What can we say about Back To The Future? A stone-cold classic? Yep. Beloved by multiple generations of movie lovers? Yep. Joey Jones is going back in time to bring you the most interesting facts on the iconic film.
Released in 1985, Back To The Future was directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Zemeckis and his long-time collaborator Bob Gale. Telling the story of a teenage boy travelling back through time to meet his parents as teenagers, it’s a great comedy and a great coming-of-age movie wrapped in a perfectly executed time-travel tale, featuring the most iconic time machine in cinema.
1. Bob Gale based the idea on a high school yearbook
The idea for Back To The Future came to Gale when he was at his parents house rummaging round in their basement. He came across his dad’s old school yearbook and wondered if they would’ve been friends had they known each other when they were both 17. Gale mentioned this to Zemeckis and they turned it into a high-level story with 3 basic ideas:
- A high school kid gets sent back in time.
- He meets his parents.
- His mother falls in love with him.
This was then fleshed out info the full screenplay.
2. The original script was very different to what we see in the movie
The movie flows so well that it’s almost difficult to imagine it wasn’t written in one draft, but there were lots of changes throughout the writing process. Some of the key amends were:
- Marty’s surname was, originally, not McFly, but McDermott.
- The famous clocktower climax to the movie wasn’t part of the script. Instead, Marty and Doc would visit a nuclear test site in Nevada and a nuclear explosion would send the DeLorean back to the future. This was changed because the whole sequence would have proved too expensive.
- The final scene originally didn’t play out how it does in the film, with Doc turning back up at Marty’s house and taking him and Jennifer on another adventure. It originally ended with George looking at a 1955 newspaper with a picture of Marty playing Johnny B. Goode on stage, and saying, “It can’t be. But it is…”
- In first drafts, Doc Brown had a pet chimp called Shemp. This was changed to a pet dog called Einstein at the request of the Head of Universal – Sid Sheinberg. Sheingberg told Zemeckis and Gale, “no film with a chimp ever made money.” When Gale responded by saying, “what about Every Which Way But Loose?” Sheinberg said, “that’s an orangutan, not a chimp.”
3. The movie was almost not called Back To The Future
Unimaginable now, but the movie could’ve been called something entirely different. Sid Sheinberg did not like the title “Back To The Future.” He sent a memo to Zemeckis and Gale outlining his reasons, and asking to change it to “Spaceman From Pluto.”
Luckily, producer Steven Spielberg stepped in. He replied to Sheinberg’s memo with one of his own that simply said: “Sid, thanks for your most humorous memo. We all got a big kick out of it. Thanks, Steven.”
Sheinberg did not reply to Spielberg’s memo, and we got one of the great movie titles.
The memo that Sid Sheinberg sent to Bobs Zemeckis and Gale requesting they change the name of Back To The Future.
4. The script was rejected many, many times
Based on the concept, Columbia Pictures commissioned Zemeckis and Gale to write a screenplay. They did that, but Columbia rejected it. At this point, Zemeckis and Gale showed the script to their friend (and movie legend), Steven Spielberg, and he loved it. Spielberg said, “It was a very unusual story but based on old-fashioned principles like family and coming of age and dreams and desires and the generation gap. It was really terrific.”
Spielberg wanted his production company, Amblin Entertainment, to make the film, but Zemeckis and Gale didn’t want to become known as the guys who only got jobs because they were friends with Steven Spielberg. Instead, they sent it round every studio in Hollywood. The script for Back To The Future was rejected by studios 44 times.
Columbia said it was, “too sweet.” Universal originally said, “time travel movies don’t make any money.” And Disney said it was, “too incestuous.”
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5. The end of the movie is foreshadowed in the opening scene
The amount of foreshadowing threaded throughout Back To The Future is astonishing. The script is a masterclass in set up and pay off, and one of most notable moments comes in the very first scene.
The film opens with Marty turning up at Doc’s vacant laboratory. The camera pans slowly around the room, revealing many timepieces that Doc keeps on his wall. One of these has a man hanging from the hands of a clock. This is a double whammy – it depicts a scene from Harold Lloyd’s classic silent-era comedy film, Safety Last! (1923) and also foreshadows the moment where Doc finds himself hanging from the clock tower in the climax of Back To The Future.
The iconic opening shot from Back To The Future.
6. The time machine originally wasn’t a DeLorean
The car Marty drives and uses to go back in time is a DeLorean, made immortal because of Back To The Future. In original drafts of the script, however, the time machine wasn’t going to be a DeLorean. It wasn’t even going to be a car.
