Totally Awesome Facts You Need to Know About Back to the Future

Back to the Future Day

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.”

Christopher Lloyd and Michael J Fox in Back to the Future

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.'”

Lea Thompson and Eric Stoltz – Back to the Future – 1985

Lea Thompson and Eric Stoltz – Back to the Future – 1985

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.

Billy Zane – Back to the Future – 1985

Billy Zane – Back to the Future – 1985

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.

Stoltz - Back to the Future

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.

Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson and Michael J. Fox - Back to the Future 30th Anniversary

Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson and Michael J. Fox – Back to the Future 30th Anniversary

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.

Elisabeth Shue - Back to the Future Part 2 - 1989

Elisabeth Shue – Back to the Future Part 2 – 1989

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.

More Facts You Need to Know

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Back to the FutureCommandoDances With WolvesFletchFright NightGet ShortyGoldenEyeGoodfellasHome AlonePretty WomanReal GeniusSevenShowgirlsToy StoryUsual SuspectsWeird Science


Posted on October 21, 2015, in facts you need to know, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 44 Comments.

  1. Great write-up; this has been a favorite of mine for, well, close to 30 years. Robert Zemeckis might not make many “great director” lists, but for a time back in the 1980s and early 90s he really had the knack for turning out films that were well-crafted and really resonated with audiences.


    • He was a favorite of mine for a while there. Not great, but he’s definitely got some talent. Even with something like What Lies Beneath, he’s bringing something to the table. Clearly, he knows a thing or two about story structure. The script for BttF is incredibly tight.


      • While I wouldn’t quite go so far as to call Zemeckis a brilliant director, I do think he has built up a very impressive filmography. Romancing The Stone, Back To the Future 1 2 and 3, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her (which I think is underrated), Forrest Gump, Cast Away….. all films that I’m quite fond of. I’d say Zemeckis is one of the better populist directors of the last 30 years.


        • Some of those, I’m pretty “meh” on. The BttF sequels are okay. Probably better than they would have been without Zemeckis but I prefer to ignore their existence. I thought Death Becomes Her was underrated when it came out, but please don’t make me watch it today. I like Forrest Gump, but not nearly as much as I did 20 years ago. It has really soured for me over time. Cast Away is boring. There I said it.


  2. Interesting fact about the flying skateboards. the government actually did make them but they didnt test well and they feel it is not ready to be sold.


  3. Terrific write-up as always Lebeau. I’ll tell you what, they really dodged a bullet by firing Eric Stoltz. Don’t get me wrong Stoltz is a talented actor, but he would have been completely wrong for Back To the Future. If Zemeckis had not been able to convince the president of Universal to spend millions more and reshoot half the film over again with Michael j. Fox, the Eric Stoltz version of Back to the Future would have probably flopped to be honest.


  4. When I think about it, it is really extraordinary that Back To The Future spent 11 weeks at #1. That is unbelievable legs for a blockbuster, even for back then. A week shy of 4 straight months as the most popular movie. Nowadays a hit film would be on Blu-Ray 4 months after release. That’s a surefire sign that audiences really loved the movie.


  5. Totally awesome article, and… wow. I’ve been distracted and working through some things since the weekend…. let’s just say it’s football related and I’m still not over it…. anyway……didn’t even notice today was BTTF day, until my 8th grade daughter reminded me at dinnertime. I dropped my fork. It’s really been 30 years!! Got a little giddy at that point must confess.
    BTTF is movie classic gold and always will be so.


  6. Glad to say, looking at the reunion pics of Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd and Lea Thompson, 30 years later they still look just terrific!


  7. Great write up. 🙂

    Back to the Future is one of those movies that isn’t simply a hit, it is actually beloved, a cultural icon. Just a great combination of script and direction and acting.


    • It really is. Few movies have the built-in cross-generational appeal of Back to the Future. It’s one of the few movies I could watch with my dad and we both liked it.

      I knew that there were difficulties making BttF. I was surprised to realize the extent of the problems they faced. It’s really remarkable the movie turned out as well as it did. To some extent, I think that can be chalked up to the adversity they faced early on. If they hadn’t been rejected by over 40 studios, would they have had the time and made the effort to work out all the bugs like they did?


