The History of Back to the Future Began With a High School Yearbook

Back to the Future co-creator Bob Gale discusses the trilogy's past...and its surprising future.

Doc and Marty in Back to the Future
Photo: Paramount

After collaborating on the inventive (but underperforming) films I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale struck creative gold in 1985 with Back to the Future, easily the most popular sci-fi comedy in history.

But then again, what even is history? As the popular franchise — which also included 1989’s dark and weird time-jumping odyssey Back to the Future Part II and 1990’s charming Western Back to the Future Part III — illustrated how time is more mutable than any of us could possibly imagine. So maybe this explains how it seems like Marty and Doc have been with us forever, a feeling that is heightened by the release of Back to the Future: The Ultimate Trilogy. This new 4K Ultra HD set features stunning A/V and enough archival and new special features to ensure that your, um, time is well spent. In conjunction with this release, we had the opportunity to speak with writer Bob Gale about the history of the future…

In the original Back to the Future, Doc obviously comes up with the idea for the flux capacitor when he hits his head on the sink. Was there a similar eureka moment for you when you were first coming up with the film’s concept?

Absolutely, there was!

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In August of 1980 I was visiting my parents at the house that I spent half of my childhood in, where they were still living. I was digging around the basement and I found my father’s high school yearbook. I attended the same high school that my dad did. So here was a high school yearbook from the year 1940. I had graduated in 1969. I said, “Well, this will be interesting to see what my high school looked like 29 years before I went there” and lo and behold, I discovered my dad had been the president of his graduating class. I had no idea. And I’m looking at this picture of my dad, and he’s very proper and straight. And I’m thinking about the president of my graduating class who was just somebody I would have nothing to do with. We were just in completely different circles.

And I wonder to myself, “Gee, was that the kind of guy my dad was, like my school president? If I had gone to high school with my dad, would I have even been friends with him?” And boom, that was the eureka moment, the lightning strike, if you will, that made me think, “Now, there’s a movie. What if a kid from today could go back in time and ended up in high school with his dad?”

So when I came back to California, I told this idea to Bob Zemeckis, and he immediately loved it. And he said, “And yeah. And what if your mom went to the same high school? And what if it turned out that your mom who said she never did any stuff with guys, she did all of that stuff with guys? Wouldn’t that be fascinating to have that.”

So we just got cooking on this idea, and we just knew that there was a movie here — not only a movie here, a movie that nobody ever done before. And it did occur to us several times, “How come nobody ever thought of this before? Have we actually thought of something that nobody ever came up with?”

What are some of the reasons you feel are behind the trilogy’s enduring success?

I think it’s the humanity of it. Every person in every culture, every country, every time period, they have a revelation when they’re eight, nine, 10 years old, where they truly understand, “My parents were once children.” I mean, that’s a mind-blowing thing to get your head around because if you think back to when you’re six or seven, your parents are these God-like figures.

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You can’t imagine that they were ever anything other than your parents. And then suddenly you understand, “Okay, wait. So the clothes I was wearing last year, don’t fit. I’m getting bigger. My parents talk about the fact that they were children and I’ve seen these pictures. My God, it’s true. They really were.” And then a little bit later on, when you’re getting interested in sex, it occurs to you, “Gee, what did my parents do on their first date? How did they end up getting together?” Some of it, maybe you don’t want to know too many details, but everybody wonders, “What would it have been like to be a fly on the wall during my parents’ first date?”

And so those human things are captured beautifully in Back to the Future, and that’s what makes everybody identify with the story. It just works. Now, of course, the fantasy of going back in time, that’s something that everybody’s thought about. We wonder what that would be like, what would it be like to be sort of a tourist in another time. We capture that.

There’s this one other element that is very, very important, which is that the movie reminds us that we have a certain amount of control over our own destiny. That the choices that we make when we’re young can affect how things turn out when we’re older.

We illustrate this really clearly showing the evolution of George McFly. We see the wimp George McFly and the result of him being a wimp all of his life. And then we see what happens to him when he gains confidence and is able to stand up for himself and stand up for Lorraine and take on the bully. And the confidence that he gathered from that incident is also the confidence that inspires him to say, “Hey, you know what? Yeah, I could follow my dream. I could try to be a writer.” And he’s successful, and it’s all because of that moment that he takes control of himself.

The production of the original Back to the Future had a bit of a shaky start. But once Michael J. Fox was brought on board, did you ever have a sense that what you were creating was going to withstand the test of, for lack of a better word, time?

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Well, we never thought of it in those vast periods of time, generations, or anything like that. When you’re making a movie, you just want the movie to make enough money so that they don’t run you out of town on a rail and give you a chance to make another movie. So, that was what was paramount in our mind: will people actually go? Because we’d made three movies prior to this, not counting Romancing the Stone, which I wasn’t involved with, but people had not gone to see I Want to Hold Your Hand. They had not gone to see 1941 or Used Cars. Were they going to go see this one?

The first inkling that we had that they might actually go, as you know, we shot for five and a half weeks with Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly. And the scenes that we shot at the high school, you’d only shoot in a high school when the school was not in session. So we shot these scenes with Eric Stoltz over Christmas break, 1984. These were scenes in the hallway, scenes in the school parking lot. Then we went back there to shoot the same scenes with Michael J. Fox during the spring break in 1985.

