1985 was the year that Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and The Goonies came out. It was a year that featured some of the best zombie movies ever like Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, John Romero’s Day of the Dead and Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead. In 1985, Terry Gilliam filmed Brazil, Tim Burton made Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and John Hughes directed both The Breakfast Club and Weird Science. Even the worst movies of 1985 came to be known as some of the best worst movies: American Ninja, Commando, Red Sonja, Invasion USA, Gymkata…
Yet one 1985 movie stands above all others: Back to the Future. A classic sci-fi comedy about time travel and inappropriate mother/son relationships, it was directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by Bob Gale and co-produced by Steven Spielberg. You all know the story: Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) ends up in the past using Doc Brown’s (Christopher Lloyd) time machine and has to make his parents (played by Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson) fall in love before he gets erased from existence.
But enough of what you already knew. Here are 15 Things You Didn’t Know About Back To The Future!
15. The script was rejected over 40 times
Bob Gale first got the idea for Back to the Future in 1980. While paging through his father’s high school yearbook, Gale began wondering whether he would have been friends with his dad if they went to school together. Together with Robert Zemeckis, Gale developed this idea into a screenplay. It then took them four years to find anyone willing to film their script.
Back to the Future was rejected by every major Hollywood studio; sometimes multiple times. In the era of raunchy teen comedies like Porky’s (1981) and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Back to the Future was considered too tame. Someone suggested that Zemeckis and Gale should offer their screenplay to Disney. However, Disney executives considered the script too raunchy, due to the subplot in which the younger version of Marty’s mom unknowingly falls in love with her son. All in all, Back to the Future script was rejected over 40 times before being accepted by Universal Pictures.
14. Shemp the Chimp and the Spaceman from Pluto
Universal Pictures executive Sidney Sheinberg came up with an idea of changing the title of Back to the Future into Spaceman From Pluto, which would then be tied into jokes of Marty McFly being mistaken for an alien in the past. Unwilling to get into a fight with their boss, Zemeckis and Gale asked Steven Spielberg to help them out. Spielberg responded to Sheinberg’s memo by pretending that it was all just a big joke. Embarrassed and unwilling to admit he was serious, Sheinberg gave up on the idea.
Not all of the Sheinberg’s ideas got rejected though. He suggested changing Professor Brown into Doc Brown and renaming Marty’s mother from Meg to Lorraine (Sheinberg was married to an actress Lorraine Gary). His best idea by far, though, was replacing Doc Brown’s pet chimpanzee named Shemp with a dog. Sheinberg’s logic was that no movie with a chimpanzee ever made money. When Gale objected that Clint Eastwood’s comedy Every Which Way But Loose had a simian and was fairly successful, Sheinberg countered that that movie featured an orangutan, not a chimpanzee.
13. John Lithgow as Doc Brown?
John Lithgow was the first candidate for the role of Doc Brown. Neil Canton, one of the producers of Back to the Future, previously worked with Lithgow in 1984 on the weird and wonderful adventure movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension in which Lithgow played Dr. Emilio Lizardo, an eccentric scientist taken over by an evil alien entity. Lithgow would have been a fine Doc Brown, but he wasn’t available at the time.
Canton then suggested Christopher Lloyd, who also appears in Buckaroo Banzai. Lloyd was hesitant at first, as he was thinking of taking on a role in an off-Broadway play. Fortunately, his wife convinced him to accept the role of Doc Brown. Lloyd’s appearance in the movie was inspired equally by Albert Einstein and by the conductor Leopold Stokowski. Meanwhile, his hunched-over look was due to a need to have both Lloyd (who is 6’1) and Michael J. Fox (who is 5’4) framed in the same shots.
12. Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly?!!
From the very start, Robert Zemeckis wanted to cast Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly. But since the top choice for the lead role was too busy working on the NBC sitcom Family Ties, actor Eric Stoltz was hired instead. Stoltz has proven himself in a number of critically-acclaimed movies such as Mask (1985) and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), but his acting style was far too intense and brooding for a light comedy.
Stoltz was a decent skateboarder and he learned how to play the guitar in preparation for the role. However, he also refused to break character, wearing Marty’s wardrobe outside the set and insisting that people call him Marty. According to Thomas F. Wilson (who played Biff Tannen), Stoltz would only break character when flirting with Lea Thompson. When Michael J. Fox’s schedule suddenly opened midway through filming, Stoltz was quickly replaced.
The actor later appeared in hits like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) and Jerry Maguire (1996), so while his star power never quite achieved the heights of his replacement, it’s safe to say that the BttF debacle was far from a career-killer.
