Time Warp: The Back to the Future Film Trilogy

Time travel behind the wheel of a nuclear-powered DeLorean is the premise of the 1985 hit movie Back to the Future. The film follows the comedic adventures of Marty McFly, a high school student who is accidentally transported back thirty years in time. McFly visits his hometown, Hill Valley, and encounters his parents as teenagers, well before his own birth.

Marty McFly meeting his future parents in Back to the Future, 1985.
Box 150, Herbert G. Luft papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, the movie almost wasn’t made. Reaction to the script was discouraging – more than 40 studios and producers turned it down. Most said the film’s humor wasn’t raunchy enough, while Disney was critical of a scene in which Marty was to have an awkward, incestuous kiss with his future mother.

The film provided a breakout movie role for actor Michael J. Fox, who played McFly. Fox was not originally cast for the part, as he was busy filming the hit television show Family Ties. Production began with Eric Stoltz as McFly. It soon became apparent that Stoltz lacked the comic timing needed for the role. Director Zemeckis approached Fox and negotiated a deal in which Fox would film Family Ties during the day and Back to the Future at night. Reports at the time indicated that replacing Stoltz added four million dollars to production costs. The filming schedule was grueling. Fox barely slept during the production but said that Zemeckis’ enthusiasm for the project and the fun he was having on set kept him going.

Fox’s favorite scene from the film takes place in 1955, when he performs the classic Chuck Berry song “Johnny B. Goode” for his future parents’ high school dance, three years before the song’s actual release.

Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly performing “Johnny B. Goode,” 1985.
Box 3, Herbert G. Luft papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Despite the early skepticism, Spielberg, Zemeckis and Gale’s confidence in the screenplay was vindicated. The movie Zemeckis had described as a “comedy-adventure-science-speculation-coming-of-age-rock-and-roll-time travel-period film” was the top grossing film of 1985. The musical score included two original songs, written by Huey Lewis and the News. One of them, “The Power of Love,” shot to the top of the charts, driven by the popularity of the movie.

Plans were soon afoot to write Back to the Future Part II and III. Fans sent in thousands of letters making suggestions as to what adventures the future movies might incorporate. Christopher Lloyd was to reprise his role as Doc Emmett Brown, the mad scientist inventor of the DeLorean time machine. Michael J. Fox was to return as Marty McFly. Back to the Future Part II had McFly and Doc Brown travel forward in time thirty years, to intervene in the lives of McFly’s fictional children.

Publicity for Back to the Future Part II, 1989.
Box 3, Herbert G. Luft papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The storyline, again written by Zemeckis and Gayle, was also set in Hill Valley, only this time McFly had to appear in 1955, 1985 and 2015. Audiences were on the edge of their seats. As actor Michael J. Fox said, “Every time you think the characters have rescued themselves from their current predicament, and you think you can relax for a minute of two … BAM! – you run into something else.”

Back to the Future Part III led the film series in an entirely new direction, although still driven by DeLorean time travel. Fox and Lloyd take a giant leap backwards in time, from 1985 to 1885. In the final scenario, Doc Brown has transported himself into an old west version of an only recently settled Hill Valley. Marty McFly must race back to the past to save Doc from an untimely end.

On the set of Back to the Future Part III, 1990.
Box 3, Herbert G. Luft papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Back to the Future Part III provides a satisfying end to the saga, wrapping up loose ends. Doc Brown sums it up, saying “You are in charge of your own destiny. The future is what you make it. So go out and make it a good one.” In total, the three films grossed nearly one billion dollars in worldwide box office receipts and left an indelible impact on American popular culture.

For more about the Back to the Future film franchise see the Herbert G. Luft papers, where you can pour through production notes, photographs and other press materials.

Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.


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