But United Artists didn't make American Graffiti.
I'm getting to that. Bill and Gloria had a chance to direct their own movie, so I hired another friend to write the script. The first draft wasn't at all what I wanted. It was a desperate situation. I asked Marcia to support us some more. I was borrowing money from friends and relatives. I wrote the script in three weeks, turned it in to UA, and they said, "Not interested." So I took the script – remember, the story treatment had already been turned down by every studio – back to the same studios, which turned it down again. Then Universal said they might be interested if I could get a movie star. I said no. Universal said that even a name producer might do, and they gave me a list of names and Francis was on the list. See, Godfather was about to be released, and the whole town was abuzz. Universal, being what it is, was trying to cash in on this real quick. You could see the way they were thinking: "From the man who brought you The Godfather." Anyway, Francis said sure. Godfather came out and it was a hit.
And the rest is history?
Not quite. Universal wouldn't give us our first check. Francis came very close to financing American Graffiti himself. Finally, Universal mellowed. When I first screened American Graffiti, one of the executives from Universal came up to me and said, "This movie is not fit to show to an audience." That is what he actually said. Well, Francis blew his cork. In my eyes, it was Francis' most glorious moment. He started screaming and yelling at this guy: "How can you do this to this poor kid? He did this film for nothing, no money! He killed himself, and the first thing you tell him is that it's not fit to show to an audience. Couldn't you say, 'Thank you, you did sort of a good job. Glad you brought it in on budget and on time.'" Francis kept yelling and yelling and he said, "Well, I like this movie. I'll buy it. I'll give you a check for it right now."
Universal took the film, but we still fought and fought. They wanted to take five minutes out of it. Five minutes in a movie is not going to make a difference. It was nothing more than an exercise in authority; Universal saying they had the right.
Did anything good come out of this experience?
[Laughing] At the bleakest point in all this, I got an offer to direct. I was writing every day, which I hate, so there was a temptation, but I said no. It went on until the price was $100,000 and points. The most I had ever been paid to direct a movie was $15,000. I said no. It was a real turning point.
What was the movie?
Lady Ice, starring Donald Sutherland. It was a disaster. If I had done that movie, it would have been the end of my career . . . I felt sort of proud of myself when I said no.
Then American Graffiti went on and was a hit?
Not quite. [Smiling] I told you it was a long story. It was January 1973. I had been paid $20,000 for Graffiti, it had taken two years, I was $15,000 in debt and Universal hated the film so much they were contemplating selling it as a TV Movie of the Week. I had to start paying back some of this money. So I thought, "I'll whip up that treatment, my second deal at United Artists, my little space thing." I did a fifteen-page treatment, showed it to United Artists. No deal. So I took it to Universal.
After what they had put you through?
I hated Universal, but I had to go to them. Part of my deal to make American Graffiti was that I had to sign my life over to them for seven years. That's the way they work over there. They owned me. They had first refusal on any idea I had. I showed it to them and they said no. I took it to Laddie [Alan Ladd Jr.] at Fox and he said he would take a chance. [Laughing] I was only asking for $10,000 to write the screenplay. In August 1973, American Graffiti came out and was a huge hit, and that sort of finished my financial woes once and for all.
What happened to 'Star Wars'?
At that point, I was thinking about quitting directing, but I had this huge draft of a screenplay and I had sort of fallen in love with it. Plus, I was a street filmmaker. I had never done a big studio picture, so I thought, "This'll be the last movie I direct." I finally finished the script. I wanted to make a fairytale epic, but this was like War and Peace. So I took that script and cut it in half, put the first half aside and decided to write the screenplay from the second half. I was on page 170, and I thought, "Holy smokes, I need 100 pages, not 500," but I had these great scenes. So I took that story and cut it into three parts. I took the first part and said, "This will be my script. But no matter what happens, I am going to get these three movies made." [Laughing] When I made the deal to write and direct Star Wars at Fox, I obviously made it for nothing. All I had was a deal memo, no contract. Then Graffiti came out, was a hit and suddenly I was powerful. Fox thought I was going to come back and demand millions of dollars and all these gross points.
I said, "I'll do it for the deal memo, but we haven't talked about things like merchandising rights, sequel rights." I said I wasn't going to give up any of those. Fox said fine. They were getting me for less than $100,000.
Did you know then that the merchandising and sequel rights were going to be so valuable?
Well, when I was writing I had had visions of R2-D2 mugs and little windup robots, but I thought that would be the end of it. I went for the merchandising because it was one of the few things left we hadn't discussed. I took everything that hadn't been discussed. All I knew was that I wanted to control the sequel rights because I wanted to make the other two movies.
What is your deal with Fox?
They have first refusal on every Star Wars film I want to make.
How many is that?
I guess you really do have reason to hate Hollywood.
They're rather sleazy, unscrupulous people. L.A. is where they make deals, do business in the classic corporate American way, which is screw everybody and do whatever you can to make the biggest profit. They don't care about people. It is incredible the way they treat filmmakers, because they have no idea what making a movie is about. To them, the deal is the movie. They have no idea of the suffering, the hard work. They're not filmmakers. I don't want to have anything to do with them.
But if you want to make movies, don't you have to?
That's why I'm trying to build the ranch.
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