25 Things We Didn’t Know About Back to the Future
As Back To The Future celebrates its 30th anniversary, we delve into a 25-year-old making-of book. Here's what we found
Looking through a high-school year book provided screenwriter Bob Gale with the seeds of what would become the biggest hit movie of 1985. Seeing an old, black-and-white picture of his father, Gale began to wonder, what would it have been like to go to school with him? Would they have shared much in common? Might they have hated each other?
Those questions led Gale and writing partner Robert Zemeckis to come up with Back To The Future, a film that, after several years spent shopping the concept around various Hollywood studios, eventually found a home at Universal Pictures. The resulting movie grossed nearly $400m worldwide, made Marty McFly a film star, and spawned a pair of sequels that are now widely regarded as classics.
Buy the complete Back to the Future Trilogy on Blu-ray right here.
Back in 1990, the trilogy was on the cusp of drawing to a close with the 1885-set Back To The Future Part III. To mark the occasion, Hamlyn published a book, Back To The Future: The Official Book Of The Complete Movie Trilogy, which offered a retrospective on all three films and a behind-the-scenes look at their production. Its typography is cheerfully large, but it’s studded with set photos, concept drawings and colorful little anecdotes.
Appropriately, for a franchise about travelling back to different eras, the book proves to be something of a time capsule itself, transporting us back to a long-gone time before the advent of CGI and the web. Hamlyn’s book is also out of print – so imagine our surprise when we found a copy lying in a cupboard at the back of Geek Towers.
So to celebrate Back To The Future‘s 30th anniversary, here are 25 geeky, fun things we found in The Official Book Of The Complete Trilogy…
1. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale had great hair and jumpers in the 1980s
If you wanted to know what the filmmaking duo behind Back To The Future looked like in their 80s pomp, the book’s foreword has you covered. Here they are, posing on the set of Part III, Zemeckis smiling from behind a pair of shades and Gale modelling a spectacular jumper.
2. Post-production on Back To The Future went right down to the wire
“We had to make an enormous film on a limited budget as well as a limited time schedule, and make it the best we could,” Zemeckis recalls. The battle to get Back To The Future finished in time for its summer release was such that work on the film’s effects continued until the week of release. According to the book, sound effects were added even later – just 24 hours before Back To The Future made its debut.
3. Marty the pirate
It’s well known among Back To The Future fans that Zemeckis and Gale had once planned to house Doc Brown’s time machine in a refrigerator. That idea was dropped due to safety concerns. But Hamlyn’s book also reveals that Doc Brown would have had a pet monkey instead of a dog, and Marty McFly would have been a “streetwise video pirate.”
Universal wasn’t, it turned out, too keen on a story about a teenager who bootlegs movies. “The studio refused to let us make a film where the hero was a video pirate,” Zemeckis said.
4. Biff compares Zemeckis to a low-capacity hard drive
Some of the most amusing quotes in the book come from Thomas F Wilson, who plays Biff Tannen and his various relatives throughout the Back To The Future trilogy. When praising Zemeckis’ genius as a filmmaker, Wilson comes up with what would have sounded like a compliment in the late 80s or early 90s, but could be construed as an insult in the 21st century: “He must have a hundred megabyte hard disk in his brain.”
5. Michael J Fox’s Irish accent
For us, Part III is almost on a par with the original in terms of its characters and sheer entertainment. It has to be said that Michael J Fox didn’t quite get his Irish accent nailed down when he played Marty’s great-great grandfather Seamus McFly, but that’s all part of the fun. Fox said of trying to learn the accent, “The dialect was a bitch. You think you have a handle on the accent, and then you sit down with a dialogue coach who tells you you’ve got it wrong.”
6. VFX industry humour
Cinematographer Dean Cundey initially made his name for his regular, quite brilliant work for John Carpenter. He then lent his distinctive lensing talents to Zemeckis’ 1984 adventure Romancing The Stone, and collaborated with him again on Back To The Future and its sequels. Thanks to the book, we know now that, not only is Cundey a genius when it comes to lighting and composition, but he also has his own line in cheesy jokes.
In a chapter devoted to special effects, Cundy and Zemeckis briefly talk about the process of using Vista Glide, a motion-control system developed by ILM. It’s the piece of equipment which allowed Michael J Fox to play three members of his own family – seemingly in one shot – in Part II. To align the separate shots which are later blended into one, the Vista Glide camera’s aligned to a cross on the wall – its operators apparently refer to this cross as “home”.
