‘Bob Zemeckis and I had written three movies together,’ said Bob Gale, ‘and we had always wanted to do a time-travel story. We’d just never figured out how. What turned the light on for me was coming across my dad’s old high-school yearbook and thinking, “Would we have been friends if we’d been at school together?” All of us have that revelation when we understand that our parents were young once, too. That’s a big moment. Then there is the message that we all have control over our destinies. I thought we could dramatise those two things.’[i]
Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were both filmmaking students at the University of Southern California (USC). Their time-travelling screenplay took five years to make, from initial draft to premiere, but became not only the highest-grossing feature film of its year but the beginning of a much-loved film trilogy, a touchstone for 1980s popular culture, and one of the most widely adored science fiction films ever made. Its dialogue was even quoted in a speech by President Ronald Reagan. The film is, of course, Back to the Future.
Zemeckis and Gale’s screenplay was written under a contract with Columbia Pictures, who then rejected the script once its studio readers had assessed it. It was then famously rejected more than 40 times by successive Hollywood studios and production companies. Most studios rejected the screenplay either because they disliked the time travel narrative, or because they felt it wasn’t raunchy enough to appeal to a teenage audience. Several producers suggested sending the script to the Walt Disney Company, then in the tail end of its time as a producer of relatively anodyne family films.
Bob Gale said: ‘I thought one day, “what the hell, let’s take it to Disney.” This was before Michael Eisner went in and reinvented it. This was the last vestiges of the old Disney family regime. We went in to meet with an executive and he says, “Are you guys nuts? Are you insane? We can’t make a movie like this. You’ve got the kid and the mother in his car! It’s incest – this is Disney. It’s too dirty for us!”’[ii]
The only producer in Hollywood who demonstrated any interest in Back to the Future was Steven Spielberg. At that stage he had already worked with Gale and Zemeckis three times: twice producing for them on I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) and Used Cars (1980) and once by hiring them to write his 1979 comedy 1941. All three films had been commercial failures, and Zemeckis in particular was leery of pushing his luck by risking Spielberg’s reputation on another box office bomb. He instead chose to put Back to the Future aside and put his name out to direct whatever studio production came his way.
That production was Romancing the Stone, a 1984 romantic adventure written by Diane Thomas and set up at 20th Century Fox. The film, which starred Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, was an unexpected hit on release, grossing more than US$86 million dollars from a US$10 million dollar budget. It provided Zemeckis with the clout within Hollywood to hand-pick his next directorial project: he selected Back to the Future, and asked Steven Spielberg to produce it via his production company Amblin Entertainment.
Back to the Future follows a Californian teenager, Marty McFly, who has befriended an eccentric inventor and scientist named Emmett “Doc” Brown. When a test of Brown’s latest invention – a fully-functioning time machine – goes disastrously wrong, Marty finds himself trapped in the year 1955 where his parents are his age and his mother unwittingly falls passionately in love with him.
While the basic structure of Back to the Future remained unchanged throughout development, it did undergo numerous changes and refinements from draft to draft. The time machine was initially envisaged as a static device, at one point even being constructed out of an old refrigerator (this plan was dropped when it was realised children might imitate the film and climb inside a refrigerator at home).
The manner by which Marty returned to the 1980s was also changed. The device was always nuclear-powered, but Gale and Zemeckis planned for Marty and Brown to recharge the time machine using power from a Nevada atomic bomb test. This was eventually changed for two reasons: firstly the additional location would have increased the production budget of the film, and secondly the idea of sitting and waiting for a bomb to explode seemed insufficiently action-oriented for a movie climax.
‘We already had the Courthouse Square,’ explained Gale, ‘so we came up with the idea of putting a clock atop the Courthouse and using the time motif, and the movie is much better because of it. It’s interesting and ironic that having less money resulted in a better film.’[iii]
It has been subsequently noted by both Gale and Zemeckis that Steven Spielberg, never one to waste an idea, eventually featured a refrigerator in an atomic explosion in his own 2008 action film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
The five-year delay between writing and shooting Back to the Future had one notable effect on the screenplay: siblings. In the original draft Marty was an only child. After a few years Gale and Zemeckis added an older brother, since they wanted Marty’s parents to begin having children in their 20s. By the time the film was set up at Universal Pictures they had also added an older sister.
Back to the Future was picked up by Universal Studios, as part of a larger contract with Amblin Entertainment. Universal Studios head Sid Sheinberg demanded several minor changes to the film before agreeing to green-light it. First, he wanted Brown’s nickname changed from ‘Professor’ to ‘Doc’. Secondly, he wanted Brown’s pet – a chimpanzee – to be replaced with a dog. Third, he wanted Marty’s mother to be renamed from Meg to Lorraine; possibly after his own wife, actress Lorraine Gary. Finally, he wanted to change the title from Back to the Future to Spaceman from Pluto (the name of a science fiction story that Marty’s father George is reading in 1955). Sheinberg got his way on all demands bar one: Steven Spielberg stood his ground and insisted the title remain Back to the Future.
The unanimous first choice of actor to play Marty McFly was 23 year-old sitcom star Michael J. Fox. Since 1982 Fox had starred in the popular NBC television series Family Ties, and had demonstrated both an engaging screen presence and a particular gift for comedy. While NBC and executive producer Gary David Goldberg were approached regarding the possibility of them loaning Fox out to shoot the movie, scheduling such a thing proved impossible. Co-star Meredith Baxter-Birney had recently informed Goldberg that she was pregnant, and Fox would be required to take on more scenes in the series to cover her temporary absence. The Back to the Future team reluctantly moved on.
