How Back to the Future Almost Didn’t Get Made

For the movie’s 30th anniversary, co-writer Bob Gale tells the story of production nightmares, and the classic that came to be.

There’s a great scene in the Tim Burton film Ed Wood, in which the main character meets his idol, Orson Welles, in a bar, and realizes that even the legendary director struggles to get his movies made. The meeting never happened in real life, but the scene makes an important point: making a movie, any movie, is incredibly difficult.

In the case of Back to the Future, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this summer, there were many obstacles, which is bewildering considering it seems like a slam dunk in retrospect. A number of people knew the movie would be a hit from reading the script, including Steven Spielberg, who was very eager to get it made. So how did this sure thing, or as close to a sure thing in Hollywood, get rejected over 40 times before Universal finally pulled the trigger? Why did director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter Bob Gale initially resist Spielberg’s help? And how did the film avoid getting shut down after its first male lead, Eric Stoltz, was let go? All good questions, and in honor of the anniversary, we got the answers.

Wasted Time

Like the movie itself, the saga of bringing Back to the Future to life had a lot of frantic attempts to make up for lost time, and turn bad timing around, and funny enough, time is often a theme in Robert Zemeckis’s movies (Forrest Gump, Cast Away). Yet when Zemeckis and Gale first came together, the timing couldn’t have been better. They met at USC’s film school, around 1971, the time of the fabled “USC Mafia,” where the filmmakers of the future like George Lucas, John Milius (screenwriter of Apocalypse Now), Randal Kleiser (Grease), and John Carpenter (Halloween) were all learning their trade.

Zemeckis came from Chicago’s South Side, Gale from St. Louis, and it was creative kismet from the beginning. Where film students of the time were worshipping the French New Wave, the two Bobs grew up loving big Hollywood entertainment like The Great Escape, as well as lowbrow fare like the Three Stooges and Jerry Lewis movies.

Zemeckis and Gale started writing together in their senior year. Zemeckis was also getting a lot of attention for Field of Honor, his darkly comic student film about an escaped mental patient who’s driven nuts by society, and ends up going on a shooting spree. One fellow up-and-coming filmmaker impressed with Honor was Steven Spielberg, who was still several years away from becoming one of the biggest directors in the world with Jaws

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