Zemeckis and Gale wrote the script after Gale mused upon whether he would have befriended his father if they had attended school together. Various film studios rejected the script until the financial success of Zemeckis' Romancing the Stone. Zemeckis approached Steven Spielberg, who agreed to produce the project at Amblin Entertainment, with Universal Pictures as distributor. The first choice for the role of Marty McFly was Michael J. Fox. However, he was busy filming his television series Family Ties and the show's producers would not allow him to star in the film. Consequently, Eric Stoltz was cast in the role. During filming, Stoltz and the filmmakers decided that the role was miscast, and Fox was again approached for the part. Now with more flexibility in his schedule and the blessing of his show's producers, Fox managed to work out a timetable in which he could give enough time and commitment to both.
Teenager Marty McFly is an aspiring musician dating his girlfriend Jennifer Parker in Hill Valley, California. His nerdy father George is bullied by his supervisor, Biff Tannen, while his mother Lorraine is an overweight, depressed alcoholic. Lorraine is dissatisfied with Marty's relationship with Jennifer, and recalls at the dinner table one night how she met George when her father hit him with a car.
On October 26, 1985, Marty meets his scientist friend, Dr. Emmett Brown, in a shopping mall parking lot in the early morning hours. Doc unveils a time machine built from a modified DeLorean and powered by plutonium stolen from Libyan terrorists. Doc demonstrates the time navigation system by punching in the date November 5, 1955: the day he invented time travel. A moment later, the Libyans arrive and kill Doc. Marty escapes in the DeLorean, but inadvertently activates the time machine, and arrives in 1955 without enough plutonium to return.
There, Marty encounters the teenaged George, who is bullied by his classmate Biff. After Marty saves George from an oncoming car and is knocked unconscious, he awakens to find himself tended to by an infatuated Lorraine. Marty leaves and tracks down Doc's younger self to help him return to 1985. With no plutonium, Doc explains that the only power source capable of generating the necessary 1.21 gigawatts of electricity for the time machine is a bolt of lightning. Marty shows Doc a flyer from the future that recounts a lightning strike at the town's courthouse the coming Saturday night. Doc instructs Marty to not leave his house or interact with anyone, as he could inadvertently change the course of history and alter the future; because of this, Doc refuses to heed warnings from Marty about his death in 1985. Marty realizes that he has prevented his parents from meeting and Doc warns Marty that he will be erased from existence if he does not find a way to introduce George to Lorraine. Doc formulates a plan to harness the power of the lightning while Marty sets about introducing his parents, but he antagonizes Biff and his gang in the process.
When Lorraine asks Marty to the upcoming school dance, Marty concocts a plan for George to "rescue" her from his feigned inappropriate advances. The plan goes awry when a drunken Biff attempts to force himself on Lorraine. George arrives to rescue her from Marty, but finds Biff instead. George knocks out Biff and Lorraine follows George to the dance floor, where they kiss and fall in love while Marty plays music with the band. Satisfied that he has secured his future existence, Marty leaves to meet Doc.
As the storm arrives, Marty returns to the clock tower and the lightning strikes on cue, sending Marty back to October 1985. He finds that Doc is not dead, as he had listened to Marty's warnings and worn a bullet-proof vest. Doc takes Marty home, then departs to 2015.
Marty awakens the next morning to find his family changed: George is a self-confident, successful author, Lorraine is physically fit and happy, his brother David is a successful businessman, his sister Linda works in a boutique and has many "boyfriends" and Biff is now an obsequious auto valet. As Marty reunites with Jennifer, the DeLorean appears with Doc, dressed in a futuristic outfit, insisting they accompany him to 2015 to fix a problem with their future children. The trio gets inside the DeLorean and disappear into the future.Michael J. Fox as Marty McFlyChristopher Lloyd as Dr. Emmett "Doc" BrownLea Thompson as Lorraine Baines-McFlyCrispin Glover as George McFlyThomas F. Wilson as Biff TannenClaudia Wells as Jennifer ParkerJames Tolkan as Mr. StricklandMarc McClure as Dave McFlyWendie Jo Sperber as Linda McFly
Writer and producer Bob Gale conceived the idea after he visited his parents in St. Louis, Missouri after the release of Used Cars. Searching their basement, Gale found his father's high school yearbook and discovered he was president of his graduating class. Gale thought about the president of his own graduating class, who was someone he had nothing to do with. Gale wondered whether he would have been friends with his father if they went to high school together. When he returned to California, he told Robert Zemeckis his new concept. Zemeckis subsequently thought of a mother claiming she never kissed a boy at school when, in fact, she was highly promiscuous. The two took the project to Columbia Pictures, and made a development deal for a script in September 1980.
