Movies That Everyone Should See: “Back to the Future”

bttf

Tell me, doctor, where are we going this time
Is this the 50′s, or 1999
All I wanted to do – was play my guitar and sing

So take me away, I don’t mind
But you better promise me, I’ll be back in time
Gotta get back in time

Robert_Zemeckis_and_Bob_Gale

Co-writers and (then) frequent collaborators Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis had discussed doing a time travel movie for years prior to “Back to the Future”. They felt that it was a great fictional device, and that it had been under-explored onscreen. But they didn’t have a hook for the story, until one day Gale discovered his father’s old high school yearbook, and saw his father had been class president. He thought of the kid who was class president of his class and recalled not liking him at all… which led him to wonder if he would have liked his own father if they had been classmates in high school.

And there it was, the hook they had been looking for… a teen travels back in time to go to high school with his parents. The two pitched the idea to Universal, who liked it enough to authorize a couple of drafts of a screenplay. But when Zemeckis and Gale had finished, Universal turned them down. As did several other studios they shopped the finished product to. The common refrain they were hearing? It wasn’t raunchy enough. This was the heyday of “Porky’s” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, and studios were looking for something edgier. Several people recommended that they take the project to Disney, where it seemed like a natural fit… but Disney turned it down due to its incestuous undertones.

The two of them were frustrated and on the verge of losing faith. Just for validation, they brought the script to Steven Spielberg.

Who loved it.

Steven_Spielberg_Executive_Producer

Spielberg saw the script’s massive entertainment potential. Bridging the generation gap, a coming of age story, wish-fulfillment, family relationships, romance, action sequences, humor… there were innumerable attributes that would lend to the film’s eventual success.

But Gale and Zemeckis had actually already done three projects with Spielberg. All of which had been unsuccessful. 1978′s “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, was a Beatlemania movie that marked Zemeckis’ first directorial effort and Spielberg’s first project as executive producer. It was a bomb. The duo also wrote “1941″ (1979), which was Spielberg’s least well received film to date. And their latest collaboration, 1980′s “Used Cars” was a flop as well. So partly due to superstition, and partly out of a pragmatic caution (if this movie bombed, the pair would be seen as a couple of people who were only able to get films done due to their connection with Steven Spielberg), the project was benched for a time.

After Zemeckis directed the highly successful “Romancing the Stone”, however, studios were suddenly seeing value in “Back to the Future”. Gale and Zemeckis brought it back to Spielberg, though, seeing as he had been the only one who had believed in it. So with Spielberg executive producing, Gale producing, and Zemeckis directing, “Back to the Future” moved forward…

With Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly.

Eric_Stoltz_Marty_McFly

Michael J. Fox was always the first choice for the lead role of Marty, but conflicts arose with his tv show, “Family Ties”, which prevented him from being able to take the part. At the time, his “Family Ties” co-star Meredith Baxter was pregnant, and the show was relying much more heavily on Fox. The show’s producers would not allow him to accept the role.

So the production team cast Eric Stoltz. Stoltz impressed them with his performance in the film “Mask”, which had yet to be released. Five weeks into production, however – over a month of shooting – Zemeckis was unhappy with the results he was getting. The film felt flat, and they didn’t feel they were getting the mileage they should have out of the comedy beats. So Zemeckis made the difficult decision to request the film start over. Spielberg and Universal saw what he was saying, and agreed to make the change - if they could get Fox.

So they went back and implored “Family Ties”. Producer Gary David Goldberg agreed to let Fox participate as long as the show came first. His obligations to the show needed to be fulfilled without rescheduling or missed episodes.

The change was made. Stoltz was out (a move that cost approximately $3 million in wasted production costs), but they finally had their man. Fox embarked on a 100 day sleep deprived odyssey of working ’round the clock, seven days a week. By the end he was so exhausted that he simply had to trust what the directors were saying, he had no idea how what he was doing was coming across, but when all was said and done, this would be the signature role of his career.

