It made DeLoreans, orange body warmers and Huey Lewis cool, and it's the finest time-travel movie of, well, all time. In a series of exclusive interviews, the three maestros behind Back to the Future - director Robert Zemeckis, writer Bob Gale and producer Steven Spielberg - return to the trilogy...
The Inspiration Behind Back to the Future
Bob Gale (writer and producer): I was back in St. Louis, Missouri, visiting my parents. Searching around in the basement, I found my father’s high-school yearbook. I’m thumbing through it and I found out my father was president of his graduating class. I didn’t know this. I thought about the president of my graduating class as someone I had nothing to do with. I was head of the Student Committee To Abolish Student Government. So I thought, “Gee, if I went to high school with my dad, would I have been friends with him?” So that was the idea I came back to Los Angeles with.
Robert Zemeckis (writer and director): We thought it’d be a really clever time-travel story, one we hadn’t seen before. I think the thing that turned out to be the most fun was being able to tell a story about a teenage kid who went back in time in the recent past to see his parents as teenagers. That’s what we had the most mileage out of rather than sending him back to prehistoric times.
Steven Spielberg (Executive Producer): I saw a great story. A story that was equal in plot to character. I saw a story where the characters created the plot as opposed to the plot creating the characters. It was almost a perfect storytelling machine.
Bob Gale: It was really an old-fashioned type of screenwriting on a certain level, where you want to get all the information out as quickly as possible.
Steven Spielberg: Billy Wilder comes to mind when you see something sprung as tightly as Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale created it. It was tight as a drum but, at the same time, it was loose enough to allow Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd to bring their spontaneity.
Robert Zemeckis: It was a very, very painful and elaborate screenplay to write. Bob and I were adamant about making it extremely tight and setting everything up and tying up all the loose ends — where the science within the suspension of disbelief all made sense. You can travel through time but not through space. A lot of time-travel stories violate that concept. Not only do you travel 100 years from the past, you also travel from Los Angeles to England miraculously.
Robert Zemeckis: We decided to use a DeLorean automobile because of this joke we had in the movie. When the time-machine arrives in the past, the people in the farmhouse think it’s an alien spaceship.
Bob Gale: In the version where Doc Brown had this time chamber, Marty didn’t understand what it was. He thought it was this thing that was going to shoot off this big electrical discharge. He was so despondent about how messed-up his life was, he was going to commit suicide. We thought that was a good idea for way longer than we should have. Finally, we said, “We can’t have the main character be someone who wants to kill himself.”
Robert Zemeckis: Our original idea was that we were going to end the movie at the Nevada nuclear test site. Marty had to bring the time-machine out into the desert and Doc Brown hooked up a device that was going to harness the energy released at detonation to send the DeLorean back to 1985.
Bob Gale: The whole idea was that the DeLorean was powered by plutonium. We thought Dr. Emmett Brown was probably one of those guys who worked on the Manhattan project. We were fascinated by all the nuclear tests. They would build these fake little towns in the desert and blow them up. If you remember the opening of Indiana Jones IV, where do you think that idea came from? It came from Back To The Future.
Robert Zemeckis: Because the studio was $5 million out of the budget, we had to come up with a different idea within the framework of the money we had. Instead of going to another location, we put a clock on the courthouse. It’s much better, tighter writing: it kept it all in Hill Valley; it kept it in the clock imagery; it was just much better.
Bob Gale: We had a gag where Marty was going to escape from Biff by skateboarding in front of an oncoming train. That was another thing we lost by not going on location.
Steven Spielberg: I have to say I thought the Oedipal aspect was really gross. 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.
Robert Zemeckis: Ultimately, that’s what made the movie successful, because it was a little bit edgy but it was done in a fun way. We resolved it in a way that gave the audience a tremendous sense of relief. So it works. It was a great marketing hook and it worked emotionally to provide an entertaining wallop in the movie.
Bob Gale: We got over 40 rejections and everyone was pooh-poohing it and saying nobody’s going to see this movie. And we proved them wrong.
