George Lucas battled for ‘American Graffiti’

George Lucas on the set of "American Graffiti"

Where were you in ‘72? The cast and crew of “American Graffiti” —which screens May 2 as part of the Way Back Wednesday Classic Film Series at the Visalia Fox — were in northern California, shooting a nostalgic little movie that would make history.

The 1973 release — its poster pitch line: ”Where were you in ‘62?” — may be most notable as the project director George Lucas did before “Star Wars,” but it got five Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture), generated a superb soundtrack album, introduced to the world a dazzling cast of young actors.

George Lucas spent the summer of ‘62 recovering from an auto accident. A high school senior in Modesto he was an underachieving car nut who miraculously survived a two-car crash that totaled his Fiat Bianchina.

‘American Graffiti’ wraps up Visalia Fox film series

Ten years later, he had emerged from the University of Southern California film school as a promising young writer and director, and had already made his first feature, THX 1138. Lucas had also already apprenticed under and partnered with Francis Ford Coppola, who had just released his masterwork, “The Godfather.”

Coppola signed on to produce his buddy’s next project — described by Lucas as his ”rock ‘n’ roll movie” — and proved most valuable running interference between Lucas and Universal, the sponsoring studio. (Maybe the music wasn’t always so great in the 1970s, but young American filmmakers ruled the world.)

Lucas’ script (refined by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz) spun the stories of four main characters into one seamless saga. The four were the brainy future writer Curt (played by Dreyfuss), clean-cut future insurance salesman Steve (Howard), aging hot-rodder John (Paul Le Mat) and the lovable geek Terry ”The Toad” (Charles Martin Smith).

Above it all howled Wolfman Jack, the fabled Mexican-radio disc jockey, playing a non-stop soundtrack of songs from the ‘50s and early ‘60s.

Casting the film was ”agony” for Lucas.

”I sat in a little room and talked to people for five minutes all day long, eight hours a day, for six months,” he said. ”I talked to every young person, I think, in Los Angeles.”

Filming “American Graffiti” proved no easier than casting it. The limited budget allowed just 28 shooting days. Or, rather, nights. The dusk-to-dawn story called for a month of all-nighters. “I was tired most of the time,” said Lucas, who often nodded off during scenes.

Filming in darkness was also a huge technical challenge. Advance location scouts actually walked the streets of northern California towns holding light meters to test the illumination provided by street lamps. Lucas recalled that San Rafael, where the production was based for the first few nights of the shoot, was much brighter than Petaluma, where most of the filming occurred.

There were even more problems after the film completed shooting.

Chili dogs, Troma movies and LeBron James

Lucas said Universal’s executives at first thought “American Graffiti” was “unfit” to release. Two legendarily successful test screenings failed to fully win over the studio, which, Lucas said, at one point proposed converting it to a TV movie.

The director and the studio haggled for months over a meaningless five-minute trim in the running time. (The film had already been cut from a ”great” three hours to less than two, Lucas said. After “Star Wars” made Lucas one of the most powerful figures in entertainment history, those five minutes were restored and “American Graffiti” was re-released.)

The studio was wrong, of course. Shot on a budget of $700,000, “American Graffiti” generated total profits exceeding $50 million, which, in today’s movie-industry dollars, equals around $300 million.