“It only took me one night to realize if brains were dynamite you couldn’t blow your nose” – Debbie (American Graffiti)
A long time ago in a bedroom far far away, George Lucas was but an aspiring filmmaker coming off the back of his commercially disappointing THX 1138 pondering his next steps into the industry. Co-founding production company American Zoetrope with Francis Ford Coppola during the making of his debut feature, it was during this time that Coppola challenged the writer, director to write a script that would appeal to mainstream audiences.
Embracing this idea, Lucas would eventually create American Graffiti under his now-iconic production studio Lucasfilm, Ltd.
Set in Modesto, California in 1962, American Graffiti was a film born from autobiographical experiences of the cruising and early rock ‘n’ roll cultures of George Lucas’ youth, telling the story of a group of teenagers and their adventures over the course of a night. “Cruising was gone, and I felt compelled to document the whole experience and what my generation used as a way of meeting girls,” Lucas explained.
Eliciting the same bohemian philosophy of living as Richard Linklater’s Slacker and Dazed and Confused, debuting twenty years later, it was Lucas’ wish to deviate from his sincere, unsuccessful sci-fi THX 1138, to focus more on life’s escapist frivolities.
As the director outlines, “[THX] was about real things that were going on and the problems we’re faced with. I realized after making THX that those problems are so real that most of us have to face those things every day, so we’re in a constant state of frustration”. Continuing, the director outlines his desires for American Graffiti, noting, “That just makes us more depressed than we were before. So I made a film where, essentially, we can get rid of some of those frustrations, the feeling that everything seems futile”.
The result was American Graffiti, a film directly responsible for the forthcoming Star Wars franchise as it would allow George Lucas the financial backing and cinematic confidence to take on such a grand project.
In and of itself, the director’s second feature film is one of the most influential coming-of-age films ever made, a film suffused with nostalgia and teenage rebellion in the bittersweet final days of adolescent innocence. Collaborating a culturally resonant soundtrack together with a story that celebrated the liberty of American youthful nostalgia, and American Graffiti became a film of genuine sociological importance.
It would also be a personal success for George Lucas in multiple ways, perhaps most fascinatingly being the first time he and long-time collaborator Harrison Ford would work together.
During his time as a carpenter in California, Ford took on the role of Bob Falfa in Lucas’ film, depicting a young man who challenges one of the lead characters to a race through town. Though his role is somewhat insignificant, it was here that he sowed the seeds for a flourishing relationship with the filmmaker that would soon catapult the both of them to international fame.
Deciding whether to journey off to college or enjoy the safety of their small hometown, Lucas presents a fragile moment for the young American adolescent mind, betwixt in innocence and imminent adulthood. For many, it is merely the frivolity of the moment they wish to enjoy, kicking back in their hot rods listening to the cool sounds of ‘Wolfman Jack’.