MOTW: Another Slow Night in Modesto: Five Facts about "American Graffiti"

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A couple of high school grads spend one final night cruising the strip with their buddies before they go off to college.
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
March 19th, 2013

MOTW: Another Slow Night in Modesto: Five Facts about "American Graffiti"

-- There is hardly a film in the American oeuvre more classically iconic than "American Graffiti." When George Lucas proposed the project to a skeptical Universal Studios in 1971, his reputation was that of an oddball director who lacked mainstream appeal. Indeed, Lucas only developed the story after being challenged by his fellow director Francis Ford Coppola to produce a feature film that would appeal to a mainstream audience, as opposed to the cultish, niche-market films he had made up to that point, such as "THX 1138."

Securing a budget for a major motion picture was out of the question from the very start. Lucas had shopped his spec script around Hollywood for months and met with nothing but rejection before he got approval from Universal. Eventually, Lucas managed to secure the royal sum of $775,000, which was enough to finance only twenty-eight days of actual shooting. It probably came as a big surprise to the decision makers at Universal when the worldwide revenue topped $140 million, making "American Graffiti" one of the most profitable films of all time. And so, here are five fun facts from behind the scenes of one of America's favorite movies.

After shooting on the film was wrapped up, all of the cars featured in the film were put up for sale through the Classified section of the San Francisco Chronicle and other local papers. Only the 1958 Chevy Impala found a buyer, who paid only a few hundred dollars for it. The other vehicles-a yellow deuce coupe and a white Thunderbird-which were all in good condition, failed to move, even at prices in the low thousands.

When Toad first appears in the film, he's riding a light Vespa scooter. After a few seconds, he crashes the Vespa into a conveniently placed trash can. This crash isn't in the script and was totally unplanned. Apparently, Charles Martin Smith, the actor who plays Toad, was unaccustomed to using the controls on the scooter and just lost control. Shooting continued because George Lucas encouraged his actors to "live" their characters, so he arranged the shooting around his actors' improvised lines and actions. In some cases, he even encouraged the actors to choose their own marks and arranged the shot around them.

Ron Howard and Charles Martin Smith were the only two actual teenagers who played important roles in "American Graffiti." Most of the other credited actors in the film were in their twenties. Mackenzie Phillips was twelve at the time of the filming, while Harrison Ford celebrated his thirtieth birthday during production. Unfortunately, the celebration ended when Ford was arrested for his part in a bar fight and taken to jail. Ford was also evicted from his hotel room as a result of the incident.

Speaking of twelve year-olds, Mackenzie Phillips, the young actress who played the annoying teenie-bopper Carol, was so young that the labor laws of California did not permit filming on the schedule her part called for. Producer Gary Kurtz worked around the problem by getting himself assigned as her legal guardian for the duration of the production. Under the law, an extended work schedule is permitted for minors who are employed by their parents-in a family restaurant, say-or other legal stewards.

Executives at Universal Studios who were charged with approving the project initially objected to the title "American Graffiti." As they explained to George Lucas, the title was too obscure. The Universal brass disliked the working title so much that they even compiled a long list of sixty alternative titles, including: "Rock around the Block" and "Another Slow Night in Modesto." Universal's stated concern was that Lucas might be requesting a shooting budget for an Italian-language film about feet.

The production of "American Graffiti" was hastily arranged, rushed to completion and meanly starved for money by skeptical studio executives. The filming was beset by mishaps, threatened with legal action and leaned heavily on hastily improvised scenes and dialogue. In addition to Harrison Ford's trouble at the hotel, Richard Dreyfuss suffered a nasty gash to his forehead the night before his close-up scenes were shot, the city of San Rafael rescinded permission to shoot and the shoestring budget, combined with the hectic pace of filming, all but guaranteed that the film would be hard to edit and shot through with anachronisms and continuity errors.

Somehow, despite such a plague of troubles, "American Graffiti" rose above the pangs of its birth to assume its place at the heart of any American movie must-watch list. The film has inspired many other movies and the television show "Happy Days"-also starring Ron Howard-and has sparked a wave of nostalgia for the perceived simplicity of life in the small towns of the good old 1950s and '60s.