Sequels are common in Hollywood. Good sequels are much rarer. Back to the Future Part II, released in November 1989, is arguably one of the most inventive and jaw-dropping sequels ever made. The noted astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan once told its director that it was ‘the best movie ever made on the science of time travel’. That crown has since arguably been passed on to Shane Carruth’s labyrinthine thriller Primer, but even so Back to the Future Part II remains a landmark in American science fiction cinema, and a sequel of which its creators can rightfully be enormously proud.
Robert Zemeckis’ time-travel comedy Back to the Future was the highest-grossing film in the world in 1985, capturing the attention and affection of moviegoers in a manner rarely experienced in cinemas. Given its phenomenal performance at the box office, it was unsurprising that executives in Universal Pictures were keen to capitalise on its success and produce a sequel as soon as possible. There was only one problem: neither Zemeckis nor co-writer Bob Gale had ever entertained the possibility of making a follow-up. Despite ending the original with Marty (Michael J. Fox), Doc (Christopher Lloyd) and Jennifer (Claudia Wells) flying off to the year 2015 in a time-travelling Delorean, both writer and director had figured the story was done.
‘The flying car at the end was a joke,’ admitted Zemeckis, ‘a great payoff. We thought this would be really hard to unravel and do again. But when you make a movie that’s as successful as Back to the Future, it becomes this piece of corporate real estate. It becomes bigger than you as a filmmaker. You’re basically given a decision: we’re making a sequel, do you want to be involved in it or not? So we felt we had to protect our work.’[i]
Zemeckis and Gale both ultimately agreed to write and direct a second Back to the Future for Universal on the condition that it could wait until Zemeckis had finished directing his next movie: the animated/live-action hybrid comedy Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Walt Disney Pictures had signed Zemeckis on to direct that technically-complex picture within weeks of the original Back to the Future’s release, and its complicated production process – not to mention the immensely difficult rights process involved in combining both Walt Disney and Warner Bros’ animated characters in the one film – would mean any potential Future sequel would not enter production until 1988 at the earliest.
With the knowledge that a sequel was on its way, Universal Pictures added a “To be continued…” tag to the end of the original Back to the Future on home video. ‘My first thought was to call my agent,’ recalled Michael J. Fox.[ii]
While Zemeckis directed Roger Rabbit, Bob Gale went about developing a storyline. He used the ending of the original as the basis for the new story. Gale said: ‘We used that ending because we felt it was funny. At that point, we never intended to make a sequel. But when Universal said they wanted a sequel and that they wanted Bob and I to do it, we both felt it would be a cheat not to at least start the film where the other one left off. To our way of thinking, the ending told us where this movie’s beginning would be.’[iii]
The sequel would not simply follow on from the flying car ending: it would begin at the exact moment the previous film had ended. Zemeckis said: ‘We decided early on that we would not take the time to reintroduce these characters for the benefit of anybody who hasn’t seen the original film. We’re making this movie and Part III for the true fans of the first film and you’ve got to be faithful to the faithful.’[iv]
Gale developed a storyline that involved Marty and Doc travelling into the future, only for an elderly Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) to steal the time machine and travel back into the year 1968. There he would give his 30 year-old self a sports almanac from the future, enabling the younger Biff to become a billionaire by betting money on various games and matches. With Marty’s own world in 1985 now changed into a horrifying dystopia, he and Doc race back to 1968 to prevent old Biff from changing history in the first place.
Gale’s original concept was based on the idea that a late 1960s setting could allow the film to play around with a new time period, with Marty once again meeting his parents at a different point in their lives – nine months before his own birthdate – and ensuring their marriage stays together and that he can be conceived. It was Zemeckis who suggested sending old Biff back not to 1968 but to November 1955 – the exact same dates as in the original film. This could create the unprecedented situation where Doc and Marty would travel back in time to the original film and re-live the same events from a different perspective.
This game-changing decision transformed Back to the Future Part II into one of the most unusual and complex sequels ever produced. It’s a general rule with sequels that you need to provide your audience with a fresh story, but also enough similarities to the original film to give viewers the same kind of experience they adored in the first place. Part II goes one step further in this approach: not only replicating events and conversations from the original film in new contexts (2015 and an alternative 1985) but also literally making the original for a second time.
The humour of Back to the Future was most often based in historical anachronism and the comedic duplication or reversal of elements foreshadowed in advance. The humour of Part II is more often than not based in the duplication of dialogue and action in a remixed fashion. They even address this duplication directly in the movie: witnessing a skateboard chase around Hill Valley Square, the old Biff mutters that ‘there’s something very familiar about all this’.
Some consideration was even given to expanding the film’s storyline into the 19th century, and concluding the film as some sort of time-travelling western pastiche. Gale developed some ideas towards giving the film a ‘wild west’ climax, but even at an early stage it became clear there was rapidly becoming too much plot to accommodate a two-hour movie.
