Back to the Future is the film franchise best suited for nostalgia. It’s not simply a matter of thirty years having passed since the first film’s release and the young fans of the movie now raising young fans of their own. The movies themselves are about careful investigation of an individual’s history and how that history influences their eventual legacy. To wit, the sci-fi blockbuster thrill ride masks a far more deeply introspective experience for each member of the audience.
If you too have felt this slightly intangible connection that heightened your enjoyment of, and fostered your endearing love for, this film series, you will be pleased to know that there is once again cause to go back to Back to the Future.
Plume books has just published We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy by author Caseen Gaines. Without adding too much bias here, which frankly is my wont to do given that this is my damned article, Gaines flat out gets it. His research is exhaustive, amounting to almost two years of work and over 500 hours of interviews with everyone from Robert Zemeckis and the cast to crew members, stunt performers, and the world’s biggest BTTF fans.
Even if you are a hardcore fan, this book can at times feel like a revelation; like hitting-one’s-head-on-the-edge-of-a-toilet-and-suddenly-understanding-flux-capacitors revelations. Below are 15 of the myriad factoids culled from Caseen’s fan opus that were unexpected bolts of lightning to this writer’s mental clock tower.
1. Michael J. Fox WAS the First Choice for Marty McFly!
By now, it is widely known that Michael J. Fox was not the first actor cast to play Marty McFly. The failed Eric Stoltz experiment has become the stuff of behind-the-scenes legend. However, what was revealed in We Don’t Need Roads that changed my perspective on history (at least Back to the Future’s history) is that Robert Zemeckis wanted Michael J. Fox from the start. Zemeckis’ good friend, and mentor, Steven Spielberg, called Family Ties producer Gary David Goldberg and asked that Fox read the script. Instead, fearing losing his cash cow TV star to film, Goldberg hid the script and Fox didn’t even know Back to the Future was happening until he happened to cross paths with BTTF’s location scouts while on the set of Teen Wolf! It wasn’t until after Stoltz was let go that Goldberg was finally persuaded to show the script to Fox.
2. The BTTF Part 2 Stunt That Went Way Wrong
Injuries do occur on film sets, this is nothing new. However, the severity of the injuries suffered by stuntwoman Cheryl Wheeler on the set of Back to the Future Part 2 was further amplified by the completely avoidable nature of the accident. Wheeler was the stunt double for the female member of Griff’s gang: Spike. The moment in which Griff’s gang careens through the stained glass window of the clock tower, the rigging holding Wheeler in the air was supposed to be remote released so her forward momentum would carry her through the window and down to a waiting airbag below. Unfortunately, the rig on which she was suspended sent her off course, slamming her against a pillar outside the building and, since the technician had no line of sight with her, finding her chord remote released too early. She plummeted 25 feet to the hard concrete outside the clock tower lobby.
Horrifically, this impact made it into the final cut of the movie. If you look through the doors of the lobby as the rest of the gang crash lands inside, quite visibly, Wheeler’s body slams down onto the sidewalk outside. She subsequently sued the studio.
3. Michael J Fox is a Trooper!
When Fox landed the role of Marty McFly, once Stoltz had been let go, he was still in the process of filming Family Ties. Back to the Future was now six weeks behind schedule and essentially having to start over so neither project could afford to give Fox time off. So he filmed both concordantly. He would shoot Family Ties in the morning then shoot Back to the Future late into the night and be driven back home (napping in the back of a teamster’s car) to sleep a few hours before going right back to work on the show. Evidently, he was never fazed by the lack of sleep.
4. The Third Jennifer
As we all know, Elizabeth Shue was the second actress to portray Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer Parker; taking over the role for Claudia Wells in Back to the Future Part 2. As it turns out, Shue was the third actress to win the role! Melora Hardin (best known as troubled Dunder Mifflin executive Jan Levinson on the American version of The Office) was the actress originally cast as Jennifer in Back to the Future. Unfortunately for her, she was caught in the wake of Eric Stoltz’s firing and proved to be too tall to suitably serve as Michael J. Fox’s onscreen love interest. So…she didn’t measure up? Thank goodness we didn’t make that joke, right?
5. Why Crispin Glover Does Not Appear in BTTF Part 2
Looking at his various film roles, it isn’t difficult to leap to the conclusion that Crispin Glover is an eccentric performer. Evidently, that eccentricity is not limited to the confines of the silver screen. Glover claims that Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis did not negotiate fairly with his agent for his salary for the upcoming second film due to a complaint he had lodged with the ending of the first Back to the Future; believing George McFly’s “improved” timeline to be too materialistic. The filmmakers contend that Glover was asking for an exorbitant amount of money to reprise the role of George McFly. Come to think of it, the moral of BTTF could be construed as, “learn to punch guys in the face and your future will be filled with wealth and success.” When Glover “came to his senses” and asked to be a part of Part 2, Bob Gale offered him the same rate as Tom Wilson (Biff/Griff/Old Biff) was getting. When Glover refused, Gale countered with…a lower offer. To say their relationship is strained is a bit of an
6. Christopher Lloyd is Terrified of Heights
Foreshadowed by the Buster Keaton clock in his laboratory during the film’s opening scene, Doc Brown ends up hanging precariously from the 1955 iteration of Hill Valley’s clock tower during Back to the Future’s climax. We all know this sequence; it’s the only scene that appears in all three films of the franchise! What you may not know is that Christopher Lloyd is afraid of heights, but despite this phobia, he performed most of the stunt work for this sequence himself. The stunt double, who was a circus performer, did the cable slide from the tower to the ground, and close-up shots were achieved on a soundstage, but the long shots necessitated Lloyd himself to stand on the dangerous ledge of a building overlooking the Universal backlot. Apparently he offered an alternative approach, one in which Doc Brown could crawl along the perilous precipice, but Zemeckis responded with a curt, “no fucking way.”
