Wednesday, September 29, 2010

American Graffiti Style Part II

Welcome to Part II of my super-cool article on the style of American Graffiti where, we look at, and over-analyze, the structural elements that make this film so special.


George & Marcia Lucas, & Co-Producer, Gary Kurtz
Words like “naturalistic” and “documentary-like" are often used to describe the style of American Graffiti.  In a documentary style the camera is often placed at a distance so it doesn’t interfere with the subject being filmed.  Many believe Graffiti’s “docu-style” to be a direct reflection of Lucas’ own personality.  “George is more aloof, he’s more private and you can see that in his movies,” says Graffiti co-writer, Williard Huyuck.  Due to shyness and lack of social skills, it was easier for Lucas to stand back and let the camera capture whatever happened between the actors rather than to directly tell them what he wanted. “George started out as a documentary filmmaker with long lenses,” Huyuck says, “and with long lenses you don’t have to get that close to the subject.”  Graffiti co-producer Gary Kurtz agrees, “George came out of a documentary film background.  His style was to shoot a lot of footage and sit in the editing room and put it all together.”

For the reserved director, manipulating film was more desirable than manipulating an entire cast and crew.  Although the feature took just four weeks to film, it took six months after filming was completed to edit the movie down to a manageable size. With the assistance of film editor Verna Fields and wife Marcia Lucas (also a professional film editor), Mr. Lucas managed to make the first cut of Graffiti an enormous three hours in length. Therefore, a lot of trimming was required to shorten the length and still really define and make the movie that Lucas wanted. 


Vietnam-era poster circa 1967
When Graffiti was finally released on August 1, 1973, America's attitude about itself seemed ravaged from so much turmoil that had taken place during what historians often call the "turbulent sixties."  Four months earlier, American President, Richard Nixon ended Americas' eleven year futile  involvement in South East Asia by pulling out the last of the American troops in South Vietnam. The country was tired and divided and many longed for a simpler time. Graffiti seemed to be  the elixir that the country needed.

Had it really only been eleven years?  The nostalgia it evoked worked to elude viewers of the turbulent social problems of the early 70s.  At least for an hour and a half.  In comparison to the more aggressive counter culture of the 60s, the teenagers in 50s were less threatening and basically harmless.  Film goers delighted in experiencing and remembering a time when things seemed less complicated.  Audiences loved it and most reviewers raved about the film. "The warmest, most human comedy in a long time...masterfully executed...profoundly affecting...sensationally funny," wrote Charles Champlin of the L.A. TIMES

Jana Bellan as Budda
           LUCAS A SEXIST PIG?

Although most critics loved American Graffiti some critics such as the influential Pauline Kael of THE NEW YORKER Magazine (1968-91), believed the film to be sexist.  For instance, she pointed out that although the film tells what happened to each of the four male characters, viewers learn nothing about the fate of the girls at the end of the film. Ms. Kael refers to the the wonderful, bitter sweet postscript that is used as a re-affirmation that things change and to put the film in perspective.   For clarity and balance it only makes sense that because the story begins with four white boys growing up in a small town in the early sixties that the story should also end with the focus on the same four protagonists.  And, even though Ms. Kael has a valid point, Cindy Williams, who played Laurie in the film, defends Lucas' choice to only include the four young men in the end titles, poignantly stating, "It smacks of the times." And, indeed it did.  Housekeeping and raising a family were considered ideal female roles in 1962.  Those women that did work outside the home had yet to attain any position of influence: about 70 percent held clerical, assembly-line or service jobs in the latter part of the 1950s and early 1960s. Suburban values were sexist so, the film is consistent for a story about that year.