When we shot these scenes in 1984 with Eric, local kids are going to come by and say, “Oh, they’re shooting a movie here? What are they shooting? Who’s in it?” You’d say, “Eric Stoltz is in this.” Well, they didn’t know who Eric Stoltz was, and no one came to watch us shoot.

Now, when they found out that, hey, they’re shooting a movie at the high school and Michael J. Fox is in it, we had kids lined up seven deep. They wanted to see Michael J. Fox because Family Ties was such a big sensation on television. And it was on one of those nights where Bob and I looked at each other and said, “Wow, they may really come out to see this kid. He is really a much bigger star than we thought he was.” And they did.

The new Blu-ray collection includes screen tests from actors like Ben Stiller, Kyra Sedgwick, and actors that have gone on to huge fame since auditioning for Back to the Future originally.

Someday, it may. The reason that we don’t do that … And by the way, the screen tests for all these other actors, they’re very, very brief. I don’t want to build this up for everybody to see, “Boy, you’re going to see a three-minute screen test Ben Stiller.” No, you’re going to see 25- to 30-second screen test of these people.” That’s as much as they wanted in there, and we understand.

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In terms of the making of the Back to the Future trilogy, what were some of your favorite moments, both from a writing standpoint and on-set memories?

Well, my favorite on-set memory by far was the night that Michael J. Fox came to work the first time. We were shooting the Twin Pines mall sequence. And we’d actually shot some of this stuff the week prior with Eric Stoltz. And remember, we’re doing something here, recasting or lead after six weeks of shooting, nobody had ever done anything like this. Yeah, you replace an actor after one or two weeks for something isn’t working out, or Buddy Ebsen, the makeup on The Wizard of Oz gave him a bad reaction. Somebody dies. That sort of thing.

But to shoot as long as we had shot and then say, “Nope, it’s not working. We’re going to start all over again,” this was insane.

People thought we were crazy. Our own crew thought we were crazy, until Michael came to work. And once Michael started performing, once he started acting with Chris, you could just feel it, the whole crew, just kind of this giant burden, this weight lifted from our shoulders. And everybody said, “It’s going to be great. It’s going to work. This kid is Marty McFly.”

So of everything on the production, that was really my favorite, most indelible memory.

I really feel like nothing about Back to the Future‘s success or its longevity has been ordinary. It’s such a kind of a standalone phenomenon. I think that even plays into the production of the Back to the Future musical, which is something that as a musical theater lover and a science fiction fan, I couldn’t imagine how it’s going to come together until I saw the footage. You had what I think has got to be a first in theater history in that you adapted your screenplay for a major, huge-budget, blockbuster sci-fi comedy for the stage. How difficult was that adapting the movie for a completely different medium and to make it work within the limitations of the theater?

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Well, it was a challenge, of course. And going into this I saw as many movie-to-theater adaptations as I could to see: Do I think they did that right? Do I think they didn’t do it right? And one of the key things was to say, okay, this is a different medium. We’re not going to slavishly recreate the movie on stage. If people want to see the movie, they can see the movie. Very easy to do. We have all of these new tools and paint brushes and things that we can use. And the medium is different.

Thank goodness we had the perfect director with John Rando who has tremendous chops in musical comedy. He helped guide this project. The script that I gave him, it was maybe 70% there, 75% maybe. He would just go through it and say, “Look, Bob, you don’t want to do this because it’s the stage…and by the way, we can do this instead because it’s the stage, and we can have the actor look at the audience, we can have Doc Brown look at the audience and roll his eyes or give a little smirk and it’s going to work.”

We had enough workshops where we could test things, so pretty soon, I started to totally understand what he was talking about and really get the feeling of, okay, we can take a chance and try this.

Of course, that’s one of the best things about both the workshop process and the preview process. I was there for all the rehearsals and all the workshops and all the previews to say, “Okay, that joke didn’t work as well as it could. Let’s see what we can do instead.” I’d write a new joke and we’d try it the next night. And if it worked, great. If it didn’t, “Okay, Bob, try something else.” Or I’d go to the actor and say, “Why don’t you do this?” I mean, everybody had this fabulous working relationship.

Part of it was the love that everybody in the company had for the movie. Everybody involved in it, they were kids when they saw the movie. So our art department, Tim Hatley, brilliant production designer, Finn Ross, our video designer, and our special effects guys, they all were of the opinion: “We love Back to the Future and we’re not going to be the guys to screw this up. We want to be able to make the illusion of the car going 88 miles an hour absolutely work on stage. We want to be able to put the clock tower sequence on stage and give the audience an absolute thrill. We want goosebumps to go through them when the car travels through time.”

And they did it. It’s a good way to work when you can get the best people in the world and then you just say, “Okay, you’re the best at what you do. Figure out how to do this. I’m not going to stand over your shoulder and tell you, ‘No, you can’t do this. No, you can’t do that. Try this, try that. You have carte blanche to figure this out, and you know what we’re trying to do.'” And they did it.

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I cannot wait for you to see the show. It is so wonderful. The audience loves it so much. I love it so much. The songs are fantastic. The cast is incredible. It’s just a marvel.

Back to the Future: The Ultimate Trilogy is in stores now.