american graffiti -- 6/22/15

We are celebrating our tenth anniversary! All month we will be sending encores that our subscribers picked as their favorites, starting with the top ten excerpts, followed by ten more favorites. Thanks for reading and enjoy!

Ten More Favorites!

Today's encore selection -- from How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor. When George Lucas's first movie, the emotionally cold and austere THX 1138, failed to find box office success, he lost the confidence of the studio and needed to make a warmer, more bankable movie. For inspiration, he looked to the movie I Vitelloni, about four teenagers in a provincial town who talk about leaving for Rome but never do. This led to the smash success American Graffiti. However, prior to making American Graffiti, Lucas was already daydreaming about making a new Flash Gordon movie, but was unable to secure the rights:

"One night [Lucas and his new friend producer Gary Kurtz] were at a diner and looked in the paper to see what was playing at the local theaters. There was nothing they wanted to see. They enthused about how great it would be to see Flash Gordon on the big screen, in color.

"Nobody can remember at a forty-year remove what was said in that conversation or who started it (Lucas and Kurtz were both Flash Gordon fans). Kurtz says they were talking in more general terms about how science fiction pictures hadn't really been enjoyable since Forbidden Planet in 1955. 'They all seemed to go downhill towards either genre horror, Creature from the Black Lagoon -- type movies, or alien invasions, or just dystopian stories about postapocalyptic societies,' Kurtz says. 'And none of that was fun. It was just the idea of capturing the energy of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers --style space opera, really, which hadn't been done for so long.'

"Whatever was said in the diner seems to have lit a fire under Lucas. On a visit to New York in early 1971, 'on a whim,' he says, Lucas went to visit King Features to inquire about the film rights to Flash Gordon. The King executives agreed to meet with him because they were thinking about the film rights too: they mentioned Frederico Fellini as a possible director. The Italian maestro was also known to be a Flash Gordon fan.There was no way Lucas could compete with Fellini at this point in his career.

George Lucas on the set of American Graffiti, 1973

"This seems to have been Lucas's lightbulb moment. The vague space movie idea he'd been running through the projector in his head for years -- there was no reason that couldn't be better than Flash Gordon. After his meeting at King Features, he and Coppola dined at the Palm Restaurant in Manhattan, and Coppola could sense his friend's disappointment -- but also his new outlook. 'He was very depressed,' Coppola would recall in 1999, over lunch with Lucas and producer Saul Zaentz. 'And he says, "Well, I'll just invent my own." '

"Coppola paused to consider. 'What a limitation, if they had sold him Flash Gordon.'

" 'I'm glad they didn't,' concluded Lucas. Years later, he reflected on why that was. 'Flash Gordon is like anything you do that is established. You start out being faithful to the original material, but eventually it gets in the way of the creativity .... I would have had to have had Ming the Merciless in it, and I didn't want to have Ming. I wanted to take ancient mythological motifs and update them -- I wanted to have something totally free and fun, the way I remembered space fantasy.'

"In the meantime, though, Lucas needed a more bankable movie. If Fellini was to take Flash Gordon, maybe Lucas could take something from Fellini -- for instance, the idea behind the movie I Vitelloni, about four teenagers in a provincial town who talk about leaving for Rome but never do. What if you followed a bunch of guys, on the cusp of leaving a small town, and follow them through one night of cruising -- a ritual that had died out in the last decade?

"Lucas would set his version in the summer of 1962, the moment everything changed for him, and end it with a car crash. He came up with a semi-Italian title: American Graffiti. It sounded odd to contemporary ears. The Italian word had not yet gained common currency. New York subway trains were about a year away from being covered in spray-painted signatures. Lucas hadn't intended that debased usage of the word in any case; he meant the word invented at Pompeii in 1851 that means nostalgic etchings. He wanted to record the legacy of a lost decade: an American Pompeii, frozen in time forever."


Chris Taylor


How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise


Basic Books


Copyright 2014 by Chris Taylor


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