Back to the Future opened on July 3, 1985 - nearly six years after Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis collaborated together on the first draft of the script. For a film to take this length of time to ultimately arrive at the local cineplex is not unusual. Some films take much longer.
Prior to 1980, Zemeckis and Gale had co-scripted three films: I Wanna Hold You Hand and Used Cars - both directed by Zemeckis; and 1941 - directed by Steven Spielberg, who would go on to guide the rewriting process of Back to the Future and Executive Produce the entire BTTF series. This makes Back to the Future their fourth collaboration, which must have certainly helped the creative process, but didn't necessarily lead to a workable draft first up.
While the original script follows the same basic plot - Marty goes back in time and his mother gets the hots for him, many specifics are completely different. The most notable and known change made between the original script and the final product was the time machine evolving from a refrigerator into a De Lorean sports car. But other major changes occured before the shooting script was ready. Also in the first draft, Marty is quite different in character. He pirates video tapes in his spare time to make money. And the climax of the film takes place on a nuclear testing site in the middle of Nevada!
Most films evolve significantly from the first draft to the shooting script and even beyond. Many changes can be made when the film is compiled in the editing room. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on the fourth draft script of Back to the Future. Dated October 21, 1984, this script bares the most resemblance to the motion picture in comparison to the other widely available drafts. While it is conceivable that a fifth draft and/or shooting draft also exist, it is most likely that Zemeckis and Gale revised this script prior to shooting.
Note: There are two ways of dealing with re-writes of films scripts: 1) a complete overhaul of scenes, characters, details would require another draft - ie. BTTF drafts 1 through 4; 2) minor revisions to scenes, dialogue, setting are indicated by insertion of different colored pages into a draft and by an asterisk in the right-hand margin - ie. the revised draft of Paradox, the original title of Back to the Future, Part II and Part III. See Future Features 4 and 5.
Looking at a film script can be important for several reasons. Seeing what has been left out can call attention to what has been kept - for good or ill. Seeing the descriptions of characters and places can give an insight into what the screenwriters/filmmakers intended before shooting actually began. I will look at both kinds of changes and discuss why, logically, the changes were made.
"5...4... 3... 2... 1... detonate!"
One of the majors themes explored in Back to the Future is how society changed between 1955 and 1985. The script begins with a projector in a high school classroom showing "the MUSHROOM CLOUD of an ATOMIC EXPLOSION." This is an obvious visual reference to the desert atomic tests made in the 1950s and is also a holdover from earlier drafts where the climax of the film actually took place at an atomic test site in Nevada. While this opening would not have been out of place in the final film, it does lack the focus and inventiveness of the film's actual opening sequence.
Marty is introduced to the reader as "17, a good looking kid wearing Porsche mirrored sunglasses." As "THE RED HOT OPENING MUSIC KICKS IN: MAIN TITLES BEGIN," we learn that Marty is "bopping along to the rock and roll: he's plugged into a WALKMAN STEREO." This description is not incongruous to the Marty McFly we all know. If Marty ever got to class in the film, he may have actually acted this way. His listening to rock and roll on a Walkman is the first sign of his passion for music also.
There is evidence to suggest this original opening was the one prepared to be shot when actor Eric Stoltz was still on board to play Marty McFly. Several changes were made to the script once it became apparent the lead part would be re-cast.
Interesting to note: The character of Marty's girlfriend is refered to as Suzy Parker, not Jennifer . At this late stage (8 months from the film's premiere), I see no reason why the character name needed to be changed. Suzy is not like any other names used in the film, so it is not likely to be confused at all.
Marty is sent to Principal Strickland's office for listening to the Walkman in class. Strickland is introduced to us as looking "60, but he could be 160---he was born old and stayed that way, and has been at this school forever." This description is very apt and is passingly refered to in the film with Marty asking if Strickland ever had hair. While the differences in this Marty/Strickland scene are required by a different plot set-up, the important information is still relayed - Strickland makes the comparison between Marty and his dad, "he was a slacker, too."