In the first drafts, the time machine was a time chamber – a room that Marty would go into and be zapped back in time. That then changed to a big, 1950s-style refrigerator that Marty would climb into and the refrigerator would travel back in time. Zemeckis and Spielberg scrapped the idea when they became worried about children climbing into refrigerators and becoming trapped.
Zemeckis then had the idea of using a car as it meant the time machine could be mobile and involved in more exciting scenes. He wanted something that looked futuristic and cool, so the DeLorean was brought in.
7. John DeLorean was very grateful
The CEO of the DeLorean car company was called John DeLorean. After the movie came out, and was a smash hit, he wrote Zemeckis a letter expressing his gratitude. He said “Thanks for continuing my dream in such a positive fashion.”
A copy of the letter John DeLorean sent to Zemeckis.
8. Michael J. Fox was not the first person cast as Marty
Zemeckis’ first choice to play Marty was Michael J. Fox. At the time, though, Fox was working on a sitcom called Family Ties. They wouldn’t release Fox to do Back To The Future, so Zemeckis had no choice but to go through the typical casting process. John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, Ralph Macchio, and Johnny Depp all auditioned unsuccessfully for the part of Marty. The successful auditionee was Eric Stoltz.
Filming started with Stoltz as Marty, but there were issues almost immediately, with Zemeckis feeling they weren’t getting the laughs the movie needed. Lea Thompson tells a story about the first ever table reading with the whole cast where everybody was laughing and joking as they read the script. Afterwards, Stoltz was asked what he thought and said, “Everybody’s laughing, but it’s not a comedy, it’s a tragedy. My whole family remembers a different history to what I do. It’s really very sad.”
Stoltz was let go by Zemeckis 6 weeks into production and Zemeckis has since called firing Stoltz, “the worst moment of my career.”
A side-by-side comparison of scenes filmed with Eric Stoltz as Marty, and how they appear in the final film with Michael J. Fox.
9. Michael J. Fox got the gig, and had to work very hard
After Eric Stoltz was let go, Zemeckis went back to Family Ties and asked again if they could release Michael J. Fox. Family Ties this time let Fox read the script. He loved it, of course, and begged Family Ties co-creator Gary Goldberg to let him make the movie. Goldberg relented, on the condition that the Family Ties schedule was not interrupted. This meant Fox had to work on Family Ties and Back To The Future at the same time, going on just 3 hours sleep per night.
Fox rehearsed for Family Ties from 8am to 6pm, then rushed to the Back to the Future set where he would rehearse and shoot until 3:30 a.m. This schedule lasted for two full months.
10. The visual effects team did impressive work
Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) did the visual effects and, to create the iconic moment where the DeLorean travels through time, they used a mix of practical and digital effects. This included:
- Two tyre tracks were laid out in gasoline. The tracks were then set on fire, so the flames shot up the gasoline tracks. This was filmed, and the footage then sped up.
- They filmed a stunt man driving the DeLorean and superimposed that footage on top of the tyre tracks footage.
- Lightning bolts and puffs of smoke were added digitally at the point the DeLorean vanishes in the movie.
- Director of Photography Dean Cundey had a camera rigged to a dolly so he could track the DeLorean then bring the camera suddenly to a dead stop when the car vanishes. This created the impression of the flames shooting out from the car when it vanishes.
On that, Cundey says, “Nowadays it would all be digital – no way would you have fire and speeding cars around the stars. My success is based entirely on how many movie stars I tried to kill.”
The moment the DeLorean travels back in time, with effects work provided by ILM.
11. Christopher Lloyd turned the part of Doc Brown down
Christopher Lloyd was recommended for the part of Doc Emmett Brown to Zemeckis by producer Neil Canton, who had worked with Lloyd on The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). They sent Lloyd the script but, with aspirations of being a serious actor, the actor threw it in the trash.
Lloyd was convinced to take the part when he met Zemeckis, who impressed him when he explained his ideas for the movie, and Doc Brown, to the actor. Lloyd told Zemeckis he wanted to base the character on Albert Einstein and a conductor called Leopold Stokowski. Zemeckis liked the idea, and Lloyd was hired.
12. Things did not go smoothly on-set with Crispin Glover
Crispin Glover plays George McFly, the nerdy, insecure father of Marty. Glover is critically acclaimed for his performance, but there was some friction on-set between him and Zemeckis. Over the years, stories have surfaced about what went on:
- Glover wanted the 47-year-old George we see at the start of the film to have his hair standing straight up on end, ”like Henry Spencer in Eraserhead.” The problem was, they’d already started shooting. Zemeckis told Glover they couldn’t do that, as it wouldn’t match the previous days’ footage. Glover said to Zemeckis, “Brando never matched,” which, coming from an inexperienced 21-year-old actor, did not go down well.
