George Lucas and Me
In the history of cinema, there are a few moments that were life altering for the audience in ways it’s hard for us to imagine today. One was in 1939, in The Wizard of Oz — when the start of the movie was “normal” in black and white… and then she crashes in Oz, and walks into a world that’s in color! It would have been transformative.
Another was in 1977, in the opening scene of Star Wars: a little space ship is running away from a terrifying monster of an imperial destroyer, and the theater speakers are emitting ultra low frequency sounds, the kind that are created during earthquakes, that rattle your bones and make the hairs stand up on your neck. I was already primed after reading about the upcoming movie in Time magazine earlier in the summer. But from the moment the film began, I was a fan.
It’s also hard to imagine today in a world of binging TV shows on Netflix, but waiting three years to see the next episode… the anticipation was palpable. The only way you could mollify the longing was to keep watching the first episode again and again. Which everyone did. And then Empire released in 1980, and Jedi in 1983. Shuffle these with Lucasfilm producing Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, and Indy 2 in 1984… the run of magic was unprecedented.
When I arrived to Lucasfilm in 1985, I did my best to hide that I was a fan-boy. I was there to join Lucas’ exploration into new computer technologies that could possibly make that 3-year movie-making hell go faster and smoother. (Spoiler alert: It can. And did.)
The company had mixed attitudes about fans — of course fans were the essence of the company business, and there was a “Star Wars Fan Club” that was an important section of the organization, which also gave employees posters and buttons; but behaving like a fan was bad — no autographs or photos with the various VIPs who’d frequently be there working. After Empire, as the company grew, Lucas was increasingly uncomfortable among his ranks; he would pop in and out as was necessary, but more and more the faces he ran into were unfamiliar.
He also had just gone through a difficult divorce, which ended in 1983 — giving his wife most of their cash and giving him all the assets of the company and films. This, combined with the merchandising revenues drying up after the release of Jedi—the end of the first (and plausibly only) trilogy—contributed to the decision to better monetize the various divisions of the company.
The Droid Works, my division, was one of those attempts at monetization. I shared a corner office with Dorothy, a pretty Hawaiian marketing admin who had been with the company since the early days, and seemed to be pretty good friends with Lucas. On her desk she had a framed picture of her kids, but next to it stood a photo of Lucas and his young daughter Amanda, and it had a sweet note from him written across it. She loved this picture, and she spoke of Lucas often. I was her captive, but willing, audience.
I believe Dorothy and George dated after his divorce, and while he had moved on (he was now seeing Linda Rondstat) he was probably a hard dude to quit. But they were friends and would connect from time to time, and I’d hear about it the next day at work. There was one afternoon that lingers for me:
We were in our office when George called — he wondered if she wanted to watch a screening of a new movie in the Sprockets theater — the company’s acoustically perfect theater and mixing studio across the street. She covered the mouthpiece and whispered to me, “George is inviting me to a movie!”
“What movie?” I asked.
“What movie?” she asked.
“Ran,” she said to me. Ran was Akira Kurosawa’s latest film, and I knew that Lucasfilm was doing the audio mix over at Sprockets, so this made sense. I was dying to see it.
“Can I come?” I asked, half jokingly.
“Can I bring a friend?” she said into the phone. I froze.
She smiled and nodded to me.
“Okay, we’ll be right over.”
I’m not sure why we were so able to leave our desks and just disappear for the afternoon, but we did. We crossed over to Kerner and into the Sprockets theater. It was cool and dim and entirely empty, and George greeted us at the door. He wasn’t alone. He was standing with Akira Kurosawa.
We all said hellos and drifted into the seats in the center of the auditorium, the “good seats,” and sat down in order: Kurosawa, Lucas, Dorothy, and me. And then with little fanfare the film started. I had trouble focusing with these guys sitting there. It seemed like Kurosawa wasn’t really watching anyway — he was practically blind, and when I would sneak a glimpse of him, he was usually looking down. But I made it through, a little giddy, and then we stood around briefly before Dorothy and I scurried back to our office. I wished I had my camera, although I wouldn’t have been able to photograph any of this.
When I got back to the building I stopped into my friend Steve’s office on the first floor. Steve was close with Lucas; he ran Lucasfilm’s Game Division (years before it was called Lucasarts), his door was always open to stop in and chat. I slumped down into a soft chair and told him about the day. It was certainly exciting to participate in that, but also made me feel inconsequential and puny. This was my typical whining to Steve. I wanted to collaborate with Lucas, you know, personally, not just run into him in hallways. I wanted to do something together. Steve’s advice? “It will happen,” he said. “It’s just not now. But it will happen. Your paths will cross in another way. Trust it.”
That’s what Steve was like. He’d say mystical things like that and you’d feel better. Of course he was right.
A decade later, when our little ceramics start-up finally started to get traction, we were written up in Forbes magazine. It was a particularly exciting moment for our business. I waited for weeks for the article to come out and when it finally did, wouldn’t you know it — Lucas was featured on the cover.
And then, in 2005, I wrote a book about Lucasfilm and our work there, and as Steve had predicted, it brought me back to the company for awhile, pouring through Lucas’ files and old photos, suddenly interacting with him. Our paths momentarily intersected.
The title of my book, “Droidmaker” was a term I created for Lucas. He was the maker of droids, of these futuristic technologies that would serve creative humans. And I was writing a book about him and Lucasfilm. I got the “droidmaker” domain to promote the book, I got the handle across social media. But over subsequent years, people kept calling me droidmaker, and I’d point out it was just the title of the book, not my nickname. But I seemed to have less and less control over that understanding. And like magic, in some small way, I became the object of my attention — in name anyway. Lucas wasn’t droidmaker anymore; it was me.