I couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel of a car. At 16 I drove my first one, a little Fiat, all around town as I cruised the streets looking for girls.
My like-minded friends and I didn’t know it at the time, but we were taking the ancient tradition of teens parading around each other as a form of courting, and adding cars to it. Cares were all-consuming for me. I helped out at garage so I could work on my own car too. For a teenager in the 1960s, the car was an escape from a slow life of boundaries and rules. You could drive away from your parents’ gaze and be who you wanted to be. I set out to document that distinctively American rite of passage in American Graffiti, to show everyone what it was like in the summer of ’62 – a time now half a century behind us.
I was convinced I was going to work on cars for a living, tinkering with them and racing them professionally. We’d race against the clock, trying to outdo our speed records, never thinking of the danger involved. But three days before I graduated from high school, I was nearly killed when I got broadsided by a classmate. My car was a write-off and I spent two weeks in intensive care. The roll bar and the racer’s belt I’d installed had saved my life. Still, I knew my racing days were over.
Cinema is the only art that can capture that adrenaline rush of racing speeds, and I rediscovered my love for it when I began studying film and film editing. All my movies have it – whether it’s the drag race in American Graffiti, the Millennium Falcon jumping to hyperspace in Star Wars, the climatic chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the Tuskegee Airmen outflying Nazi war planes in their P-51s in Red Tails. There’s a freedom you can find only by pushing your vehicle and yourself past all limits.