How 'American Graffiti' Triumphed Over Studio Rejection

George Lucas American Graffiti - H - 1973

A close look at the behind-the-scenes drama and studio intrigue on the landmark film.

On August 1, 1973, Universal brought George Lucas' directorial debut, American Graffiti, to the big screen in Los Angeles. Just weeks after the film's initial release, The Hollywood Reporter took a close look at the making of the $780,000 project: how co-producer Gary Kurtz dealt with studio rejection, why "the crew sometimes was ready 'to kill each other,'" and, when it became a clear hit, how the relatively unknown cast became "inundated" with offers. The original THR article, headlined "'Graffiti' Survived Studios' Rejection to Score at B.O.," is below: 

Universal's American Graffiti may now be breaking house records in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, but getting it to the screen was no snap. Co-producer Gary Kurtz, who joined the project from its conception in March, 1971, remembers, "Almost every studio in town turned down the first draft screenplay after United Artists, which developed it, decided to pass." [...] 

"They couldn't visualize the movie from the script and no one had faith in us." Only when Francis Ford Coppola, producer of director George Lucas' first film THX 1138 and fresh from the success of The Godfather, agreed to serve as producer did Universal decide to finance the film. 

"Without Francis," Kurtz said, "the movie would not have been made. Universal vp Ned Tanen was the driving force at the studio, which was flexible and cooperative throughout." 

Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, who wrote the original treatment with Lucas, completely rewrote the screenplay. If critics and audiences find it an unusually entertaining film, they also relish its dramatic complexity and detached wisdom. But, according to Kurtz, "We wanted to make a nice, simple piece of good Hollywood entertainment."

The film's lack of pretensions may be a reflection of its disciplined craftsmanship. Given the 28-day shooting schedule and $780,000 budget, its visual richness and production scope are remarkable feats. Nearly 10 percent of that budget was used to secure rights to the some 42 rock-and-roll songs for the soundtrack, a feat that led Tom Pollock, attorney for the film, to locate the Big Bopper's mother in Tennessee for permission to use "Chantilly Lace."

Since Lucas Films is a San Francisco-based company, its Bay Area contracts held despite the protest of Hollywood unions. While Universal was working out such union problems, Lucas, with casting directors Fred Roos and Mike Fenton, interviewed between 100 and 150 actors a day to find the cast critics have acclaimed throughout the country. 

"We knew that with the script and the cast we had won more than half the battle." The production itself was shot almost entirely at night, except for the dawn drag race and the final scene in which Rick Dreyfuss flies off to college. 

"There were considerable logistical problems with the cars, cold weather, arguments, all aggravated by the lack of sleep." But a spirit of generosity may have mitigated against the loss of efficiency. Merchants in Petaluma, where much of the cruising was shot, kept their store lights on at their own expense. 

The 300 teenagers in the sock hop were not paid. Assistant to the producer Beverly Walker, who coordinated the scene, raffled off stereos and radios and kept them in a parking lot for four hours of rehearsal with Hollywood choreographer Tony Basil, who taught them the Fifties dances many had never even seen. 

"We got into some trouble," Kurtz recalls, "because Ron Eveslage and Jan D'Alquen, the two San Francisco cinematographers, had never shot a feature, although they were excellent documentary photographers. We were shooting wide-open, in Techniscope, using mostly available light. Focus and composition were critical."

Haskell Wexler agreed to become visual consultant during the second week of production, supervising the lighting and running the crew. He commuted to Los Angeles to fulfill his commercial obligations during the day, slept only three nights a week, accepted deferred payment because of the slim budget and followed Lucas' shooting concept although he liked neither Techniscope nor the non-theatrical lighting style. 

Kurtz said the crew sometimes was ready "to kill each other," but the film was completed on schedule and on budget. Film editors Verna Fields (a former teacher of Lucas at USC) and Marcia (Mrs.) Lucas had an assembly completed in three weeks. 

The mix is one of the movie's chief delights, and it was created at American Zoetrope studios in three weeks by Walter Murch, Lucas and Kurtz. Each song was recorded five different ways to simulate, for example, the inside of a car and cars passing each other in the night. A sound engineer was consulted only when the equipment temporarily broke down. 

Such professionalism, hard work and dedication have begun to pay off and success pours over all those involved in the project. The actors, largely unknown before the film, are being inundated with offers. Katz and Huyck recently sold Lucky Lady to Fox for what may prove to be the highest price ever paid for an original screenplay. 

Kurtz will produce Lucas' next two films, the first of which will be a science fiction epic the director is currently writing. A comedy set in 1937 will follow. After graduation from USC, Kurtz worked in what he calls "the Roger Corman school of underground filmmaking," the horror films that gave such talents as Curtis Harrington, Jack Nicholson and Monte Hellman their first experience. Kurtz met Coppola on The Terror, one such film. — Alan R. Howard, originally published on August 24, 1973. 

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