“In the McFly farmhouse of 1885,” the book reads, “Dean Cundey suggested the cross be affixed over the fireplace because ‘home is where the hearth is…'” Get your coat, Mr Cundey.
7. Recovered technology
As an artform, visual effects were in the doldrums in the Hollywood of the 60s and early 70s. All that changed with Star Wars, with George Lucas setting up ILM to achieve its numerous complicated effects shots. The VFX in Back To The Future and its sequels were created with some of the same techniques and equipment as Star Wars, including a special camera called the VistaVision.
According to Hamlyn’s book, “The special cameras were found gathering dust by Lucas’s people in a warehouse at Paramount Pictures.” It’s a reminder that, although cutting edge effects are a given in 21st century cinema, it took George Lucas to bring them back to the fore.
8. Hoverboard storyboards
Some storyboard sketches and production art take us back to the early days of Back To The Future Part II‘s celebrated hoverboard sequence. The same page also provides an early mention of Zemeckis’ mischievous suggestion that the hoverboards actually existed.
“Hoverboards have been around for years,” Zemeckis said in interviews, “but parents’ groups worry that kids will get hurt, so they’ve pressured toy companies not to put them on the market.” And thus, a naggingly persistent urban legend was born.
9. Lea Thompson on her four roles
Michael J Fox may have become a star in the wake of Back To The Future, but the series also owes a huge debt to Lea Thompson’s superb set of performances. More than any other actor in the trilogy, she was the best at disappearing into the different roles she played. Look at how effortlessly she contrasts the defeated, boozing Lorraine McFly with the more successful 47-year-old Lorraine we see at the end of the first film. Then there’s the 77-year-old Lorraine in Part II, and the Biffhorrific Lorraine, with her big hair and jewellery.
Of her multiple roles, Lea Thompson had this amusingly direct comment: “My agent told me that in the movies women either play virgins, whores or mothers. The great thing about Back To The Future is that I get to play all three.”
10. Jaws 3-D
Remember the amusing Jaws 19 gag in Part II? Well, the series has another link to the Jaws franchise – one that’s easy to blink and miss. The book reminds us that one of Lea Thompson’s earliest big-screen credits was in the infamous Jaws 3-D; she played Kelly Ann Bukowski, a water-skier who’s attacked by the movie’s insatiable great white shark.
11. Replacing Crispin Glover
When it came to makingBack To The Future Part II, Zemeckis had a bit of a problem on his hands: Crispin Glover vacated the role of Marty’s father, George McFly. The part was taken up by actor Jeffrey Weissman, whose face was plastered in prosthetic effects and was often shot in ways that disguised his lack of resemblance to Glover.
None of this is mentioned in Hamlyn’s book, but it does have a little anecdote about how Zemeckis and Gale discovered Weissman in the first place; they found him in “their own back yard,” the Universal Studios Tour, where he “performed impressions of Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin.”
12. Casting Christopher Lloyd
Doc Brown is, of course, the wild-eyed energy behind the Back To The Future movies – the engine that keeps their stories turning at an addictive rate. If you’re wondering who we have to thank for Christopher Lloyd’s casting, it’s producer Neil Canton. Canton had worked with Lloyd on the cult film The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai, and personally recommended him to Gale and Zemeckis.
Initially, Lloyd turned the role down; “I wasn’t familiar with this Bob Zemeckis guy, so the script went in the trash can,” the actor recalls. Lloyd’s wife Carol thankfully managed to make him reconsider.
13. Recycled props
The end of Back To The Futureintroduced Doc Brown’s modified, hovering DeLorean with its Mr Fusion energy reactor. Famously fashioned from a Krups coffee grinder, the prop survived the completion of Back To The Future and its sequel – Bob Gale apparently had it fashioned into a lamp which he kept in his office.
Apologies: it’s one of our rare article splits. As regular readers know, we don’t make a habit of this, and don’t like asking for multiple clicks just to read a piece of content. We thus only split it very long pieces, or picture-heavy ones, where it’s helpful to do so. On with the list…
14. Part III concept art
This one’s fairly self-explanatory: some wonderfully detailed concept art for Doc Brown’s new time machine, which uses a steam engine to power it. Production designer Rick Carter dubs it “the Jules Verne train,” named after one of Doc’s favorite authors. “Since Doc has always been enamoured with the writings of Jules Verne,” Carter said, “it seemed like the obvious choice.”