Zemeckis and Gale said that they had set the story in 1955 because a 17-year-old traveling to meet his parents at the same age arithmetically required the script to travel to that decade. The era also marked the rise of teenagers as an important cultural element, the birth of rock n' roll, and suburb expansion, which would flavor the story. In an early script, the time machine was designed as a refrigerator, and its user needed to use the power of an atomic explosion at the Nevada Test Site to return home. Zemeckis was "concerned that kids would accidentally lock themselves in refrigerators", and found that it would be more convenient if the time machine were mobile. The DeLorean DMC-12 was chosen because its design made the gag about the family of farmers mistaking it for a flying saucer believable. Zemeckis and Gale found it difficult to create a believable friendship between Marty and Brown before they created the giant guitar amplifier, and only resolved his Oedipal relationship with his mother when they wrote the line "It's like I'm kissing my brother." Biff Tannen was named after studio executive Ned Tanen, who behaved aggressively toward Zemeckis and Gale during a script meeting for I Wanna Hold Your Hand.
The first draft of Back to the Future was finished in February 1981 and presented to Columbia, who put the film in turnaround. "They thought it was a really nice, cute, warm film, but not sexual enough," Gale said. "They suggested that we take it to Disney, but we decided to see if any other of the major studios wanted a piece of us." Every major film studio rejected the script for the next four years, while Back to the Future went through two more drafts. During the early 1980s, popular teen comedies (such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Porky's) were risqué and adult-aimed, so the script was commonly rejected for being too light. Gale and Zemeckis finally decided to pitch Back to the Future to Disney. "They told us that a mother falling in love with her son was not appropriate for a family film under the Disney banner," Gale said.
The two were tempted to ally themselves with Steven Spielberg, who produced Used Cars and I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which were both box office bombs. Zemeckis and Gale initially had shown the screenplay to Spielberg, who had "loved" it. Spielberg, however, was absent from the project during development because Zemeckis felt if he produced another flop under him, he would never be able to make another film. Gale said "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." Zemeckis chose to direct Romancing the Stone instead, which was a box office success. Now a high-profile director, Zemeckis reapproached Spielberg with the concept. Agreeing to produce Back to the Future, Spielberg set the project up at his production company, Amblin Entertainment, with Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall joining Spielberg as executive producers on the film.
The script remained under Columbia's shelf until legal issues forced them to withdraw. The studio was set to begin shooting a comedic send-up of Double Indemnity entitled Big Trouble. Columbia's legal department determined that the film's plot was too similar to Double Indemnity and they needed the permission of Universal Pictures, owners of the earlier film, if the film was ever to begin shooting. With Big Trouble already set to go, desperate Columbia executives phoned Universal's Frank Price to get the necessary paperwork. Price was a former Columbia executive who had been quite fond of the script for Back to the Future during his tenure there. As a result, Universal agreed to trade the Double Indemnity license in exchange for the rights to Back to the Future. Thus, the film finally had a home at Universal.
Executive Sidney Sheinberg made some suggestions to the script, changing Marty's mother's name from Meg to Lorraine (the name of his wife, actress Lorraine Gary), to change Brown's name from Professor Brown to Doc Brown and replace his pet chimpanzee with a dog. Sheinberg also wanted the title changed to Spaceman from Pluto, convinced no successful film ever had "future" in the title. He suggested Marty introduce himself as "Darth Vader from the planet Pluto" while dressed as an alien forcing his dad to ask out his mom (rather than "the planet Vulcan"), and that the farmer's son's comic book be titled Spaceman from Pluto rather than Space Zombies from Pluto. Appalled by the new title that Sheinberg wanted to impose, Zemeckis asked Spielberg for help. Spielberg subsequently dictated a memo back to Sheinberg, wherein Spielberg convinced him they thought his title was just a joke, thus embarrassing him into dropping the idea. In addition, the original climax was deemed too expensive by Universal executives and was simplified by keeping the plot within Hill Valley and incorporating the clocktower sequence. Spielberg later used the omitted refrigerator and Nevada nuclear site elements in his film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Michael J. Fox was the first choice to play Marty McFly, but he was committed to the show Family Ties. Family Ties producer Gary David Goldberg felt that Fox was essential to the show's success. With co-star Meredith Baxter on maternity leave, he refused to allow Fox time off to work on a film. Back to the Future was originally scheduled for a May 1985 release and it was late 1984 when it was learned that Fox would be unable to star in the film. Zemeckis' next two choices were C. Thomas Howell and Eric Stoltz. Stoltz impressed the producers enough with his earlier portrayal of Roy L. Dennis in Mask (which had yet to be released) that they selected him to play Marty McFly. Because of the difficult casting process, the start date was pushed back twice.
