The blog of one Michael Heilemann, expatriated Dane coming to you out of New York City. Half machine, half grapefruit, Interface director at Squarespace, design lover, film enthusiast, Star Wars historian, creator of the Kubrick and K2 themes, and holder of opinions, many of which are shared on his Twitter account.
I met up for an interview with the gracious Tina Daunt in Santa Monica (oh wonderful Santa Monica) during our US roadtrip, first slated for the LA Times, before they started firing people left and right, now up at Huffington Post.
The new 2010 theme is slowly starting to take shape, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what that’ll be about. Meanwhile my, until recently, neglected second child, K2—a spiritual followup of sorts to Kubrick—just went 1.0 before the holidays, and we’re well on our way towards a great 1.1 release.
I’ve got a couple of other projects I should have started a long time ago coming in 2010, and I can’t wait to unveil them as we get nearer to summer. Yes, one of them is a new WordPress theme.
It was great, while it lasted, honestly pretty crazy for a while, and I very much enjoyed it; but its retirement is timely, if not overdue.
Kubrick, by the way, was born in the summer of 2004, which makes it almost fivesix years old this year. I would never have thought it could have lived for this long.
We visited the Ranch during our three-week US roadtrip a few months ago, and I’ve been longing to go back ever since. Nestled in the hills a 40-minute drive north of San Francisco, hidden from view of the road and comprising all the land around it, as far as you can see, and about ten times more, Skywalker Ranch is without a doubt the geek haven.
You take a turn from the aptly named, but otherwise unrelated, Lucas Valley Road, pass through a security checkpoint—yes, the guards arm-patch has an X-Wing on it—where you’re given a small map of the area, and then a winding forest road, complete with 1920’s harvesters nostalgically littered by the roadside to give the impression of a long and all-american history (which never was), takes you around Lake Ewok and up to the main house.
It’s beautiful. Quiet. Standing there, you instantly ‘get’ why Lucas decided to skip LA and build the ranch for the money from Empire and Jedi; here you can think and talk and go about your business undisturbed by the stress and superficiality of Hollywood.
And it really is nestled in amongst the hills, the backs of which rise up all around, and on which the cattle—yes, it’s a fully working farm, complete with livestock and crops—roam free, content and ignorant of them getting to live in the geek-Xanadu of the planet.
A lot can be said, and lot has, about George Lucas, but despite the scope of this place and what it represents, if it is in any way ‘extravagant’, it would be in how it isn’t extravagant. Yes, it’s large and it has everything from an observatory to one of the most amazing and beautiful research libraries in the film industry and the best sound editing facilities, including what is perhaps one of the best theaters in the world, as well as an inn, a complete fitness center, a café and a restaurant and even a general store… Oh, and its own fire station. And a 200-lot underground parking garage.
But it’s exactly because it has all of this, yet flaunts none of it, that it is so impressive.
For instance, as we were leaving, we wanted to make one last stop at the store; you know, to score some loot (pens, t-shirts, chili sauce—the usual). But to get to it we had to park by the side of the road, and walk through a small stretch of forest, cross the bridge over a small stream and up a small path until suddenly we were mere meters from the building. There it was. And you couldn’t see it from looking at it, but it had a tennis court and swimming pool as well as a restaurant. Nestled; I’m telling you.
Incidentally, as we returned to the car, our arms filled with aforementioned loot; we saw a sight I wish to this day we had captured on video. It would have gone viral in ways I can only dream long wet dreams of.
You see, the Ranch is nothing if not cozy and homely. An old plow here, a gate covered in vines there. And by the side of the road next to our car there was an honor-system produce stand—the kind that would make Martha Stewart soft in her knees. Bell pebbers, lettuce, garlic and cucumbers as far as the eye could see. And tomatoes. And a deer. Eating the tomatoes. Not just eating though, but carefully, thoughtfully and with the greatest of non-chalance cherry-picking them one at a time. It sees us, and we see it. And it slowly lowers its head, the tongue comes out, feels its way around the tomatoes; ow-there’s a good one. Yoink. The nerve of this deer. It glances at us with a look that can only be described as the ‘what?’-look, and continues to chew the tomato leisurely and thoroughly, before its tongue goes to search for another. No, not that one… No… Yeah, that’s the stuff.
Our photo seance was soon interrupted by the groundsman, as he came waltzing over the road, and in the tone one would use with a disobedient, but utterly adorable child exclaimed: “Noooo, that’s not for you! Go on, get out of here.” After which the deer, slightly annoyed, but still sporting a healthy attitude, prances across the road and into the bushes.
He would be back, I could tell.
If I hadn’t already fallen in love with California and the ranch before, I did then and there.
And Rikke, she was well sold by the time we made it to the research library, which deserves an honorary mention all of its own.
You can enter it from the main house, the bottom floor of which consists of a café, a meeting room or two as well as the famous display case with the lightsabers, AT-AT’s and that damned crystal skull. But from the moment you step foot in it, contrary to the rest of what we saw of the main house, it feels ‘real’. Lived in. The rest is all very neat and tidy and almost too museum-like for it too feel homely; but the library is all its own. A stroll over to an entirely arbitrary shelf revealed a healthy tome on ‘Mythology’, ‘Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets’, ‘A History of Religious Ideas’ and the like. Another shelf held ‘Cults, Customs and Superstitions of India’, a well-worn gold embossed title worthy of Indy himself, as well as ‘The Coasts of India and ‘The Last Maharajas’.
You get the point. It was like stumbling into a live set, bathed in the light from the famous glass domed ceiling. Or infamous, if you count the fact that Marcia Lucas had an affair with the man who designed said dome, which subsequently led to their divorce; an annoying little nugget of history inexorably tied to the Ranch.
