It’s incredibly hard to make any movie, but a perfect movie? That’s nearly impossible without a great set of script notes. Today we’ll learn how script notes catapulted Back to the Future into theaters and changed history forever. Travel with us as we talk about casting, rewrites, and the development process.
Hop in! Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!
Where did the idea for Back to the Future come from?
Before Back to the Future was one of the most beloved cinematic experiences of all time, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were struggling to get credit within Hollywood.
Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale Getting ready for reshoots.
Watch: Script Breakdown of Back to the Future
Gale was coming off Spielberg’s 1941 and had worked with Zemeckis on the 1981 Kurt Russell vehicle, Used Cars. Both projects were flops and hurt their credibility.
Those flops put their careers in trouble. They wanted to be known as more than Steven Spielberg’s friends. Gale and Zemeckis had to reconfigure what they’ll do next.
The duo was hanging out one day talking about family. Gale had recently found an old yearbook from his parent’s high school. He wondered if either of them would have been friends with their respective fathers if they traveled back in time to meet them.
But Back to the Future was just a kernel of an idea. It needed a lot of work.
The first draft of Back to the Future
Zemeckis and Gale finished the initial draft of Back to the Future in February of 1981. They started shopping it around to studios but were met with tons of rejection.
Zemeckis once estimated 40-50 places told them the idea sucked.
We think we know why.
The initial draft of Back to the Future had lots of differences from the movie we’ve come to know and love.
Some changes were small.
For example, Doc Brown was called “Professor Brown.” That name makes him sound boring, and less likely to have fun duping the Libyans to give him plutonium for a fake bomb made out of pinball machine parts.
Save the Back to the Future clock tower and my life!
But the Back to the Future script changes get kind of heavy after that.
Turns out Professor Brown is a cynic and pirates movies to make money. Marty is no better, pedaling the stolen films as well as selling marijuana to make ends meet.
Oh, and that thunderstorm needed to produce the 1.21 gigawatts? It wasn’t in the script.
Instead, Marty travels onto a military base where he harnesses the power of a nuclear bomb to power his time-traveling refrigerator to the future.
Great Scott! That movie sounds different!
Initial reactions to the Back to the Future script
The Back to the Future script was not a hit with the studios. Disney notoriously turned it down because they didn’t think they could sell a family film where a boy makes out with his mother.
Lorraine is not afraid to give script notes.
Zemeckis and Gale couldn’t find any buyers until Columbia stepped up to the plate. They saw the inkling of a great idea and bought the script. But Columbia could never find a way to make the movie. It was expensive and risky. So it sat on a shelf.
How to add scene notes to your script
Getting a script to production might seem like the ultimate goal, but it's not the end of the script notes process. As your project moves forward, producers, directors, and even actors will have an opinion about what happens in each scene, especially once the script breakdown is complete.
Once each department knows what it's responsible for on each day, they may need specific changes to the scene.
What if your lead character's red vest needs to be seen earlier in the story, or you want to change a character's name, or turn someone into a dog?
The scene notes resource allows you to collaborate with ease.
To make this process fluid, StudioBinder added a "scene notes" feature so you can track people's comments and suggestions.
Filmmaking is primarily teamwork and task management. You can send these scene notes back and forth with the click of a button. So if you have to replace your time-traveling fridge with a DeLorean, everyone knows about it.
To make things sweeter, you can grab our free scene breakdown of Back to the Future.
Let's take a look at how scene and script notes made Back to the Future into an instant classic.
How we finally went Back to the Future
Luckily for all of us, a legal snafu one another movie caused Columbia to owe Universal money because of a legal dispute. To pay Universal back, Columbia traded them the rights to Back to the Future for the rights to Double Indemnity.
Universal walked away with the project, but it took a quiet push from Steven Spielberg to get the executives there to read it.
One factor that helped was that Zemeckis had recently directed the hit movie, Romancing the Stone. He was back to being one of the hottest Hollywood directors. And he wanted to revamp his passion project next.
The Back to the Future rewrite
Back to the Future was alive again. Sid Sheinberg, an executive at Universal, read it and loved it. He did have a few script notes.
And to make sure the script notes were reflected in the new script and on the screen, everyone needed a script breakdown.
Script notes for the rewrite and possible reshoots.
Script notes from Producers
Zemeckis and Gale got extensive script notes from Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy, and Sid Sheinberg. They had lots of ideas, and together they worked on which ones were additive to the project.
This is Sid and Lorraine Sheinberg. Guess who he got them to name Marty’s mom after?
The core of the story was left alone. But these voices helped the filmmakers bring out the tone, the wonder, and a lot of the movie magic we know and love today. They keyed in on personal details of the characters, and the movie became a passion project for all involved.
Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg, and Frank Marshall helped come up with the Back to the Future clock tower!
All writing is rewriting
The DeLorean was added, the Professor became known as the Doc, and Marty went from bad-boy to an everyman.
Marty’s Mom was even named Lorraine after Sid Sheinberg’s wife!
Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy, and Steven Spielberg’s job was to provide script notes that would help save the budget of the movie too.
Universal didn’t want to spend money to fake a nuclear bomb drop for the end of the movie, so Zemeckis and Gale brainstormed the lightning plot point.
They saw the clocktower on the Universal backlot, and it seemed like fate.
The idea to “save the clocktower” was written into the story.
Save the Back to the Future clock tower!
As each of these changes was made, the production had to send each department new pages of the script, so they knew what was happening.
If you were in props you could forget the Fridge, and they now needed a DeLorean. And they also required the skateboard Marty carried with him throughout the film.
Costumes needs to get a radiation suit and a bulletproof vest for Doc Brown as well as Marty’s puffy vest. And the animal wranglers had to make sure Einstein was on time and ready to travel.
“I’m a Script Breakdown Example? Woof.” --- Einstein
With these new additions, a good idea was becoming a great script. But the casting of the titles roles was a different story.
Casting the rewrite
When Zemeckis and Gale were done rewriting the Back to the Future script, it was time to cast the title roles. There were lots of choices for Doc Brown.
They had to carefully pick which actor would embody the character’s emotional nuance. The role ultimately went to Christopher Lloyd. But look at some of the other names on the list below.
Can you imagine Back to the Future (1985) with Danny Devito?
The one thing everyone in the production agreed on was that there was only one choice when it came to casting the role of Marty. Michael J. Fox. But he wasn’t available because he was shooting Family Ties.
Even after all the script notes, they rushed into production with an actor named Eric Stoltz. Stoltz had been in St. Elsewhere, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Mask. He had the pedigree, but it did not go well.
Eric Stoltz’s scenes needed reshoots.
Stoltz delivered a dramatic performance as Marty. It was incredibly seriously and tonally didn’t fit the story. People on set were worried.
They took all these script notes, and now their movie was falling apart!
They got almost a month into the production when Zemeckis knew he had to pull the plug. He consulted with Spielberg, and even though it would cost an extra three million dollars on top of the fourteen million budgeted, they decided to reshoot and recast Marty.
But who could replace Stoltz?
Lucky for them, their number one choice was back in play.
We need to travel Back to the Future via the clock tower to replace Eric Stoltz!
Michael J. Fox joins as Marty McFly
Michael J. Fox was allowed to shoot Family Ties during the day and then would work on Back to the Future at night. It was a grueling schedule, but they re-shot the Stoltz scenes.
From the moment Fox stepped on set there was a change in the atmosphere. Maybe this project was finally going to go their way.
Finally, after 100 days, the shooting wrapped.
Back to the Future was in the can. But would it be a hit? Everyone was on pins and needles the week before it came out.
Dealing with the pressure of releasing Back to the Future
The entire Back to the Future production team was terrified they had slapped their names on a bomb. Spielberg worried for his friends Zemeckis and Gale. This was their baby.
Sheinberg had championed the pickup and Universal and wanted it to be big. Would he live up to his usual standards? Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall were still young producers. This would make or break them and their careers.
Michael J. Fox was so busy catching up on his television gig that he hadn’t been able to promote the movie.
Would the audience go based on trailers alone?
Back to the Future had been through reshoots, recasting, and rewriting. Had the script notes paid off? Were all the script breakdowns worth it? After such a tumultuous production, everyone held their breath.
Back to the Future debuts!
On July 3rd, 1985, Back to the Future debuted on 1500 screens across America. It was a knockout. Word of mouth spread and people flocked to the theaters.
Back to the Future spent eleven weeks at number one. Everyone loved it. It actually attracted more viewers in week two of its release than in week one. People kept coming back to see it and bringing their friends and families.
It grossed over 380 million dollars worldwide and became a cultural phenomenon. But the most significant impact Back to the Future had was its impact on future generations.
The aftermath of Back to the Future
Back to the Future has gone on to be one of the most beloved franchises in film history and an endlessly quotable effort. It’s been heralded as one of the greatest films of all time, and the movie has inspired everything from Lego sets to a “save the clocktower” convention.
All it took was five years of rewrites, replacing the lead actor a month into shooting, reshoots, script notes, and a few dozen script breakdowns.
No big deal!
Up next: Become a professional writer
So there you have it. When this post hits 88 views you’re going to see some serious...well, you get it. Without reshoots, script notes, and rewrites none of this would have happened.
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