- Zemeckis has said about working with Glover: “I was endlessly throwing a net over Crispin because he was completely off about fifty percent of the time in his interpretation of the character”.
- At the end of shooting, Glover questioned the ending of the film. He thought the McFly’s shouldn’t be financially well off when Marty goes back to 1985, and said to Zemeckis, “love should be the reward, not money.” In Glover’s words, Zemeckis, “got really mad.”
Crispin Glover did not return for Back To The Future Part II, where the character of George only appears in two scenes, and is played by another actor. Glover sued the studio for use of his likeness. He received a settlement, but the whole experience effectively ended his career in Hollywood.
13. Tom Wilson has his own Back To The Future script
Thomas F. Wilson plays the antagonist of the movie, the high school bully Biff Tannen. Over the years, Wilson has found himself being asked the same questions by fans he meets so often that he has created a Q&A script to handle all of the recurring questions. Some of the questions and answers on there include:
- Yes, I’m Tom Wilson. Yes, Biff from Back To The Future.
- Michael J. Fox is nice. No, I’m not in close contact with him.
- Christopher Lloyd is nice.
- Lea Thompson is nice.
- Crispin Glover is unusual, but not as unusual as he sometimes presents himself.
- Eric Stoltz originally played Marty, but was fired due to performance issues. We had a couple of personal issues, but it’s all fine now.
14. The main cast all loved Bob Zemeckis
Robert Zemeckis has a reputation as a director who works very well with actors, and is good at drawing out strong performances. The main cast on Back To The Future backed this up, saying of Zemeckis:
- Michael J. Fox: “he’s a great artist. We understood each other perfectly.”
- Lea Thompson: “he’s incomparable. attention to detail is second to none which makes him such a great storyteller.”
- Tom Wilson: “He must have a 100 megabyte hard disk in his brain.” (100MB sounded a lot more impressive when Wilson said this in 1986!)
15. Spielberg had to be convinced about Alan Silvestri writing the score
Zemeckis hired Alan Silvestri to write the music for Back To The Future, having worked together on Romancing The Stone (1984). Producer Steven Spielberg wasn’t convinced, though. Based on Silvestri’s previous work, Spielberg didn’t think the composer could deliver the rousing, triumphant score the movie needed.
Spielberg changed his mind when he heard the orchestra warming up. They were playing a big, dramatic piece and Spielberg said to Zemeckis, “that’s brilliant! that’s what it needs to be!” and Zemeckis said, “yeah, it is. That’s the main theme Alan’s sent us.”
Alan Silvestri’s main theme for Back To The Future.
16. A famous pop star has a cameo in the movie
As well as an iconic score, Back To The Future also has a strong soundtrack, led by the powerhouse pop song The Power Of Love by Huey Lewis And The News. The song went to number 1 in several countries around the world, and Lewis himself cameos in the movie.
In the first act scene where Marty’s band – The Pinheads – is auditioning for a high school Battle Of The Bands contest, Lewis plays a schoolteacher who cuts the band short, announcing via megaphone: “hold it, fellas. I’m afraid you’re just too darn loud.”
The Pinheads rejected audition, featuring a cameo from Huey Lewis.
17. Michael J. Fox was helped out in the musical department
Towards the end of the film, and in one of the movie’s most famous moments, Marty jumps on-stage at the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance to deliver an exhilarating rendition of Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry, inventing rock ’n’ roll in the process.
Michael J. Fox wanted it to appear like Marty is playing the guitar for real so took lessons from a musician called Paul Hanson. Hanson praised Fox for his work ethic and being a quick study, and the movie works better for it.
For the vocal performance, Zemeckis wanted it to sound like Marty was actually singing, so the music supervisor on Back To The Future, Bones Howe, put out a casting call to find somebody who sounded like Michael J. Fox might when singing. A young musician called Mark Chapman saw the ad, and practiced to sound like Fox. He auditioned, won the part, and that’s who we hear singing Johnny B. Goode.
Marty plays Johnny B. Goode, and invents rock’n’roll.
18. The movie was an instant classic
Back To The Future is revered now as one of the most popular movies ever made, and it was pretty much was that way from the very beginning. The film made Michael J. Fox a movie sensation overnight, was nominated for 3 Oscars (Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound, and Best Original Song for The Power Of Love) and, in taking $389m at the box-office, it was the highest-grossing movie of the year.
And those are our interesting facts on Back To The Future. If you know something interesting we don’t, please leave a comment below. Or, if you haven’t got your fill just yet, you can listen to All The Right Movies’ Back To The Future podcast episode.