Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, Christopher Lloyd and Bob Gale
Gotta Get Back in Time to Back to the Future
by Jay S. Jacobs
As hard as it is to believe, the movie Back to the Future is now further in our collective rearview mirror than the Enchantment Under the Sea dance was to Marty McFly when he originally went back in time to save his parents’ relationship and restore history. Adding to the surreal quality, we are also currently a year beyond the “futuristic” world of Back to the Future, Part II, despite the lack of hover boards and flying cars.
Yes, Back to the Future is now 31 years old. Whoa, that’s heavy. But the movie is still considered to be a stone-cold movie classic.
Therefore, it was with great excitement that people learned that the original cast of the Back to the Future trilogy would be appearing at the 2016 Wizard World Philadelphia Comic-Con. Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, Christopher Lloyd and co-creator Bob Gale would appear at the convention to meet with fans and do a talk and Q & A about the history of the classic film.
One thing that many people have forgotten was that Michael J. Fox was not the first person to play Marty McFly. While co-creators Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale thought of Fox first as the perfect fit for the role, the young actor was contracted as the star of the breakout sitcom Family Ties. They sent the script to Gary David Goldberg, the executive producer of the show.
“He did read the script,” Gale explained to fans at Wizard World. “He was very, very effusive about how much he loved the script, to the extent that he said, ‘This script is so good that I can never let Michael read it, because Michael will hate me for the rest of his life if I say no.'”
Fox was just too important to the series, Goldberg insisted, and would not have time to make the movie. Particularly since Fox was already filming another film, a much smaller production called Teen Wolf. There was just no way, Goldberg reasoned, that he could fit two films into his busy schedule. So the Back to the Future script was not forwarded to Fox.
Still, the movie had crossed Fox’s radar, and he would have been thrilled for the shot.
“My first memory of Back to the Future was in a trailer in Pasadena, doing a movie where I had a snout on and yak hair on my face,” Fox said. He was reading about the fact that Steven Spielberg was nearby scouting locations for a new action comedy about time travel. “I thought, wow, why am I a werewolf when I could be in that?”
Fox knew Crispin Glover, who played one of his friends on Family Ties, had been cast in a role for the film. “I thought, ‘Fuck, Crispin Glover, why isn’t that me?'” Fox laughed.
However, he was not that bitter about not losing his chance, simply because he had never really known the chance was really ever there.
“I hadn’t thought that there was any interest in me. I also wanted to play Gandhi, but they weren’t looking for me,” Fox said. “I was looking for any job.”
Zemeckis and Gale had to start looking for someone else, and eventually settled on Eric Stoltz, who was just coming off of an acclaimed role in the film Mask with Cher. The production ended up shooting six weeks worth of footage with Stoltz, but while everyone agreed he was a very good actor, he was a bad fit for the role. He left the role, with those dreaded creative differences.
“I wasn’t aware that Eric Stoltz wasn’t quite making it,” Lloyd admitted. “No one told me that…. Michael stepped in and I felt there was just a chemistry that never had to be worked for…. Things clicked.”
“It was just such a difference experience working with [Fox] than working with Eric,” Thompson agreed. “Eric was just trying to do a different style that didn’t quite match.”
“In fairness, I couldn’t have played the heroin dealer in Pulp Fiction,” Fox admitted. “He was psychotically brilliant. He’s a transcendent actor, amazing. They just needed a goof ball. So they got me.”
Eventually Gale and Zemeckis reached out to Goldberg again, hoping he would change his mind about allowing Fox to make the film. This time, Goldberg agreed. He pulled Fox aside and told him that the filmmakers had come to him earlier in the year, but now they had to replace the current star and they were still interested in Fox. Fox read the screenplay and decided it was the best script that he had ever read. Everyone agreed to have Fox do Family Ties in the daytime and Back to the Future at night and on weekends.
“Two weeks later I was in a parking lot with flames going through my legs,” Fox said.
Christopher Lloyd, on the other hand, who was also working on a popular sitcom, Taxi, originally tossed the script when he was approached, saying that he was just not interested. He was actually seriously considering moving back to New York and going back to his roots as an actor at the time. Finally Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale talked him into having a meeting to discuss the role.
“I was totally convinced,” Lloyd said. “I was in good hands. Great script. Bob Zemeckis seemed wonderful. All of the sudden I just caved.”