Robert Zemeckis: Steven was one of the first people I asked to read the screenplay and he liked it very much. But I was concerned that if Steven had produced a third film that was a box-office flop, then I would not be able to get a job anywhere as a director. Three years went by and I did Romancing The Stone that was fortunately a hit. Then everyone wanted to do Back To The Future. I thought it was only appropriate to go back to the one guy who had faith in it based on the material itself, and that was Steven.
Steven Spielberg: My creative input was backing the boys. My creative input was giving them everything they wanted and making sure they could tell their story unhindered. My job was running interference for them, getting the money from the studio and delivering them the freedom to make their movie.
Robert Zemeckis: Sid Sheinberg (then head of Universal) made the decision to make the movie and he ran the studio in a really ballsy way. Sid had three notes when Steven gave him the screenplay to read. One was we couldn’t call the Doc ‘Professor’ because he thought it was corny. The second one was, in the original drafts of the screenplay, Doc had a chimp as a mascot instead of a dog. Sid said, “You have to get rid of that chimp because no-one’s going to see a film with a chimp in it.”
Bob Gale: He said, “I’ve done the research. No movie with a chimpanzee in it has ever made a profit.” I said, “What about Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can, Sid?” And he said, “That was an orang-utan in those movies.”
Robert Zemeckis: And the third one was he hated the title, but we stuck to our guns on that. After the movie was a success, we were having a celebratory meeting, and we said, “You see, Sid, people went to the movie.” And he said, “But I’ll never know if I was right, will I?”
Bob Gale: Sid’s alternate title was Spaceman From Pluto, and that was because of the comic book the kid has in the barn. Every single person at Universal loved the title Back To The Future except for Sid. So we went to Steven and said, “Steven, what are we going to do? He means it. He really wants to change the title. And Steven wrote a memo back to Sheinberg saying, “Dear Sid, thanks so much for your most humorous memo. We all really got a big laugh out of it.” Steven knew that Sid was too proud to admit he’d meant it seriously. And that was the end of Spaceman From Pluto.
Robert Zemeckis: I was given an ultimatum by the head of the studio who said, “We want this movie for Memorial Day, the last weekend in May, or we’re not gonna make it.” Michael was not available to do the movie until the first of March. So I was given this Sophie’s choice of an ultimatum.
Bob Gale: We kept pushing our start date back as we were having such a hard time finding a kid who could carry the movie. For that reason, we did some screen tests; we had to be absolutely sure. It finally came down to C. Thomas Howell and Eric Stoltz. Tommy’s screen test was terrific, but Sid said, “It’s got to be Eric Stoltz.”
Steven Spielberg: Bob had gone down the road of six weeks of principal photography when, ashen, he brought me into my own screening room at Amblin and showed me 45 minutes of the film cut together to see if he was crazy, just because he didn’t feel that the comedy was playing well enough. When it came to the end of the 45 minutes, I said, “No Bob, you’re not crazy.”
Steven Spielberg: When I took the situation to Sid, he was quite rational in his reaction. He didn’t throw the book at us. He didn’t rant and rave. He just asked, “Do you really think this is what you need to do to make this the movie that you see?” And we all said, “Yes, we do.”
Robert Zemeckis: This is Steven’s finest hour. You’ve got to understand this was a really momentous decision for a producer. The fact that he backed me in this is unheard of — there aren’t many instances in the history of the movie business where producers steel themselves and back their director’s creative decisions in the way that he did in this case.
Steven Spielberg: Fortunately, my best friend was Gary David Goldberg, who created Family Ties. When we made this change, I met with him and explained the dire straits we were in and Gary made an accommodation for us that was extraordinary and could have only been pulled off had Michael J. Fox agreed to pull two jobs off at once.
Bob Gale: The biggest headache was the dinner table scenes at the beginning with everybody in make-up. We would rehearse the master shot at night with all the characters in it. Then Bob would start working the next day without Michael and shoot the coverage. We had a stand-in doing Michael’s lines, the actors had to play the scenes without Michael there.
