Back To The Future turns 30 this year — and this fall, Marty McFly arrives from the past. And a new book travels back and reveals a wealth of info about this legendary film. We read We Don’t Need Roads by Caseen Gaines and dug up 11 things you never knew about Back to the Future.
If you love Back to the Future, you absolutely need to pick up a copy of Gaines’ We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy, which comes out June 23. Heck, if you love movies, you should pick this book up. It’s an incredibly revealing look at a film series that helped change Hollywood, and it gives a glimpse into how so many great science fiction comedies got off the ground in the mid-1980s in the first place.
Gaines talks to absolutely everybody involved with the BTTF films (well, maybe except for Michael Fox, Eric Stoltz or Crispin Glover, I think.) He says in the intro that he did 500 hours of interviews, and I can believe it.
As with a lot of these “making of” books, you emerge with a sense of just how difficult these films were to get right, and how easily they could have been clunkers. You also learn how persnickety that famous DeLorean was, and why using such a cramped, inefficient car as Doc Brown’s time machine might not have been the best idea after all. You find out the whole story about why Stoltz was replaced with Fox a month into shooting. And how hard director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale had to fight for their vision.
And you also learn all about the making of the two sequels, and why they were shot back-to-back. Plus how the film-makers felt they had painted themselves into a corner with that funny “your kids are in trouble” ending of the first movie. And why Zemeckis regrets not getting more time to sit with Back to the Future 2 in the editing bay, to make sure it worked as a film, before putting it out. There’s also some horrifying details about the near-fatal injury that a stuntwoman suffered during the filming of the “hoverboard” sequence.
As Gaines says in the intro, a lot of the best-known stories about this series have been “scrubbed clean” or condensed over the years. And this story “isn’t simply about the making of one film trilogy, but is also about how some of the titans in the movie industry came into being.”
We Don’t Need Roads is one of those “behind the scenes” books that gives you valuable insights into how a great movie became great — and by extension, the many ways that other films manage to fall short of greatness, in spite of everybody’s best efforts. There’s some great detail in here about how the Hollywood studio system was changing in the mid-1980s, but also just some terrific nuggets about the creative process, and how the two Bobs — Zemeckis and Gale — bounced off each other and slowly rejected bad ideas for better ones.
So here are 11 things you probably never knew about the making of Back to the Future — this is just a taste of the incredible amount of info in this book:
1) Every studio in town rejected this movie because it wasn’t raunchy enough. Except Disney.
Zemeckis wanted to pitch Back to the Future without Steven Spielberg’s help, because he didn’t want to seem like he was leaning on his famous mentor. And every studio passed on it, because it seemed too sweet and fluffy for the rebellious youth of the 1980s. At the time, the biggest teen comedies were Porky’s, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Risky Business. Meanwhile, time travel movies like Time Bandits, The Final Countdown and Somewhere in Time had mostly underperformed. Meanwhile, Disney didn’t want a movie where a guy has an awkward, incestuous kiss with his mother. It was only after Zemeckis directed the surprise hit Romancing The Stone that things changed.
2) Every teenager on Earth was considered for Marty McFly
The film-makers wanted Michael J. Fox, but he wasn’t available — the producer of the hit sitcom Family Ties wouldn’t even let Fox see the script. So they cast a huge, wide net. The actors they considered included Johnny Depp, John Cusack and Charlie Sheen. They tried to screen-test pop star Corey Hart, but he turned them down. At one point, they started to get desperate — film editor Artie Schmidt was showing Zemeckis some of his work on a previous movie, Firstborn, featuring Christopher Collet and Robert Downey Jr., and Zemeckis’ first response was, “I don’t think either one of those boys is right for Marty McFly.”
3) Originally, Doc Brown had a pet chimpanzee named Shemp.
