The Long, Troubled Future History of ‘Back to the Future Part IV’

By  · Published on November 12th, 2013

I was minding my own business while taking a walk through my neighborhood when suddenly three booms announced the appearance of a Delorean that I could have sworn wasn’t there before. The gull-wing doors extended up as a harried Bob Gale, screenwriter of the Back to the Future trilogy, stepped out.

“You’ve gotta come back with me!” he implored.

“Where?” I asked, attempting to ignore for the moment the rare sight of a Delorean.

“Back to the future,” he said. “Something’s gotta be done about the sequel!”

Before I knew it I was traveling with him to several years in the future… to learn the history of an impending catastrophe.

December 2013 – A throwaway line in a Deadline article lists Back to the Future as a property that Universal intends to exploit soon. Almost immediately rumors begin about the possibility of a remake, a TV pilot or a fourth film. Days later, Michael J. Fox causes rumors to spark again when he offers a curt “No comment” about the possibility of a new Back to the Future during an Entertainment Weekly interview.

January 16, 2014 – Universal officially announces Back to the Future Part IV with Michael J. Fox signed to reprise his role of Marty McFly and Robert Zemeckis returning as director.

January 20, 2014 – Universal confirms Max Landis (Chronicle) has completed a first draft of the script.

January 21, 2014Cosmic Book News claims that Crispin Glover will reprise his role for what is being called “a very George-centric story.” The site also reports rumors that Fox’s participation will be limited due to his health, and that Glover will carry the bulk of the film. A week later, TMZ catches up to Glover on Hollywood Blvd, where he denies taking part in any talks about the sequel.

Late January 2014Cosmic Book News cites sources close to the production as saying that like many recent Zemeckis films, BTTF 4 will be motion-captured, thus making it easier for the actors to play multiple versions of themselves across different times.

February 2014 – During an in-store signing at Amoeba celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Forrest Gump, Zemeckis explicitly denies the motion-capture rumors, saying the sequel will be shot “traditionally.”

February 7, 2014 – Deadline breaks the exclusive as Christopher Lloyd is officially announced as part of the cast. Anticipation builds.

Late February 2014 – After hitting record low ratings, The Michael J. Fox Show is pulled from NBC’s lineup. Officially it’s “on hiatus and will return soon to complete the season.” As it happens, the final episodes won’t begin airing until July.

March 2014 – The start of filming on the sequel originally set to occur during Fox’s hiatus from his TV show is pushed back six months to September. This should still allow Universal to get the film in theaters for it’s planned October 2015 release date.

May 2014 – In a Q&A session following his one-man show saluting the Spider-Man Clone Saga, Max Landis confirms he was told his services were no longer required on Back to the Future Part IV. He declines to answer any questions about the plot, instead redirecting the conversation to his recent pitch sales.

June 2014 – Fans cry foul when Deadline publishes the major scoop that Chloe Grace Moritz has been cast as Marty’s 17 year-old daughter Tracey. This seemingly contradicts the second film, where Marty’s daughter was Marlene (and was also played by Fox.)

July 2015 – Just days after Damon Lindelof is announced as the latest writer on the project, Latino Review is the first site to pierce the veil of secrecy surrounding the film as it publishes a lengthy script review of the Landis draft. This article represents the most complete release of any information about the story. The script opens in 2015, but not the 2015 glimpsed in Back to the Future II, but rather “our” 2015, lacking in flying cars and day-glo spandex.


The script opens in mid-October 2015, a week before the date that Marty, Doc and Jennifer are supposed to arrive from 1985. Marty is divorced from Jennifer and is estranged from his daughter. A washed-up rock star, his current claim to fame is being guest judge on a reality show. Marty returns home to Hill Valley for the first time in years when his mother informs him he’s gotten a letter from his friend Doc. Doc wrote this letter in 1905, and he tells Marty that though it isn’t fair to ask this favor of him, Doc’s happiness depends upon it.