15. Travelling to 2015
Here are some storyboards from Part II. Note how the date still matches the one in the finished film.
16. The inspiration behind Doc’s flying DeLorean
When it came to designing the look of 2015, Zemeckis and his team decided to go for an optimist’s vision of the future – the kind of utopian landscape the futurists of the 30s, 40s and 50s might have come up with rather than the dystopian vistas of Blade Runner, for example. According to Hamlyn’s book, the New York World’s Fair in 1939 imagined that flying cars would be commonplace by the end of the 20th century – something Bob Gale wanted to bring to Part II. “I’ve waited my whole life to drive around in a flying car,” Gale said.
17. “Bob Z”
One of the many incidental details the Back To The Future book brings to light is that some members of the cast and crew had a tendency to refer to Zemeckis as “Bob Z”, which sounds like a slightly low-rent DJ name to us. “I have enormous respect for Bob Z’s knowledge of film,” says Mary Steenburgen, who plays Clara Clayton in Part III.
18. Filth porn and evil
Another great quote from Thomas F Wilson, this time about the “Biffhoriffic” version of 1985 Marty discovers in Back To The Future Part II. “The town under this Biff’s control,” Wilson says, “is a celebration of filth, pornography and evil.” Seemingly anxious to remind us all that the movie’s still a PG, Zemeckis later adds, “We were able to be as sleazy as we could – all, of course, within the boundaries of good taste.”
19. Bob Gale’s local newspaper
Here’s a fun little Easter egg in Part III: the local newspaper editor’s named M.R. Gale – a reference to Bob Gale’s full name, Michael Robert Gale.
20. Gratuitous period costumes
The guy in the hat above? That’s cinematographer Dean Cundey on the set of Part III. He “decided to dress in the style of the period he was shooting,” the book reveals. “Nobody knows why.”
21. Trout fishing
Filming on Part III took place over three-and-a-half months in Sonora and Jamestown California. When they weren’t before the camera, the cast and crew indulged in various pastimes to keep themselves amused, which ranged from traditional things like skeet shooting and horseshoe throwing to volleyball. The book also tells us, fascinatingly, that “Michael J Fox found a nearby pond stocked with bass and trout, and led more than one fishing expedition.”
22. The police women of 2015
As part of Part II’s futuristic take of Hill Valley, the film also briefly introduces a pair of female law enforcers who emerge from a sleek squad car. The book says that “In 2015, the police will be friendly, likeable, sexy – and women. Bob Zemeckis wanted them to be so attractive that people wouldn’t mind being arrested.”
Quietly setting that aside, the book also reveals something that isn’t easy to spot on a small screen: the officers’ hats have a little LED screen with messages scrolling across it. These include “Do you know where your children are?” and “Look before you gleek!”
23. Marty’s self-lacing shoes
Along with the hoverboard, self-lacing Nike trainers became objects of desire in the aftermath of Part II. In reality, the shoes were tightened by a couple of effects guys hiding under a raised platform. The book tells us that the trainers were originally envisioned as part of a sequence ejected from the shooting script: an anti-gravity ball game where the players’ shoes lit up when they hit the ground. The scene was later cut to save costs.
24. Deleted scenes
Before the advent of the internet (much less DVD extras), books like this were the only way you could really get an idea of what was left out of Back To The Future. For years, the production still in the middle of this page was the only glimpse we had of a deleted scene where Lorraine is seen cheating in an exam, while the shot on the right was, back in 1990, the first time we saw Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly before he was replaced by Michael J Fox.
25. Drew Struzan’s unused posters
The master of hand-drawn poster design Drew Struzan was responsible for the Back To The Future series’ magnificent posters. As you might expect, Struzan went through numerous iterations before hitting on the final approved designs, and some of them are reproduced in Hamlyn’s book. Interestingly, several other Struzan Back To The Future designs have appeared on the web in recent years, but the ones above didn’t appear to be among them.
Our favourite’s the one on the left, with Marty McFly emerging from the stop watch. It has everything you could want in a Back To The Futureposter: the mirrored shades, the jacket, the DeLorean, those trainers. It’s a small example of the work, thought and creative energy that went into one of the most beloved film series of the 1980s.