Robert Zemeckis: It’s always weird any time you reshoot anything. A lot of it is good to begin with. When it becomes just as good as what you originally had, you’re depressed because you feel you should have somehow improved it. It’s really disheartening. You’re going back and the things that were difficult before are difficult again.
Steven Spielberg: I visited the set a couple of times a week but I didn’t stay very long because it’s usually boring to watch other directors shooting their movies. The best place to watch a movie is in a movie theatre. A day didn’t go by without me watching the rushes in our screening room.
Robert Zemeckis: One of the biggest challenges was throwing the net over Crispin Glover. He was completely off about 50 per cent of the time in his interpretation of the character. There’s a scene in a cafeteria where he’s writing in his journal. If you look very closely, his face is all puffy; his eyes were all bloodshot because Crispin insisted his hair should be sticking straight up while he was writing. When I explained to him that it wouldn’t match with what we shot the previous day, he said, “Brando never matched.”
Bob Gale: The whole shoot was tough. Everyone got on really well, that made it fun. Eighty per cent of the crew came back for the sequels and by the end were still on speaking terms.
Steven Spielberg: I saw it with an audience at the preview for the first time. Except for E. T., it was the greatest preview I’ve ever sat through. The audience just never stopped laughing and never stopped applauding every set-piece. By the time the lights went up, that preview audience owned Back To The Future.
Robert Zemeckis: When you have a crisis in a movie like we had, the movie is considered to be snake-bit — it’s a movie in trouble. So there was no expectation that the movie was going to amount to anything. So when we showed it to the studio, they were literally giddy.
Bob Gale: At the point when we changed actors, we were kind of thinking that we were coming out in the middle of August. But we had this dynamite sneak preview. The visual effects weren’t finished, the last shot of the movie was in black and white, it was still pretty rough. But the audience went completely nuts.
Robert Zemeckis: Sid’s only comment was, “Don’t touch a frame. What would it take to work around the clock to get this ready for the Fourth Of July?”
Bob Gale: We said, “Write some cheques?” He said, “Whatever it costs, do it.”
Robert Zemeckis: That was manic. We were all running on great adrenaline then. Everybody then just started working round the clock. We showed the movie at the end of April, beginning of May. We had to get it out in four weeks. It was a scramble.
Bob Gale: We had one preview on the studio lot. It was in the newly built Hitchcock Theatre that was supposed to be cursed. Nothing played well in the Hitchcock Theatre. So when the lights came up, we said, “So much for the curse of the Hitchcock Theatre, eh Sid?” And Sid got up and said, “The curse of the Hitchcock Theatre has been shitty movies.”
Robert Zemeckis: In the ’80s you didn’t know you had a really great hit until your fourth weekend. We had a thing called “legs” in those days. You opened your movie and your movie opened strong, then your movie did its magic. You could let the picture build, you could add screens and all these wonderful things. In our fourth weekend, we out-grossed the sequel to Mad Max. Then we knew we had a movie that would play all summer long. Nowadays, you just get one weekend. It’s not as much fun at all.
Bob Gale: There were people who didn’t like it. There was a TV reviewer here in Los Angeles named David Sheehan. He was a pompous sort. He gave us a really negative review. The other people on the TV newscast said, “David, you’re crazy, you need to go back and see that movie again. The movie’s really good.” They badgered him and he did something he’s never done before, he did a second review. And the second review was worse than the first one.
Bob Gale: I wrote the first version of the script pretty much on my own because Bob was off making Roger Rabbit. The third act of the movie, rather than going back to 1955, took Marty to 1967. Biff ended up with the sports almanac in 1967 because I thought it would be cool to do the ’60s. George McFly would have been a college professor, Lorraine is a flower child. Let’s do this stuff in the ’60s and see what we could do with that.