However, sexist some might see the film,one thing is for sure: without women the story would be boring.  After all, its the women that motivate the young men in Graffiti.  Women are the foundation for most of the action.  For instance, Debbie encourages Toad to buy liquor, which in turn causes a robbery.
And, Toad wouldn't be nearly as funny if he wasn't trying to impress and win the affection of Debbie by feeding her lines such as, "I used to have a couple of horses myself.  I used them for hunting.  I do a lot of hunting. Deer mostly, although I got a couple of bear last year. Yep, they were good ponies-hunting ponies.  I had to train 'em special, you know." Other clear examples of women initiating action in the film include Carol encouraging John to stop and vandalize a car full of girls, and Curt chasing a mysterious blonde all over town.  And, ultimately Laurie shows she has the upper-hand in the relationship by manipulating Steve to stay in town with her rather than leave for college back east with her brother, Curt.'

"The whole film is essentially a teenage fantasy.  It's purposely done that the kids get the better of the authority figures.  How often do you really get the better of an adult when you're a kid?"   -George Lucas

As part of the outrageously innovative American film renaissance of the '70s, Graffiti helped create a new model for the teenage comedy.  The structural elements of the film including the ensemble cast, the compression of time, the rock music soundtrack, and the view of teenagers as an independent subculture, have been copied and perfected by many films and TV shows since the film was first released.  Lucas and crew were able to parallell the teenager's last night together with an underlying sense that an era is ending. This is a key component missing from much of the refried-50s nostalgia that followed.  Shows such as HAPPY DAYS (which capitalized on Graffiti's success), lack the essential structure of historical implications that are presented in the actions of characters like Curt.
Saying goodbye to an era.
 Curt doesn't want to leave his hometown but he senses that change is unavoidable.  Having said goodbye to his parents at the airport, Curt boards the plane and as it climbs and banks out over the valley, the music on his radio fades and then turns to static.  It is a bittersweet
moment, as Curt looks lost in thought, perhaps worried about the changes that lie ahead along with the realization that things will never be the same.

With Graffiti, Lucas created a comprehensive portrait of an entire era. In less than two hours, the viewer is given a glimpse into the golden age and a world that was about to change forever. The '60s would usher in the free speech movement, the growing anti-Vietnam sentiment and a whole counter-culture bringing with it all sorts of mayhem . Through the use of meticulous details such as clothing styles, hot-rods and drive-in waitresses on roller skates viewers get a feel for the 50s and a way of life that still reverberates in the memory of many Americans.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

American Graffiti Style Part I

A discussion on American Graffiti wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the style of the film.  Here, we'll look at some of the elements that make this film unique and give you some idea why other films that have attempted to recreate the Graffiti magic often pale in comparison.  So, don't be a schmo from Kokomo, start readin'!

For Lucas' second feature film, the 28 year-old filmmaker was allotted a small B-movie budget of about $775,000.  In part, it is the lack of a big Hollywood budget that gives the 1973 film it's charm.  A cast of mostly unknown actors working for scale, old-school film techniques, and creative post-production sound treatment were all used.  In addition, clever dialogue, an awesome mix of non-stop oldies, and unrelated stories that interconnect all add up to one great film.

Graffiti is Lucas's attempt to capture his high school days and the cruising culture in Modesto, California.  The film mixes both elements of realism and fantasy as the young filmmaker shows the world the way society was but in an imaginative and entertaining way.  The style of the film is realistic whereas the film itself is not.  Lucas says, "The actual film... is a myth.  For instance, some friends of mine did that to a police car, but it didn't come off like that.  The car just sort of went clunk, and it was really un-dramatic.  But, in the film it comes off."  He further elaborated, "The hoods are another example.  There are groups like that, but their not really like that.  It's been mythized so that its easier to take and more fun. The fact that its shown in a very realistic style makes it believable."

Lucas & Co-Producer Gary Kurtz discuss destruction of the Ford Galaxie

The story has a divergent structure where all the key characters are introduced together at the beginning as we see their separate personalities and how they interact with one another.  Each character is then involved in an unrelated subplot that intertwines with the main story.  This narrative style of storytelling with separate plots was unique for 1973 films subsequently; the technique is now commonly used in most TV programs. "It's funny when you look back now, because everybody's sort of copied those films," says Lucas, "They're so ingrained in our culture now, it's almost impossible to think there was a point where those things were completely odd and unique.