Strickland punishes Marty by asking him to stay behind after school for detention. Marty doesn't want to miss his band's audition for the local YMCA dance, so he uses gum, a matchbook, a slide projector lens and his mirrored sunglasses to set off the smoke alarm! The scene becomes tense when Strickland begins to pull the blinds, which will hamper Marty's use of the sun's rays to ignite the matches, but Marty eventually makes it work and escapes detention. On his way out of class, Marty grabs a guy named Weeze and borrows his skateboard - which parallels his actual stealing of the old-fashioned board in 1955. Of course, in the film, Marty has his own skateboard. He also doesn't display a talent for inventions as he does here - an early indication of why he and Doc have become such good friends.
Interesting to note: The clock is stuck at 10:02 in the script and Marty is not dreaming of a Toyota 4x4, but a "tricked-out black Supra." Minor changes which again beg the question, why?
The scene between Marty and Jennifer plays very close to the onscreen action. There is a side of Jennifer's character presented here, though, that is not even hinted at in the film. "Suzy" Parker mentions she has a shrink and uses terms like "sexually repressed" and "emotional anxieties" when talking about Marty's relationship with his parents. The introduction of a shrink into a conversation between two 17-year-olds defines a key difference between the teen of the 80s compared with the teen of the 50s, but we lose nothing from having this dialogue cut.
The clocktower lady says something interesting, an allusion to science-versus-religion debate which would have been out of place in the finished film. She said, as written: "We at the society feel that it's a landmark of scientific importance, attesting to the power of the Almighty." It's an interesting starting point in the story of the clock tower as we see it (the lightning strike becomes a weather experiment), but it is superfluous to the end product.
"...one of the world's greatest nuclear physicists."
After Marty makes a donation to the woman, Doc Brown is introduced in a radical departure from the film. He pulls up in an R.V. which is filled with clocks, state-of-the-art video equipment and a lead canister with purple radiation symbols (which "we might also notice," according to the script). The clocks are all synchronised and do all go off at the same time, only for Doc's aural pleasure and not as the result of an experiment as in the film.
Doc Brown mentions Twin Pines Mall and Peabody's farm, though he does qualify that the pine plantation would have been before Marty's time. Marty is also aware that Doc broke into a power plant recently - something that the Marty of the film was completely unaware of until the Twin Pines Mall scene.
Once Doc Brown leaves, Marty tells Jennifer how he originally met the Doc: "A couple of years ago, he showed up at my house and hired me to sweep out this garage of his. He pays me 50 bucks a week, gives me free beer...and total access to his record collection---he's got this great old record collection." It's interesting to read about this history, but it doesn't seem very solid. Doc just turned up on his doorstep out of nowhere? I know Doc is strange, but not that strange. What is interesting is a small aside Marty makes about Doc's own history: "Hard to believe he was one the the world's greatest nuclear physicists." This continues to tie back into the nuclear test ending that was scripted from the beginning, but there is nothing in the finished trilogy to suggest what field of science Doc actually studied or worked in. Nuclear physics is as good an explanation as any.
Once Marty goes home the scene plays out virtually word for word what happens in the film. The character descriptions, though, are interesting reading. George McFly is "47, a balding, boring, uninspired man who wears a suit he bought at Sears four years ago." And Biff Tannen, "48, an intimidating lout, who wears gold chains, pinky rings, with sartorial taste to match." Lorraine "47, was once very attractive. Now she's overweight, in a rut, a victim of suburban stagnation." And Marty's siblings: "Linda, 19, is cute but wears too much eye makeup; brother Dave, 22, wears a McDonald's uniform and is wolfing down his food." All these details track with the finished product, except that Dave works for Burger King in the film.
And what kind of meal does the McFly family sit down to? The script says: "The McFly family is dining on meat loaf, Kraft macaroni and cheese, Bird's Eye mixed vegetables, and French's instant mashed potatoes." Zemeckis and Gale love detail.
