30 Years Later: The History Behind Back to the Future

Back to the Future Theme Week

eric stoltz and michael j fox comparison in back to the future

Side by side comparison of Eric Stoltz and Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly.

If you have any interest in our articles for our Back to the Future theme week, there’s an excellent chance you’re already a fan of the movie. You’ve probably seen it more than once. But the most fascinating element of the MAKING of the movie, at least from my point of view, was how close it was to disaster. You may have heard that Michael J. Fox was not the first actor cast in the role of Marty McFly. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the iconic role, but it actually happened. But did you know that the script originally had Marty trying to kill himself before he traveled through time? Or that the time machine was originally just a chamber, not the DeLorean? The original ending included Doc and Marty traveling to Nevada to break into a nuclear test site but the studio deemed it too expensive. But all of these problems and more just forced the filmmakers to work that much harder and they ended up, through a series of accidents, with a fantastic final movie. Let’s dig through the history and see all the bullets the movie dodged and how it ended up in its final form that we all know.

THE SCRIPT

The germ of an idea grew for Bob Gale when he visited his parents and flipped through his father’s high school yearbook. He learned that his father had been the president of the student council, which he’d never known. Bob had been in a group to abolish his high school’s student government. It made him wonder if he would have been friends with his father at the same age, and that was the genesis of Back to the Future‘s story of Marty McFly traveling back in time 30 years to interact with his parents at the same age as him.

tales from space back to the future

This almost inspired a different movie title.

An early obstacle was getting a studio interested in the movie. Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, the director, had done two movies together at that point: I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars. They’d done okay with critics but did not do well at the box office so no one wanted to produce Back to the Future. They got rejected for four years by every studio. Fortunately, Zemeckis’ next film – Romancing the Stone – was a hit and studios came calling asking what ideas he had. Gale and Zemeckis went to Steven Spielberg first because he had supported their first two movies and he helped them as a producer. They ended up going with Universal Studios. And here’s the first of the changes from their original idea that helped improve things. Studio head Sid Sheinberg had three demands: He didn’t want Emmet Brown called “Professor” because he felt that was corny. He became Doc Brown. Second, Doc used to have a chimpanzee pet. Again, Sheinberg argued movies with chimps bombed and to change it, which became Doc’s sheepdog, Einstein. Sheinberg’s final demand was to change the title to Spaceman from Pluto, based on the comic book that the kid in 1955 has when the farm family sees the DeLorean. Spielberg saved the day on that one by writing a memo to Sheinberg saying thanks for the joke title and they all had a good laugh. Sheinberg was too proud to argue for his suggested title after that.

delorean at nuclear test site storyboard

An original storyboard panel showing the DeLorean racing to a nuclear test site.

Originally, Doc Brown had made a chamber that transports you through time. Marty thought it just gathered and discharged electricity and hated his life so much he tried to kill himself in it, only to be transported back to 1985. That stayed in their script for a long time before Gale and Zemeckis realized they couldn’t start their comedy with such a depressed hero. The original script had Doc and Marty transport the chamber all the way to the Nevada desert where they broke into an Army nuclear bomb test facility to harness the energy to get Marty back to the future. The studio determined this sequence was simply too expensive. It forced Gale and Zemeckis to re-evaluate what sets they already had and the came up with the idea of putting a clock tower on the library. It kept the story within Hill Valley and added the symbolism of a clock as well as the idea of a lightning strike occurring at a particular time which gave the whole story a “ticking clock.” In turn, they also decided to change the time machine to a DeLorean car for the gag with the farmers thinking it was a UFO. It allowed the time machine to be moved much more easily.

One element Spielberg was not comfortable with was the Oedipal story of Marty’s mother, Lorraine, being attracted to him. He told the filmmakers it made his skin crawl but eventually he realized they were just playing it for a joke, and understood their goals. This was one of the main elements that kept studios away from producing the film, originally.

The finale was originally very different. Marty’s rock and roll music at the dance creates a riot and police come in to make arrests. Marty accidentally lets Doc know that the secret ingredient to time travel is Coca Cola. When Marty returns to the 1980s, it’s the 80s as envisioned by the 50s: there are air cars and rock and roll was never invented (instead, mambo is the most popular music). Marty vows to start the cultural revolution.

THE CAST

When it came time to cast the movie, the filmmakers were given a deadline by Sid Sheinberg. He said the movie had to come out by Memorial Day the next year. Zemeckis and Gale had originally wanted to cast Michael J. Fox in the role but he was unavailable when they approached him because of his obligations to his TV show, Family Ties. Meredith Baxter, who played his mother, was pregnant and not available for a lot of the show at the time and it meant they couldn’t lose Fox. Instead, casting came down to actors C. Thomas Howell and Eric Stoltz. The filmmakers preferred Howell’s screen test but Sheinberg insisted on Stoltz. The movie filmed for six weeks and Zemeckis felt he had a massive problem. He had almost half the movie done and showed it to Spielberg, worried that the comedy wasn’t playing well. Spielberg agreed. They just didn’t feel Stoltz was delivering the performance they wanted. The studio had already invested millions and recasting would have delayed the movie and cost a lot more money. They estimated it would add $3 million to the $14 million budget. But Spielberg stood up for the movie and sat down with Sheinberg who heard him out. They came up with a last-ditch solution: Spielberg was good friends with Gary David Goldberg, the creator of Family Ties. He explained they had to get Fox for the movie and together, they worked out a plan that involved Fox working his TV show on weekdays and concurrently filming the movie at nights and weekends. He was available because Meredith Baxter had her baby and had returned to the show full-time. It was a massive amount of work but Fox did it.