Revisiting the original film so directly required re-hiring as many of the original actors as possible. Both Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd were keen to return, and were soon joined by Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson and James Tolkan. At the time that Part II was scheduled to commence filming Fox was finishing up work on the seventh and final season of Family Ties. He was able to negotiate more time away from that production to accommodate the Back to the Future shoot, something he was unable to do back in 1984.
Ultimately the only actors who did not return for the second film were Claudia Wells (Jennifer) and Crispin Glover (George McFly). Bob Gale recalled: ‘Well, the only cast member whom we didn’t get back was Claudia Wells, who had some personal issues that prevented her from doing the sequels. Crispin Glover had chosen not to participate before we even started devising the story, so the sequels were written with the assumption he wouldn’t be back.’[v]
‘There was a lot of stuff going on at home,’ said Wells, ‘my mom was diagnosed with fourth stage cancer and that was right before Back to the Future II and Back to the Future III were to be filmed so I backed out of those films to deal with the turmoil at home.’[vi]
Wells was replaced with Elizabeth Shue, a popular actress who had co-starred in The Karate Kid (1984), Adventures in Babysitting (1987) and Cocktail (1988).
The failure to re-hire Crispin Glover was a more complicated matter. Glover later said: ‘Essentially what led to me not being in the sequels – I haven’t talked about it a lot until recently. The reason I’m starting to talk about it, specifically, there’s a person named Bob Gale who was a co-producer and co-writer on it who’s been lying about me, as to why I wasn’t in the second film. He’s been saying that I asked for the same salary that Michael J. Fox was getting. Total fabrication. The reason he’s making that up is because he does not want to talk about what he did that was – he is probably the prime architect as to that illegal thing that happened.’[vii]
The ‘illegal thing’ to which Glover referred was the manner in which Back to the Future Part II ultimately circumvented his absence by combining re-used footage of Glover from the original film with the use of a stand-in actor (Jeffrey Weissman) wearing prosthetic make-up designed make him resemble Glover for a brief sequence in the film’s first act. After the release of the sequel to theatres Glover successfully sued Universal Pictures for their unauthorised use of his image. The case forced a change in how the entire American film industry contracted actors for film and television productions, no longer governing their performances but their image as well.
Despite not demanding an equivalent salary to Michael J. Fox, Glover’s absence from the film was, by his own admission, ultimately over money. He claimed to be offered less than half the fee offered to co-stars like Lea Thompson and Thomas F. Wilson. Offended by the disparity, and having not particularly enjoyed the experience of making Back to the Future in the first place, he declined the offer to return.
Thomas F. Wilson, however, did return to play Biff Tannen, in a massively expanded role that saw Wilson portray three radically different versions of the character – as well as his unhinged and violent grandson Griff Tannen.
‘Biff’s still basically a thug,’ said Wilson, ‘but there’s much more texture and much more for me to do in the sequel. There are many more sides of Biff in this film. The plot revolves more around his actions. I’m more of an antagonist in this film. In the first one, I was more of a speed bump.’[viii]
The sheer quantity of ideas and period settings being developed for the film – 2015, the alternative 1985, 1955, and potentially even 1885 – was making it difficult to get a final shooting screenplay under control. When it became clear that the screenplay had become too long, Zemeckis and Gale went to Spielberg with a proposal to split their sequel into two: rather than make one overly-long $55 million dollar sequel, why not take a few extra months in filming and make two full-length sequels for $70 million instead? ‘I brought this idea to Sid Sheinberg,’ said Spielberg. ‘I said, “Here comes another whacky idea from the offices of the two Bobs and Amblin Entertainment. We’d like to take this very long sequel and make two sequels out of it.’[ix]
It was not an unprecedented idea. In 1973 producer Alexander Salkind has split his unwieldy adventure film The Three Musketeers into two, and in 1978 he undertook the same process with Richard Donner’s Superman (although creative differences in that case led to Donner being fired and a lengthy reshoot being undertaken for Superman II).
Given the four-year delay in getting Part II into production, Universal head Sid Sheinberg agreed to produce two Back to the Future films as a single production – one shoot immediately after the other. This allowed all of Gale and Zemeckis’ western ideas to be pushed out into the third film, and for the second to focus solely on old Biff’s scheme to change history.
The complex storyline of Part II presented an enormous challenge for Robert Zemeckis. While the original film featured relatively few visual effects, perhaps 30 shots in total – and most of those were hand-animated bolts of lightning – the sequel required entirely new technology to be developed in order to be filmed at all.