Robert Zemeckis: Bob and I looked at each other and said, “We can do anything we want.” We said, “We have a very unique situation here. We have a sequel to a gigantically successful movie that’s about time-travel. So we can do what no other sequel can ever do, which is revisit the first movie from a completely different point of view. So the audience can re-enjoy the first movie again.”
Bob Gale: The studio’s attitude to this was, “You guys made Back To The Future, that’s one of the biggest hits we’ve ever had here. You obviously know how to make a Back To The Future movie.”
Bob Gale: The studio wanted the sequel yesterday and it kept getting more and more expensive. It was my idea to say, “Hey, there’s enough material here, we should expand that into two movies.” Instead of doing one movie for $55 million, let’s do two movies for $70 million.
Steven Spielberg: I brought this idea to Sid Sheinberg. 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.”
Robert Zemeckis: Sid looked at us and said, “Either that’s the greatest idea or the most insane idea. Let’s do it!” And that’s what we did. It actually turned out to be a benefit because we would have had to go back and collect all the actors, two or three years down the road. But I don’t recommend it. It was a lot of hard work.
Bob Gale: Crispin Glover decided he wanted all sorts of things that were way out of line for an actor at this point in his career. He wouldn’t budge so we said, “Okay, fine, we’ll make the movie without him.” So the whole idea of this alternative 1985 where George is a tombstone, really came about because we knew we had Lea Thompson, we knew we had Tom Wilson, but we didn’t have Crispin Glover. Let’s create this weird world where George McFly is dead.
Robert Zemeckis: The editing of the second movie gets short shrift as you are shooting the third movie. I wasn’t able to really fine-tune Part II the way it should have been, just because there weren’t enough hours in the day.
Steven Spielberg: Episode II is that little dip in a trilogy that we all go through, like Temple Of Doom. It was a very dark movie and when we previewed it, we could tell that the audience didn’t respond with the same appetite they brought to the first one. I loved Part III, all the Western stuff.
Bob Gale: I wasn’t happy with the way that Part II was marketed. I was of the opinion we should have announced in the ad campaign it was Part II of III. A lot of people were upset thinking that Part II was going to be complete in itself.
Robert Zemeckis: Part II actually turns out, in my opinion, to have been the most interesting movie I’ve ever made. It is genuinely avant-garde, genuinely out there.
Robert Zemeckis: I completely understand why the directors of old liked making Westerns. You were out there communing with the American West, the wide-open spaces, and you were camping out. It was a lot of fun.
Bob Gale: We shot in Monument Valley where John Ford shot his great Westerns. That’s one of the greatest experiences ever. It was really, really cold. It was minus-eight degrees. You watch it and the sun is shining bright and Doc Brown is wearing a Hawaiian shirt. It looks like it’s a nice warm day. As soon as Zemeckis said, “Cut!” the wardrobe people were running right in there with parkas.
Steven Spielberg: The only mistake we made was coming out with the third one too close on the heels of the second. The third would have made more money if we’d waited another eight months.
Robert Zemeckis: I love that we engineered this whole emotional story with this horrible moral dilemma we put Doc Brown in. Tom Wilson channelling Lee Marvin for Buford was fantastic. It’s one of my favourite movies for sure.
Steven Spielberg: I think the first film has become a classic in the fantasy genre.
Bob Gale: Certainly the phrase “back to the future” turned out to be something. It still turns up in magazine headlines. Reagan even quoted it in his State of the Union address. It made time travel respectable. Everyone said time-travel movies don’t make money. Now the movie is an icon.
Steven Spielberg: It was a Mitzvah for the two guys I found and gave their start to. I was as proud as a father could be when their sons graduated with honours. I felt very paternal toward both Zemeckis and Gale. I could not believe the pride I felt for what they pulled off here.
Bob Gale: My wife and I went to see Knocked Up. There’s that scene where they’re talking about what they’d do if they had the DeLorean, and the girl had never seen the movie. I turned to my wife and said, “Well, this isn’t realistic. How can somebody not have seen Back To The Future?”
This was originally published in Empire's April 2010 issue. Interviews by Ian Nathan.
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