By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 7, 2005
SAN RAFAEL, Calif. The Lucasfilm publicists are protocol droids, no-nonsense blond beings hard-wired to strict time tablings. A visit to Skywalker Ranch has been compared to entering the Jedi temple. A serious journey. Total inner sanctum. No personal photography allowed. The public? Not welcome. Fans of the "Star Wars" saga make do with aerial and satellite images. Wisely, security guards patrol the perimeter, on alert for obsessives dressed in storm trooper costumes.
Somewhere inside, George Lucas is marshaling his minions for the release of the story's final installment, "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," opening worldwide May 19.
We could feel his presence. The time of our meeting drew near, when he would explain to us that the "Star Wars" epic was not only a story of a father saved by his children but a rumination on the dark side of the Force, represented by Julius Caesar and Richard Nixon.
The 60 or so press junketeers assemble at the nearby Embassy Suites Hotel. We are mostly male, middle-aged. The vibe is boys camp. Included in our number are some "Star Wars" "hard-cores." The type who can answer the difficult trivia questions in "A Guide to the Galaxy," the cheat sheet helpfully provided by Lucasfilm.
Question: Lando Calrissian's operation on Cloud City mines what type of gas?
Answer: Tibanna gas.
The shuttle van for the junketeers ascends the hairpin turns of a two-lane road called Lucas Valley Road, the Marin County hills as bucolic as the planet Naboo. Then a right turn through the gates and onto Skywalker, built with the fortune made from the "Star Wars" franchise.
Worldwide box office gross to date?
And that is just for the films and does not include the net from the video and computer games, action figures, magazines, toys, Halloween costumes, books and DVDs.
As we move through the gates, guards in blue uniforms drive by in red pickups. Omnipresent, yet discreet. We ride past the Skywalker Fire Department, with its fleet of tanker trucks. The greenhouses growing organic consumables. A younger wag aboard our transport whispers, "Man, you could grow a lot of weed out here." He is shushed. There is a softball field. "The animal facility." The Archives. Vineyards growing grapes for Francis Ford Coppola wines. Then Ewok Lake and beside its placid waters, an X-Wing fighter, a prop from the series, sitting on the beach.
The main "house" is a sprawling pseudo-Victorian, the rooms filled with Gustav Stickley-type craftsman furnishings and art. Thomas Hart Benton. Maxfield Parrish. Our guide welcomes us. Lucas, we learn, does not live here, but "in a house in the neighborhood." These are his offices and work spaces. Lucas did write a short story, we are told, about a family that could have once lived here, if they had existed. The place looks a hundred years old, with weathered stone and burnished wood. It was built in 1985, a marvelous fake. "You're all very quiet," our guide observes. "You're allowed to talk." But we remain silent.
Our 15 minutes are quickly up. Tour over. Down the hill at the Technology Building, it's time to see the movie. Several junketeers race to seats in the middle of the large theater, describing them as "the sweet spots" where sound and visual imagery would be best. Rick McCallum stands and welcomes the crowd.
McCallum is the producer who since 1990 has worked exclusively with Lucas on each of the three prequels in the "Star Wars" series ("Episode I: The Phantom Menace," "Episode II: Attack of the Clones" and now "Revenge"). McCallum says he and Lucas saw the completed film only last week. Then McCallum pleads, "God, just like it," and he sits.
A bit of background. Though hard-core "Star Wars" fans usually defend all the movies, the critics have applauded the first three (starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher) while disparaging the more recent ones (which star Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen), which they described as mechanical, flat and oddly sterile. They really didn't like Jar Jar Binks. But "Star Wars" movies are not really for the critics, are they?
As the house lights dim, there is some serious expectation -- this is the movie that the fans need to tie everything together, to bind all the branches of the "Star Wars" family tree (complex enough to merit another Lucasfilm handout) and explain why Anakin Skywalker crosses over to the Dark Side and dons the black armor of Darth Vader; how Luke and Leia came to be and were separated, and why Obi-Wan Kenobi and Jedi Master Yoda end up on those distant, obscure planets. Lucas promised that "Revenge" would answer those questions. He did not tell a lie.
The reviews will come later, but this episode is the most action-packed in the series, from the opening dogfights over the city-planet Coruscant (watch out for those buzz droids!) to the final light saber duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan on the lava-chunking volcanic planet Mustafar.
McCallum later tells the junketeers that there are 2,150 visual-effect shots in "Revenge" (as compared with 360 in the original "Star Wars," now known as "Episode IV: A New Hope"). The principal photography -- cameras shooting actors in Australia -- took three months. The special effects took 18 months and employed a small army of digi-matte artists, animators, creature makers and modelers who used computers, paintings and photographs to create almost everything non-human in the film. (An example: There are hundreds of starships, airspeeders and fighters shown in "Revenge," but only three full-size models were built; everything else is digital magic).