11. Tighter budget = better movie
The decision to replace Eric Stoltz with Michael J. Fox as the lead actor in Back to the Future meant the loss of over six weeks of shoots and approximately $5 million of the movie budget. Faced with the approaching deadlines and with only a limited amount of money at their disposal, Zemeckis and Gale had to rewrite their script on the fly.
Originally, the climax of the movie was supposed to take place at a nuclear test site in Nevada, with an atomic blast providing the necessary power for time travel. This would echo a scene early in the movie in which Marty watches a documentary about the 1950s nuclear tests. All of this was dropped and replaced with a finale in which a lightning strikes the huge clock on the Hill Valley courthouse. Not only did this dramatically lower the cost of filming, but it also made the story more focused and strengthened the clock imagery in the movie.
10. A tribute to The Time Machine (1960)
One of the most iconic films about time-travel is the 1960 adaptation of The Time Machine, a classic sci-fi novella by H. G. Wells. Directed and produced by George Pal and starring Rod Taylor, The Time Machine won an Academy Award for its special effects work.
Back to the Future pays tribute to The Time Machine with its design of DeLorean’s red, yellow, and green time displays — the same colors used by the time machine display in George Pal’s movie. The opening scene of Back to the Future, with its numerous ticking clocks, echoes an opening scene of The Time Machine.
While we’re at it, one of the clocks at the beginning of Back to the Future shows a man hanging from a huge clock. This not only foreshadows the movie’s finale, but is also a homage to the 1923 silent comedy Safety Last! starring Harold Lloyd.
9. Michael J. Fox and the schedule from hell
The only reason Michael J. Fox was even able to appear in Back to the Future was that his Family Ties co-star Meredith Baxter was getting ready to give birth to twins. The show’s schedule had to be changed as a result, and Fox was allowed to work part-time on Back to the Future.
During the nine weeks of shooting, the film crew mostly got to work with Fox only at night, as he would spend most of his days in Paramount rehearsing that week’s episode of Family Ties. In the evening, a driver would take him to whatever location Back to the Future was filming at that night. Fox would work on the movie until early in the morning, when he would be taken back home to catch a couple of hours of sleep. Then, another driver would wake him up, make him a coffee and take him to Paramount for another day of rehearsing.
8. Working with Crispin Glover wasn’t easy…
Crispin Glover is a well-known Hollywood eccentric who specializes inplaying creepy characters in movies such as Charlie’s Angels (2000) and Willard (2003). As George McFly, Marty’s wimp of a father, Glover walks a fine line between being pitiable and unlikeable. Glover’s nervousness in Back to the Future is quite real. Since he was only just starting out as an actor, he was petrified with fear and had so much trouble speaking that he later had to voice over his own lines.
After the success of the original, Crispin Glover refused to return for the sequels. Glover claims he was unhappy with the ending of the first movie, since it rewards the characters with money, as if their love wasn’t enough. If you ask Robert Zemeckis, though, Glover’s departure had more to do with his over-the-top salary demands. In the sequel, Zemeckis had Glover replaced with a similar-looking actor in a prosthetic mask. Glover responded by suing the producers for using his likeness, and the case was settled out of court, reportedly for roughly half a million dollars.
7. …but at least Biff Tannen seems to be a cool guy in real life
Thomas F. Wilson is one of those actors blessed — or cursed — to be remembered by a single performance. Or is it four? Wilson appears in all three Back to the Future movies as both young and old Biff Tannen, Biff’s grandson Griff, as well as their Wild West ancestor, Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen.
Over the years, Wilson has appeared in a number of supporting roles in both movies and TV shows, like in the late, lamented coming-of-age comedy series, Freaks and Geeks. He also worked as a voice artist on animated TV shows. Wilson’s fame for his performance as Biff is such that, throughout the years, he keeps being asked the same questions by the movie’s fans. In response, he started carrying type-written cards containing the answers to most of these questions. And since he’s also working as a stand-up comedian, Wilson put these words to music in “Biff’s Question Song”.
6. Hill Valley Continuum
There’s a fun game to be had out of noticing all the little details from Hill Valley’s past and future. Possibly the best known example is Twin Pines Mall. After Marty travels to the 1955, he accidentally takes out one of the two pine trees that used to grow on a land on which Twin Pines Mall will be built one day. When he returns to the 1980s, the shopping mall is the same, except now it’s called Lone Pine Mall. Similarly, the bum encountered by Marty at the end of the film (played by George “Buck” Flower) is a mayor of Hill Valley back in 1955.
The Back to the Future sequels take this game even further. In BttF II, we see Marty startled by the hologram shark advertising the upcoming movie Jaws XIX. Not many people notice that the film is directed by Max Spielberg — Steven Spielberg’s son! In the Wild West past of Back to the Future III, we see a horse salesman named Jeb Statler, whereas in the first film, Statler’s descendants run a Toyota car dealership.