Without Fox in the frame, a wide variety of up-and-coming male actors were considered, including Charlie Sheen, Johnny Depp and even pop singer Corey Hart. The choice ultimately came between Eric Stoltz, Ralph Macchio and C. Thomas Howell. With the encouragement of Sid Sheinberg, Zemeckis offered the part to Eric Stoltz.
The 23 year-old Stoltz had to date only played a handful of supporting parts in films – the most prominent of which was in Amy Heckerling’s 1982 comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He had recently completed his first lead performance, playing opposite Cher in Peter Bogdonovich’s drama Mask. It was Stoltz’s performance as the physical disfigured, emotionally sensitive Rocky Dennis that convinced Sheinberg that he was the best actor to play Marty. Sheinberg saw Stoltz as a major star in the making, and wanted to ensure he stayed in-house at Universal Pictures.
Several actors were initially considered for the role of Doc Brown, including Dudley Moore, Jeff Goldblum and John Lithgow. Christopher Lloyd was suggested by producer Neil Canton, who had recently worked with the actor on the science fiction comedy The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. ‘John Lithgow was the first actor to come to mind,’ admitted Canton. ‘He usually does for anything wacky and offbeat. John wasn’t available and I had such a great experience working with Christopher that I suggested him.’[iv]
The 46 year-old Lloyd initially performed in the theatre before making his film debut in Milos Forman’s acclaimed drama One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He later gained fame playing “Reverend” Jim Ignatowski in the television comedy Taxi, a role that earned him two Emmy Awards.
At the time Lloyd was shooting a feature film in Mexico, and received a copy of the screenplay via his agent. ‘At first I was going to turn it down,’ said Lloyd. ‘I was planning to go back to New York to pursue a theatre career – that’s where I started out. I really had to think about the film. There was some hesitation.’[v]
Lloyd based his character’s appearance on a mixture of Albert Einstein and composer Leopold Stokowski.
Shooting on Back to the Future commenced on 26 November 1984. The majority of the film was shot on the Universal Studios back lot, utilising the same standing town set that Joe Dante had used a year earlier to shoot his horror comedy Gremlins. The remaining scenes were shot in location in California.
As many of the film’s sets and locations were used twice – once for a 1985 setting and again for 1955 – director of photography Dean Cundey deliberately contrasted the look of each time period to make them stand out on screen. Cundey said: ‘The 50s we deliberately used warmer light, a little bit softer light to kind of create that nostalgic look back, consciously with the audience. And the 80s were sharper, more contrasty and a little cooler as far as the colour of the light.’[vi]
The film was shot in a ‘soft matte’ format. Rather than use an anamorphic lens to condense a widescreen ratio of 1.85:1 onto a 4:3 film frame, the film was shot directly in 4:3 and then matted into the widescreen ratio in post-production. The technique, also used by James Cameron’s film Aliens, has the unusual side effect of the original home video versions of the film actually showing more of the frame than was visible in the cinema release.
Roughly six weeks into shooting Robert Zemeckis edited together some early scenes to get a sense of how the film was pulling together. The edited scenes confirmed what had been a sneaking suspicion for several weeks: as the star of the film Eric Stoltz simply wasn’t funny enough.
From the beginning Back to the Future had been envisaged as a crowd-pleasing comedy, off-setting the disturbing nature of Marty McFly’s predicament – trapped in 1955 and romantically pursued by his own mother – with a light-hearted touch. Stoltz, as a demonstrably talent dramatic actor, was instead highlighting the film’s more troubling elements. No one who assessed the assembled footage – including Steven Spielberg himself – doubted Stoltz’s talent. It was simply precisely the wrong kind of performance that the film needed. It was unanimously agreed that with Stoltz as Marty Back to the Future would be a commercial and creative failure. It was then agreed, somewhat remarkably, that the best course of action would be to replace him with another actor and shoot the film again.
‘I just miscast Eric,’ admitted Zemeckis. ‘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.’[vii]
‘The humour just hadn’t been coming through with Eric,’ said Gale. ‘The studio weren’t happy exactly, but they’d seen the footage so they bit the bullet.’[viii]
Christopher Lloyd later recalled that Stoltz ‘is a very good actor – there was no problem in that area. From what I understand, they felt there was a certain comic flair they needed. They felt it was important to re-cast. It was a surprise to me.’[ix]
In 2007 Stoltz said: ‘You know, it was twenty-something years ago and I rarely look back, if at all, but in retrospect, I think just getting through that difficult period helped me realise how freeing it really was. I went back to acting school, I moved to Europe, I did some plays in New York and I actually invested in myself in a way that was much healthier for me.’[x]
At the time of shooting Michael J. Fox was still performing on Family Ties. Steven Spielberg personally approached its executive producer Gary David Goldberg to negotiate some method by which Fox could perform in both the sitcom to which he was already contracted and Back to the Future at the same time. Their arrangement allowed Fox to rehearse and shoot Family Ties during the day before working on Back to the Future in the evenings. ‘It happened so fast,’ said Fox. ‘They told me about it, gave me the script, and two days later I was in a parking lot in Pomona with flames between my legs and Chris Lloyd running around like a crazy man.’[xi]
Fox’s schedule basically entailed rehearsing Family Ties from 10:00am to 6:00pm Monday to Thursday, and then being driven from Paramount to Universal Studios to film Back to the Future from 6.30pm to 2.30am. On Fridays he would undertake final rehearsals for Family Ties from lunchtime to 5.00pm, and then record the episode in front of a live audience in the evening before finally reaching to Future set by 10.00pm. Any daytime sequences on location were shot during the weekend.