A minor addition to this scene has George explaining why it is good that Marty failed his YMCA audition. It is a small speech about all the things Marty would have to worry about if the gig went ahead. It's not important in the scheme of things, but it does lead nicely into the next scripted scene. Marty goes into his bedroom and is thinking about sending off his audition tape to B&G Records, but he decides not to do it in the end. Because this scene plays directly after the dinner conversation, it is clear that George has driven his son into giving up.
Interesting to note: the vanity plate on the De Lorean is NO TIME (rather than OUTATIME) in this draft, which seems to sum up the Doc that was introduced to us in the RV scene. Einstein "leaves" at 1:02 instead of 1:21. The flux capacitor is referred to as the "temporal field capacitor." And Doc had his revelation on March 15, 1955 - after getting hit on the head, though he doesn't say why. The date of Doc's discovery of time travel was changed for the film, to become an homage to the film Time After Time and well as Bob Gale's own father's birthday.
"She's got no more free will! The spaceman took her brain!"
The first difference in the script, once Marty finds himself in 1955, is an amusing addition to the Farmer Peabody scene. Once Marty is gone, Mrs. Peabody is left rubbing her head. Son Sherman thinks this means that "she's a zombie! She's got no more free will! The spaceman took her brain!" Farmer Peabody is skeptical until he looks at his son's comic, 'Space Zombies from Pluto,' after which he looks at his wife with trepidation. It's obviously no great loss, but an example of something that would have worked on film, does enhance this scene, but is completely unnecessary.
While Marty hides the De Lorean behind the Realty sign in the film, the script has him hiding it in the just-built, future McFly family home. The script notes that this would require a matte painting to be done to make the illusion possible. So while hiding the car in the garage is interesting, it is asking for more work to be done than necessary. The Lyons Estate estate sign (with lions) is not mentioned in the script at all, but it turns out to be a better shorthand way of representing Marty's future neighborhood.
Note: This change was made so late in the script revisions that the scene of Marty parking the De Lorean in the garage actually appears in the novelization. This is not unusual for books based on films scripts, which are always written with a huge lead time because of the months needed to construct suitable narration around the scripted directions and dialogue.
Before Marty leaves the car, he turns on the radio. "Papa Loves Mambo" by Perry Como is playing. It's interesting that this song did not make it into Back to the Future, but is included in Part II when Biff is driving to the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance!
The courthouse square sequence is filled with all the details present in the film, plus: "AN APPLIANCE STORE is selling "modern" small appliances"; "A TRAVEL AGENCY advertises "Fabulous Vacations in Cuba"" and "THE BANK has a... sign in the window which promotes "Passbook Savings at 2¼ %""! All of these features appeared in various forms in Back to the Future, Part II. The appliance store idea is used to full advantage in 2015 as the 'Blast from the Past' store, where Zemeckis and Gale are able to satirize our view of modern appliances. The "Fabulous Vacations in Cuba" is a sentiment echoed in 2015's "Surf Vietnam" poster - though I am not exactly sure what the writers are getting at here! And, finally, the differences in banks of the past and future is also parodied, at least in the Paradox script; as part of the description of 2015's courthouse square, the script reads: "And the perennial FINANCE COMPANY offering Easy Credit: some things never change."
After Marty ventures into Joe's Cafe, the next few scenes are written almost exactly as they appear onscreen. There are a couple of asides that are interesting to note. Firstly, Marty pulls a twenty out of his pocket to pay for the nickel cup of coffee - to which Lou responds he won't break a 20 for a cup of coffee and asks "Say, what's a kid your age doing with a 20 dollar bill anyway?" Next, while trying to convince himself that the kid in the cafe is his own father, Marty lets slip that George's birthday is on August 18 and that George's mother's name is Sylvia!
