But what is it exactly about Back to the Future? Revisionist historians will claim that the film’s success was guaranteed, but that’s not true. The movie’s screenplay was truly exceptional—the perfect cocktail of an original idea, memorable and distinct characters, and sharp dialogue. There are colleges and universities throughout America that use the Bobs’ final draft of the first film as an instructional tool for budding screenwriters. For all of the technical achievements of the films, the cast and crew still point to Zemeckis and Gale’s ability to craft a wonderfully realized story, especially in the first film, but not exclusively so, as the franchise’s most significant achievement. Similarly to other high-grossing summer films that have come afterward, like 1993’s Jurassic Park and 2008’s The Dark Knight, Back to the Future explored themes universal to a wide swath of the movie-going public. While many of the top-grossing films of all time since Future’s release have been sequels or adaptations of books or films, the Bobs deserve credit for not only crafting a great film, but also one that had no inherent built-in audience on opening day.
Back to the Future’s success could be due to any number of other factors. Perhaps Robert Zemeckis earned his cinematic sea legs at the right time, and happened to have the right opportunity to flex them. Maybe it was the cast, the confluence of Michael J. Fox’s youthful energy, Christopher Lloyd’s precisely calculated manic facial expressions, Tom Wilson’s brute idiocy, Lea Thompson’s naughtiness encased behind a disarming façade of sweetness, and Crispin Glover’s often-misunderstood brilliance. Perhaps older people just enjoyed seeing their childhoods relieved on-screen during the 1955 portion, while young people could see themselves faced with Marty’s dilemma. Maybe it was the film’s subtle commentary on our culture—did we really just elect an actor President of the United States? Or perhaps it’s the sum of all these parts synthesized together, along with a million other factors.
“It is such a family picture,” Lea Thompson says. “It doesn’t seem to matter how old you are. Young people in their twenties, who saw it when they were adolescents, get married, have kids, their kids see it, and then they see it over again. There are so many fans I have run into saying they have seen Back to the Future a hundred times, or they just watched the whole trilogy last night. I feel very fortunate to be a part of something that has had that impact.”
Of all the factors that led to the film’s critical, commercial, and cultural successes, the most significant may just be that the right team was assembled to do the right job and made the right calls while doing so. After Romancing the Stone, Zemeckis could have chosen to direct any number of screenplays that arrived at his desk, yet, because of his convictions and confidence in his project, he went back to Future, even though it had been rejected dozens of times over. Before shooting, the Bobs kept revising their work, with Gale doing minor rewrites during the shooting process on all three films. They took a chance on Eric Stoltz, had the strength to admit the error of their ways, and made the exponentially riskier decision to cast Michael J. Fox, a sitcom actor with no record at the box office worth writing home about—a choice that cost the studio millions and, if unsuccessful, would have gone down in Hollywood history as one of the poorest decisions ever made. Back to the Future was not only the defining movie of that time, but of all time—a unique case study in how to defy the odds and prove, as Doc Brown says in the last film, that no one’s history is written.
“We had a blast making the film,” Frank Marshall says, “Bob is a great storyteller. We had just a lot of great elements and, of course, Michael J. Fox was fantastic.”
“If you look at the tone of that first movie, just as a comedy, it’s heightened, but it’s also grounded,” Peyton Reed says. “And it’s also science fiction. It’s really hard to mix those two genres. It’s really only been done successfully a handful of times, and Back to the Future is the poster child for how to do that. It has just got such energy and this incredible heart.”
The filmmakers who worked on the trilogy, by and large, have continued to cross paths, collaborating on other projects and significantly shaping the film industry. When Steve Starkey accepted his Oscar for Best Picture at the Academy Awards for Forrest Gump, he thanked his friend and colleague, whom he cordially referred to as “Bob Z” during his speech, for being a visionary. Earlier in the ceremony, when Zemeckis was honored with the Best Direction award, he used that opportunity to thank not only Steven Spielberg, but also Bob Gale. That moment was a victory for both of them, as they entered the movie business together as partners and, in many ways, have remained that way.
Despite their hectic schedules, the Bobs still speak regularly—sometimes to work on Back to the Future: The Musical, the big-budget stage production that is forthcoming, and other times just to reminisce and bask in the glow of their accomplishments. When an interesting video pops up on YouTube that references the trilogy, another company claims that it has almost perfected the technology to make functional hoverboards, or a new crop of rumors about the trilogy come out that need debunking, the two still can’t believe it. “That’s like mission accomplished,” Zemeckis says. “To have made a film that two guys thought up in some shabby little one-room apartment in Burbank and it becomes this thing, this cultural touchstone, I’m very proud of that. That means it was all worthwhile. It’s great. I’m very proud of that. Very, very proud of that.”
We Don't Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy is available from BacktotheFuture.com or from the following online retailers: