Before he made Star Wars, then ruined Star Wars, then saved Star Wars by selling it to Disney, George Lucas made another iconic film that has served as a cultural touchstone. American Graffiti, released 45 years ago today, was a nostalgic, semi-autobiographical look at the American teenager circa 1962, before "the sixties" kicked in and changed everything. The film was a massive hit, earning $55 million in 1973 and another $63 million when it was re-released in 1978—a total of some $500 million at today's ticket prices. Let's get nostalgic for nostalgia and look in-depth at the making of American Graffiti.
1. GEORGE LUCAS MADE THE MOVIE PARTIALLY OUT OF SPITE.
The young director's previous film and first feature, the futuristic sci-fi drama THX-1138, had been a disappointment both critically and commercially. Lucas' wife, Marcia—as well as friend Francis Ford Coppola—urged him to make something more relatable. "Don't be so weird," Lucas recalled Coppola telling him. "Try to do something that's human ... Everyone thinks you're a cold fish, but you can be a warm and funny guy, make a warm and funny movie."
Marcia said, "I reminded George that I warned him [THX] hadn't involved the audience emotionally. He always said, 'Emotionally involving the audience is easy. Anybody can do it blindfolded, get a little kitten and have some guy wring its neck ...' So finally, George said to me, 'I'm gonna show you how easy it is. I'll make a film that emotionally involves the audience.'" He showed her!
2. IT WAS SAVED FROM BECOMING A TV MOVIE BY THE GODFATHER.
Universal Pictures gave Lucas a budget of $600,000, or about $3.5 million in 2016 dollars, to make the movie—in other words, not very much. When Coppola came onboard as a producer shortly after the release of The Godfather, Universal gave Lucas another $175,000. Later, when the film was finished and had test-screened positively, Universal inexplicably wanted to drastically re-edit it and release it as a TV movie. Lucas objected but had no clout. Coppola, on the other hand—by this time an Oscar-winner—could make studio executives listen. He convinced them to do only a little bit of trimming (the deleted scenes were reincorporated for home video release) and to release the film theatrically.
3. CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, THERE IS NO ACTUAL CONNECTION BETWEEN AMERICAN GRAFFITI AND HAPPY DAYS.
Happy Days premiered five months after American Graffiti was released. It was set in the '50s, had Ron Howard playing a teen very similar to his American Graffiti character, used "Rock Around the Clock" as its theme song, and even borrowed the American Graffiti font for the credits. You'd think that Happy Days was somehow a spin-off of the movie, but you'd be wrong. It actually began as an unsold pilot in 1971 and aired in 1972 as part of the anthology series Love, American Style. (Lucas watched it at some point when he was considering casting Howard in American Graffiti.) After the movie took off, and with '50s nostalgia in high gear (Grease was burning up Broadway), ABC reconsidered the Happy Days pilot, ordered a series, and did everything they could to make it remind people of American Graffiti. It ran for 10 years and was one of the most popular sitcoms in TV history.
4. THE STUDIO WANTED TO CHANGE THE TITLE.
Universal executives didn't know what American Graffiti meant as a title (they weren't alone), and begged Lucas to change it. They furnished a list of 60 alternates, including Rock Around the Block (Coppola's suggestion) and Another Slow Night in Modesto (which was close to Lucas' original working title, Another Quiet Night in Modesto). Lucas wouldn't budge.
5. LUCAS'S CO-WRITERS DIDN'T LIKE THE ENDING.
The film ends with title cards revealing what happened to the main characters (the male ones, anyway) afterward, much of which isn't happy. The co-writers Lucas hired early on to help him develop the script, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, found it depressing and strange and tried to talk Lucas out of it but never succeeded. (Stubbornness is a recurring theme in stories about Lucas.)
6. WOLFMAN JACK WAS A HOLDOVER FROM A PREVIOUS MOVIE IDEA LUCAS HAD.
The radio DJ with the distinctive voice was part of Lucas' teenage years in Modesto, California, and Lucas even considered making a documentary about him when he was a student at USC's film school. When American Graffiti made him a millionaire, Lucas paid the Wolfman a little extra for serving as the film's "inspiration."
7. IN THE ORIGINAL CONCEPTION, THE BLONDE WASN'T REAL.
Curt (played by Richard Dreyfuss) spends most of the film chasing a beautiful, mysterious blonde (played by Suzanne Somers) he sees driving a Ford Thunderbird. Lucas originally intended to shoot a scene where the blonde and the car were briefly transparent, revealing to the audience that she was a figment of Curt's imagination. This was one of the things that had to go when Universal insisted on a strict, tight budget.
8. THE PRODUCER HAD TO BECOME MACKENZIE PHILLIPS'S LEGAL GUARDIAN FOR THE SHOOT.
Mackenzie Phillips was just 12 years old when she arrived to make the film, and though she had showbiz experience (her father, John Phillips, was in The Mamas & the Papas), neither she nor her parents realized that California law required her to have a guardian present. "They were almost going to have to recast me, but Gary Kurtz"—a producer on the film—"and his family said, 'We'll take her,'" Phillips said in 1999. " So they went to the courts in San Francisco and got guardianship of me." Phillips lived with the Kurtzes for the duration of the shoot and described it as a happy experience.
9. THE PRODUCTION WAS KICKED OUT OF TOWN AFTER ONE DAY OF SHOOTING.
Lucas and company planned to shoot the film in San Rafael, California, as the real setting—Modesto—had changed too much since 1962. But after just one day in San Rafael, the city council gave them the boot. Not only had a member of the crew been arrested for growing marijuana, but the first night of filming and its accompanying street closures had drawn complaints from local businesses. The production moved 20 miles north to Petaluma, where things ran a bit more smoothly (at least in terms of interactions with the locals).
10. THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM SOLD 3 MILLION COPIES.
The concept of filling an entire soundtrack with nothing but preexisting popular songs (rather than an instrumental score) was still new, with Easy Rider (1969) having been the first major example. The American Graffiti double album included 41 of the 43 songs heard in the movie, arranged in the order they appear, missing only "Gee" by The Crows and "Louie Louie" by Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids.
11. THERE'S A REASON ELVIS PRESLEY IS CONSPICUOUSLY ABSENT FROM THE SOUNDTRACK.
The reason, of course, is money. To mitigate the cost of licensing so many songs, Universal offered a flat rate to all of the labels involved. Everyone went along with it except for RCA, which meant no Elvis. The kids in American Graffiti are therefore probably the only teenagers in America who could listen to the radio all night in 1962 and never hear an Elvis song.
12. HARRISON FORD WOULD ONLY AGREE TO BE IN THE MOVIE IF HE DIDN'T HAVE TO CUT HIS HAIR.
The future Han Solo had become disenchanted with showbiz and was working as a carpenter to support his wife and two children when he got the American Graffiti audition. His character, Bob Falfa, was supposed to have a flattop, but since Ford didn't care much whether he made the film or not, he issued an ultimatum: He wouldn't do it if it required cutting his hair. A compromise was reached, and Bob Falfa wears a Stetson hat throughout the film.
13. THERE WERE A WHOLE LOT OF SHENANIGANS ON THE SET.
Lucas worked hard and fast, shooting anywhere from six to 10 script pages a night (twice the norm), but there was still a lot of downtime for the large ensemble cast of young, energetic actors. Harrison Ford (who turned 30 during the shoot and was one of the oldest people there), Paul Le Mat, and Bo Hopkins drank a lot of beer between takes and were said to have been kicked out of the Holiday Inn for things like urinating in the ice machines and climbing on the hotel's rooftop sign. Someone set fire to Lucas' hotel room. Le Mat threw Dreyfuss into the swimming pool one night, gashing his forehead. Adding to the carnival atmosphere were the hundreds of local gearheads who were paid $25 each to lend their classic cars to the production and who hung around every night, gawking at the actors and drag-racing on the back streets.
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, by Peter Biskind
Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, by Dale Pollock