Tuesday, November 30, 2010


A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to talk with the costume designer for American Graffiti, Aggie Rodgers. Graffiti was her first job as a costume designer.  Several years later she again worked with George Lucas on "The Return of the Jedi." She has pared up with many famous directors including Francis Ford Coppola (The Conversation, The Rainmaker, Jack), Chris Columbus (Rent), Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and John Korty (A Farewell To Manzanar). She has lived in the Bay Area her entire adult life, and travels to places all over the world for her job where she has worked with legends such as Milos Foreman (One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest), Ron Howard (Cocoon), Tim Burton (Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice), Norman Jewison (In Country, The Hurricane) and an Academy Award Nominated collaboration with Steven Spielberg (The Color Purple).  Aggie has been a part of many films, too numerous to mention here, but you can check it out for yourself on the link below.  Despite her vast array of  experience I only asked her about American Graffiti. She was very charming and never once did she seem irritated by my incessant questions and narrow focus of only Graffiti related topics. 


Q: How did you get the job as a costume designer for American Graffiti?

AR: I had a masters in costume design for theater from Cal State Long Beach and was interested in working in films.  I got an interview with the production manager James Hogan, through the union.  I remember him asking me what I knew about, “dragging the main.”  That’s what we called cruisin’ back then.  I told him I was very familiar with it [laughs].

Q: You were about 19-years-old in 1962.  Where did you drag the main?

AR: I grew up in Fresno, CA. I graduated from high school in 1962-same as George [Lucas]. I use to cruise with my sister in her  ’54 Ford that was painted cherry/ blue. 

Q: Do you remember which streets?

AR: Yes, Shields Avenue and Blackstone.  There was a public pool and a drive-in called Stan’s where everybody hung out. [Editor’s note:  Simialr to Mels Drive-in, from the late 1940s through the 1960s, Stan’s Drive-in and coffee shop was a popular California chain, owned by entrepreneur Stan Burke.  There was once 9 Stan's Drive-ins or roadside eateries in Bakersfield, Fresno, Sacramento and Los Angeles].

Q:  How did you prepare for the film?

AR:  I read the script several times, spoke to actors, got their sizes, and then went shopping.  I went to every Goodwill store I could find.  I even had my mom in Fresno shop the Goodwill stores for me. Almost all the clothes the kids wear at the sock hop were bought at local Goodwill stores. Nowadays, they have all these vintage clothing stores but back then you could find just about anything there.

Q:  Were you paid a flat fee?

AR:  No I was paid and hourly rate.  I know there wasn’t a lot of money in the budget but everyone was happy with what they were paid.  I remember we worked out of one small motor home that was used for make-up, wardrobe, and hair.

Q:  In the film, what kind of shirt is Richard Dreyfuss’ character, Curt wearing?

AR:  That is a madras plaid sport shirt.  I bought two of those at Brooks Brothers.  In the early seventies men’s shirt collars were really large so I cut the collars on the shirts to match the early-sixties time period.  His pants are khakis from J.C. Pennys.

Q:  Charlie Martin-Smith's character, Terry wears an interesting bowling shirt.

AR:  That’s not a bowling shirt.  It’s something I designed.  I showed George [Lucas] that style of shirt with different fabric.  It had a specific neckline and two buttons.  I designed it, he chose the colors.

Q: It’s a great look and fits his character perfectly.  You should market that shirt.  So many fans would buy it.

AR:  Thank you.  I'll leave it to someone else to make the shirt and sell it [laughs].  I also remember his shoes were too big.  We couldn’t find white bucks that fit him properly.

Q: What can you tell me about Ron Howard’s clothes?

AR:  His pants are from J. C. Pennys.  His pale blue and white shirt we had made.  I gave the fabric to a professional seamstress and told her what to make.

Q:  Cindy William’s character Laurie, wears a blue blouse, plaid skirt and a letterman’s sweater.

AR:  Yes.  The letterman’s sweater she’s wearing is actually from George Lucas’ high school in Modesto.  Before shooting, he phoned his dad and asked him to get the sweater from one of George’s high school buddies.  When we got the sweater we sewed a new patch on it.