There are similarly inconsequential details in the scenes at Lorraine's house. As Marty wakes, he talks a little more about the dream he had: "The music was awful---they didn't have rock. The cars were ugly. My neighbourhood hadn't been built yet and everything was so weird looking." It's easy to see why this was changed. It's too specific and Lorraine might have become more suspicious if he'd actually said his "neighbourhood hadn't been built yet."
Downstairs, we are introduced to Lorraine's four siblings. There is an interesting detail here about the meal that is served: "It looks like the same meat loaf [Marty] had for dinner in 1985...in fact, the whole dinner is the same!" Wow, when they wanted to put Lorraine in a rut, they certainly did a thorough job of it! In addition to the rest of the scene that we all know, a television advertisement is inserted. There is a surgeon who, after stepping out of an operating room, lights up a cigarette. He turns to the camera and says: "After facing the tension of doing 3 lung operations, I like to relax by lighting up a 'Sir Randolph.' I know its fine tobacco taste will soothe my nerves and improve my circulation " It's another contrast of views and values from 1955 to 1985 and it's fascinating, but superfluous.
"Kid, I think you got me confused with the Wizard of Oz."
In addition to the way-out introduction to Doc earlier in the script, the reader is given another spin on the character of Doc Brown when Marty meets him for the first time in 1955. It's not completely against the person we are presented in the trilogy, but there are significant additions to Doc's lifestyle that we are not privy to in the feature films.
When Doc comes to the door, he "is flanked by TWO LOVELY GIRLS." A party is going on inside - "an eclectic collection of SOCIETY TYPES, COLLEGE TYPES, BEAT GENERATION TYPES, and lots of attractive WOMEN." Doc (as in the film) doesn't believe what Marty tells him, so he goes back inside. Marty watches through the window as Doc wanders over to "the best looking WOMAN in the place. Brown whispers in her ear. She responds by hitting him in the head with a BEER BOTTLE! Brown goes down, dazed." We knew, of course, that Doc Brown was not a real ladies man, but we never knew he could get himself into so much trouble!
It is after getting hit that Doc Brown comes up with the "temporal field capacitor," to which Doc responds by declaring the party over. The script continues along similar lines to the film, with Marty convincing the Doc of the whole story. It is here in the script that Marty shows Doc the tape he made at Twin Pines Mall in 1985.
Just prior to this, a note is made that Doc Brown's 1985 suitcase is open in the De Lorean and special attention is paid to it containing "a CONAIR (battery) HAIR DRYER." Nothing is said in dialogue about the case or the hairdryer, though another scene is later written into the script and shot, but finally left on the cutting room floor. It is included on the DVD release of the film.
When Doc realises they will have to generate 1.21 jigowatts to get Marty home, he makes two suggestions: one, that they build a turbine on the back of the car and "you can drive it over Niagra Falls" and two, that Marty could drive out to "a nuclear test site while and A-Bomb's going off." Then, flippantly, he suggests Marty drive "across the country at 88 miles an hour and hope you get struck by a bolt of lightning." After which, the film is back on track.
In addition to Doc's explanation of why Marty's future is changing, Doc says: "That's why your older brother is fading out---he's being erased from existence. He's first, since he's the oldest. Your sister'll be next and then you unless you repair the damage by getting your folks back together. Once you introduce 'em to each other, nature will take its course." A pause is indicated, and then: "I hope." It's a logical, rational explanation about why the characters are fading out in order (which many viewers have guessed anyway), but it is - ultimately - unnecessary exposition.
One scene that was shot but later excised from the finished film is that of Lorraine cheating on a history test. Some publicity shots of this scene circulated at the time, so it comes as a surprise to me that the scene is of so little significance on the page. It consists of no more than three lines - one a description of Lorraine "copying an answer from the boy sitting next to her" and two lines of Marty's dialogue: "That's her---in the 2nd row... Jesus! She's cheating!" Having seen this archived on the DVD, it really is unecessary.
For scene after scene from this point onward, most of the changes made were the deletion of unimportant bits of dialogue. Not that they are uninteresting, though.
During the scene where Marty talks to George about his stories, it is revealed that George's father encourages him in his writing! This would have served to give another shade to the Marty/George relationship and also give us some insight into George's parents - of which we know nothing from the films. It's a pity that while we saw Lorraine's homelife, nothing is even hinted at for George, barring his writing compensating him for his loneliness.
Instead of Marty following George home to convince him to ask Lorraine out, Marty calls him up from Doc Brown's house. In desperation Marty tries to bribe George with twenty dollars. George doesn't budge.
After this, Marty comes across Doc watching the video tape - just like in the film. There is a piece of dialogue that was cut, though. Doc says: "Fascinating device, this camera. I can't believe it's made in Japan." It's an observation that Doc would eventually make, in Back to the Future, Part III, about the time circuits that were damaged during Doc's trip back to 1885.
"You have reached the Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone!"
One of the scenes that did survive the transition from script to screen was that of Marty in George's bedroom, pretending to be "Darth Vader" from the planet "Vulcan." While the scene maintains the spirit of the original script, quite a lot was cut from it. Marty heaped on more allusions to science-fiction movies and television series that he knew. He tells George that he's having a "Close Encounter of the 3rd Kind" and that he's reached "the Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone." He also threatens George with Doc's hair dryer, which Marty calls his "heat ray." At one point, Marty says he's receiving a transmission from the "Battlestar Gallactica" and tells George: "The Supreme Klingon hereby commands you to take the female earth-person called "Baines Lorraine" to the location of Hill Valley School exactly 4 earth cycles from now---Saturday night in your language."
While all these in-jokes are good, overstating the case may have ruined the intent of the scene. It's supposed to be humorous, not ridiculous and there is supposed to be some sense for the audience how terrified George is. If the audience had laughed constantly through the scene, this effect would have been dulled.
A version of this scene appears on the DVD, though longer than the feature version, it still doesn't incorporate all of the dialogue in-jokes of the script.
The scene also gets somewhat of a proper "ending" with Marty knocking George unconcious with chloroform. This fact is alluded to in the finished feature when George runs up to Marty, telling him that he'd overslept!
The next major difference occurs at the end of the chase sequence between Biff and Marty, which reads pretty much the same as how it looks on film. Instead of Biff running into a manure truck, however, he gets caught at a railway crossing as Marty skates off, "just inches in front of a barreling Diesel!" This dramatic stunt might have looked good on screen, but it misses that vital element - Biff getting his comuppance. Biff hitting the manure truck is a classic scene and serves the story far better - and is also much funnier.
Interesting to note: Lorraine's two friends are named Betty and Babs. And Lorraine asks Marty to the dance at the cafe, instead of at Doc's place, as in the film.
"When I have kids, I'm gonna let them do anything they want. Anything."
The scene where Marty tells George about the plan to get Lorraine at the dance has an addendum where Marty is getting George to learn how to fight. Marty wants George to hit him in the stomach, but George just can't do it. Marty does leave with the parting words that George has to concentrate on anger. George channels this advice into hitting a punching bag, eventually knocking it from where it hangs - with a triumphant yell.
I am glad this scene was trimmed. Seeing George hitting the punching bag would have taken away from the "will he, won't he/can he, can't he" tension of the showdown with Biff in the parking lot. As it plays in the film it is the better pay off because the question of whether he has the strength is answered at the most important time - during the climax of George's story, no earlier.
The scene with Marty and Lorraine in the school parking lot is not very different. It includes Lorraine claiming that smoking "calms your nerves and [is] good for the circulation"; to which Marty replies - "It'll give you cancer!" Lorraine says that Marty is sounding like her mother and says: "When I have kids, I'm gonna let them do anything they want. Anything." Marty quips: "I'd like to have that in writing."
