“It seems like 2015 kinda sucks.”
Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) on Jimmy Kimmel Live 10/22/2015
“Nobody read it said, ‘Oh, we’ve got to make this.’”
Bob Gale on the Back to the Future script he co-wrote
After thinking about yesterday’s post Garry Marshall’s “Stuckinna” concept he used, some more situations came to mind where characters are stuck:
Dorothy stuck in Oz (The Wizard of Oz), Bogart and Hepburn stuck on a boat (The African Queen), Tom Hanks stuck in a grown up body (Big), James Cann stuck in Kathy Bates house (Misery), several movies where characters are stuck in prison including The Shawshank Redemption, E.T. stuck on earth, and most recently, Matt Damon stuck on Mars (The Martian).
And of course, the very title Back to the Future is based on Michael J. Fox needing to not get stuck in the past.
Let’s go back to 1984 for a minute. That’s when they were shooting Back to the Future and Michael J. Fox was having one of those windows that actors get every once in a while. He was the star of Family Ties which he taped in the day and then headed over to the Back to the Future set to shoot at night.
I’m the same age as Fox and having just graduated from film school in 1984 I was living in L.A. not far from where they shot the film. In the 1985-86 Tv season Family Ties was the number 2 most viewed show on television (behind The Cosby Show) and Back to the Future was the #1 box office film in ’85. Fox also had an endorsement deal with Pepsi so he was pretty close to being ubiquitous.
I remember reading an L.A. Times article at that time where they talked about Fox taking a limo from one set to the other and standing up through the sunroof waving at girls that recognized him. Definitely a “I’m king of the world moment.”
In 1987 I was working as a 16mm cameraman and editor with Motivational Media in Burbank and pretty stoked when I found out I was supposed to shoot an interview with Fox in New York City. Then I got word that the studio would only allow a union cameraman to do the shoot and I only got to edit the footage. (Everyone whose worked in any level of production has their sad stories of missed great opportunity from for one reason or another.)
Here’s a related post I wrote a few years ago called Writing ‘Back to the Future’ which talks about the Midwest roots of Back to the Future:
“Studio executives kept saying, ‘Eh, time travel movies don’t make any money. Time travel movies don’t make any money.'”
Screenwriter Bob Gale
Twenty-five years ago the world embraced the movie Back to the Future starring Michael J. Fox based on a script written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis. Though Gale and Zemeckis had teamed up on Used Cars (1980) it did not have a strong release and didn’t make getting their next script made easier. Gale explains the process of writing the script and the trouble they had getting others interested in it.
“We outline the story on index cards before we start detailing the individual scenes. And we come up with our index-car structure nonlinearly; we always like to know what the ending’s going to be before we really got started. You can’t take a trip if you don’t know where you’re going…The (Back to the Future) script was rejected over 40 times. Nobody read it said, ‘Oh, we’ve got to make this.’ You know there had been no time-travel movies that had made that much money prior to Back to the Future, and again the mashup of genres was confusing for some people. We’re talking 1981, 1982…Porky’s was around that time, and that’s what everybody’s idea of comedy was—fart jokes and naked girls.”
Script magazine interview with Sara Scott
Volume 16/Number 4
According to Box Office Mojo, Back to the Future ended up with a domestic gross of $210 million and a worldwide gross of $318 million. All on a $19 million budget. Gale and Zemeckis were also nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay. And, of course, two sequels were made that added around $500 million to the worldwide gross.
And where did the original idea come from? A basement in St. Louis.
“The inspiration for making the movie, for coming up with the story is that I was visiting my parents in the summer of 1980, from St. Louis Missouri, and I found my father’s high-school yearbook in the basement. I’m thumbing through it and I find out that my father was the president of his graduating class, which I was completely unaware of. So there’s a picture of my dad, 18-years-old, and I’m thinking about the president of my graduating class, who was someone I would have had nothing to do with. He was one of these “Ra-Ra” political guys, he was probably Al Gore or something. Captain of the debate team, all this stuff. So the question came up in my head, ‘gee, if I had gone to school with my dad would I have been friends with him?’ That was where the light bulb went off.”
Interview with Matt Patches
P.S. Zemeckis was raised in the South Side of Chicago and Gale was raised in the suburbs of St. Louis. They met at USC film school.
Related post: Screenwriting from Missouri