Q:  Did you design the dress worn by Candy Clark (Debbie)?

AR:  That was a Lanz dress I bought at the Goodwill, where we also purchased the white Caprice shoes that she's wearing in the film. I also remember we only had one bow for her hair so we had to make that last through the entire shoot.

Candy sporting a Lanz dress purchased at The Goodwill Store

Q: Are those typical car club jackets worn by the Pharaohs gang?

AR:  Yes.  We had those made.  They were popular back then.  I think a local sport shop made them, I’m not sure.

Q: Even though Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids is a band that plays ‘50s music they normally didn’t dress the way they were in the film, did they?

AR:  No.  They normally dressed like hoods or greasers.  George wanted them to be more straight-laced so we put them in red jackets. We borrowed those from some other local band. I don’t remember their name. 


Q: The first time I saw American Graffiti I had to laugh at the cop, Holstein wearing a little bow tie with his uniform. Did they really used to dress like that?

AG:  Oh yea, the cop.  Yea, that is what they wore.

Q:  The carhops at Mel’s normally didn’t look quite as seductive as they do in the film.  Did you come up with their new look?

AR: No, that was George.  He was very specific about what he wanted.  Although many drive-ins had carhops with roller skates Mel’s never did, to my knowledge.  But for the film they wore roller-skates.  It was also George’s idea for the carhops to wear a bellboy cap.  They also wore those tight ski pants.  Which was very practical since San Francisco can be cold at night.  Incidentally, one of the carhop extras in the film wound up being my assistant later.  Her name is Judy Feil.  

Q: I love those little caps the carhops wear.  Did you make those?

AR:  Oh yea the caps were specially made by a man that ran the ACT [American Conservatory Theater] costume shop named Walter Watson.

Q:  One final question, Mackenzie Phillips, who played Carol, wears a surfboard T-shirt in the film.  Did you buy that at Goodwill?

AG:  The Dewey Weber shirt was ordered from Dewey Weber down in Southern California and it was a request from George.  He makes great surf boards. They originally printed on the back but she was to sit in the car all the time and so we had them printed on the front for the movie.

Q: Sounds like it was a lot of fun working on the film

AR: Everyone was great to work with: The cast, crew, everybody. It was a lot of fun.

~ FIN ~
This page is exclusive content. No unauthorized reprinting, republishing or other use without prior authorization or proper referencing. © 2008-2015 by Mark Groesbeck.

More about Aggie...


Wednesday, November 17, 2010


One of the most unforgettable scenes in American Graffiti is where Curt attaches one end of a metal cable to a light post and the other to the rear axle of a patrol car. As the car shifts into gear and leaps forward the trans-axle and two rear wheels are yanked out from under it. I don't know about you, but I've had various people tell me they know someone who knows someone who actually did this prank. But, nobody ever takes personal responsibility for doing it.  Where did the idea come from? Can this really happen?  How did the crew manage to pull off such a stunt?  Let's find out:


"Stand by for justice!"  These are the words Curt yells right before the patrol car loses its rear axle.   It is an amazing spectacle to watch as the patrol car hurdles up and out, airborne for a moment then noses down and then jumps along the pavement, sending out sparks as it screeches to a stop.  This dramatic display of rebelliousness channeled into an anonymous act was not the first time this stunt was recorded on film.  

About ten years before Graffiti was in production, this same stunt was performed on the family sit-com, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER. In episode #231, "Wally's Practical Joke," (which originally aired May 23, 1963), Eddie Haskell and Wally Cleaver fastened one end of a chain around a tree trunk and the other around the rear axle of their friend, Lumpy's car.  The intent was to prevent the car from being driven away. When Lumpy tried to move his car it caused unforeseen damage as the entire third member and wheels became detached.