Michael_J_Fox_Marty_McFly

Marty McFly is the movie vision of the everymanteen. Guitar playing, skateboard riding… his biggest interest is getting time alone with his girl, his biggest problem is the fact that he’s habitually late for school.

Crispin_Glover_Back_to_the_Future_Hello_McFlyHis parents, however, have issues. Marty has a mildly depressing home life. It’s patently obvious that his parents are unhappy people, living unfulfilling lives. His spineless father (Crispin Glover) is pushed around Lea_Thompson_Back_to_the_Future_oldmercilessly by his boss (Thomas F. Wilson), to the extent that it embarrasses Marty. And his alcoholic mother (Lea Thompson) sadly waxes nostalgic over the old days when she first met her husband. It’s simply not a happy home.

Thankfully, his days are brightened by his friendship with eccentric inventor Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd).

Christopher_Lloyd_Doc_Brown_Back_to_the_Future

Christopher Lloyd (who had been best known for his role as the spacey taxi driver Reverend Jim on “Taxi”) portrays Brown as a frantic, excitable oddball. With a look inspired by Albert Einstein, and a bug-eyed mixture of fright, confusion and wonder on display, Doc Brown became one of the most unforgettable movie characters of the 1980s.

Back_to_the_Future_DeloreanAfter a lifetime of unsuccessful inventions, Brown has finally obtained plutonium in order to power his greatest invention ever… a time machine. Housed in a Delorean (the producers finally settled on a Delorean due to its unique look It could have been mistaken for an alien spaceship, as one gag in the film suggests). Once the date is set and the plutonium housed in the reactor, if the car is driven at the speed 88 of miles per hour, it would travel instantly through time to arrive at the selected chronal destination.

Doc_Brown_Marty_McFly_Back_to_the_FutureMarty meets Doc in a mall parking lot late one night, and witnesses a brief, successful demonstration, featuring Doc’s dog as passenger. The celebration is short-lived, however, as angry terrorists (whom Brown promised to build a nuclear device for, in order to obtain the plutonium) return seeking vengeance. Marty is forced to flee in the Delorean… and winds up back in 1955.

Michael_J_Fox_LeaThompson_Crispin_Glover_Back_to_the_Future

Hello...McFlyJust like that, the hook that Gale thought of when he ran across his father’s yearbook is set into play. Marty is back in high school with his parents, and his presence has threatened the future as he knows it. He disrupted the accident that would have put his cowardly father on the path to romance with his mother, and now his mother has developed a crush on him, instead. So in addition to finding a way to get “Back to the Future” (he’s able to enlist the assistance of a young Doc Brown), he also has to fend off the advances of his uninformed mother, get his father to grow some backbone, and fight off the local bully that’s been plaguing his family his entire life.

Lea_Thompson_Back_to_the_Future_youngThe film is able to utilize its 1950s setting to frame a clean, fun… almost throwback film. Fox’s charm and nervous, reactive comedy is the highlight, but he also gets a lot of support from Christopher Lloyd’s crazed Doc Brown, the sullen, strange George McFly of Crispin Glover, and the of course, the comely Lea Thompson, who antagonizes with her barely hidden desires.

They all get to play in a crisply directed, excellently scored film that features inventive, mild action (only one action scene involves guns! LOL) and pervasive humor throughout. There’s a definite old-time sensibility here, that extends beyond the mid 20th century setting. Doc_Brown_Christopher_Lloyd_Back_to_the_FutureThe jokes and characters are clean (apart from the occasionally awkward situation between mother and future son), there’s no nudity and little swearing. The big “car chase” involves a skateboard, and the one scene that involves guns isn’t really as much of a shootout as it is an excuse to set up the time travel.

In the middle of a decade nostalgic for the 50s (the 80s), “Back to the Future” was a film with the perfect tone.

