It’s wonderful how one idea can lead to another even greater idea. The human brain is remarkable in its ability to shift gears without actually stripping the original intention.
The young George Lucas, had lost the confidence of the movie studio after the cool reception of his first movie. For inspiration he looked to an Italian movie about four teenagers from a small town who talk about leaving for Rome but never do.
Tempting as this might be, the 29 year old was also dreaming about making a new Flash Gordon” movie. He thought about how great it would be to see Flash Gordon on the big screen in full living color. It had been filmed in black and white several times.
As a young child the Flash Gordon game was a favorite. Since I was the only girl in my neighborhood, I was relegated to being Dale Arden with the ice-cream cone chest, when I really wanted to be Flash Gordon.
One night Lucas and his friend producer Gary Kurtz were at a diner and talking randomly about how the science fiction movies hadn’t really been enjoyable since Forbidden Planet” in 1955. They all seemed to have gone to genre horror movies like Creature From the Black Lagoon” or alien invasions. They both decided that none of that was fun any more the way “Flash Gordon” and Buck Rogers” had been.
Lucas made a trip to New York in 1971 to visit King Features to inquire about the film right to “Flash Gordon”. The King executives were thinking about the film rights too and mentioned the Italian director Frederico Fellini who was also a known Flash Gordon fan. Lucas knew he could not compete with Fellini at this point in his career.
As in so many creative right turns, this set off a lightbulb in Lucas’s brain, and he began dwelling on the vague notion he had had for years of making something even better than Flash Gordon. If he couldn’t do Flash Gordon he would just invent his own.
George Lucas on set of American Graffiti in 1973
In the meantime though, Lucas needed a way to make a more bankable movie in order to pay for a movie about space flight. If Fellini was to take Flash Gordon” maybe he could take something from Fellini—for instance, the idea behind the movie I Vitelloni, about the four teenagers in the small 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 at the ago of 18, and end it with a car crash. Set in a small town much like his own boyhood Modesto, California, it had flavors of autobiography.
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 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.
Lucas’s encapsulation of space journeys were still to come.