The arrangement almost broke Michael J. Fox’s stamina, but allowed him to perform on both productions at once. ‘I ended up getting about three hours sleep a night for the next three or four months,’ said Fox, ‘because they had to get the movie out that summer. [While we were making it], I thought I sucked in it. I really, truly thought I was terrible. So many times I was practically unconscious because I was so tired. And so [the work] was just instinctive.’[xii]
In total the miscasting of Stoltz cost the production an additional three million dollars over its budget. Supporting actors who had completed their scenes once already were re-hired and brought back. Sets that had been dismantled were hurriedly re-assembled. ‘It’s nice, in a way,’ admitted Zemeckis, ‘to get to do it over, which is what every filmmaker dreams about. But, when you actually get there, it’s very hard on everybody psychologically.’[xiii]
One unfortunate side effect of Stoltz’s departure concerned the role of Jennifer Parker, Marty’s 1985 girlfriend. The original actress cast as Jennifer was Claudia Wells. When a scheduling conflict arose she was forced to pull out of the film before filming commenced. She was replaced by Melora Hardin.
When Michael J. Fox was cast it was found that Hardin was too tall in comparison to him. Hardin had been cast opposite Eric Stoltz, who was almost six feet tall. By contrast Michael J. Fox was a hair under five feet five inches. The decision was made to re-cast Jennifer with an actress closer to Fox’s own height, and Hardin was dropped from the film. ‘I’ll tell you,’ said Bob Gale, ‘it was the hardest thing I ever had to do, breaking the news to Melora, because she didn’t do anything to warrant being let go. She was in tears, of course, and I was sick about it for days.’[xiv]
By this stage of the production Claudia Wells was available, and was cast in the role for a second time.
While much could be written about the quality of Back to the Future’s visual effects, or its production design, or the immensely appealing performances of its cast, the film’s greatest asset is Zemeckis and Gale’s screenplay. It is a masterpiece of structure and foreshadowing. It is worth pausing to consider just how complicated a screenplay it is, and just how much clarity it manages to retain while telling what is – by Hollywood standards – a rather convoluted story.
The film begins in Doc’s house, where we are already bombarded with extensive story information before we even realise we’re receiving it. In one long tracking shot we see that Doc is an inventor, that his inventions are somewhat ridiculous, and that he is seemingly obsessed with time. His one-room home – a shed, really – is covered in clocks. Notably, one of the clocks features a miniature model of silent movie star Harold Lloyd hanging from one of the hands – the exact same fate that befalls Doc during Back to the Future’s climax. Under Doc’s bed is a case used for storing plutonium.
Marty McFly arrives, establishing he’s a friend of Doc’s. He toys with a massive amplifier and speaker that Doc has been building for him. The speaker blows out, Marty receives a telephone call from Doc, all of the clocks suddenly chime at once – indicating they’re all precisely running late, and Marty grabs his skateboard and rushes to school.
In a single scene featuring one actor (and a second’s voice over the telephone) we are bombarded with character detail and foreshadowing. We are now aware of several details relevant to the plot before their relevance is revealed. It makes it easier for us to accept these details as they arrive. Since we saw Marty playing with an electric guitar and speaker, it’s not so unexpected to see him playing it later in the film. Since we saw the plutonium case under Doc’s bed, it does not feel so unbelievable when he reveals he is using it to power his time machine. A briefly seen television newscast clues us in to the fact that the plutonium has been stolen, so that it does not feel quite so left-of-field when the Libyans arrive to retrieve it.
This is just the first scene, but Zemeckis and Gale continue to use the same strategy through the rest of the film to key their audience into plot developments and themes ahead of time. It is why it is such an easy film to watch and understand: its creators are constantly working to make the audience’s task as trouble-free as possible.
Marty arrives late to school, where he and his girlfriend Jennifer are immediately apprehended by their teacher Mr Strickland. Once again it’s a scene loaded with foreshadowing: Strickland tells Marty ‘no McFly as ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley’, and Marty tells him ‘history is going to change’.
Much of the humour in Back to the Future works due to repetition. Strickland is not particularly amusing in this first scene, but it’s funny to see that 30 years in his past he looks identical and is saying exactly the same thing to students in 1955. It’s a joke that continues in the sequels, whether it’s as a shotgun-toting ex-teacher in an alternate 1985, or as his own near-identical grandfather in 1885.
Strickland was played by James Tolkan. Originally a theatre actor, he had gradually built up a resume playing small but notable parts in a range of feature films including Serpico (1973), The Amityville Horror (1979) and WarGames (1983). He would subsequently appear in Top Gun (1986), Masters of the Universe (1987) and the television series A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001-2002). Zemeckis cast Tolkan after seeing him perform in the 1981 film Prince of the City.
Whittier High School stood in for Hill Valley High. The high school, located in Los Angeles County, is best known as the alma mater of United States President Richard M. Nixon – as well as Pixar Animation Studios founder John Lasseter.
After school Marty and his band the Pinheads audition to play at the school dance. It’s another scene purely intended to clue the audience into future plot elements. The 1955 school dance forms a critical element of the plot, as does Marty’s playing the guitar at it. Here he fails the audition, setting his character up for a victory later in the film.
The teacher who judged Marty’s band audition, telling him he was ‘too darn loud’, was played by popular musician Huey Lewis. He and his band, Huey Lewis and the News, wrote and performed two key pop music tracks for the Back to the Future soundtrack: “The Power of Love” and “Back in Time”. Lewis’ inclusion here was an in-joke on Zemeckis’ part.
