Favorite Films: Back to the Future

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“Wait a minute, Doc. Ah… Are you telling me that you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?”

Great movies, and great stories in general, come about in many different ways. But with great science fiction, there is one aspect that crops up time and time again. More than any other source, great science fiction stories tend to start with two little words: “What if?” For writer Bob Gale, the question was spawned one day when he was looking in his parents’ basement, and found his father’s high school yearbook. He saw his father, senior class president, and considered how different they were, and found himself wondering: “What if I had been back there as a young man? Would we have been friends?” This idea, of a high school student discovering first hand what his parents were really like in high school, formed the basis of a new screenplay for Gale. He teamed up with Robert Zemeckis, with whom he had written several movies before. The resulting screenplay was Back to the Future.

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“No McFly ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley!”
“Yeah, well, history is gonna change.”

Of course, there were hitches along the way between having a screenplay and creating a movie. A significant hitch came in the form of Gale and Zemeckis themselves. They had teamed up before on writing three different feature films, two with Zemeckis directing, and one with Steven Spielberg directing. The films were I Wanna Hold Your Hand, 1941, and Used Cars. Spielberg had directed 1941, and had produced the other two. And all three were flops at the box office. Zemeckis didn’t want to bring Spielberg into it again, lest he and Gale get a reputation as being failures who only got work due to their friendship with Spielberg.

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“Jesus, George, it’s a wonder I was even born.”

Columbia Pictures had made a development deal with Zemeckis and Gale, but once the script was completed, in 1981, they put the project in turnaround — a Hollywood term meaning they put it up for sale for any studio that was interested, because they weren’t. Columbia felt that the script, as a teen comedy, wasn’t risque enough. Other studios agreed. Scripts for Porky’s, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Revenge of the Nerds were all in development, and studios wanted something to compete in that nature. Gale and Zemeckis were advised to try Disney. Disney, for their part, said that the Oedipal angle of Marty’s mother falling in love with him was too risque for their brand of family comedies. It became clear that getting the film made would likely require Spielberg’s involvement, but Zemeckis still wanted to prove his own individual worth. Finally, in 1984, he released the first hit of his directorial career: Romancing the Stone. With the success of that film under his belt, he and Gale approached Spielberg to produce the film, with Zemeckis directing, and took it to Universal, who agreed to develop the picture.

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“Silence, Earthling. My name is Darth Vader. I am an extraterrestrial from the planet Vulcan!”

Where there are studios, there are studio executives. Sid Sheinberg, head of Universal Pictures, did not like the title Back to the Future. He was insistent that movies with the word “Future” in the title wouldn’t sell tickets (it must be noted there were only six feature-length films using the word prior to 1985, although indeed none were notable). Sheinberg sent a memo suggesting that Marty’s line about being Darth Vader be changed to say that he was a spaceman from Pluto instead of Vulcan, and that the title should then be Spaceman from Pluto (of note, neither “spaceman” nor “Pluto” were part of a major successful film title before… or since.) Spielberg dictated a memo in response, thanking Sheinberg for the “hilarious joke”, saying it gave the whole team a great laugh. Sheinberg was too proud to admit he hadn’t been making a joke, and the title remained Back to the Future.

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“Jesus Christ, Doc, you disintegrated Einstein!”

Back to the Future fans shouldn’t judge Sheinberg too harshly, however, as he did make some suggestions that were taken seriously and which made minor improvements to the script. Some of these were simple favoritism, such as renaming the character Meg, Marty’s mother, to Lorraine, after his own wife. Other changes were more stylistic and made the film just a little bit sleeker. Emmett Brown’s pet chimp, Shemp, referencing the Three Stooges, was replaced by a dog named Einstein, referencing the scientist who inspired the character’s work in the story and his look in the film. Emmett Brown himself was changed from being “Professor Brown” to just “Doc Brown”, a name which flowed more quickly and felt more casual in dialogue.

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“My god, do you know what this means? It means that this damn thing doesn’t work at all.”

The role of Doc Brown was originally planned to go to John Lithgow, but he was unavailable. Neil Canton, one of the producers on the film, had worked with Lithgow on The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, and suggested another actor who had worked on the same film: Christopher Lloyd. Lloyd initially rejected the part, but was talked into it by his wife after reading the script. Lloyd took his mannerisms and look from Albert Einstein and Leopold Stokowski; Doc Brown’s habit of hunching over came about as a result of needing to fit in frame with the shorter Michael J. Fox. Lloyd’s antics on the clock tower near the end were inspired by the Harold Lloyd film Safety Last!, a picture of which can be seen among Doc’s clocks in the beginning.

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“Lou, give me a milk. Chocolate.”

