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


1 comment:

  1. It would be interesting to read Luca's solo draft. I noticed the dates are the same for the scene you provided and for the shooting script. Was this scene from that one? (May 10).

    Thanks again for the great blog.