As in Lucas' first feature film THX-1138, Graffiti was shot in the 35mm TECHNISCOPE format.  Many Italian films made in the 60s used this format.  For instance, Italian Spaghetti-Western filmmaker, Sergio Leone had used the Techniscope format for his wonderfully nihilistic and violent 'Dollars Trilogy:' - A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, Bad and the Ugly (1966).

A Techniscope film frame
Lucas preferred the Techniscope process for the filming of Graffiti for several reasons:  The process provided the most economical use of the camera negative.  Not only was it cheaper but also one could film for twice as long without having to reload.  The use of smaller equipment gave the film crew the most mobility in catching the cruising atmosphere.  In addition, more speed in the lenses made it possible to shoot at lower light levels. Since most of Graffiti takes place at night this made it optimal. The Techniscope frame was half the height of the standard 35mm anamorphic, and when the film was at the optical printing stage the frame was stretched vertically to twice the height.  This gave the film a grainy, de-saturated look when it was projected on the big screen.  It has the appearance of being shot with a smaller 16-mm camera much in the same way documentaries and amateur films are only with a wide-screen scope.

To light big, night exteriors took skill and experience that the film crew, unfortunately, did not have.  At first, the film was too dark, Lucas remembers, and he wanted the colors to be similar to those of the mid-60s teenage party movies, like Beach Blanket Bingo, Pajama Party, etc.  "That's what I wanted for the film, and that was one of the problems I was having early in the film," Lucas says.

After a few nights of filming, Lucas contacted Haskell Wexler in Los Angeles and asked if he would come on-location to help out.  The Academy Award winning , cinematographer, Wexler (who'd been working on feature films since the mid-fifties), agreed to lend his expertise and fly up to Petaluma every night for five weeks and act as visual consultant and lead cameraman.  "I was scheduled to do a lot of commercials, so I flew up to San Francisco every night and worked 'till daylight then came back to Los Angeles," Wexler recalls.  "It was incredible fun, but there was no money.  I was so spaced out from not having any sleep at one point I said to George, 'Point me in the right direction and I'll shoot.' "

"I'm not gonna say I was like a son to him, but it was sort of like that: I was like the student and he [Wexler] was like the teacher," says Lucas

Wexler and Bill Maley (Lighting Director) employed the effective technique of putting a truck up on jacks and flashing the headlights on and off to simulate the appearance of passing cars on the actor's faces.  And, by using 4 or 5 battery operated dome lights inside the cars, they were able to light the actors so they were visible in the cars.


One of the most striking aspects of Graffiti is the convincing sound of street-cruising ambience supplied by sound designer, Walter Murch.  Murch, the the son of Abstract Expressionist painter Walter Murch, (1907-68),  had first met Lucas when they were both film students at the University of Southern California (USC).  Lucas wanted something special to be done with the music in the film and Mr. Murch was just the person to provide it.  At the time, Murch felt the available effects machines that produced reverb and echo sounded much too artificial so he set out to create his own effects for the film. To make the music bounce around the environment Murch employed a process he termed, "worldizing."

After filming, but before the mix, Murch and Lucas produced a radio show as if one had happened to tune in to radio station XERB in the late summer of 1962, complete with Wolfman's patter, commercials, songs, and people phoning in requests.  They then took a tape of the radio show into various outdoor environments, and played it back and captured what they heard on a second tape recorder.

Walter Murch & George Lucas
When mixing the sound Murch had separate control of both the original show and the "worldized" version.  By blending the recordings he was able to get the right amount of atmosphere for the right moment in the film. He could make transitions from a live very present sound to something that sounded like it was very distant and bouncing off many buildings.  One of the more extreme examples of this in the film is the period when BARBARA ANNE by The Crests is playing on the radio and 'Curt' is kicked out of the car. Murch explains, "When your in the car, you're hearing the closed in, slightly muffled sound of car radio speakers of the time. Then when he gets kicked out and he's at those crossroads, kind of wondering what's gonna happen next, the music becomes probably the most ethereal that it ever is in the film." With the possible exception of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958) sound had not been explored to such an extent in American cinema.  Mr. Murch did an incredible job mixing the sound of those "oldie but moldy" tunes into the film.  In fact it is not just the songs that sound great but the way in which their presented and mixed into the film that makes the music sound so good. Working his wonderful magic Murch created an aural delight that makes the film not only fun to watch but satisfying to listen to, as well.