Marty_McFly_Duckwalk_Back_to_the_Future

After test screenings of the film were scoring off the charts, “Back to the Future” was rushed into theatres in time for Fourth of July weekend, a mere nine weeks after shooting wrapped. In order to accomplish this mandate, two editors were brought in, and both worked nonstop. The move paid off, though. “Back to the Future” would dominate that summer, coming in at number one for 11 weeks. It went on to become the top grossing release of 1985, with a world-wide take of $383,874,862.

It’s also gone on to carve out a beloved place for itself in pop culture. It’s currently #48 on IMDb’s top 250. And although its acclaim is primarily popular, “Back to the Future” isn’t without its share of critical accolades. In their 2006 listing of the 100 greatest screenplays, the Writers Guild of America selected the screenplay for “Back to the Future” as the 56th best screenplay of all time. In 2007, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. AFI ranked it tenth on their list of the 10 greatest films in the Sci-Fi genre in June of 2008.

It’s a highly entertaining, enjoyable, family friendly comedy that stood as the high water mark in the careers of both Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd. It spawned two sequels, and is still a widely loved property to this day, more than 25 years after its release.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See.”

Marty_McFly_Michael_J_Fox_Christopher_Lloyd_Doc_Brown_Back_to_the_Future

BTTFHUU

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68 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Back to the Future”

  1. Great post, great selection. I’m sure you know I’ve got your back on this one. I knew about Eric Stoltz, of course, but I didn’t know about the difficulties Gale and Zemeckis had trying to get this sold. Really amazing, isn’t it, how many beloved films start off with the studios being completely uninterested?

    One of my favorite behind-the-scenes anecdotes on this is when a studio exec, feeling that movies referencing time travel in the title were always failures, suggested they change the title to “Spaceman from Pluto”. Spielberg wrote back thanking him for “the joke” saying it had cracked up everybody in the staff meeting. The exec didn’t dare say he was serious after that. I keep thinking of that every time I hear of some terrible change being made in the marketing to a movie based on past “trends” that may be getting misread (John Carter losing the “of Mars”, for example, or the belief that female superhero movies won’t sell because of the failures of Elektra and Catwoman.)

    • Yeah, the “behind the scenes” stuff never ceases to amaze me… so many times when studios do dumb things, its just incredible.

      Came across that Spielberg story in my research, as well. Its funny how he tried to be polite about it and not turn it into a fight. I thought that that was a very clever way out. LOL. What a DUMB idea though isnt it? Change from one of the greatest titles ever to one of the dumbest… yeah, sign me right up for that! LOL

      • Oh yeah. The funny thing is, you can almost see the thought process behind it. “This movie’s going to flop. But maybe if we make the title a riff on that one scene, people won’t know what it is, and it won’t be quite as much of a flop.” I swear, Hollywood would be a lot different if more people were willing to bet on success…

  2. No doubt! The film epitomizes the word ‘fun’. If it’s on the old boob tube, you know you’re watching it, or PVR’ing it for later. It’s a movie that nobody has seen just once, but at least twice.

    Very cool article, enjoyed that write up a lot.

  3. “there’s no nudity and little swearing” I remember seeing this movie for the first time was I was nine or ten, and all of us were counting how many swear words there were and we were all like “oh my god there are like 34 whole swear words in this movie!” Of course we were all obsessed with it afterwards. Fun times.
    This movie is so hilarious, and great for quoting. “Darth Vader came down from the planet Volcan and told me that if I didn’t ask Loraine out to the dance, he’d melt my brain!” Back when you could get away with that mix up ha ha ha

    • HA!! But in defense of my point, Hunter, in a movie like Scarface, they drop the F-Bomb 200+ times! :D

      I always wonder what George McFly would think in the 1960s when Star Trek (which you know he was watching) came on and the planet Vulcan got named… and then in the 70s when Star Wars hit. Was he ever like, heyyyyy wait a minute…!! :D

      • I got you. I was ten, man. I don’t even count swear words in movie anymore because I’m so mature :) How time flies (ha ha ha)
        Even more of that is when Marty grows up and looks just like the kid they name him after. They try to contact the kid to tell him about this bizarre coincidence, and can’t find him anywhere….. (WHAT??!!!) He burns a hole in the rug exactly as predicted….
        And everyone starts wearing life preservers, and Goldie Wilson actually becomes the mayor, John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan get elected…. (It’s like everything he said is coming true! How is this mystical otherworldly being!!)
        Of course him going back in time probably messed all that stuff up, huh?