Four weeks into filming, Zemeckis determined Stoltz had been miscast. Although he and Spielberg realized re-shooting the film would add $3 million to the $14 million budget, they decided to recast. Spielberg explained Zemeckis felt Stoltz was not comedic enough and gave a "terrifically dramatic performance". Gale further explained they felt Stoltz was simply acting out the role, whereas Fox himself had a personality like Marty McFly. He felt Stoltz was uncomfortable riding a skateboard, whereas Fox was not. Stoltz confessed to director Peter Bogdanovich during a phone call, two weeks into the shoot, that he was unsure of Zemeckis and Gale's direction, and concurred that he was wrong for the role.
Fox's schedule was opened up in January 1985 when Baxter returned to Family Ties following her pregnancy. The Back to the Future crew met with Goldberg again, who made a deal that Fox's main priority would be Family Ties, and if a scheduling conflict arose, "we win". Fox loved the script and was impressed by Zemeckis and Gale's sensitivity in releasing Stoltz, because they nevertheless "spoke very highly of him". Per Welinder and Bob Schmelzer assisted on the skateboarding scenes. Fox found his portrayal of Marty McFly to be very personal. "All I did in high school was skateboard, chase girls and play in bands. I even dreamed of becoming a rock star."
Christopher Lloyd was cast as Doc Brown after the first choice, John Lithgow, became unavailable. Having worked with Lloyd on The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984), producer Neil Canton suggested him for the part. Lloyd originally turned down the role, but changed his mind after reading the script and at the persistence of his wife. He improvised some of his scenes, taking inspiration from Albert Einstein and conductor Leopold Stokowski. Brown pronounces gigawatts as "jigawatts", which was the way a physicist said the word when he met with Zemeckis and Gale as they researched the script, rather than with an initial hard "g", although both pronunciations are acceptable. Doc Brown's notable hunch came about because at 6'1" Lloyd was considerably taller than Fox at 5'5", and they needed to look closer in height.
Crispin Glover played George McFly. Zemeckis said Glover improvised much of George's nerdy mannerisms, such as his shaky hands. The director joked he was "endlessly throwing a net over Crispin because he was completely off about fifty percent of the time in his interpretation of the character". Due to a contract disagreement, Glover was replaced by Jeffrey Weissman in Part II and Part III.
Lea Thompson was cast as Lorraine McFly because she had acted opposite Stoltz in The Wild Life; the producers noticed her as they had watched the film while casting Stoltz. Her prosthetic makeup for scenes at the beginning of the film, set in 1985, took three and a half hours to apply.
Thomas F. Wilson was cast as Biff Tannen because the producers felt that the original choice, J. J. Cohen, wasn't physically imposing enough to bully Stoltz. Cohen was recast as Skinhead, one of Biff's cohorts. Had Fox been cast from the beginning, Cohen probably would have won the part because he was sufficiently taller than Fox.
Melora Hardin was originally cast in the role of Marty's girlfriend Jennifer, but was let go after Stoltz was dismissed, with the explanation that the actress was now too tall to be playing against Fox. Hardin was dismissed before she had a chance to shoot a single scene and was replaced with Claudia Wells. Actress Jill Schoelen had also been considered to play Marty's girlfriend.
Following Stoltz's departure, Fox's schedule during weekdays consisted of filming Family Ties during the day, and Back to the Future from 6:30 pm to 2:30 am. He averaged five hours of sleep each night. During Fridays, he shot from 10 pm to 6 or 7 am, and then moved on to film exterior scenes throughout the weekend, as only then was he available during daytime hours. Fox found it exhausting, but "it was my dream to be in the film and television business, although I didn't know I'd be in them simultaneously. It was just this weird ride and I got on." Zemeckis concurred, dubbing Back to the Future "the film that would not wrap". He recalled that because they shot night after night, he was always "half asleep" and the "fattest, most out-of-shape and sick I ever was".
