Trevor Hogg profiles the career of visionary director Robert Zemeckis in the second of a three part feature… read part one here.
When Bob Gale wondered what it would have been like to have been a high school classmate of his father, Robert Zemeckis decided to develop the concept with him. The main character was a video pirate who used a kitchen appliance as his transporter; the idea was aborted when the moviemaker became “concerned that kids would accidentally lock themselves in refrigerators.” The modern design of the DeLorean automobile, which could have been realistically mistaken as a spaceship in the 1950s, became the transportation of choice. The first draft of the script, entitled Back to the Future, was completed in February of 1981. Getting the project produced became a four year odyssey of rejection. According to Gale, Columbia Pictures “thought it was a really nice, cute, warm film, but not sexual enough.” Disney passed, as the story was not deemed to be family entertainment. The idea of approaching Zemeckis’s influential mentor was aborted, revealed Bob Gale. “We were afraid that we would get the reputation that we were two guys who could only get a job because we were pals with Steven Spielberg.”
Frustration gave way to approval when Romancing the Stone made Robert Zemeckis a bankable director. With a reputation established on his own merits, the moviemaker approached Spielberg who then arranged for Universal Pictures to fund the project. Unable to break from his commitment to the television series Family Ties (NBC, 1982 to 1989), Michael J. Fox passed on the part of Marty McFly. Taking his place was Eric Stoltz (Mask), but the casting decision was reversed a month into principal photography. Stoltz’s portrayal was too dramatic; a more humorous touch was required. Even though changing the male lead would add another $3 million to the $14 million budget, Zemeckis decided to approach his first choice again. A deal was subsequently struck between the director and the producers of the hit TV show, which enabled Fox to accept the role. Remarking on his signature film performance, the Canadian actor said he could relate to McFly on a personal level. “All I did in high school was skateboard, chase girls and play in bands. I even dreamed of becoming a rock star.”
Back to the Future features the teenaged Marty McFly inadvertently traveling back to the moment when his parents meet, only to find himself becoming the object of his mother’s affections. To temper any negative audience reaction to the Oedipal relationship, the line, “It’s like kissing my brother.” was inserted into the dialogue. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale had nothing to fear. The movie spent eleven weeks as the number one box office draw; earning $381 million worldwide, it was the top grossing picture of 1985.
At the Academy Awards, the film won for Best Sound Editing and was nominated for Best Original Song, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Sound Design while the BAFTAS lauded it with nominations for Best Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design, and Best Editing. In 2007, a year after being voted by the readers of Empire Magazine as the twenty-third greatest movie ever made, Back to the Future was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Collaborating with Christopher Lloyd (The Addams Family), who played the eccentric inventor Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown in Back to the Future, Zemeckis directed an episode of the television fantasy series Amazing Stories (NBC, 1985 to 1987). Called Go to the Head of the Class (1986), the darkly comical hour-long tale has Lloyd trading in his mad scientist garb for that of a professor.
Taking inspiration from Tex Avery and Bob Clampett cartoons as well as the crime noir classic Chinatown (1974), screenwriters Jeffrey Price (Shrek the Third) and Peter S. Seaman (Wild Wild West) began adapting the Gary K. Wolf novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?. Robert Zemeckis was place in charge of the live-action scenes, after Terry Gilliam (Brazil) having passed on the technically challenging project; Richard Williams (The Princess and the Cobbler) oversaw the animated sequences.
Renamed Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), the story takes place in an alternative reality where cartoon personalities such as Mickey Mouse, Tweety Bird, and Foghorn Leghorn mingle with humans in Los Angeles of 1947. A studio head hires private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) to find out if the wife of distracted animated star Roger Rabbit is having an affair.
Recruited to voice the title character was comedian Charles Fleischer (Zodiac). “Roger was an unusual voice role because my work was recorded live everyday on set, while the other actors did their performances. Most traditional animated voiceovers are done in a studio into a microphone.” On deciding how the zany animal would speak, the performer remarked, “The size and shape of the character determine the pitch and tone of the voice, and the material written determines the personality and attitude.” As much as the story was meticulously mapped out, some improvising was required. “There was a time when Bob Hoskins [Mona Lisa] had the wrong eye-line,” stated Fleischer. “He wasn’t looking where Roger was suppose to be, so the animators stretched Roger up so he was in the same place Hoskins was looking.”
Approved with a $30 million budget, production costs soared to $70 million; there were also other concerns. The studio executives of Walt Disney Pictures were worried about the sexual innuendos; to resolve the issue they decided to release the picture under the Touchstone Pictures banner. The remarkable blending of live-action with animation resulted in the film grossing $330 million globally and winning Oscars for Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, and Best Film Editing. Also at the prestigious Hollywood event, Richard Williams received a Special Achievement Award “for animation direction and creation of the cartoon characters.”