To achieve the numerous shots in which the same actor would have to appear twice, an entirely new computer-controlled camera system was developed. Dubbed Vistaglide, the system allowed for a scene to be performed once with a moving camera and then performed a second time with a computer and robotic control arm duplicating precisely the camera dollies, pans, focus shifts and zooms that had been made the first time around. The two shots could then be blended in post-production to achieve the illusion that two identical characters were interacting at the same time.
Not all scenes with multiple versions of a character or actor used Vistaglide, which was a time-consuming and thus expensive system to use. Simpler shots used traditional blue-screen composites and even old-fashioned body doubles with their back to the camera.
Back to the Future Part II commenced shooting on 20 February 1989. The film begins with a recap of the original Back to the Future’s final moments. This required a reshoot due to Claudia Wells’ replacement with Elizabeth Shue, and during this second shoot a few lines received minor changes. The aerial footage of clouds during the film’s opening credits was actually shot for the 1984 Clint Eastwood film Firefox, and re-purposed for Back to the Future as a cost-saving measure.
While it was by no means unprecedented for Part II to begin exactly where the original film ended – both Rocky II and The Karate Kid Part II did the same, for example – it was still a comparatively rare approach for a movie sequel. The strategy did present a small headache for Gale and Zemeckis, since they were keen to keep the sequel’s focus solely on Marty and Doc. Jennifer appeared to be in the way. Gale said: ‘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 to writing part 2 we said: “What are we going to do with Jennifer?”’[x]
The solution to their narrative problem is relatively inelegant: essentially Jennifer starts asking too many questions about her own future and Doc uses a gadget to knock her unconscious. When her sleeping body is picked up by police officers in 2015 and delivered to her future home, an encounter with her 47 year-old self causes her to fall unconscious a second time. Marty then leaves her sleeping on the porch of her 1985 home for the rest of the film (and, as it happens, the bulk of Part III as well). One wonders how the rest of the film might have developed with Jennifer as an active character, rather than her being sidelined and pushed out of the picture.
Recreating 1955 in the original Back to the Future was a challenge for the production team, but developing a vision of 2015 was an altogether more difficult proposition. ‘The first thing we knew,’ said Zemeckis, ‘was that the future wasn’t going to be Orwellian. It wasn’t going to be a totalitarian state where people walk around in uniform, and have their heads shaved, which is actually a very easy way to depict the future in motion pictures.’[xi]
Bob Gale said: ‘Bob Z. and I knew that everyone always predicts the future incorrectly, and we knew that we would, too. So our approach was to have fun with it and do the best we could by extrapolating trends and technology that we thought was cutting-edge in 1988 (when the script was written). We wanted a positive, optimistic future that was clearly built on the present.’[xii]
Concept designer Edward Eyth said: ‘We were highly motivated to make it so we didn’t look like fools in 25 years. We knew that when we see movies like Metropolis, when they’re speculating about the future, it can be so far off. We weren’t that far off, I guess, on a number of occasions.’[xiii]
Clearly a lot of the technology suggested by Part II has not eventuated by the actual year 2015. Notably we do not have hoverboards or flying cars. On the other hand a surprising amount of background detail accurately predicted the future. Wearable technology, large flat-screen televisions, video calls, biometric security and 3D cinema have all become commonplace. Gale was correct in noting that the majority of science fiction films do not successfully predict the future. Part II actually achieves it better than most films, because its future technology is well considered and aims for humour over accuracy. It does say some worrying things about 21st century society, however, that a comedy satire based on late 1980s culture would get so much of our future correct.
Costume designs for the future deliberately avoided metallic colours and jumpsuits, with designer Joanna Johnston instead using bright colours and modified versions of existing 1989 clothing. One key concept was the idea of ‘one-size-fits-all’ clothing, where computer-controlled technology in garments would adjust them to fit the specific wearer on demand.
With Jennifer unconscious, Marty is sent by Doc to impersonate his own teenage son to turn down a criminal job offer by a man named Griff. It’s Marty Jr’s acceptance of the job that leads to the collapse of Marty’s future family. On his way to the ‘Café 80s’ to turn Griff down, Marty walks through Hill Valley’s courthouse square to get his first proper glimpse of 2015.
The scene is typical of the humour utilised throughout Part II. It effectively duplicates Marty’s astonished walk through the same square back in the original film – only then it was 1955 and he was stunned by how archaic and old-fashioned everything looked. Now of course he’s stunned by how futuristic it is, particularly the flying cars that keep taking off and landing. One of the flying cars is actually from Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner. It was incorporated into the background of the scene as an in-joke.
The courthouse building is still the centrepiece of the square, although a feature pond and garden have replaced the car park and the building itself is now a shopping mall. The clock still doesn’t work, and the damage done to the ledge below by Doc back in 1955 remains. The square still has the Statler car dealership. In 1955 it sold Studebakers, and in 1985 Toyotas. Now it sells Pontiacs and car hover conversions. The Essex Theater, which was screening a Ronald Reagan film in 1955 and pornographic films in 1985 now screens holographic films – currently Jaws 19, directed by Max Spielberg. At the time of shooting the real Max Spielberg was four years old. At the time of writing, he has yet to commence a career as a film director.