The library is, as mentioned an actual research library, and holds considerably more books than in the main house, most of which have come from old studio libraries—Paramount in the late 80’s and Universal in 2000—put up for sale and snatched up by Lucas. The stories I’ve heard told of the collection are considerable and impressive. Michael Rubin did much of his research for DroidMaker down there, and enthusiastically retells the story of how he was left alone with a stack of boxes while the staff were busy prepping for Episode III. The town was went to, and then some. Reportedly Lucas dragged all of his notes, files and folders in there and there they remain.
If ever there was a nexus for geekdom, it’s in that library.
But I digress.
Our time was short, and we too soon left the Ranch behind—as well as the visitors map, unfortunately, a prime souvenir if there ever was one—and started the winding trip back to San Francisco to drop off our gracious hosts Tara and Leslie at Lucas’s other campus in San Francisco
Thank you again guys, you rock!
Anyway, I was reminded by and decided to finally get around to doing this write-up because Philip Bloom, whose work I’ve envied for some time, recently visited Skywalker Ranch and shot this extraordinary mood-piece there, which stands in sharp contrast to how sweltering it was when we visited.
Next time I hope to stay at the inn and peruse the library for a few hours… One can dream.
Update, March 17th, 2010: A couple of years ago two guys from Io went to visit Skywalker Ranch as guests of Matthew Wood. I convinced them to let me post this video of theirs, from the visit:
The lack of chronicling from our recently wrapped three-week roadtrip through 3500 miles of magnificient US countryside and cities isn’t from lack of wanting to bore you to death with the details; but between a whirlwind trip to see various parts of the family trees and a waterlanding of a ‘back to work’ start, in which I managed to get the cold before lunch was served, time and energy has taken a toll.
Our trip took us from San Francisco to Yosemite, King’s Canyon, Seqoia, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, up Highway 1 and finally back to San Francisco again where we, ready for three more weeks, sadly departed all too soon.
It was, amazing. An experience of a lifetime. Two in fact. To explain it, to show pictures from it or write about it, cannot do it justice. I won’t bore you with hyperbole, but it was everything we had hoped for, and a lot more.
But it would not have been all that it was, were it not for Tara (and Leslie), Tina and Kate, and of course the good Mr. Rubin, a thousand thanks. You all made our trip an unforgettable adventure.
Also, thank you all, who over the last year or two have been throwing advice and tips at me on Twitter and here on BB. We tried to adhere to as many of them as we could along the way.
And yes, I was scared shitless when I first rolled the Mustang convertible we had rented onto the South San Franciscean freeway, and no, there is literally no way to prepare you for LA traffic. Yes, we had lunch at Pixar and at Skywalker Ranch, how cool is that? Yes, I teared up—as I always do when I hear it—when John Williams conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonics through the Main Title from E.T. under a fullmoon at the Hollywood Bowl, and yes, the sunrise in Monument Valley is perhaps the most stunning sight I’ve ever beheld.
And yes, I have photos, in multitudes. Some we uploaded as we went along, but there are more to go. I tried twittering from time to time, but between the road, sightseeing and sleep, there wasn’t a lot of Michael to go around. Hopefully I’ll be able to remedy that over the coming months.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lingering cold to fight.
Put 250km behind us today, from our Holiday Inn Express just south of SFO over the Bay Bridge, off the freeway through some surreal all yellow hillsides filled with windmills—and locals tail-gating me to push past the 55mph limit—into Modesto, ate at Denny’s, looked across the street and saw Lucas Plaza, where a statue commemorating American Graffiti has been erected (yeah, as if I wasn’t already looking for it; but it was by chance we found it nonetheless). Quick photo op, and then on down to Merced where we’re currently staying at a motel.
Lessons learned so far: Easy to drive over here, people don’t seem to be assholes about driving, like they are in Denmark. Everybody goes at least 5mph past the speed limit. At least. It took me a while to figure out where to turn on the lights on the Mustang. The Mustang has a USB port and line-in, making it hella easy to play music from iPods etc. Oh, and it’s a very nice ride. Oh, and automatics… Droooool. Finally, if it’s hot now, how will it be in Death Valley? The mind boggles.
Before we left the San Francisco area, we stocked up on various supplies and bought a TomTom XL 340-S, despite having bought the US TomTom app for the iPhone. But getting a signal on that was a royal pain in the ass, and I wasn’t going to bet our trip on something so frail, so… And what a pleasure the real thing is to use. How people roadtripped before GPS, I’ll never know. I’m currently updating the maps and hoping to install Homer Simpson…
Spielberg, Hemmingway, Einstein, any number of presidents not named Bush, that guy at the gas station, the gal at the drive-in, you and of course, me. We’re all connected in that great human struggle: Our inability to chose books for travels.
Or so I like to believe.
It’s one of those things I spend the most time on when going traveling, and I often find myself skimming through and reading passages of about 10-15 books, stacking them this way; that. Trying to insure myself against that harshest of human realizations; the 80-page-in realization of “shit dude, this book sucks”.
Currently I’m leaning towards bringing a single previously unread book, which is currently Alastair Reynolds Absolution Gap, though Cryptonomicon has been drawing me for some time, it having been 8 years or so since I last read it. Also, I’ve got World War Z just sitting there, staring at me, begging me to prepare for the coming Zombie apocalypse…
Now, had I owned a Kindle, this wouldn’t be a problem, but this is Denmark, a country so small and cozy that Amazon wouldn’t touch it with a stick tied to another stick.