All of the actors whose characters were shown in both 1955 and 1985 were cast based on the appearance of their characters in 1955; it was deemed easier to make a young actor look old for 1985 than to make an old actor look young in 1955. This decision would be the reason behind Doc Brown’s futuristic facelift in Part 2, as Lloyd did not wish to wear the advanced-age makeup for a whole film, nor sit through the time necessary to apply it. Considering Lea Thompson’s makeup to play the adult Lorraine took three and a half hours to apply, this is understandable.

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“Why don’t you make like a tree and get outta here?”

The role of Biff Tannen was given to Thomas F. Wilson over J. J. Cohen due to the difference in size between the two. The producers wanted a Biff who could physically tower over Marty, who at that time was expected to be played by Eric Stoltz. Cohen simply wasn’t quite tall enough, so he was recast as one of Biff’s cronies while the taller Wilson was assigned to play Biff. This proved to be a fortuitous switch, as Wilson ad-libbed some of Biff’s most famous lines, including his favorite insult “Butthead” and his infamously mangled non-puns. Similarly, Crispin Glover improvised George McFly’s shaking hands on his own, adding to the nervousness of his character both when faced with Biff and with life in general.

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“Which one’s your pop?” “That’s him.”
“Maybe you were adopted.”

The role of Marty McFly himself was both the first and the last major role cast. Zemeckis wanted Michael J. Fox from the beginning, but Fox was tied up — specifically, with Family Ties, where he was expected to carry the show during the period when co-star Meredith Baxter was out due to pregnancy. Unable to get Fox, the producers went with Eric Stoltz based on his performance in the film Mask. Lea Thompson was cast as Lorraine because she had acted with Stoltz in The Wild Side. Stoltz worked on the film for four weeks, throwing himself into the character to the point that he insisted on always wearing Marty’s clothes and being addressed as Marty even while the cameras were not rolling. Ultimately, however, they felt that Stoltz simply didn’t work for the part. By this time Fox’s duties on Family Ties had been reduced enough that he was allowed to take part in the film, and all the scenes involving Stoltz were reshot with Fox. This also led to recasting the role of Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer; Melora Hardin was too tall next to Fox, and the small role was then given to Claudia Wells instead.

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“The way I see it, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?”

The time machine itself went through a few changes from the initial script to the final film. Initially it was a laser beam. Then it became a refrigerator, and in order to return to 1985 Marty had to repower it by taking it to the atomic bomb testing range. Zemeckis decided against that idea out of fear that children would crawl into fridges and get stuck. It was eventually turned into a car because of the appeal of having it be mobile. The atomic bomb angle was scrapped only due to the cost involved; a bolt of lightning was a cheaper special effect to produce. The car of choice was a DeLorean DMC-12. The producers thought that its stainless steel finish and gull-wing doors made it look sufficiently alien that the people of 1955 would mistake it for a spacecraft. It also served as a mild joke; the DeLorean had been a short-lived car on the market, partly due to the arrest of the company’s founder, but also partly because of public tastes. Although the film would make the uncommon car highly desirable among movie fans, at the time of its production, it was a car that could only be appreciated by an eccentric such as Doc Brown.

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“If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 miles per hour… you’re gonna see some serious shit.”

The setting was given heavy consideration. The “present day” of the film was set in October 1985, so it would seem as contemporary as possible for the audience upon its release. With Marty being 17 years old, and the youngest of three, that put the era of his parents’ youth somewhere in the 1950s. 1955 was selected for being a round number of years away; Part 2 would continue this trend by being set the same number of years into the future. Setting the bulk of the film in 1955 allowed the script to make various casual observations about cultural and societal changes of the time. Rock and roll was just beginning. The Cold War was also just beginning, and many expected it wouldn’t remain cold forever — hence Doc’s comments about “the atomic wars” when he sees his future self in a radiation suit. And equal rights for different races were also just starting to come into the fore. In 1955, Marty realizes that a black janitor at the diner will one day be mayor of Hill Valley, and says so, inspiring “Goldie” to take that path in his life.

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“Chuck! Chuck, it’s Marvin. Your cousin, Marvin Berry. You know that new sound you’re looking for? Well, listen to this!”

Filming took 100 days after Fox joined the cast, finally wrapping in late April. The movie had been scheduled for release in May, but had to be delayed; it was moved to August. In the meantime, Zemeckis and company held a test screening. The final scene hadn’t even come back from Industrial Light and Magic yet, and had to be shown in black and white, but the audience went wild for the entire film. A few scenes were cut for time, but one was saved by the test audience reaction: the “Johnny B. Goode” performance after Marty’s performance of “Earth Angel”. In fact, the overall audience reaction was like nothing Zemeckis had seen in a screening audience before. The enthusiasm for the film was so high that once ILM had completed the special effects, the film was advanced forward from August to be released on July 3, 1985. This had the ironic element that the film, meant to be contemporary, actually took place nearly four months into the future, being set on October 26, 1985. Zemeckis would later state that on that date fans actually showed up at the mall where the time-travel scenes were filmed, waiting to see if Marty and the DeLorean showed up (they did not).

