Totally Awesome Facts You Need to Know About Back to the Future
It’s been thirty years since the release of the science fiction comedy, Back to the Future. Today is not the actual anniversary of the movie’s release date. But it is Back to the Future Day. According to the sequel, Back to the Future Part II, today is the day that Marty McFly and Doc Brown use the DeLorean to travel thirty years into their future in order to save Marty’s kids and set up two sequels. So welcome to the 21st century, Marty. Sorry to say, we still need roads. But we do have some totally awesome facts you need to know about Back to the Future!
Back to the Future was inspired by a dusty old high school year book. Writer and producer, Bob Gale explained where the idea for the movie originated:
I was back in St. Louis, Missouri, visiting my parents. Searching around in the basement, I found my father’s high-school yearbook. I’m thumbing through it and I found out my father was president of his graduating class. I didn’t know this. I thought about the president of my graduating class as someone I had nothing to do with. I was head of the Student Committee To Abolish Student Government. So I thought, Gee, if I went to highschool with my dad, would I have been friends with him?’ So that was the idea I came back to Los Angeles with.
Director Robert Zemeckis co-wrote the script with Gale. He says they worked hard to make sure that they got all the details right:
It was a very, very painful and elaborate screenplay to write. Bob and I were adamant about making it extremely tight and setting everything up and tying up all the loose ends — where the science within the suspension of disbelief all made sense.
That meant fixing a lot of things that Back to the Future fans probably take for granted. For example, originally the time machine was not a moving vehicle. It was more of a fixed chamber. And in early drafts, Marty McFly had a very depressing outlook on life. Bob Gale explained:
In the version where Doc Brown had this time chamber, Marty didn’t understand what it was. He thought it was this thing that was going to shoot off this big electrical discharge. He was so despondent about how messed-up his life was, he was going to commit suicide. We thought that was a good idea for way longer than we should have. Finally, we said, ‘We can’t have the main character be someone who wants to kill himself.’
Originally, Doc Brown was going to have connections to the Manhattan project. The movie was going to end at a nuclear test site in Nevada. Marty and Doc were going to harness the energy from a detonation in order to power up the DeLorean for its trip back to 1985. According to Gale, the idea got reused in a rather infamous way:
We were fascinated by all the nuclear tests. They would build these fake little towns in the desert and blow them up. If you remember the opening of Indiana Jones IV, where do you think that idea came from? It came from Back To The Future.
Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. In order to keep the movie’s budget in check, the Nevada locations were written out of the movie. Instead, the clock tower was added. Not only did this serve to reduce the budget, but it introduced the time imagery of a giant clock. Zemeckis called it “much better, tighter writing.”
Steven Spielberg served as executive producer on Back to the Future. He had some objections to the Oedipal aspects of the script which he said made his skin crawl. When he took his concerns to Zemeckis and Gale, “they both burst out laughing and said, ‘Yeah, isn’t that cool?!’ It’s a big fat taboo on paper but because of the charm and how shy Lea Thompson played the moment and how absolutely uncomfortable Michael J. Fox played his side of the scene, it was played for comedy and nothing more.”
Despite the quality of the script, Zemeckis and Gale couldn’t get anyone interested in Back to the Future. Acording to Gale, they received over 40 rejections. Their last two movies were well-received box office flops, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars. Spielberg had produced both of these movies and was willing to produce Back to the Future as well. But Zemeckis worried that if he had a third box office flop in a row, he would never work again as a director. According to Zemeckis:
Three years went by and I did Romancing The Stone that was fortunately a hit. Then everyone wanted to do Back To The Future.
Zemeckis and Gale decided to go back to Spielberg who had believed in the project when no one else did. Spielberg helped them set up a deal with then Universal head, Sid Sheinberg. According to Zemeckis:
Sid had three notes when Steven gave him the screenplay to read. One was we couldn’t call the Doc ‘Professor’ because he thought it was corny. The second one was, in the original drafts of the screenplay, Doc had a chimp as a mascot instead of a dog. Sid said, ‘You have to get rid of that chimp because no-one’s going to see a film with a chimp in it.’And the third one was he hated the title, but we stuck to our guns on that. After the movie was a success, we were having a celebratory meeting, and we said, ‘You see, Sid, people went to the movie.’ And he said, ‘But I’ll never know if I was right, will I?’
