The winner was Lucas. He went to observe the making of Finian's Rainbow, and from that grew his partnership with Francis Ford Coppola. The new alliance gave him a chance to bring Murch into the crew of The Rain People, while Lucas served as "general assistant, assistant art director, production aide, general do-everything." On the side, Lucas worked on a documentary about the making of Coppola's film "more as therapy than anything else," he says. "I hadn't shot film for a long time." But his main occupation, between five and nine-thirty every morning, was work on a new version of the THX 1138 script, a project originally devised with Murch and Hal Barwood. It was Lucas's first feature script; he thought it was "terrible." Coppola, when shown it, said simply: "It is. You're absolutely right."
"I wanted to hire a writer," Lucas says, "but Francis said, 'No, if you're going to make it in this business you have to learn how to write.'" So, with Walter Murch, he prepared a new script; it became the first, and only, project of Coppola's company, American Zoetrope, as a studio.
The making of THX 1138 was like a film student's dream. There was enough money to work properly, but the studio chiefs in Los Angeles never saw rushes or dailies. Warner Brothers saw no material until the rough-out was taken down from San Francisco for their inspection. Only Coppola, the friend and patron of Lucas and Murch, had immediate influence on the operation; and he was, in effect, one of its architects. Working with friends allowed unorthodox methods. Murch permitted the intricate sound track to grow along with the images hat Lucas was photographing, directing, and editing. The sound montage was an organic part of the film, nova decoration imposed afterward. The tiny crew, with the shaven-headed actors, could travel to locations in a single minibus. George Lucas was on his own.
The day Warner Brothers saw THX 1138, they abandoned director, producer, the American Zoetrope studio, and all that went with them. They left Lucas, with Coppola, deeply in debt. Worse, they recut THX 1138. "I don't feel they had the right to do it," Lucas says, "not after I had worked on that thing for three years for no money. When a studio hires you, that's different. But when a film-maker develops a project himself, he has rights. The ludicrous thing is that they only cut out five minutes, and it really didn't make that much difference. I think it's just a reflex action they have."
The film was not a commercial success, although it found a steady audience in universities around the campus circuit. In 1978, seven years later, when it was re-released in the form George Lucas had originally intended, it still did not take off. Even the fact that it came "from the makers of Star Wars" could not make its cold vision into something popular.
While Lucas was cutting THX 1138, the producer Gary Kurtz came to visit him. Kurtz wanted to discuss the problems and virtues of the Techniscope process, but the talk ranged more widely. Together they speculated about a rock'n'roll film set in the late 1950s or the early 1960s, in the days before the Beatles and the killing of President Kennedy and the war in Vietnam. Over the next years, Lucas distilled his own adolescence in Modesto into a script. He worked with Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, USC graduates, but the project was constantly stalled and shelved. George Lucas and his wife, Marcia, exhausted by the horrors of the Zoetrope collapse, set off for a long vacation in Europe, packs on their backs.
When they returned, Lucas found that United Artists was prepared to put up a little development money for his idea. He decided to hire a writer, but he found, quickly, that he should have stuck to Coppola's advice. The script was professional, but not authentic. With distaste, Lucas says: "The man had put in playing chicken on the road instead of drag racing."
"That was my life," Lucas explains. "I spent four years driving around the main street of Modesto, chasing girls. It was the mating ritual of my times, before it disappeared and everybody, got into psychedelia and drugs." He had no intention of allowing the film, which was to bear the title American Graffiti, to be inexact. He wanted to recreate the years of transition, before Vietnam, corruption, drugs, and time changed everything.
The tension between our dreams and Lucas's life is what makes American Graffiti work for so large an audience. The low-light filming, with its curious, golden radiance, becomes a dream. Time is collapsed. All the central characters are confronted with a turning point in the course of a single night. Yet that night could be placed anywhere within a decade. Cars and music span ten years, an era rather than a date. The slogan for the film—"Where were you in '62?"—makes the setting seem fixed in time, but it is not. The reality, the underpinning, is the music, and that goes from the start of Eisenhower's second term to the end of Kennedy's golden years. "George wrote the script," Walter Murch says, "with his old 45's playing in the background." From the beginning, the group-Kurtz, Huyck, Katz, Murch, and Lucas-discussed which tune best went where. They open the film on a giant amber light; as the camera pulls back, we realize it is the marking on a radio dial. The structure of the film comes from the radio program, the songs that disc jockey Wolfman Jack plays. Characters take cues from the music. And Wolfman Jack is the unseen center of it all, father figure as much as circus master. Like a father, he resolves problems, calms fears, arranges for meetings that would otherwise be only longings.