      • Maybe it did. who knows?? The metaphysics of Time Travel… ooooooh. LOL

        At least here they kept it simple and stuff so you dont want to think too much about it. Unlike, say Looper or T2 you know?

      • Shame. Haven’t seen those. Looper did seem cool though, I’m kind of sad I missed in the theater.
        Whenever time travel happens in a movie, I basically use Back to the Future to understand it. This might be getting me into trouble with STID though because I thought they were in an alternate time progression and then the trailers confusing me and it’s like is cumberbatch khan? and nobody knows….
        Going back to the film at hand though, totally agree with the writers saying it was under-explored, and I now I think since them it’s a go to thing. I can’t really think of any time travel movies that are pre-back to the future.

  4. I miss this stuff. Whatever happened to the lighthearted, zany, non-stop adventurous Spielberg. The one who produced “Gremlins” and “Goonies”. I know he tried with “Super 8″, but there wasn’t enough life in it. I think that’s why he likes Tintin so much, it seems to fit this genre. How about a new “Back to…” with Marty McFlys’ kids?
    Chris Lloyds’ awestruck face is the absolute icon for “Mad Scientist”. Impossible to forget!

    • Personally, I’d rather see Jules and Verne Brown than Marty’s kids, if they go for a far-removed sequel.

    • Yeah, no remakes or reboots please, let’s invest the money in trying to create new properties…

      Super 8 definitely was a shot at making one of these types of films, but you’re right, it kind of fell short at the end there. Not that its a bad movie or anything, but it definitely didnt rise to the level of this or the Goonies.

      Its a different day and age. Today’s kids need… more. LOL. I do wish Spielberg would take another shot at this kind of thing, and quit with the historical histrionics. LOL :D

  5. I had no idea what Fox had to endure for this movie till your review. I’m impressed. I’ll have to watch it some time soon (for the 20th time, or so), and see if I can tell he’s about to pass out.

    • He claims it was the fattest and most tired he’s ever been. LOL. Wore him out. Said people were carrying him into bed from his car every night so he could get 4-5 hours of sleep.

      Thats dedication, right there. Paid off though, this certainly made him a huge star!

    • Mmmmm… I dont want to confuse that this series highlights my favorite films, CK. Not that I dont like this one or anything, but I wouldnt call it a favorite.

      Definitely is a Movie Everyone Should See though, and I’m glad its one of your faves!

    • LOL! Its a good thing the prequels have dulled my enthusiasm for Star Wars. Back in the day I would have had some Biff Tannen level mockery for that tshirt, :D Now, I just dont have the motivation.

      Glad you approve though, glad you liked the post, too.

      • Yeah, the SW prequels did a number on that trilogy and knocked the franchise down some (Lucas hasn’t helped the caused by monkeying with his work). Still, I think Back to the Future’s threesome has only gone up in later appraisals.

  6. I find it rather amusing that Disney turned it down for ‘incestuous undertones’, considering they’ve recently acquired Star Wars. Luke/Leia kiss, anyone? But that’s a whole other discussion…

    Back To The Future is one of my all-time faves but I had no idea they’d struggled so much in getting studios to back it, or that it was released so soon after wrapping. I also don’t think it would have been nearly as successful without Michael J Fox, so good on them for sticking by their instincts when they felt it wasn’t working with Stoltz. Can’t have been easy to let $3 million go to waste!

    • Ha! Well, at least neither Luke nor Leia knew! I saw Marty checking out his mom’s cleavage… C’mon now! :D

      Meanwhile, yeah, thats amazing about Stoltz, isn’t it? I knew he had the role before Fox, but I had no idea they got so far into production. That is an enormous investment to flush away…

      I’m surprised Stoltz’s career recovered!