What's most interesting about that later exchange is that while it doesn't appear in Back to the Future, it does appear in Part II, as the other version of Marty slides past the car. Responding to Marty saying, "I'd like to have that in writing," the other version of Marty says, "Yeah, me too." The script of Paradox that I have does not refer to this scene at all, bar mentioning that Marty and Lorraine pull into the parking lot in Doc's car.
Another shot-but-cut scene is one that takes place between George waiting in the gym and George confronting Biff. It is a scene of George being stuck in a phone booth in the school corridor. He goes there to check the time and a prankster sticks a broom handle through the door handle. As a consequence, it should have made the scenes more tense, though I am not sure it would have succeeded. Zemeckis also believed it to be unnecessary, and the scene was cut, but is available for your viewing pleasure on the DVD.
Interesting to note: the scene between Marty, George and Lorraine off-stage after 'Johnny B. Goode' is played at the dance is not included in this draft, making it another late but important addition.
"Dr. Brown, you American dog, you have betrayed our cause!"
One of the more interesting lines of narrative (and very satisfying to read) is this simple description used during the film's climactic sequence: "THE MOST SPECTACULAR BOLT OF LIGHTNING IN THE HISTORY OF CINEMA STRIKES THE LIGHTNING ROD!" There would be no doubt in any reader's mind how important that would be in the film. I certainly couldn't agree more with the sentiment. It's up there with the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind and the tornadoes in The Wizard of Oz as spectacular natural events captured on film.
Once Marty returns to 1985, the only major differences are in the final scene with his family. Interesting to note, though: there is no indication that the bum on the bench is Mayor Red Thomas. In fact, Marty doesn't say anything to the bum at all.
The terrorists do have something to say in the script. It's not elegant, but at least it's something: "Dr. Brown, you American dog, you have betrayed our cause! For that you die!"
When Marty is dropped home, Doc Brown says he's going thirty years into the future and then "maybe see what's shaking in the 22nd or 23rd century." Possibilities for upcoming sequels? Who knows?
"Well, Bertha, you won't have to put up with that tiny kitchen much longer."
When Marty wakes up the next morning, there is more changes to his life in the script than there were in the film. As he gets out of bed, he retrieves the envelope that he threw into the rubbish at the beginning of this draft. He puts the audition tape into the envelope. What's interesting is that the remnants of this minor sub-plot are evident in the finished film, as we can see the manila envelope in Marty's hand as he emerges into the new-look living room.
Not only has his family changed because of his trip to the past, in the script, the McFly's have a maid named Bertha, who is excited about the family moving to a bigger house. They'll be moving, George says, "Just as soon as they finish painting the tennis court and re-tiling the swimming pool. It'll be sad to leave this place, though. So many memories...of you kids, and of my days as a struggling writer."
And George is certainly a struggling writer no longer. Where in the film he gets presented with his first novel, in the script Biff brings in the "British edition of your current best seller." Biff also asks how many copies it has sold so far and George tells him - two million, hard cover. The cover "shows a bedroom with a space alien talking to a couple in bed---very reminiscent of Marty's "Darth Vader" visitation to George" just like in the finished film.
And that's it. Marty finds his "TRICKED OUT BLACK SUPRA" (with the number plate MARTY 1) and his reunion with "Suzy" is interrupted by Doc returning from the future! Doc Brown "jumps out, more wild-eyed and frantic than we've ever seen him. His clothes are particularly bizarre---a weird mixture of past and future: a cowboy hat, a strange variation on a roman tunic, a cape, and striped plastic pants." There is no mention of Doc needing to refuel, but there is "a new switch on the dashboard: WESTINGHOUSE FUSION ENERGIZER," which must be in place of the Mr Fusion that was finally used.
TO BE CONTINUED...
There is no mention made of a "To Be Continued..." title to be inserted in the credits. While the cliffhanger ending was intended at the fourth draft stage, the "To Be Continued..." title was not added to the film until the 1986 video cassette release.
ERASED FROM EXISTENCE was originally written for BTTF.com and first published on January 27, 2000. Revised in September 2002.