Recently I had the chance to watch the three Back to the Future films in the same day. Released in 1985, 1989 and 1990, like many kids of the 1980’s these three films were an important part of my childhood. I wanted to take a moment to look back on the original, the first film in Robert Zemeckis’s time travel trilogy starring Michael J. Fox as teenager Marty McFly and Christopher Lloyd as the whacky scientist Dr. Emmet Brown.
Back to the Future was released in July of 1985 and was the third film to be produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, following Gremlins (directed by Joe Dante) the previous year and The Goonies (directed by Richard Donner) earlier the same year. The Color Purple, released later that year, would be the first film Spielberg would direct himself for Amblin. As with Gremlins and The Goonies, Spielberg was credited as the executive producer of Back to the Future with his long time associates Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy.
Even though Steven Spielberg is a cinematic genius and one of the greatest filmmakers in movie history, the true credit for Back to the Future must go to cowritter/director Robert Zemeckis and cowriter/producer Bob Gale. The two young filmmakers had long wanted to tell a time travel story and finally developed a workable concept when Gale imagined that if he had gone back in time would he be friends with his own father as a teenager. Zemeckis and Gale wrote several drafts of a screenplay but no studio was interested in making the movie. Enter Steven Spielberg.
In 1979, in between the classics Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Spielberg had directed a big budget comedy called 1941 which had been a critical and commercial flop. 1941 had been written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale.
After bringing Raiders of the Lost Ark in on budget and on schedule for George Lucas, Spielberg wanted to broaden his horizons and gain more creative control over his own work by producing his own films. In 1982 Spielberg directed E.T.-The Extra Terrestrial, which he produced with Kathleen Kennedy, who had been his personal assistant on Raiders. E.T. was more than a success, it was a phenomena, surpassing Star Wars as the highest grossing film of all time.
The same year, Spielberg cowrote the horror movie Poltergeist, which he produced with Frank Marshall, but due do his contract with Universal, which forbad him from directing another movie while E.T. was in any phase of production, Spielberg was unable to direct Poltergeist himself, so he hired Tobe Hooper, the horror master behind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Salem’s Lot and The Funhouse. From the beginning though Spielberg began to shut Hooper out and according to most associated with the film, Spielberg either codirected the film with Hooper or entirely on his own.
During the summer of 1982 as Tobe Hooper was pressing charges against Spielberg with the director’s guild, claiming that Spielberg was taking directorial credit away from him, Spielberg was producing Twilight Zone-The Movie with John Landis as well as directing the “Kick the Can” segment . While Landis was directing his own segment, actor Vic Morrow and two child actors, who were working illegally, were killed when a helicopter crashed on the set. Though Spielberg was not charged with manslaughter along with Landis, several books written about the incident claimed Spielberg still was partially responsible since he should have been aware of unsafe production practices and children working illegally on a film he was producing. As far as who truly directed Poltergeist, it’s still a popular debate among film fans and the focus of some legal debate.
As Steven Spielberg was finding the road to producing a bumpy one, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were still attempting to get a studio to make Back to the Future. Zemeckis was hired by Michael Douglas to direct a film he was producing and starring in called Romancing the Stone. The film was a major hit, giving Zemeckis some much needed clout. Still, he and Gale wanted to go with Spielberg, who had shown interest in the film when no one else did.
Michael J. Fox was then starring in the high rated NBC sitcom Family Ties and in 1984 Christopher Lloyd had played the evil Klingon commander Kruge in Star Trek III-The Search For Spock, the 9th highest grossing film of the year. Lloyd was also no stranger to comedy having costarred in the critically acclaimed but low rated sitcom Taxi.
The rest of the Back to the Future cast consisted mostly of unknowns. Crispin Glover, who had worked with Michael J. Fox on several episodes of Family Ties, had also appeared in Friday the 13th-The Final Chapter, and in Back to the Future played Marty’s dorky father, George McFly. Lea Thompson, now best known for the made for television Jane Doe films, played Marty’s mother Lorraine McFly. Thomas F. Wilson was cast as the bully Biff .
At first Paramount Pictures, who produced Family Ties, and the show’s creator/executive producer Gary David Goldberg did not want to loan out Michael J. Fox and Zemeckis and Gale went with Eric Stoltz, then best known for costarring with Cher in the film Mask. However, after several weeks of shooting, Zemeckis realized that Stoltz was all wrong for the role of Marty McFly and he and Spielberg begged Paramount for Michael J. Fox’s services. Finally, the studio and Family Ties producer Gary Goldberg agreed that if Fox was interested that the studio would allow him to work on Back to the Future at night as long as he was available to film Family Ties during the day. Fox was interested.
If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you know what Back to the Future is about. In the film Michael J. Fox plays Marty McFly, your average 80’s teenager, who via his friend Doc Brown’s (Lloyd) time machine/Delorean finds himself back in 1955 where he encounters his parents as teenagers and must make sure they fall in love so that he and his sister and brother will be born.
Back to the Future was the highest grossing film of 1985 and one of the top 10 highest grossing films of the 1980’s. Robert Zemeckis would go on to become one Hollywood’s top directors. Besides for the Back to the Future sequels, he also directed such hits as Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Contact and Cast Away. Back to the Future also proved to Steven Spielberg had the same magical touch working with other filmmakers as he did directing movies himself. He would go on to executive produce but not direct Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Twister, Men In Black, Deep Impact and the excellent 2011 True Grit remake as well as, of course, Back to the Future Parts II and III.
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