eric stoltz and melora hardin in back to the future

Eric Stoltz and Melora Hardin in back to the future

The original choice for Doc Brown was John Lithgow. However, he was unavailable and the movie reached out to one of Lithgow’s co-stars from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Christopher Lloyd. He turned them down but his wife argued he should change his mind because it was a good script. He relented and was cast. Actor J.J. Cohen was initially cast as the bully, Biff but when Stoltz was hired, the filmmakers felt they needed to cast a taller actor. Tom Wilson was given the role and Cohen became one of Biff’s gang members, Skinhead. If Fox had originally been cast as intended, Cohen probably would have kept the role because he was taller than the shorter Fox. Another role that changed was Marty McFly’s girlfriend, Jennifer. Melora Hardin, possibly best known as Jan on The Office, was cast as Marty’s girlfriend opposite Stoltz. But when Fox took over, they decided to go with a shorter actress and replaced her with Claudia Wells.

THE SHOOT

Even without the recasting of roles, it was a difficult shoot. Michael J. Fox would film outdoor scenes on weekends and indoor or evening scenes from 6:30pm to 2:30am. He was averaging just 5 hours of sleep a night at the time but said he really wanted to do both TV and film and didn’t want to give up the opportunity. Other challenges involved keeping the energy up for the cast when they had to reshoot scenes they’d already done with Eric Stoltz originally. The cast would frequently have to do shots with a stand-in and the close-ups would be shot with just Fox later.

Zemeckis said one of the biggest challenges for him was reigning in Crispin Glover. Glover would try to improvise new ideas constantly and Zemeckis felt he constantly had to throw a net over him because his performance wasn’t accurate 50% of the time (Glover was recast in the sequels). If you watch the scene where Marty talks to George in the cafeteria, while George is writing, Glover’s face is puffy and his eyes are red. This is because before the started filming, he rubbed his face and head furiously, saying he thinks George’s hair should stand straight up while he’s writing.

The recasting caused delays and the movie was scheduled for an August release. But an early test screening went fantastic and Sid Sheinberg insisted they get the movie out for the 4th of July weekend, agreeing to pay for more film and sound editors. Zemeckis cut eight minutes of material, including Marty seeing Lorraine cheat on an exam, George McFly getting trapped in a phone booth when he was supposed to rescue Lorraine at the dance, and a lot of Marty pretending to be “Darth Vader” and scaring George. Zemeckis also wanted to cut Marty’s “Johnny B. Goode” song at the dance because it didn’t advance the plot. Eventually, he relented and kept the sequence because test audiences enjoyed it so much. The special effects, by Industrial Light and Magic, were not complete until one week before release.

back to the future california raisins

California Raisins said this wasn’t good enough promotion and asked for their product placement money back.

Because of the modest budget, the filmmakers agreed to some product placement deals but according to Bob Gale, they were a hassle and he never wanted to deal with them again. Among their deals were California Raisins (money returned after they argued their ad on a bench wasn’t visible enough), Pepsi (argued with the filmmakers to take out a Tab reference, which they refused), Texaco and Miller Beer (Gale thought they were going to give them money but instead they just provided the crew with free beer).

THE MUSIC

Robert Zemeckis wanted Alan Silvestri to do the score (he had just done the music for Romancing the Stone) but Spielberg said he didn’t care for that score. He told Silvestri to go really big and epic even though the movie was modest. Spielberg liked it. The score was only started two weeks before the first test screening.

The filmmakers also wanted Huey Lewis and the News to do a song for the movie. The band pitched “Back in Time” but Universal didn’t like it. Their second attempt, “The Power of Love,” was a hit but Universal was disappointed it didn’t mention the movie title. They ended up telling radio stations to mention the movie whenever possible.

When Marty dresses as “Darth Vader” and plays a tape, it’s labeled “Edward Van Halen.” That’s because the band wouldn’t give them the rights to the name Van Halen but lead guitarist Eddie Van Halen did give them the rights to his name. The guitar lick that plays is an uncredited Eddie Van Halen playing. He has said it is not from a song, it was just him making noise.

THE RELEASE

drew struzan unused Back to the Future poster

An unused poster the studio hired Drew Struzan to paint.

The filmmakers were nervous about the potential success for their film when it was released. It would go head to head with the third Mad Max movie and Michael J. Fox was unavailable to promote it because he was filming a Family Ties special in London. Bob Gale did not care for the tagline that Universal chose to promote the movie with: “Are you telling me my mother’s got the hots for me?” Rejected taglines included:

  • Marty McFly just broke the time barrier. He’s only got one week to get it fixed.
  • 7-year-old Marty McFly got home early last night. 30 years early.
  • Marty McFly’s having the time of his life. The only question is… what time is it?

However, the movie was a success, building to a bigger box office in week two because of word of mouth and ultimately spending 11 consecutive weeks as the #1 movie in America. Reviews were also incredibly positive. However, the filmmakers admit they did not initially plan on making the film part of a trilogy. They specifically point to ending the movie with Marty, Doc and Jennifer going to the future as problematic logistically for them and quickly sideline Jennifer. The movie went on to be nominated for Academy Awards for Best Original Song, Best Original Screenplay and Best Sound and won the Oscar for Best Sound Editing.

  • Big Jim

    Interesting stuff. Knew of course about Eric Stoltz, but did not know C. Thomas Howell was also up for the role, or that John Lithgow was the first choice for Doc Brown. I wonder, if Christopher Lloyd had turned it down, who would have been their next choice?