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Discuss in the context of ‘auteurism’ the use of editing and/or sound in American Graffiti (1973)

Module: Hollywood and Beyond
Module Coordinator: Dr David Garland
Academic Year 2 (2021/2022)

This is one of the first essays I wrote in my second year studying Film Studies BA (Hons). I enjoyed learning about the Hollywood Brats and writing this essay, as American Graffiti is an excellent film.

Auteur theory typically refers to a director who is known as the “primary source of the film’s formal, stylistic, and thematic qualities” (Thompson & Bordwell, 1994, p. 720), and whilst the original meaning was focused on directors, it can be applied to other roles within the creation of a film. One such example is Walter Murch’s work within the sound department of George Lucas’ 1973 film, American Graffiti, where I would argue that the sound montage is the primary source of the film’s formal, stylistic, and thematic qualities, and thus consider Walter Murch as the auteur of this film equally as much as the director, George Lucas.

American Graffiti follows a group of friends on a night after their graduation. Cars are an integral part of the film, each a character of their own and the soundtrack is so closely related to the film’s plot, it switches from being a non-diegetic soundtrack, to using diegetic sounds from within the car’s stereos. There is near constant background noise, mostly in the form of songs or a radio DJ talking, and when this falls silent it is used as a plot element – the radio has stopped, so the car must have been stolen!

If we examine the role Lucas had in the creation of American Graffiti, we can see he took on a larger one than you would typically see in Hollywood. Lucas directed, wrote, and helped to edit the film, whilst being closely involved in the sound editing with Walter Murch. His involvement in the editing of the film was particularly profound: he would not provide much direction in terms of an actor’s performance, believing his vision would be met in the editing process (Lewis, 2007, pp. 70-71). Lewis continues with an interesting and wholly relevant statement: “If a director or producer’s claim to auteur status regards the degree to which he or she has controlled a project, Lucas and Spielberg are auteurs of the highest, strictest order” … “Lucas has gone so far as to exert control over the exhibition of his films through his THX-line of theatre sound systems and videocassette and DVD sound reproduction. Lucas and Spielberg have exploited their auteur celebrity more deftly than did any of their predecessors” (Lewis, 2007, p. 71). This indicates that Lucas (and Spielberg) wanted and achieved an unprecedented level of control over their films from production to exhibition.

Lucas’ hands-on approach to film making is strongly supported by auteur theory. Lucas was involved with the formal qualities, (narrative, editing and sound), stylistic qualities, (the cars themselves can be considered characters and are representative of their drivers), and thematic qualities, where the route of the story is just a group of friends looking to enjoy their final night together.

In an interview with Web of Stories, Walter Murch explained how he and Lucas “recorded a two-hour DJ programme, including the songs and the commercials, and Wolfman Jack, a disc jockey, talking in-between the commercials and the songs, as if it was something you could just turn on your radio” (2016a), which is a radical and unique way to add a soundtrack to a film. In fact, in an earlier interview, Murch explained how Lucas would add a heading to each scene in the script with the title of the song which would play for this scene and that he had been instructed by Verna Fields to try and get Lucas to drop the idea of having so many hit songs “baked into the screenplay” because “people are just going to go crazy. They’re going to want to reach out and turn that music off, because he’s ruining a wonderful story with all this music”. (Murch, 2016b). Fields had been working with Lucas on the first assembly of the film, and Lucas and Murch’s disregard of her advice is another supporting argument for labelling them as auteur. Lucas and Murch had a particular view for how American Graffiti would turn out and the film would have been considerably different should they have allowed other people to influence their creative decisions.

Lucas feels that the soundtrack is 50% of the film going experience. “Sound is an extremely important part of creating mood and emotional experience… It’s a shame how sound has been treated over the years” (Abbott, 1999, p. 166). Lucas is clearly passionate about how the sound is produced and delivered, further supporting his auteur status.

There are several instances within American Graffiti where the radio DJ seems to be reacting to what is happening in the scene. At 17 minutes and 1 hour 20 minutes, the DJ is laughing at the time when a car crashes and a police car’s rear axle is torn off respectively. Another example of this can be found in an earlier collaboration between Lucas and Murch, THX 1138 (Lucas, 1971): at 1 hour 15 minutes where the radio chatter is reporting that SRT has crashed their stolen car. Throughout this final scene when THX is escaping in the car, there is constant radio chatter switching from being non-diegetic to diegetic in the same way it does in American Graffiti. Again, earlier in the film, when the technicians override THX’s nervous system, the radio chatter from THX’s perspective is switching between diegetic (through their headset) and non-diegetic (they aren’t hearing it, but the audience is).

Murch would later be nominated for a ‘Best Sound’ Oscar for The Conversation (Coppola, 1974), where the soundtrack was also a very important part of the film. As the film progresses, we hear the same distorted audio clip repeated with slightly more clarity each time, leading into the twist at the end of the film where, even though we now hear the audio clearly, it was taken out of context. The audio in The Conversation was just as important as the way the sound was mixed in American Graffiti between the non-diegetic soundtrack and diegetic car radio and Murch exhibits similar traits with how the sound interchanges between the two, especially in the film’s opening when the initial audio surveillance is taking place.

Lucas and Murch exhibit fundamental examples of auteur theory in American Graffiti, which are backed up by examples from other works, such as THX 1138 and The Conversation. The typical traits of auteur theory are present for American Graffiti in both Lucas’ involvement and Murch’s, thus I would reiterate my argument that Murch is just as much the films auteur as Lucas.


  • Abbott, D. (1999). George Lucas: His First Love Is Editing. In S. Kline, George Lucas Interviews. (pp. 165-169). University Press of Mississippi.
  • Coppola, F. F. (Director). (1974). The Conversation [Motion Picture]. American Zoetrope.
  • Lewis, J. (2007). The Perfect Money Machine(s). In J. Lewis & E. Smoodin, Looking past the screen (pp. 61-86). Duke University Press.
  • Lucas, G. (Director). (1971). THX 1138 [Motion Picture]. American Zoetrope.
  • Lucas, G. (Director). (1973). American Graffiti [Motion Picture]. Universal Pictures.
  • Murch, W. (2016a). American Graffiti: The soundtrack [Interview]. Web of Stories.
  • Murch, W. (2016b). The 42 songs of American Graffiti [Interview]. Web of Stories.
  • Thompson, K., & Bordwell, D. (1994). Film History: An Introduction. McGraw-Hill.