sunlight reflecting off his golden hair was startling. Jack Nicholson poked his head in my office—he was looking for theTech Building and he was lost. Unnerved, I walked with Jack down my cobblestone path to his minivan, got in, knocked all his CDs to the ground outside the vehicle, picked them up and got in again, and then directed him and the other occupants of the cigarette-smoke-filled vehicle (all spoke fast fluent French and all wore black) to their destination. They thanked me. When I got out of the van, I felt grateful for clean air. Sometimes we employees got requests to volunteer as film extras. My most significant film role was that of an extra screaming for Elvis in a David Lynch film.
One of the conditions of my employment was my signing a confidentiality agreement stating I would not discuss what I did and the projects I worked on. My years working for Lucasfilm and LucasArts Entertainment Company, both at the Ranch and at the Kerner Complex, and later for Lucasfilm Ltd.’s legal counsel as a paralegal assistant, will have to inform this project in ways other than reports on my work experience. My job was not prestigious. I was there, I observed, I asked questions, and I took note in this peculiar enclave of a wildly successful independent filmmaker. When my employers offered to promote me, I refused, in part because it would interfere with the time my job gave me to observe what interested me.
What working at Lucasfilm gave me, aside from some company achievement awards, rent money, and the charm of this strange place, was an ongoing interest in the hundreds of different jobs and people who make a motion picture company, people who are almost always legally bound by the companies who employ them to keep silent about what they have helped create. I loved my colleagues. I was inspired by their creativity and intelligence, their awesome dedication, and their humor.
Even at the time, I knew my Lucasfilm work experience was exceptional in the industry. To state the obvious, in the absence of effective labor unions, safe and decent working conditions occur at the whim of a good employer. George Lucas is an idiosyncratic motion picture producer, from the first generation of picture makers whose training came from the American university system rather than the Hollywood“studio system.” George Lucas was one of several independent filmmakers, including Francis Ford Coppola (who made the Godfather films) and Saul Zaentz (who made Amadeus) who chose to settle in the Bay Area.
My employment occurred during a peak period of post-war independent film production, before the present era which is characterized by globalized studio ownership.
During this period, innovations in computer technology revitalized motion picture special effects. These innovations were inspired in part by the Star Wars films and helped create the prosperity I witnessed. Lucasfilm also profited from the flexible outsourcing of the Hollywood studios that employed his special effects teams at Industrial Light and Magic, and his post-production facilities on Skywalker Ranch.
The Ranch where I worked is a place for industry insiders (not the public) to see the “public face” or front of George Lucas’s production factory. The day the hawk flew into my office, I was working on moving my division backstage, off the Ranch to the Kerner Complex, corporate industrial office buildings and work buildings in downtown San Rafael. The buildings of the Kerner Complex, which also housed Lucasfilm’s award-winning Industrial Light and Magic, sat by an open sewer that ran past all the buildings, just off Highway 101. Forget about the private cinema, and the organic garden which grew vegetables for the Ranch lunch table; our Kerner office, like all the others on Kerner, was an anonymous, cookie-cutter, business building. And we were movable extras, sent on and offstage at will. Periodically we would come to work to find that 25 percent of the workforce had just lost their jobs. Survivors would explain earnestly that George did this because he was grumpy about not starting the new series of Star Wars films. The fact that, as non-union employees, we had no recourse against his whims was not an issue. The unemployed–in shock, anger, bewilderment, or sadness– simply packed up their desks, and left. Our collective memory had somehow become erased–about the long period during the same century when American workers did have recourse against the whims of billionaire employers.
 The term “studio system” describes a type and period of American film production from about 1917 to the late 1940s. Five majorHollywood studios—MGM,Paramount, RKO, Warner Brothers, and Twentieth Century Fox—held a vertical oligopoly over production, distribution, and exhibition. The so-called “Big Five (mentioned above) and the “Little Three” Columbia, United Artists and Universal made for an oligopolic hold on the motion picture business. This was the “Studio System,” “an early film production system that constituted a sort of assembly-line process for moviemaking; major film studios controlled not only actors but also directors, editors, writers and other employees, all of whom worked under exclusive contracts.” (Campbell 605). It has also been called the “golden age of filmmaking.” The oligopoly was broken up by the 1948 Supreme Court Paramount decision which dictated that the studios could not own the theaters.