Where were you in '62?
Wondered where the inspo for our American Graffiti hot rod exhibit comes from? Keep reading for an explainer on this cult classic film, full of fast cars, cruising, and early rock 'n' roll.
Drawing inspiration from the 1973 movie, directed by George Lucas and produced by Francis Ford Coppola, our limited-time-only exhibit celebrates the big and bold hot rods immortalised in this coming-of-age story. Set back in 1962 in California, American Graffiti is a critically-acclaimed portrayal of cruising and early rock ‘n’ roll cultures popular among teenagers of that era.
As well as the marquee names involved in its production, American Graffiti involved several actors who have become well-known: Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, and Suzanne Somers among them.
It was while making another movie (THX 1138) that producer Francis Ford Coppola challenged co-writer and director George Lucas to write a film that would appeal to mainstream audiences. Lucas embraced the idea, and began to work on a story that drew on his own experiences as a teenager back in the early 1960s.
Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, American Graffiti follows a group of young friends in a series of vignettes over one night: the last evening before the end of the summer holidays.
Characters Curt and Steve meet two other friends, John – the drag-racing kind – and Terry “The Toad” in the parking lot of a drive-in. The movie follows the characters, and others they encounter along the way (“The Blonde” in the white Thunderbird, “The Pharoahs”, Carol, and DJ “Wolfman Jack”). As their night progresses, viewers are treated to scenes that have become almost iconic: the sock-hop and, of course, the race which ends in fiery fashion.
Originally the 15-page film treatment was dubbed Another Quiet Night in Modesto. Lucas hired writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who also added semi-autobiographical material to the burgeoning story. They began pitching the idea to various Hollywood studios, but were not successful in securing financing needed to turn their plans into a screenplay.
(Many potential financiers were worried that music licensing costs would cause the film to blow its budget. Along with Easy Rider, American Graffiti was one of the first movies to pivot from using a traditional movie score to using popular songs instead.)
Lucas turned down opportunities to direct other well-known films such as Hair, deciding instead to focus on his own projects. It was also during this time that Lucas came up with the idea for the space opera that would eventually go on to be arguably his greatest legacy – Star Wars.
But it was at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971 that Lucas met a high-powered industry exec, David Picker, the president of United Artists. Picker was intrigued by both the teenage comedy and the space opera concepts, and gave Lucas $10,000 to develop the screenplay for American Graffiti. However, after some promising developments, United Artists dropped both projects. MGM, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, and Columbia Pictures also passed.
Finally, though, the project got the greenlight from Universal Pictures. Originally budgeted to cost the studio $600,000, Universal added another $175,000 once Coppola signed on.
(And the studio, therefore, got to market the project as “from the man who gave you The Godfather”.) The studio gave Lucas total artistic control. American Graffiti started filming in San Rafael, but issues around the disruption the production was causing saw filming shift to another small town nearby – Petaluma. Shooting began in the town on June 28, 1972.
Filming was plagued with issues: allergic reactions to walnuts (seriously!), costume dramas, an actor starting a fire in Lucas’ room, drunken escapades that involved cast members climbing to the top of signage on their hotel’s roof, and injuries after throwing others into the nearby swimming pool. Two camera operators also reportedly almost died during filming of the big race scene. Problems continued after filming finished, with scuffles between the studio and the filmmakers. Universal wanted to re-edit Lucas’ final cut of the movie; Coppola sided with his producer and offered to buy the film from the studio (his reimbursement offer of $775,000 would today equate to just under $5 million). 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures made similar offers. Universal refused.
However, then The Godfather won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1973: and Universal relented, agreeing to cut just three scenes.
American Graffiti was released in the summer of 1973. By the end of its theatrical run, American Graffiti had one of the greatest profit-to-cost rations of a motion picture ever.
It received widespread critical acclaim, and is considered by many to be one of the most influential teen films of all time. Roger Ebert – perhaps the most well-known film critic of all time – gave American Graffiti four stars and praised it for being “not only a great movie, but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie's success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant”.
While American Graffiti didn’t go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, its legacy has endured.