‘Back to the Future’: Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s Timeless and Endlessly Fun Hybrid of Genres

The first day of shooting on the set of Back to the Future. Production still photographer: Ralph Nelson © Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, U-Drive Productions

When it came out in the summer of 1985, Back to the Future was a huge hit, becoming the highest grossing film of the year, loved by the critics, adored by the public. A perfect example of an accomplished family movie, a skillful mixture of genres able to satisfy all generations of film lovers: comedy, science-fiction, adventure, action… This perfect hybrid of humor, seriousness and adorable eccentricity is a composite piece of filmmaking whose entertainment value, and we apologize for the obvious word play here, is simply timeless. However, it should be noted that this label of a family flick somehow sucks in the connotations of being light, simple, superficial and suitable for a lazy Sunday afternoon in bed, while the quality of the filmmaking artistry invested in the project often gets overlooked. Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis’ screenplay is one of the best we’ve ever read: everything you find in it is here with a clear purpose, there are no redundancies or blind alleys, every line of dialogue and every single action is in the service of advancing the story and developing the characters, anything you might find thrown in and weirdly sticking out on the first viewing later fits in perfectly. And upon watching Back to the Future again and reading the script, it finally begins to dawn on you: Gale and Zemeckis created not just one of the best teen movies of the eighties, but by building on a terrific screenplay, drawing excellent performances from the actors and with a little producing magic of Steven Spielberg, they created one of the best movies—period. It’s fascinating to learn about the kind of risks the authors had to take to make it, and how one of the most successful movies of all time actually spent years on the shelves, rejected all over Hollywood, judged either for being too light or too edgy, depending which executives you turn to. And if it hadn’t been for the financial success of Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone, it remains a mystery whether the film would still be lying somewhere in the archives, with its potential hidden under a thick layer of dust.

Regarding the origins of the idea for making Back to the Future, it could be said the film is based on two simple ideas around which the rest of the story would be written: Bob Gale wondered if he would have been friends with his dad if they had gone to high school together, while Zemeckis mused over a character of a mother who claimed never to have kissed a boy in school, while she was in fact quite a promiscuous little rascal. The script was developed through a series of drafts, with several important aspects changing along the way, but the project was still rejected by more than forty studios. Most considered the film to be too mild and too light for contemporary audiences, while Disney simply couldn’t fathom the idea of making a film with incest in the heart of it. Only after Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone proved successful at the box office did opportunities for Back to the Future start to arise. Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment agreed to produce it and it finally ended on Universal’s table, where president Sidney Sheinberg had more than a couple of ideas for improving the script. Although several of his suggestions were accepted, his most notorious objection was to the title, as he believed that the very mention of the future might automatically put the movie into a specific sci-fi drawer and thus damage its potential for reaching a wider audience. Sheinberg suggested a new title, Spaceman from Pluto, which was successfully shunned only after Spielberg sent him a genius letter commending him for his humor. “We all got a big laugh, keep ’em coming,” Spielberg wrote, shaming Sheinberg into conceding defeat.

Since Back to the Future is a film built upon and around its characters, and a film whose attraction largely depends on the degree of affection the audience shows for its heroes, it was crucial to find the right actors. Michael J. Fox played Marty McFly, the teenager travelling back to his parents’ school days, but only after Eric Stoltz was fired. Fox was initially considered for the role, but due to his obligations to the Family Ties sit-com he was deemed unavailable, so Stoltz was cast. With his seriousness, method-acting aggression and a lack of comical sensibility needed for the part, the producers soon realized their error of judgment and managed to convince Fox to come on board. The young actor then worked tirelessly to align his two schedules, shooting Back to the Future until late at night. Fox managed to create a magnetic mixture of friendship and mentorship between his character and Christopher Lloyd’s genius Doc Brown, while the brilliant Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson and Thomas F. Wilson completed the list, creating some of the most memorable film characters of the period. The film was shot by Dean Cundey (Halloween, Escape from New York, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Jurassic Park, Apollo 13), edited by Arthur Schmidt (Forrest Gump) and Harry Keramidas (Children of the Corn), with the music of Alan Silvestri, who recommended that Huey Lewis and the News come on board. The original song they wrote for the movie, called ‘The Power of Love,’ even grabbed an Oscar nomination.