Monday, September 27, 2010


Cindy Williams' final screen test for Graffiti took place a month before filming began.
The interview and audition process for American Graffiti took place over a period of about 6 months beginning in the Winter of 1971 as filmmaker, George Lucas and casting director, Fred Roos pre-interviewed hundreds of mostly unknown actors between the ages of 12 and 25 in order get the mix he desired. Many young actors auditioned including Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker in Star Wars), who never made it past the first meeting. Roos, who had recently cast The Godfather (1972),  proved extremely beneficial in casting Graffiti. In fact, he was friends with many young aspiring actors who were eventually cast in the film including Ron Howard, (whom he'd worked with on The Andy Griffith Show), Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams and Richard Dreyfuss. "I hung out with Richard in my circle," Roos recalls, "We called him 'Ricky' in those days. He was kind of a smart-ass...that was part of his charm."

Lucas was ultimately in charge of casting. Candy Clark, who eventually won the role of Debbie, remembers when she first met with the director he was shy and uncommunicative.  “When I met him for the first time he was sitting behind that desk and he hardly said two words to me. He was mostly looking at me which makes for an uncomfortable audition, ya know, when someone is just kind of looking at you and sizing you up…looking at you but not saying anything, not interacting.

American Graffiti was Candy Clark's second appearance in a feature film.

The interviews and auditions took place in both the Los Angeles vicinity and the San Francisco, Bay Area. The performers who had potential, were called back to do a quick interview with George Lucas while he took notes on the ones he thought would work well together.  Lucas was very particular about making sure the actors complemented each other.  He wanted the young actors to exhibit an ease and natural chemistry with one another. For more info on many of the actors with smaller parts see my post titled BIT PARTS & PIE PIECES: BEFORE & AFTER.
Paul Le Mat & Ron Howard improvise dialogue while sitting on the back of a truck.

"[Dreyfuss] was kind of a smart-ass...that was part of his charm."
After he had a select group of actors for each of the major roles Lucas had them run their lines as they were filmed on video tape. These actors were narrowed down and from there 16-millimeter screen tests were made with the final group.   During the tryouts all potential cast members for Graffiti were asked to perform scenes and sometimes even improvise or ad-lib their lines with other hopeful actors. Richard Dreyfuss (Curt) recalls the audition process for Graffiti being the most involved he had ever been part of.  He remembers reading for the part 6-8 times, always with different actors.  According to Lucas biographer, Dale Pollock, when the director met Dreyfuss he liked him immediately and offered him his choice of roles.  Dreyfuss recalled during a BBC interivew for the film, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that Lucas gave him his choice to play either Curt or Steve.  "I chose Curt, which I felt was a compliment... to me," [laughs].  In retrospect, its difficult to imagine Dreyfuss playing anyone but Curt.

At the time of auditioning only Ron Howard was a familiar face to fans of Hollywood. When he auditioned for a part in Graffiti he was still a senior in High School and courting future wife, Cheryl Alley. Luckily, when being considered for a part in the film Howard's image as "Opie" from The Andy Griffith Show didn't bother George Lucas.  According to biographer Beverly Gray, the actor’s chances were increased when casting director Fred Roos viewed a segment from the ABC-TV anthology series, LOVE AMERICAN STYLE.  The episode that featured the actor was about growing up during the 1950s titled, "Love and the Happy Days" and included Howard in a role he would later reprise in the long-running TV series, HAPPY DAYS.  "So," says Gray, "the videotape of Ronny Howard playing 'Ritchie Cunningham' helped prove he could be convincing as 'Steve Bolander,' nice guy and big man on campus."