The 2015 scenes were shot towards the end of the Part II shoot. The Hill Valley square was originally dressed for the 1955 sequences, then degraded and augmented for the alternative 1985 sequences, and finally restored and adapted for the 2015 scenes.
Marty enters the Café 80s, which is a brilliantly developed satire on 1980s popular culture. Service is automated in the café, with patrons giving their orders to mobile video screens. The characters on the screens are all famous political or cultural figures from the time – Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson and the Ayatollah Khomeini – all styled to resemble pop culture character Max Headroom. The back wall is covered in television screens showing 1980s TV programmes, including both Family Ties (starring Michael J. Fox) and Taxi (featuring Christopher Lloyd). Michael Jackson was a fan of the original Back to the Future and gave permission for the film to use his likeness for free.
Marty finds an arcade machine running the Nintendo game Wild Gunman, and shows the game off to a pair of children. One of the children was played, in his on-screen debut, by future Lord of the Rings star Elijah Wood. Despite its appearance in the film, Wild Gunman was never produced as a dedicated arcade machine. It was ‘mocked up’ specifically for the film to foreshadow the western setting of Back to the Future Part III.
Griff arrives, and it turns out to be grandson of Biff Tannen. Like his grandfather, Griff is backed up by a gang – in this case named Whitey, Data and Spike.
Whitey was played by Jason Scott Lee. Lee was an actor of Hawaiian and Chinese descent; he would later find fame playing film icon Bruce Lee in the 1993 drama Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Other film roles include Rapa Nui (1994), The Jungle Book (1994), Soldier (1998) and Lilo & Stitch (2002). Data was played by Ricky Dean Logan, who had previously co-starred in the 1991 horror sequel Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. Spike was played by Darlene Vogel, who subsequently appeared in the TV dramas Pacific Blue and One Life to Live. She also performed in filmed segments of the Universal Studios theme park attraction Back to the Future: The Ride.
A complication arises when Marty Jr unexpectedly arrives at the café. The character was played by Michael J. Fox, wearing brown contact lens to distinguish Marty Jr from his blue-eyed father. He was originally named Norman in the first draft of the screenplay, purportedly after Jennifer’s grandfather. Quick thinking by Marty enables him to swap places with his son – after he’s been hit senseless by Griff – and back out of the deal.
The technical complexity of Back to the Future Part II becomes clear in this scene, which features both Michael J. Fox and Thomas F. Wilson in dual roles and often appearing in the same shot together. Through use of the Vistaglide system, it is shot with a variety of moving camera angles, giving it a lifelike appearance quite distinct from any scene of its type before it. Even now, 30 years later, it is a remarkably effective series of shots.
Marty has almost managed to back out, but getting called a chicken makes him turn back and try to fight. Marty’s inability to walk away when called a chicken is a typical piece of foreshadowing – for later in the film as well as Part III – but it must be said it is just about the weakest piece of foreshadowing in the entire movie trilogy. It jibes with what the audience already knows about Marty from the original film.
Marty runs out into the square, and we enter a chase scene deliberately styled to resemble the skateboard versus car chase from the original film. This time there’s no car: instead everybody is using anti-gravity futuristic skateboards – referred to in the film as ‘hoverboards’.
While promoting Back to the Future Part II, Robert Zemeckis made a habit of implying that hoverboards were real, and that they simply weren’t commercially available due to safety concerns. His running gag led to toy manufacturer Mattel – who loaned out use of their logo for the prop – being inundated with calls from eager consumers urging them to release the toy as soon as possible. ‘We got our own tons of letters from kids asking about these hoverboards,’ recalled Bob Gale.[xiv]
In presenting the hoverboards on screen Robert Zemeckis was careful to use a variety of methods to create the illusion of anti-gravity. In some shots the boards ran on wires. In others they were simply attached the actors’ feet while the actors themselves were suspended on cables from above.
Marty once again avoids a Tannen’s attack, sending his opponent crashing into misfortune. No truck of manure this time: instead Griff and his sidekicks go flying wildly out of control and crash into the Hill Valley courthouse.
When shooting the moment where Griff’s gang go crashing through the courthouse windows, the stunt – which had been extensively rehearsed – went badly awry. Stunt performer Cheryl Wheeler-Dixon, who was standing in for Darlene Vogel’s Spike, missed the window and collided with one of the stone pillars instead. She fell eighteen feet to the concrete floor below. ‘I was in intensive care for five days,’ recalled Wheeler-Dixon. ‘I broke my wrist, dislocated bones in my hand, tore ligaments in my arm, and had two metal plates permanently implanted in the left side of my face during reconstructive surgery.’[xv]
While Wheeler-Dixon’s accident was treated with immense seriousness by the production crew – Steven Spielberg personally rushed to the backlot – Amblin Entertainment was careful to minimise the publicity that the incident received. Likely recalling the frenzy surrounding the on-location death of actor Vic Morrow and two children while shooting The Twilight Zone: The Movie, company staff downplayed the seriousness of the accident to the press.