After thrilling the audience at the test screening, the film’s premiere was moved one month early and it was first screened in July, 1985. The world went mad and transformed Back to the Future into the highest grossing picture of the year. The careers of everyone involved got a boost, after a string of weak releases Spielberg finally produced a hit and the future generations got an inspiring feel-good classic that would mark their childhoods and instigate their love for the world of film. Back to the Future is one of those rare movies we go back to with nostalgia, a film that takes us back to our early days and those cozy afternoons with our families in front of the TV, where we repeatedly shared the excitement and thrill of Marty’s adventures. And while the playful, fascinated childish part in us will never stop appreciating the nostalgic value of the film, that more serious, analytical portion of our brain keeps warning us not to allow our feelings to cloud our judgment and make us ignore the talent and quality that was invested into the development of this project. Simply put, Back to the Future is a marvelously made movie.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale’s screenplay for Back to the Future [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. The book recommendation: ‘We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy‘ by Caseen Gaines. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
“No studio wanted to make Back To The Future until Bob had a hit with Romancing The Stone. Then everyone wanted to make it, but we took it to Steven and the timing couldn’t have been better—he’d just made E.T. and was setting up Amblin Entertainment. He told us Back To The Future would be Amblin’s first production, and it helped that Steven was behind us because he protected us against the studio, Universal. During filming we had one executive keep asking us to change the title to Spaceman From Pluto, a reference to the comic seen in the barn, which we ignored. Eventually he became to adament of changing the movie title he sent us a memo about it. Unsure how to handle it, we took the memo to Steven, who told us ‘Don’t worry, I know how to handle him,’ before writing a letter back which said, ‘Hi Sid, thanks for your most humorous memo, we all got a big laugh out of it, keep ‘em coming.’ Steven knew he would too embarrassed to say that he wanted us to take the letter seriously. Luckily nobody questioned the title after that. Without Steven, it could have all been very different.” —Bob Gale

‘BACK TO THE FUTURE’: SCRIPT TO SCREEN

Our friends at Mentorless, a brilliant site for independent storytellers and filmmakers, have posted extracts from screenwriter and producer Bob Gale, along with actor Christopher Lloyd, talk on writing and making the film. Here are 9 highlights from Gale, who co-wrote Back To The Future with Robert Zemeckis and had the original idea.

  • What Sparked Back To The Future’s Idea

“I wondered whether or not I would have been friend with my dad if I had gone to High School with him. And that was the germ of the idea. It connects with this very human thing that everybody has. It doesn’t matter when you were born, you come to the realization that your parents were once kids, and nobody had ever made a movie about it.”

  • The Challenges of Making BTTF

“The script was rejected over 40 times. You have to be crazy to want to be in the film business and you have to be able to take a lot of rejection because, as screenwriter William Goldman says, ‘Nobody knows anything.’ We were told over and over again ‘Ha, it’s a Time Travel movie. Time Travel never makes any money’; ‘Oh it’s nice and sweet, nobody wants to see something nice and sweet’; ‘Why don’t you guys take this to Disney? This could be a Disney movie.’ And this was when Disney was a complete mess.”

  • Making BTTF Today

“Zemeckis and I talked about this many times, we don’t know if we could have make it today actually. Because the mash-up of genres that makes this movie so fresh and exciting and crazy and exuberant. I mean, they don’t know where to put this movie in a video store. Is it family? Is it comedy? Is it SF? Is it adventure? It’s all that stuff and it all works. But today they want everything to be just one thing. The Studios get really nervous when you take some chances and you do something crazy. So I don’t even know if we could have make the movie.”

  • Casting The Wrong Actor as Marty McFly

“Originally cast was Eric Stoltz in the part of Marty McFly, we wanted Michael J. Fox but he was doing his TV series Family Ties and we approached Gary Goldberg, the producer of the show about having Michael in this movie and Gary said ‘Absolutely not. Michael’s TV schedule is too full. I won’t even let him read the script.’ Gary had read the script and he loved it and he said ‘If I let Michael read the script and tell him he can’t do the movie, Michael is gonna hate me for the rest of my life.’ We didn’t go there because we couldn’t and ended up casting Eric Stoltz. He was the favorite choice of Sidney Sheinberg who was the CEO of Universal and was a big fan of a movie that Eric did called ‘Mask,’ a very good picture, and was convinced that Eric could do comedy. We shot for five weeks and became convinced that Eric wasn’t very good at comedy. We were editing the movie as we went along and Bob Zemeckis came and said ‘Bob, you need to come and look at the footage, I think we got a problem.’ And right there I knew there was a problem because during the whole time Bod and I did our movies together, I never saw anything cut together until there was an entire cut of the whole movie; that way Bob had somebody who he completely trust to look at the picture from beginning to end without looking at a peace meal.”

“We showed the footage to Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, and we all agreed that we had a problem and Steven, in his wisdom, said ‘We can’t go to Sheinberg and tell him we have a problem without having a solution for the problem. So let’s figure out who else can be in the movie, before we tell him that we want to fire Eric. Don’t say we want to fire Eric and shut down. Say we want to fire Eric and hire maybe Michael J. Fox.’”