In the town square Marty confides in Jennifer that he’s worried he’ll never be able to play in front of an audience (more foreshadowing). While they talk they are interrupted by a woman campaigning to save the town’s historic clock tower, which has not worked since it was struck by lightning in 1955.
The fact that lightning will strike the clock tower in 1955 is the most obvious piece of foreshadowing in the film. It’s almost impossible to insert in a subtle fashion, but Zemeckis and Gale do their best by keeping the focus on Marty and Jennifer and not so much on the woman trying to talk to them. By writing her telephone number on the back of the flyer, Jennifer ensures that Marty will have that flyer with him when he travels back in time and can therefore know when the lightning will strike.
If you look closely at the ledge beneath the clock face, it is fully intact. When Marty returns to 1985 – and in scenes in the sequel – the ledge is partially broken off, after Doc breaks it during this film’s climax.
Marty goes home, where we are introduced to his siblings Dave and Linda, his parents Lorraine and George, and finally Biff Tannen – his father’s supervisor and a thuggish bully.
Lorraine and George were played by Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover. Lea Thompson was the first actor cast in Back to the Future. By 1984 she had already appeared in several major feature films including Jaws 3-D (1983), All the Right Moves (1983) and Red Dawn (1984). Lea Thompson recalled: ‘Crispin and I worked really hard on our characters. We really approached it with a lot of serious work, and I’m really proud of it. How beautiful he was, and that’s not easy stuff.’[xv]
Crispin Glover had appeared on television in numerous guest roles before being cast in Back to the Future. He had already worked twice with Michael J. Fox, first in the 1983 made-for-television film High School USA and again in an episode of Family Ties.
Introducing the relationship between George, Lorraine and Biff is critical to the film, since it is Marty’s interactions with their 1955 counterparts that form the bulk of the movie. Make-up effects were critical to the production: Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover and Thomas F. Wilson all had to look believable at both 17 and 47 (the actors were, respectively, 23, 20 and 25 when filming commenced). The make-up designer was Len Chase. ‘It’s probably the most difficult kind of makeup there is to do,’ he said. ‘To make that look real on the screen is very difficult. It’s harder to make someone look 50 than it is to make them look 150. When you make someone extremely old, you have the advantage of being able to cover their entire face with foam latex. When you make a young girl look middle-aged, you can’t cover the whole face, you have to just cover part of it.’[xvi]
Biff Tannen was named in part after former studio head Ned Tanen, whom both Zemeckis and Gale disliked after he rejected one of their earlier screenplays. Thomas Wilson was cast in the role, beating out other contenders including J.J. Cohen – whom we will discuss momentarily – and Tim Robbins – who was considered too old to play the teenage Biff convincingly.
Older brother Dave McFly was played by Marc McClure, who remains best known for playing photographer Jimmy Olsen in the 1979 blockbuster Superman: The Movie. Sister Linda was played by Wendy Jo Sperber. Both McClure and Sperber had performed for Robert Zemeckis already in both I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars.
Due to Michael J. Fox’s ongoing commitment to Family Ties, most of the dinner scene was shot without Fox present on set. Pick-ups and close-ups of Marty were shot once he arrived, and were then edited into the rest of the scene.
Late that night Marty meets Doc at the car park of the Twin Pines Mall. There Doc reveals he has built a working time machine out of a Delorean sports car.
The Delorean is one of the strangest artefacts in the history of sports car manufacturing. It was designed and manufactured in Northern Ireland, and launched for the United States market in 1981. The car utilised a fibreglass body with brushed stainless steel panels attached, as well as a fairly iconic set of gull-wing doors. While the unique structure of the car made it remarkably light-weight and inexpensive to manufacture the relevant parts, it was unsuitable for mass production. Inexperienced factory employees caused further delays, company head and inventor John De Lorean was arrested on drug trafficking charges – later dismissed – and by 1982 the company was forced to declare bankruptcy. In total roughly 9,000 Delorean motor cars were produced. It’s likely that the car would have passed into total obscurity were it not picked up by Robert Zemeckis to use in Back to the Future.
Three Deloreans were purchased for use in the Back to the Future shoot. One was used for exterior shots of the car actually driving. In order provide better handling the car’s Peugeot engine was replaced with one manufactured by Porsche. A second car was used for shots where characters would peer in and examine Doc’s numerous time machine components. A third car was used for scenes where Marty would be seen driving the vehicle. The Delorean interior was extremely cramped, and once the full time machine paraphernalia was incorporated the cabin became too small for an actor to comfortably sit inside and drive the car.
Doc and Marty successfully test the time machine with Doc’s dog Einstein inside the vehicle and Doc operating it via remote control. To achieve the shots of the car driving through the car park, a stunt artist drove the vehicle while wearing a dog suit.
Before Doc can test the time machine himself, a camper van drives into the car park and its occupants shoot Doc dead. It is a group of Libyan terrorists who funded Doc’s theft of the plutonium to power his time machine – under the misapprehension he was going to build them a nuclear bomb. Marty dives into the Delorean in an attempt to drive away, accidentally accelerates past 88 miles per hour and sends himself back in time to 5 November 1955 (5 November is Bob Gale’s father’s birthday).
In 1955 the Twin Pines Mall is decades from construction, and instead Marty finds himself crashing through a fence into a farm. The arrival at the farm has predictably been foreshadowed in dialogue, with Doc reminiscing about a farmer named Peabody owning a pine tree plantation on the site of the car park. Marty crashes the Delorean straight through one of the two pine saplings already established in 1955: when he returns to 1985 the Twin Pines Mall has been named Lone Pine Mall instead.