The shot of Wheeler-Dixon’s accident remains in the finished film, although it cuts very suddenly to another angle inside the courthouse.
With Griff in police custody, Marty is distracted by an antiques store, where he finds a paperback sports almanac containing the results of every major sporting event from 1950 to 2000. Marty buys it to become rich placing bets on the game results back in 1985, but Doc immediately rumbles his scheme and throws the almanac in the garbage. The scene presents another example of Zemeckis and Gale’s exceptional foreshadowing. The only reason the shop assistant mentions the almanac’s dust jacket is so it can be utilised later in the film when young Biff swaps the almanac for a copy of the adult magazine Oh La La.
The concern for Marty and Doc now, however, is the 77 year-old Biff in 2015. He has overheard their entire conversation, and knows the Doc built a time machine.
Before Doc and Marty can retrieve the sleeping Jennifer from the alleyway where they left her, she is found by two police officers and taken home to the McFly house in the Lyons Estate. Doc and Marty follow her – not knowing that old Biff is following them. While they’re engaged in rescuing Jennifer, Biff steals the time machine and changes history.
Biff’s subsequent return to 2015 is slightly confusing. He staggers out of the Delorean in pain, breaking off the head of his walking stick while exiting the vehicle. A deleted scene showed him slowly fading out of existence in an identical fashion to Marty during the original film: he has changed history, and he’s no longer in it. It is a shame that the shot was cut from the movie, because without it there it is a little difficult to fully understand what is going on.
Rescuing Jennifer from her future house provides the film with the opportunity to showcase the McFly family of the future. Michael J. Fox famously pulls triple duty in the film, playing the 47 year-old Marty, his 17 year-old son Marty Jr and his daughter Marlene. The role of Marlene was originally intended for Crispin Glover, but was transferred to Fox when Glover declined to appear in the film.
Like the Marty versus Griff scene in the Café 80s, dinner at the McFly residence is a technical marvel. Michael J. Fox appears three times in a single shot with his characters smoothly interacting with one another. This is the key scene in which Jeffrey Weissman replaces Crispin Glover as the elderly George McFly, hung upside-down from a hovering frame to help disguise the fact that a different actor in playing the character. Keep an eye out during the scene for Marty Jr flicking all of the pepperoni off his pizza – Michael J. Fox is a vegetarian.
Marty Sr is called away to answer a video call from his co-worker Needles, played by Red Hot Chilli Peppers bassist Flea (real name Michael Balzary). Once again Marty’s refusal to be called chicken comes into play, and he agrees to give Needles his login in order to defraud their employer.
Marty is immediately fired by fax from his manager Mr Fujistu, who had been monitoring their call. That people still send faxes – including from the family bathroom – is one future prediction that the film absolutely gets wrong. Mr Fujitsu was named by Bob Gale in the mistaken belief that it was a Japanese surname, rather than simply the name of a Japanese IT company.
Marty and Doc manage to get Jennifer out of the house, but only after she meets her future self and passes out from the shock. They return to the Delorean – unaware it was temporarily stolen by old Biff – and return to 1985. Their first action is to return Jennifer to her home. At Doc’s insistence, Marty leaves Jennifer asleep in a chair swing on the porch. While shooting at this location, the crew quickly shot the scene in Back to the Future Part III where Marty finally returns to wake Jennifer up – it was the only scene from Part III that was shot during the Part II shoot.
Before long Marty realises that something has gone horribly wrong. The 1985 he left has vanished, and in its place is a dystopian, crime-ridden nightmare. Director of photography Dean Cundey worked to ensure that the alternative 1985 – described as the “Biff-horrific” period by the film’s crew – had a look distinct from the ‘proper’ 1985. ‘That was a style that was even more contrasty and darker,’ said Cundey, ‘and cooler light, and then we tended to use other elements. There was smoke whenever we could, and so forth, and then when we went to the 50s, or the pleasant 80s, we tended to use, again, slightly warmer colours and softened the image by putting a little bit of atmosphere, a little bit of smoke or whatever in the set so there was a little bit of a glow around the windows, and a softening of the background.’[xvi]
After a brief encounter with his high school teacher Mr Strickland (James Tolkan), Marty stumbles into the courthouse square to discover it has been completely transformed. Instead of the courthouse there is a massive casino named and owned by Biff. It’s worth noting that this is the third time in two films that Marty has done the near-identical shocked entrance into Hill Valley’s courthouse square: once again the film is trading on repetition for humorous effect.