The final installment is also the darkest -- with lots of exposition about how a democratic republic rots from the core, and how the D-side of the Force seduces the glowering Anakin, who becomes a very bad secret husband to Padme Amidala as he grapples with some serious power issues before finally going postal in the Jedi temple with that light saber of his. The film director Kevin Smith, a self-described hard-core, posted one of the first reviews on the Internet, where he wrote, "This flick is so satisfyingly tragic, you'll think you're watching 'Othello' or 'Hamlet.' "
Perhaps. At the film's close, the junketeers offer up respectable applause. One fellow just sits there and keeps repeating "wow." After the film's arcade of explosions, we retire upstairs, where, from the veranda, we see soft candles dance in the vineyard and a musician plays classical guitar. It is a difficult transition, eased by the open bar and the gnocchi with three kinds of pesto.
The Lucasfilm publicity and marketing crew are asking: What did you think? What did you think? And the junket groupthink seems to be that the film "did what it needed to do." Few are gushing. But no one is dismissive. So everybody looks happy and the press lines up to have their photos taken and digitally inserted into "Star Wars" mini movie posters, where a reporter's face, for example, would appear on Luke Skywalker's body as he fought beside Chewbacca. It is a little weird.
The next morning, the junketeers board buses at the hotel to return to Skywalker for the roundtable interviews (four tables, 15 to a table) back at the Tech Building.
Ian McDiarmid, the stage actor who plays the Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (the old creepy guy in the cowl), is asked: What did you learn about yourself during the filming of the "Star Wars" saga? McDiarmid smoothly changes the subject (he's British) and says that he liked the fact that the audience will now understand Darth Vader. "He had his problems," he says.
What about the allure of the Dark Side -- does it not tempt all of us? McDiarmid notes: Isn't it interesting how the film shows how one can preach peace while practicing war? Aha! So there is a secret message here for the Bush administration? Actually, McDiarmid says, he was thinking more of a character like former Yugoslav strong man Slobodan Milosevic, whom he describes as "quite Sithian, actually." (The Siths represent the Dark Side and the love of power for power's sake, counterweight to the good and selfless Jedis).
A fresh-faced Christensen takes a seat. What about the day on the set when he donned the shiny black helmet of Lord Vader? "I had every emotion you could imagine," Christensen says.
Why shouldn't Lucas keep churning out "Star Wars" films? (The "please" is implied.) Christensen is quick to shut that kind of thinking down. It's over, people. (Of course, Lucas is already planning a "Star Wars"-style live-action TV series as well as an animated one, so it's never really going to be over.)
What about the scene where Anakin commits a very un-Jedi act of light-sabering mayhem? Christensen agrees that moment is why "Revenge" is the first "Star Wars" episode to get a PG-13 rating (and we're not going to spoil it for you). "I can't imagine how little kids will react to that," he says, though, of course, little kids will have to persuade their parents to blow off the MPAA's caution.
As we're thinking about that -- a "Star Wars" forbidden to younger children? -- Lucas arrives at the table, a billionaire dressed down in relaxed-fit jeans, his salt-and-pepper hair swept up in his trademark 'do.
Lucas confesses that the early "Star Wars" movies (released in 1977, 1980, 1983) were "painful experiences" because "what I wanted to do, I couldn't do." He means with the existing computer graphics and special-effects technology.
Remember, Lucas says, that when Yoda first appeared, he was a rubber puppet. Now he is a fully digitized special effect, capable of dramatic action and emotive expression. Lucas abandoned the "Star Wars" galaxy for 15 years, during which he invested his time in Industrial Light & Magic, his company that would become a world leader in special effects.
What about the stuff in the movie about how liberty and democracy are not taken away, but given away -- is that a message intended to have some special meaning today?
Actually, Lucas says, he got the idea 30 years ago, during the Nixon and Vietnam War era, and from his reading of history, how the French turned their backs on the Republic and democracy to support Napoleon, and how the Romans did the same with Caesar. In his films, "I'm not saying why, so much as how, that happens," Lucas finishes.
Because his 16 minutes with us is over. Some of the junketeers press a pen into his hand; Lucas signs some autographs and then he leaves and we're left with nothing to do but hit the Skywalker General Store -- the gift shop -- which was a bit of a disappointment, actually, some T-shirts, ball caps and "Star Wars" calculators and key rings. But rest assured, more products will be soon be available.