Peabody, the farmer into whose barn Marty crashes the Delorean, has a son named Sherman – making the father and son a reference to the popular children’s cartoon Mr Peabody and Sherman.
With the plutonium expended, Marty is trapped in 1955. Tom Shone makes an excellent point about this plot development in his book Blockbuster: ‘In film after film, in 1985, teenagers were using their science class to invent magical devices that granted them their every wish – to travel through time, whizz through space, secure a face-to-face meeting with Kelly LeBrock – but here was Zemeckis’ biggest effects gizmo, his time machine, suddenly rendered as useful as an orange press.’[xvii]
It all creates an interesting effect in Back to the Future. Apart from the one plot-driving time machine, it is by-and-large a technology-free science fiction adventure.
Once he’s hidden the Delorean behind a billboard (advertising the soon to be built housing estate in which Marty will live in 1985) Marty walks into the centre of Hill Valley to explore. The town square has cleverly been re-imagined in a 1955 fashion, with period appropriate cars and details. The adult film theatre is now a legitimate cinema, playing the Ronald Reagan film Cattle Queen of Montana, while the adult bookshop is classy stationery store. An aerobics and fitness centre is now a café. A motorcycle store is now a bicycle shop.
A Miller beer truck in the background was deliberate product placement: in return for the free advertising, Miller provided the Back to the Future crew with free beer for the duration of the shoot.
In a diner Marty meets a young black staff member named Goldie Wilson, and accidentally encourages him to run for mayor one day (which we know from earlier scenes Wilson will successfully do). He then stumbles into his teenage father, discovering him to be under the thumb of Biff Tannen and his gang of bullies. While never named on screen, Biff’s three sidekicks were named in the script as Skinhead (J.J. Cohen), Match (Billy Zane) and 3-D (Casey Siemaszko).
Siemaszko said: ‘I pretty much knew, when we were working on it, that it was a very exceptional show. I hadn’t worked that much in film prior to that, but had worked on successful stage productions and knew that “feeling” of being part of something special.’[xviii] After working on Back to the Future Siemaszko successfully auditioned to co-star in Steven Spielberg’s one-hour Amazing Stories episode “The Mission”, opposite Kevin Costner.
J.J. Cohen had originally auditioned for the role of Biff Tannen, and came remarkably close to being cast. When Michael J. Fox appeared to be unavailable, however, and Eric Stoltz cast in his place, it was felt Cohen was not tall enough to be a convincing bully against Stoltz’s version of Marty. He was cast as Skinhead instead. Cohen later said: ‘I’ll take the humble way out of this and say, now that I’ve seen the movie, I can’t imagine anyone else playing the role, but I can tell you this: I really wanted that role.’[xix]
Back to the Future marked Billy Zane’s film debut. He subsequently established a highly successful acting career, including starring in the 1996 action film The Phantom and playing the villainous Cal Hockley in Titanic (1997).
Marty follows his father out of the diner, and eventually finds him up a tree on a leafy suburban street; George is using a pair of binoculars to spy on his future wife Lorraine (at this point using the surname Baines). When the Back to the Future production team was originally scouting for locations, they encountered a film shoot already going on in the street used here. That film was Teen Wolf, which by coincidence also starred Michael J. Fox.
George falls from the tree and is about to be hit by a car when Marty shoves him out of way. By saving his father, Marty has unwittingly changed history: without being knocked out cold in the accident and being taken into the Baines household, George is not introduced to Lorraine and she doesn’t fall in love with him. Marty is knocked out instead, replacing his own father in his teenage mother’s affections.
When Marty wakes, he finds the young Lorraine watching him. She immediately starts flirting with him.
‘I have to say I thought the Oedipal aspect was really gross,’ said Steven Spielberg. ‘I think I said to the Two Bobs it kind of made my skin crawl when she tries to kiss him in the parked car. 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.’[xx]
‘All that stumbling around I did,’ said Fox, ‘was a direct reaction to all the pressure Lea was putting on me with the eyes and the intensity of what she was doing. It was so fun to work with someone that good.’[xxi]
‘I used this image of a cat in heat when I was playing her,’ said Thompson. ‘Even my voice, I kind of had this weird purr to my voice.’[xxii]
The thing with Lorraine amorous pursuit of Marty is this: Spielberg is right. It should not work. It is enormously uncomfortable, both in terms of concept and execution. The fact that it not only works but excels is almost entirely down to the superb performances by Thompson and Fox. They don’t simply exercise great comic timing and emphasise the humour; they turn what could be a disastrous scene into a remarkable few minutes of comedy.
Lorraine mistakes Marty’s name for Calvin Klein, since that’s the name on his underwear. While the joke worked for American audiences, European viewers were not as familiar with the brand. For foreign language dubs, the name was changed to Pierre Cardin.
Desperate to return to his own time, Marty calls on the one person who could conceivably help: the Dr Emmett Brown of 1955.
Gamble House in Pasadena stood in for the exterior of Doc’s house. It was deliberately selected to demonstrate the wealth of the Brown family, tying into the 1985 Doc’s comments that he had burned through his entire family fortune in inventing the time machine. The garage next to the mansion is of course the self-same garage in which Doc lives in 1985, when his family estate has been turned into a fast food restaurant and car park.
While convincing Doc that he’s from the future, Marty shows him a photograph of himself and his siblings – who are slowly disappearing one by one. History has been changed, and Marty’s future is slowly being erased. This is entirely unscientific, of course, but it acts as a countdown: time is running out, and so to preserve his own timeline Marty must get his parents to fall in love as soon as possible. It gives the film both purpose and urgency.