A short scene was filmed for the alternative 1985 sequence in which Marty encountered a drunken version of his brother Dave (Marc McClure) outside Biff’s casino. The scene was cut after test screenings prompted audiences to ask where Marty’s sister was (Wendy Jo Sperber had not been available during the Part II shoot due to pregnancy).
At the casino lobby is a museum dedicated to Biff Tannen, including a documentary playing on a television screen. The “Life of Biff” documentary was assembled by associate producer Steve Starkey and design supervisor Larina Adamson. Back to the Future Part III reveals that Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen looked nothing like he does in the documentary; at the time of shooting Part II Buford’s hair and costuming had not been worked out.
A security guard reports that Marty is at the casino entrance. Biff’s three high school friends from the original Back to the Future – Skinhead, Match and 3-D – accost him, punch him unconscious, and leave him in the penthouse at the top of the casino building.
Here we are again, duplicating a scene from the original film – only this time instead of 17 year-old Lorraine waking Marty up in 1955, it’s 47 year-old Lorraine waking Marty up in the alternate 1985. She’s married to Biff now, and has ridiculous hair and make-up and surgically enhanced breasts. The model for the alternate Lorraine was disgraced televangelist Tammy Faye Baker, whereas the alternate Biff – who enters to shout at Marty and bully Lorraine – was based on property magnate Donald Trump.
Biff’s apartment set was the largest and most expensive of the entire film. ‘The art department had a field day,’ recalled Bob Gale, ‘making this a testament to total bad taste: animal-print rug there, and the velvet black-light paintings.’[xvii]
Upon discovering that in this alternate history his father was murdered, Marty flees to his grave at the Hill Valley cemetery. The cemetery was mocked-up outside of a Chevron oil refinery in Wilmington, California, to give the scene a suitable nightmarish, industrial look.
It is here that Marty is reunited with Doc, and back at Doc’s workshop they run through what has occurred to make the Biff-dominated nightmare a reality. It’s testament again to Christopher Lloyd’s talents as an actor that he can explain a fairly complex process of changing history and parallel time lines in such a clear and engaging manner. He explains that the old Biff travelled back in time, gave his younger self Marty’s sports almanac and made himself a billionaire. In order to go back in time and prevent young Biff from using the almanac, Marty and Doc need to know where and when the old Biff went. Marty returns to the casino to confront the alternate “Trump” Biff.
The film Biff is watching when Marty returns is Sergio Leone’s 1964 western A Fistful of Dollars. It deliberately informs and foreshadows Marty and Buford Tannen’s showdown in Part III.
Once again the film runs fairly smoothly over quite a lot of plot exposition. Biff explains how he was given the almanac in 1955, and that the old Biff warned him that Marty and Doc would one day arrive to stop him, and that he was the one who murdered Marty’s father. He then tries to shoot Marty dead with a revolver. It’s a slightly shocking moment: while Marty has been threatened with being wiped from history, the most serious physical jeopardy in which he has been placed until now has been getting beaten up. Now he is running for his life. ‘The darker moments in Part II were deliberate,’ said Gale. ‘We felt that, in order to make Marty the focal character in both of these movies, we had to dirty him up a bit. We felt it necessary to let Marty make some mistakes and show some character flaws, like when he goes berserk anytime somebody calls him chicken.’[xviii]
Biff and his henchmen chase Marty, ultimately winding up on the casino’s roof, where Marty escapes in the Delorean with Doc. They head back to 1955. The roof of the casino was constructed on a soundstage, with the hovering Delorean suspended from a crane with wires.
The Delorean’s arrival back in 1955 was shot on a large soundstage, using a forced-perspective background to make it appear more expansive and realistic and duplicating the original road-side billboard where Marty hid the Delorean in the original film. The scene took place at night because Zemeckis was concerned a day-time landing would be more difficult to believably achieve within an indoor set. Only one shot – Doc talking to Marty via walkie talkie later in the morning – was shot at the original shooting location.
A scene was originally scripted featuring Peabody, the farmer into whose barn Marty crashed the Delorean in the original film, witnessing the Delorean flying through the air. He would have shot at the car with a shotgun, damaging it and causing the time circuits to begin malfunctioning. The scene was dropped when the production was unable to arrange for actor Will Hare to return. A simple rewrite had the time circuits start to glitch all on their own.
