In a Cinema Blend article (circa 2014), Bob Gale hinted (without naming names) that the Stoltz version was indeed dark. When talking about how different that Marty was from the Fox incarnation, he said (in what could be interpreted as a compromised confession): He was so despondent about how messed-up his life was, he was going to commit suicide. We thought that was a good idea for way longer than we should have. Finally, we said – We can’t have the main character be someone who wants to kill himself.
A point can be made about how making it as a drama with the occasional moment of humour would’ve been more exciting than having it be a comedy with the odd moment of drama. If a comedy has drama, it’s slated for taking itself too seriously. Comedies with drama in them can be seen as inappropriate (e.g. rape) and forced (i.e. an attempt to be taken seriously so that it’s not perceived as lightweight fare). Ted is the best example of this. It’s almost parodic. In the December 1986 issue of Video World (a British magazine), Chris Evans (T.F.I. host) typed: It does leave a feeling that some of its potential was sacrificed when the decision was made to play it chiefly for laughs.
The best example of this is the 1955 Lyon Estates scene. When the mood becomes eerier than before, it’s deflated with a hitchhiking sight gag that is a hastily-paced retread of the farm farce. If a drama has humour, it’s hailed for not taking itself too seriously. Making a serio-comic blockbuster for the wrong reason can result in the director, writer or cast members being accused of not knowing if it’s supposed to be a comedy or a drama (film critics aplenty would’ve said this if it was revealed that BTTF began life as a drama). Another fair criticism is that it’s too silly to be a drama but too serious to be a comedy. It makes total sense for Eric (and any other actor for that matter) to have taken the jarring screenplay seriously because the pathos outweighs the pratfalls.
Marty is frustrated that his father can’t defend himself and refuse offers. He’s forced to use the DeLorean to escape from terrorists who have murdered his best friend. He is startled about being stuck in the past before being infuriated to see his father getting bullied by the same bully. At the same time, he is disillusioned to see the future black mayor be told by his boss that his ethnicity prohibits him from being a mayor. He gets hit by a car after trying to save his father. He is puzzled to see his mother as a happy and healthy seductress as opposed to an angry drunkard who lied about always being a prude.
His best friend doesn’t believe that he comes from the future. He is forced to play matchmaker for his mother and father or he will be erased from existence. He is saddened when realizing that his father is afraid of rejection much like himself. Marty and Biff almost fight because the latter harasses Lorraine. In Lou’s Cafe, an angry Biff gets everyone’s attention by loudly reminding George that he is not supposed to be there. Marty wins a fair fight with Biff instead of sucker-punching. Before the prom, Doc won’t let Marty tell him about his grim fate. Biff attempts to rape Lorraine. Marty is powerless to stop him.
3-D says a racist remark to a black drummer. Marty almost disintegrates at the prom because Dixon takes Lorraine away from George. On a dark and stormy night, Marty fails to warn Doc about his future fate after Doc rips up the letter. Marty is distressed that the car won’t start. He is distraught that the car stops after he returns to the present. He cries after seeing Doc get shot. He returns to a family who, while being biologically similar, don’t have the same memories that he has. To make matters worse, the maid reminds him of the mayor’s former life. The only real consolation is that Biff is a servant.
Upon taking these heavy plot points into consideration, it’s little wonder why Lea Thompson claimed that Eric saw BTTF as a tragedy. He’s not wrong. It’s actually a tragicomedy whose original tone is best comprehended by watching episodes of Quantum Leap. Many say that his acting would’ve made it a drama, but it would only have been defined as such if everyone else was acting seriously. His straight man persona was a conduit that emphasized the madness. In his version, the rape attempt was longer. It took a test screening of the Fox version to have it curtailed.
From a marketer’s point-of-view, C. Thomas Howell was a better fit because The Outsiders was a bigger hit than Eric’s dark teen film – Running Hot. Timothy Hutton would’ve been a more viable pick than even Howell since Taps grossed an appreciable amount more at the box office. Unlike Eric, Tim succeeded at winning an Academy Award for best supporting actor in 1981 because of Ordinary People (the role that he played was sought after by Fox). Back to Gale’s earlier quotation, the only way that Marty would be suicidal would be if his girlfriend died in the first reel.
When factoring in that his music career was going nowhere, this would explain the transition of Eric wearing regular clothes (in the prop photo with his girlfriend) to when he decides to dress in black – a mournful mood reminiscent of funerals that lends itself to a grim reaper joke (the best joke is that Eric was left in the dark). This means that he would try to commit suicide while Doc calls for assistance. This may explain why Melora Hardin* never filmed any of her scenes (à la the actress who played the wife of Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon).