With three consecutive box office successes, Robert Zemeckis was able to executive produce the TV horror anthology Tales of the Crypt (HBO, 1989 to 1996) and to expand the time-traveling tale into a three-part movie franchise.
Capitalizing on the youthful looks of the aging Michael J. Fox, the sequels Back to the Future Part II (1989) and Back to the Future Part III (1990) were shot back-to-back and released six months apart.
In Part II, Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) returns from the future and informs Marty McFly (Fox) and his girlfriend Jennifer Parker (Elizabeth Shue) that the lives of their children are threatened. The complicated storyline was overshadowed by two major casting changes. Crispin Glover (Willard) who had played Marty’s father was replaced was replaced as was Claudia Wells (Still Waters Burn) who had played Parker. Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis claimed Glover wanted too much money to reprise the part, whereas the actor later stated he was passed over due to creative differences. Officially, Wells declined the role because of her mother being seriously ill, while others believe that the producers of the film wanted a higher profile actress.
Joking while being interviewed on television, Robert Zemeckis stated that the flying skateboards featured in the picture were real, but had not been released to the public due to safety concerns. However, the general public inundated toy stores with requests for the nonexistent product. Another popular item from the movie was the automatic shoelace Nike tennis shoes worn by Fox, which led to the sports clothing manufacturer to produce a similar runner nicknamed Air McFly. Created specifically for the film was a computer-controlled camera system which allowed the director to incorporate camera motion while an actor plays multiple characters in the same scene. The film is best remembered for correctly predicting that a major league baseball team from Miami would appear in the World Series.
With a production budget of $40 million, Back to the Future Part II grossed $332 million worldwide and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
Heading backwards in time to the Old West, was the final installment of the trilogy Back to the Future Part III. Discovering a tombstone with Doc Brown’s (Christopher Lloyd) name on it, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels back to 1885 to prevent the ancestor of his archenemy Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) from killing his friend.
Inserting the outlaw setting into the science fiction tale resulted from Fox telling Robert Zemeckis that he would like to visit the era of the cowboys. The actor was not the only cast member who had a fondness for that time period. “I loved the first, because that’s the first discovery of the whole story. But the third one, it’s a Western,” enthused Christopher Lloyd, “so you get to ride the horses. There are the scenes on the steam engine where I’m actually hanging off the sides of it, and it’s actually going along and propelling itself. There’s a risk involved, and I wasn’t strapped to it, so I had to hold on to it. And then I had a romance! So it was such a departure from the others.”
Obtaining permission from a Hollywood star who gained his fame playing “The Man With No Name”, the Marty McFly character was allowed to adopt the alias Clint Eastwood much to pleasure of the legendary performer and director. Costing the same amount to produce as Part II, Back to the Future Part III earned $244 million worldwide and won Saturn Awards for Best Music and Best Supporting Actor (Thomas F. Wilson).
After the release of the gay cowboy picture Brokeback Mountain (2005), a tribute to the time-traveling trilogy was created by combining the footage of all three movies with the theme music from the Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) directed film. Entitled Brokeback to the Future, the mock trailer cleverly changes the relationship between Marty McFly and Doc Brown from friendship to lovers .
Thinking that Death Becomes Her (1992) was a “documentary about the Los Angeles fixation with aging”, two-time Oscar-winning actress Meryl Steep (Sophie’s Choice) found herself gravely mistaken. “My first, my last, my only [experience with high-tech special effects]. I think it’s tedious. Whatever concentration you can apply to that kind of comedy is just shredded. You stand there like a piece of machinery – they should get machinery to do it. I loved how it turned out. But it’s not fun to act to a lamp stand. ‘Pretend this is Goldie [Hawn], right there. Uh, no, I’m sorry, Bob [Zemeckis], she went off the mark by five centimeters, and now her head won’t match her neck!’ It was like being at the dentist.”
When the glamorous actress Madeline Ashton (Streep) marries the plastic surgeon of her rival Helen Sharp (Hawn), the latter spends years plotting her revenge. The picture co-written by Martin Donovan (Apartment Zero) and David Koepp (Mission: Impossible) stars Bruce Willis (Die Hard) as the drunken Dr. Ernest Menville, Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet) as the mysterious creator of a magical potion that reverses the aging process, and an uncredited Sydney Pollack (Tootsie) who appears as an emergency room doctor.
Featuring elaborate special effects such as Madeline’s head spinning around backwards, which she subsequently straightens, Death Becomes Her won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
Returning to another time-traveling tale, Robert Zemeckis directed a movie which would become a crowning achievement for both him and his leading man Tom Hanks (Big).
Continue to part 3.
Read the screenplay for Back to the Future.
Brokeback to the Future:
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.