 1. Lumpy's car is chained to a tree.                  2. Eddie and Wally watch from the bushes.

3. Lumpy accelerates the car forward.            4. Chain tightens & axle is yanked from car.

5. The car slides to a stop and sits in the middle of the street at a 20 degree angle.

The stunt in this 1963 episode is a little disappointing because the viewer never gets to actually see the axle being torn away or the car sliding into the street.  The results of the same stunt in American Graffiti were much more spectacular as the red light on the patrol car starts flashing and the siren wails.  Moments later the car sits on the ground at a 20-degree angle while its engine whines at top speed.  The stunt was so memorable that more than 30 years later it was still in the minds of many film fans. This prompted the producers of the TV series, MYTHBUSTERS to attempt the same stunt to see if it could really be done.


On the 13th episode of the first season which originally aired Jan 11, 2004, the show's hosts, Adam and Jamie attempted to answer once and for all: Can a car be ripped off its rear axle like in American Graffiti?  The hosts used a late model remote control police car with its axle tied to a telephone pole by 75 ft. of cable.  When they replicated the circumstances the cable broke without any damage to the car.  In order to duplicate the results as in the movie they had to use a larger cable than was used in the film, bolts were loosened, and the axle was severely weakened by torching through 70-90% of each of the 4 control arms.



Under these conditions the rear axle was able to be pulled loose but got caught on the underside of the police car and could not clear the trunk. The hosts, theorized that a ramp was used in American Graffiti to give the car and axle enough of a boost to wrench the axle completely free. Therefore, they concluded a car cannot be ripped off its rear axle like in American Graffiti.  "The myth is busted, Jamie summarized, "Its just not gonna happen by itself. Not with anything remotely like the circumstances you saw in the movie."

 Wait one damn minute!

Before we let those Mythbusters have the last word let's pause for a moment.  Was this really an accurate experiment?  Not really.  Perhaps you classic car buffs have caught the flaw already. The car used in the film is over 30 years older than the one used in the Mythbusters' experiment.  This is important because the Ford Galaxie used in the movie had a leaf spring rear suspension which could actually be ripped out much more easily than with stout coil springs found in newer cars.  So, I believe that a car probably could be ripped all the way off its rear axle without having to remove any bolts, etc.  However, to get air the way the cop car does in the film is a different story.

A recreation @ Petaluma Graffiti Celebration 2008
Our crack research team has theorized that one way to get a car to actually jump up in the air when it is ripped from the axle is to take the bolts out of the mounts at the front of the spring and let them rest on the perchases that are welded to the frame. It would also be necessary to remove part of the shackles at the rear of the springs so the rear-end would come out easily.  This way the spring would help to catapult the car into the air.

George Lucas was able to achieve the awesome spectacle without a ramp as the hosts of MythBusters had surmised. For the film, the entire rear axle of the car was cut away from the frame and body and the cable was attached.  The other end of the metal cable was not attached to a light pole (as in the story) but rather to a wench on a heavy-duty 10-wheel tow truck that was parked in the darkness at the far end of the lot.

As the car sped away from its parked location, at the exact moment when it crossed the sidewalk, the wench was activated. The pulling of the cable along with the force of the forward moving car caused the axle to be effectively yanked from beneath the car. Before the stunt was filmed there was some concern by the production staff that the car might actually flip over and land on its roof.  Luckily, this never happened. A few years back this stunt was recreated in the same lot with a ’61 Fairlane during the Petaluma's Salute to American Graffiti event in May of 2008. Many of the original Production Staff were there to participate.  The event was filmed and may still be available on DVD at the Petaluma Celebrates American Graffiti website.

Car and axle on display in Jerry's Cherry (looking out toward street) at Petaluma's Salute to American Graffiti, 2008


-Leave it to Beaver Season Guide.  Leave it to Beaver Season 6 (1962-63). Share TV website.  http://sharetv.org/shows/leave_it_to_beaver/season_6.  Retrieved 11/01/2010.

-Mythbusters Episode Guide: 2004.  http://dsc.discovery.com/fansites/mythbusters/episode/episode-tab-07.html. Retrieved 11/14/2010.