In one week’s time, their past selves will arrive in 2015 – but not the 2015 that Marty and Doc originally emerged into in Part II. Thus it is absolutely imperative that Marty ensure that Old Biff is in a position to steal the time machine and travel to the past. If this doesn’t happen to motivate Marty and Doc to return to 1955, then Doc will never be struck by lightning, stranded in the old west and meet the love of his life.

Unfortunately, on the appointed day, Marty’s attempt to manipulate old Biff fails when the elderly man suffers a sudden heart attack. To make matters worse, as he steals the Delorean, Emmett happens on the scene, forcing Marty to bring his daughter with him. At a complete loss for what to do, Marty heads back to the Old West to seek Doc’s help, even as all of history threatens to collapse around them.

The script is noted to be more in the spirit of Part II than the other films, and apparently doesn’t attempt to offer a cover for Fox’s Parkinson’s. Overall the review notes that the script is over-plotted and suffers from too much of a spotlight on Marty’s daughter in later acts.

September 2014 – It is confirmed that this will be the first Back to the Future film not shot on the Universal backlot. Tax incentives have led to production setting up shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The iconic settings of the series will have to be recreated there.

October 2014 – Though rumored and assumed for months, it’s finally confirmed that Elizabeth Shue will reprise her role of Jennifer Parker in the film. Lea Thompson and Thomas F. Wilson are also confirmed. In an interview, Marc McClure expresses interest in returning as Marty’s brother Dave.

November 2014 – Principal photography begins, appropriately on November 5, the anniversary of the day Doc invented time travel.

February 2015 – Production wraps. After several frustrating days with some of his cast, Zemeckis is heard to remark, “This never happens with digital actors.”

March 2015 – The teaser trailer breaks a record for most views in one day. It’s mostly voiceover – a letter from Doc to Marty is read over a montage showing the new 2015, the restored clock tower (which looks nothing like the original) and Marty driving the Delorean.

Late April 2015 –After a disastrous test screening, Universal plans a drastic overhaul of the film ahead of its planned October release date.

July 2015 – Michael J. Fox is a no-show at the Fox event at Comic-Con. He blames his condition, but rumors spread that Fox isn’t happy with the new direction of the film. THR runs an exclusive story claiming that nearly a third of the film was reshot, using rewrites from Tony Gilroy.

August 2015 – After being pulled from its summer release date, Batman vs. Superman lands at October 23, just days before BTTF’s bow.

October 2015 – Despite a publicity blitz that had both Fox and Lloyd hosting Saturday Night Live, Back to the Future Part IV opens in third place. The numbers are worse than the studio projections, especially since the budget ballooned to over $130 million. It’s a fiasco for the studio and an embarrassment for all involved, particularly Michael J. Fox.

The convoluted screenplay is initially held responsible, as are the many reshoots. As the dust settles, a frequent target is the decision to center the film on a female lead. Unnamed sources claim that the studio begged Zemeckis to change Marty’s daughter to a son and cast someone more marketable, but he held firm. This has a direct impact on the Gremlins reboot, which soon rewrites its female lead as a male. Over at Warners, a long awaited Wonder Woman movie is put on hold, even as the studio greenlights a Blue Beetle trilogy.

— –

And so, as Bob Gale returned me to my time (sans the sports almanac I desperately tried to smuggle aboard), he implored me to make sure this future didn’t come to pass. He suggested that if The Michael J. Fox Show wasn’t canceled, then Michael’s schedule would never allow him to shoot the sequel in time and the project would fall into development hell. “The future depends on the renewal of The Michael J. Fox Show,” he told me.

Come to think of it, I’m not really sure what Bob Gale looks like. He’s a dead ringer for Michael J. Fox in a wig and glasses, right?

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Since 2009, The Bitter Script Reader has written about his experiences as a Hollywood script reader, offering advice to aspiring writers. He is also the author of MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films, and posts regularly on his site at