Getting back to the future once history has been preserved is another matter. This is where the clock tower flyer is re-introduced. Thanks to the information on the flyer, Doc and Marty know that lightning will strike the tower at a specific date and time – all that’s required is a means of channelling that energy into the Delorean as it accelerates to 88 miles per hour. It’s a complex piece of information to drop on the audience, but thanks to the earlier foreshadowing it can be expressed much more smoothly and in an understandable fashion. It also adds a second deadline to the film: everything has to be done by the moment the lightning hits the tower.
This scene acts as the mid-point of the film. The crisis that Marty must resolve has been fully established, and he can move on with a sense of purpose: beginning with ingratiating himself into Lorraine and George’s lives.
With Doc’s help Marty enrols in high school. He befriends George, and almost gets into a fight with Biff in the school canteen. Match doesn’t appear with Biff, Skinhead and 3-D during the canteen scene; Bill Zane was unavailable on that day of the shoot.
At night Marty goes to George’s house and masquerades as an alien, using his radiation suit as a costume and playing a tape recording of Van Halen with a pair of headphones over George’s ears as some form of torture device. When the production was unable to gain the rights to use Van Halen’s name in the film, Universal successfully negotiated to use the name of Eddie Van Halen himself – hence his handwritten name on the side of Marty’s tape. The science fiction magazine George is reading, Fantastic Story, is an actual magazine from the period that was found by a member of the production design team.
It’s a funny scene, emphasised by Marty’s mangled use of post-1950s science fiction references including Darth Vader from Star Wars and the planet Vulcan from Star Trek. The use of loud 1980s rock music as torture is a nice play on the generation gap: those of Marty’s generation considering it great music, and those of George’s considering it raucous noise.
Convinced by his ‘alien’ encounter to woo Lorraine, George tries to talk to her at the town square diner. His attempt is interrupted by Biff, whose own attempt to bully George is interrupted by Marty, leading to a chase around the square: Biff driving his own car, and Marty riding a makeshift skateboard.
The skateboard chase is one of the film’s most memorable sequences. It is well staged and paced, and in terms of the film’s release seems perfectly timed. When Back to the Future was first developed, skateboarding was a relatively niche pursuit without significant mainstream exposure. By mid-1985 the sport had transitioned from ramp-based stunts to simpler ‘street skating’, which expanded its appeal across America and making it a mainstream pursuit. Purely by chance Back to the Future was released right at the moment when mass interest in skateboarding exploded. It was major factor in the film’s initial appeal.
When Eric Stoltz was cast as Marty, European skateboarding champion Per Wilender was hired as his stunt double. When Stoltz was replaced with Michael J. Fox, Lender was too tall to continue in the role. He was replaced by a shorter stunt artist, Charlie Croughwell, who had to learn how to skateboard in order to perform the sequence.
Back in the garage Doc and Marty go over the scheme to return the Delorean to 1985, involving stringing a cable from the clock face down to the street and attaching a long metal hook to the top of the car. Their plans are complicated by the arrival of Lorraine, who asks Marty to accompany her to the school’s “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance.
Despite their co-starring in three Back to the Future films, this is the only time that Christopher Lloyd and Lea Thompson share a scene together.
The school dance was staged in a redressed Methodist church in Hollywood, with Whittier High School’s gymnasium providing the exteriors – including the school car park. Marty’s attempt to match her parents together forms two stages. The first, in which he has pre-arranged for George to interrupt him trying to force himself on Lorraine, is botched: Biff arrives first, Marty is thrown into the drunk of the dance band’s car by Skinhead, 3-D and Matches, and by the time George arrives he finds himself facing down Biff instead.
Marty and Lorraine’s conversation in the car prior to Biff’s arrival resolves the issue of Lorraine’s lustful pursuit. The scene begins with her openly drinking, smoking, and wanting to make out. They are all things the 1985 Lorraine was so vehemently against Marty ever doing – foreshadowing once again working to emphasise the film’s humour. It concludes with her forcing herself on Marty, rather than the other way around, and immediately pulling back because it feels so instinctively wrong and like ‘kissing my brother’.
George, of course, successfully stands up to Biff and knocks him out cold with one punch. Early drafts of the film had this moment change George’s future, so that when Marty returned to 1985 George was a champion boxer. This was ultimately decided to be too unbelievable, and so Gale and Zemeckis spun out the 1955 George’s love of science fiction to have him become a successful author instead.
On to the second stage: while breaking Marty out of the car trunk in which he’s been locked, the dance band’s guitarist cuts his hand and can’t play. Without sharing their first kiss on the dance floor, George and Lorraine won’t go on to marry each other and Marty will still be erased. To save the future once again, Marty steps in and plays guitar with the band. Before he steps off stage, the band members invite him to lead them in one more song. Marty plays Chuck Berry’s “Johnny Be Goode”.
This is probably Back to the Future’s other iconic scene, deliberately ramping up the style and pace until Marty’s playing thrashing 1980s heavy rock to a perplexed audience of 1950s teenagers. It’s an immensely satisfying scene for a number of reasons.
It’s worth considering the other diegetic music in the film so far (diegetic meaning music whose source is visible or apparent onscreen, such as being played on a stereo or through a car radio). Since arriving in 1955 Marty has been positively bombarded with it: the Four Aces performing “Mr Sandman”, Fess Parker’s “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”, Etta James singing “The Wallflower (Dance With Me Henry)”, the dance band playing “Earth Angel”, and so on. There is not a single song with the energy, tempo or drive of “Johnny Be Goode”, so when the band begins to play it makes an immediate impact.