The title that Sheinberg wanted to use was Spaceman From Pluto after the comic book the kid is reading in the barn in 1955. Everyone involved agreed that Spaceman From Pluto was a terrible title for a movie about a kid time traveling back to when his parents were young. So Gale and Zemeckis went to Spielberg who had a creative solution to the problem. Gale explained:
Steven wrote a memo back to Sheinberg saying, ‘Dear Sid, thanks so much for your most humorous memo. We all really got a big laugh out of it.’ Steven knew that Sid was too proud to admit he’d meant it seriously. And that was the end of Spaceman From Pluto.
From the beginning, Zemeckis and Gale wanted Michael J. Fox to play Marty McFly. But Fox was unavailable due to his commitment to the sitcom Family Ties. Universal wanted the movie in time for Memorial Day Weekend,. So waiting for Fox to become available was not an option. The audition process came down to C. Thomas Howell and Eric Stoltz. According to Gale, “Tommy’s screen test was terrific, but Sid said, ‘It’s got to be Eric Stoltz.'”
The casting of Stoltz paved the way for Lea Thompson to join the cast. Stoltz had worked with Thompson previously on The Wild Life and recommended her to Gale and Zemeckis. They had already watched The Wild Life when they were deciding whether or not to cast Stoltz and had taken not of Thompson’s performance.
For the role of Doc Brown, Zemeckis wanted John Lithgow. When Lithgow was unavailable, producer Neil Canton suggested one of Lithgow’s costars from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Christopher Lloyd. Had Lloyd declined, Zemeckis intended to cast another Buckaroo Banzai castmate, Jeff Goldblum.
The original choice for the bully, Biff Tannen, was actor J.J. Cohen. But Zemeckis didn’t feel that Cohen was physically intimidating enough to bully Stoltz. So he replaced Choen with Thomas F. Wilson. Cohen ended up playing one of Biff’s flunkies along with Billy Zane who made his movie debut in Back to the Future.
Cohen wasn’t the only actor to be recast. Originally, actress Melora Hardin, best known for playing Jan on The Office, was cast as Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer. But when Stoltz was replaced with a shorter leading man, Hardin was deemed too tall for the part and replaced with Claudia Wells.
Zemeckis shot with Stoltz as Marty for six weeks. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that the comedic elements weren’t playing right with Stoltz in the lead. So he cut together 45 minutes of footage and took it to Spielberg. Spielberg agreed that Stoltz just wasn’t right for the part. Zemeckis recalled making the decision to replace his lead actor:
I just miscast Eric. It had nothing to do with his talent or his abilities. He’s a magnificent actor. His comedy sensibilities were not the ones I had in mind for the movie. It was painful for Eric. It was painful for me. It was painful for everybody. It cost the studio millions of dollars. If I had done all these things that I did and the movie had failed, my career would be over. So, you have to do what you have to do for the movie.
Fortunately, Spielberg convinced Sheinberg to go along with the decision to replace Stoltz. He also pulled some strings to get their first choice. According to Spielberg, he was best friends with Family Ties creator, Gary David Goldberg. Spielberg begged his friend to let Fox star in Back to the Future while he was still working on Family Ties. Zemeckis said the schedule made for a touch shoot:
The hardest part of making all the Back To The Futures was because Michael did those movies and never slept. We shot the daytime exteriors on the weekend but the whole shoot was pretty much at night. All I remember is never seeing any daylight.
Whenever possible, stand-ins were used in place of Fox. Zemeckis said the process of reshooting was disheartening. Scenes that were originally hard to shoot didn’t get any easier. And sometimes, the reshot scenes didn’t feel like improvements over the original shoot. Adding to the difficulty was the eccentric behavior of costar Crispin Glover:
He was completely off about 50 per cent of the time in his interpretation of the character. There’s a scene in a cafeteria where he’s writing in his journal. If you look very closely, his face is all puffy; his eyes were all bloodshot because Crispin insisted his hair should be sticking straight up while he was writing. When I explained to him that it wouldn’t match with what we shot the previous day, he said, ‘Brando never matched.’
