'Back to the Future': Director, Stars, Producers Reveal 10 Secrets You Didn't Know
Where we're going, we don't need roads — or approval from any of the film studios.
In author Caseen Gaines' new tell-all book, We Don't Need Roads, the cast and crew behind the seminal sci-fi comedy Back to the Future, which hit theaters July 3, 1985, reveal all the secrets behind the film's bumpy path, including what it was like to hear initial rejections from every studio, replace the lead actor, endure friction among castmembers and get mixed reactions from test audiences.
Heat Vision breakdown
In honor of the film's 30th anniversary, here are some of the most revealing tidbits from the book.
Every movie could use a monkey?
After producer Bob Gale got the idea for the film from looking at his dad's old yearbook during a visit home, he and college pal Robert Zemeckis worked on the first draft of the script together in 1981. In the initial effort, Marty was a video pirate, while his friend Professor Brown — not yet named "Doc" — had a pet chimp named Shemp. None of the studios were interested, and it wasn't until the success of Zemeckis' 1984 film Romancing the Stone that the film moved forward. Zemeckis and Gale turned to longtime acquaintance Steven Spielberg, the only person who had liked the project from the start, to produce, and so they took it to Universal, which housed Spielberg's Amblin offices.
The leading man just wasn't working out.
After filming for four weeks, director Zemeckis had to acknowledge that Eric Stoltz — who beat out fellow young actors like C. Thomas Howell, Johnny Depp, John Cusack and Charlie Sheen to play Marty McFly — just wasn't delivering the laughs that the script required. Gale says Universal head Sid Sheinberg reluctantly agreed to replace Stoltz with Michael J. Fox, who was now available, as producers on Family Ties were more willing to share him with the film than they had been earlier in the sitcom's season.
Not many co-workers were sad to see Stoltz go.
Numerous crewmembers were bothered by Stoltz, who saw himself as a Method actor and mandated that he be referred to as "Marty" at all times, even when cameras weren't rolling. Actor Tom Wilson (Biff) had developed a strong dislike for Stoltz, feeling he used too much force when pushing him during a cafeteria scene. And Christopher Lloyd (Doc) calls Stoltz a "really good actor" but says he "was not bringing that element of comedy to the screen."
Stoltz wasn't the only person who lost a big role during this transition.
Melora Hardin, who would come to be known for playing Jan on NBC's The Office, had been cast as Marty's girlfriend Jennifer. But when Fox replaced Stoltz, the filmmakers decided that the 5-foot-5 Hardin would appear too tall opposite the 5-foot-4 Fox, and so the part was recast, going to Claudia Wells. Hardin admits she burst into tears when Gale called her with the news, with Gale referring to the phone call as "one of the hardest things I ever had to do."
Not everyone was thrilled when Fox was hired.
Lea Thompson (Lorraine) took more time than most to warm up to the idea of Fox carrying the film. "I was really snotty then," Thompson admits. "I was like, 'Oh, my God, a sitcom actor?' I was so snotty about it. After I actually did a sitcom [Caroline in the City], I realized it was the hardest thing in the world." She adds that she was quickly won over by her new co-star.
If only lightning could strike again.
Industrial Light & Magic animator Wes Takahashi, who worked on the scene where the DeLorean traveled back to 1955, wasn't happy with how the effects turned out. "I never liked the animation that was finally approved of the gigantic lightning bolt that hit the clock tower," Takahashi says. He felt the lightning bolt looked too fat, explaining he wishes he would have had more time to submit other designs or perfect the one that was used.
Hired for a song.
Mark Campbell, who actually sang the vocals for the film's rendition of "Johnny B. Goode," was informed after recording the tune that he would not be receiving an onscreen credit, as Gale told him the filmmakers wanted to maintain the illusion that Fox was performing the song. "I told him I understood," Campbell says. "I got it." Two days after their first conversation, Gale told Campbell he would instead get a "very, very small, but very nice percentage of the soundtrack," according to Campbell.
The finished film didn't get a ringing endorsement at first.
Editors were under the gun in order to make the scheduled release date, finishing a rough cut of the film just three weeks after cameras finished rolling. According to editor Arthur Schmidt, the first test audience was "very restless" at the start of the film. "They weren't with the movie during the first 10, 15, 20 minutes — maybe even the first half hour. I remember that some of the kids that were sitting in front of [editor] Harry [Keramidas] and me were poking each other and talking." Luckily, audiences were won over by the second half of the film.
Would audiences have flocked to Spaceman From Pluto?
According to film sources, Sheinberg felt strongly that the title Back to the Future was too confusing for audiences and pushed to change the name to Spaceman From Pluto, a reference to a comic book seen early in the film. Zemeckis and Gale were adamant that the name not be changed, and while Sheinberg now admits the "wisdom" in the title that was chosen, he denies suggesting Spaceman From Pluto as an alternative.
Zemeckis wasn't thrilled about making a sequel.
The film was a gargantuan success, grossing $210.6 million domestically to become the highest-grossing film of 1985. After the success, Zemeckis was reluctant to make a sequel but felt he was "struck by Sophie's Choice" when the studio appeared to imply that the follow-up would get made with or without him.
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