Marty locates Biff, and follows him to a local mechanic’s shop, where he collects his car from repairs after it got filled with manure during the last film. The car mechanic Terry was played by Charles Fleischer, the voice performer who had provided the voice of Roger and Baby Herman in Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Marty hides in the back seat of the car under a blanket , at which point old Biff arrives, gets in the car and drives an angry and incredulous young Biff back to his house. Once parked in the garage old Biff uses a radio commentary of a football game to prove the almanac’s authenticity before giving it to young Biff. To ensure consistent movement of young Biff’s hand when throwing the almanac onto the back seat, Thomas F. Wilson’s arm was attached to a bar and stepper motor. The same bar and motor were then attached to the arm of a stand-in while Wilson performed the scene again as the elder Biff. The football game on the radio was an actual football game from the correct date in 1955.
Marty’s pursuit of young Biff takes him back to the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, where he is tasked with stealing the almanac from Biff’s pocket without getting caught and without accidentally running into his earlier self – who is there trying to get his parents to fall in love with one another.
The First United Methodist Church was used once again as the location of the Hill Valley High Enchantment Under the Sea dance. To ensure the sequel’s version of the dance resembled the original’s precisely, individual frames from the first film were blown up to enable to design team to study them more closely. When casting for the scene, as many of the original extras were rehired, and their same stock 1950s costumes located and used again.
The Enchantment Under the Sea sequence is the masterpiece element of Back to the Future Part II. It seamlessly re-presents the scenes from the original film from alternative angles and with additional action as present Marty and past Marty both undertake their respective missions. The scenes hit their climax with past Marty’s performance of “Johnny B. Goode” – this time with present Marty scaling the fly-tower of the school hall’s stage to stop Match, Skinhead and 3-D from beating up past Marty in the mistaken belief he is the present Marty who they have been chasing. That last sentence admittedly reads as a little confusing – if only Christopher Lloyd was available to explain it more clearly.
It’s a jaw-dropping scene, presenting the exact sort of moment that could only be presented in a Back to the Future sequel. It perfectly exploits the potential of returning to 1955. It is conceptually off-the-wall, and executed with impressive technical skill.
Part of the “Johnny B. Goode” scene had its photography directed by camera operator Ray Stella. The film’s cinematographer, Dean Cundey, was attending the 1989 Academy Awards as a nominee. Later in the evening the visual effects crew interrupted shooting to celebrate their Oscar win for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. The team would be nominated again for Back to the Future Part II, but would lose out to James Cameron’s The Abyss.
Marty retrieves the almanac and then loses it again, forcing him and Doc to follow Biff’s car in the Delorean. Marty uses the hoverboard to sneak along the side of Biff’s moving vehicle and steal the almanac for the second time.
The climactic tunnel fight was introduced during the shoot; originally Marty simply escaped from the dance hall, and the Delorean was struck by lightning above the school roof. This additional scene was incorporated when it was felt that the film was unsatisfying without a final confrontation between Marty and Biff.
The tunnel that Biff drives through is in Griffith Park, California. A false background was installed with a forced perspective to make the tunnel seem longer. For some reason – presumably its proximity to Hollywood’s various studio back lots – this tunnel turns up a lot in Hollywood movies. It can also be seen in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (as the entrance to Toontown) and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.
Doc drops Marty off at the billboard where they arrived in 1955. While Doc tries to navigate the Delorean through increasingly stormy weather, Marty burns the almanac and restores history to its proper course. Suddenly the Delorean is hit by lightning, apparently vaporising in the process.
It is a stunning moment, because until it happens every indication is that the film is at an end. The villain has been defeated, history restored, and nothing is left to do but return to 1985 and wake Jennifer up. Instead Marty is suddenly approached by a representative from Western Union with a letter to be delivered at that exact time and date. The letter, written in 1885, reveals that Doc survived the lightning strike and that he is now living in the 19th century. The Western Union representative was played by Joe Flaherty, who had previously worked with Zemeckis in Used Cars (1980).
Marty sprints back into town to find the one man he knows who can help him travel back to 1885 and rescue Doc: the Doc of 1955, who has just sent the past Marty into the future. The shot of the 1955 Doc dancing and hollering up the street by the Hill Valley courthouse, which was such a wonderful emotive shot in the original film, is faultless recreated – only this time the emotion is disrupted by the arrival of the present Marty. His appearance so shocks the 1955 Doc that he faints. A caption announces that the story is “to be concluded”.
The cliff-hanger ending of Part II caught many movie-goers by surprise. Promotional material for the film, notably its theatrical trailer, emphasised the 2015 and alternate 1985 sequences, leaving the lengthy third-act return to 1955 a secret to audiences. Negative word of mouth over the stunt led to a truncation of the film’s box office. Rather than surpassing the $389 million dollar gross of the original as Universal Pictures expected, Part II grossed only $332 million. It was enough to make it the third-highest grossing film of 1989, behind Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Batman, but nonetheless Universal executives were disappointed.
