1981 – “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything”
By April 1981, Gale and Zemeckis were through with their second draft, which eliminated the video piracy and installed a far slicker time machine in the form of a beaten-up, modernised DeLorean.
Sadly, the script that they delivered to Columbia was not what the studio had in mind. “They passed on it,” says Gale, who must have been crushed by feelings of betrayal.
“They said they wanted something raunchier. It was too nice, it was too sweet. We submitted this thing everywhere. We got over 40 rejections on this project over a period of three years.”
The popular comedies in the 1980s were the ones that flirted with dirtier humour than what Gale and Zemeckis had dreamed up, with things like Porky’s and Fast Times At Ridgemont High getting the teens in a twist.
Studios wouldn’t touch BTTF, which was deemed a bit of a soft touch, with its themes of parenthood and friendship. Conversely, even Disney steered clear of the script, disliking the incest-baiting storyline.
Finally, the duo went to Steven Spielberg, who immediately loved the project, but took a back seat approach when it came to producing.
“My main contribution was making Bob Zemeckis aware of his own best work and getting him to do it,” Spielberg says, with his job on the film generally consisting of buoying Zemeckis’ spirits after so many rejections.
“I'm not the bank,” Spielberg adds. “Sometimes I'm the guy holding the flashlight, trying to show filmmakers where the holes are so they don't fall in.”
Gale and Zemeckis were adamant that they had something good, but after years of rejection, Zemeckis opted to take a break from peddling the project to direct Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas in Romancing The Stone.
It was the best move he could have made for his time travel movie. When Romancing The Stone hit the big bucks, suddenly he could do anything he wanted. And want did Zemeckis want to do? Well, it just so happened he had a perfect time travel script sitting pretty in his top drawer…
There was only one last obstacle, which came in the form of Universal Pictures' executive producer Sidney Sheinberg, who brought some of his own ideas to the table.
First he changed McFly’s mother’s name from Meg to Lorraine (his wife’s name). That much was fine. But then he suggested changing the film’s title to Spaceman From Pluto. His argument for the change? No successful movie had ever had ‘future’ in the title.
Luckily, Spielberg knew how to handle such daft notions – he sent Sheinberg a note assuming that the new title was a joke, embarrassing Sheinberg into accepting Zemeckis’ original title.