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“If we could somehow harness this lightning… channel it into the flux capacitor… it just might work. Next Saturday night, we’re sending you back to the future!”

The film was released to phenomenal critical and commercial success. Critics compared it favorably to It’s a Wonderful Life in theme, and to Arthurian legend in the relationship between Doc and Marty. It opened at #1 in the box office, having the fourth-highest opening weekend of the year… and was even more successful the following week, demonstrating tremendously positive word of mouth. In all, it spent eleven weeks at the top of the box office charts, and was the highest-grossing film of the year. It was nominated for the Oscar for Best Screenplay, and won for Best Sound Editing. It took home the top film honors at both of the science-fiction-oriented Saturn and Hugo awards, and was nominated for Best Film at the BAFTAs and Best Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes. Years later it would be voted the 23rd greatest film of all time by Empire magazine readers, and the 56th greatest screenplay by the Writers Guild of America. The American Film Institute considers it one of the 10 greatest science fiction films of all time. And in 2007, it was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry for being culturally or historically significant.

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“It works, ha ha ha ha, it works! I finally invent something that works!”

It’s a film that can be watched multiple times, with each viewing providing both regular entertainment and the fun of looking for various Easter eggs. Very few lines in the film are throwaways, with scenes in 1985 pre-time-travel often foreshadowing events yet to come, and there are numerous background elements that bear little hints and references to other parts of the film. And the story itself is both funny and exciting; it deftly balances science-fiction’s toughest tightrope act, making a story that involves theoretical technology that shares enough about the technology to make it exciting without focusing on it to the detriment of the characters. It’s a story about understanding where one came from, and a coming of age story both for its protagonist and the side characters. And it’s a story that gave film-goers two iconic characters to root for in Marty McFly and Doc Brown, a hip kid and an eccentric scientist who work so naturally together that it took most of us thirty years to wonder how they ever became friends to begin with. According to Bob Gale, it was due to Marty exploring Doc’s lab, wondering about the “dangerous crackpot” he’d heard of; Marty was fascinated by all the cool things he found, and Doc was delighted at finding a friend who thought he was cool. Of course, in the altered 1985, we can assume that Doc knew Marty would one day come to him. But it scarcely needs explaining at all, as both characters are so much fun that audiences have loved them for years.

Back to the Future is a perfect blend of teen comedy and science fiction, with the youth and audacity of the former, and the high concept of the latter. It’s a high-water mark for films of the 1980s, and an icon of time-travel stories rivaled only by the originator itself, H.G. Well’s The Time Machine. It’s one of my favorite films.

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“Hey, Doc, we better back up. We don’t have enough road to get up to 88.” “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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14 Responses to Favorite Films: Back to the Future

  1. le0pard13 says:

    Oh, yes. The whole family loves this and its sequels. In fact, we did the trilogy last month once again. Excellent look at this 80s classic, Morgan.

    • Yeah, I’m a big fan of the whole trilogy as well. Part 2 a little less, since it’s so obviously just a bridge piece, but they’re all a lot of fun.

      • le0pard13 says:

        Y’know, I’ve grown to appreciate Part II more and more over the years. Yes, it’s the bridge segment in the trilogy, but its darker tone and more complicated timeline I admire more today than back when it debuted.

  2. Gene says:

    Awesome information man! Loved this! I wonder how Eric Stoltz feels about having the role taken from him after devoting himself to it at that level. Thanks for all the info!

    • I wonder that as well. I’ve seen some sources say that it was a mutual decision on their part, that he agreed, but that seems a little strange considering his dedication.

  3. Awesome and informative review Morgan. I wonder if Stoltz still got paid and got a cut of the profits for this film.

    I just checked out some Stoltz footage on YouTube. I guess it is on the blu-ray but there is no sound. ;-(

  4. ckckred says:

    Nice review. I always loved the last line.

  5. S says:

    Stellar post Morgan. I’ll always have fond memories of this film and enjoy a rewatch on occassion. Love the Huey Lewis cast and decision that Marty’s just “too damn loud.” Great quotes with screenclips too. I read that Reagan was amused by Doc Brown’s disbelief that the actor would actually get elected President so much so that Reagan referenced BTTF in his ’86 State of the Union stating “As they said in the film Back to the Future, ‘Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.'” Damn good stuff and can’t wait to read your upcoming contributions on FMR. 🙂

    • Thanks, S. Apparently at Reagan’s private White House screening (one of the nicer perks of the position, I think) he got to laughing so hard at that scene that he had the projectionist rewind the film to play it again.

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