As Marty gets carried away with the guitar, it’s fun to watch him cycle through the performing styles of numerous post-1955 rock guitarists, including Angus Young, Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix. Michael J. Fox performs the scene with an impeccable sense for comedy, although he did not actually sing: he is dubbed over by the musician Mark Campbell.
Halfway through the performance the band leader, Marvin Berry, telephones his brother Chuck to let him hear ‘that new sound you were looking for’. The implication is that Marty’s performance inspires the real Chuck Berry to write and perform “Johnny Be Goode”. Superficially it seems to be a ‘bootstrap paradox’, in which a time traveller inspires the creation of a work they know from the future back in the past and thus eliminating its invention in the first place. On the other hand, by November 1955 Berry had already scored at least one major hit with “Maybellene” and was well on his way to establishing his signature sound, so it seems unlikely that a paradox has occurred. (I may be over-thinking the logic of the film’s time travel.)
The musical sequence is ultimately most satisfying because it ties up a hanging plot thread from the film’s opening act. Marty begins the film failing an audition to play at the school dance. It turns out that he does play the school dance like he always wanted – just 30 years too early.
It was during the recording of Marty’s on-stage performance that composer Alan Silvestri visited the shoot to discuss the film’s orchestral score with Robert Zemeckis. The director instructed Silvestri to develop as large and as bombastic a score as possible. Silvestri complied, ultimately conducting an 85-piece orchestra to achieve the film’s iconic score.
‘That’s one of the most interesting directions,’ said Silvestri, ‘because Bob’s images are not big. It’s a small town in the 1950s, with lots of small images – in a car, on a street, in a small town square. Yet, the story has this tremendous sense, this epic hero who’s on a great mission doing noble things.’[xxiii]
Back to the Future boasts one of the finest orchestral scores of its decade: its sheer scale and bombast successfully makes what is ultimately a quite small and personal story feel as expansive and dramatic and the largest Hollywood blockbusters.
Nowhere is Silvestri’s score more accomplished than in the film’s climax, in which Doc desperately attempts to secure the cable to both the clock tower and the street before the tower gets struck by lightning.
Marty has already tried several times to warn Doc that in 1985 he will be shot by Libyan terrorists, his final attempt – a hand-written note – being torn up and discarded by Doc, who does not want to interfere in his own destiny. In one last effort he reprograms the Delorean to return to 1985 11 minutes early, giving him time to rescue Doc before it’s too late.
The tower is struck by lightning just as Doc connects the cable. The Delorean travels back to the future, leaving an ecstatic Doc running along a pair of fire trails left behind on the street. He is overjoyed, with a renewed sense of purpose.
Marty returns to his present only to have the Delorean break down. He leaves the car and runs for the Twin Pines Mall as fast as he can (except of course now it’s the Lone Pine Mall). He appears to be too late, seeing Doc die and his past self travel back to 1985. When he reaches Doc’s body, however, it turns out Doc recovered the note and wore a bulletproof vest after all.
The following morning Marty wakes to discover his entire family changed: his mother and father are fitter and much happier, his father is a rich science fiction author, and Biff is now George’s meek subservient employee.
The film’s denouement did not sit well with Crispin Glover. ‘I said to Robert Zemeckis that I felt the reward should be that the characters were only in love and that if there was a monetary reward at the end such as the son character having a new car in the garage it tainted the message and the message turned to “Money will bring you happiness” as opposed to “Love will bring you happiness”. Please understand I was a twenty year-old idealist who had been watching many films from the 60s and 70s that tended towards questioning these things so it did not seem outrageous to question this. Robert Zemeckis got angry with me and I do not think it was forgotten when the negotiations for the sequels came around or when they were writing the sequels for that matter.’[xxiv]
Marty is reunited with Jennifer. They are about to drive off to the lake when they are interrupted by the arrival of Doc in the Delorean. He has travelled back to 1985 from the future, and urges Marty and Jennifer to come back with him and help to save their children. As the car reverses onto the street, Marty warns there is not enough road for them to accelerate to 88 miles per hour. ‘Roads?’ replies Doc, ‘where we’re going we don’t need roads.’ The Delorean rises off the ground and flies off into the sky.
The film’s conclusion was never intended as a cliffhanger ending. Neither Gale nor Zemeckis had put any thought into the idea of ever making a sequel, and simply thought it was an amusing open-ended way to finish their film. Four years later, when producing Back to the Future Part II, they found themselves frustrated that their original film had painted them into a corner.
Back to the Future finished principal photography on 20 April 1985, almost five months after it had begun. The delays in production caused by replacing Eric Stoltz left the film with precious little time for post-production to take place. Universal Pictures had scheduled the film for release on 3 July 1985, just over 10 weeks later, and in that time the film needed to be edited, its colour balanced and corrected, visual effects to be produced and inserted, an orchestral score to be composed, performed and edited, additional dialogue to be re-recorded, and sound to be edited. Sound effects was still being laid out into the soundtrack less than 24 hours before the master print had to be sent off for duplication.
The film opened in more than 1,400 theatres across America. Released on the same weekend were the John Boorman film The Emerald Forest and the pulp fantasy Red Sonja. The real competition, however, came from films that had already been released. Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, a rare return to westerns for the popular actor/director, had opened in the previous week at number one, while the Sylvester Stallone sequel Rambo: First Blood Part II and the Ron Howard science fiction drama Cocoon were both demonstrating impressive longevity in cinemas.
