May 6, 2021

11 Things I Learned from the ‘Back to the Future’ Commentary

I recently watched the commentary track to the 1985 classic movie ‘Back to the Future’, with co-writer Bob Gale, and producer Bob Canton. Here are 10 things I learned.

Back to the Future fridge

1. The Original Time Machine was a Fridge

The image above is an artist’s mock up, but the plot idea was real: in earlier versions of the script, Marty was transported back in time via a radioactive fridge, a leftover from an old weapons testing site. To get him back to 1985, Doc and Marty had to recharge the fridge by breaking into a nuclear reactor.

The fridge was jettisoned as the studio was worried it would encourage kids to lock themselves inside their own refrigerators, while playing at being Marty. And the nuclear reactor break in was changed as the budget was tight, and the film makers had to find a cheaper finale.

Parts of the fridge idea were recycled, decades later, in the opening of ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’.

Michael J Fox Back to the Future Skateboarding

2. Michael J. Fox Recorded a PSA for Australian Audiences

In an early scene, and an early bit of character establishment, Marty is seen hitching a ride on his skateboard via a jeep. He grabs the back of the vehicle as it drives through town, getting a speed boost, and a disapproving look from the driver; one of my favourite bits when I was younger.

I was not able to independently verify this, but according to Gale, Michael J. Fox had to record a public service announcement for the film’s Australian release, telling kids that it was dangerous to hang off the back of a vehicle the way he does in the movie. Hopefully this footage exists… somewhere.

Mayor Red Thomas: Back to the Future

3. Many of the Crew Have Cameos

Speaking of that disgruntled jeep driver, this part was played by the movie’s stunt coordinator, Walter Scott, in one of several nods to the film’s crew.

Michael J Fox’s guitar instructor is one of his bandmates in the Pinheads; the original mayor of Spring Valley, Red Thomas (poster above), is set director Hal Gausman; running for class president at the 1950s high school is Ron Woodward, the Key Grip; and a member of the sound effects team delivers the radio weather report Doc Brown listens to, while he is setting up the lightning cables.

Jan from The Office

4. Jan from ‘The Office’ was the Original Jennifer

It is probably the most famous recasting in movie history. Zemeckis and Gale wanted Michael J Fox for Marty, but the producers of ‘Family Ties’, his hit TV show at the time, would not release him. So they cast Eric Stoltz, another rising talent, instead.

Stoltz is much taller than Fox, so the film makers wanted an actress of similar height for Jennifer, Marty’s girlfriend. They cast Melora Hardin, later to find fame playing Jan on ‘The Office’.

After 5 weeks of shooting, Zemeckis and Gale felt that Stoltz was not working out; his performance came across as too serious, and he lacked chemistry with Christopher Lloyd. The ‘Family Ties’ team relented, and allowed Fox to participate, as long as shooting did not interfere with his TV commitments.

But now they had a Jennifer too tall for their new leading man. Gale said it was tough breaking the news to Hardin, who had been rehearsing but not filmed any scenes. The shorter Claudia Wells took her place.

The Family Ties cast

5. Those TV Commitments Lead to an Unusual Shooting Schedule

Fox’s TV commitments made the film shoot difficult.

He would film Family Ties during the day, and would not be available for BTTF until night, usually arriving on set around 10pm. The film shoot would then commence, and would sometimes go all night.

Producer Bob Canton recalls that the finale, the lighting strike and Marty’s return to the future, did not finish until 6am. In the middle of the night ‘It was very cold’ on set, he recalls.

Fox could only shoot daytime scenes on the weekend, which caused some logistics problems with the other cast members. Some members of Biff’s gang come and go from scene to scene, as not all of them were available for the weekend shoots.

The drugstore in The Sting

6. The Diner is the Same Set as the Drugstore in ‘The Sting’

The town centre where a lot of the action happens is the old Universal backlot. In a pre CGI era, this multi purpose set was dressed and re-dressed, and used in countless films.