 During their screen test Laurie (Cindy Williams) reacts after being called a "bitch" by her boyfriend, Steve (Ron Howard).  Incidentally, this colorful and direct dialogue was not used in the film.

Most of the young actors in the film were virtually unknown to moviegoers at the time.   In retrospect, it is amazing to think there was a time when movie fans had not heard of Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard or Harrison Ford. Most of the lead actors in Graffiti are millionaires now, but at the time most were just struggling to get by and worked for scale.  "I got $1,000 a week and Harrison Ford got $400 a week," Cindy Williams recalls. "I always love to say that because now he gets millions for waking up in the morning."

 Paul Le Mat also remembers receiving a low salary.  "I'd just been kicking around Hollywood driving a cab and working at a gas station," he said. "I think a major reason I got the role is because George Lucas is so cheap.  There was no actor in Hollywood who would do it.  I got $600.00 a week."  LeMat worked a total of 6 weeks on the film which adds up to a measly, jaw-dropping $3,600. Despite the meager pay, at the time, he was thrilled to have gotten the part.

Winning several medals during his stint in Viet Nam during the late -'60s, Le Mat seemed like a natural choice to play tough guy, "John Milner."  Further testament to Mr. LeMat's ruggedness was his history as a professional boxer winning the L.A. Diamond Belt Welterweight Division title and the Southern Pacific AAU title in 1972. However, Milner was not a one dimensional character.  Besides being tough, the actor who portrayed Milner had to be able to exude compassion.  The "soft" side of the character is revealed when he allows a bratty pre- teen, with nowhere to go, to ride in his car all evening as he cruises up and down the circuit. Like the character he portrays in the film, LeMat in real life can be indignant with people who aren't cool but he is also friendly, soft spoken, and personable. In many ways he is John Milner.   Be sure to check out the popular video of my conversation with the talented actor on my March 2011 post.

Paul Le Mat rehearses with Mackenzie Phillips.  Compared with the other actors, LeMat went through the most drastic change in appearance to play his character.

When Fred Roos asked Mill Valley's, Mt. Tamalpais school drama teacher if anyone was a good actor he immediately thought of Kathleen Quinlan. Kathleen played Laurie's friend, Peg. She graduated from Mt. Tamalpais High School in June 1972. A month later she was back at her school acting in the sockhop scenes for the film. "I look at [the film today,]" she says, "and I see all my gym buddies in there.  We thought it was so much fun because the circus had come to town and they picked us because we were athletic and we could pick up the dance steps quickly."

The youngest actor in the cast was 12-yr-old, Mackenzie Phillips who played the bratty preteen Carol. Casting Director, Fred Roos first spotted her singing with her teenage band, "CLASS" on open-mic night at The Troubadour in Hollywood. In her biography, High on Arrival, Mackenzie says that when asked if she would like to be in a movie she replied, "That would be so cool." She recalls that at the audition she was up against 250 girls for the part. Later Roos would tell Mackenzie that he saw her as a spunky kid with a good look and an instantly recognizable desire to look older than she was. 

Suzanne Somers, who was paid a mere $136.72 for her role in Graffiti, was extremely broke at the time she auditioned for the part of the mysterious blonde in the T-bird.  Two years earlier she had even resorted to minor crime leading to an arrest for bouncing a $100.00 check. Somers avoided prosecution by promising to make reparations and cover the check. In 1972 when the Graffiti audition came up she almost didn't make it because she couldn’t afford to get there.  "I was a single mother from a teen pregnancy," she says.  "I'd been doing commercials and local modeling.  I lived in Sausalito and had to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to audition, and there was a 50-cent toll, and I didn't have 50 cents to my name.  So when I got to the tollbooth, they told me I'd have to leave something as collateral.  I left a lipstick. Fortunately, no matter how poor a woman is, she always has a lot of lipstick."

Two years before she acted in Graffiti, Ms. Somers was arrested and booked on charges of writing a bad check in March 1970. She was 23 at the time, and avoided prosecution by paying back the money she owed.