Despite strong opposition Back to the Future opened in first place, with an opening weekend gross of US$11 million dollars. In the following week it held on at number one, despite opposition from new releases Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Explorers and Silverado, and grossed an additional US$18.4 million. It remained at number one in its third week, came second to European Vacation in its fourth, and then returned to first place in its fifth. That fifth week gross was still US$14.3 million. It would not fall below first place until its 13th week of release at the beginning of October.
By the end of its theatrical run in the USA Back to the Future had grossed more than US$210 million dollars. Internationally it earned an additional US$170.5 million, leading to a worldwide take of more than US$381 million and making it the highest-grossing film of 1985.
It is of course possible to be a commercial success without leaving any significant impact behind. A classic example is James Cameron’s Avatar, still the highest-grossing feature film of all time, but yet relatively disregarded and half-forgotten by filmgoers only a few years after its release. We don’t talk about Avatar any more. Comedy shows don’t reference or parody it for laughs. It lacks any sort of cultural footprint.
By contrast Back to the Future’s cultural footprint is massive and indelible. By the following year President Ronald Reagan had referenced the film’s dialogue in his State of the Union address. In 2007 the National Film Registry at the USA’s Library of Congress selected the film for permanent preservation as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’. The following year the American Film Institute named it the 10th best science fiction film of all time.
Scenes, lines of dialogue and visual imagery from the film have been referenced or parodied in film including Ghost Rider (2007), Knocked Up (2007), I Love You Man (2009), and Paul (2011), and on television in The Colbert Report, Chuck, Doctor Who, Family Guy, Lois & Clark, Muppet Babies, Mythbusters, Phineas & Ferb, Saturday Night Live, Spaced and many others.
There is even a popular British pop rock band named McFly.
Back to the Future is brilliantly directed by Robert Zemeckis. It boasts a uniformly talented cast, each with exceptional gifts for comic timing. In the end it is a masterpiece because it built its foundations so perfectly: it has one of the best feature screenplays ever written. Gale and Zemeckis managed to write a science fiction story that operates simultaneously as a teen comedy and as a period film. This year Back to the Future turned 30 years old, which of course means it’s a period film twice over: a film set back in 1985 about a kid who travels to 1955.
Of course everybody involved went on the make other films. Robert Zemeckis directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Contact and many others. Christopher Lloyd appeared in Clue, The Dream Team, Roger Rabbit, The Addams Family, My Favourite Martian and so on. Michael J. Fox starred in The Secret of My Success, Bright Lights Big City, The Hard Way, Casualties of War, The Frighteners, Mars Attacks! and a second sitcom: Spin City.
Despite their immense talents, and their various future achievements, not one of them ever made a film as good as this. It’s a cinematic masterpiece.
[i] Ryan Gilbey, “How we made Back to the Future”, The Guardian, 26 August 2014.
[ii] Henry Hanks, “Going Back to the Future, 25 years later”, CNN Geek Out, 26 October 2010.
[iii] Quoted in “Een interview met Bob Gale”, Het Blooohg, 24 November 2010.
[iv] Lee Goldberg, “Back to the Future”, Starlog 97, August 1985.
[v] Quoted in “Great scott! Christopher Lloyd reveals he nearly knocked back the role of Doc in Back to the Future”, News.com.au, 24 March 2015.
[vi] Simon Brew, “The Den of Geek interview: Dean Cundey”, Den of Geek, 7 August 2008.
[vii] Ian Nathan, “Back to the Future: the oral history”, Empire, April 2010.
[viii] Ryan Gilbey, “How we made Back to the Future”, The Guardian, 26 August 2014.
[ix] Quoted in “Great scott! Christopher Lloyd reveals he nearly knocked back the role of Doc in Back to the Future”, News.com.au, 24 March 2015.
[x] Clint, “Exclusive Interview: Eric Stoltz”, Moviehole, 8 April 2007.
[xi] Raphael Chestang, “Back to the Future turns 30: Why Michael J Fox almost didn’t get the role”, ET Online, 2 July 2015.
[xii] Dotson Rader, “Michael J Fox on Back to the Future: ‘I thought I was really terrible’”, Parade, 29 March 2012.
[xiii] Lee Goldberg, “Back to the Future”, Starlog 97, August 1985.
[xiv] Dalton Ross, “New Back to the Future comic book imagines world in which Eric Stoltz is not replaced by Michael J. Fox”, Entertainment Weekly, 25 June 2013.
[xv] Dave Itzkoff, “A date with density: Lea Thompson on her Back to the Future experience”, New York Times, 26 October 2010.
[xvi] Lee Goldberg, “Back to the Future”, Starlog 97, August 1985.
[xvii] Tom Shone, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer, Simon & Shuster, New York, 2004.
[xviii] Clint, “Caffeinated Clint Greats: Interview series 5”, Moviehole, 10 June 2010.
[xix] Johnny Caps, “Pop Geeks’ flashback interview: J.J. Cohen”, Popgeeks.net, 8 September 2014.
[xx] Ian Nathan, “Back to the Future: the oral history”, Empire, April 2010.
[xxi] EW Staff, “EW Reunion: Back to the Future”, Entertainment Weekly, 15 October 2010.
[xxii] Dave Itzkoff, “A date with density: Lea Thompson on her Back to the Future experience”, New York Times, 26 October 2010.
[xxiii] Evan James, “Alan Silvestri: scoring big in Hollywood”, American Songwriter, 1 May 2005.
[xxiv] James Howe, “Interview: Crispin Hellion Glover on Back to the Future, working with his father and his ‘It’ trilogy”, List Film, 2 May 2014.