While this may seem like an excuse to fiscally cut corners, the film-makers may have wanted to surprise future generations** by deciding to not reveal the real reason why she never filmed any scenes with Eric. This isn’t a stretch since the story of the Stoltz situation still has discrepancies***. It’s telling that the online 1984 script has eight indications of omitted scenes. The first omitted scene is after when Marty says goodbye to his girlfriend (as she gets into her dad’s car). After the omitted scene, we learn that Biff has wrecked George’s car.
If BTTF gets remade as a darker film, there should be a scene where Marty and Doc are watching a shootout in a Western. Marty explains why there should be squibs (i.e. packets filled with fake blood). Doc uses this to his advantage when wearing a bulletproof vest because the terrorists wouldn’t know. In Fox’s version, it was obvious that Doc was wearing one in the close-up. People like to defend M.J.F. by saying that it was written with him in mind. What they don’t know is that BTTF was written two years before he was in Family Ties. In a 1985 Chicago Tribune article, Zemeckis let slip that his intention was more to do with telling a story than telling jokes: We wanted a science fantasy to support a dramatic and emotional story about characters.
In a YouTube video titled Eric Stoltz Is Actually Still In Back to the Future, an Hispanic YouTuber had addressed Spielberg’s “Eric was too intense” excuse: I think I would have dug an intense BTTF more than what resulted. Just saying. The contents of the movie make for an intense type of show.
This proves that the film was retrofitted to be a comedy. In the October 1985 issue of Michael Stein’s Fantastic Films, Zem claimed that BTTF is a mixture of Frank Capra and The Twilight Zone. Ironically, many critics dismiss Eric by saying that his acting makes the film wrongly seem like the latter. In a video titled Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly in Back to the Future!, a YouTubing Brit had a similar opinion to the Spaniard: I loved BTTF the way it was, but seeing this has actually made me think it could have been BETTER with Eric. Between laughs, there are plenty of eerie moments.
In a video titled Michael J. Fox not Marty McFly, another Englishman had typed: Why did it have to be about laughs? Why make it some crappy sitcom? Could have been fabulous as a more serious film with Eric!
Many moviegoers allow their opinions to be influenced by hindsight, hence why they talk about not being able to imagine anybody else in roles. In a 2010 episode of Hollywood’s Best Directors, Bryan Singer believes that this is after the fact because the illusion of perfect casting is achieved by having the thespian and character meet halfway (thus critics talk about stars who make characters their own). The memory of the film is so heavily ingrained in your mind that you can’t imagine someone else playing the role. Had Mike J. Fox not starred in BTTF (for whatever reason), people would be saying: Fox and Lloyd together would have made it feel like a Family Ties/Taxi crossover. It would’ve been too silly.
Because Eric wasn’t recognizable, BTTF would’ve received a limited release (a few large cities) to build word of mouth so that the distributor can gauge nationwide potential (2000 screens all at once). Immediate nationwide distribution would’ve been guaranteed if the distributor had put up front a lot of the production’s financing. If released now, the income would be paltry because Eric is something of a pariah. It doesn’t help that he never became an A-lister. This is the opposite to what happened with Richard Gere losing a star-making turn in The Lords of Flatbush (another movie that took place in the `50s). Similar to the beef between Eric and Tom F. Wilson, Gere was roughing up Sylvester Stallone (even after being told to be sensitive).
The difference is that Eric, in the long run, managed to get a higher net-worth than Tom. If BTTF had been dark, people wouldn’t be disappointed by the first sequel’s tone (which Zemeckis likes more than Spielberg). Eric’s clothes give the impression of someone who likes dark rock music. He would’ve been more distinguished if he wore band badges on his jacket and patches on his jeans. Opportunists in the past would plagiarize his designs for their brands, thereby adding another layer to the chaos theory. There was a strangely suspicious surge of Sci-Fi youth movies being made in 1984: Weird Science, My Science Project, Real Genius, D.A.R.Y.L. and Explorers. Like BTTF, the latter was originally meant to be a dark film i.e. when the boys met the aliens, the probing was an analogy of child abuse. Unlike BTTF, Explorers was hotly tipped by some Hollywood insiders as the E.T. of 1985.
