With most movies I’ve seen, I have a fairly good memory of the first time I saw them, especially if they had an impact on me. I don’t remember the first time I saw Back to the Future too well though. I’m not sure whether it was a rental, or on TV. Either way, I enjoy the trilogy now just as much as I did back then, even if the ways I enjoy them have changed. Just a heads up, there will be a lot more behind the scenes details in this review than normal lately. There are so many fascinating stories behind this movie’s production that it’s worth a look.
Back to the Future was first conceived in 1980 by long-time collaborators and friends, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. After releasing their comedy, Used Cars, Gale visited his parents and looked at his father’s old yearbook. He wondered if he and his father would be friends, if they attended school together, and realized he could test that if he could travel back in time. When he shared that idea with Zemeckis, Zemeckis remembered his mother’s often contradictory childhood stories. That conversation quickly turned into the idea that became Back to the Future. They would end up co-writing the movie together, with Zemeckis directing.
A number of the concepts changed over time. At one point, Marty’s father became a boxer as a result of punching out Biff. At another point, the time machine was stationary, and operated out of the back of a truck. An early concept had Marty’s trip to the past resulting in the present being more futuristic. They abandoned that idea quickly, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that idea is what helped inspire Back to the Future Part II.
Despite how successful the movie was, and how it’s regarded as a classic today, they actually faced a lot of difficulty getting the movie green-lit. Columbia Pictures president Frank Price was initially interested in the idea, but didn’t accept the movie in the long run. At the time, the most successful comedies were Animal House, Porky’s, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. All of these featured plenty of sexual themes, and Back to the Future was considered quite tame by comparison. Yet at the same time, Disney turned it down because they considered Marty fighting off his mother’s advancements too risqué for their brand. After 40 rejections, sometimes by the same studio, the only major figure supporting the project was Steven Spielberg.
In the meantime, Zemeckis agreed to direct Romancing the Stone, a 1984 romantic adventure comedy that performed much better than expected. That success gave Zemeckis the credibility he needed to make Back to the Future. Holding a grudge towards the studios that turned it down, he instead signed on to Spielberg’s newly founded production company, Amblin Productions (now Amblin Entertainment). Interestingly, Price was now at Universal Studios, the company that ultimately distributed Back to the Future. However, as Price also turned down Spielberg’s E.T., in addition to Back to the Future even after showing interest, Spielberg demanded that Price’s involvement with Back to the Future would be minimal.
Although Michael J. Fox was always the first choice to portray Marty McFly, thanks to his comedic timing in Family Ties, the show’s producer refused to show Fox the script. He worried that Fox’s absence would hurt the show, especially with another cast member on maternity leave. A number of other actors were considered, including John Cusack, Johnny Depp, Charlie Sheen, Ben Stiller, Jon Cryer (no thanks), Robert Downey Jr., and Cory Heart (who declined the audition).
They ended up casting Eric Stoltz, after being impressed by his performance in an early test screening of Mask (1985). They actually shot with Stoltz for five weeks, where he employed method acting, refusing to answer to his real name on set. They immediately started searching for a replacement, but didn’t fire him until Fox signed on. Zemeckis described the meeting where they fired Stoltz as “the hardest meeting I’ve ever had in my life and it was all my fault. I broke his heart.” Stoltz then told his make-up artist that he wasn’t a comedian, and didn’t understand why he was cast in a comedy to begin with. Of course, firing Stoltz also meant they needed to replace Marty’s girlfriend, as test audiences didn’t like how Melora Hardin was taller than Fox. They replaced her with Claudia Wells, who previously turned it down due to other commitments.
The casting for Doc Brown wasn’t all that easy either. Before landing on Christopher Lloyd, they considered Jeff Goldblum, Robin Williams, John Cleese, Gene Hackman and James Wood, among others. Lea Thompson was picked early on as Marty’s mother Lorraine, after the filmmakers researched Stoltz’s previous movie, The Wild Life. Crispin Glover was also picked early on as Marty’s father George. He actually used a lot of his own mannerisms in his portrayal, although Zemeckis apparently didn’t like it, and asked him to tone it down. Thomas F. Wilson portrays Biff in his first major film role, while two others who were considered for the role, Billy Zane and J. J. Cohen, still joined the movie as his minions Match and Skinhead.
On an amusing side note, Biff Tannen was partly named after Universal Studios executive Ned Tanen, who was unpleasant towards Zemeckis and Gale.
Filming this movie was particularly rough on Fox, who would often film both Back to the Future and Family Ties on the same day. On top of that, Family Ties filmed in front of live audiences. This went on from January 15th (his first day) to mid-April, when Family Ties finished for the season. Fox described the process as exhausting, but worth the effort. There were even days where the crew needed to carry Fox to bed because he was so tired. He showed energy while filming, but was clearly tired between takes. At times, he’d ad-lib his lines because he forgot the intended dialogue, some of which made it into the final cut. He recalled that one day, he looked for a camcorder on the Family Ties set, before realizing it was actually a prop on Back to the Future. Some other scenes were filmed without him at the moment, and they added him later. This, along with all of the Stoltz footage, allowed them to figure out problems with these scenes, and fix them before Fox could film them.
Also, Glover lost his voice half-way through the shoot, and re-dubbed his lines after.
Most cast and crew members agreed that the general filming atmosphere improved after Fox replaced Stoltz, with Thompson in particular noting that Stoltz ate lunch alone in his trailer, while Fox ate lunch with everyone else. That said, there’s a minor dispute about whether or not Stoltz’s fist appears in the scene where Marty punches Biff in the diner. Gale commented that there’s no way to know for sure without checking the original film negatives, which isn’t worth the risk of damaging them.
Despite all of these production difficulties, the studio was so impressed by the test screenings and audience reactions, they pushed the movie’s release forward to July 3, instead of the originally planned August release. They managed to finish the film on time despite a rushed editing process, and the film even includes some incomplete special effects.
Back to the Future earned $388.8 million on a $19 million budget, nearly 20 times. It debuted as number one for its opening weekend, beating out Rambo: First Blood Part II (on its seventh weekend), and even outperformed Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’s opening weekend on its second. After being beaten by National Lampoon’s European Vacation in its fourth week, it regained its number one spot for its fifth week, and retained it for the next eight. Most noteworthy, Back to the Future’s second weekend outperformed its first, which Gale said that it’s “indicative of great word of mouth”. Back to the Future ended up being 1985’s highest earning movie domestically and internationally. It also helped improve Universal’s financial situation, after several years of poor performances.
It also performed well with the critics. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel both gave it positive reviews. Siskel’s review was interesting, commenting that the movie appeared to be “everything wrong” with youth-targeted films, but actually subverted expectations by focusing on relatable narratives with an emotional core. The cast was widely praised, especially Lloyd’s performance as a mad scientist. Ronald Reagan laughed hysterically from the joke about him becoming president, and he even quoted the closing line in his 1986 State of the Union Address – “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
These days, the movie’s held in even higher regard than when it first released, and is considered to be among the greatest films ever made. In 2005, the Writers Guild of America called it the 56th greatest screenplay in Hollywood history. Empire placed it number 23 on their 500 greatest movies of all-time, just behind Star Wars. Popular Mechanics called it the best time travel film ever made. On Empire’s 2006 list of “100 Greatest Movie Characters”, both Marty and Doc Brown appeared, as number 39 and 76 respectfully.
As for myself, I’ve always liked this movie. When I first saw it, I didn’t consider it to be a comedy so much as an adventure film, even if I still laughed quite a bit. I didn’t fully understand the awkwardness of Marty’s mother falling in love with him, but I understood the ramifications of how it risked erasing him from existence. It really is the kind of movie that works for all ages, even if you understand the brilliance of the writing more when you’re older.
Marty and Doc Brown make for fascinating friends. They’re completely different people, to the point where one must wonder how they even met, yet you still buy their friendship. Lloyd is brilliant as Doc Brown, with his fast talking explanations of complex concepts, and using similar complex language to try to describe simple concepts such as romantic dates. Fox is equally great as Marty, as a rebellious teenager trapped in a conservative 1955, while also trying to set his parents up with each other after interfering with how they originally met. An especially daunting task considering how much of a wimp his father is.
As much as this is mostly a comedy, it still works as a sci-fi adventure movie. Marty has only one chance to return to the future, and he has exactly one week to fix his parents’ relationship before then. It leads to a climactic action scene that felt intense when I was a kid. As an adult, it’s more funny than it is intense, but it still works as a straight action scene. The concepts of time travel, the butterfly effect, and changing your future are also intelligently written, in which despite Marty’s best efforts, he does end up changing a lot about his present.
Back to the Future is widely regarded as a classic, and rightly so. Despite how it’s approaching its 40th anniversary, it’s still quite relevant today. On that note, writers could have a field day writing a similar movie, showing the cultural differences between even today vs 1993, especially with how fast political correctness is moving in the last decade or so. I’d rather not comment further on that here. Regardless, Back to the Future is such a great film that, if you haven’t seen it, I must ask, what’s wrong with you?
I’ll be looking at its two sequels in the coming weeks. Back to the Future: Part II will be particularly fun to look at, considering how despite being a comedy with flying cars and lawyers being abolished, they got a surprising number of things right in their version of 2015. To round out this month, I’ll be writing some sort of essay post. At this point I’m leaning towards ideas on how the Star Wars sequel trilogy could have been improved, while sticking with the same general story.
Wonderful retrospective on Back to the Future! I love this movie, it’s so fun and exciting. Always a joy to watch. 🙂
It’s crazy to think that so many different studios turned this down, and that production was completely rushed when they finally could make it, yet it still turned out so well.
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It’s amazing to think that it had such a troubled trip to getting made. It’s a great trilogy as well. I think the 2nd film was a bit too complicated for its own good, but I really liked the 3rd film and its Wild West setting,.
What a brilliant movie this turned out to be! I need to do a rewatch of the trilogy in the near future. And wow at all those fun facts you shared. Those alternative casting options sounds so insane when you think about it…
I’m sure all of the other choices I mentioned for Doc Brown could have worked just as well in their own way, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else as Doc Brown because of how well Christopher Lloyd portrayed the role.
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