Many of the smaller parts that required a few speaking lines were filled by members of a San Francisco Bay Area improvisational satirical review called The CommitteeA few of the many Committee members that had parts in the film include John Brent (Car Salesman), Ed Greenburg (Kip Pullman), Del Close (Man at Bar), Scott Beach (Mr. Gordon), and Jim Cranna (Liquor Store Thief).  


 For 10 years, 1963-73, the theater company, founded by Alan and Jessica Myerson, resided at The Committee Theater located at 622 Broadway in San Francisco.  A second company of The Committee performed at the Tiffany Theater on the Sunset Strip in LA, CA from 1968-70.  The Committee is often credited with setting the model that modern improvisational groups such as Upright Citizens Brigade, Improv Olympics, and The Groundlings follow to this day.  In addition, National celebrities such as Mike Myers, Tina Fey, and Bill Murray and so many others have The Committee to thank in part for their success because they studied with Committee co-founder, Del Close.  

The Committee off stage. Seen here are Ed Greenberg (second from left) who played Kip Pullman in Graffiti, & a bearded, James Cranna (fourth from left) who played the Liquor Store Thief in Graffiti wearing a wig to hide his long hair. 
Considered by many as one of the hippest comedy theater groups on the West Coast, the group included about 40 actors during its tenure.  Some of the more famous alumni include: David Ogden Stiers (Major Charles Winchester from the TV series M*A*S*H), Howard Hesseman (Dr. Johnny Fever from "WKRP In Cincinnati," "Head of the Class,"), Carl Gottlieb (screenplay author of  "Jaws" and other films,) Peter Bonerz (from "The Bob Newhart Show," and TV director), and the legendary improvisational leader, Del Close.
"He must not have been used to drinking." Del Close (Man at bar) and Candy Clark

The sketch comedy troupe made frequent appearances on TV including The Dick Cavett Show (originally aired 1968-75), and the controversial "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" (1967-69). The group had parts in a few San Francisco based movies including the cult classic "Billy Jack," (1971).  For those wishing to sample some of the groups' humor, you can find a few sketches on You Tube.  In addition,  A 1969 film titled, A SESSION WITH THE COMMITTEE has occasionally been available on DVD.  The film is a montage of skits filmed in front of a live audience.  This writer has never seen the film so it can't be confirmed, but it is rumored to include Wolfman Jack in his first major screen appearance. 

Del Close & Ed Greenberg looking nothing like his on screen character, Kip Pullman.    photo: Ed Greenberg
Two "Graffiti" co-stars, John Brent (Used Car Salesman) & Del Close (Man at Bar) cut a record in 1959 titled, HOW TO SPEAK HIP.  On the album they use the format of a language learning record to teach "squares" how to use the "hip" vernacular.   If you're LZ (square) and you want to  to be cool you can transform yourself into one hep cat by going to the "How to Speak Hip" website which has the entire album posted and you don't have to shell out any bread.  You dig?

-A&E Biography: George Lucas. With Harry Smith. Original air date: 1/27/2002.  Quote from Candy Clark re: first interview. Posted on You Tube 5/15/2013. Retrieved 2/01/2014.
-Close, Del and J. Brent. (1959, 2009).  Sound recording.  Mercury Records and 101 Distribution.
-Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Dir. Kenneth Bowser. DVD. Fremente Corp./BBC, 2003.
-Pollock, Dale. Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas. Updated Ed. (1983, 1999).  New York:   De Capo Press.
-Kathleen Quinlan. Marin Nostalgia website.              Retrieved 10/6/2010
-Patinkin, Sheldon.  (2000).  The Second City: backstage at the world's most greatest comedy theatre. Sourcebooks, Inc.  Naperville, Illinois. 
-The Making of American Graffiti. (Supplementary documentary by Laurent Bouzereau). American Graffiti. Dir. George Lucas. DVD. (1989).  Universal Studios, 1973; dist. Universal Home Video, Inc.
-Veltman, Chole. (Aug 7, 2010). Bay Area Improv Thrives.  The Bay Citizen website.  The Committee picture Retrieved 5/6/2011.