7. It All Started with The Great Escape
It is always fascinating to see which shared subsets of passion will unite cinephiles. For Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, their bonding moment at USC, which would lead to not only the Back to the Future franchise but the launch of their careers, centered on one unforgettable soundtrack. Apparently they bonded over the fact that they both owned the soundtrack to The Great Escape.
8. Why George McFly Eats So Much Goddamned Peanut Brittle
I remember even as a kid being completely baffled by the copious amounts of peanut brittle consumed by George McFly at the dinner table in Back to the Future. He poured out a box of brittle into a bowl as if he were prepping his morning cereal, and what makes the moment all the more strange is the perplexed look Marty gives his father when the bowl is offered around the table; as if George McFly had never eaten peanut brittle before. Turns out, there is an explanation for this. Apparently there was an excised scene just before that moment at the dinner table wherein a neighbor sells George an absurd amount of peanut brittle. This was likely meant to further illustrate George’s push-over personality.
9. Props Department
Given the changeover at leading man, the first Back to the Future had an incredibly rushed production schedule in order to finish and turn in its completed print to the studio on June 23rd, 1985. Universal, in a show of appreciation that now seems totally foreign to major film studios, took out a full page ad in Variety with every crew member’s name thanking them for expedited work they had done. Remember when Variety was ONLY a print publication?!
10. The Jennifer Curse
We’ve already mentioned the unceremonious replacement of Melora Hardin at the role of Jennifer due to nothing more than her being too tall. Evidently, each different actress who subsequently occupied that role suffered hardship and tragedy. Claudia Wells, Back to the Future’s Jennifer, had to decline to return for the sequels due to her mother’s battle with cancer. Then, just after Elizabeth Shue was cast, her brother died in a freak accident. He was playing on a tire swing at their family summer home. The rope broke and he was fatally impaled on a broken tree branch. Shue has said in interviews that she barely remembers filming Back to the Future Part 2 and Part 3 because she wasn’t in the right head space to enjoy it.
11. Hilly Valley Severs & Loan
In crafting their vision of the distant future of 2015, Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis came up with a few elements of life in future Hill Valley that were decidedly darker than what ended up in the final draft or on the screen. For example, there was a plot element removed from an original draft for Back to the Future Part 2’s script in which the ubiquitous nature of thumb scan technology in 2015 lead to a gruesome new crime in which criminals cut off people’s thumbs and used their prints to access their bank accounts via ATMs. Yikes!
12. Married To The Badge
The recent passing of Mary Ellen Trainor was hard on film fans that grew up on a steady diet of Goonies and Monster Squad. Trainor played the mom in both movies and therefore served as “movie mom” to a lot of us as a result. What this particular movie geek missed was that Trainor also played one of the two female cops who bring Jennifer home to Hilldale in Back to the Future Part 2. At the time, she was married to director Robert Zemeckis.
13. Chop Car
I had always wondered why the landing of the flying cop car that brings Jennifer home in Back to the Future Part 2 was framed from the front of the car forward instead of showing the whole car descend as was the case with the Delorean when Doc Brown arrived in 2015 near the beginning of the movie. Turns out, this was not so much an artistic choice as a practical necessity. The forklift that was going to be used to lift the car so that it could make a full, slow descent was not properly set and it ended up essentially splitting the car in two. The usable front end of the car had to then be chained to the forklift for the remaining portion of the shot.
14. Where Is My Hoverboard?!
Once the real life time circuits (aka a calendar) rolled over to 2015, we collectively reflected reverently on Back to the Future Part 2 and the future (now present) it presented. One complaint lodged however was that our living in the once-projected future of 2015 afforded us no opportunities to purchase one particular piece of technology portended by the film: the hoverboard. Apparently, this demand for a functional hoverboard is not a recent manifestation. After NBC aired a half-hour Back to the Future Part 2 sneak peek special in November of 1989, Scott Ross, general manager of Industrial Light and Magic, was inundated with calls from parents who wanted to know where they could buy a hoverboard for their children! Even after Ross broke the news that hoverboards were special effects created by his company and not actually real, the stalwart parents still wanted to obtain them. Talk about a compliment!
15. The Bordello of Blood Connection
You may think that the 1996 film Tales from the Crypt: Bordello of Blood has NOTHING to do with the Back to the Future legacy…and that assumption is totally within the boundaries of reason. However, it turns out that when Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis met in college in 1972, they wrote Bordello of Blood, a script about vampire prostitutes with the intention of producing it as their first feature-length movie! As it shook out, the hilarious Spielberg flop 1941 was the first of their scripts to be produced and Bordello would have to wait over twenty years to be rewritten and reformatted…and also flop.
For more details on any of these trivia nuggets, pick up a copy of We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy.