Without exception, all players fit perfectly into the concept and execution and all the young principals and featured players have a bright and lengthy future. And so does Lucas - Variety
Indeed they all did. George Lucas had one legitimate film credit to his name – THX-1138 - and $1,500 in total personal assets - in 1973 when he convinced Universal executive Ned Tanen to finance his pet project, a nostalgic look at the early ’60s, heavily based on Lucas’ own teen years. The young exec reluctantly agreed and gave the 26-year-old Lucas the minuscule budget of $750,000, plus another $500,000 for prints and advertising*. No one could have predicted the kind of phenomenal success American Graffiti would become. The film’s rental take at the box office returned 50 times the investment. The future director of the legendary Star Wars was on his way.
Variety was certainly correct about the future of the young players, too. The cast list read like a “who will be who.” Ronny Howard, still only 18, would soon become the lead in a hit TV series called “Happy Days”, which was very much derivative of American Graffiti; Mackenzie Phillips, 12-year-old daughter of musician John Phillips, would go on to co-star in TV's "One Day At A Time"; Richard Dreyfuss, who had played only a few walk-ons in some obscure movies, would become one of the major stars of the decade; Cindy Williams, not yet known as half of "Laverne and Shirley," would become the co-star of one of TV's hottest hits; Suzanne Somers, the elusive blonde in the white T-Bird, a former model in her first professional acting job, went on to a TV career also, starring in "Three's Company" and "She's the Sheriff'; and Harrison Ford, who was then supplementing his ailing acting career with part-time carpentry jobs, would eventually star in some of the biggest blockbuster films of all time.
Technically unsophisticated, American Graffiti was nevertheless a major hit because of its realistic quality. Lucas shot entirely on location in San Rafael and Petaluma, small Northern California towns. Between the hours of 9:00 P.M., when it was just dark enough, and 5:00 A.M., before the sun would come up, the main greets of these towns were cordoned off for the night shoot. It was grueling work, but there were lighter moments as well. Locals for miles around were encouraged to rent their vintage hot rods for the film at $25 a night, and they really got into the spirit of things, drag racing between takes, having themselves one last fling at the '60s. Over 400 cars were eventually used, among them the yellow dragster driven by Paul Le Mat's character, "John." Look closely at its unusual license plate — THX 138 an obvious inside joke and reference to the Lucas film (but with only three numerals, as permitted by California law).
Further enhancing the nostalgia was the soundtrack, which contained no fewer than 43 rock-and-roll hits from the '50s and '60s. Used basically as "source music" (music emanating from radios or other sources, rather than deliberately orchestrated background), the music was relentless. There was seldom a silent interlude, even during dialogue and this seemed to propel the essentially plotless ‘film along.
The movie’s climactic drag race was based on Lucas’ own high school experiences. Shy, shorter than average and looking younger than his true age, the teenager found thrills in hot-rodding and nearly killed himself in a serious accident. A lucky break for him and us that he didn’t. George Lucas has since become one of the most successful producer-directors in motion picture history, reportedly earning over one billion dollars.
In 1979, a sequel, More American Graffiti, reunited Clark, Phillips, Williams, and Howard in an episodic film covering the years 1964-67. Lucas did not direct.
*Tanen wanted to change the title to Another Slow Night in Modesto, afraid audiences would think it was an Italian film or a movie about feet. Producer Francis Coppola suggested Rock Around the Block. But Lucas liked his own title, which he felt evoked memories of a bygone civilization and refused to change it.
Harrison Ford was asked to cut his hair for the film. He refused, stating that his role was too short, and offered to wear a hat instead.
When Charles Martin Smith pulls up on the Vespa in the beginning, his crash into the building wasn't scripted. He genuinely lost control of the bike, and Lucas kept the cameras rolling.
Filmed in 29 days.
The entire sock hop sequence was filmed in one day.
Wolfman Jack, who played himself in the movie, was specifically chosen by George Lucas to play a role in the movie because Lucas remembered listening to him on the radio when Lucas was in high school.
Carol: Your car is uglier than I am. That didn't come out right.
Debbie Dunham: Yeah, three weeks? Besides, it only took me one night to realize if brains were dynamite you couldn't blow your nose.
GOOFS AND BLUNDERS
When John Milner is cruising the strip for the first time, he is supposedly alone in his hot rod, however right after the guy in the black coupe tells John to watch out for the cops, you can see that there's someone in the passenger seat beside him.
During the Curt / Wolfman scene, the boom microphone is seen moving in the reflection on the studio window behind Wolfman Jack.br
In the final scene Curt walks toward the airplane's open door to board while the number one engine (left outboard) is starting up. In real life, a pilot would never start an engine on the boarding side with a door still open and passengers behind a running engine.
On the surface, Lucas has made a film that seems almost artless; his teenagers cruise Main Street and stop at Mel's Drive-In and listen to Wolfman Jack on the radio and neck and lay rubber and almost convince themselves their moment will last forever. But the film's buried structure shows an innocence in the process of being lost, and as its symbol Lucas provides the elusive blonde in the white Thunderbird -- the vision of beauty always glimpsed at the next intersection, the end of the next street. Reviewed by: Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times.
The autobiographical Graffiti was perhaps an easy film for the young director to make, but it's still a good film, and nothing good is ever easy. The storyline is fairly thin, but it is as it was -- a faithful depiction of drag racing and drive-ins, boredom and lust, the anxieties and dreams of small-town America in the early 1960s. Reviewed by: David Bezanson of Film Critic.
Parents need to know that this movie holds up beautifully for teens. Because it's set in the '60s, there is smoking and loads of drinking. There's a fistfight, some off screen gunshots, drag racing, and some language you might not want your kids using at the dinner table. Teens challenge authority, drink and drive, talk about sex, make out, and yes, there's the odd shot of the naked backside. Reviewed by: Common Sense Media.