A dozen years ago, on a soundstage far, far away, filmmaker George Lucas called for quiet on the set.
It was his last job as a director. The movie was "Star Wars," and the trilogy it spawned raked in a reported $4 billion.In 1986 the Lucas empire struck out with a picture called "Howard the Duck." The $35 million film, billed as a "comedy-adventure," turned to duck soup at the boxoffice.
Now, from distributor MGM's offices in New York to Skywalker Ranch in Northern California, Lucas' minions are hard at work to complete a movie they hope will wipe any remnant of egg from Lucas' face.
"We're really high on it," says MGM's Donna Dickman. "No one's seen the whole thing, but what we have seen is very, very exciting."
The new film is called "Willow," and according to sources at Lucasfilm Ltd. it will salvage Lucas' somewhat tarnished reputation as an arbiter of popular taste.
"George has returned to the theme of `Star Wars,' " said one of the film's editors. "That people who believe in the power to do good ultimately prevail."
"It's his grand canvas," he added. "Larger-than-life. If you have to point to an auteur, it's Lucas."
The adventure film about a peace-loving dwarf called Willow opens in 1,000 cinemas on May 20, almost exactly 11 years after "Star Wars" premiered.
Although Lucas has not directed since, he has been active as executive producer of projects as diverse as Akira Kurosawa's epic "Kagemusha" and Michael Jackson's 3-D short "Captain EO," which can only be seen in Disneyland.
In the final weeks of post-production on "Willow," directed by Ron Howard ("Cocoon"), technicians have been working in what some of them liken to a religious haze.
"It's like a seminary up there," one film editor told Reuters.
The 44-year-old Lucas is a follower of philosopher Joseph Campbell and is said to have to have taken a turn up the spiritual path after a serious car accident.
The "Star Wars" trilogy is considered a kind of mythological primer on Campbell's idealized version of good and evil, and "Willow" is reported to be a continuation of that lesson.
In a statement about his new film, Lucas said it is "about the importance of living a compassionate life as opposed to a passionate life. It's about love."
The $35 million film was shot in England, New Zealand, on the Welsh moors and in Northern California. An additional $20 million has been budgeted for its promotion, according to published reports.
According to one "Willow" editor, the mood at Skywalker Ranch, Lucas' own Marin County Ponderosa, is upbeat.
"We're in better shape than usual," he said. "There's a good feeling out here."
But sources familiar with Lucas' enterprises say the producer's nights are restive, and that there is trouble brewing in the studio that "Star Wars" built.
"Lucas took `Star Wars' bucks and built this extraordinary complex," said Stephen Talbot, a producer for Public Television's KQED in San Francisco, who recently visited the site. "Now he wants to expand. It's turned into a big land dispute."
The San Rafael Chamber of Commerce confirmed that Lucas is indeed causing waves as his empire expands from Lucas Valley to the Pacific Ocean. Some landowners are angry.
"He's a helluva good neighbor, but he's in Cloud 9 most of the time," says Francis Fogarty, director of the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce, which oversees the lush farm country on which Lucas works.
Lucas is threatening to leave Marin County if it is not rezoned to accommodate Industrial Lights & Magic, his burgeoning, ultrasecret special-effects laboratory.
"George thinks `Lights & Magic' is the future," says Fogarty, adding that the reclusive Lucas will probably get his way in the end.
While the land dispute continues, Lucasfilm Ltd. seems determined to make "Willow" pay off.
Already, more than 30 companies have signed up for licensing rights to "Willow" merchandise. Lucasfilm has received fees ranging from $100,000 to a $1 million for products such as interactive "Willow" software and dwarf-embossed underwear according to published reports.
Jordan Harris of Virgin Records who said he paid a six-figure advance for "Willow" soundtrack rights, says he signed up on the basis of three minutes of footage he was shown months ago.
"It's enormously uplifting," Harris told Reuters. "And the score is orchestral and sweeping."