      • Hahaha! Okay, i’ll give you that one :P

        First I heard of Stoltz initially being involved was last year, I think. But I just thought they meant it he’d been.. I don’t know, tentatively offered the role? But not 5 chuffing weeks of ACTUAL production?! Poor Stotlz, humiliation overboard.

      • Naw… I mean, yeah, his career didnt wind up being the greatest thing ever, but we cant say this killed it by any means. He had “Some Kind of Wonderful” after this, and Lance in pulp fiction, of course…. so…

        He’s definitely not just “the guy who could have been Marty McFly”. Nah.

  7. I love this movie and 100% agree with you. I liked the history lesson that you wrote about with this movie. I knew about the Stoltz connection…thank the movies Gods that Fox took over the role. I didn’t know they this movie wasn’t picked up by a lot of the networks. I wonder if some Exec out there says, “Man, my biggest career mistake was saying ‘Back to the Future’ had no future in this company’.”

    • I imagine a lot of people said that yeah, LOL. Especially seeing how huge it became…

      I dont know how they ever thought Stoltz could do it anyways. I mean, he and Fox are so totally different… if Fox was who they had in mind, you know, what they thought the role should be… why Stoltz? He’s pretty… serious, you know?

      I dont know. I cant see it. They basically dodged a bullet. It cost ‘em $3 million bucks, but they totally dodged a bullet. LOL

  8. Its always great reading your history tidbits behind the films. It always seems like the best films are the ones that usually have some sort of turmoil during the making.

    Now correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t you the one in the podcast always going on about how you don’t really care for Back the the Future that much?

    • Ding ding ding. I’ve been waiting to get called out on that all day. LOL. I’m well on the record…. not necessarily that I dont like it (I definitely do), but just as saying that I think its overrated. So, two things

      1) The series isn’t about my favorite movies, its Movies everyone should see, so even if I didnt like it (again, I do) I could still induct it.
      2) I owed it to Tank and Jason Gross to check it out again and see if I had it incorrectly estimated…

      My answer? Nope. Still a very very fun film, a good movie, but I dont think it’s all that. People REALLY love this one, as I’m sure this thread will attest… I think if pop culture had a Flickchart ranking, this movie would be 50 spots too high, at least. Hell, IMDb. Top 50? Ehhhhhh… not making mine, you know?

      Still, it deserves its spot here, and I DO like it.

    • LOL. Glad you like it Mike. Glad you agree.

      That’s a good discussion… maybe one day I’ll open that up to the floor here. Best Movie punch. Hmmm… now you’ve got me thinking.

      Off the top of my head? Mongo punching the horse in Blazing Saddles, Brad Pitt sidestepping his opponent and then laying him out in Snatch, Rocky and Apollo either at the end of II or the end of III.

      That’s actually a good one, LOL. I think I’d have more if I had the time! :D

      • The difference is the McFly punch is a boy becoming a man punch facing his obstacles head on or fist to face as it were. Punches That Everyone Should See (PTESS)! :-)

    • Cool, man, glad to spread the info then.

      I knew that Stoltz was the first Marty, I had no idea they stuck with him that long. I wonder if the movie would have really tanked. I mean, you take away Michael J Fox from this and what do you have? Christopher Lloyd only takes it so far…

  9. Ah-yup. Great movie, great write-up.

    Caught most of this on TV the other day with Martian Lad. I ended up having to explain more of the 80′s references than the 50′s stuff. You know what? Those vest jackets were pretty stupid.

  10. Now that you’ve included this in the feature, I’ll forgiven you recent mishap of Anchorman Fogs. ;-)
    I joke, of course… To each their own.
    This is a definite though and I love the homework you’ve done here again man. Lots of fine info and a great post as always.