Even Ethan Hawke thought that Explorers would make E.T. look like a minor game show. Like Explorers, BTTF was influenced by Thompson Twins. Unlike Explorers, BTTF is too edgy to be PG but not edgy enough to be a high school comedy. The 1984 version was PG-13 like four of the six John Hughes teen movies. Similarly, Problem Child went from being a dark PG-13 satire to a kids movie. Like Weird Science, BTTF (which went into production two months later) had a male protagonist with a wedge hairstyle, a black new wave jacket and a dark blue shirt. Both movies had sight gags about Devo, albeit this resulted in a TV-only scene for Weird Science. Unlike Weird Science, BTTF contained less of both foul language and female nudity. In the Stoltz version, Sherman the farm boy had a Weird Science comic book instead of a Tales from Space one.
While both movies were produced by Universal, there was palpable antagonism. No-one can deny that Weird Science was funnier, more FX-laden and had a shorter running time (more screenings). Robert Downey Jr. was even funnier than Fox (never mind Stoltz). Bill Paxman as Chet is funnier than Wilson as Biff. It had a better soundtrack in terms of songs if not score. Intriguingly, both movies share four crew members. James Thatcher played a French horn. Tom Boyd played an oboe. John-Clay Scott worked as a stuntman. Most revealingly, Donah Bassett worked as a negative cutter. She reported similarities to Hughes. According to Zemeckis, Suzy was renamed Jennifer after the daughter of a Los Angeles attorney (i.e. Larry H. Parker) who had settled a copyright infringement lawsuit on his behalf.
To save face, Zemeckis wanted no part in giving free press to Weird Science. As for what was the catalyst to have Eric ape Anthony Michael Hall, it was the `80s equivalent to what E! News does when comparing same-clothed celebrities. People have to consider whether there was a studio screening for Weird Science (which had wrapped in November) in the same way that an incomplete cut of Star Wars had a sounding board that was comprised of Brian De Palma, John Milius and Spielberg. It’s likely that the BTTF personnel realized that their own movie would be eclipsed by a more modern movie. As a result, they couldn’t win over the teens but they could win over the kids and parents. Making matters worse was a similar rival production titled The Heavenly Kid, but that’s another story altogether.
Joel Silver, the producer of Weird Science, went on to help Zemeckis form Dark Castle Entertainment in the late `90s. They already worked with each other when Joel was cast as Raoul in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. In the December 1993 issue of Empire (a U.K. magazine), Joel justified ridding Demolition Man of Lori Petty by claiming that BTTF was wholly filmed with Eric before he got the equivalent of a pink slip. Silver specifies the starkness of the contrast: You saw it on two days of film; so when you have a producer who is there on top of it, you say – Okay, it’s not working. The studio saw the film and said – What do you want to do? I said – I want to change it. It’s a lot cheaper than shooting the entire movie like they did in Back to the Future. Eric Stoltz was the lead but, the last week, they realized it was terrible and reshot with Michael J. Fox.
I believe him because of a half-truth given by Gale: During the whole time Bob and I did our movies together, I never saw anything cut together until there was an entire cut of the whole movie. We were editing as we went along and Zemeckis said – Bob, you need to come and look at the footage, I think we got a problem.
Doubters will not be convinced as to how Joel was in a position to glean that info from a famously cagey Zemeckis, but one of the executive producers of Demolition Man is an actor who previously acted with Eric in Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) and J.J. Cohen in Fire with Fire (1986). I am referring to Craig Sheffer. In a turn of events that brings to mind The Hollywood Squares (a join-the-dots game show), Craig already had a connection to Joel because he was cast as Ian in Weird Science before dropping out to co-star in That Was Then, This is Now starring Emilio Estevez. Speaking of Emilio, it would’ve been nice if BTTF Part III had a cameo involving the cast of Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory. Both movies were made around the same time.
Joel is seedy. He has produced three Sci-Fi hits where someone getting fired hasn’t been proficiently explained to overall satisfaction. The other two were Weird Science and Predator. In conclusion, BTTF is taken seriously because of its poignance instead of the puns. It would’ve been more cherished had it been a drama with the awesome moment of humour instead of a comedy with the awkward moment of drama. Sid Sheinberg failed to make it the next E.T. (the highest-grossing film of the eighties) because the trailer relied on music courtesy of Huey Lewis and The News instead of Alan Silvestri.
* Despite being given the axe for being too tall opposite Mike, a similar height issue (involving Helen Slater) was dealt with instead of being ignored during the making of The Secret of my Success.
** It’s common for film-makers to produce fake screenplays if they don’t want people to find out the truth about something e.g. Darth Vader’s secret in The Empire Strikes Back.
*** I recommend Tom Shone’s Blockbuster to learn more about the history behind BTTF e.g. both Bobs were worried that it wasn’t sexy (the last 1984 draft had Doc partying with attractive women before Marty saw him in 1955).