The Hill Valley town square scenes were shot at Courthouse Square, located in the Universal Studios backlot (34.141417°N 118.349771°W / 34.141417; -118.349771). Gale explained it would have been impossible to shoot on location "because no city is going to let a film crew remodel their town to look like it's in the 1950s." The filmmakers "decided to shoot all the 50s stuff first, and make the town look real beautiful and wonderful. Then we would just totally trash it down and make it all bleak and ugly for the 1980s scenes." The interiors for Doc Brown's house were shot at the Robert R. Blacker House, while exteriors took place at Gamble House. The exterior shots of the Twin Pines Mall, and later the Lone Pine Mall (from 1985) were shot at the Puente Hills Mall in City of Industry, California. The exterior shots and some interior scenes at Hill Valley High School were filmed at Whittier High School in Whittier, California. The Battle of the Bands tryout scene was filmed at the McCambridge Park Recreation Center in Burbank, and the "Enchantment Under the Sea" dance was filmed in the gymnasium at Hollywood United Methodist Church. The scenes outside of the Baines' house in 1955 were shot at Bushnell Avenue, South Pasadena, California.
Filming wrapped after 100 days on April 20, 1985, and the film was delayed from May to August. But after a highly positive test screening ("I'd never seen a preview like that," said Frank Marshall, "the audience went up to the ceiling"), Sheinberg chose to move the release date to July 3. To make sure the film met this new date, two editors, Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas, were assigned to the picture, while many sound editors worked 24-hour shifts on the film. Eight minutes were cut, including Marty watching his mom cheat during an exam, George getting stuck in a telephone booth before rescuing Lorraine, as well as much of Marty pretending to be Darth Vader. Zemeckis almost cut out the "Johnny B. Goode" sequence as he felt it did not advance the story, but the preview audience loved it, so it was kept. Industrial Light & Magic created the film's 32 effects shots, which did not satisfy Zemeckis and Gale until a week before the film's completion date. The compositing involved for the film's time travel sequences, as well as for the lightning effects in the climactic clock tower scene, was handled by animation supervisor Wes Takahashi, who would also work on the subsequent two Back to the Future films with the rest of the ILM crew.
Alan Silvestri collaborated with Zemeckis on Romancing the Stone, but Spielberg disliked that film's score. Zemeckis advised Silvestri to make his compositions grand and epic, despite the film's small scale, to impress Spielberg. Silvestri began recording the score two weeks before the first preview. He also suggested Huey Lewis and the News create the theme song. Their first attempt was rejected by Universal, before they recorded "The Power of Love". The studio loved the final song, but were disappointed it did not feature the film's title, so they had to send memos to radio stations to always mention its association with Back to the Future. In the end, the track "Back in Time" was featured in the film, playing during the scene when Marty wakes up after his return to 1985 and also during the end credits.
Although it appears that Fox is actually playing a guitar, music supervisor Bones Howe hired Hollywood guitar coach and musician Paul Hanson to teach Fox to simulate playing all the parts so it would look realistic, including playing behind his head. Fox lip-synched "Johnny B. Goode" to vocals by Mark Campbell (of Jack Mack and the Heart Attack fame), with the guitar solo played by Tim May.
The original 1985 soundtrack album only included two tracks culled from Silvestri's compositions for the film, both Huey Lewis tracks, the songs played in the film by the fictional band Marvin Berry and The Starlighters (and Marty McFly), one of the vintage 1950s songs in the movie, and two pop songs that are only very briefly heard in the background of the film. On November 24, 2009, an authorized, limited-edition two-CD set of the entire score was released by Intrada Records.
Back to the Future opened on July 3, 1985, on 1,200 screens in North America. Zemeckis was concerned the film would flop because Fox had to film a Family Ties special in London and was unable to promote the film. Gale was also dissatisfied with Universal Pictures' tagline "Are you telling me my mother's got the hots for me?".
When the film was released on VHS in 1986, Universal added a "To be continued..." graphic at the end to increase awareness of production on Part II. This caption is omitted on the film's DVD release in 2002 and on subsequent Blu-ray and DVD releases.
In October 2010, in commemoration for the film's 25th anniversary, Back to the Future was digitally restored and remastered for a theatrical re-release in the US, the UK and Italy. The release also coincided with Universal Pictures Home Entertainment's Blu-ray Disc releases of the trilogy.
On October 21, 2015, the futuristic date depicted in Part II, the entire trilogy was re-released theatrically for one day in celebration of the film's 30th anniversary.
Back to the Future spent 11 weeks at number one. Gale recalled "Our second weekend was higher than our first weekend, which is indicative of great word of mouth. National Lampoon's European Vacation came out in August and it kicked us out of number one for one week and then we were back to number one." The film went on to gross $210.61 million in North America and $173.2 million in foreign countries, accumulating a worldwide total of $383.87 million. Back to the Future had the fourth-highest opening weekend of 1985 and was the top-grossing film of the year. Box Office Mojo estimates that the film sold over 59 million tickets in the US.