  11. Yes, Yes, Yes – a thousand times yes! Love this trilogy. It is my fave of all time. Reading this wonderful piece just makes me want to watch it again, yet it was only a couple of months ago that I sampled it on blu-ray for the first time.

    The film is so full of inventive, imaginative ideas I never fail to smile with joy at the sheer enjoyment of taking it all in. Lloyd and Fox are brilliant of course, as is the rest of the reoccurring cast.

    • Wow, there you go… BIG fan, huh? Cool.

      I’m going to finish the rest of the trilogy at some point this week. This one I’ve seen several times, Part II I’ve seen a couple of times, I know though, that I’ve only seen Part III once. So… I might as well take this oportunity to refresh the entire trilogy…. I picked up the Blu box set for this, too.

      Definitely is an enjoyable flick!

  12. Hells yes. I’m still totally and utterly disgusted when people say they haven’t seen this film, with their only excuse being “I wasn’t born when it was in the cinema.” THAT’S NOT AN EXCUSE!!!

    All three BTTF films are among my Christmas films that I have to see every year. More so this first one. It’s a film that’s pure fun and enjoyable. Still holds up to this day.

    • “I’m still totally and utterly disgusted when people say they haven’t seen this film,” LOL, that’s a good sign that the movie is an MTESS. :D

      Why Christmas though? Do they include christamas at some point that I’m not aware of, or, you just enjoy them so you make it a treat? I havent seen II and III in awhile so bear with me if I’m brainfarting here…

  13. I get a kick out of this film. Enjoyed it in theaters and rode the ride at Universal theme park in Orlando. Great to see note in post on workaholic Fox; crazy good work for being so sleep deprived. Enjoyed Lloyd, Thompson, and whole cast especially in this first film of trilogy. Had fun watching James Tokan the NY theater actor called west to help another small 80s film about US Navy fighter pilots; yeah that Top Gun movie, another MTESS. Shout out to ianthecool for calling you out on prior pcasts about your enjoying BTTF but maybe overrated for you. Happy to see you champion BTTF as an MTESS where it belongs in my book too. Excellent nod to writers about their diligence in both writing, selling, and creating the right vibe for the production with Fox over Stolz. Great post and fun film.

    Mr. Strickland: I noticed your band is on the roster for the dance auditions after school today. Why even bother, McFly? You don’t have a chance. You’re too much like your old man. No McFly ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley!
    Marty McFly: Yeah, well, history is gonna change.
    (JTolkan and 24-7 MJFox)

    I’m afraid you’re just too darn loud.
    -High School Band Judge (The Huey Lewis)

    • Thanks S…

      Yeah, informed Tank last night that my opinion stayed the same. Great flick, it really is. But there’s a lot of great flicks out there. And I think, if somehow, everyone in the world submitted their top 500 films, and then we avereged the lists, the popular opinion is going to have this movie 100 or so slots higher than I have it. Just saying.

      It is funny watching Tokan play a hard ass in bit parts in both of these movies… In the special features he mentioned he was doing Glengarry Glen Ross onstage when this role came his way, I bet he’d be awesome in that… I dunt know what role he played, but I pictured him with the Ed Harris part :)

  14. Hi, Fogs and company:

    I enjoyed the film’s small culture/trivia in jokes

    Like the CRM 114 Message Discriminator from from Slim Picken’s B-52 in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ holding a place of reverence above Marty McFly’s guitar amplifier rig Though I am not sure that it could go to eleven.

    Note to S and Fogs:

    If you want to get a better idea of James Tolkan’s range. Check out the ‘Nero Wolfe Mysteries’ DVD set from A&E Television, back when it was good.

    Tolkan was one of a stable of actors, including Kari Matchett; who played different characters throughout the series opposite Maury Chaykin and Tim Hutton.

    • Sounds good… I’m sure he was able to do more than just be a scowling hard ass. LOL :D Although… he was very, very good at that! :D

      Yeah, saw that Kubrick reference pointed out in IMDb trivia. I dont know if I’d have been sharp enough to pick up on it myself though LOL :(

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