One of the main reasons why so many studios initially turned down the script was because George Lucas wanted at least 40 songs on the soundtrack, which would obviously lead to a large bill over the rights to these songs. Universal finally agreed to fund the picture when Lucas' friend Francis Ford Coppola (fresh from the success of The Godfather (1972) the year before) came on board as producer.
When Curt is riding with the Pharaohs, we hear Wolfman Jack talking to "Floyd" and saying "Floyd, I cannot look on thee. Love took my hand, and smiling did reply: 'Who made the eyes but I?' " This is a quote from the poem "Love Bade Me Welcome" by the Welsh metaphysical poet George Herbert (1593-1633) (the poem says "Ah my dear, I cannot look on thee"). When Curt is riding with the Pharaohs, we hear Wolfman Jack reciting, as if it was a poem, "There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood, where lived a country boy . . . ." The words are from "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry.
After Mel's Drive-In was demolished after the movie was made, the owner's son Steve decided to re-open other Mel's restaurants in 1981 as a small chain. There are two in Hollywood CA, themed after the movie, and one in San Fransisco where George Lucas is known to eat occasionally.
There is a rumor that while George Lucas and a co-worker were editing the film, the co-worker asked Lucas for "reel two, dialogue two", which abbreviated to R2-D2, a name which surfaced in Lucas' later film, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977).
During the sequence in which John and Carol smeared shaving cream on the 1960 Cadillac and deflated the tires, Paul Le Mat actually jumped onto and over the car during each take, and George Lucas became concerned that Le Mat's boots would put dents in the hood and trunk.
As the plane takes off in the final scene, a Drive-in Movie screen can be seen in the distance. This was the original screen at the Solano Drive-in, which operated until the fall of 2004, and has since reopened, showing double-features as of December 2008.
Filming was beset by a series of misfortunes and disasters. The day before filming was due to start a key member of the crew was arrested for growing marijuana. On the first night of shooting it took so long to get the cameras mounted onto the cars that filming didn't get started until 2 a.m., putting the crew half a night behind schedule before they'd even started. Most of the outdoor footage was to be shot in San Rafael. After the first night of shooting the city revoked the crew's filming permit due to complaints from a bar owner that their blocking off of the main street was costing him business. Filming proceeded in San Rafael for three more nights, then moved to Petaluma, 20 miles away. On the second night of shooting a fire in a nearby restaurant brought fire trucks into the area, their sirens and the resulting traffic jam preventing any filming.
The film was previewed before an audience of young people in Northpoint Theater, San Francisco, on a Sunday morning with Universal Studios rep Ned Tanen in attendance. In a story that is now legendary in Hollywood, Tanan was not impressed with the film, despite a good audience reaction, and called it "unreleasable". Francis Ford Coppola, enraged at the comment, offered to buy the film from Universal (some stories claim he offered to write the check then and there) while the exhausted, burned-out and ill George Lucas watched in shock. A compromise was finally reached whereby Universal could "suggest" modifications to the movie, a resolution Lucas was not happy with, as it took control of the film away from him.
When John and Carol are sitting at the red light, the car full of girls pulls up next to them, one of the girls throws a water balloon through the window and it hits Carol (Mackenzie Phillips). It was scripted to hit the side window and drench Phillips' face, who was then supposed to act really angry. However, she was accidentally hit square in the face and unable to refrain from laughing. Still, she kept going, ad-libbed through the scene and Lucas kept it, as he did with many presumably garbled first takes in this movie.
The scene in which Steve assures Laurie he is staying in town and not going with Curt was shot in one take. Ron Howard and Cindy Williams had already been released from shooting and were in their street clothes when they were told to put their costumes back on so they could shoot that scene.
When the rear wheels/axle of Holstein's police car get yanked out by the cable, there is a movie theater in the background. The movie listed on the marquee is Francis Ford Coppola's Dementia 13 (1963).
Set designer Roger Christian claims he added the pair of dice hanging in the Millennium Falcon cockpit (briefly seen when Chewbacca bumps his head on them as he first enters) because there were dice hanging in Harrison Ford's car in American Graffiti (1973). However, Ford's character had a skull hanging from his rear-view mirror. Ron Howard had the fluffy dice.
The DC-7 that Richard Dreyfuss boards at the end of the film (Magic Carpet Airlines) had a flat tire on the left side. But it was never shown because there is a van near the stairwell that leads to the hull entrance.
Universal thought so little of the film (not knowing how to market it, and certain that as it had no stars it would flop), that it sat on the shelf for six months before the studio finally decided to release it. To their great surprise, it became enormously successful at the box-office.
In the movie the street where the final drag race took place between Falfa and Milner was called Paradise Road. It is actually a road in Petaluma, CA called Frates Road. A golf course now resides on the north side but the field where Falfa's '55 Chevy crashed is still intact.
They actually used 3 1955 Chevrolets in the film: the "hot rod" version that is seen the most, a car for interior camera shots, and one for the rollover after the drag race. Both the "hot rod" '55 and the 1932 Ford coupe were bought from the studio by an individual in Overland Park, Kansas in the mid-1980's who restored them back to their movie appearance.
The owner of the Thunderbird was never more than a few feet away from his prized possession during filming, and was always wiping here and shining there. He also drove Suzanne Somers crazy telling her what to do and what not to do.
This film is Kathleen Quinlan's first credited screen appearance. She plays Peggy, a girl who comforts Laurie, who just broke up with her boyfriend. Laurie's boyfriend is played by Ron Howard, director of Apollo 13 (1995), in which Quinlan starred.
The scene after the drag race in which John admits to Terry that he was losing when Falfa's car lost control and rolled was improvised by Paul Le Mat and Charles Martin Smith. They had not had time to prepare for that scene, as it had been scheduled to be shot at another time.
The scene at the liquor store in which Terry asks Debbie for money was shot in one take. Candy Clark wanted to do a second take because she flubbed her "Did you get it?" line, but Lucas said that was it, they were printing that first take.
The soundtrack was originally to consist of some 80 classic rock and roll songs from the 1950s and '60s, but the budget couldn't stretch far enough to get licenses to afford that many. It was eventually whittled down to 45, with the Elvis Presley songs left out. It was when it widely known that Elvis' manager Col. Tom Parker was quite demanding when it came to Elvis material prior to 1977. There was a 40th Anniversary Special of NBC in 1976. He reportedly demanded $50,000 to release a clip of Elvis on The Milton Berle Show (1948). The clip was not shown at that time.
After the success of Easy Rider (1969), Universal Studios hit upon the idea to let young filmmakers make "semi-independent" films for low budgets in hopes of generating similar profits. The idea was to make five movies for low budgets (one million dollars or less), not interfere in the filmmaking process, and give the directors final cut. The other movies were: The Hired Hand (1971), The Last Movie (1971), Taking Off (1971), and Silent Running (1972).
The Ford Coupe driven by Paul Le Mat's character had a 1966 Chevrolet 327 cu.in. engine. The black 1955 Chevy driven by Harrison Ford had a Chevrolet 454 cu.in. engine capable of doing 11-second quarter-mile times.
The three scenes that were added to the 1978 re-release were cut from the original release as a result of the compromise with Universal Studios. George Lucas put them back in after Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) was released.
License plate on John Milner's car is "THX-138". THX 1138 (1971) is a film also directed by George Lucas. This number plate is on display inside 'The Main House' of LucasFilm's Head Office at Skywalker Ranch in Marin County.