Study Guide

Back to the Future Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    Robert Zemeckis might be one of the most successful directors you don't know by name. Then again, maybe you do know him by name. In which case you'll know some of the many, many, many movies he's directed.

    How do you like this résumé? 

    • Romancing the Stone
    • Back to the Future I, II and III
    • Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
    • Death Becomes Her
    • Forrest Gump
    • Contact
    • Cast Away
    • The Polar Express
    • Beowulf
    • A Christmas Carol
    • Flight

    And that's just the sampler platter. The dude's been behind some awesome movies.

    Zemeckis spent much of his career under the mentorship of Steven Spielberg, who is not a bad person to know if you're trying to make it in the movie biz. It's given him the freedom to do a vast array of projects, from the silly to the dramatic, and has also allowed him to experiment with some pretty sizable budgets.

    That's a big deal, because one theme you'll notice running through Zemeckis' projects is a preoccupation with special effects. In BTTF, you've got the DeLorean (coming and going), Marty vanishing as his parents begin drifting apart, and Christopher Lloyd, whose eyeballs we refuse to believe weren't computer animated.

    But in future projects he got even heavier into the effects, especially in films like Roger Rabbit, where he combined animation and live action like never before, and in Forrest Gump, where he fooled an entire nation of people into believing that Gary Sinise had sacrificed his legs in order to nab the role of a lifetime. 

    In fact, Zemeckis made a hard push to make motion-capture animation a viable sub-genre, starting with The Polar Express and moving through Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. The financial disaster of Mars Needs Moms—which Zemeckis produced—put the kibbutz on those ambitions, and he went back to live-action productions with 2015's The Walk. (Source)

    But, like Spielberg, Zemeckis is all about the heart. You can see that in the familial love exhibited by the McFlys, or in such other films as The Polar Express and Forrest Gump. He doesn't just want to just hit you over the head with the effects; he also wants to play your heartstrings like a cello.

    What a violent guy.

  • Screenwriter

    Back to the Future was co-written by the director, Robert Zemeckis, and Bob Gale, whose other credits include Back to the Future II, Back to the Future III, Back to the Future… the Ride, Back to the Future the TV series, and Back to the Future the video game.

    Okay, so Mr. Gale was never quite able to break out of the Back to the Future mold after penning what would be his crowning achievement. He's worked on a ton of smaller projects—nearly all with his partner in crime, Rob Zemeckis—and has also done a lot of comic book writing for Marvel and DC Comics, but for the most part he has kind of backed away from the limelight.

    Gale always had a fascination with comic books and the characters that populated them. In fact, he even created his own comic book when he was just a kid. It was called The Green Vomit. We're not even kidding. We aren't exactly sure how the Vomit's superpowers worked, but we're assuming that Dramamine was basically his Kryptonite.

    Gale came up with the idea for BTTF one day when he was wondering whether he and his father might have been friends if he'd known him back when he was his own age. He unfortunately lacked flux capacitor technology…so the next best thing he could do was write about it. And write about it he did.

  • Production Studio

    Amblin Entertainment produced the film, with Universal Pictures handling distribution. The name "Amblin Entertainment" might not mean anything to you but the name behind it probably will: Steven Spielberg.

    Amblin was founded by Spielberg, and has produced over the years such tiny, obscure films as E.T., Schindler's List, Men in Black, Saving Private Ryan, and all of the Jurassic Park movies.

    Fortunately for director Robert Zemeckis, he and Spielberg were buddies. Spielberg had been mentoring Zemeckis ever since he'd knocked the legendary director's socks off with a student film he'd made while at USC.

    Back to the Future was their first big joint success… but it wouldn't be their last. Zemeckis would go on to follow it up a few years later with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the most successful movie ever made starring a cartoon rabbit married to a cartoon bombshell co-starring actual human beings.

    So where did BTTF fit into Amblin's brand? Well, the company's roster of films is a bit all over the map. There are gripping historical dramas, sci-fi and adventure movies, animated movies (An American Tail), gut-wrenching dramas (The Color Purple). But they all have one thing in common.

    They've all got heart. Yeah, to get Spielberg to sign off on a project a movie has to have the potential to strike an audience member right behind the sternum. No big blockbusters that are just about explosions and car chases, no frivolous comedies. No matter the genre, an Amblin film has got to fiddle upon the heartstrings at least a little bit. Even if sometimes that means hitting the "sappy" button.

  • Production Design

    Like every other movie shot pre-1990's, Back to the Future was shot on film. Which should make most indie filmmakers happy. And probably makes James Cameron a tad irritable.

    A lot of us are pretty jaded nowadays. Every sci-fi film is a roller coaster of lights, movement and sound. It's pretty rare to see a movie in the genre that slows things down just a bit, and looks like it's actually happening, rather than just a slew of insane—albeit technically impressive—special effects. Okay, so once in a while it's pretty obvious there's a green screen, and we don't really ever think that Marty's hand is going bye-bye, but it still feels a bit more homemade. And not in a bad way.

    It definitely helped when it came to crafting locations that we would fall in love with and that we would feel like we could just step right into. Much of the movie may have been shot on a set (including all the Town Square stuff, which was filmed on the Universal Studios back lot), but we will never look at that Clock Tower and think of any other film, or see any storefronts positioned around a town square and not associate them immediately with BTTF.

    The filmmakers wanted us to feel like we were in a cozy, familiar setting, and they accomplished that by building a world that didn't seem too far off from our own… minus the curious surplus of manure trucks, of course.

  • Music (Score)

    It don't take money. Don't take fame. Don't need no credit card to ride this train.

    That's the power of music, baby.

    Like any good soundtrack, the songs in Back To The Future leap out of your speakers, clamber inside your brain and lodge themselves somewhere inside your cerebellum… where they hang out until you can barely stand it any longer.

    You've got Alan Silvestri, composer and conductor of the Outatime Orchestra (that's real), providing the title track and all the other intermittent music we associate only with this film; Huey Lewis and the News, responsible for the catchiest tunes, such as The Power of Love and Back in Time; and, of course, all those quintessentially 1950's songs like Earth Angel and Johnny B. Goode. (P.S. Little in-joke with Huey Lewis in the movie: he has a cameo as the guy at Marty's audition in the early scenes. He's the one who tells Marty that his band is "just too darn loud," while the band plays a variant of Lewis's own "The Power of Love.")

    Silvestri held the reins, and he must have done a pretty decent job, because Zemeckis hired him to score just about every film he made afterward. The composer even picked up a couple Oscars, one for the score of Forrest Gump and another for Best Song in The Polar Express.

    The honors that have been bestowed on him aren't surprising. Just check out the climactic scene toward the end of BTTF when Marty and Doc are trying to tie up loose ends—and wires—to send the former back to 1985… then watch it with the sound turned off. Just looks like a bunch of idiots running around in the dark, doesn't it? The music in this scene is everything.

  • Fandoms

    So… are there any big fan/cult followings out there? You know—people who treat the film like it's less a movie and more a religious text brought down from the heavens?

    Um, yes. Anything you can think of, it's out there. Blogs, film appreciation sites, fan fiction, cosplay, Tumblrs. There's probably also an underground amusement park in the works.

    Part of the reason this movie has so many fans is that people want to be Marty McFly. They want to skateboard while hanging onto the back of a police cruiser. They want to make the bad guys look stupid. They want to be able to play the guitar like a boss. Any time you can make legions of people wish they could plug themselves directly into an adventure story, you're going to spawn a bajillion fan clubs.

    If you dare, check out a few of these windows into the madness.