  • The Difference Between a Theater Trained Actor and a Television Trained Actor

“Chris [Lloyd] is a theater trained actor. A theater trained actor learns the entire script. The first day of shooting, Chris knew the entire script. Michael J. Fox is a television trained actor and, on a Sitcom particularly, the writers are always changing, they rehearse it, they change the script, they rehearse it the next day, they change the script. So Michael never learned his lines, because what was the point of learning your line, they were going to change it tomorrow. So he learned his lines 10 minutes before he had to say them. So there was an interesting dynamic between how Michael and Chris work because Chris had everything worked out and Michael would throw these ad-libs and they were wonderful, I mean he brought so much to the character of Marty McFly.”

  • Capitalizing on the Actors Chemistry for BTTF 2 & 3

“It helps a lot as a writer to know the actors who are going to be speaking the dialog. With Chris, knowing that he could memorize all that paragraphs of scientific mambo jambo… The Rule that I had for writing Doc Brown’s dialogs was ‘Doc never uses small words when a big word would do.’ Knowing that it was Chris and Michael, knowing what the actors could do that helps you.”

“A trick that I use as a screenwriter is to imagine a great actor or just somebody I know who has a particular speech pattern saying the dialogs, being the character. Even if they’re dead. Jimmy Stewart has a particular way of talking, Humphrey Bogart has a particular way of talking, Katherine Hepburn has a particular way of talking. These are movie Stars whom I’ve seen all of their movies so many times that their voices are in my head. So if I listen to their voices in my head as I’m writing the dialogs, the dialogs come out a certain way. You should be able to read a dialog and not have to see which character is speaking it. You should be able to say ‘Oh yeah, that’s obviously a Doc Brown line.”

  • Having a Sequel in Mind

“As Bob Zemeckis stated many times ‘If we knew we were gonna do part 2, we would have never put Jennifer in the car.’ Because when we got around writing part 2 we said: ‘What are we going to do with Jennifer?’”

  • Modifying The Script During Production

“We constantly rewrite the script for all different sorts of reasons. Sometimes because you run out of money and can’t afford to do something, or the weather changes or you get thrown out of the location. We start and we always try to do a table reading, and have everybody sit down and read through the script and get comfortable with the material. As a writer sometimes a line might look really good on paper but when you hear somebody say it, it doesn’t sound right at all.”

  • The Three Most Important Ingredients in a Script

“People like people. People asks me ‘What are the three most important ingredients in a script?’ Character, character, character. You’ll forgive a lot of scenes in a movie if you really like the characters. We watch TV series because we really like the characters, and some episodes are good, and some episodes maybe not so much, but if we love those characters, we keep coming back. A great actor can bring so much life into the written word that, that’s why they get the big bucks.”

 
The following is from an article titled “The Other Marty McFly?” by Bruce Gordon published in Starlog #108 (July 1986).

Starlog #150 features Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd in Back To the Future II.

“The Return of the Other Marty McFly” by Bruce Gordon published in Starlog #154.

“Marty McFly’s new rides” by Bruce Gordon published in Starlog #170.

Jack’s Movie Reviews is a channel dedicated to creating a community that loves all things film: “Let’s dissect Back to the Future, in addition to being one of the most fun movies out there, it also tells a pretty great story, and in this episode we explore some of the techniques that director/writer Robert Zemeckis bring to the table.”

 
Andrew Probert’s artistic career began on the small screen, designing the robotic Cylons for the original Battlestar: Galactica, then moved on to the big screen as a major Design contributor for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, working to update the overall look of Starfleet ships & hardware. This led to a number of television and feature-film projects, including Airwolf, Streethawk, and Back to the Future. Design for the time-travelling DeLorean, by Andrew Probert. Back to the Future™/© Universal Studios and U-Drive Joint Venture.

 
The great folks at Craft Truck interviewed legendary DP Dean Cundey for their Through the Lens series: “This is a cinematographer who has left an indelible mark on the history of filmmaking. Not just a man who has traversed pretty much every genre—horror, action, drama, comedy, western, etc.—but also always shown a commitment to storytelling first. Dean Cundey just knows a tonne about how to make images work. He’s been dealing with special effects before computers were involved at all, shot the groundbreaking Jurassic Park, and continued on from there. A trailblazer, a visionary, and a gentleman.”

 
Here are some great photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future. Production still photographer: Ralph Nelson © Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, U-Drive Productions. With thanks to Will McCrabb.


 

 
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