On review aggregator Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100, the film received an average score of 86/100, which indicates "universal acclaim", based on 12 reviews. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 96% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 77 reviews, certifying it "Fresh", with an average rating of 8.7 out of 10 and the consensus: "Inventive, funny, and breathlessly constructed, Back to the Future is a rousing time-travel adventure with an unforgettable spirit."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times felt Back to the Future had similar themes to the films of Frank Capra, especially It's a Wonderful Life. Ebert commented "[Producer] Steven Spielberg is emulating the great authentic past of Classical Hollywood cinema, who specialized in matching the right director (Robert Zemeckis) with the right project." He gave the film 3 1/2 out of 4 stars. Janet Maslin of The New York Times believed the film had a balanced storyline: "It's a cinematic inventing of humor and whimsical tall tales for a long time to come." Christopher Null, who first saw the film as a teenager, called it "a quintessential 1980s flick that combines science fiction, action, comedy, and romance all into a perfect little package that kids and adults will both devour." Dave Kehr of Chicago Reader felt Gale and Zemeckis wrote a script that perfectly balanced science fiction, seriousness and humor. Variety praised the performances, arguing Fox and Lloyd imbued Marty and Doc Brown's friendship with a quality reminiscent of King Arthur and Merlin. BBC News lauded the intricacies of the "outstandingly executed" script, remarking that "nobody says anything that doesn't become important to the plot later." Back to the Future appeared on Gene Siskel's top ten film list of 1985.
At the 58th Academy Awards, Back to the Future won for Best Sound Effects Editing, while Zemeckis and Gale were nominated for Best Original Screenplay, "The Power of Love" was nominated for Best Original Song, and Bill Varney, B. Tennyson Sebastian II, Robert Thirlwell and William B. Kaplan were nominated for Best Sound Mixing. The film won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film. Michael J. Fox and the visual effects designers won categories at the Saturn Awards. Zemeckis, composer Alan Silvestri, the costume design and supporting actors Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover and Thomas F. Wilson were also nominated. The film was nominated for numerous BAFTAs at the 39th British Academy Film Awards, including Best Film, original screenplay, visual effects, production design and editing. At the 43rd Golden Globe Awards, Back to the Future was nominated for Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy), original song (for "The Power of Love"), Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy (Fox) and Best Screenplay for Zemeckis and Gale.
President Ronald Reagan, a fan of the film, referred to the film in his 1986 State of the Union Address when he said, "Never has there been a more exciting time to be alive, a time of rousing wonder and heroic achievement. As they said in the film Back to the Future, 'Where we're going, we don't need roads'." When he first saw the joke about him being president, he ordered the projectionist of the theater to stop the reel, roll it back, and run it again.
The film ranked number 28 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the 50 Best High School Movies. In 2008, Back to the Future was voted the 23rd greatest film ever made by readers of Empire. It was also placed on a similar list by The New York Times, a list of 1000 movies. In January 2010, Total Film included the film on its list of The 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. In 2007, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In 2006, the original screenplay for Back to the Future was selected by the Writers Guild of America as the 56th best screenplay of all time.
In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed the AFI's 10 Top 10 – the best ten films in ten classic American film genres – after polling more than 1,500 people from the creative community. Back to the Future was acknowledged as the 10th best film in the science fiction genre.
A musical theater production, also called Back to the Future, is in development for a debut in London's West End theatre during the film's 30th anniversary in 2015. Zemeckis and Gale reunited to write the play, while Silvestri and Glen Ballard provide music.
The scenes of Marty McFly skateboarding in the film occurred during the infancy of the skateboarding sub-culture and numerous skateboarders, as well as companies in the industry, pay tribute to the film for its influence in this regard. Examples can be seen in promotional material, in interviews in which professional skateboarders cite the film as an initiation into the action sport, and in the public's recognition of the film's influence.
Back to the Future is also among Film4's 50 Films to See Before You Die, being ranked 10th.
Back to the Future's success led to two film sequels : Back to the Future Part II and Back to the Future Part III.
Part II was released on November 22, 1989, to similar financial and critical success as the original, finishing as the third highest-grossing film of the year worldwide. The film continues directly from the ending of Back to the Future and follows Marty and Doc as they travel into the future of 2015, an alternative 1985, and 1955 where Marty must repair the future while avoiding his past self from the original film. Part II became notable for its 2015 setting and predictions of technology such as hoverboards. Part III, released on May 25, 1990, continued the story, following Marty as he travels back to 1885 to rescue a time-stranded Doc.
Part III, however, was less financially successful than its predecessors despite being better received by critics than Part II.