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.
Due to the low budget, George Lucas was unable to pay all of the crew members. He offered to give many of them a screen credit in lieu of payment, and they accepted. Traditionally, only department heads received screen credit. Giving screen credit to so many crew members has now become a tradition, which is why closing credits last so long now.
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.
When John (Paul Le Mat) and Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) are sitting at the red light, a car full of girls pulls up next to them. One of the girls throws a water balloon through the window and it hits Carol. 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 George Lucas kept it, as he did with many presumably garbled first takes in this movie.
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.
The film was previewed before an audience of young people in Northpoint Theater, San Francisco, on a Sunday morning, with Universal Pictures head 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 in which Universal could "suggest" modifications to the movie, a resolution Lucas was not happy with, as it took control of the film away from him.
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.
Mel's Drive-In was demolished after the movie was completed, but 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 Francisco where George Lucas is known to eat occasionally.
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.
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).
When Steve and Laurie are introduced at the hop, the MC says "The next dance will be a Snowball, and leading it off are.." A Snowball Dance means the lead off couple (Steve and Laurie in this case) are supposed to dance with each other for only a short period, then split and dance with two others, then they split and dance with four others until everyone is dancing. But Steve and Laurie are so engrossed in their conversation and memories they are oblivious to the others. When you watch the film, notice the other kids in the background looking expectantly for them to split off.
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.
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.
After the success of Easy Rider (1969), Universal Pictures hit on the idea of letting young filmmakers make "semi-independent" films on low budgets, in hopes of generating similar profits. The idea was to make five movies for $1 million apiece (or, hopefully, 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 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 soundtrack was originally to consist of some 80 classic rock songs from the 1950s and 1960s, but the budget couldn't stretch far enough to pay for the rights to play the songs. The total was eventually whittled down to 45, with the Elvis Presley songs left out. It was widely known that Elvis' manager, Col. Tom Parker was extremely demanding when it came to Elvis material prior to 1977. There was a 40th Anniversary Special on NBC in 1976. Parker reportedly demanded $50,000 to release a clip of Elvis on Texaco Star Theatre (1948). The clip was not shown at that time.
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.
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).
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.
First credited screen appearance of Kathleen Quinlan. 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 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.
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.
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 director George Lucas said that was it, they were printing that first take.
Over 100 unknown actors auditioned for Curt Henderson before Richard Dreyfuss was cast. George Lucas was impressed with Dreyfuss' thoughtful analysis of the role, and, as a result, offered the actor his choice of Curt or Terry "The Toad" Fields.
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.
The 1955 Chevrolet driven by Bob (Harrison Ford) was actually three different cars: the "hot rod" version that is seen the most--which was also the same car used in the earlier Two-Lane Blacktop (1971))--one 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-1980s who restored them back to their movie appearance.
Some of the main characters represent different stages from George Lucas' younger life. Curt Henderson is modelled after his personality during USC, while John Milner is based on his teenage street racing and junior college years, and hot rod enthusiasts he had known from the Kustom Kulture in Modesto. Terry "The Toad" Fields represents his nerd years as a freshman in high school, specifically his "bad luck" with dating.
Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz found the ending depressing and were incredulous that George Lucas planned to include only the male characters in the epilogue. Lucas argued that mentioning the girls meant adding another title card, which he felt would prolong the ending. Because of this, Pauline Kael later accused Lucas of chauvinism.
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.
Budgetary reasons meant that George Lucas to drop the opening scene, in which the Blonde Angel, Curt's image of the perfect woman, drives through an empty drive-in cinema in her Ford Thunderbird, her transparency revealing she does not exist.
After Verna Fields's departure, George Lucas struggled with editing the film's story structure. He had originally written the script so that the four storylines were always presented in the same sequence (an "ABCD" plot structure). But the first cut was three-and-a-half hours long, and in order to whittle the film down to a more manageable two hours, so many scenes had to be cut, shortened, or combined that the film's structure became increasingly loose, and no longer adhered to Lucas's original "ABCD" presentation.
Given the popularity of the film's cars with customizers and hot rodders in the years since its release, their fate immediately after the film is ironic. All were offered for sale in San Francisco newspaper ads; only the '58 Impala (driven by Ron Howard) attracted a buyer, selling for only a few hundred dollars. The yellow Deuce and the white T-bird went unsold, despite being priced as low as US$3,000. The registration plate on Milner's yellow, deuce coupe is THX 138 on a yellow, California license plate, slightly altered, reflecting George Lucas's earlier science fiction film THX 1138 (1971).
After CinemaScope proved to be too expensive, George Lucas decided that the film should have a documentary-like feel, and shot the film using Techniscope cameras. He believed that Techniscope, an inexpensive way of shooting in 35 mm film and utilizing only half of the film's frame, would give a perfect widescreen format resembling 16 mm.
Universal initially projected a $600,000 budget, but added an additional $175,000 once producer Francis Ford Coppola signed on. This would allow the studio to advertise the film as "from the Man who Gave you The Godfather (1972)".
Though only credited as "visual consultant," Haskell Wexler acted as the de facto cinematographer for much of the shoot, after original co-cinematographers Jan D'Alquen and Ron Eveslage proved unable to satisfactorily light the scenes filmed at night.
George Lucas considered covering duties as the sole cinematographer, but dropped the idea. Instead, he elected to shoot American Graffiti using two cinematographers (as he had done in THX 1138 (1971)) and no formal director of photography.
George Lucas: [THX 1138] 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.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
The original version's end title for John Milner indicted that he was killed in June of 1964. Versions of the film released from 1979 on indicate that Milner died in December of 1964. This is presumably a revisionist move to bring the film in line with the sequel, More American Graffiti (1979), where the filmmakers chose to follow four separate character story lines which each take place in December of a different year (Milner in '64, Toad in '65, Debbie in '66, Steve & Laurie in '67).