-Stand by for Justice. Petaluma's Salute to American Graffiti website. http://americangraffiti.net.  Retrieved 11/16/2010

Monday, November 8, 2010

Writing Graffiti

Mackenzie Phillips writing graffiti on a Cadillac window

After the commercial failure of his first feature film, THX 1138, George Lucas had given up on screenwritng.  So, when he wanted to make his next film he contacted USC classmate, Willard Hyuck and his wife, Gloria Katz. Lucas talked to them about the various characters and story elements he had in mind for Graffiti and together they hacked out an idea about four characters who go on various adventures. After their discussions, Huyck and Ms. Katz worked out a 15-page story treatment that brought out the humor and pathos in the initial design.  Lucas' agent, Jeff Berg took it to various studios to see if he could get them to finance a script. It took about a year to get the money together.  Eventually, Lucas got the president of United Artists (UA) to give him $10,000 to write the Graffiti script.

Writers Williard Huyck & Gloria Katz circa 1976
By the time he had money to pay the writing duo to start the Graffiti script in 1971, they were no longer available.  They had flown to England where Huyck was busy directing the low-budget horror film, Messiah of Evil  that he and Ms. Katz had written together.  Although the film never received a lot of attention upon its first release in 1973, it has since enjoyed cult-classic status. Different form many of the the early-seventies horror flicks, Messiah of Evil  has its own unique blend of creepiness and political commentary.

Since the writing team wasn't available, Lucas resorted to paying a friend from USC, Richard Walters to write the script.  But, when he read it, he was disappointed.  The screenplay was completely different from the story treatment.
Lucas directs Dreyfuss & Howard in the film's opening scene.
According to Lucas, It looked like a Hot Rods from Hell picture.  "It was very fantasy-like" he recalled, "with playing chicken and things kids didn't really do.  I wanted something that was more like the way I grew up."  Although Lucas rejected his first drafts for the film and he did not receive writer's credit, Walters was not bitter about the situation.  Now a professor and chairman of UCLA's renowned Film and Television writing program, he says, "The truth of the matter is that I feel good about Graffiti.  I was well paid to do the work that I did, and the scripts that I wrote won me assignments in that genre."  "Suddenly," Walters recalls, "everyone was doing coming-of-age stories and I was doing assignments for good money at major studios."

Because he had no money left to pay for another writer, but had to turn something in to UA, Lucas felt he had no choice but to write the script himself.  Using the original story treatment, Lucas sat down and forced himself to rewrite the entire screenplay.  Working from eight in the morning until eight at night, the whole process took him about three weeks.  However, after
Lucas & co-writer, Williard Huyck at an awards ceremony.
reading Lucas' new script UA turned it down and refused to make the film.  They didn't seem to understand Lucas' homage to the simple joys of cars, rock-and-roll, and small town romance.  Lucas has said that all of his films are difficult to understand at the script stage because they’re very different.  In a 1999 interview he recalled, "At the time I did them they were not conventional. The executives could only think in terms of what they'd already seen.  It's hard for them to think in terms of what has never been done before."  Producers were not warm to the idea of intercutting four stories that didn't relate to each other.  They saw the film as a musical montage with no characters and no plot.

Huyck & Katz wrote the Steve / Laurie story
Lucas had to rewrite the script once more before he could get any studio to consider making the film.  Eventually, Universal Studios executive, Ned Tanen read Lucas' rewrite, noticed its potential, and agreed to finance the picture for $750,000.  Still, Lucas wasn't entirely pleased with his screenplay.  Right after he got the deal to make Graffiti (and about two months before shooting) he asked Huyck & Katz to do a quick rewrite.  This time they were available, so they agreed and helped rewrite the weak areas of the script particularly the Steve & Laurie story. While writing the script Lucas had had the most problems with the character of Steve and almost cut his whole story out. The characters Terry The Toad, John Milner and Curt Henderson represent George Lucas at different stages of his teenage years, but he didn't really know nor could he relate to Steve.  By definition Steve was bland and making him remotely interesting proved to be a real challenge. Thanks to the talents of Huyck & Katz they were able to add some life to the character and make him more acceptable.  They wrote in his relationship with Laurie.  And, even though they couldn't get him up to the level of the other characters, who were much stronger they got him to the level where he worked.

