‘Star Wars’ archivist mastered the Force and more – Chicago Tribune
Ask Leland Chee what he wanted to do when he was younger, and he answers so quickly that you have to ask him a couple of more times to repeat himself.
“‘Star Wars’ expert — I wanted to be a ‘Star Wars’ expert when I grew up.”
He says this without a smirk. He is not being cute. He is 46 now, and in the early 1990s, when asked where he pictured himself five years after graduating from the University of California, he “would tell people ‘I will be working for George Lucas. Advising him, likely. While he’s working on films, I’ll be right there, helping out with the story and whatnot.’ I was very much a disciple. George had a disdain for Hollywood, and so I didn’t want to leave Northern California either. Whenever I saw someone wearing a Lucasfilm T-shirt, I knew they were connected to George and so I would ask them how they got their job. And remember, George was semiretired then. But I was a sensible person — even as I said these things, I knew I would never actually get that job. Still, I would have gotten on my knees and bowed to George. That was 30 years ago, and now I know that person.”
Chee is Lucasfilm’s Keeper of the Holocron.
If there is a human with a nerdier job title, we have not heard it.
And yet he is, as promised, a professional “Star Wars” expert. His job is to maintain for Lucasfilm (and Disney, its parent company) the continuity and canon of the “Star Wars” universe, which turns 40 this week. In “Star Wars” lore, the Holocron is Jedi Google, a boxy device with ancient etchings that holds answers to everything. On Earth, this means Chee maintains a database of every plot point, character bio, planet geography, alien lineage, ship design, what have you, across every “Star Wars” property. He ensures that each “Star Wars” movie and TV show and book and video game and amusement park ride — and every licensed knickknack, from cereal bowls to tote bags — conforms, to the spirit, appearance and plotting of the wider “Star Wars” universe.
Say, for instance, you have manufactured 40,000 Darth Vader beach balls and Chee notices Darth Vader’s lightsaber beam is the wrong color? May the Force be with you.
“Leland is an institution at Lucasfilm” said Jason Fry, author of more than 30 “Star Wars” books. “A lot of people talk about his knack with lore, and obviously it’s true, but I think the big value to him is he just gets storytelling. He knows how to save you a lot of trouble by suggesting adjustments, clarifications. You don’t get a lot of noes from Leland, so much as a ‘Try a line like this because then that sets up …’ That’s his secret sauce.”
Serving as a sort of benign traffic cop to all things “Star Wars” has made Chee quite powerful within the vast “Star Wars” ecosystem, and at the Star Wars Celebration convention here last month, as he moved through the Orange County Convention Center, he drew gapes and shouts and handshakes from passersby. As he sat to talk, he dug into his backpack and pulled from it a plastic cube painted in blues and golds.
He put it on the table.
“You know what this is?” he asked. It was a noticeably handmade Holocron. “A guy just gave this to me. He 3-D printed it, and told me he had grown up being a fan — of me!”
This makes more sense than it might seem.
As mega-successful pop franchises grow increasingly keen on world-building, on maintaining soap opera-like mythologies that span movies and TV and online series and novels — think the Marvel movie universe, the DC movie universe, the “Chicago Fire” TV universe — having a house archivist/historian/cartographer/superfan to keep it all coherent is vital. “Star Wars” novels, for instance, now contain a timeline that places its story within the larger canon. Indeed, you might even argue a franchise as pervasive, enduring and immersive as “Star Wars” has been breeding canon cops since 1977.
Among the pivotal questions Chee has weighed in on:
How many times has Emperor Palpatine died? (Once.)
Are Stormtroopers people or clones? (Depends.)
How many toes does Yoda have? (Four.)
Chee, who grew up in the same Bay Area that headquarters Lucasfilm, describes a wall-to-wall “Star Wars” childhood. “I have been a fan as long as there has been a ‘Star Wars.’ I had the action figures and lunchboxes and bedsheets, of course. I read and reread the backs of the packaging to know the names of every character and ship. But then a lot of people grew out of it after ‘Return of the Jedi’ in ’83. Merchandise waned and things went on clearance. This was unfathomable to me. Going into middle school, with every grasping breath, I was trying to keep ‘Star Wars’ alive, even doing a school presentation using stop-motion Ewoks. Everyone is selling off their collections and here I am, desperate to justify why I am 14years old and still buying Ewok action figures.”
He is quick to note, with telling precision, that he was hired by Lucasfilm on Jan. 31, 1997, the same day that the special edition of the first “Star Wars” film was released. He was a game tester. By 2000, after testing an encyclopedic “Star Wars” CD-ROM, he saw a need for kind of internal bible. Questions about canon or the appropriateness of a new addition to the universe were handled mostly by the licensing department, but “there was no one with a granular insight into the continuity of these things across games, trading cards, whatever.” So Chee began pulling from company binders and previously published “Star Wars” encyclopedias and video games and so forth; he also watched the movies many times and took notes. He built an internal database, “and from there, as we would approve new content, I would fill it in.” But it was far from tidy.
By 2000, the “Star Wars” mythology was overrun with awkwardness: A late 1970s novel created sexual tension between Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, only to have the movies decide they were siblings. An early “Star Wars” comic from Marvel gave Han Solo a very Bugs Bunny-like giant rabbit sidekick. Chee recalls a new “Star Wars” book series wanting to kill off an established character that a new “Star Wars” video game had been planning to use. “We even killed off Chewbacca in a book, which meant someone would have to tell licensees, ‘Sorry, killed Chewie off, can’t use him now.’”