Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis came up with Back to the Future five years before it got made, but at that time, it wasn’t raunchy enough to get greenlit. After their film Used Cars came out, Gale was looking through his father’s high school yearbook. His mother wondered if he would have been friends with his father. Time travel was the only way they’d get the answer.
The duo wanted to make a time travel film that showed that the past could change the future. And sure, Professor Brown was once a video pirate and the time machine was going to be powered by Coke, but the main story remained the same as the movie was finally sold.
Then the movie went into turnaround and forty different studios turned down the movie. Other time travel films like Time Bandits and The Final Countdown had underpeformed and Disney was put off by the fact that the hero made out with his mom. I mean, well, yeah.
Steven Spielberg believed in them and the script. And that ended up being enough.
That and the fact that Zemeckis had a success with Romancing the Stone and had the clout to make the movie. And a grudge against the studios who turned him down, so he sold the movie to Spielberg’s Amblin, who set the project up at Universal Studios. However, that’s also where Frank Price, the first person to say no, worked. Spielberg didn’t like Price either — he’d passed on E.T. — so Sidney Sheinberg became the chief executive to oversee the studio’s investment.
For his part, Sheinberg wanted to rename the movie Space Man from Pluto because he believed Back to the Future wouldn’t sell. Everyone worried how to deal with the venerable elder man until Spielberg diffused the situation by sending a funny memo that said, “Hi Sid, thanks for your most humorous memo, we all got a big laugh out of it, keep ’em coming.”
Michael J. Fox was the first choice to play Marty McFly, but the producers of his hit show Family Ties didn’t even let him see the script. Eric Stoltz ended up with the role, but he was too intense. The filmmakers realized they hired a great actor for the wrong role. Stoltz also was a method actor and stayed in character the entire time, refusing to answer to any name but Marty, which led to the crew hating him. 34 days of shooting were lost — they kept shooting with the actor despite Fox being hired — and Stoltz was paid his entire salary.
Another perhaps exaggerated story is that Thomas F. Wilson, who played Biff, almost had his collarbone broken in the scene where he fights Marty in the cafeteria. Take after take, despite Wilson asking Stoltz to calm down, the actor kept roughing him up. Wilson planned to get a reciept in the car parking scene outside the dance, but Stoltz was gone before that happened.
Despite the issues behind the movie, audiences loved the story of Marty McFly going back in time thanks to Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) and having to put back together the events that introduced his parents (Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover). What audieces really liked was the DeLorean, a car that was unlike any time machine they’d ever seen in a movie before.
The one thing I never liked about this movie is that it posits that a white man now creates rock and roll. I know it’s a minor part, but even as a kid, it upset me.
Speaking of music, when Marty pretends to be Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan, he plays a tape labelled “Edward Van Halen.” It’s not any existing Van Halen song, but an untitled song that was written for The Wild Life, which also starred Eric Stoltz (and where producers discovered Lea Thompson as they studied Stoltz’s work).
Bonus: You can listen to Becca and me discuss this movie on our podcast.