5. Musical Misadventures
One of the high points in the original movie comes in a scene where Marty McFly ushers in the rock’n’roll era with his spectacular performance of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”. While Michael J. Fox learned to play guitar just well enough to fake it through the scene, his singing was actually done by Mark Campbell. The usage of the song proved problematic, since Chuck Berry waited until the very last minute to give the green light on the film rights to “Johnny B. Goode”. Similarly, filmmakers were unable to use neither the music nor the very name of the band Van Halen. Instead, Edward Van Halen played a couple of riffs for the movie on his own and allowed the filmmakers to use his name. Hence the label “Edward Van Halen” on Marty’s cassette tape.
The band Huey Lewis and The News recorded the song “The Power of Love” specifically for the film. The band’s lead singer even appears in the movie, uncredited and in disguise, as the judge with a bullhorn. “The Power of Love” went on to top the charts and ended up nominated in 1985 for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, but lost to Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me”.
4. Radical skateboarding, bro!
While Michael J. Fox did have to learn how to play guitar for the movie, skateboarding wasn’t much of a problem for him. Despite that, producers were inclined to use stuntmen. Finding reliable skateboarding experts proved out to be a problem though, so Bob Gale decided to go to Venice Beach one Sunday and look for skateboarders himself. When he saw two guys doing demonstrations, he approached them about the job, feeling somewhat embarrassed about the whole situation. It turned out that one of the skateboarders was Per Welinder, a European skateboarding champion.
Throughout shooting, Welinder served as Stoltz’s stunt double. While Michael J. Fox’s stunt double was Charles Croughwell, Welinder stayed to help choreograph the skateboarding scenes. Later, when Back to the Future was set to premiere in Australia, Fox was required to do promotional spots warning kids not to imitate his character in the movie and ride behind cars on skateboards. Because obviously, that’s incredibly incredibly dangerous.
3. Legend of the DeLorean
Nowadays, the DeLorean DMC-12 is one of the most iconic cars (and time machines) in cinematic history. Gale and Zemeckis picked DMC-12 because its gull-wing doors and a stainless steel body gave it a distinctive, futuristic appearance. When Ford executives offered a substantial payment to have DMC-12 replaced with Ford Mustang, Gale admirably refused them, as it would have compromised their vision.
What is less known though is the troubled history behind the development of the DeLorean DMC-12. John DeLorean quit from General Motors in 1973 to start his own motor company. After almost a decade of development, the vehicle came out right in the middle of a car market slump. By February 1982, with half of the almost 7,000 produced DeLoreans left unsold, the company went bankrupt. Six months later, John DeLorean himself was arrested on charges of drug trafficking. No wonder then that, after the success of Back to the Future, he sent a personal thank you note to Bob Gale for keeping his dream alive.
2. Ronald Reagan loved the movie
When the 1955 version of Doc Brown first learns about the future world of 1985, he’s shocked to find out that Ronald Reagan became the President of the United States. In a mocking tone, Doc inquires incredulously if that meant that Jerry Lewis became the Vice President. Doc Brown’s shock is understandable since, in the 1950s, Reagan was best-known as a B-movie actor from cheap westerns.
Apparently, Zemeckis and Gale were somewhat nervous that the White House might not take kindly to this little jab, so they had a copy of their screenplay sent out for an approval. After Back to the Future came out, Reagan saw it himself and laughed so hard at the scene mocking his political career that the projectionist had to rewind the film. Later, in his 1986 State of the Union Address, Reagan quoted the final line from the first Back to the Future, saying: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
1. It took over 200 days for Back to the Future to earn $200 million at the box office
Nowadays, blockbuster movies need to make money fast. There are many reasons for this, but two of them seem pretty obvious. With more and more blockbusters coming out each summer, competition grows tougher while the market is becoming increasingly saturated. Meanwhile, internet spreads the word of mouth — both good and bad — instantaneously all over the world, which can influence the movie’s box office performance.
But the 1980s were a different time. Back to the Future opened on July 3rd, 1985. According to the Box Office Mojo, the movie earned around $11 million during its first weekend, a bit more than half of its production budget. But Back to the Future then stayed at the top of the box office for twelve weeks — a feat that’s essentially impossible to pull off today. After 232 days (almost 34 weeks) Back to the Future crossed the $200 million threshold. When adjusted for inflation, that’s almost $500 million in today’s dollars.
Do you know any more interesting facts about Back to the Future? What were your favorite parts of the movie? Share your thoughts in the comments!