Due to all the problems, Back to the Future had a reputation as a difficult movie. Zemeckis explained that the movie was regarded as “a movie in trouble. So there was no expectation that the movie was going to amount to anything. So when we showed it to the studio, they were literally giddy.”
The first sneak preview for Back to the Future was held in San Jose. The audience was told nothing about the movie except that it starred Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd. The effects shots weren’t complete and the ending was in black and white. But despite the rough quality of the print, the test audience loved the movie. Spielberg sat in the audience:
Except for E. T., it was the greatest preview I’ve ever sat through. The audience just never stopped laughing and never stopped applauding every set-piece. By the time the lights went up, that preview audience owned Back To The Future.
Sheinberg was so impressed with the reaction that he wanted the movie ready for the Fourth of July. Gale and Zemeckis told him it was possible if he was willing to pay for the crew to work round the clock. Sheinberg agreed to do “whatever it costs.”
Back to the Future received mostly positive reviews. Although Bob Gale recalled one stubborn critic who gave the movie two thumbs down:
There was a TV reviewer here in Los Angeles named David Sheehan. He was a pompous sort. He gave us a really negative review. The other people on the TV newscast said, ‘David, you’re crazy, you need to go back and see that movie again. The movie’s really good.’ They badgered him and he did something he’s never done before, he did a second review. And the second review was worse than the first one.
Despite Sheehan’s multiple bad reviews, Back to the Future was a hit. It spent 11 weeks at the number one spot at the box office which is the kind of hit you just don’t see any more. According to Zemeckis:
In the ’80s you didn’t know you had a really great hit until your fourth weekend. We had a thing called “legs” in those days. You opened your movie and your movie opened strong, then your movie did its magic. You could let the picture build, you could add screens and all these wonderful things. In our fourth weekend, we out-grossed the sequel to Mad Max. Then we knew we had a movie that would play all summer long. Nowadays, you just get one weekend. It’s not as much fun at all.
Audiences loved Back to the Future and Universal wanted to make a sequel. But Gale and Zemeckis had never intended for their to be sequels. The “To Be Continued…” at the end was a joke rather than a promise. But the studio was going to move forward with sequels whether they were involved or not. So in order to protect their creation, Zemeckis and Gale decided to return for the sequels.
Gale and Zemeckis were primarily interested in making Back to the Future: Part III. But they felt like they needed to pick up where the original movie left off. In order to cover Marty’s trip into the future and set up Doc Brown’s romance in the old West, the sequel would have been over two hours which wasn’t acceptable at the time. So their solution was to film two sequels back to back. Once again, Spielberg sold Universal on the idea.
Most of the original movie’s cast and crew returned with two notable exceptions. Claudia Wells who had played Marty’s girlfriend was unavailable to make the sequels because she was caring for her mother who was ill. As a favor to Robert Zemeckis, Elisabeth Shue stepped in to play Jennifer.
The other holdout was Crispin Glover who had played Marty’s father George. According to Gale, Glover’s decision shaped the writing of the sequel:
Crispin Glover decided he wanted all sorts of things that were way out of line for an actor at this point in his career. He wouldn’t budge so we said, ‘Okay, fine, we’ll make the movie without him.’ So the whole idea of this alternative 1985 where George is a tombstone, really came about because we knew we had Lea Thompson, we knew we had Tom Wilson, but we didn’t have Crispin Glover. Let’s create this weird world where George McFly is dead.
Ever since Back to the Future: Part III, Zemeckis, Gale and Fox have all insisted that they were done. But fans are still asking about the possibility of another Back to the Future. Zemeckis remains resolute that it should never happen:
There’s no Back To The Future IV and there shouldn’t be a Back To The Future IV. I don’t think there should ever be a fourth sequel to anything. Three is a dramatic number. It’s a three-act structure. Four is even. Four is boring.
Posted on October 21, 2015, in facts you need to know, Movies and tagged Back to the Future, bob gale, Christopher Lloyd, crispin glover, eric stoltz, LEA THOMPSON, Michael J. Fox, Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg. Bookmark the permalink. 44 Comments.