‘I’m surprised the second one wasn’t marketed as “part two of three”,’ said Dean Cundey. ‘A lot of people found it less rewarding because it didn’t have the fun and lightness of the first one, but then the third one makes sense of the second – it all connects up.’[xix]
I personally never had a problem with the cliff-hanger ending of Part II. The core narrative of the film – Biff’s changing history in 1955 – has been resolved, and in a highly satisfying fashion. The constant knowing repetition of scenes and sequences from the original film is delightfully self-aware and wonderfully satisfying. While the story gets significantly darker than its predecessor, the light-hearted and warm friendship between Marty and Doc remains intact. Even the cliff-hanger itself is satisfying, since it promises a third adventure with two immensely likeable characters. The teaser trailer to Part III debuted as a part of Part II, sandwiched between the cliff-hanger and the closing credits.
The overlapping schedules for the two films meant that by his own admission Zemeckis ‘wasn’t able to really fine-tune Part II the way it should have been.’[xx] While that’s a valid opinion to have as a director – when is any artist fully satisfied with their work? – it is certainly not true from the point of view of the audience. Part II is an imaginative and unprecedented sort of movie sequel. We have seen many sequels that have reproduced the original film’s characters, tones and even storylines, but we have never seen a film before that has reproduced the original so literally – and to such humorous effect. Despite his regrets Zemeckis would appear to agree. ‘Part II actually turns out, in my opinion,’ he said, ‘to have been the most interesting movie I’ve ever made. It is genuinely avant-garde, genuinely out there.’[xxi]
[i] Ian Nathan, “Back to the Future: the oral history”, Empire, April 2010.
[ii] Quoted in Back to the Future Part II production Notes, Universal Pictures, 1989.
[iii] Marc Shapiro, “Back to the Future Part II”, Starlog 149, December 1989.
[iv] Marc Shapiro, “Back to the Future Part II”, Starlog 149, December 1989.
[v] Rich Handley, “Exclusive interview with Back to the Future scribe Bob Gale”, Hasslein Books Blog, 18 January 2013.
[vi] Melissa Parker, “Claudia Wells interview: Back to the Future celebrates 25th anniversary”, Smashing Interviews, 4 November 2010.
[vii] Tasha Robinson, “Crispin Glover”, The AV Club, 13 January 2012.
[viii] Marc Shapiro, “Back to the Future Part II”, Starlog 149, December 1989.
[ix] Ian Nathan, “Back to the Future: the oral history”, Empire, April 2010.
[x] Quoted in “Screenwriter Bob Gale and Christopher Lloyd discuss Back to the Future”, Cinetropolis (http://cinetropolis.net/screenwriter-bob-gale-and-christopher-lloyd-discuss-back-to-the-future/)
[xi] Quoted in Back to the Future Part II production Notes, Universal Pictures, 1989.
[xii] Rich Handley, “Exclusive interview with Back to the Future scribe Bob Gale”, Hasslein Books Blog, 18 January 2013.
[xiii] Zach Schonfeld, “Here’s the original futuristic concept art from Back to the Future Part II”, Newsweek, 10 January 2015.
[xiv] Bob Gale and Neil Canton, Back to the Future Part II audio commentary, Universal Pictures, 2002.
[xv] Frederick S. Clarke, “Back to the Future: to see the ending, come back in six months and pony up six more dollars!”, Cinemafantastique, Vol. 20, No. 3, January 1990.
[xvi] Simon Brew, “The Den of Geek interview: Dean Cundey”, Den of Geek, 7 August 2008.
[xvii] Bob Gale and Neil Canton, Back to the Future Part II audio commentary, Universal Pictures, 2002.
[xviii] Marc Shapiro, “Future days of western past”, Starlog 155, June 1990.
[xix] Ryan Gilbey, “How we made Back to the Future”, The Guardian, 26 August 2014.
[xx] Luke Holland, “When directors shoot movies back to back, who wins?”, The Guardian, 1 May 2015.
[xxi] Ian Nathan, “Back to the Future: the oral history”, Empire, April 2010.
One thought on ““There’s something very familiar about all this” | Back to the Future Part II (1989)”
The whole series has a lot of heart. I remember seeing them when I was a kid and enjoying them though I would realize until adulthood why.
There’s a lot you can do with a story about time travel. Should the hero go back in time and keep disasters from happening? Is that ethical? Is it playing with fate?
But rather than make Marty stop Hitler or something, they instead had him do something more relatable. We’ve all had turning points in our lives. We don’t recognize them at the time but later in life when we’re wallowing in our misery, we sit and think, “Huh, if only I’d done X instead of Y…”
If only George McFly had stood up for himself. He wouldn’t be such of a wussy father today. His family would be happier. We can all relate to that “if only we’d done that” moment. Around that, a life and death plot with Marty’s life hanging in the balance is made.
I’m not sure a better time travel story can be made. If it is, it will definitely be paying homage to BTTF in some respect.