And Marty McFly was a video pirate, who ran a secret “black market” operation with Doc Brown. (And he wasn’t “Doc” Brown, but Professor Brown.) Producer Sid Sheinberg insisted Doc Brown’s pet chimp had to go, because he believed movies with chimps never do well. Zemeckis pointed to Every Which Way But Loose, but Sheinberg said that was an orangutan. So Shemp became a dog named Einstein.
4) In the original script, the time machine is just in the back of a pickup truck
And instead of having to harness the power from the lightning bolt striking the clock tower, Marty and Doc have to bring the truck to a nuclear bomb test site and wait for a nuclear explosion to go off. Zemeckis and Gale decided that sitting around waiting to get nuked wasn’t an exciting enough conclusion for their story.
5) Eric Stoltz took his role a little too seriously
You probably know that Eric Stoltz played Marty McFly for four weeks, and pretty much all of that stuff had to be reshot with Michael J. Fox. (In one scene of the finished movie, you can maybe see Stoltz’s hand. Also, we ran some footage of his version here.) A big part of the problem was that Stoltz just wasn’t a comedian — they needed someone who could keep the tone light, so nobody thought about the darker, weirder aspects of this story. Instead, Stoltz got hung up on how terrible and sad it is that Marty McFly winds up remembering a different past than all the people he loves — everyone else remembers a life that Marty didn’t live.
Also, Stoltz was way too method: he refused to answer to “Eric” on set and insisted that everybody call him “Marty.” Plus, when Marty had to shove Biff Tannen, he kept doing it hard enough to leave bruises on actor Tom Wilson’s collarbone.
6) They had to build a special speedometer for the DeLorean
In 1979, Jimmy Carter signed a law that said car speedometers could only go up to 85 miles per hour, to try and discourage people from speeding. That law was revoked in the late 1980s, but when Back to the Future was made, it was still in effect. So to show that the DeLorean was reaching 88 miles per hour, they had to create a special speedometer — and add a digital readout, for good measure.
7) The first movie was nearly called Spaceman From Pluto
Sid Sheinberg hated the title Back to the Future, which he thought didn’t make any sense. How do you go back to the future? So he wrote a memo saying that the film needed a catchier title, and he suggested Spaceman from Pluto, which is the title of a comic book you see when Marty McFly arrives in 1955. (Actually, the comic is called Space Zombies from Pluto.) Zemeckis, in a panic, went to Steven Spielberg, who cooked up the perfect response — they wrote a memo back, thanking Sheinberg for all his suggestions, and appreciating his funny “Pluto” joke. Sheinberg was too embarrassed to admit he hadn’t been joking.
8) The original storyline of Back to the Future 2 took place in the 1960s
Instead of going back to 1955 with the Sports Almanac, Biff would have gone to 1967. There, you’d have met Lorraine McFly as a flower child. And because Crispin Glover was unavailable, George McFly would have become a professor, off teaching at Berkeley. But in the end, they decided it was more fun to revisit the first movie.
9) They got rid of the first movie’s designer because he’d worked on Blade Runner
When he decided to visit the future world of 2015 for the second movie, Zemeckis decided not to bring back Larry Paull, who’d been the production designer for Back to the Future. Paull had earned an Oscar nomination for his work on designing the dark, gritty world of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and Zemeckis was worried that Paull would want to push his version of 2015 in too dark and Orwellian a direction, so he decided to bring in someone else.
10) Originally, Marty McFly’s brother becomes an alcoholic
When Marty visits the bleak alternate 1985, he runs into his brother, who’s become a down-on-his-luck alcoholic. This scene, involving fires and a lot of extras, was shot — but test audiences wondered what happened to Marty’s sister, Linda. (Actor Wendie Joe Sperber was pregnant and couldn’t be in the sequel.)
11) They came up with the perfect ratio for futuristic world-building
In designing the future world of 2015, designer John Bell came up with the “15:85 rule,” which was a ratio of unrecognizable elements to recognizable elements. So when Bell designed a Federal Express mailbox, he made it look like a standard Postal Service mailbox — except with a digital interface where you could input your mailing information. So you could easily figure out what the device was, even though it was new and strange.