American Graffiti -- 8/18/23

Today's selection -- from High on Arrival by Mackenzie Phillips. In 1973, thirteen-year-old Mackenzie Phillips auditioned for a part in American Graffiti, a low-budget film from the unknown director George Lucas:

 “American Graffiti was the first audition I went to. I was up against 250 girls for the part of Carol, a bratty preteen--the youngest character in the movie--who gloms on to John Milner, a hot-rodding teen, on a summer night in the 1950s. It was a low-budget film that George Lucas, pre-Star Wars, wrote and directed.

“I was still living at my mom's house when I found out I got the job. We were jumping up and down and screaming, but I didn't really know what the movie was exactly. Was it an educational movie? An after-school special? I'd played Santa Claus in the school play at Summerhill. Would it be like that? It just didn't occur to me that I would be filming a major motion picture.

“Apparently, my parents didn't fully process that idea either. I remembered that when I worked on the movie I lived with the producer, Gary Kurtz, and his wife, who were very nice Quakers. But it wasn't until thirty years later, at an American Film Institute celebration of American Graffiti, that Gary said to me, ‘Remember when you arrived in San Francisco all alone?’ I didn't know what he was talking about. He said, ‘Yeah, we met you at the plane and you were all by yourself. We asked where your guardian was, but you didn't have one.’ I assumed that I lived with Gary and his wife because that was the arrangement, but it turns out there was no arrangement. When I showed up alone they had to scramble around to get temporary guardianship.

Theatrical release poster for American Graffiti

“I was the youngest in the cast by far. Most of the movie took place in the course of a single night, so we'd shoot from dusk to dawn. There were no dressing rooms and no trailers. We just hung out between takes at Mel's Diner, where a lot of the movie was shot. I was the little mascot. I was only twelve, but I knew my home life was good fodder. I'd tell stories about the Stones and other people who hung out at my father's. Sitting around late into the night, I learned to drink coffee.

“Paul Le Mat played John Milner. For much of the movie he and I are driving around in his car, and the car was rigged with cameras facing in each window. We couldn't get out of the car between takes or during set changes because the cameras were in the way, so my memory of shooting the movie is mostly of being stuck in that car for hours and hours on end.

“For a scene where John and Carol cover a car with shaving cream, Lucas set up the cameras and said, ‘Just do whatever you want.’ That scene does a pretty good job of capturing what I was like then--I mean, I wasn't a screaming banshee, I was always respectful and well mannered, but I was wild and full of life. I never need a lot to be happy. I'm not a happy idiot, but I'm easily entertained. You can see it on the screen. I like it on this planet.

“Apparently, there were comic and serious troubles on the set of American Graffiti. Rumor has it that people were arrested for pot, hospitalized for allergies, busted for arson. The usual drill. True or not, I was oblivious to the scandals. When our nighttime shoots ended, I went home to the Kurtzes' pleasant house and slept, as a teenager should. All I remember was that Paul Le Mat made a habit of climbing to the top of tall trees--I guess that was his way of getting high. I came to set one day and heard that Paul had climbed to the top of a Holiday Inn sign and refused to come down. He was a strange man. Years later, when I was eighteen (barely legal), shooting More American Graffiti, Paul and I would have a fling. He was married, instantly regretful, and distant for the rest of the filming.

“After I shot the movie, I moved in with my dad and started running around L.A., hanging out in nightclubs, drinking, taking drugs. Then it was the summer of 1973, I was thirteen years old, and the movie American Graffiti was finally scheduled to be released on August 11."



Mackenzie Phillips


High on Arrival


Gallery Books


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