The diner, where Marty meets George for the first time, is one of the few indoor sets available on the backlot, and has likewise been used in many films. Gale commented, ‘It was the drugstore in ‘The Sting’ for one.’

7. The Skateboarding Consultant was Found on Venice Beach

Skateboarding was pretty new in 1985, and it would be another decade before it produced household names and famous competitors. This is partly why it was chosen as a past time for Marty, so it would make the character seem a little bit hip.

But the film needed a skateboarding consultant, and they were unsure where to find one. Gale said he eventually drove down to Venice Beach, where ‘you could always find people doing everything’. He approached a couple of shirtless guys doing a skateboarding demonstration, busking, and asked them if they would be interested.

One of these turned out to be Per Velinder, the then European Skateboarding champion, on holiday in the US. He served as consultant on the movie, and arranged for friends of his to appear as skateboarding stunt doubles. Velinder would later consult on other films, and write textbooks on skateboarding technique.

Michael J Fox guitar back to the future

8. A Giant Guitar Prop Was Built for the School Dance

Marty gets co-opted into the band playing at the ‘Enchantment Under the Sea’ dance, and strums his way through some standards of the era while he watches to see if his parents will kiss. He has a photo of his siblings on his fretboard, and checks it nervously to see if they are disappearing.

There are several shots of this, adding to the tension of will they-won’t they.

But to get this close up to work, a giant version of the guitar and photo had to be produced. Gale estimates the one you can see in the close ups is about 6 feet tall; ‘You just couldn’t see the photo clearly, otherwise,’ he says.

 

9. Marty’s Writes TWO LETTERS to Doc

Sharp eyed fans have spotted a few continuity errors. Gale confirms: he gets letters about them.

In the scene where Marty and George talk while George hangs out his laundry, Marty’s shirt pockets go from tucked, to untucked (watch out for this, you will never unsee it). And the numbers on the Delorean odometer do not track chronologically, from scene to scene.

My favourite of these is Marty’s letter to Doc, warning that he will get shot in 1985. If you look closely, you can see that the message spacing is different, between the one Marty writes, and the one Doc shows him thirty years later, taped back together. They are clearly two different letters.

Gale laments: ‘Some people don’t have enough to do.’

RQ Magazine Back to the Future

10. Marty Also Subscribes to an Obscure Literary Publication

Gale also receives letters about a magazine in Marty’s bedroom.

When Marty wakes up on his bed, sprawled out face down in his clothes, you can briefly see a bunch of items on his bedside table and bedhead. Gale says these came from the props department, and were selected at random.

One of these is a magazine, titled ‘RQ’.

This is an issue of ‘Reference Quarterly’, America’s most prominent periodical for professional librarians (it has since been renamed ‘Reference and Users Quarterly’). Gale claims that every year he gets contacted about this, usually from librarians, wanting to know the significance of this being in Marty’s room.

Are his parent’s librarians? WILL HE BE A LIBRARIAN IN THE FUTURE?!

11. Crispin Glover Hated Successful George

It is a well known bit of BTTF lore that Crispin Glover, despite delivering a wonderful performance, was hard to work with. Gale doesn’t get into it much, other than saying, ‘Crispin had a very specific idea of what an actor should be like.’

Gale does recount one story towards the end though.

Marty returns to 1985 and finds his parents are now rich and successful, elements which Glover hated. His objection was that them having money should not equate to them being happy; they should have been more content for less superficial reasons. Gale claims this outcome was meant to be satirical, making fun of the consumerist 80s.

But Glover was so displeased, he did not even want to wear Successful George’s fancier clothes. On the back of the book George has written, ‘A Match Made in Space’, you see an author profile pic of him; here he has glasses, and a tweed jacket. ‘That was our first idea for the more successful George’, Gale says. ‘But Glover just wouldn’t do it.’

His sport jacket and bright coloured shirt, which Glover also did not like, was a compromise.

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