Lucas has said that Huyck and Katz' contributions were essential.  In 1974 Lucas explained to Filmaker's Newsletter their contribution to the screenplay:
"They didn't change the structure, what they did was improve the dialogue, make it funnier, more human, truer. [sic] So though they improved it a great deal, it was basically my story.  The scenes are mine the dialogue is theirs. But it's hard to be cut and dry about something like that because of course, they completely changed some scenes and others were left intact."  
By the time it was finished, the screenplay was too long.  Ms. Katz recalls, "It was like 160 pages, and everybody was freaking out.  So we got the tiniest type known to man, and it became 125 pages."  Finally, with the writing problems solved, on May 10, 1972 Lucas had the shooting script he needed to begin filming.   The screenplay had the working title,
Marcia Lucas hard at work editing Graffiti.
ROCK RADIO IS AMERICAN GRAFFITI (SAGA OF THE LOW RIDERS).  After writing the script, life was never the same for the couple. "Until American Graffiti we were just ex-film students," Huyck told an interviewer in 1996, "Suddenly, we were actually being hired to write big movies.  It gave us a career."

It's no secret that a lot of good scenes wind up on the cutting room floor just so a film can be released with a desirable running time.  George Lucas has said that at one point Graffiti was almost a three-hour movie before it was really edited.  Although, who did what has been a point of argument it is most likely that Verna Fields did the initial editing cut, then George Lucas came in for the final version, while Marcia Lucas was involved throughout the entire editing process.  It was my assumption that some of the scenes like the one I have transcribed below (from the second draft of the screenplay dated May 10, 1972), were filmed but then cut to quicken the pace of the film.

In a conversation I had with her in 2007, Candy Clark (Debbie) remarked that she didn't remember acting in a scene like the one below. To this writer, her statement doesn't mean it wasn't filmed, it just means she didn't remember a 35 year-old scene that was never released in the movie. The scene, ripe with great dialogue and imagery, would have fit perfectly into the film.  
P.S. Notice that the missing car is a Merc and not an Impala like in the film.

Scene 56


A big greasy guy is pulling an engine out of a car with a wench when he 
hears somebody coming.  He ducks out of sight quickly 

Terry and Debbie come up.


   Chuck?  Chuckie?  
It's me 

The big burly guy peeks around 
the car and then wanders over.


   Hey, you gave me a start, pussycat.  What's up?


   Chuck, this is Terry.

Terry sticks out his hand and Chuck puts his greasy meat hook in it.  
Terry wipes his hand off on his pants.

Little short, ain't he?


   Listen, Terry had his cherry Merc copped.  And since you know about every stolen car in the Valley 


   Merc, huh?  Got a Plymouth in tonight, but no Mercs.


   Do you know where we might look for it.  I gotta find it.  That car's my whole life.

Chuck takes out a flask, takes a big pull on it and hands it to Terry.


   Well, Terry, you sure stepped in it sounds like.  Hopeful it'll be just a couple of joy riders and you'll find it somewhere in the morning.  Now, if it's a strip job...well...also, some nut been taking 'em and burning them...
Yeah, I'll keep my eyes open   but I'm sure you'll find it  one way or  t'other.


   One way or the other?!

He takes the flask from Terry, who looks off hopelessly.


   Thanks, Chuck.


   Sure thing.  Hey give me a little one.

Debbie kisses him and his arm goes around her, his big hand covering her fanny.  

Terry looks around and sees this.  He looks away sadly 


   Come on Debbie ... Debbie?




-Sturhahn Larry. (1999) The filming of american graffiti.  In Kline, S. (Ed.), George Lucas interviews (conversations with filmakers series).  (pp. 17-18).  University Press of Mississippi. 
-Lucas, G., Katz, G., &  Huyck, W.  (1972). Rock radio is american graffiti (saga of the low riders).  Second draft.  Mill Valley, CA.:  Lucas Film, LTD. 

Candy Clark (Debbie) with Pharaohs '51 Merc @ Petaluma celebration 2008