Thompson got cast nearly immediately. An upcoming young actress, she impressed the producers not by playing the past scenes of young Lorraine, but by her take on the current scenes of a bitter, beat down 47-year-old Lorraine.
“I made a composite of my grandmother Riva and my best girlfriend’s mother,” Thompson said. “For some reason I just really understood the character.” Surprisingly, Thompson found the young Lorraine much harder to play. “At the time, in the 80s, it was hard to come up with that kind of innocence. That kind of horny innocence.”
Still, by the time the movie was filmed and ready to come out, no one knew for sure if it would connect with an audience. In fact, Thompson remembers the film getting a horrible review in the LA Times, which concerned her a bit. Gale admitted that some of the LA television critics also came down hard on it.
“I was just hoping we had a good opening night,” Lloyd admitted. “It’s phenomenal that we’re here still talking about it.”
Fox was in London making the TV movie Family Ties Goes to London when Back to the Future came out. He was totally out of the loop on things when his agent called him up.
“He said, ‘I just saw the movie,'” Fox recalled, “and my first instinct was to say: I’m sorry, I’ll do better next time. I was out of my element. He said, ‘No, trust me, it’s good. You’ll like it.’ I came home and saw… Cinerama Dome is a big theater in LA and there were lines around the building. And I thought, my life is going to change. And it did.”
He was already a star as Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, but this was a whole new level.
“It’s a different thing,” Fox said. “You have TV celebrity and it’s great. People love you. You go into their bedrooms and their bathrooms. It’s intimate. They have a familiarity with you. They can clap you on the back and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ When you have a film, you’re that big.” He raises his hands over his head and spreads them. “You capture their attention and imagination. You become more of a thing to them. They project a different energy onto you. It’s beautiful. It’s a responsibility. Success as a celebrity, it doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to you. I’m grateful for every day that I’m able to do what I do because these guys let me do it.”
When Back to the Future became a huge hit, Universal came back around, looking for a sequel.
“It was exciting, because we didn’t sign sequel deals,” Thompson admitted.
Gale admits that Universal never expected to make a sequel – in fact the “To be continued…” chyron over the final scene of the first film was never in the original theatrical cut, it was added for the video release. The problem was that Universal was only interested in one sequel, and Zemeckis and Gale had enough story to fuel two movies – one that would go into the future year of 2015 and one that would return to the old West. They did not feel they could smash all that story into one film, so they gave the studio a choice – an overstuffed single sequel that would cost $55 million to make or two sequels filmed concurrently which would cost a total of $75 million. Universal finally caved and agreed to the two films.
Co-writer and creator Bob Gale insists that they made the futuristic items in Back to the Future II simply because they seemed fun, not because they seemed realistic. For example, he says, he knew there was no way there would really be flying hover boards in less than 30 years (they wrote and filmed the second and third films in the late 80s), but it sounded like something fun and he had to up the skateboard chase from the first film. The same goes with flying cars. And the Chicago Cubs did not win last year’s World Series (though it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that they may take it this year – it’s early but they already have a commanding lead on the Cards in their division and currently have the best record in baseball).
However, they did get some of their future gadgets right; widescreen wall-mounted TVs, computer tablets, self-lacing shoes, Skype, wireless video games. And perhaps the scariest prediction of all, in 2016 the man who Gale admits was the inspiration for multi-billionaire, casino-magnate, politician, super-bully and mega-bad guy Biff Tannen – a certain New York businessman named Donald J. Trump – is currently running for President and is currently the presumptive nominee for the Republican Party. Almost makes you want to get back in that De Lorean and steal the Sports Almanac from young Trump.
Everyone agreed that the one thing they totally missed the boat on was smart phones.
“Cell phones for me,” Thompson said, “the crazy cell phones.”
“This little brain you carry around that knows everything in the world,” Fox agreed. “It’s amazing. [People go on] about flying cars, I’m like: screw flying cars. We have this thing that you can go: ‘Who was the queen of some country in 1829?’ And it will tell you.”
That wasn’t the only surprise that the future held for Fox, though. “The thing I didn’t expect was that I’d have a worse hairline than Marty McFly in 2015.”
Copyright ©2016 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 8, 2016.
Photos ©2016 Deborah Wagner.