    • Definitely. And it still holds up quite well. I compare it with ET which was still a smash at the time BTTF came out. Today, BTTF has aged way better. Even then I thought ET was okay. But I was totally into BTTF.


      • Yeah, ET didn’t age nearly as well as I expected it to.

        Although, the ET ride did outlast the BttF ride at Universal. That has to count for something.


        • I think ET might be a better kids movie (and it is a very good movie) but ultimately BttF has, as you say, sheer cross generational appeal. I have seen BttF multiple times in cinemas in recent years and it still wows audiences.


        • There are some very adult themes in both movies. I wouldn’t want to broach the suggested incest in BttF with my kids just yet. E.T. has some dark moments and foul language. But at least I don’t have to explain why Marty’s mom keeps trying to get him in the sack.


  8. I have a feeling that they are probably giving Crispin Glover a worse rap than he deserves. He’s an odd fellow, but whenever I’ve watched or read any of his press, he seems really, really nice. He’s just not a commercial actor. It sounds like the differences were artistic, not some kind of diva shit. Also, I’m less inclined to be on the side of folks who, if you won’t do their sequel, they just CGI your head into the film.
    On another note, I wouldn’t have imagined anyone other than Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown, but I think John Lithgow would have totally pulled it off. Speaking of nice actors, I had a friend in high school who had a relative in the film industry; she met John Lithgow and said he was great guy.


    • I don’t know. Glover bad mouthed Back to the Future and then demanded a big raise for the sequel. He famously got himself banned from the Letterman show by trying to karate kick Dave. I can see how he would be a little much to deal with.


  9. Little off topic lebeau but would say fox career was struggling just before spin city. I know he had some flops his movie career even before Parkinson didnt live up to full potential. I mean he went from starring huge hits like back to future then back to sitcom. Back then going back to tv was saying your movie career declining.


    • I think he was just aging out of his niche and couldn’t find another one. All of his film hits were playing wiseass young boys. Although I liked ‘Casualties of War’, people just didn’t really warm up to Michael J. Fox in dramatic roles. Romantic leads didn’t work out great for him either. Sitcoms just seemed to be where he shined.


      • He was definitely trying and failing to escape being typecast as Alex P Keaton/Marty McFly. Casualties of War, Bright Lights Big City, Light of Day, none of them worked.


        • Michael J. Fox’s career is an interesting one. After he left Family Ties in the late 80’s he did have a couple of modest hits as a lead actor; Doc Hollywood and The Hard Way come to mind. But what I noticed a bit even then was after a few box office flops with him as the lead, he started to take supporting roles in films such as The American President (a film carried by Michael Douglas) and Mars Attacks! (an ensemble comedy). Fox probably realized by this point his film careers were limited so he went back to television with Spin City, which gave him more success on the small screen than he probably would have found on the big screen at that point. I say good for him Spin City went on for several years as a hit series.


        • Even The Hard Way wasn’t a hit. It opened in 3rd and barely recouped it’s production costs. Fox’s hits outside of Back to the Future were Teen Wolf (while he was still on Family Ties), The Secret of My Success (still on FT) and to a lesser extent, Doc Hollywood.


        • In retrospect I’m a bit surprised how well The Secret of My Success performed at the box office in 1987. I knew it was a hit, as a fan of Fox back then (who wasn’t?) I saw it at the show and enjoyed it quite a bit, not a great film but certainly amusing. What surprises me is that it was the 7th biggest hit of 1987. I knew it did well but not that well. If it’s one of the top 10 hits of the year wouldn’t that make it a blockbuster? I’m not sure where the line for blockbusters is drawn. Anyway, I was watching a bit of it on cable not too long ago, it hasn’t aged that well it’s mildly amusing now at best. But Fox is charming in it.


        • It benefitted greatly from the fact that it came hot on the heels of Back to the Future. You could say that was the secret of it’s success.


        • Ha! Nice. Definately Secret of My Success was a star vehicle, pure and simple. Those were the glory days when a film could be sold entirely on star power, and there’s no other reason why that film became one of the years’ biggest hits than Michael J. Fox being the star of the film. You put some nobody in the lead, it makes 20 bucks at the box office. You put Michael J. Fox in the lead, it becomes the 7th biggest hit of 1987.


        • Yep. I also considered Helen Slater to be a bonus. But she definitely wasn’t selling any movie tickets.


  10. doc hollywood hard way secret of my success where hits. He mentioned in his biography he had flops like greedy for love or money other things. I guess he felt more comfortable in sitcom


    • In “The Secret of My Success”, he was playing a character very similar to Alex P. Keaton, and his “Doc Hollywood” character was not entirely dissimilar- someone ambitious, pretentious and snarky who has a better heart than what he would seem. They were all characters who fell in line with the Michael J. Fox “brand”. Audiences didn’t seem to accept it when he made choices that didn’t fall in line with what was expected of him; some of his film choices were simply bad. “Doc Hollywood” did okay in the box office, but it’s not a film that particularly stands out or is remembered by audiences today. I saw it and found it mediocre. I’ve never heard of “hard way”. I think he really tried to make a go of it in film, got a great start, but never quite found his footing, and eventually went back to the sitcom format playing a character who ALSO could pass for a grown-up Alex. But it’s not a bad career, really; overall, he fared a lot better than most.


      • Michael J Fox: 5 Awesome Performances And 5 That Sucked:

        Dr Benjamin Stone – Doc Hollywood (1991)
        There’s a theory that says that people don’t remember Doc Hollywood as fondly as they should do because John Lasseter ripped its story off wholesale for Cars, kicking off Pixar’s least popular franchise. But that is cruel and unusual punishment for a hugely charming film that consciously takes advantage of Fox’s easy charisma in a fish out of water setting.

        On the surface, Dr Benjamin Stone should be completely unlikable: he’s a yuppy doctor who drives a sports car and cares more about worldly pursuits rather than simple homely pleasures. But like Robert Downey Jnr’s performance as Tony Stark, every sin is entirely forgivable


  11. Here article of spin city in 1996 mentioning fox career being in slides before psin city. The party line is that Fox is returning to television after a bungled movie career


  12. Here another link from 1996 when it first started spin city.,,20142297,00.html Michael J. Fox, his movie career having temporarily stalled, returns to TV in this heavily hyped sitcom


  13. We can agree sheen who took fox spot career was doomed before 2 and a half men .


    • Michael J. Fox suffered from being permanently typecast as Alex P. Keaton; Sheen fell into the trap of permanently being typecast as Charlie Sheen. At least one of those characters is actually likeable. If you’re going to be stuck in one role of one person for the rest of your life, don’t let it be Charlie Sheen.


  14. Yes sheen drug addiction and bad film choices didnt help. Sheen basically played Carnations of himself. I like both actors. I find both their career similar both big stars in mid 80s to late 90s. Played comic classics. Both starred in hits but never quite reached a list. The quality of their shows dipped when they left. Sheen is a good actor but he seemed out of place in spin city that was fox show. Just like kutcher was not good in 2 and a half men. If fox replaced charlie on 2 and a half men it would suck . No one replaces charlie. Charlie was cast on 2 and a half men based on spin city. Fox cast in spin city based on american president. Today both are not really known for their acting. Fox known for work fighting Parkinson . Charlie is known for …. well enough siad.


  15. When family ties was finished and after 3rd back to future movies fox didn’t have anything to fall back on when his other films failed. He never really transitioned in adult roles which is audiences for most part didnt accept him in other films . Hard way did ok. His only leading hits outside back to future where teen wolf secret of my success and doc Hollywood. Tv seem to fit him more. His character in spin city seemed older version of alex keaton.His show Michael J fox show was sold on nostalgia but that didn’t help.


  16. How We Felt About Back in Time (BTTF Documentary– Minor Spoilers)

    Captain Logan and Brandon express their feelings right after seeing the new Back to the Future documentary, Back in Time.


  17. Back to the Future 2 – TODAY IS THE FUTURE!

    In Back to the Future 2, Doc brings Marty and Jennifer to the future date of October 21, 2015. That actual day is now upon us! James, Mike and Kyle sit down and reflect upon the film’s legacy, and of its imaginary future predictions. It’s an ingenious work of science fiction, but when is it more science than fiction? Our nostalgia will lead us to the past, which is about the future, which is now the present.


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